That’s not me talking; it’s A.A. Hodge (1823-1886), the American Presbyterian theologian of Old Princeton who subscribed to the revised Westminster Confession of Faith, which included the revised twenty-third chapter “Of the Civil Magistrate” with the supposedly “Erastian” elements removed. Early in his discussion of the chapter in A Commentary on the Confession of Faith, he lists several reasons for believing that civil government originates in the divine will and that obedience is obligatory on all moral agents. After a Christianized version of the classical doctrine of man as zoon politikon (“Because God has constituted man a social being in his creation, and has providentially organized him in families and communities, and thus made civil government an absolute necessity”), he goes on to connect government to God’s providential rule in the promotion of his redemptive kingdom: 1
Because as a providential Ruler of the world God uses civil government as his instrument in promoting the great ends of redemption in the upbuilding of his kingdom in the world. (p. 399)
There is no abscission of God’s providential rule over creation-in-general from his redemptive rule as though the two exist in airtight spheres.
The reason for this is that it is not, according to Hodge, God-as-Creator in contradistinction from Christ-as-Mediator who is now ruling:
…God as Creator, as revealed in the light of nature, has established civil government among men from the beginning, and among all peoples and nations of all ages and generations. But in the development of the plan of redemption the God-man as mediatorial King has assumed the government of the universe. Matt. xxviii. 18; Phil. ii. 9-11; Eph. i. 17-23. As the universe constitutes one physical and moral system, it was necessary that his headship as Mediator should extend to the whole and to every department thereof, in order that all things should work together for good to his people and for his glory, that all his enemies should be subdued and finally judged and punished, and that all creatures should worship him, as his Father had determined. Rom. viii. 28; 1 Cor. xv. 25; Heb. x. 13; i. 6; Rev. v. 9-13. Hence the present providential Governor of the physical universe and “Ruler among the nations” is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews, to whose will all laws should be conformed, and whom all nations and all rulers of men should acknowledge and serve. “He hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.” Rev. xix. 16. (p. 400)
Just as there are not two divergent and incommensurable physical systems in the universe, so with the moral arrangement of the cosmos–and so there is only one ruler of this unified system, and he is Christ the Mediator, the historical Jesus of Nazareth as such.
Thus magistrates, who serve in divinely-instituted civil government, should serve, Hodge claims, the glory of God as their ultimate goal and the public good as their proximate goal. The proximate goal is ordered to the ultimate goal, such that “[t]he specific way in which the civil magistrate” should try “to advance the glory of God” is by working for “the good of the community (Rom. xiii. 4) in temporal concerns…and the preservation of order” (p. 401). But these “temporal concerns” do not exhaust his duty:
Christian magistrates should also seek in their influential positions to promote piety as well as order. 2 Tim. ii. 1. This they are to do, not by assuming the functions of the Church, nor by attempting by endowments officially to patronize or control the Church, but personally by their example, and officially by giving impartial protection and all due facility for the Church in its work, by the explicit recognition of God and of Jesus Christ “as Ruler among the nations,” and by the enactment and enforcement of all laws conceived in the true Spirit of the Gospel, touching all questions upon which the Scriptures indicate the will of God specifically or in general principle, and especially as touching questions of the Sabbath day, the oath, marriage and divorce, capital punishments, etc., etc. (p. 401)
Hodge holds to all of this while still holding that “religious liberty is an inalienable prerogative of mankind” (p. 405) and that no coercion may be applied in ecclesiastical matters, and, further, that the magistrate “is allowed no official jurisdiction whatever in the affairs of the Church” (p. 406).
One may quibble with some of his prescriptions and formulations; I myself don’t agree with all of them. But his exposition does go to show that, even within the bounds of the American revisions of the WCF, which were made to accommodate the American experiment (or were at least in keeping with its Constitution, which was being formulated in the same city where, and at the same time as, the Synod of New York and Philadelphia was doing its work), there is room for a wide range of views as to how the relationship between religion and government should be configured.
E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.
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