The Mod | “Christ and the Kingdoms of Men: Foundations of Political Life” by David C. Innes

Thursday, 26 Dec 2019

It seems that politics are becoming more and more disorientating, especially for Christians. Our outlook on goodness and justice is dismissed as outdated at best and regressive at worst, and we feel increasingly confused about relating our spiritual principles to our civic life.  Some have proposed that we abandon society altogether to form our own enclaves until the insanity of progressivism destroys itself.  Others are equally keen to reinstate a thorough-going Christendom wherein the church dictates society’s laws (the most intense versions of which arguing that we should implement Mosaic law).  David C. Innes’ recent work, Christ and the Kingdoms of Men: Foundations of Political Life, has proposed a middle ground: that Christians be thoughtfully engage in civic life on Christian principles for the sake of the common good.

Innes’ book begins by defining different kinds of political theory and identifying some of the fundamental issues Christians should think about it. His main point is that Christians need to be engaged according to their own vocations in their society’s political life.  He argues that God founded principles of political life in creation Scripture affirms that God created humanity in his image, entailing dominion over the other creatures, and God’s creation mandate enjoined Adam, Eve, and their posterity to expand that dominion.  These points, along with other instances of royal language in the early Genesis narrative, show that God built principles of authority into creation itself, which forms the foundation of political life.  Adam’s Fall corrupted and altered the creation premises of political life, creating a divide between God’s universal reign as Creator and his particular reign over his people. God will always continue to reign universally as Creator, but Christ restores that particular reign through his redemptive work, which reign will be consummated only in the new creation. These points are crucial for understanding his subsequent explanations of the nature of government and its roles, since politics (i.e., our life together under authority) are not opposed to how God made us, nor are they effects of the Fall.  Instead, they are the natural outworking of God’s creational principles.

After establishing this point, subsequent chapters work through the nature of governmental authority and purpose, explore how government should exercise its authority, and discuss how Christians should understand and respond to that authority. Every chapter is informed by a thorough knowledge of the history of political theory, and readers will benefit from Innes’ explanation of how models of government developed from the classical periods of Greece and Rome to the Enlightenment and  modern America.  He illustrates how American politics developed out of principles that harmonize with the Scripture’s descriptions of how just societies should work, as well as ideas that are in fundamental opposition to the biblical anthropology.  For example, he argues that biblical values promote a version of limited-government politics that are devoted to the people’s common good, which was something innate in the American founders’ political theory.  On the other hand, several early-modern political theorists that were influential figures in nascent American political ideology (e.g., Thomas Hobbes and John Locke) advocated a view of humanity that assumed / advocated a raw human nature free from civil, moral, and relational requirements. Christians should recognize that even if we can appreciate the insights from Hobbes and Locke about political theory, the premises of their arguments denied the image-bearing esse of humanity that bears the law of God on its collective heart as the standard that should govern our conduct. The Hobbesian view defines human nature as freedom from social obligation, leaving the questions of social morality and ethics to whatever joint agreement people can come to.  In contrast, the Christian adheres to the biblical concept of man as a creature bearing God’s image, and (by extension) a form of government that upholds both that concept (man as image-bearer) and fosters a good and just society.

This volume has much to commend it—Innes displays a masterful knowledge of the history of political theory from the classical and ancient periods and medieval times to the early-modern era and contemporary thinkers.  He provides excellent insight on the various paradigms of political theory and their history, and how they operate in both complementary and conflicting ways in American democracy.  He is clear and methodical in his discussions on the various aspects of what governments are supposed to do and how the governed are supposed to relate to their authorities, and touches on questions that Christians have about what government should do for its people and how we ought to respond.  Innes’ discussions, although drawing from all types of political theory, are also richly biblical.  When discussions of modern politics in biblical perspective sometimes prove shallow and facile, this book is a noteworthy exception.

This is not to say that there’s nothing problematic about it.  There are tensions between his principles and the application thereof.  The first concerns the relationship between church and culture—Innes does not advocate a strictly transformationalist view (i.e., the church should “Christianize” the culture), and is clear that God’s “particular kingdom” is focused in Christ’s redemptive work and will not be consummated until Jesus returns.  He clearly separates church and state powers, arguing that neither should directly supervise the other’s specific affairs. But in his chapter on how government should punish evil regarding piety and morality, he argues that the government is not limited to upholding the Decalogue’s second table, but also has a role in promoting the first.  He seemingly endorses the distinct doctrine of the Covenanter denominations[1] that political authorities must pledge obedience to Christ in his “mediator kingship,” not just over the church, but over society at large (80-81).   He argues for religious freedom, separation of powers, and limited government, but he also says that the government should have a role in upholding the first and second table of the law, which is problematic at least in a nation where church and state are separate.  Obviously, Christians are committed to a biblical ethic, but in a nation where church and state are separate, how can the government legally uphold those ethics without imposing on the church?  Innes notes this tension and claims that he’s not defending the American Constitution, but the Bible’s teaching on civil life (80); a premise that should certainly provide fuel for future interaction with this work.

The other topic that will likely instigate disagreement is that of political resistance.  Innes believes that the lower magistrates are the proper point of appeal for resistance to the governing authorities.  Here also we see some inconsistencies—his argument that some of the civil rights activists were right to defy the stated laws (and I agree that they were) does not square with his argument for subjection to the law except by appealing to lower magistrates. He defends Rosa Parks’ protest against discrimination laws about bus seating because those laws were full of “absurdity” and “monstrosity,” but doesn’t define what makes a law ‘absurd’ or ‘monstrous’ (160).  He appears to assume a common understanding of what constitutes a good or a bad law, which is precisely the problem—in a society where people of multiple and conflicting religions live together, clear and consistent definitions are necessary.  His argument quickly opens the door to the non-religious majority to remove freedoms and rights from Christians.  Let me be clear: Innes position in defense of the civil rights protests is good, but his arguments for that position are weak, and it is likely that he simply needs a larger place for a resistance theory as previous Christians have outlined it.  Another example of this are his efforts to justify the American Revolution.  He overlooks the fact that the Revolution was not a Christian movement, but the revolt of a colony against its nation—a point that would have eased his case, but is out of accord with his goal of a Christian society.  It is not clear what Innes precisely means by Christian society, since he is not strictly a transformationalist and endorses religious freedom, but clearly he desires a less pluralist society from a governmental standpoint. Although these points will spark further discussion, this book is a thought-provoking work that should be widely read.

 

 

Harrison Perkins (PhD, Queen’s University Belfast) is the assistant minister at London City Presbyterian Church (Free Church of Scotland) and a lecturer in Christian Doctrine at Cornhill Belfast. He is author of Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

 

 

[1] The Covenanters have origins in Scottish Presbyterianism with the Scottish National Covenant of 1638 that tried to bind the political nation to God. Some descendants of this movement remain in the properly named Reformed Presbyterian Church, which has congregations still in the United States, United Kingdom, and Ireland.

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