Archive Civic Polity Peter Escalante Steven Wedgeworth

The Cloven Helm: Gay Marriage, Natural Law, and the Direction of Protestant Civics

Dr. Paul Helm has written some quite useful things on John Calvin and philosophical theology, but he also has his contrarian side, which yields some very unfortunate results. This latest post is a case in point, wherein Dr. Helm offers up a confused yet troubling articulation and application of the doctrine of the two kingdoms and natural law as it relates to a pressing contemporary issue. Dr. Helm is not endorsing gay marriage, but he certainly is not arguing against it. In fact, it seems that he is arguing against the ways in which Christians might try to argue against it.  All in all, it’s as contrarian as it is idiosyncratic. But it does continue to reveal the results of the modern Protestant’s confused political theology.

What is clear about Dr. Helm’s argument is that he agrees with David VanDrunen’s erroneous reading of the Reformed doctrine of the two kingdoms and that he does not believe that the Church or even individual Christians ought to “transform” the culture. Of course since all culture is by definition art, and all making is transformative, then culture itself is the product of transformation – and here is the contradiction in which the faux-2K sectarians find themselves.  We have dealt with this doctrine and its failings many times before[1] and might fairly be said to be its foremost and most thoroughgoing critics, but there’s something new here.

Where Dr. Helm becomes unique is when he goes further and takes away the value of “natural law” altogether. Natural law-reasoning may have been useful in the past, Dr. Helm seems to say, but it is of practically no value today. Gay marriage is the test case for this assertion, as Dr. Helm states that there is no longer an argument from nature, whether based on statistics or on teleology, to oppose it. Thus, he says:

Paradoxically, under present circumstances the only normative argument against ‘gay marriage’ would involve an appeal to what is revealed about the content of natural law. A natural law argument is going to have to appeal to Scripture, which (you may think) rather defeats the purpose of an appeal to natural law.

Now this sort of reductio would at least make sense were Dr. Helm critiquing the two kingdoms and natural law in favor of some sort of biblicist alternative, but that’s very definitely not what he is after, as he makes clear at the outset. And it is a clear departure from Drs. VanDrunen and Hart, who posit a kind of essentialized natural law which holds everything together in the civic world almost automatically, relieving religion of any civic task.

So what exactly is Dr. Helm after? The best he can do is offer an argument based on “freedom of conscience in religious observance.” But this would say nothing about gay marriage outside of certain congregations. It merely hopes for a religious exception clause. Dr. Helm concludes by questioning whether even the issue of religious liberty is a matter of natural law, with the strong suggestion that it is not.

What makes this situation more than just irritatingly confused is that Dr. Helm is a respected and conservative academic theologian who seems to be committed to conjuring a theological and philosophical justification for dropping out. This sort of culture-war fatigue affects many intelligent conservatives. Understandably repelled by the bad principles and the persistently poor reasoning (and often worse taste) of Christian “culture warriors” or sophomore transformationalism in general (and it’s clear from Dr. Helm’s blog that, to his credit, he is irritated by both the Left and the Right), and already used to living their lives in the public  and professional minority, many Christian academics would prefer to just escape it all. And the faux-2K offers them this possibility. War is over, if you want. And Dr. Helm actually represents the next logical step in the faux-2K development. Having already made the case against specifically “Christian culture,” he is now attempting to remove any transcendent orientation from “nature” itself, leaving us with a wholly naked public square, leaving perhaps a sort of libertarian shopping mall where everyone picks what they want and keeps all of their “values” to themselves. But rather than liberating the true believers from latitudinarian tyranny (or the latitudinarians from true-believer tyranny), this suggestion actually spells the end of any notion of the common good and thus the end of any sort of commonwealth, Christian or otherwise.

What we are concerned with here isn’t primarily policy: we aren’t going to propose any particular policy, except to propose that we all do inevitably propose policy and there’s no way around that. Neither are we going to spend much time on the question of marriage itself in principle. Our argument here and now is with Dr. Helm, not with proponents of homosexual unions: that is a discussion for another time. What’s immediately at stake is not the coherence of marriage as a social institution, beleaguered though that might be, but rather the prior concern of the coherence of Christian wisdom. Dr. Helm has become doctrinally incoherent, and proponents of homosexual unions aren’t to blame for the fact that he has lost the ability to make any real sense on this point. Something else is, and our fight here and now is with that thing.

