Published on April 8, 2021
I want to thank Jake Meador for engaging my essay on Theonomy on the hallowed pages of Mere Orthodoxy. Whatever the disagreements, Jake and I are coming to these debates with far more agreement about Christianity’s place in the public square than disagreement. I count it as a joy to engage in a back-and-forth. Disagreement is a dying art in our day. But if we can eliminate the self-justifying and self-vindicating ego and commit to refining one another in a shared commitment to truth-seeking, disagreement can be very productive, illuminating, and helpful.
First, I should note that I do not have time to respond to each of Meador’s critiques, so some areas of response I’ll grant should be developed more fulsomely elsewhere, but I think a major thrust of his critique can be stated this way: Meador accuses both David VanDrunen and I of a “religiously neutral” idea of the natural law born of an unjustified bifurcation of the First and Second Tables of the Decalogue.
I would reply that I flatly reject that the natural law is “religiously neutral.” After consulting with VanDrunen, he also strongly rejects this characterization of his work as well. Speaking for myself, I believe natural law is a tradition originating ultimately from, but is not exclusive to, Christianity. Natural law has a long history outside of Christianity thought as well.
But more particularly, as to the content and operation of the natural law, every person by virtue of their created being has a natural obligation to worship God. Moreover, building on Aquinas’s definition, natural law is nothing else but the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law. Whenever someone (Christian or not) acts in alignment with the natural law, they are acting in accordance with eternal law born out within the creation order established by God.
But more foundationally, to say that the Ten Commandments are a codified expression of the natural law says nothing about which aspects of the natural law are to be enforced in civil law. The question, “Does the first table of the Ten Commandments belong to the natural law?” is a separate question from, “Has God authorized the government to enforce or regulate the First Table?” It is that second question I’m implicitly addressing in my original piece. And on that score, I see no evidence from Scripture that, outside of ancient Israel itself, he has authorized the kings of the nations (think Egypt, Philistia, Assyria, Rome, China, the United States) to enforce the First Table. That does not mean individuals are not obligated to obey it (they are), but that governments lack the competence, jurisdiction, and mandate to adjudicate it. However, I can see how God has authorized every nation and every government to enforce the Second Table by virtue of the creation ordinances laid out in Genesis 1 and Genesis 9, which are his covenants with all humanity. Where societies have tried to enforce the First Table in the past, the results have been disastrous. But it is impossible for aspects of the Second Table to not be enforced to some degree, right? Where it does go unenforced (at least to some degree), moral rebellion and chaos reign.
Roger Williams was forthright in stating that the Ten Commandments were not equally enforceable aspects of the natural law within civil law. According to Williams, “Hence the wisdom of God, in that 13 Rom. I say, there it pleaseth God expressly to reckon the particulars of the second table, chalking out (as it were) by his own finger, the civil sphere or circle, in which the civil Magistrate ought to act and execute his civil power and authority.” It stands within the Baptist tradition of at least four hundred years for some bifurcation of the First Table from the Second Table. Meador may not like this about the Baptist tradition and may view it as a rejection of the Magisterial tradition, but to be a Baptist on matters of religious liberty is to willingly assert that much of church history—under Catholic and even Protestant Magisteriums—was wrong in how it understood church and state. Because religious liberty has no granular form in Scripture, its development is subject to refinement. I take the Baptist understanding of the church and state’s mission to be an example of history refining itself into a better practice (that, obviously, is still neither perfect nor resolves all tensions).
Moreover, Thomas Aquinas could affirm the Decalogue as an expression of natural law but then also observe that the application of natural law to the particulars of the civil arena are a function of what he called determinatio, the application of wisdom to the particular context. There are lots of things that violate the natural law that we do not punish, nor should we.
Meador’s quote of Althusius ignores the question of who is capable of following the First Table. Because it is a function of natural law, Meador assumes we should codify such a commandment in the civil realm. Yet I’d encourage him to not stop reading at Deuteronomy 5, but to read all the way through chapters 30, where we discover Israel cannot and does not keep the law, leading to their exile. Yet not all is lost. The first whisper of the new covenant comes in Deuteronomy 30:6, where God promises to circumcise his people’s hearts. Of course, who is God talking about now? His new covenant church. That’s who is capable of following the First Table right now, even if imperfectly, because we have the circumcised hearts capable of doing so. God adjudicates all disbelief against him as a function of his authority over all of creation (Isaiah 24:5-6). To believe that government, in all its fallibility, can obtain the level of competence to adjudicate matters of religion is to ascribe to it an omni-competence that may sound ideal, but is practically speaking, detrimental to the good of both society and religion.
