Sam Waldron on Civil Authorities

Posted on October 8, 2014

spacer I expect my next article on the topic of the Law of God to address Gentile governments and natural law, but as a prelude to that post, I thought it would be helpful to share some conclusions by Dr. Sam Waldron from his helpful lecture series, Theonomy: A Reformed Baptist Assessment. Dr. Waldron’s work is available in three parts by lecture at Christian Library Australia, or in written format at The Reformed Reader.

On the “Non-Theocratic Character of Civil Authority till the Return of Christ”, Dr. Waldron states (bold emphasis mine):

The first conclusion reminds us that with the expiration of the partially restored Theocratic order all civil authority ceased to be Theocratic in the sense in which we have defined that word in this paper. God is no longer the unique king of any civil entity. No nation is now mandated to adhere to a divinely revealed civil order. While the moral principles enshrined in the laws of the Old covenant remain authoritative, no nation is bound to the detailed, civil order of OT Israel. Add to all of this the destruction of the Temple as the earthly throne of Yahweh and one must also conclude that no longer are church and state a united entity. The redeemed community no longer has a civil structure. Thus, the divine establishment of the Gentile civil authorities means that the separation of the civil and ecclesiastical institutions in human society is now God’s preceptive will. The alteration of this order will be signaled only by the return of Christ.

Indeed, theocratic Israel is the only nation in history to have a divinely appointed king, namely God Himself. Under God’s rule of Israel, many kings governed the nation with its constitution being the Mosaic law. In giving His law in the Old Testament, we never read God as saying, “Hear, O [pagan nation], the Lord our God is one!” No, the Lord’s audience and thus benefactors of His divine, prescriptive law and covenant was to Israel. Israel as a nation was “God’s people”. No other nation was “God’s people”. Today, the church is “God’s people”. But no Gentile nation is ever referred to as “God’s people”, at least not in this pre-millennial age.

So, as the divinely instituted Mosaic law, including the civil elements of the Mosaic law, was mandated to the nation of Israel alone, no Gentile nation at the time of theocratic Israel, nor any Gentile nation after the time of theocratic Israel, has been mandated to establish their governments under Israel’s divine constitution. What does govern the Gentile nations, however, are the moral principles or moral norms of the Old Covenant, which in fact precede and transcend the Old Covenant into the present age.

Waldron then concludes his thoughts on “The Divine Establishment of the Gentile, Civil Authorities” (bold emphasis mine):

The assertion that no civil authority is now Theocratic definitely does not mean, biblically, that civil authority now stands in no relation or only a negative relation to God. The biblical data clearly establishes the fact that the present, Gentile civil authorities are divinely constituted. It was clear that this fact implies the idea that Gentile authorities are responsible to God and owe Him obedience as civil authorities. More stress is placed in the literature, however, on the duty of the people of God to subject themselves to the government of these rulers. To resist Nebuchadnezzar was to resist God.

The Biblical mandate to render obedience to the Gentile kings sheds light on the extent and character of the duty owed to civil authorities. Of course, no obedience was to be rendered to demands that violated the explicit demands of God. On the other hand, service and obedience was to be rendered to uncovenanted, autocratic, proud, idolatrous, abusive, and often bestial rulers. No fact could speak more eloquently of the truth that our subjection to civil authority is not conditioned on (our estimate of) the way it is being exercised. Bestial demands and behavior may call for disobedience or flight, but they never provide the grounds for violent resistance or rebellion. If Nebuchadnezzar’s self-deifying idolatry and Ahasuerus’ tyranny did not give the right of rebellion, then it is hard to imagine any conditions under which the abuse of civil power would warrant rebellion against “the powers that be.”

Worth mentioning here is the fact that examples of rebellions led by Jews against foreign kings during the time of the Theocracy are not relevant to the issue now being addressed. Shamgar, Samson, and the other saviors sent to deliver Israel from foreign domination lived before the divine transfer of civil authority to the Gentile kings and before the divine destruction of the Theocracy. There is a qualitative redemptive-historical difference between Eglon and Nebuchadnezzar.

