Archive Civic Polity Economics Reformed Irenicism Steven Wedgeworth

Law, Charity, and Politics

I appreciated Andrew Fulford’s recent essay on the relationship between the classic Protestant understanding of supererogatory works and civil polity. He gets down to the basic theological and philosophical distinctions that the older Protestant thinkers made regarding law, justice, charity, and the political life of the commonwealth. However, I was left feeling that Mr. Fulford had opened up a number of questions, particularly concerning the political application of these principles, which were not answered. Given the highly polarized and reactionary realm in which our political dialogue currently takes place, it seems we had better not assume that everyone will patiently ask the right questions and work through the variety of possible answers but instead try to flesh these out in more detail.

Principles vs. Application

To begin, we should note the difference between principles and application. Many common axioms of contemporary “conservative” political thought are actually not consistent with traditional conservative principles. For instance, claims that there should never be an entity called “the state” or that the government should not be allowed to tax its citizens in any way are actually contrary to the political theories of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and even Locke, Burke, and the American founders. Indeed, familiar names of political thought like “republic” and “commonwealth” bear this out. The Anabaptists, of course, began to challenge this shared conviction, and so you will see Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers criticizing them in very severe terms. But they are clearly outliers of Christendom.

Beyond this, it was the Christian tradition up until the 18th century that the civil magistrate could enforce both tables of the law. This is why establishment churches were the rule everywhere. The churches following the Genevan model began to modify this some, as they clearly insisted that the church had its own distinct government. However, Calvin was clear that the maintenance of the true religion, which for him was Reformed Protestantism, did fall under the appropriate duties and obligations of the civil magistrate. If this is the case, then it shows that these men did believe that the civil government should take part, in some way, in the positive cultivation of virtues and the maintenance of the overall well-being of the citizens.

So it really should not controversial among traditionally-minded Christians to say that the political realm ought to care about “personal” and “spiritual” matters. Further, it is not even exotic among conservative capitalists and even “free market” theorists to say that the civil government should create a sort of safety net for its members who fall into emergency situations. One can find this sort of claim in Friedrich Hayek and Wilhelm Röpke, and these men are not easily charged with collectivism. That some conservatives might react sharply to such claims today simply demonstrates a certain amount of amnesia on the part of American political commentators.

Differing Classes of Law

However, all of this is still basically preliminary. We can establish what justice is, what the government is, and what sort of goal we should have for political life. Yet we still have to discuss the appropriate means of achieving that goal, and this is where the really difficult work arises.

For instance, there are different classes of “law.” Aquinas had roughly four. The Protestant Reformers basically followed this example, but filled it out and modified it in important ways. Zacharias Ursinus is one such example. Notice how his “four kinds of law” are somewhat different from Aquinas’s, admitting new kinds of distinctions and applications. All of the “just laws” are reflections of God’s own righteousness, and thus relevant to Mr. Fulford’s point about justification and ethics, but they are assigned to specific authorities and are meant to be applied in unique ways. For an authority to attempt to apply a kind of law which was properly given to a different authority introduces the possibility of them actually violating justice– not because the act itself is unjust or deemed “superior” to natural justice, but because it belongs to a different class and is thus meant to be carried about in a specific way.

Examples are not hard to find, and the difference between magistracy and ministry– less-carefully expressed as “church and state”– is one of the first. Indeed, this was how the American Presbyterians amended the Westminster Confession of Faith. They did not argue that the government have no interest in religion, but rather that the jurisdictions of the civil magistrate and of the visible church differ, with each having their proper assigned powers and duties. The two should work in harmony, so that the overall justice is maintained, but they must not attempt to do the work of the other. They must respect boundaries of jurisdiction. The American version of the WCF puts it this way:

Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance. (WCF 23.3, American Revision)

This can hardly be called “secularism,” but it is still an important development in the separation of powers. Many American Presbyterians were called upon to give an account of this development, often in controversies with those other varieties of Presbyterians retaining the Old-World ecclesiology, and they did so by arguing that this development was consistent with the logic of the most basic doctrines of justification by faith alone, the two kingdoms, and the marks of the visible church. They admitted that it was a sort of correction to older forms, but they claimed that it was a correction that was in keeping with the original principles, indeed more so than the earlier attempts at applying those principles.1

Separation of Jurisdictions

Beyond “church and state,” we can also point to the distinct jurisdiction between family and state. While the flourishing of families is certainly of relevant concern to the state, it hardly follows that the state should therefore attempt to conduct the work which is most-properly given to the family. Indeed, the state cannot create life, and when it attempts to provide nurture, it usually does a very poor job of it.  The difference between the natural family and the Department of Family Services hardly needs demonstrating, and while the former can have its problems, it is universally preferred to the latter as the normative domestic provider. If the family utterly fails, then the DFS may perhaps have a claim to intervene, but prior to such a state, it would be quite harmful for it to attempt to do so. And, of course, there is no reason to think that the current manifestation of the DFS is the only or best attempt to remedy such a tragic situation. It just happens to be the one currently at our disposal.

