Authority: The State as a Covenantal Institution

This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Authority. Click here to see the entire series.


Earlier I mentioned that Evangelicals usually become very upset whenever they are told that the Bible contains specific instructions for the State.  This is primarily because there is an underlying presupposition in the United States that the State is a voluntary/contractual  institution.  In other words, citizens and leaders of this country see their union with the state as being under the terms of a “social contract”.  This idea was best described in the writings of the philosopher John Locke.    I am not about to go into a protracted description of the political philosophy of John Locke.   His “Two Treatises of Government” were published in 1690 and are available today.    The political philosophy advanced in this work had a dramatic impact upon the framers of the US Constitution and fanned the fires of the Revolutionary War.

In the  “First Treatise”, Locke attacks the idea that the supreme authority of God has been delegated directly to the civil magistrate.  He finds great problems with the concept of authority being delegated from the top down.  In his “Second Treatise” he goes on to argue that civil authority arises through an agreement made by men in an original state of nature.  This agreement is the “social contract”.  Within this social contract  the individual is the direct recipient of the authority of God and he transfers it from the bottom up by means of the vote in the selection of elected representatives.  According to Locke, any magistrate who claims that his authority is vested in him by God directly  is illegitimate and may be overthrown by force.  It is not difficult to see why this view was popular with colonial revolutionaries in their war against the British Crown.

In light of what has been seen about the authority of the State, it is difficult to see how God does not have an opinion about its form and function.  Since the Bible has clearly stated that the State represents the authority of God to its citizens, since it also clearly states that the representatives in the state are representing God to the people, and since it plainly declares that the responsibility of the citizens is to submit to the authority of the magistrate,  it would be very strange indeed if God then left the State in the lurch, with no instructions about how to administer His authority.  All Christians agree that God has given clear instructions the Family and the Church.  But, because of this underlying Lockian presupposition of the contractual nature of the State, most Christians have difficulty understanding how the State is also subject to the precise instructions found in  the Bible.

The position I am describing has come to be known as “theonomy”, or “God’s Law”.  It is a simple position that simply asserts that the Bible not only contains instructions of form and function for the representative institutions of the Family and the Church, but also for the State.  Those who disagree with the position of the theonomist have a burden to prove that God would delegate His authority to the institution of the State and then leave it utterly without instructions on how to operate.

In fact, most Christian who have thought this issue through believe that God has not left the particular state without instructions.  The most common argument is that the state is to order itself according to the light of natural law.  Natural law is that sense of right and wrong that exists  in all but the most hardened reprobates.  Unfortunately for us today, natural law has been used to defend homosexuality, pedophilia, adultery, murder, and a host of other vicious sins.  In the vacuum created by the absence of biblical law, natural law can be made to say just about anything.

St. Augustine first delineated the concept of the three branches of the Law of God.  He said that the Law can be properly divided into moral, civil, and ceremonial.  Calvin picked up Augustine’s position and refined it a bit more.  At this point in history the Church is united, for the most part, in its belief that the moral law is eternal.  The Church is also united in the belief that the ceremonial law was fulfilled by the work of Christ and is therefore supplanted by a better covenant in this new era (the Hebrews passage discussed earlier).  The point of debate has to do with the civil law, or the civil case laws of the moral law found in the first five books of the Old Testament.

Theonomists believe that the civil case laws are the descriptions of the form and function for the representative institution of the State.  Theonomists believe that God did not leave His authoritative institution with no instructions on what to do.  Evangelicals, for the most part, assert that God either has no opinion about what the State should do or has left it free to be ordered according to the light of natural law as it is understood at the time.  This Evangelical position is consistent with the assumption that the State is a contractual institution rather than a covenantal one.  Based upon what has been seen with respect to the delegation of authority by God to the State it is difficult to see how it could be anything other than covenantal in nature.

To see the State as anything other than covenantal in nature also presents a problem for the Reformation doctrine of  Sola Scriptura.  The doctrine of “Scripture Alone” that was recaptured by the reformers in the sixteenth century strongly asserts that all we need to know to conduct our lives in obedience to God is contained in the passages of the Bible.  All Christians agree that the Bible instructs us on how to order our homes.  All Christians agree that the Bible instructs us on how to order our churches (although we disagree on points of interpretation).  Theonomists agree that the Bible instructs us on how to order our states.  Evangelicals disagree.

However, if Scripture is sufficient for all matters of faith and practice, what is a Christian to do when dealing with questions like:  Who should I vote for? Should I even vote at all?  Should I support a constitutional amendment?  Should I support a new sales tax?  Should my senator vote for increasing the powers of the Presidency?  Should I sign a petition to forbid the church across the street from expanding?  These, and thousands of questions like them, must be answered by the Evangelical with an “I don’t know, God has no opinion about any of these matters, what does the dull light of natural law tell me?”.  The theonomist has no problem.  He believes the Bible contains answers to all of those questions because God does not leave His representative institutions without instructions on how to operate.  Theonomists most certainly do not all agree on the particulars of the civil law of God and its application to the world in which they live but they are united in their belief that Scripture alone is sufficient.

Based upon the characteristics of a covenantal institution and the contents of the Word of God it seems that there is no other conclusion but that the State is also a covenantal institution, along with the Family and the Church.  It is important to note that asserting that the State is a covenantal institution is not the same thing as saying God has made a covenant with any particular state.  This is true of individual families as well since  God has made no covenants with any particular family either.    God has made only one covenant, and that is with His people, the Church.  Genesis 9 describes the origin of that covenant and it is further elaborated throughout the texts of Scripture.  The State is a covenantal institution because it has the characteristics of a covenantal institution, not because it is in particular covenant with God.  The family is a covenantal institution because it also has characteristics found only in that type of institution, not because it is in particular covenant with God.  The Church is both a covenantal institution and in a particular covenant with God.

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2 thoughts on “Authority: The State as a Covenantal Institution

  1. Pastor Doug Post author

    Mr. Michael:
    Thank you for your encouraging comment. I am motivated by praise and insults. You have given me positive motivation.

    Reply

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