Recovering a Lost Tradition?
David VanDrunen's trilogy, of which Politics after Christendom is the final volume, is a highly impressive work of theological retrieval and systematic construction.Footnote 1 What is retrieved is a powerful apparatus of concepts (covenants, two kingdoms, and natural law) central to classic Reformed Protestantism but which have fallen into disuse. What is constructed is an intriguing, wide-ranging, and exegetically rigorous “Noahic” theological ethics and political theology that also offers substantive guidance for Christians as they seek to live faithfully as “sojourners and exiles” in their contemporary societies (see chapter 6).
The theological boldness, interdisciplinary breadth, and architectonic scope of VanDrunen's trilogy merit serious engagement from a variety of standpoints. But it seems particularly designed to press scholars in the Calvinist tradition to mine their own tradition better, while also aiming to speak beyond it (38). VanDrunen argues that many modern Calvinists mistakenly ground Christian public ethics in soteriological categories (those pertaining to salvation) rather than protological ones (those pertaining to creation).Footnote 2 They improperly enjoin that the unique demands of the gospel be extended beyond the church, where they rightly apply, to fallen society outside the church, imposing a misplaced “eschatological burden” (48) on the social ethics that pertain to society generally. Thus, “Christians are not to seek the transformation of political institutions according to the moral pattern of Christ's kingdom. The Noahic covenant, not the kingdom of Christ, provides the normative vision to guide Christians’ political activity” (119).
Reformed political theologians critical of a two kingdoms model may be tempted to ignore VanDrunen's work, judging it to be a throwback to an antiquated “dualistic” phase of the Reformed tradition from which it has long been liberated. That would be a mistake, for a careful probing of his cumulative arguments should, at least, discipline them to offer fuller critiques of an alternative that boasts better classical Reformed provenance than does theirs.
The Dutch neo-Calvinist wing of the Reformed tradition comes in for sustained critique throughout the trilogy.Footnote 3 Those sympathetic to this wing might find VanDrunen's account of earlier traditions of Reformed social thought in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms a valuable corrective, for their account of Calvinist political theology often claims an unimpeded line of descent from fifteenth- and sixteenth-century founding figures such as John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and Johannes Althusius to the nineteenth-century neo-Calvinists Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. They may also find his account sobering, insofar as it poses the challenging question whether neo-Calvinism, especially in its post-Kuyperian/Bavinckian iterations, might after all be very “neo-” but no longer very “Calvinist.” That would not in itself be an objection against those iterations. But the trilogy does throw down the gauntlet to neo-Calvinist exegetes, theologians, and political theorists better to explain and defend their relation to classic Calvinist political theology. In particular, it presses them to present a more rigorous account of what they mean by a “one-kingdom” model of Christian ethics and, consequently, a “redemptive-transformationist” vision of society, notions VanDrunen forcefully rejects (18, 54–55).Footnote 4
Noahic Conservative Liberalism
The opening chapters of Politics after Christendom helpfully summarize the classic Reformed theological themes VanDrunen retrieves, allowing this third volume to be read as an independent work. In my discussion, I start, however, at the end of the book and work backward, guided by the question whether a “Noahic government” is up to the tasks that political theologians rightly expect of political authorities today. In the final chapter, VanDrunen seeks to situate the position he elaborates throughout the book in relation to the dominant political traditions of modernity, proposing that a “Noahic” political theory points towards a version of “conservative liberalism”—“a liberal polity but one attained and maintained conservatively” (370). Its key ingredients are an affirmation of an objective moral order; respect for tradition and custom; a defense of the traditional family; mindfulness of human fallenness; tolerant religious pluralism; personal and associational freedom; a free market economy; the rule of law; and strictly limited government, with welfare tasks reserved wherever possible to private charity. Such a conservative liberalism equally rejects “progressivism” and “nationalism,” as each in its own way breaches the “Noahic” commitments to tolerant pluralism and limited government.
