"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan
And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.
The question of the “place” of religion in the public sphere has been growing all the more urgently given the recent tensions between religious interests and other political interests. I think therefore it would be good to outline, in broad brush strokes, the basics of Protestant civic theology as it has been understood in the Magisterial Protestant tradition and make some brief remarks about its application in certain burning issues in our time.
It is however necessary to begin with dispelling a common misconception of the Protestant “Two Kingdoms” theology which identifies the Two Kingdoms with the Church and the State. This however is a confusion, and a particularly American one, which is not how the Protestant Reformers understood the “Two Kingdoms”. The Two Kingdoms are not between Church and State but between the invisible spiritual realm, or the true communion of saints who believe in Christ the King from the heart and submit to his reign or rule out of love, sometimes also called the “invisible Church”, and the visible temporal realm which includes both the visible Church and the State.
Before we proceed however it would be necessary to recapitulate the Reformers’s biblical distinctions with regards the “Two Kingdoms”.
The Biblical and Protestant Distinctions
The distinction between the Two Kingdoms begins with Christ’s saying quoted at the start that the Kingdom of God “cometh not with observation” and that it is “within you”. The Kingdom of God is first and foremost spiritual, in every sense of the word. It is invisible, to do with inner matters of the heart and conscience, what is “within you”, and which is distinct from the “outward”or visible observable things like outward words, institutions and actions.
Romans 14:17 further reinforces this point by noting “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Thus, the Kingdom of God is not about outward visible deeds like eating or drinking but about inner qualities like righteousness, peace, joy, etc, in the Holy Spirit.
This understanding would be continued in Dante (although some might trace it back to Augustine, but then again Augustine has been used to justify too many things to make such a claim persuasive) and be maintained and defended during the Protestant Reformation.
The Lutheran reformer Philip Melanchthon had a particularly clear articulation of the distinction between the Two Kingdoms in his Wittenberg Articles of 1536,
…we teach, first, that Christ’s kingdom is a spiritual kingdom, that is, a kingdom which establishes in the hearts of men correct knowledge of God, fear, and faith, eternal righteousness, and everlasting life, and that therefore it does not destroy either the civil empire, local government, or domestic authority, but rather it confirms all of them and commands us to maintain them as the ordinance of God, as good creations of God.
Thus the Two Kingdoms are not “the Church”, with its clerics, church corporations, liturgies or confessions, and the State, but it is the spiritual kingdom which rules in the hearts of men against the visible temporal kingdom of empires, local government and domestic authority.
Where and What is the Visible Church?
Now that we have clearly placed the spiritual kingdom or invisible Church in the hearts and minds of man, we need to ask ourselves where exactly is the visible church then and what is its nature. To that we turn to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer who had a particularly succinct distinction between the invisible church and the visible church from his unpublished Thirteen Articles.
In the Scripture, the word “Church” has two main meanings, apart from others; one of which means the congregation of all the saints and true believers, who really believe in Christ the Head and are sanctified by his Spirit. This is the living and truly holy mystical body of Christ, but known only to God, who alone understands the hearts of men. The second meaning is that of the congregation of all who are baptised in Christ, who have not openly denied him nor been lawfully and by his Word excommunicated. This meaning of “Church” corresponds to its status in this life in that in it the good are mixed with the evil.
Thus the Church refers first to the spiritual communion of saints who truly believe in Christ from the heart, but it is invisible because only God alone can scrutinise the hearts of man, and secondly refers to the congregation of all who are outwardly and visibly baptised, who has not openly denied him nor have been lawfully and by his Word excommunicated. Thus the visible Church refers to those Christians who are outwardly baptised, who openly and outwardly profess the name of Christ and whose outward actions are consistent with the Word of God and have not suffered the censures of the church canons.
