I Get Goosebumps When I Think of Government Transformation

Paul Dean
Paul Dean
2013 14 Nov

In an ongoing and increasingly broad discussion concerning R2K vs. transformationalism, D.G. Hart posted an informative exchange involving J. Gresham Machen (arguably the leading theologian of the twentieth century) when he appeared before congress in 1926 to oppose the formation of the Federal Department of Education. The brief post is a must read for the content of Machen’s answers. As Hart points out, Machen spoke:

as a representative of the Sentinels of the Republic, a libertarian organization formed by Massachusetts small government types (this was no Christian Democratic Party). Even though identified as a minister in the Presbyterian Church and a professor of New Testament at Princeton, Machen avoided any attempt to make Christianity the norm for public education, especially when it came to teaching morality in schools.”

Machen believed the only basis for morality is the “will of God as revealed by God.” At the same time he did not believe in legislating that morality on others. In his words:

Well, I am an adherent of a certain religious group. We have our definite notion as to the basis of morality, and it is in my belief altogether a religious one. I intend to proclaim that basis of morality is the will of God as revealed by God, and I am interested in the right of all others to maintain that as the only basis of morality. I belong to what is often called a very strict sect, the Presbyterian Church, but it is a sect which has always been devoted to the principles of liberty; and I am unlike a great many of my fellow citizens — tolerance to me means not only tolerance for that with which I am agreed, but it means also tolerance for that to which I am most violently opposed.

While I might question whether the Presbyterian Church “has always been devoted to the principles of liberty,” I certainly don’t question that the Christian Scriptures have always been devoted to such. The church and the larger culture are two different things. In the church we expect members to live moral lives and “enforce” that expectation through both formative and corrective discipline. In civil society, we Christians don’t enforce but urge people to embrace the gospel of the kingdom and seek to persuade them of the rightness of biblical morality.

But Hart’s real point has to do with just that: what the church’s role or even the individual Christian’s role is in connection to civil society and in particular civil government. In broad terms, the transformationalists and theonomists seek to transform every area of society including government with the gospel. In various ways they are seeking to bring the kingdom of God to bear on this world. Obviously nuances abound. At the other end of the spectrum, the R2K folk posit two kingdoms, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world, and generally oppose work toward cultural (including governmental) transformation (into the kingdom of God). This world will never function like the kingdom of God and our role is to simply be the church. Nuances abound here as well.

Hart argues from the R2K side of things and cites Machen in support. Hence, his parting shot:

If Machen had wanted to take every thought captive, if he believed that the United States was founded on biblical teaching, why did he whiff on a softball that is right in a neo-Calvinist’s wheelhouse? Why nothing on no neutrality? Why nothing on the antithesis between the followers of Christ and the followers of Satan? Maybe he was a coward. Or maybe he distinguished between his duties as a churchman and those of a citizen in a republic that gave no preference to any religion.

Seems pretty clear.

Yet, with all due respect to those who don’t like third rail folks forging middle ground between two positions, and while I have no desire to be a third-railer per se, in this case there is a better way that has historical and biblical roots. There are Christians who want the church to be the church. Like the transformationalists, by that they mean we are to bring the gospel to bear on every area of society and when we do transformation occurs not only in individuals but in families, communities, and structures including government. What’s the point of preaching if things aren’t changed? Moreover, Christ died to redeem people and the cosmos. The dominion mandate (which predated the obsolete Old Covenant) is still in effect and goes hand-in-hand with the Great Commission and what we might call the cultural mandate to be salt and light. When the Lord Jesus taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven,” He meant it. On the other hand, like the R2Kers they don’t believe that Christianity should be legislated through government. The church and state are two different things; the church is a people within a people. Our citizenship is dual: heavenly and earthly. In the earthly realm we don’t seek to coerce but to persuade. That means we don’t legislate morality.

Now there is much to flesh out here and there are many questions to be answered. But for the purpose of this discussion, Machen is right. Yet our third rail distinction is not in line with Hart when he says Machen “distinguished between his duties as a churchman and those of a citizen in a republic that gave no preference to any religion.” For us the distinction lies not in our duties as churchmen vs. citizens but in the different spheres we operate as dual citizens. We act ultimately as citizens of heaven in the church and in the world. But because we don’t force our religion on others; because the gospel is persuasive and not coercive; because the Scriptures teach that every person has liberty of conscience before God and we are not to violate that reality; we want to unwaveringly protect freedom of conscience and therefore freedom of religion, speech, and thought. We want a free church in a free state and we want a free market. That means we influence the state and government from our worldview. In that instance, our worldview says government must protect liberty and so we too are opposed to the Department of Education as well as the legislation of morality regardless of the source.

This third rail is not R2K, (Lutheran, or Reformed). Neither is it theonomic. Neither is it transformationalist in the strictest sense (Neo-Calvinist). It is historic Baptist theology. And, with reference to civil society, it is therefore libertarian, though rooted in Scripture, not humanism. It avoids the extremes and evils of Christendom on one side and the extremes and evils of cultural withdrawal (Dispensationalism) on the other.

So when Hart asks if transformationalists get goosebumps when they read “this” Machen, probably not. But I certainly do. But I also get goosebumps when I read the great transformationalist Abraham Kuyper saying, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” We just have to know how God wants to us to bring His kingdom to bear in every one of those square inches.

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