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VanDrunen’s Argument for Religious Liberty

Though I believe VanDrunen’s epistemology and understanding of natural law have significant problems, I believe his covenantal perspective as it relates to political philosophy is basically correct. At the end of Divine Covenants and Moral Order, he tries to apply his general framework to more practical conclusions, including the question of religious liberty.

[C]ivil government [is] the natural institution most prone to usurp authority and to exercise raw power… The promotion of justice… is the very basis for civil government’s legitimacy. Thus its authority is inherently limited by the obligation to do what is just. Any injustice is usurpation… [J]ustice grounded in the natural law should be proportionate, retributive, restorative, and forbearing (and therefore flexible in application)…

To defend this claim [of religious liberty] I turn again to Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his image.” Of the many significant things about this verse, perhaps most profound is the fact that God, the supreme governor and judge of the world, has delegated aspects of the administration of justice to human beings… Though dispensing retributive justice against fellow humans would have been unnecessary in an unfallen world, in a fallen world imposing just punishment upon wrongdoers becomes a necessary aspect of human rule. To rule a sinful world means, in part, ensuring that those who injure another human person receive appropriate and proportionate retribution.

What God delegates to human beings here is the administration of intrahuman justice. To put it another way, God ordains that human beings should impose punishments for injuries inflicted upon each other. God does not delegate authority to impose just punishment upon wrongs that a human being commits against God himself. From one perspective, of course, any injury inflicted upon a human being is a wrong against God whose image that person bears, so I will modify my claim in this way: God delegates to human beings the authority to impose punishments for wrongs insofar as they are injuries inflicted upon each other, but not for wrongs insofar as they are inflicted upon God.

Thus to return to the question at hand: Does the Noahic covenant shed any light on whether human society might prohibit or penalize the worship or instruction of a particular religion? Yes, and it indicates that human beings do not have such authority. According to the Noahic covenant, human beings have the authority to use force against one another in order to impose proportionate penalties for intrahuman wrongs. For intrahuman crimes such as murder or theft, there are concrete and definable injuries, and just legislators and judges can design penalties that match their severity. But acts of improper religious worship are offenses against God. In such cases human beings are inherently incapable of imposing a proportionate penalty. What sort of human punishment is proportionate to a wrong done against an infinite and eternal God? Even if one were to claim that a teacher of false religion is corrupting the religious sensibilities of the youth, for example, and thus is guilty of an intrahuman injury, it is difficult to perceive how any human court could objectively determine the character and extent of this injury so as to impose a proportionate penalty.

First, VanDrunen’s distinction between crimes against man and crimes against God (which he applies to the Mosaic Covenant) is precisely how I have explained lex talionis’ function in the Mosaic Covenant.

Second, VanDrunen is correct that religious persecution is a violation of lex talionis and is not an administration of retributive justice. Therefore no one may use force against anyone else for practicing a (non-violent) false religion. To do so is usurpation. This is the only non-contradictory way to argue for religious liberty. Every other attempt to justify religious liberty undermines itself by inconsistencies.

Third, if humans may only use force against other humans to administer retributive justice for physical harm done to humans (that is – if “public utility” is no justification for the use of force), then the vast, vast, vast, vast majority of what the United States and other nations currently do is usurpation not backed by any God-given authority.

In other words, the non-aggression principle is biblical and it is the only consistent defense of religious liberty.

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Jordan Cooper (Lutheran) Critique of VanDrunen’s Two Kingdoms

Jordan Cooper is a popular Lutheran pastor who is well acquainted with the reformed tradition. At a recent conference, he critiqued VanDrunen’s two kingdom theology. His primary interest was to clarify that VanDrunen’s view is not Luther’s view. While VanDrunen identifies the kingdom of Christ as the institutional church, in contrast to the state in the other kingdom, Luther identified the kingdom of God as our conscience before God and placed the institutional church in the other kingdom – our life before men.

What Luther’s really getting at when he’s talking about this distinction – the right hand kingdom, the kingdom of God as we usually talk about it, is the realm we live in before God. If I live before God, I am in the kingdom of God. If I am in a right relationship to God, if I am justified, if I am saved, I am in the kingdom of God. Now, it’s important to say, this is not identical with the church as an institution. Luther makes this clear repeatedly. The church itself includes both left and right hand kingdom aspects. This is going to be a huge differentiation. Remember, because I said with VanDrunen, the church as institution is the redemptive kingdom and that means everything the church does including its offices and officers and pastors – that’s all part of the redemptive kingdom of God. But if you have a church constitution and you’re in a church council discussing your constitution, are you talking about the law or are you talking about the gospel? Law! You’re talking structure. You’re talking about who does what. What are the rules here? How does this church function? How do we make decisions? How do I make corrections in our church constitutions? These are issues of structure and issues of organization. These are part of the left-hand kingdom.