Yes, Gentile governments are divinely constituted. It’s interesting that this seems to get lost among theonomists, who assert “God’s law or man’s law”, or “theonomy or autonomy”. Moreover, there seems to be a misunderstanding of natural law, which is what governs Gentile governments, as if natural law is based on evolutionary theory and derived from autonomous man. This is not true at all. Natural law is not a form of secular humanism, rightly understood. Rather, natural law is given by God and is the law by which man is accountable.

That there is no biblical mandate to Gentile governments to submit to and rule by Israel’s theocratic constitution (Mosaic law) does not mean that Gentile governments are not accountable to a divine standard. The divine standard is indeed the natural law, which is the eternal Law of God written to the heart of every man, which, again, precedes and transcends the Mosaic law. However much Gentile governments suppress the truth of God’s Law and fail to rule by it, that much they will answer to before the King of kings on Judgment Day.

We will get into this in much more detail in the next article on Gentile governments and natural law, but suffice it to say, whether Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon or Hitler’s Germany, they will not be judged by any failure to rule by Mosaic law, but by their failure to rule by the law God divinely instituted in their hearts. Even so, God raised Babylon and Germany up for His purposes and at no time did He lack authority over them.

Also in the next article or two, we will address the emphasis of Romans 13, which as Waldron alludes to in the above statement, is placed on the Christian’s submission to Gentile authority, and not on the authority itself.

Commenting on the theonomic emphasis and misdirected hope of social change, Waldron remarks under his concluding point “The Curse-Character of Life under the Gentile kingdoms” (bold emphasis mine):

The authority of the Gentile kingdoms originated in covenantal curses and life under them continues and will continue to be a curse to the people of God. The clear prophetic outlook of the word of God is that the bestial character of these kingdoms will continue to characterize them and will finally completely dominate the eschatological manifestation of Gentile authority. This is not to be read as permission to ignore or be indifferent to civil righteousness insofar as it is within our ability to enhance it. Such a conclusion would fly in the face of the totalitarian claims of God and His word. This conclusion does mean, however, that civil authority is not to be made the object of mis-directed hope or consuming attention by the people of God. The mark of the perversion of the Biblical perspective is the re-focusing of hope upon social change. This error pervades modern theologies of social change. The true hope of the people of God is the re-establishment of the Theocratic kingdom. This, as the Scripture declares, will be the achievement not of civil reformation but of cataclysmic and supernatural divine intervention.

My observation of theonomists has been they focus so much on instituting Mosaic law for Gentile governments, that they seem to have a misdirected hope that Mosaic-law-bound governments is the hope for the nations. I trust they don’t actually believe that, and they do believe that Christ is the only hope for the nations. But, their preaching of our hope in Christ gets lost in their preaching of an unbiblical view and application of the Law of God.

What I have observed in theonomists’ proselytizing of law is oppressive and even “lording over” those who disagree or who are not keen on the biblical worldview of government and politics. Moreover, there is a kind of anarchist attitude toward the government God has placed over them, as they posit any law established by government that is not mandated by Scripture is a violation of Scripture.

In any case, having an optimistic view of societal change is wishful thinking and not in accord with how Scripture prophesies the moral decay and unraveling of society into lawlessness. The only true hope for God’s people is in the building of God’s Kingdom, a Kingdom built by God alone and not by man. While God’s Kingdom is being built in heavenly places, it will not be established on earth until Christ establishes it at the Second Coming. Neither man or the church plays a role in establishing Christ’s earthly rule.

Finally, Waldron closes with this statement on “The Central Importance of the Church for the Work of the Kingdom” (bold emphasis mine):

The entire theological perspective enumerated in this study warrants the conclusion that the energies and responsibilities of the Kingdom center on the Church in this age. The Theocratic Kingdom is present only in the redemptive task of the church not in the conservative task of the state. Therefore, labor for the Kingdom, must not place an equal importance on ecclesiastical and civil matters. The dominion mandate must not be set alongside the Great Commission as its equal nor may it be seen as its real content. The Church (and its task) is the exclusive focus of kingdom endeavor in this age. The theocratic kingdom is now present not in visible or political form, but in spiritual and ecclesiastical form.

