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VanDrunen on Romans 13 & the Noahic Covenant

David VanDrunen has a helpful essay in the 2016 Journal of Law and Religion titled POWER TO THE PEOPLE: REVISITING CIVIL RESISTANCE IN ROMANS 13:1-7 IN LIGHT OF THE NOAHIC COVENANT. The abstract reads:

Romans 13:1–7 has been the most important text in scripture for Christian reflection on political authority, yet what it does not say has left Christian social ethicists and political/legal theorists with many lingering questions, especially about the proper response to unjust magistrates. To what resources should Christian thinkers look to illumine the gaps left by the Pauline silence, and just how absolute or relative did Paul intend his remarks in Romans 13:1–7 to be? This article presents a twofold thesis in response to this twofold question. First, it argues that the Noahic covenant, Genesis 8:21–9:17, is an important, although overlooked, background resource for interpreting Romans 13:1–7. Second, this article illustrates the practical benefit of reading Romans 13 in light of the Noahic covenant by offering a new argument for why Christians should not interpret Paul’s unqualified command to submit to civil authorities as absolutely forbidding resistance to unjust magistrates. Paul’s words about magistrates in Romans 13 have not superseded the obligation to pursue justice that God gave to the human community as a whole in the Noahic covenant. Thus the primal obligation resting in the people implicitly qualifies Paul’s instructions.

As I have shown in previous posts (here as well as these), the reformed tradition has taught that God establishes civil rulers mediately through the consent of the people. They have argued that Romans 13 must be qualified because God does not grant any man authority to act unjustly. Therefore Paul is only commanding obedience to rulers who act justly.

While not referencing the reformed tradition, VanDrunen furthers that interpretation by appeal to the Noahic covenant, wherein God grants authority and duty not to one group of human beings (magistrates) but to all human beings to enforce/administer justice. Thus there is apparent tension between Romans 13’s apparent grant of absolute authority to a subset of humanity and Genesis 9’s grant of specific authority to all of humanity. He argues that Paul’s apparent absolute statements in Romans 13 must be qualified by Genesis 9, such that resistance to tyranny is biblical.

[B]oth Romans 13 and the Noahic covenant portray civil authority as delegated from God for the purpose of enforcing justice, and specifically retributive justice… This expresses the lex talionis, the law of retribution, most famously known through the later biblical phrase, “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” (see Ex 21:23-25; Lev 24:18-21; Deut 19:21).

 

[D]oes the Noahic covenant shed any light on whether Romans 13:1-7 leaves space for disobedience or resistance to unjust magistrates?

If the Noahic covenant simply said all the same things as Romans 13:1-7 it would probably offer little help. But what if we explore how these texts differ? One very noticeable difference, I suggest, may hold the key for our inquiry.

The difference I have in mind is that in the Noahic covenant God delegates authority to the human race in general, while in Romans 13:1-7 God delegates authority to civil magistrates in particular… [Gen 9:5-6] might be rendered in this way: ‘Whoever sheds the blood of a human being, by a human being shall his or her blood be shed, for God made the human being in his own image.’ God entered this covenant with the survivors of the great flood, and with their offspring after them (9:9), and thus 9:6 gives a judicial commission to the human community as a whole, without further specification. According to Paul, in contrast, God commissions ‘authorities’ and ‘rulers’ (Romans 13:1, 3). As Paul describes it, only certain members of the human community bear the sword and carry out God’s wrathful vengeance on the wrongdoer (13:4). Sketching out a broad biblical theology of civil authority is a task for another day, but such a project would need to account for this movement from Genesis 9 to Romans 13. Somehow the authority residing in the human race generally comes to vest in particular people who hold civil office. In one way or another, the human community, to which God originally delegated authority, has in turn rightly delegated that authority to civil magistrates. Whatever the details, a theology of authority developed along these lines would have to acknowledge that Romans 13 does not simply supersede the Noahic covenant. The divine delegation of authority to civil magistrates, in other words, does not cancel out the original divine delegation of authority to the human race. This is because God established the Noahic covenant ‘while the earth remains’ (Gen 8:22). Christian thinking about social ethics and political/legal theory ought to recognize the Noahic covenant as still in force, as God’s ongoing means for sustaining the human community and the broader natural order. Thus the general human commission to enforce justice must continue to stand somewhere behind the magistrates’ specific commission to do so. And this general human commission implies that anyone who sheds human blood ought to be held accountable – even magistrates.

If these conclusions are true, then human community as a whole must retain a right – probably better, an obligation – to correct, resist, or remove magistrates who fail to perform their divine commission to enforce justice.

This is a very important point (I argued for it here). However, I have never quite been satisfied that revolution is proper, much less required behavior for Christians. VanDrunen seems to have the same impulse. He notes

[T]he residual authority of the people discussed above lies not in the Christian community, but in the human community. When Paul describes the moral life characterizing the ‘one body in Christ’ (Romans 12:4-5), he prohibits the enforcement of justice (12:17, 19) that he describes as the task of magistrates a few verses later (13:4). Furthermore, when persecuted for the faith, Christians’ great calling is not to secure justice for themselves but to suffer with patience and charity (Matt 5:10-12, 43-48; 1 Pet 2:13-25). The residual authority to enforce justice rooted in the Noahic covenant rests in the human race as a whole; it does not rest in the church as the body of believers.

I think that VanDrunen is on to something important in that statement. He notes “Sketching out a broad biblical theology of civil authority is a task for another day, but such a project would need to account for this movement from Genesis 9 to Romans 13.” I think that the account for this “movement” may be found in God’s command to Judah to subject themselves to Nebuchadnezzar’s rule. The Old Covenant commanded Israel to resist and overthrow any Gentile ruler. But as punishment for breaking the Old Covenant, God told Judah that they would not be destroyed if they submitted to Babylon’s yoke. Thus began life in exile.

Thus the Lord said to me: “Make yourself straps and yoke-bars, and put them on your neck… ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: This is what you shall say to your masters: 5 “It is I who by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth, with the men and animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomever it seems right to me. 6 Now I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, my servant, and I have given him also the beasts of the field to serve him…

8 “‘“But if any nation or kingdom will not serve this Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, declares the Lord, until I have consumed it by his hand. 9 So do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your dreamers, your fortune-tellers, or your sorcerers, who are saying to you, ‘You shall not serve the king of Babylon.’ 10 For it is a lie that they are prophesying to you, with the result that you will be removed far from your land, and I will drive you out, and you will perish. 11 But any nation that will bring its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will leave on its own land, to work it and dwell there, declares the Lord.”’”…

12 To Zedekiah king of Judah I spoke in like manner: “Bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him and his people and live. 13 Why will you and your people die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, as the Lord has spoken concerning any nation that will not serve the king of Babylon?

(Jeremiah 27)

Note that this command to submit to Nebuchadnezzar was special revelation positive law given to Israel. It was not general revelation natural law given to all mankind. Note also how Romans 13 echoes the language of Nebuchadnezzar being established by God. I will have to leave that as a tease for now. Lord willing I will flesh it out more in the future.

Published in Brandon Adams

  • Gabriel

    Interesting. I’m looking forward to hearing more about this.