VanDrunen is reticent to critique specific American political movements, but it is clear that his “conservative liberalism” is not just another expression of the American “religious right,” for that movement engages in precisely a misguided attempt to “transform” American society in the light of a supposedly “Christian” ethic. Nor is it a manifestation of the “neoconservatism” dominant in the Reagan years and later driving George W. Bush's agenda, which would also run afoul of his critiques of nationalism and governmental overreach, notably through the vast expansion of military power (which, however, VanDrunen does not address). Trump is mentioned only once in passing, but his authoritarian white nationalist agenda would be emphatically ruled out by VanDrunen's robust defense of the rule of law and his exemplary repudiation of racism and ethnocentrism (189–93). VanDrunen lines up rather with a more traditionalist form of American conservatism exemplified by thinkers such as Russell Kirk and Michael Novak, who he frequently invokes. This form of conservatism is also classically liberal in the sense that it champions the free market and limited state while seeking to ground and circumscribe these commitments in an objective moral order.
The risk in landing so close to one specific American strand of political thought is that it presents skeptical readers with the temptation to dismiss the hard intellectual graft that has led to such a conclusion as “tainted” by the unacceptable outcome to which it has led. It might strike some readers, especially political theologians in European and Majority World nations, as a theological rationalization for a controversial and objectionable political project. This is exactly how liberation theology, for example, has been perceived by many American conservative Christians. I do not think this risk could have been entirely avoided, and I am all in favor of political theologians striking out in bold political directions. But I think VanDrunen could have shored up his conclusions better by engaging more extensively and sympathetically with his likely theological critics on the political center and left.
The Role of Government
Addressing the nature and scope of political authority, VanDrunen offers a fresh and detailed defense of the traditional Reformed view of civil government as an institution authorized by God to enforce justice (25–29). Government is not grounded in the original order of creation but given providentially as a remedy for sin, discharging the preservative task of maintaining order by means of corrective injustice. This mandate is specific and limited, by the principle of the rule of law, meaning that government is subject to and authorized by law (327–29); by the content of law, such that law must express the essential demands of (Noahic) justice; and by the legal authority held by other institutions.
VanDrunen's formula, that under the Noahic covenant government is “legitimate, provisional, common, but accountable” (chapter 1), I find mostly persuasive. Governments can, he recognizes, commit great evil and become idolatrous (335–56), but their normative mandate in the Noahic era is simply to preserve the basic order of society by administering “talionic” justice—“proportionate retributive justice” (82); but no more than that. “Talionic” justice implies more than “criminal justice,” potentially including “compensatory,” “forbearing,” and even “restorative” justice (263–70). But justice in all its manifestations is essentially “rectificatory,” responding to the violation of people's natural rights as given in the Noahic covenant. Where justice is administered by civil government it is also coercive and thus further limited by the bluntness of this instrument—because it cannot get into people's souls.Footnote 5 On the other hand, while Noahic justice is minimal in scope, it is universal in extent. It must be equally available to all, believer and unbeliever, resident and stranger, and irrespective of race and ethnicity (32–34). This is one implication of government being “common”; government must make justice universally available. In this age then, Christians (along with others) must not aspire to some uniquely “Christian” justice but rather seek a “just commonality” across society as a whole (159–65).
VanDrunen recognizes that rectificatory justice also “implies a conception of primary justice,” because “without the violation of primary justice there is nothing to rectify” (273, see also 258). But his account of “Noahic primary justice” remains slender. It consists primarily of the protection of negative liberty rights, together with a wider expectation of “reciprocity” in human relations and “generally peaceful and cooperative interaction among human beings” (273–75). It is relatively undemanding because the obligations of the Noahic covenant themselves are minimal, intended merely to preserve society not to aspire to some higher benchmark of human flourishing—a key point to which I return.
Three Aspects of the Noahic Conception of Government Authority
Three aspects of Noahic government are central to VanDrunen's account: protectionism, polycentrism, and capitalism.
