In discussions of political theology, one sometimes encounters the claim that the so-called “Constantinianism” of the magisterial Reformers was a kind of unthinking holdover from an earlier era; the implication seems to be, in other words, that their assumptions were perhaps not Christian enough, and were certainly not reflective enough.
This post is one in an ongoing but intermittent series 1 intended to get us to reflect on the fact that our assumptions (regarding separationism, disestablishmentarianism, vel sim.) are subject to the same kind of objection, and there is no reason why we should privilege them straight out of the gate, especially given that they are, in point of fact, relatively recent in historical terms. Just because these assumptions are ours doesn’t make them right. Perhaps we have seen the Whigs, and the Whigs are us. Consider this, then, an exercise in convening Chesterton’s democracy of the dead. We ought not to dismiss the Reformers as apish Constantinians until we have understood, and refuted, their principles.
So, regarding the possibility of a magistrate exercising cura religionis:
We might think that allowing for the possibility of such a thing is ruled out by the New Testament witness: neither Jesus nor the apostles say anything about, say, a “Christian state” or “Christian commonwealth” 2This is, of course, what is referred to as an argumentum ex silentio, a type of argument that is often (though not always) treated as fallacious, but nevertheless remains important in historiography.
Whether it is fallacious or not, one can admit that it has some force. Peter and Paul, for instance, never speak explicitly about a Christian magistrate. We might therefore infer either the strong conclusion that they were resolutely opposed even to the idea of such a thing or that they considered it an impossibility, a contradiction in terms; or a weaker conclusion, such as the following: they didn’t care about such a thing, and neither should we. There were lots of things they spent time discussing. If this wasn’t one of them, other issues must have held greater importance for them, and perhaps the Christian citizen (if there can even be such a thing!) should focus (only) on those. 3
To balance this argument, however, I’d like to put forward another and competing argumentum ex silentio, though it is one that is much more seldom discussed.
In the ancient world, it is everywhere taken for granted that the magistrate has cura religionis–that religion is a matter of public concern and thus subject to public regulation. 4 One could multiply citations to this effect from the Greco-Roman world: Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero all touch on it. 5 For philosophers, it is a matter of natural law that this should be so.
Furthermore, legislation in Greek polities, the Roman Republic, and the Roman Empire confirms that the view of the philosophers was actually put into practice, and it is, I think, beyond argument that the practice preceded any reflective philosophical justification for it.
This phenomenon was not, however, simply Greco-Roman. Anyone who reads the Old Testament can see that this was the case in ancient Israel as well. Here an objection might be raised, viz., that we must read ancient Israel (solely) in the context of redemptive history and therefore should not take it as either normative or even exemplary. Let us accept this objection, arguendo; 6 for ancient Israel is not necessary for this argument.
Why not? Because this same assumption was still in place in the Hellenistic Roman cultural world in which the New Testament was written and would have been no more alien to the man on the street in the first century, Christian or otherwise, than water is to a fish. It therefore stands to reason that, if the apostles had rejected this principle, they might have said so.
But in fact, we find no assertion of the rectitude of a principially atheistic state either in the New Testament or in mainstream Christian tradition in the early church.
To be sure, the New Testament everywhere teaches that God must be obeyed rather than man when the two come into conflict. The early Christians refused to offer sacrifice to Caesar–but the justification for such a refusal was the falsehood of Caesar as a divine being, not the rejection of the state’s having any interest in religious matters. The early Christians do not seem to have agitated for a public-square version of the Capitoline Venus. I might go so far as to say that no one in the ancient world had the mental equipment even to think such a thing.
Why, then, do we not find a speculum principis in the New Testament? Perhaps because there were no Christian magistrates at the time (let us recall here the occasional nature of the New Testament epistolary corpus). There were, however, Christian masters, Christian slaves, Christian husbands, Christian fathers, Christian wives, Christian mothers, and Christian children; and Paul gives advice to all of them. Would it really be so surprising if he had given advice to Christian princes, had there been any such thing? If Paul recognized the architectonic religious principle behind magisterial power, one could be forgiven for thinking that it would not have been surprising at all.
This last, however, is speculation. But it is no more speculation than the idea that the apostles must have believed in the desirability, feasibility, or even possibility of a completely secularized state because they said nothing to the contrary, and this last idea does not cohere as well with the rest of what we know of the ancient world. Perhaps Paul didn’t need to say anything about the inevitability of public recognition of the divine order at all, because he knew everyone already accepted it as a matter of the law of nature, either reflectively or intuitively.
All of this is to say that, while there may well be a place for arguments from silence in adjudicating the political-theological question, there are many such arguments to hand, and they do not all tend in the same direction.
And in any event, if we’re not biblicists, the New Testament data is not the only data relevant to the question; natural law, the way in which God made the world, has a role to play as well.
E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.
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