Where did government come from?  

Posted by Denis Haack in , ,

Around Memorial Day (on May 30th, to be exact) I updated my Facebook status: “In a broken world the State wields a sword to stop injustice, anticipating the day when righteousness covers God’s good earth.” People began leaving comments, proving two things. First, I never know what comment will prompt a discussion. I never imagined this one would generate any interest at all, but it did. The second thing it proved—because two commentators requested it—was that I should visit the topic here, inviting discussion. So, here we are.

Two friends left comments on Facebook that identify a good place to begin our discussion. Ethan Calvert: “in a broken world, the State exists.” And Scott Hoaby repeated something attributed to Martin Luther: “that if people do right then government is not necessary.”

I respectfully disagree. To be as clear as possible I will define the question we are discussing as I understand it and provide three reasons for my position. Then I will look forward to your comments.

The issue explained. As I understand it the question we are discussing involves the source of the state or of government in the affairs of human life. One possible answer is that it arose at the Fall, when sin distorted God’s world and the need for authority wielding the “sword” (mentioned in Romans 13) became necessary to punish evildoers, to maintain order, and achieve justice. A second possible answer is that government was a potential inherent in Creation, like so much that developed as history unfolded (such as the arts and sciences), to allow finite creatures to flourish in an orderly community, and the need for it to wield the sword is simply a sad—and thankfully temporary—legacy of the Fall.

The first possible answer—that government arose because of the Fall and will be unnecessary when righteousness is fully restored—tends to be popular among Christians. An implication of this view is that because government is a temporary measure, necessitated only because injustice and evil exists, its existence and scope is very limited. Any role the government assumes that is outside its mandate to restrain evil is assumed to be illegitimate and dangerous. When Christ returns, righteousness will fill the earth, government will no longer be needed and so will pass away. This perspective has much to commend it. In a fallen world government needs to be carefully limited, and the history of oppression and violence perpetuated by State power sadly continues to this day. Governments in a fallen world tend to breed bureaucracies, bureaucracies breed inefficiency, and inefficiency breeds waste and corruption.

Still, I would propose that the second possibility—that government was a potential (like art and science) inherent in Creation rather than a temporary result of the Fall—is a more satisfying understanding. I will mention three reasons.

#1. Being finite is a limit too. As creatures of God made in his image, we live with two great limits—we are both fallen and finite. We are fallen, meaning that our natures have been bent away from the Creator’s original purpose for us so that we constantly seek autonomy from God, the source of life and light and goodness, embracing as a consequence death and darkness and brokenness. In a fallen world, government is required to restrain evildoers, using force as needed (the sword) to provide a measure of justice. But we are also finite, meaning that even if not fallen we could not know all there is to know. If righteous and finite, we will still see only as much as our finite minds and imaginations can take in at any moment, which will never be fully complete (or infinite). A world of finite righteous creatures will still need and yearn for a proper and loving ordering in their existence so that opportunities are not inadvertently misappropriated and so that every finite creature is given their proper due at the proper time and place. Though I want to be careful about pushing the text too far, even among the angels there seems to be those who are described in terms of leadership or government, broadly defined (Joshua 5:14; Daniel 10:13). The first possibility (government arising from the fall) provides only for fallenness, while the second possibility (government arising from creation) provides for both limitations, being fallen and finite. We are fallen for time, finite for eternity.

#2. The biblical hope. My second reason for commending this perspective comes from the vision we are given for the future in the Scriptures. The description of the new heaven and new earth is not described in terms of the righteous anarchy of a garden but the orderly government of a kingdom. The concept of kingdom, unfolded throughout the biblical revelation implies not a lack of government but leadership fully redeemed and righteous, one that does not need to wield a sword against evildoers, but that brings compassionate order to the multitudinous population of finite creatures seeking to serve and love God, world without end. We are given only hints of the future kingdom, but those hints include images of servant leadership, for example, elders on thrones around the throne of God (Revelation 4:4).

#3. A Reformed philosophy. My third reason for commending the idea that government is rooted in creation not the fall comes from the work of a Dutch philosopher whose work has influenced my thinking. Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977) was a legal scholar who taught at the Free University of Amsterdam. I discovered Dooyeweerd in the Sixties, finding his Roots of Western Culture and In the Twilight of Western Thought compelling as I struggled to make sense of Christian faith in the modern world. Like Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), he was deeply committed to the Lordship of Christ over all of life, culture and reality, a theme that defines his entire body of work. Dooyeweerd’s contribution came in a lifetime of careful scholarship developing what came to be known as The Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea (which was published in four volumes). Later, as I read the books of Hans Rookmaaker (1922-1977), Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984), and Calvin Seerveld (1930-), for example, I recognized their dependence on the philosophical ideas of Herman Dooyeweerd.

Essential to Dooyeweerd’s understanding is an insight he referred to as the basic “aspects” that make up created reality, or “modes” of being that fit together into a coherent whole. In other words, all of reality can be described in terms of these modes or aspects, each of which is irreducible (not divisible into something else) and essential (necessary for reality to be as God made it). When we live in reality in accordance with the laws of these modes of reality, we experience shalom, a flourishing of life as God intended. When human beings try to rebel against these aspects of reality, the result is destructive. Dooyeweerd named 15 aspects or modes, which together he argued named the richly layered meaning of God’s creation as we experience it. Included in this list is the “juridical” mode, defined as giving what is due, both responsibilities and rights. (For a helpful table of Dooyeweerd’s aspects and their meaning click here.) In any case, I find Dooyeweerd’s philosophy to be evocative, practical, and in its roots and assumptions, deeply biblical. It is certainly not the final word, but it is a helpful one, and his thinking causes me to think that government might be finally rooted in creation not the fall.

Let the discussion continue…

Source: The Dooyeweerd Pages online (http://www.dooy.salford.ac.uk/). Painting is “Christ in a Depressed Suburb” by Georges Rouault (1914).

This entry was posted at Wednesday, June 08, 2011 and is filed under , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
Rev 5:9-10
I think I'm convinced. It's a theocracy where all citizens have direct access to the King (because of the priesthood of all citizens), but authority and responsibility may be distributed hierarchically. Does that sound right?

July 7, 2011 at 8:39 AM

Yes, that seems correct, though we need to hold specific ideas loosely because we really aren't given much information and so should refuse speculation.

I suspect, for example, that the hierarchy may be fluid, so that rather than leaders and followers, all of God's people fit into those categories within certain spheres or areas of giftedness. A quiet, introverted gardener, for example, who was never imagined to be a leader may turn out to lead us all as we learn about helping plants flourish.

This vision allows leadership to remain a good gift, brings order to finite creatures for whom freedom is always shaped by obedience, love, and deference, and leads us to read references to those in leadership (apostles, prophets) in the new heavens and earth as more than mere honorifics.


July 7, 2011 at 9:45 AM

I believe that God has chosen certain people to lead citizens through hierarchy, the problem is that people think that they can be a certain political party and that is good enough to lead citizens. God did not appoint a democrat or republican or conservative, He has given individual gifts to certain people, which has nothing to do with political parties. The people who should be running government are not simply because they are only labeled by themselves rather than God.

January 3, 2013 at 5:32 PM

I certainly agree that no political party, of left, right or center, fully captures a Christian sense of political justice, and that God has his hand on the process throughout history. A reason to be faithful and also to be hopeful.
Thanks for commenting.

January 3, 2013 at 6:53 PM

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