VanDrunen argues that a Noahic foundation for civil government lends support to a “protectionist” rather than either a “perfectionist” or a “service-provision” view of the purpose of government (330–48). Civil government is mandated to secure only a limited common good. It is to establish what he terms a “common political community” (80) not a “holy community” (89).Footnote 6 This does include the provision of a “context” for stable relationships among individuals and other associations (85–86). But while this might appear to permit a broader scope of government than mere Noahic justice, it seems to mean little more than establishing the basic infrastructure necessary for such justice. Noahic government is not authorized to intentionally make its citizens “better people” (332), nor to secure their “positive” or welfare rights (275–80). Nor is it specifically mandated to provide services directly, although it might supply a limited range of such services where they are clearly implied by the imperative of protection and where they do not constrain moral pluralism (228, 344).Footnote 7 Further, when governments attempt to go beyond this minimum provision, they often damage what they seek to assist. For example, when government assumes the functions of the family it diminishes parental responsibility for work and marriage and thus weakens family structure (227). Beyond whatever minimal services it may provide, it is authorized only to protect people from violations of the minimal demands of justice, that is, to defend their negative natural rights (272). VanDrunen holds that a protectionist position is essentially upheld in the New Testament, especially Romans 13.
A protectionist view does not imply that government could, even if it tried, adopt a stance of moral “neutrality” or that its acts do not indirectly influence the morality of its citizens—illusions that VanDrunen rightly critiques (340). Yet, he claims, the morality to which it is necessarily committed and which, under the Noahic covenant, it is alone authorized to protect, is quite properly “modest” (257)—or, as political theorists say, “thin.” Its contents are given in the universal principles of natural law promulgated under that covenant. These remain the basic moral obligations falling upon all humans today (the church stands under much higher demands) and form the criteria by which Christians should evaluate their own governments and that determine the proper expectations they should bring to them. Such principles concern the threefold outworking of the “royal” task of humans as made in the image of God, as refracted through the Noahic covenant (60). This covenant authorizes a “threefold ethic for the human community” (64). It “calls the human race to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth (Gen[esis] 9:1), authorizes it to eat plants and animals, though not animals with their lifeblood (9:3–4), and grants it responsibility to enact retributive justice against murderers (9:6)” (81). These generate the bulk of the content of minimal Noahic justice. To accomplish these tasks, various forms of associational activity come to prove necessary, and over time humans eventually establish formal institutions to pursue them, notably familial, enterprise, and judicial ones (83–85, 292).
I suggest, however, that a case could be made that a “protectionist” (or “corrective”) framing of the role of government is compatible with a much wider conception of the morality that it is mandated to protect. One could develop a more capacious account of such morality and yet still affirm that the role of government is to protect people against unjust violations of it. That is essentially what Nicholas Wolterstorff does: he endorses protectionism but affirms positive, and not only negative, natural rights.Footnote 8 This leads him to assert that redressing poverty is not simply a matter of “service-provision,” but rather a vital demand of justice. Many Reformed theologians alert to the danger of government overreach would yet hold that Wolterstorff has much of the Old Testament on his side here.Footnote 9 Think of Leviticus 25, for example, which establishes a norm of periodic radical redistribution of kinship-based landholdings in order to prevent the emergence of a permanent class of impoverished landless dependents in Israel. VanDrunen would presumably reply that such aspects of Mosaic law are exclusively binding on biblical Israel and do not form part of the less demanding, universal natural law in the Noahic era.
From a different standpoint, Oliver O'Donovan, in his account of government as mandated to exercise “public judgment,” also proposes a wider account of the morality government must enforce.Footnote 10 O'Donovan also construes the purpose of government in corrective terms, yet he understands that which stands in need of correction more broadly than does VanDrunen. For O'Donovan, the “wrongs” that government “judges of” include serious “threats to the common good,” and these can include not only actual but also “prospective” threats, requiring preventative and not only retrospective acts. “Judgment” also includes a governmental task of protecting three fundamental kinds of human equality: equality “on the threshold of death,” implying a mandate for government to guarantee (not necessarily directly to supply) adequate provision of basic healthcare; equality “on the threshold of social exclusion,” implying a governmental mandate to redress poverty (if not necessarily directly to supply resources); and equality before the law. VanDrunen affirms the third of these. I submit that he could also affirm the first two while still holding to a protectionist view of government.
VanDrunen argues that a Noahic conception of government supports a “polycentric” account of law (chapter 10). The dominant “monocentric” view is that all legitimate law proceeds from the command of the sovereign state, while a polycentric view holds that there are plural sources of valid law not deriving from the state and to which the state should defer. These include the internal law of non-state associations, contracts arising from agreements between individuals or enterprises, and “custom” (295–300). These sources are “jurisgenerative” (300).Footnote 11 For VanDrunen, polycentrism is actually the “heart” of the conservative liberalism he defends (375).