So where is the visible Church? The answer is pretty obvious, although some might find surprising, it is in the visible or the temporal kingdom. If the visible Church is constituted by visible outward actions and activities, it would stand to reason that it would inescapably be in the visible temporal kingdom as well. The problem is that we are so used to thinking of the visible kingdom or realm as exclusively “the State”, defined by the instruments of coercion and its bureaucratic institutions, that we forget that the visible realm includes most other civic ordinances which are not necessarily instituted or run by the state, although still subject to its coercive regulation. Melanchthon in particular in our quote earlier includes “domestic authority” or parental authority under the civic/temporal realm. Melanchthon would go on to add:
…since such government and civil authority are God pleasing, we teach that according to divine Law Christians may without sin hold civil office, sit as judges, decide matters by the imperial or other existing laws, punish evildoers according to common law, engage in just wars, serve as soldiers, buy, sell, possess property, take required oaths, be married, etc.
Thus under “government and civil authority” includes such activities like possession, trade, and exchange of property, trusts and promises as well as marriage. Its application to churches should be self-evident. Whenever a church becomes legally incorporated it would have a treasury, it acquires a corporate personality with the ability to own, sell and exchange property. It also acquires a constitution, by-laws or canons which regulates the behaviour of its members, its officers, as well as determining their selection. Once it has acquired the ability to do so it would necessarily fall under the jurisdiction of the state which adjudicates, formalises and regulates such possession and exchange of properties and who needs be able to identify “who’s in charge” via its church laws. Since most church corporations are founded upon theological premises, the church’s officers, constitution, by-laws, and canons themselves will be determined by such theological premises. If or when there is a dispute about who is the “true” governor of a church corporation, the law courts will have to adjudicate and weigh theological facts to arrive at a decision.
All these clearly demonstrate that the visible Church inescapably belongs to the visible, civic, and temporal realm. It cannot hope to become “separate” from the state or escape its jurisdiction. The Anglican cleric E.A. Litton puts it in these terms:
An absolute severance of Church and State, as it would be an impossibility, so it would be an evil if it could take place. But it is an impossibility. The moment the Church gains “a local habitation and a name,” whether it be established or not, like all other inferior (temporally inferior) associations, it attracts the notice, and falls under the jurisdiction, of the sovereign authority. Not to speak of its’ voluntary endowments, which in every well-ordered community are either protected, or prohibited, by the civil power, numberless questions such as those relating to mixed marriages, or the education of children, or legitimacy depending on the validity of the marriage ceremony—questions occupying the border-ground between what is purely ecclesiastical and purely civil—can never, consistently with the liberties of the subject, be exempted from secular control and determination. Points of contact then between the two bodies being inevitable, the question is. Shall these remain in an unsettled state, or shall an acknowledged alliance take place ? The United States of America have preferred the former, most of the European nations, our own included, the latter alternative. Assuming that an alliance is expedient, the problem before us is to adjust the conditions of it. There can be, of course, no question of alliance where, as in the Papal theocracy, the Church has absorbed all the powers of the State into herself.
–The connection of church and state : with a particular reference to the question of the Irish church : an address delivered at Cheltenham, June 9th, 1868
This is why the contemporary libertarian talk of “privatising marriage” or letting churches take over the functions of marriage is both seriously misguided and completely unworkable. Adjudicating marriages includes things like custody of children and division of property in the event of a divorce or separation. Since it is rightly noted that the state has an entirely legitimate interest in determining custody of children as well as adjudicating property claims and rights, then determination of such marital issues inescapably falls under the jurisdiction of the state. Unless we want to return back to the medieval papalist arrangement where ecclesiastical tribunals determined marital issues and have the state enforce the decisions of church courts after the fact, we need to affirm marriage as a civic ordinance rightly regulated and subject to the jurisdiction of the state who alone rightly wields the instruments of coercion to harmonise property disputes as well as the care and protection of society’s most vulnerable, the children of divorced and separated parents.
