The Natural Law State Church

As I’ve argued previously, “natural law” two kingdoms theology logically results in theocracy for anyone who recognizes WCF/LBCF 19.2.

Well Kim Riddlebarger has made my point for me:

Then there are those in the current debate who contend, in agreement with Calvin, that it’s the civil magistrate’s duty to enforce the first table of the law. Well, as important as Calvin is in understanding reformed political theory, when Calvin speaks of the role of the civil magistrate, Calvin could not even begin to conceive of a secularist democracy that now rules Europe. And therefore his value in terms of his understanding of how the church ought to relate to the magistrate is limited because of the change in circumstances. And that, I think, is self-evident in the fact that all of the reformed confessions written at the time of the reformation have all been changed in the United States in the articles that deal with the churches relation to the civil magistrate, because the situation here is entirely different than it was in the days of the reformation. And the reformed churches, both Presbyterian and Reformed, acknowledge that.

Let me play a bit of advocacy here: What if Calvin’s right about the civil magistrate? And by the way, I tend to think he is, he’s on the right track here. What would the magistrate enforcing the first table of the law look like in a real world of Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress? Do we really want the magistrate, in it’s current form, to protect the church, it’s gospel, and it’s doctrine? There is a law of unintended consequences and we have to think very, very carefully about the consequences of taking particular actions. It’s one thing to argue, “Yeah, Calvin says we should recover the first table of the law, enforced by the civil magistrate!” Ok, I think there’s a good, biblical basis for that, and I’m going to argue for it. But what’s that gonna look like in the United States? We no longer live in an America with a generic Protestant political establishment…

-Kim Riddlebarger, In the Land of Nod, Part 1: Why This Has Been an Important and Controversial Doctrine @49:30


While Adam is building this temple garden in Eden he is under probation, where God has commanded of him perfect obedience. The question is, perfect obedience to what? Well, I would say to the moral law, which is later enshrined and codified in the two tables of the law we commonly speak of as the 10 commandments… Natural law reflects the same commandments written upon the human heart and subsequently revealed on the two stone tablets at Mt. Sinai.

-Kim Riddlebarger, In the Land of Nod, Part 3: Adam in Eden – Tracing the Redemptive Historical Themes of the Two Kingdoms @21:30 and 38:50


I think we have to be realists. One of the things that we’ll talk about is, it’s one thing for Christians to very triumphally say “Well, you know what we need, we need to recover the law of God as the standard for civil government.” Well, whether that’s true in theory or not is a separate question. The reality is, “Are we in our lifetimes ever going to live in a country, in a situation where we are under a theocratic state as Israel was in the Old Testament. And the answer to that is “No.” So a lot of the discussion that goes on about the ideal is only so much time wasting because the question we have to deal with, at least that I have to deal with as a pastor having to answer questions for people in my church and in my pews, is “How do we survive in this current situation?” And I’m going to argue that keeping those two kingdoms distinct is a very, very important starting point… So throw out the ideal. We’ll talk about the ideal. The ideal is important, I mean, we ought to look at what the ideal is to understand what ought to be so we can think about a theoretic about how we ought to approach stuff. But the fact is we live in a time and place when we are going to be a minority, a small minority of a minority and we’re going to have to get the best deal that we can in the political kingdom, in the civil kingdom. And that’s just how it is.

-Kim Riddlebarger, In the Land of Nod, Part 4: Adam Cast From Eden – The Birth of the Civil Kingdom @52:30

Thankfully, for the coherence of discussion, Riddlebarger is consistent in his natural law theory. If the civil magistrate is to enforce natural law, then it is to enforce the 10 commandments.

Note: Natural Law Two Kingdoms will not get you to the non-establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. It will land you in Geneva.

It is interesting to note Riddlebarger’s pragmatism. He says that the ideal (the enforcement of the 10 commandments) is not practical because we live in a different context under a secular government. He says the American reformed churches changed the confession because they were in a different context. But what led to this change in context? Was it the erosion of true religion? Was 18th century colonial American a pagan, secular society? No. 18th century America was very Protestant. What led to the change in context (change in government) is a change in how these men interpreted the Bible. It was not an appeal to natural law to the exclusion of Scripture. Rather, as Charles Hodge explains, it was primarily an appeal to Scripture, to an interpretation that disagreed with Calvin’s interpretation, that led to changes in how Calvinists viewed the state:

The American Church

The doctrine current among us on this subject is of very recent origin. It was unknown to the ancients before the advent. In no country was religion disconnected with the state. It was unknown to the Jews. The early Christians were not in circumstances to determine the duty of Christian magistrates to the Christian church. Since the time of Constantine, in no part of Christendom and by no denomination has the ground been assumed, until a recent period, that the state and church should be separate and independent bodies. Yet to this doctrine the public mind in this country has already been brought, and to the same conclusion the convictions of God’s people in all parts of the world seem rapidly tending. On what grounds, then, does this novel, yet sound, doctrine rest? This question can only be answered in a very general and superficial manner on the present occasion.

1. In the first place it assumes that the state, the family, and the church are all divine institutions, having the same general end in view, but designed to accomplish that end by different means. That as we cannot infer from the fact that the family and the state are both designed to promote the welfare of men, that the magistrate has the right to interfere in the domestic economy of the family; so neither can we infer from the church and state having the same general end, that the one can rightfully interfere with the affairs of the other. If there were no other institution than the family, we might infer that all the means now used by the church and state, for the good of men, might properly be used by the family; and if there were no church, as a separate institution of God, then we might infer that the family and the state were designed to accomplish all that could be effected. But as God has instituted the family for domestic training and government; the state, that we may lead quiet and peaceable lives; and the church for the promotion and extension of true religion, the three are to be kept distinctive within their respective spheres.