On VanDrunen's account, legal polycentrism is not a stand-alone idea. It is grounded in what he terms the “customary legal order,” or, simply, “the law” (301). While “custom” refers to “norms of conduct to which people in fact adhere” (293), “customary legal order” refers to those “aspects of customary order members regard as legally binding” (300). It includes norms that members of many associations have come to regard as binding on them, as well as those they hold as valid in their wider interactions in society, such as recognized commercial customary practices. Such norms have over time “won assent” (316). In this way, customary legal order thus makes law by “consent” (310)—although it is not finally the product of human will (318).
Crucially, customary legal order is not identical to state legislation. The state may later come to recognize norms of customary legal order—for example, by enforcing commercial customs—but it does not generate most of them. Civil government is in fact only one aspect of the wider “political community,” which includes familial, economic and judicial associations (86), each possessing their own legal authority. Indeed, customary legal order may in certain circumstances take precedence over state legislation (302) (courts may properly defer to the former).
This decisively important claim should be central to Christian political and legal theory. Here I note just two problems in VanDrunen's account. First, it does not sufficiently recognize the widespread role of the modern state (for all its excesses and corruptions) in legally recognizing, codifying, and integrating non-state law. The demands of an increasingly complex and interdependent society marked by extensive public space where people meet as strangers, and populated by a plurality of well-established differentiated institutions, has inevitably reduced the scope of customary legal order and increased that of state law. You would not know this from VanDrunen's account, but much of this state activity has been necessary in order to secure better protective justice across society.
Second, the process of establishing civil government's legitimacy remains mysterious. VanDrunen suggests that civil government may come to be legitimated by customary legal order, and thereby become authorized, inter alia, to create new law (304, 328). Where this is so, citizens should normally obey state legislation in cases of conflict with norms of customary legal order.Footnote 12 But VanDrunen fails to specify how customary legal order may do that work of legitimation, asserting only that governments have authority where “members of a political community actually acknowledge and obey” (328, emphasis original). This suggests a mere acquiescence of citizens in the fact of being governed (more or less justly), not any deliberate authorization of officeholders. Are “members” here thought of as representing the “customary legal order,” and if so, what could that mean? There is no suggestion that anyone is designated (by appointment or election) to engage in explicit acts of authorization. One of the four essential features of Noahic government is “accountability,” but on VanDrunen's account, this refers only to accountability to God (34–36). He has little to say about accountability of government to the people beyond the suggestion that their “consent” is operative in the development of custom. Indeed, he disclaims the idea that a Noahic ethic could offer much guidance on preferred forms of government, other than that it must be limited (301). This silence is puzzling given that VanDrunen's early modern Reformed forebears had enormously influential things to say about popular consent, and not all of it depended on an invocation of Mosaic law that VanDrunen foreswears.Footnote 13 Yet although VanDrunen does not advocate an active role for citizens in the legitimation of government, it seems that his account could certainly accommodate a commitment to representative democracy.Footnote 14 This, he might consider, would be another way to ensure that governmental authority is limited. Popular majorities in liberal democracies can certainly push for governmental overreach, but they often also serve to restrain the worst excesses of authoritarianism.
VanDrunen argues that “the market economy” meets seven “requirements for an economic system under the Noahic Covenant” (232–44): encouraging and rewarding industriousness, encouraging and advancing technological development, extending participation to the whole human community, promoting justice, respecting and promoting the good of the natural world, fostering the finer attainments of human culture, and remaining consistent with limited government. These are all commendable aspirations. But what exactly does he mean by “the market economy”? Not, fortunately, the idealized, perfectly equilibrated market of neo-classical economic theory, which is rarely instantiated in practice. VanDrunen contrasts it with a “command economy,” but that still leaves many possible variations. He does not wish to describe it as “capitalism” (236). But however we name it, VanDrunen's seven requirements do not give an adequate picture of the actual economic system that has come to dominate and radically transform the modern world. I comment on two problems in his account.