The Proper Distinction between the Visible Church and the State
Even as we criticise attempts to argue that the church should pretend to take over the functions of the state with regards marriage or the regulation of its own visible corporation, we have yet to note the legitimate distinctions which exists between the church and the state. To this we now turn.
Even as we affirm that the visible church and state are part of the “same” realm, the visible civic realm, the visible church does however operate differently from the state along with possessing different primary or immediate objectives, just as families and marriages themselves are not merely departments of the state nor are their primary or immediate objectives identical to that of the state’s.
The most obvious difference is that that state’s primary instruments are legislation and coercion which they wield to accomplish their immediate objectives, e.g. civic peace and order, material prosperity and welfare, etc. The visible Church on the other hand, although still dependent upon the conditions of civic peace provided by the state for it to go about its work, has as its primary instruments, not coercion or force, but persuasion and preaching by the Word, and works of charity and generosity, alone Christ’s appointed instruments for the propagation of the Gospel and the expansion of God’s kingdom in the hearts of men. Thus its primary objective is not civic peace or material or temporal flourishing but the proclamation and witness of the Gospel concerning Christ, the Kingdom of God, and the Resurrection.
Erastianism and the State’s Ability to Recognise Theological Facts
However even as we carefully distinguished between the primary objectives of the state against that of the visible church as well as their proper instruments, we need to be wary again of postulating a breach or fundamental divergence between the two. Litton again puts it very well in the same work quoted earlier:
…the State, as well as the Church, has for its object the establishment of God’s kingdom upon earth. It is an unworthy view of the State to regard it as a mere institution for the protection of life and property, though that, no doubt, is its main object ; as unworthy as that which would regard the twin natural institution of the family as having for its aim the mere physical nurture of children. Heathen writers, such as Plato, knew better. The State is the greatest of all schools of natural education ; and in a certain sense, and within certain limits defined by its idea, aims not merely at securing personal rights, but at the intellectual and moral improvement of its members.
But the truth is, the State, as such, has not for its duty to propagate any particular form of Christianity; i.e., in other words, to undertake the cure of souls : it needs religion, but not necessarily a religion. In fact, as Warburton remarks, —what the State absolutely needs, as a State, is a recognition of the fundamental principles of natural religion, viz., the existence and providence of God, and a future state of reward and punishment : if it finds Christianity, and a Christian Church, accepted by the nation, so much the better ; it is, as Coleridge’ terms it, a “happy accident,” on which the State has reason to congratulate itself. But well-ordered and flourishing States have existed apart altogether from revealed religion. For the State to regard itself as an instrument of salvation, and to use its power for the promotion of that end, is to mistake its function. The proper object of the State is the protection of life and property, the temporal peace and prosperity of the empire; and though it may lawfully entertain secondary aims, it must never forget that they are but secondary. In themselves they may be infinitely more important than the primary aim, but to the State, as such, they must be secondary.
Thus because we acknowledge the critical role played by the state in so many vital institutions, e.g. family, marriages, education, property, etc, it is essential therefore that the state should be cognisant and able to recognise theological premises and be allowed to employ them in legal and civic arguments. Thus while maintaining firmly that it is impossible for true faith in Christ to be engendered by coercive action by the state, this does not preclude civic and constitutional recognition of theological premises and truth.
We cannot, on the pain of the most absurd forms of secularity and denial of all natural revelation and religion, deny the state’s ability to recognise, acknowledge and discern theological truths and facts about the divine, at least the truths of natural theology and religion. Therefore while we would, in principle, not require blasphemy or heresy laws, but religious test for civic offices are entirely reasonable for we should expect that legislators and public officials to be able to recognise theological facts and employ them as premises in legal and civic arguments. To this day the monarch of the United Kingdom is still required to be a member of the Church of England to serve as the monarch. He or she is not thereby coerced into being Anglican, the monarch is always free to change religions and reject the Anglican faith, but then all he or she needs to do is abdicate the throne. As a person his conscience cannot be coerced into believing in the Anglican faith by force, he however simply cannot occupy the office of monarch of the United Kingdom and reject the Anglican faith.
