government is established by God

Government is Established by God

on May 7, 2019

(This is part two of a multi-part series that IRD will publish throughout the week of May 6-12. Read part one by clicking here.)

The judgments of government and courts of law are not divine. The application of laws is imperfect and sometimes unjust. Innocent people shall be unjustly punished. But, as the bible makes clear, all government is accountable to God. God establishes rulers and governments and He removes them. Why some governments persist and others do not is not given to humans in a clear fashion but we can be sure that it is God’s providence always at work.

From the sense that there was a strong distinction between secular government and the kingdom of God, Christians developed the doctrine of the two-kingdoms. St. Augustine’s City of God developed the first comprehensive account of the two kingdoms, which he described as two cities – the city of God and the earthly city. Pope Gelasius, writing to Emperor Anastasius, described these two orders as the “authority of priests” and “royal power,” which became the model for medieval society.

Political authorities ought not, and in fact cannot, bring about the transformation of the world or the perfection of society. In relationship to the kingdom, Christians are passive.  God and God alone shall bring in the reign of His Son. Furthermore, sin runs through every human heart, something which laws cannot remedy. Human beings and society are not perfectible and, therefore, we ought not try to perfect them through law. The social gospel and liberal Protestantism, generally, make the mistake of turning the kingdom of God into a social project.[1]  But the kingdom of God will not come with our careful observation or our human efforts. That does not mean we ought not pursue justice and peace, but only that our goal is more modest and limited.

In the past, when Christians have thought about government they have started with the beginning of human community in Genesis. Two relevant points arise from these early chapters. First, in the beginning God lived in perfect harmony with Adam and Eve and all of creation. There was no sin and human community would have continued in this peace undisturbed forever had not Adam sinned. Second, after Adam sinned the harmony and peace between God, man, and created order were lost. Adam had disobeyed God, thereby, shattering the relationship between God and altering human nature in all his descendants.

Human nature and human community are suffused with sin in all its facets. Augustine observes about the human race that we are “more than any other species, social by nature and quarrelsome by perversion.”[2] Original sin is a deformity of our original sinless nature which was created in righteousness and holiness. Adam’s rebellion has thus altered our good nature so that rather than loving God and neighbor we are “by nature prone to hate God and my neighbor.”[3] After the fall the evidence of sins destructive power is manifested immediately in Cain’s murder of his brother, Abel. Human nature and community is marked not by its natural virtuousness and harmony but by its propensity towards selfishness, pride, and disintegration. That society after the fall manages to maintain peace and order should be seen as a miracle. Therefore, those in government must craft laws from a sober biblically informed perspective of human nature. Only in the power of the Holy Spirit and the spiritual regeneration of our human nature from death to life are we able to begin to live a life marked by love of God and neighbor, however imperfect.

On this point Protestants and Catholics differ significantly. The Augustinian tradition, which includes Luther, Calvin and Protestants in general, believed politics was a remedy for sin that did not exist before the fall and will not exist after we are redeemed.[4] Irenaeus of Lyons, writing in the 2nd century AD, provides one of the earliest statements of this position: “Earthly rule, therefore, has been appointed by God for the benefit of nations…so that under the fear of human rule, men may not eat each other up like fishes; but that, by means of the establishment of laws, they may keep down an excess of wickedness among the nations.”[5] The keynote is always on law and maintaining civil order. No piece of writing better captures the spirit of this paradigm than Augustine’s anguishing portrayal of the judge in book 19 chapter 6 of City of God. After expressing the dilemma of the judge who knows that his job will condemn some innocent people to punishment or death but, simultaneously, acknowledging that human community requires judges so that law and order may be upheld he concludes, “In view of this darkness that attends the life of human society, will our wise man take his seat on the judge’s bench, or will he not have the heart to do so? Obviously, he will sit; for the claims of human society constrain him and draw him to this duty; and it is unthinkable to him that he should shirk it.” Catholics, on the other hand, see political community as natural and a means towards the development of virtue and not merely providing a check for sin. Thomas Aquinas, under the influence of Aristotle, argued that before the fall there was some sort of ordered political community.[6]

[1] See H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic account of the social gospel in The Kingdom of God in America. 

[2] City of God 12.28, trans. Henry Bettenson (London, UK: Penguin Books, 1972).

[3] Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 5.

[4] Martin Luther often referred to political rulers as “the Sword.”

[5] Against Heresies 5.24.4, Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994).

[6] Summa Theologiae I-I.96.4, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benzinger Bros., 1948).

  1. Comment by Brian on July 10, 2019 at 10:46 pm

    Is it true that everything we have been taught was a lie about santa claus easter bunny religion and alot of people say that the government is God and all they do is lie to the American people. That’s all i want to know is the truth. Sorry i had to say this but it’s just bothers me everyday

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