That something else is, as Dr. Helm makes very clear, the new doctrine associated with Dr. VanDrunen and Westminster West. Only now, it seems, he is making it more consistent with itself, just as VanDrunen claims to have made Calvin more consistent. But just as Dr. VanDrunen simply adjusted Calvin dramatically to fit the faux-2K doctrine, Dr. Helm is adjusting Dr. VanDrunen likewise. In a moment, we’ll consider why we think that this latest pronouncement from Dr. Helm represents the logical step in the development of the neo-two-kingdoms theology. But first we need to briefly review what natural law is, and how it relates to the order of marriage, in order to compare Dr. Helm’s conceptions to the genuine originals.

Dr. Helm says that Protestants can live in the world on the basis of natural law, and then finds, conveniently, that there is no natural law against gay marriage; thus it can be argued only from Scripture, and since, according to Dr. VanDrunen’s political agnosticism, Scripture has no place in the direction of a commonwealth, there are therefore no legitimate arguments in public reason against gay marriage, and everyone can just put that false battle aside and get back to our sacred/secular schizophrenia wherein the commonwealth runs on nature alone and the church runs on divine law alone: a violent cleavage of human reality right in two.

What is natural law?

First, Dr. Helm defines natural law as something arrived at by a kind of synchronic consensus or statistical-ethnographic induction, which is not at all the case, although the laws and customs of peoples certainly indicate natural law’s general contours when philosophically reflected upon. To the contrary, natural law has historically been understood as something transcendently grounded, structurally part of man’s being as created and ordered by God, and involving a certain moral orientation or potential towards virtue, ideal human form, which gives inner direction to our action.

For a brief overview, readers can consult this older essay or, for a more thorough while still succinct treatment, A. P. d’Entreves’ Natural Law: An Historical Survey. C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man demonstrates that natural law was not even a peculiarly Christian notion, but rather the shared property of many eminent Pagan philosophers, as well as all of the major religions of the world today. Natural law, in short, is objective, moral, and public, an external standard that men, despite their passions, are reasonably expected to recognize as good and seek to conform to.

Thus far, the faux-2K writers, except, it seems, Dr. Helm, would verbally agree with us; but, as we have shown elsewhere, the notion of natural law which they hold is not actually the classical view, but something more related to Enlightenment autonomous individualism. The real natural law presupposes and points to God, and, as Calvin himself points out, all mankind has always thought so. The reign of Christ, lifting the yoke of divine positive law, returns us to natural law as norm, which is identical with divine cosmic law; but this does not, as the faux-2K writers insist, involve some paradoxical abdication of His kingship: it is rather a state of freedom which cannot exist without that kingship as ruling principle. In short, while we need not depend entirely on divine positive law to make a case for the universal understanding of marriage, it is also true that natural law is inherently theistic, and necessarily entailed in it is a public recognition of God, whatever He may say beyond what he gives in nature.

Natural law and marriage

It was John Calvin who called marriage “the principal office of human society” and said that rash divorce “violate[d] … all the laws of nature” (Comment. on Gen. 2:24). Additionally, to paraphrase the English Prayer Book, marriage was instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, ordained for the procreation of children, for a remedy against sin, and to promote mutual society, help, and comfort. It precedes both church and state, and is therefore as “natural” as an institution can be. Martin Luther says quite bluntly, “For it is not a matter of free choice or decision but a natural and necessary thing, that whatever is a man must have a woman and whatever is a woman must have a man” (The Estate of Marriage, part 1).

Contra Dr. Helm’s glib assertion, there is in fact an ecumenical consensus of peoples in law and custom, even now, in favor of public, and in principle fruitful, union of a man and a woman as constitutive of marriage, and this has always been the case. Marriage is as universally human as burial, as Vico pointed out but everyone already knew, and even the slightest acquaintance with history or anthropology will reveal this to be the case. Of course all sorts of other liaisons have been indulged and even tolerated, but the meaning of marriage was never really in question, and it was always a union of man and woman for mutual support and the begetting and rearing of children.