If we come with that understanding we see that even the church – it’s not so much the church and the then the state. But the church itself has both realities.

Anything having to do with my interaction with other men is part of the left-hand kingdom. My inward conscience before God is part of the right-hand kingdom. Here is a diagram of what Cooper is referring to:

It’s important to understand how different this two kingdom theology is from VanDrunen’s because Calvin largely followed Luther. Both were simply adopting the typical medieval view.

The important difference between Luther and Calvin has to do with the relationship between church and state within the outward kingdom. While Luther believed the state had authority over the institutional church, Calvin argued they were coordinate jurisdictions working side by side. Many wrongly read Calvin’s two-fold government as referring to church and state. (For more, see Calvin’s Two-fold Government). This leads Cooper to say

The radical two kingdom theological school is not two kingdom theology at all, but a modern caricature of Luther’s thought. And, unfortunately, I think it is the case that it is exposited through the lens of an American division between church and state. Now, they’re going to deny that. They’re going to say “No, that’s not what we’re doing.” But I think historically a two kingdom distinction in the way it is formulated could not exist apart from our American culture. And I think whether intentionally or not, it is impacted by the various divisions that we have, sort of the Jeffersonian type stuff.

But Cooper is not quite correct here. The identification of the institutional church with the kingdom of God was developed by 17th century reformed theologians in Britain in response to Erastianism as it was debated in the Westminster Assembly. They were merely refining Calvin’s insistence that the state has no authority over the church. This became known as de jure divino Prebyterianism. God immediately instituted the church with its government apart from any mediation by the civil government. For more on this, see the excellent essay Confessional Two Kingdoms. 30 years after the Westminster Confession, the particular baptists refined that even further to the logical conclusion of liberty for all religions in the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith.

Natural Law

Cooper also points out VanDrunen’s strange view of natural law.

They say, “Well, the redemptive kingdom is governed by what God’s revealed” which they would say is law and gospel. Again, I would say just gospel – talking about the right hand realm. But then they would also say “Then the left-hand realm, or especially the government, should be governed by natural law.” Now, it seems to me, in the way some of them describe this, you end up with two separate laws. So you have the natural law in creation over here, and then you’ve got God’s law over here that’s revealed. Well, natural law’s nothing different than God’s revealed law. It just means that you can discover God’s law through reason and creation because it’s written on the heart. It’s not a different law. It’s the same law.

In his excellent Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, Richard Muller defines natural law as

lex naturalis: natural law; also lex naturae; law of nature; the universal moral law either impressed by God upon the mind of all people or immediately discerned by the reason in its encounter with the order of nature. The natural law was therefore available even to those pagans who did not have the advantage of the Sinaitic revelation and the lex Mosaica [i.e., Mosaic law, which includes the natural law, though in a different form] with the result that they were left without excuse in their sins, convicted by conscientia. The scholastics argue the identity of the lex naturalis with the lex Mosaica or lex moralis quoad substantium, according to substance, and distinguish them quoad formam, according to form. The lex naturalis is inward, written on the heart and therefore obscure [due to sin], whereas the lex Mosacia is revealed externally and written on tablets and thus of greater clarity.

That is what VanDrunen says he does not believe.

I believe that my project, in many significant ways, stands in continuity with the perennially important natural law theory of Thomas Aquinas, but also is biblically reformed in other important respects… Thomas understood the natural law more in terms of a moral order than a series of discrete rules. Natural law, for Thomas, is encapsulated in one rule – pursue good and shun evil – but this is so general that it is of little concrete usefulness. More specific rules (such as those of the Decalogue) can also be understood through practical reason, but even these do not capture the natural law comprehensively, for natural law pertains to all things to which human beings are inclined by nature. Though again I develop these matters differently, the idea of natural law in terms of moral order rather than discrete rules is also important to the theology of natural law for which I argue in subsequent chapters.

Divine Covenants and Moral Order (22-25)

And just to be clear:

Turning to Calvin’s epistemology and definition of natural law it will become evident that the most notable difference between Thomas and Calvin is that the latter defined natural law primarily in terms of the Decalogue and Thomas did not… Far from being a conduit of the Classical or Thomistic view of the lex naturalis Calvin made a very sophisticated revision of the concept of natural law by removing it from the Stoic and Thomistic corpus of “self-evident” truths and identifying it with the content of the Law revealed in the Garden and at Sinai and in the Sermon on the Mount… The “scholastic” view was really Calvin’s. It was also the view of the confessional age theologians and it was grounded in their view of the covenant, which they learned, in substance, from Calvin… Calvin did not follow Thomas’ doctrine of natural law, though he did make significant use of natural law.

-R. Scott Clark, “Calvin and the Lex Naturalis,” Stulos Theological Journal 6 (1998): 1–22.

(On this point, see more here)

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