It’s strange that theonomists (and Meador?) would then seek to impose on all humanity through the sword the very law that a people with all the advantages of God’s written law, God’s temple, and God’s presence could not keep themselves.
Of course, I wish for all people to obey the First Table, but that is not possible apart from regeneration. Yet we do believe that all are obligated to follow laws derived from the Decalogue, such as preserving life (the Sixth Commandment) and upholding marriage commitments (the Seventh Commandment). Meador might reply by saying that it is inconsistent for me to insist upon non-Christians to abide by the Second Table, but not the First. And in one sense, he’s right. A true love of neighbor, which is the Pauline and Augustinian ethic he invokes, depends upon the love of God. The Second Table flows from the First Table. Yes, and amen. Again, that’s why we need churches, which—to speak of Leeman’s writings—is where our true politics begins. As for governments, though, are God’s expectations of unregenerate hearts that high—that he would have pagan governments enforce love of him and neighbor through the sword? Or might God have more tempered expectations for what the sword is able to accomplish, and therefore grant the holder of the sword a more limited jurisdiction, namely, punishing the bad and rewarding the good in the limited domain of preserving life and property? A protectionist form of government rather than the perfectionist one that theonomy implicitly aspires to?
Meador objects to the needless bifurcation of the First Table from the Second Table. To my reply: Please tell me how you would enforce the First Table. Specifically, how exactly do you enforce love? What shape and form should a blasphemy law take in contemporary America? A biblical public theology will be one that is not only desirable but actionable within the age that the church currently finds itself ministering within. Nothing that I am aware of proposed by Theonomists or even Theonomist-adjacent voices traffics in reality that would not end up creating its own set of obstacles and problems that I wrote in my original article.
Meador does not like the Baptist presumption that its church-state tradition is the arrangement that rescued Christian history from its errors. He also accuses the tradition of wishing to jettison the Magisterial Reformers’ views on church and state, and, to be candid, I do. I’m not convinced that breaking from the Magisterial Reformers on the Natural Law/Civil Law unity is all that scandalizing. They believed in a version of Christendom that I simply disagree with. I think I have a warrant to break from their tradition because they broke from an earlier tradition themselves, hence the Reformation.
Meador accuses my argument of inviting political quietism.
To be brief, I honestly do not know how to take this charge seriously, considering that I am a vocal social conservative within evangelicalism who champions an orthodox and evangelical engagement with the public square. I’ve written books on marriage as a social good, transgenderism, and religious liberty. I’ve edited books related to racial reconciliation and adoption. If that is quietism, then I’d love to see what true engagement looks like. My position by no means is calling for individuals to back away from making Christian arguments. All I ask is that they are made responsibly.
I have no problem with Christians bringing their transformed consciences into every arena within the public square. We should oppose abortion, sex trafficking, and a whole host of other social pathologies in Jesus’s name. What I object to is using the state as an explicitly Christian organ to make pronouncements about itself and society that are not true of either and can never be true in this age.
To conclude, let us look at a recent example of Arkansas taking courageous action to protect children from the scourge of transgender ideology. Did the legislators need to cite Scripture or one of the Commandments to make their argument valid? I do not believe they do. I believe they can appeal to sociology, medicine, philosophy, conscience, and nature that all bear witness to a law written into the fabric of creation. Of course, I do not mind if a legislator argues from Scripture while debating the bill in Arkansas, but the final text of a bill should refrain from citing Scripture directly. Such an act would be a violation of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.
These Arkansan legislators are ruling in accordance with the natural law which acts in accordance with the eternal law of God the Father. This is our Father’s world, of course, but truths about the Father’s world, we’re told from Scripture, are evident from outside of Scripture. Nature is intelligible, even if sinful rebellion suppresses the truth of nature. The response to an unbelieving world that does not believe the Bible is never to shun “Thus Saith the Lord,” but to understand the layered expression of how God has spoken. If we reject this, we reject the domain of common grace or sharing in even a minimal moral discourse.
Andrew T. Walker is a fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life program.