First, the modern market economy is not what many conservative liberals think of as a “system of natural liberty” that would emerge” spontaneously” from ordinary, unconstrained human interaction. Like all economic arrangements it is a deliberate human artifice, one in which the modern state played an active and indispensable part, pursuant to an entirely new moral vision that departed in decisive ways from both medieval and early Reformed Christian ethics (as economic historian R. H. Tawney already showed in the 1920s).Footnote 15 The modern market economy we live in is an intentional political construction that required extensive state intervention, for example to break up trade guilds, abolish price constraints, seize or sell common land, generate transport infrastructure, reshape property rights, permit limited liability, protect banks, and so forth.Footnote 16 Functioning markets today depend on a vast array of legal and regulatory instruments, many necessarily introduced by the state and some of which are designed to protect economic justice. The market economy we actually have requires a substantial engagement of governmental authority.
Second, while many markets under certain conditions quite often meet several of the seven requirements, even mainstream neo-classical economists have long recognized the widespread phenomenon of “market failure,” a notion that VanDrunen does not discuss, even while acknowledging that markets are far from perfect. He rightly observes that millions have been lifted out of absolute poverty by various forms of market-based economic development, something left-leaning theologians are often slow to acknowledge. He also recognizes that economies are damaged by excessive state control, tribalism, clientelism, vested interests, and other distorting interventions (such as asymmetric tax concessions, hidden subsidies, and other perverse incentives). But equally, there are extremely powerful distorting and destabilizing forces at work in the global capitalist economy itself. These include (among others) the excessive dominance of the financial system over the real economy; the overweening power of massive and often unaccountable transnational corporations able to move capital at will in ways that often leave behind decimated local communities; the ability of the same corporations to engage in the systematic manipulation of “demand” by sophisticated and secretive advertising strategies; and the immense ecological damage caused by the global economy's dependence on fossil-fuel energy. Note, crucially, that none of the above critiques of the market need appeal to “redemptive” ethics. Arguably, many of the injustices facilitated by today's global market economy violate even the minimal Noahic natural law ethic. The pervasiveness and depth of such injustices argue for a much more extensive, albeit still constitutionally limited, role for the state in contemporary markets than VanDrunen seems prepared to countenance.
Government between Two Kingdoms?
I conclude with remarks on troubling aspects of VanDrunen's “two kingdoms” model, revisiting the classic Reformed theological claims in Politics after Christendom's opening chapters. As noted, VanDrunen argues that “redemptive ethics” should not be applied to public life outside the church. God does not hold humans or their institutions in this dispensation to the unique ethical demands of the gospel, but only to the natural law principles of the Noahic covenant. While the virtuous lives of individual Christians might exemplify those principles particularly well in public life and so in some sense edify it, Christians and the church should not seek and cannot expect any redemptively inspired “transformation” of political life.
Rather than directly challenging the underlying argumentation at work here, let me allude to two troubling implications that should at least give its defenders pause. One is that VanDrunen does not, and cannot, make any appeal to evidence of the elevating influences of characteristically Christian political ideas in western and other polities.Footnote 17 He could at best claim that such influences have served merely to help restore or shore up the less demanding standards of Noahic natural law. Now that would be a plausible historical argument to make, and this would have been no mean cultural achievement by Christians, whose access to “redemptive grace” should at least equip them to act, so to speak, as upstanding “Noahic citizens.” As VanDrunen puts it, “Christians should promote excellence in . . . [Noahic] institutions according to their respective purposes” (176). But I think it would be very difficult to attribute all the distinctive aspirations and achievements of “Christianized” polities to the meeting of “Noahic performance targets” alone. Suppose one agrees, as I do, with VanDrunen's rejection of the idea of a “Christian nation” or “Christian state,” acknowledging that some clams to Christian historical influence have been wildly overblown and recognizing the dreadful failures of Christendom. One can still affirm that something truly transformative really did occur in polities that came to be deeply penetrated by Christianity.Footnote 18 For example, the appearance of the historically unprecedented phenomenon of the church, proclaiming the transcendent Lordship of Jesus Christ, effected a radical relativization of the authority of the state, by confronting it with an independent institution asserting a loyalty beyond any human affairs. Arguably, it was precisely such a claim that served to power the later emergence of legal polycentrism.Footnote 19
Another troubling implication is the fact that great swaths of Old and New Testament ethics play no role at all in determining the content of a Christian political ethics (as distinct to an ecclesial ethics). For VanDrunen, of course, this is intentional, since norms of political life are founded solely upon Noahic mandates. In Divine Commands and Moral Order he presents a detailed account of the senses in which key elements of Mosaic law, for example, either republish or elaborate the minimum content of Noahic natural law, distinguishing these from elements that are “redemptive,” including but not limited to “cultic” laws, and thus do not apply beyond biblical Israel.Footnote 20 Thus anything that is distinctively Mosaic is ruled out of consideration.