An additional category also arose, thanks mostly to the work of Hegel, and it the category of “civil society.” This is the space where all of the non-state corporations exist, and it is actually where most of the work that we uncritically refer to as “the market” takes place. Abraham Kuyper assumed something like this sort of category when he began advocating his “sphere sovereignty,” and it is probably the aspect of social life that most of us instinctively consider when we think of charitable organizations and voluntary associations.2

All of this is important when we attempt to apply our political principles. Noting that something is a matter of “justice” does not immediately tell us which kind of “law” it is, nor to which jurisdiction it primarily belongs. More work needs to be done, and the answers to these questions may well change depending on circumstance, one’s place in history, the dictates of subsidiarity, and available resources.

What is Charity?

Finally, I do think it is important that we maintain a meaningful category for voluntary charity. While it is good philosophy and better theology to say that charity does not contradict justice, it is still the case that charity and justice are distinct goods among humans. Wholly identifying them runs the risk of confusing them, and this would in fact destroy them. If all charity is mandated, then it bears no meaningful difference from an obligation. One does not typically feel the need to thank their employer for paying them their wages. Their wages are owed. However, the absolving of debt and the giving of free gift evokes gratitude, and this is a key tenet of Protestantism as well–directly relevant to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Gratitude, while required by divine justice, is not merely a variant of law, certainly not human law, and to claim that it is compromises our entire religion.

So we have two necessary commitments to hold together. Justice is comprehensive, covering the whole man, and by extension, the whole of society. Yet there must also be “free space” for charity to exist “apart from the law” in order that gratitude might be promoted and cultivated. In those areas where coercion is inappropriate or counterproductive, we must become familiar and efficient with persuasion.


Politics should certainly consider the basic necessities for maintaining the existence of its people and the common good. That emergency situations require an emphasis on safety and general welfare over maximal liberty is a notion that goes back to Joseph’s governance over Egypt. However, it would be absurd to call this charity. It is also very clearly not an economic development plan to achieve social equality. To the contrary, it was a case of desperate measures for desperate times. An existential threat forced a people to something like a last resort. There was nothing unjust in the action, but it was hardly a case of charity. It was also not normative for all political situations, and it would simply be a different expression of biblicism to make any such kind of appeal.

Similarly, as we push back against the loss of Christian wisdom in politics and jurisprudence, we ought not to think that fully satisfactory options are currently “on offer” among our various political parties, candidates, and platforms. They are not. While Kuyper’s legacy is still within memory, it hardly has much of a viable presence within Anglo-American politics at the moment. The federalism of Old Princeton is similarly remembered in part but only extant in a very fragmented way. The Southern Agrarians, while praised in verse, are in fact gone, and certain of their heirs are entirely puzzling if not self-contradictory. So we will have to be creative. And this will mean that we will have to patient.

We will also have to be prudent. Being anti-revolutionary cuts both ways, and conservatives should not seek to bring about a catastrophe which will then allow them to start anew without working with the existing order. It has been our policy at TCI not to endorse candidates or even parties as such, but that does not meant that we cannot identify more or less possible points of agreement and engagement. We should begin constructive endeavors with those who share our most basic principles, and we should be willing to employ various applications which may not be comprehensive or completely satisfying but are nevertheless steps in the right direction and, most importantly, realistic possibilities for our current world. Devotees of Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, and Belloc might find much to disagree with in a candidate like Ted Cruz, but they would be fools to imagine that there is not much more to disagree with in Bernie Sanders. And of course, devotees of those same writers should reserve the right to see when those writers were themselves unable to create successful policy proposals.

Perhaps all of this means that we need theologians, politicians, and political-theologians, all working together and learning from one another. When any believes that they can do the work in isolation, their product is bound to be imbalanced and often impossible. Thus we welcome the good start and wait for more.

  1. You can find some of our discussions of these kinds of matters here and here.
  2. See this helpful essay from David Koyzis for more on this line of thinking.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.