Political Theology – The Civil Government (VanDrunen)

I’m in the middle of reading this 2020 publication: Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in A Fractured World by David VanDrunen. I’m enjoying it so far! I especially appreciate the first chapter. In this chapter, VanDrunen gives a biblical foundation for political theology. That is, VanDrunen summarizes the Bible’s view of the state (civil government). Here are four biblical aspects of the civil government that should help us think biblically in the area of political theology. (Note: I’ve summarized this section quite extensively for the sake of space.)

First, civil government is legitimate. By this I mean that civil government has a right and even an obligation to carry out its proper work. Thus when civil governments and political officials promote justice within a particular society, they are not engaging in an act of usurpation but exercising legitimate authority. Several NT texts speak explicitly of civil government and have been foundational for Christian thinking about legitimate political authority…. (Rom 13:1-4, 1 Pet. 2:14, 1 Tim. 2:2, etc.). …The OT often recounts how God used civil magistrates to accomplish his good purposes, particularly with respect to his covenant people… (Gen 47, 1 Sam. 22:3-4, Jer. 29:5-7, etc.). …A number of OT saints held high political office under gentile governments (Gen. 39:4-12, 41:38-44; Dan. 2:48-49, Neh. 1-2, etc.)….

(Second,) [T]he legitimacy of civil government needs to be complemented by another crucial biblical idea: civil government is provisional. ‘Provisional’ refers to something set in place for a limited time and purpose until something greater arrives. Civil government is an important institution but will not endure forever. It is a valuable institution but not of highest value. It is penultimate rather than ultimate. Only the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, inchoately manifest now in the church and climactically revealed in the New Jerusalem, is of ultimate value and importance (cf. Is. 40:15; 23-24, Dan. 2, Phil. 3:20, Heb. 11:10, 1 Pet. 2:11, etc.). …Civil governments and civil offices are part of this present age that is passing away….

(Third,) …Civil governments are common…. God has ordained civil government to wield authority in political communities for the benefit of the human race in common. Government is not for some sorts of people rather than other sorts. One type of government is not to serve those of one ethnic or religious identity and an essentially different type of government to serve those of a different identity. …Several features of the text [of Rom. 13] point to the common nature of civil government. Paul begins by exhorting ‘every person’ to be subject to the governing authorities and then adds that ‘there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God’ (13:1). This means, at least generally, that everywhere civil government exists it is divinely ordained and thus legitimate and that everyone who lives in a community with a government should submit to its authority…. The apostle implies that civil government is obligated to administer justice toward the entire human community within its jurisdiction without discriminating by ethnic or religious identity….

(Finally,) …Christian political theology also ought to affirm that civil governments are morally accountable. Just as political legitimacy may tempt a person to deny political provisionality, so also political commonality may tempt a person to portray politics as morally neutral. …Romans 13 is helpful again. As we have seen, Paul does not simply assert that God has ordained civil magistrates but that God has ordained them for a specific task, the administration of justice through approving good and punishing evil (13:3-4; cf. 1 Pet. 2:14). Civil officials are not their own bosses (even in an autocracy), and the people they govern are also not their bosses (even in a democracy). Magistrates are ‘servants’ and ‘ministers’ of God (Rom. 13:4, 6), who is the only ultimate authority. In this text, Paul does not delegate authority to magistrates to define what is good and evil but to recognize what is good and evil so that they might administer justice accordingly. The judgments of civil magistrates are always morally freighted because they either advance or resist a divine commission….

Again, that’s a very brief summary of a longer discussion. Here’s an even briefer summary given by VanDrunen in this chapter: “God has ordained civil government – as the ruling authority of political communities – to be legitimate, but provisional, and to be common, but accountable.”

This is helpful! If you’re interested in political theology, I recommend this book for sure! And stay tuned. I’ll throw out a few more quotes from it in the next week or so.

David VanDrunen, Politics after Christendom, ch. 1.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015