The orthodox Christian theology of Hadley Robinson

The Contested Public Square: The Crisis of Christianity and Politics

by Greg Forster

Reviewed by Hadley Robinson

George P. Wood of Santa Barbara, CA. wrote the following review of Forster's book here.  Please read it before continuing.

Forster is masterful in summing up thousands of years of Christian political thought. However, it is not entirely clear from Forster what constitutes Christian thought? It seems that Forster does not make a critical distinction if and when other worldviews, such as Natural Law theory, are mixed with the Christian faith.

It was a pleasure to read the highlights of such intellectual giants as Aquinas, Locke, Burke, de Tocqueville, Lewis, and others concerning Natural Law theory.

But there appears to be some the holes.

He speaks of Pietism on page 216: "Pietism is the belief that society, and especially government, are [sic] always under the control of evil." And that is about all he has to say about Pietism other than it is generally irresponsible and stonewalls progress. What a pity!

The general paradigm throughout Forster's work seems to be a sort of functional atheism with respect to man's governing of himself. In theological terms, he sounds like a Deist: God wound the clock long ago and stepped away. Now it's up to us to figure everything out. The back cover of the book begins with, "Building on Biblical foundations..." Forster did not exercise particular care in this regard.

How can anyone discuss a Biblical view of government if the repeated assertions from the Prophets concerning the role and function of government are ignored? Forster briefly considers Romans 13 but there is a whole lot more that he does not consider in the broader argument.

He repeatedly asserts that "might does not make right" and that there is an important distinction between what he (and countless others of the post-Reformation period) calls "lawfully constituted government" and "usurpers". The Prophets make no distinction of this kind.

The Biblical teaching concerning government is quite different.

The Bible asserts that might is not necessarily just or good ("right") but it is still "might" - and must be obeyed except in the rarest of circumstances. Those rare circumstances have only to do with the magistrate requiring anyone to commit unlawful acts according to the Word of God as we see in both the books of Daniel and in Acts. Even then, the man of God can only passively resist and must be prepared to take the consequences - such is the high regard those who name Christ are to have for the magistrate and his divine appointment.

It is the repeated example of the godly persecuted in the Bible, including Jesus' response to the civil authority and the key passage of Romans 13. Scripture often discusses the conduct of those in civil government and the consequences of such conduct but not its legitimacy. The quintessential example of a murderous usurper having divine authority to rule is the anointing of Hazael by Elijah (1 Kings 19:15ff.) We should be mystified that not even Augustine appears to consider this example of "might makes right." Hazael had a specific task (even though he was unaware of its divine origin): To brutally punish Israel for her terrible sin. Hazael, like most heads of state, was a mere criminal running a gang but he had a divine purpose. If we had considered thwarting his authority in some way, we would have been in the awkward position of fighting against God.

This paradigm is echoed by Gamaliel in Acts 5:38-39 when Peter and some other Apostles appear before the Sanhedrin to answer various charges:

Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.

Fighting against God?

When, over the millennia, does this equation enter the discussion of the State and its role?

According to Scripture, anything beyond passive resistance in extreme circumstances becomes a serious matter of individual conscience. It should not become some armed and organized rebellion against authority, as characterized by the American rebellion against the British. An example of an extreme circumstance might be if an individual representative of the magistrate acts out of order and commits violence against an innocent third party and we have the ability to stop it. Again, it is not some organized and armed rebellion against a usurper or his representative but a lawful act on our part. Nonetheless, we may still hang for it. But Deism is another gospel and it would not concur with the legitimacy of such a hanging....

If one had been in Jerusalem circa 587 B.C. at the moment the Babylonian field commander had come through the gates and began the slaughter in the city, what would we do? If we had it in our power to resist this Chaldean mayhem, we would have wound up fighting against God.