Consider a test question regarding the adequacy of such an exclusively Noahic public ethic: Are the Jubilee provisions for the restoration of kinship-based land tenures in Leviticus 25, which imply a far-reaching redistribution of land back to the originally assigned titleholders, Noahic or redemptive? It is hard to say. Restoring family property forfeited as a result of poverty might at a stretch be construed as upholding Noahic “property rights,” expansively understood. And the “Sabbath” principle operative elsewhere in the chapter could be thus construed, “rest” being conceivable as a protological, if not Noahic, norm. Yet at several points in the passage God is depicted as issuing the redemptive injunction that these various provisions apply because “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 25:38). That is why you must do things that would restore the fortunes of your neighbor but might cause your own property rights to take a substantial hit—much bigger than any comparable “Noahic” redistributive program that might have been operative in surrounding nations. Excising such injunctions from passages like these deprives them of much of their normative power. But if we allow such “redemptive” injunctions legitimately to bleed into our reading of this and other areas of Mosaic law, identifying the “purely Noahic” in the corpus of torah becomes an increasingly elusive project.Footnote 21
There is a much more to say about this, and VanDrunen says a lot of it;Footnote 22 here I have only had space to press a question his account raises. But I close by proposing that we might after all look to “redemptive” ethics (in Old and New Testaments) not only to instruct us in a new ethical standard for the “holy community” but also to clarify the original intent of “protological” ethics for all, an intent not yet fully visible at the beginning. This then allows “redemptive grace” not only to “restore nature” but also to instruct us on what actually is natural. Here we confront the powerful modern Reformed claim that we can only truly know creation in the light of Christ the redeemer, even though all humans can be expected to have some grasp of it apart from Christ.
For example, the new experience of economic “abundance” and “generosity” that VanDrunen rightly discerns in the New Testament church can then properly inform a contemporary Christian ethic of the market, even though that need not imply a wholesale infusion of “love” into market exchanges, or a fully “eschatological” economics (229). The result might be something like the Italian “civil economy” school of economic thought, which was influential on Benedict XVI's encyclical Caritas in Veritate.Footnote 23 This calls, not for a replacement of the market, but a deep reconceptualization of the dominant classical liberal account of it. Similarly, on the topic of government, we might question VanDrunen's assertion that Christians “should not expect innovative political obligations to arise from the Christian gospel” (112). He claims that “the climactic events surrounding Christ's incarnation, death, and exaltation did not change the nature and purpose of political communities or modify the legitimacy and authority of their civil governments” (113). Taken literally, that may be arguable. But many have plausibly proposed that Jesus's own statements on political authority in admonishing his followers not to “lord it over” each other in exercising authority, as the Gentiles do (Mark 10:42), and Paul's implicit but subversive critique of imperial hubris in the notion that the empire is a mere “servant” of God (Romans 13:4) may legitimately inform, and have historically shaped, the Christian's practice of governance, even within an institution that in this age must continue to exercise coercion.Footnote 24 They might do so, for example, by revealing new depths of meaning in the vocation to “servant leadership.”
If these lines of argument are plausible, a much wider range of biblical material—often challenging but hardly eschatologically overburdened—becomes available in the formation of a Christian conception of the proper scope of (inter alia) governmental authority today. I am not arguing that a more “redemptively” informed political theology necessarily justifies a massive expansion of government. But I do suggest that where we permit “redemptive” norms to infuse our theology of government, we may properly aspire to a higher benchmark of governmentally promoted justice than VanDrunen allows.
Thanks to Christy Green for her valuable editorial comments on this review essay.