Too, when Helm scans the world for ethical consensus, he doesn’t actually scan the whole world either geographically or historically; his gaze is curiously and conveniently fixed on the late industrial societies of the modern United Kingdom and the United States, societies which have been ethically pulverized for nearly two centuries by a system of subordination of politics to financial speculation, and in which, therefore, a kind of atomistic and hedonistic individualism has become the prevailing mood. Now, by no means are all British or all Americans atomistic individualists; in fact, not even all proponents of homosexual unions are. But it is in fact a prevalent mood which has shaped into itself something more than a mood, and has become a kind of vague religion.

Perusing the newspapers in such places, Dr. Helm unsurprisingly finds serious public disagreement about homosexual unions and therefore, according to his pollster ontology, it can’t be a point of natural law, or at least not so evident a one that we might argue from it.  If you survey a prison, you’ll find the impropriety of theft seriously contested too, but that doesn’t mean we now have to remove the prohibition of theft from what we had thought was in the natural law.

And VanDrunen begot Helm, and …

Although Dr. Helm seems to differ markedly from Drs. VanDrunen and Hart, since he denies what they absolutely rely on, namely the idea that natural law as such really does provide a self-sufficient architecture of civic order, we think that his conclusion in fact follows the inner logic (such as it is) of the faux-2K school. Here’s how it does.

As we have shown before, the new doctrine is a relic of an old illiberal clericalism, whose principles commit its proponents to a zero-sum game of totalizing control of the civic sphere (for instance, compare the aggressive early Covenanters with the pre-1960s abstaining RPCNA). When that program became politically impossible, the only way to survive was to retreat altogether from the civic sphere (as did the Covenanters), retaining the same first principles while modifying their application, rather as Mormons did with plural marriage when Woodruff received his “revelation” and instructed his people to stop the practice without renouncing the principle, or as the Papacy quietly withdrew its claims to temporal power over all earthly magistrates without ever striking the doctrine from the books.

Although faux-2K proponents constantly assure us that their position allows them to fully participate in the civic sphere, our contention has always been that this will never be the case, since their hearts are elsewhere: not in the true spiritual kingdom, the Kingdom of God, but in their so-called spiritual kingdom of the institutional church, and that almost exclusively only on Sundays.

It seems ever more clear that, for the faux-2K writers, “natural law” is really simply a way to talk about market society and the passions of self-interest, which they imagine will hold society together whilst they themselves huddle together on the fringes, working on new history books and redrawing graphs of the ordo salutis. It always has been plain that their idea of “natural law” serves as a no-go zone for the God Who was regarded by the whole Christian natural law tradition before them as in fact natural law’s framer, and therefore as having some right, to say the least, to be recognized as such. Deism in the cosmos, and Christianity only in the conventicle.

And here in Dr. Helm’s essay we see the proof and final results of the faux 2K: the civic sphere and its natural law foundations can’t actually mean anything after all. Dr. Helm is evidently willing to abandon the natural law of marriage in favor of a late-industrial individualist parody form of it, so long as that’s what everyone wants and the Church has a private way out. And here, he is simply being open about what follows from the faux-2K principles.

A closer look at the cover of Dr. VanDrunen’s book, which Dr. Helm has chosen to illustrate his essay, shows two spheres overlapping in a vesica. The vesica, we take it, represents the institutional church. Is marriage in the vesica or outside it? It is profoundly important to note that certain of the disciplinarian ancestors of the modern faux 2K, unlike the Reformers and the Protestant mainstream, regarded marriage not a basic creational order within magistratical jurisdiction, but rather, in a reversion to Papalism, regarded it as under the jurisdiction of ministers. Papalists go all the way with this and call marriage a “sacrament,” something “supernatural” and thus qualitatively different from the “natural” marriage, which is then accounted of little inherent integrity or interest. Legalistic Protestants, bound to confess two rites only, are constrained to inconsistency on this point, but we can see that the similar principles will produce similar effects: devaluing of the civic sphere by devaluation of creational ordinance.