And this is the point with Forster and countless others: The Bible asserts that usurpers, tyrants, and all of the rest of them may be mass murderers and the like but they are each and every one sent by God at His express command vis-à-vis Habakkuk 1:6-11:

I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own. They are a feared and dreaded people; they are a law to themselves and promote their own honor. Their horses are swifter than leopards, fiercer than wolves at dusk. Their cavalry gallops headlong; their horsemen come from afar. They fly like a vulture swooping to devour; they all come bent on violence. Their hordes advance like a desert wind and gather prisoners like sand. They deride kings and scoff at rulers. They laugh at all fortified cities; they build earthen ramps and capture them. Then they sweep past like the wind and go on–guilty men, whose own strength is their god.

Does not Habakkuk describe countless usurpers and tyrants throughout history, including Genghis Khan and Adolf Hitler? It is a legal fiction for Locke (as described by Forster) to assert that it is "...the abusive rulers, not the people, who are the real rebels..." (p. 192).

But the Reformation spawned a host of legal fictions, including the infamous assertion in the Westminster Confession (chapter XIV) that an adulterer is "as good as dead" and, therefore, can be considered really dead.

Why are Forster and others silent on so many passages of Scripture which defy the humanistic foundations of the Reformation?

So what of the World Wars? Nations are swept up in such things.  Is it because they wish to do good or is it some other reason? As Forster repeatedly asserts, social institutions cannot "love" nor are they capable of much good as they all sink into self promotion of one kind or another.

What is the godly Christian to think of all this? In our own nation, there often is an ungodly mixing of nationalism and the faith, "My country, right or wrong" and the flag prominently displayed in the buildings used by the Church. This nation promotes partial birth abortion, adultery, and homosexuality. What is some Christian from a foreign land to think when he sees the American flag draped about in places of worship?

All nations have the greedy, the homosexuals, adulterers, liars, and other perverts but what do they do about it? Do they punish evil or promote it in one way or another? Our nation promotes it. As both Christians and citizens of the nation-state we should be ashamed of ourselves and this stampede into moral chaos.

What good news is there? The usual false teachers are upsetting the flock for monetary gain, e.g., "...Our Christian heritage is being seized and if you don't send money right away, it will be the end of all you hold dear...." Meanwhile, these salesmen have little or no concern for the adultery, divorce, and immorality in their midst that is the far greater danger to our survival as a people.

As Forster notes, even de Tocqueville observed in his time that the church was seen as a fourth branch of government - and many in the Church today still think in these terms. But what futility....

As the Founders noted (and Forster agrees), the more immoral a people are, the more control by government they invite (p. 207). The Biblical paradigm, however, is not exactly this one - an immoral people does not "invite" more control by government, they are subject to violent (and oftentimes) complete destruction by foreign governments, their own government, or some sort of natural disaster.

Admittedly, the New Testament does not spend much time discussing civil government other than in Romans 13 and 1 Pet 2:13 ff. And why should it? Jesus was adamant, "My Kingdom is not of this world." But such words fall on deaf ears in this age of humanism and egalitarianism. What Forster describes as Pietism should have more than a short paragraph in the history of Christian political thought. Ambitious men who love this world and put their hope in it do not want to hear anything else.

Civil authority is a result of the Fall - and we can be thankful for the magistrate who, even in the most base of governments, keeps some sort of order. It is not some aberration of the Early Church to have had a decidedly aloof attitude toward the civil authorities.

Jesus submitted completely even though he had a poor opinion of them (Lk. 13:32). If He submitted why can't we? Augustine's permitting the Emperor to help root out heresy in the Church was a terrible mistake on his part and gave cover in the ensuing centuries for much evil in the Church. Is God's arm too short to clean things out? For most, God is asleep or "dead" - for that is functionally what their deeds ascribe.

Forster, speaking of the future of our nation, writes "All paths now lead to danger." (p. 249). How true. We continue to unravel at full speed like a supernova explosion with all its parts moving away from each other at light speed.  His book is definitely worth a read -- if not for any other reason than being a refresher course in political thought and history over the ages.  His assessment that the nation is at its end is disappointing and sobering but true.