(I have in another post made some general observations about how the credibility of the Gospel accounts and witness of the resurrection is tied to legal standards of evidence, and if their credibility is tagged unto such standards of the law courts, we cannot, without considerable tension, prevent actual law courts and civic institutions from actually recognising and employing those theological claims as premises in civic and legal reasoning.)
Side Notes: On Deism and the State’s Ordained Role under Christ
This is why incidentally I think deism has been given an unjust bad rap among Christians in general. First we need to recognise the difference between English and Continental deism. Let us not forget the context in which deism arose, out of the disruption of a unified civic religion which occurred during the Protestant Reformation. Deism was a formulated to allow people of differing religious convictions to live side by side one another while maintaining a form of common or public religiosity. The English deist generally has a higher view of divine providence and religion than the Continental deist. While not particular orthodox about Christian tenets, they tend to have a more positive view of religious life like prayer and piety, etc. The Continental deist tend towards a total skepticism of religious life altogether while some paradoxically like Voltaire, while himself not a believer, noted the social effects which religion has maintains its public use.
Therefore while we rightly reject the idea that the state has a duty to propagate Christianity as such, but the state does have a duty to foster public piety and natural religiosity. While such seeds of natural religiosity we believe finds its fulfillment in Christianity, that fulfillment is not to be brought about by coercive state action but by the preaching of the Gospel.
While we rightly affirm that the nations and the states serve the Gospel and the Christian faith under the reign of Christ, whether or not they realise or acknowledge it themselves, but it does so first and foremost, not by trying to propagate the Gospel, but by attending to its primary ordained task which is to make for the conditions of its propagation by promoting temporal peace and prosperity. While civic establishment of the Christian faith or its constitutional recognition can be a good thing, but it is not necessarily so approved by God, especially if in the confession of Christ’s name that nation or state substitutes its proper task of ensuring temporal peace and righteousness for exaggerated public displays of Christian piety. In vain would a civil ruler hope to invoke Christ’s name to prop up his state while he neglects his civic duties of caring and governing his people. In so profaning the name of Christ by abandoning their proper task and causing civic ruin and decay and corruption to set in, God may much rather burn the entire commonwealth to the ground to safeguard his name than suffer them to praise him with their lips but not in attending to their proper civic duties.
Conclusion: Civic Arguments for Civic Errors, not Ecclesiastical Coercion
Given the widespread civic defeat of many “traditional Christian” positions on civic issues, there is a great temptation for Christians to attempt to retreat from the civic sphere and pretend that the visible Church can take over the functions of the various civic institutions and ordinances which are being spectacularly cocked up by the state today. More dangerously Christians themselves are introducing an artificial but untenable divide between church and state in their attempts to protect themselves under the cover of “religious freedom”, a move which I’ve criticised in a previous post of mine.
However such a move is both unreasonable and fundamentally unworkable. The solution to bad civic arguments and positions is not retreat into ecclesiastical ghettos but good civic arguments and principles. Our position on various civic issues is not given in some esoteric moment of Christian spiritual rapture, it is known to the common wisdom of most civilisations for the most of human history.
Retreating to our church ghettos merely informs our enemies that we do not believe in our own arguments. We should not confuse the strength of conviction and the ferocity whereby they press their arguments for the credibility of the same. We have good, credible and persuasive arguments on our sides which we can field (for my extensive expositions on the issue of gay marriage and homosexuality, see here and here). We simply need to advance them confidently, tactfully, intelligently, but above all, with charity and grace, maintaining the high standards of intellectual discourse, not repaying insult with insult but answering argument with argument and keeping our heads firm on our shoulders at all times and ultimately our faith firmly upon the Father of lights who is able to illuminate all truths to even those trapped in the darkest of Satan’s hold.