Of course, if they think that legalist-Presbyterian marriages are going to be left alone by the Leviathan they are actively endorsing, they are in a pit of self-deception: a condition from which they might only be jarringly redeemed by whatever martyrdom secularists will have ready for them, though it seems likely in that case that one of them will simply take the next step further and classify outward profession itself as “worldly kingdom,” thus making martyrdom, like marriage in the commonwealth, unnecessary.

Another irony here, and one that will ultimately destroy the church’s position from within, is that marriage, if not an institution of nature and naturally-guided, is an institution of special grace. Within the paradigm of the faux-2k theology, this also means that it lies exclusively under the jurisdiction of the church, which is for them the eschatological kingdom of Christ; and so it is only a matter of time before proponents of gay marriage point out that “there is neither male nor female in Christ” (Gal. 3:28). This is, in fact, exactly the argument which Christian proponents of female ordination make. It works just as well for gay marriage, and once “nature” has been effectively taken out of the conversation, there really is no coherent argument against it.

The situation and the false options

In the current situation, the general populace certainly isn’t listening to our debates, and we don’t actually think that Drs. Helm, VanDrunen, and Hart are going to directly affect policy. But the broader evangelical world, having no longer any obvious default position, is in some significant measure listening to the debates in order to plan a principled response to the contemporary societal flux. This is why we are so persistently concerned. What is it that this broader evangelical audience is hearing?

Faux 2K

For the faux-2K writers, God rules the world without Christ and by natural law (though, as we see, its definition is always left somewhat dubious), and He rules the Church through Christ and entirely by positive law. The Church (and thus all Christians qua Christians) is itself confined to positive law, and it is also instructed not to attempt to apply this law to the world. Thus any activity in the world must be a Christ-less activity, and so Christians following this theology can participate in civic activities insofar as they are not doing so as Christians; when they are behaving as Christians, on the other hand, they may not engage in civic activity. All in all, it’s a sort of antitheology, an intellectual justification for abdicating all civic responsibility under the pretext of rising above the culture war and operating solely on pragmatic grounds. And in this way the faux-2K writers make themselves compatible with, and even externally subservient to, the secularism of late modernity. We have seen with this latest essay from Dr. Helm how far the devaluation of the natural and civic order can go with them.

While there is no chance whatever that large numbers of thoughtful young evangelicals will rush to fill the pews of the Reformed hyperconfessionalists, they might well take away a watered-down version of the faux-2K political heresy gleaned from the works of those writers, and very little good would come of that.

Legalism, Enlightenment Liberalism, and losing

Opposite the faux-2K writers are their twins, against whom the faux-2K define themselves: the legalists who haven’t given up on the idea of supplanting the prudential magistracy and the ambition of creating a moralizing police state. These do have an argument, based on divine positive law, and they are willing to press it. They have no possibility of ever winning with it, however, because of the principles they share with their opponents and the overwhelming strength of modern society which is opposed to them. They cling to a law and a mode of obedience which has no force in Christ, and their anti-covenantal (for all their talk of covenant) individualist politics, derived from the Austrian School which denies the classical Christian ideas of the common good and the State, places all its hopes entirely either in fast or in slow-burn populist apocalypse, in “decisive” revolutions or in referenda always just a day away. This puts them decidedly outside of the political order and into the realm of fantasy-based demagoguery destined always to fail in real life. In the end, they unwittingly wind up as useful idiots for the cause of crony capitalism and its secularist civic program.

Between these two are caught a great many evangelicals, whose instincts are sound, and have intuited or reasoned their way into an approach which might be called, following Dr. Hunter, “faithful presence,” a stance articulated sincerely but very vaguely by many of those inspired by Dr. Keller of Redeemer Church in Manhattan. So, too, there are the moderate disciples of Kuyper and Bavinck, beginning with an understanding of common grace and the universal Kingship of Christ and continuing to work out their view from there. And we should say that fine work is currently being done with the translation and publication of Kuyper and Bavinck’s writings on politics, though the fact that this has taken so long shows they have not yet been able to disciple very many American Evangelicals. The hearts of all these people are definitely in the right place, and their heads are earnestly awaiting a sharper articulation of principles. And so, to us.