This will require special attention in the future, but the idea of “One Kingdom. One Law.” as one theonomist friend recently put it, is misguided and confuses the Great Commission. The Great Commission exclusively mandates making disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey all that Christ has commanded. It has nothing to do with “taking dominion” or Christian Reconstructionism. It has nothing to do with teaching Gentile governments how to rule their people by Mosaic law.

Our mandate is a spiritual one, though the implications of it may influence society, or even governments, in a positive way. But while the Gospel is guaranteed to change individual hearts until the “fullness of the Gentiles comes in”, Scripture in no way guarantees the Gospel will impact the world in such a way that the culture or society is “reformed” or “redeemed”. Again, this is a misdirected hope for societal change.

Stay tuned for the next installment where we will get to the heart of Gentile civil authority and natural law.

Previous articles on this topic:

Thomas Schreiner on Theonomy

The Law of God, Theonomy, and Pacifism

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  • Posted in: Apologetics & Worldview, Christian Issues, Law of God, Politics, Theonomy
    19 Responses “Sam Waldron on Civil Authorities” →
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      Jason Delgado

      October 8, 2014

      This one by Dr. Waldron may interest you as well:

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      Terrence Daugherty

      October 9, 2014

      Good job on this article brother… My hope is that our Theonomist brothers would read this and not take it as antagonism, as they’re so accustomed to doing themselves. Your attempt here to make clear the Biblical teachings of the Law is in no way cynical nor contentious. I appreciate your input in this long, and drawn-out discussion. At least for me there is now some compassionate light being shined upon this subject. I look forward to seeing the rest of your research. Grace&Peace.

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      October 9, 2014

      Hi Justin,

      Thanks for this post. I’ve recently been reading through Waldron’s essay as well. It’s very good. This is a topic worth discussing more.

      Side note, it’s kind of funny listening to Waldron’s voice on the old tapes compared to what he sounds like now.

      I did want to offer some clarification or things to consider, though.


      Moreover, there seems to be a misunderstanding of natural law, which is what governs Gentile governments, as if natural law is based on evolutionary theory and derived from autonomous man.

      I am not a theonomist and I am strongly opposed to their position. However, by and large they are correct on natural law. Natural law cannot be a valid source of knowledge because of the fall. It’s testimony is obscured and no longer clear. Thus we need special revelation in order to understand anything from general revelation.

      I highly recommend reading John W. Robbins essay “Some Problems with Natural Law”

      “For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any books however fair, is set before them, though they perceive that there is something written are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impressions of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in our minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion,

      Thus theonomists recognize that to rely on our own natural reasoning, looking inside ourselves, to determine right or wrong, after the fall, is indeed autonomy. The bible does not teach us to “follow our heart”. Thus they are correct to look to Scripture, rather than outside of Scripture, for answers regarding civil authority.

      Theonomy needs to be precisely defined. Is theonomy the idea that both tables of the Decalogue should be enforced? No. Theonomy is the idea that the very case laws enforcing each moral law should be carried over today.

      This is an important distinction. If one is rejecting theonomy in favor of natural law, that still does not avoid the idea of the civil magistrate enforcing both tables of the law. In fact, this was the classic reformed position, as articulated in the original WCF. They recognized that natural law, not the Mosaic law as such, is the standard for gentile nations. However, they recognized that natural law is simply the moral law written on men’s hearts, and since the bible clarifies what the moral law is, we know that the civil magistrate should punish idolators.

      Relying on natural law will not get you to the non-establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. It will land you in Geneva.

      Here is a recent post I wrote wrestling with the same issues you are. I’d love to hear your thoughts: is neither affiliated with the authors of this page nor responsible for its contents. This is a safe-cache copy of the original web site.