Our position

To us, any debate about first things which does not assign the matter of Christian sovereignty first place is a fool’s game. Without that architectonic principle, while a politics of modus vivendi is certainly possible, nothing decisive can possibly be decided. Reality is not up for vote, and if one commits to the idea that it is, then no court, no vote, and no legislature will help; the most that will happen is that those institutions might briefly reflect a passing mood of the volonté générale. What matters above all is for the kingship of Christ to be recognized by a commonwealth’s constitution, and likewise the office of the Christian magistrate as custodian of the civic sphere.

We do hold to a doctrine of the two kingdoms, which in fact happens to be the genuine doctrine of the Reformers, that of the dual reign of Christ: the spiritual kingdom is internal, spiritual, and immediate; the worldly kingdom is external and always mediated by the creational ordinances and three social estates. This doctrine holds that the person of Christ is the same as the Creator (Col. 1:16) and that, even now, in him all things consist (Col. 1:17). As Logos, he gives coherency and meaning to all things; as Christ, he explains the limits of all earthly kingdoms. It is Christ alone who justifies man and rights the cosmos eternally, and Christians enjoy these benefits through faith and, until the Second Advent, invisibly through the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus no earthly political structure can claim eschatological power. The eschaton cannot be immanentized, in either church or state. Yet since only Christians know how to make sense of this, they most certainly should engage in political science, even pointing men to Christ in this science, so as to avoid the inevitable Babel which fallen man will always create through his libido dominandi. And they must engage not only in political science, but in political service as well. In the end, this means public constitutional recognition of the kingship of Christ.

It actually isn’t Christian revelation which teaches theocracy; it’s natural revelation which does so. Christian revelation just explains how true theocracy cultivates civic establishments which respect freedom of religious assembly and liberty of conscience. Evangelical establishments can do so because they have a theological foundation for it: justification by faith alone.

The classical Protestant position also makes a clear distinction between sins and crimes. Except for irregular and improper cases, all crimes are sins. Yet not all sins are crimes. The classical example is the 10th commandment. While a society certainly shouldn’t promote covetousness, it cannot legislate against it. In fact, on the grounds of Protestant theology, the State can never punish sins as sins, since that is the job of God and has been done on the cross in Christ. Thus a Protestant commonwealth would leave vast freedom, being confident in the culture of persuasion – all of this again flowing from a doctrine of the two kingdoms and the nature of salvation. How is this distinction between sins and crimes arrived at? Again, there is no positive list: rather, informed prudence identifies which activities have a public effect in which situation and in what degree, and thereby frames laws which promote the best public order for common society. The particulars can vary widely according to time and place, but the principles are always the same.

And this all depends on a notion of the common good and society’s duty to work continually towards it. It also involves State action, or the magistrate, and this is because natural law is never self-interpreting and self-applying, but rather always depends upon the work of persons, upon politics. The great flaw of the mechanistic-deistic version of Liberalism is its devotion to law as an impersonal datum; this is at best a superstitious faith, and at worst a disingenuous cover for irresponsible private power. And this has led to the downfall of natural law as well, since, to be applied, it must always become positive through personal prudence in accord with God’s law for creation, the inner principle of civic positive law. When law is regarded as simply an unconstructed given on the one hand, or as merely a groundless construct on the other, the commonwealths thus deluded quickly become illiberal ones, whether in the direction of anarchic corporation-rule or State totalitarianism.


So we would say that the case for marriage as politically foundational had to be made on natural law. It must be a public case argued from reason and nature, if one has to make an argument at all regarding something which is very close to self-evident. Alastair Roberts has written a very considerate essay attempting this exactly. But we would also insist that it was not the proper place to start, and that the matter of constitution was the crucial one, and where we must begin. For God’s law of created natures is, in the case of men, not merely descriptive: it is prescriptive toward the Good, its prescription translated and applied by prudence. The prudence of a commonwealth is politics; and what a commonwealth thinks of Jesus is the foundational political question, and what it must decide before any other basic questions can really be discussed.

[1] See here and here, as well as Mr. Littlejohn’s work here and his series at Political Theology; also relevant are reviews of Dr. VanDrunen and of John Frame.

By Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante

Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante are the founders and editors of The Calvinist International.

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