2. That the relative duties of these several institutions cannot be learned by reasoning a priori from their design, but must be determined from the Word of God. And when reasoning from the Word of God, we are not authorized to argue from the Old Testament economy because that was avowedly temporary and has been abolished, but must derive our conclusions from the New Testament. We find it there taught:

(a) That Christ did institute a church separate from the state, giving it separate laws and officers.

(b) That he laid down the qualifications of those officers and enjoined on the church, not on the state, to judge of their possession by candidates.

(c) That he prescribed the terms of admission to and the grounds of exclusion from the church, and left with the church its officers to administer these rules.

These acts are utterly inconsistent with Erastianism and with the relation established in England between the church and state.

3. That the New Testament, when speaking of the immediate design of the state and the official duties of the magistrate, never intimates that he has those functions which the common doctrine of the Lutheran and Reformed church assign him. This silence, together with the fact that those functions are assigned to the church and church officers, is proof that it is not the will of God that they should be assumed by the state.

4. That the only means which the state can employ to accomplish many of the objects said to belong to it, viz. pains and penalties, are inconsistent with the example and commands of Christ; with the rights of private Christians, guaranteed in the Word of God (i.e., to serve God according to the dictates of his conscience); are ineffectual to the true end of religion, which is voluntary obedience to the truth; and productive of incalculable evil. The New Testament, therefore, does not teach that the magistrate is entitled to take care that true religion is established and maintained; that right men are appointed to church offices; that those officers do their duty, that proper persons be admitted, and improper persons be rejected from the church; or that heretics be punished. And on the other hand, by enjoining all these duties upon the church, as an institution distinct from the state, it teaches positively that they do not belong to the magistrate, but to the church. If to this it be added that experience teaches that the magistrate is the most unfit person to discharge these duties; that his attempting it has always been injurious to religion and inimical to the rights of conscience, we have reason to rejoice in the recently discovered truth that the church is independent of the state, and that the state best promotes her interests by letting her alone.

– Charles Hodge, The Relation of Church and State originally appeared in Princeton Review in 1863. It is now taken from a recently re-released book of essays by a variety of authors edited by Iain Murray, The Reformation of the Church.

So it was not an appeal to natural law that led to the undoing of state churches, nor was it a degrading of religion in society, but it was the proper interpretation and application of Scripture to the question of civil government. In this regard, Ron Baines has an excellent essay in the first issue of JIRBS titled SEPARATING GOD’S TWO KINGDOMS: Two Kingdom Theology among New England Baptists in the Early Republic.

11 thoughts on “The Natural Law State Church

  1. This is excellent. Thanks for digging this up. Hodge wrote: “In the first place it assumes that the state, the family, and the church are all divine institutions, having the same general end in view, but designed to accomplish that end by different means.”

    What is the “same end” here, I wonder?


    1. Well, you have to define your terms. My main contention is that 2K should not be associated exclusively with what is properly called NL2K (Natural Law Two Kingdoms). 2K is a broad category. That’s part of the reason why there has been so much heat and not a lot of light in the debate in reformed circles over VanDrunen, et al.

      For example, Calvin taught two kingdoms theology. Although he taught an institutional distinction between church and state, he did not teach a separation between them (in the sense in which we use the word). The two are distinct, but work hand in hand to promote true religion (state church).

      That is very different from the two kingdoms theology of Backus and Merrill (judging by Baines’ essay). These men went beyond just saying there was a distinction between church and state. They went further and said that the state should not be involved in promoting true religion, but in simply creating a society where the church is free to do so.

      I agree with Backus and Merrill (if I understand them correctly). My main point here is to show that I arrive at that agreement regarding the state based upon Scripture, not based upon “natural law” or “a priori reasoning” apart from Scripture (as VanDrunen, et al promote). I do not agree with the epistemic barrier VanDrunen has built between the common kingdom and the kingdom of God.

      VanDrunen, et al have been rhetorically successful in getting people to think you’re either NL2K or you’re a theonomist. Neo-calvinism (the express opponent of VanDrunen) has been described as “worldview Calvinism”. I am a worldview Calvinist, though I may not agree with particular details or conclusions of the neo-Calvinism of the paedobaptist Dutch tradition.


    2. I’m still hammering out the details of my own stance, but I do think there is a lot of good to be learned from VanDrunen and Riddlebarger in regards to seeing the state as a post-fall institution functioning under the Noahic Covenant, which is designed to preserve the whole world for the sake of the elect. Thus the state exists to preserve society for the sake of the elect (as opposed to promoting true religion). Because there was no state in Eden, I’m not convinced it is the duty of the state to promote the standards of Eden (natural law/moral law).

      We then begin to chip away at the details of what that looks like by looking at biblical principles and texts. Clearly murder is forbidden. As is theft of private property. I tend to think is a good place to look for some of those details 😉


      1. Thanks brothers, this conversation is very helpful! You have nailed down what made me uncomfortable with 2KNL theology. I will now define myself as a 2KBL which hold to a 1689 Covenant view of the OC… just like Jesus and the apostles 🙂


  2. Brandon said: “My main point here is to show that I arrive at that agreement regarding the state based upon Scripture, not based upon “natural law” or “a priori reasoning” apart from Scripture (as VanDrunen, et al promote). I do not agree with the epistemic barrier VanDrunen has built between the common kingdom and the kingdom of God.”

    Indeed. Two Kingdom Theology is a broad category and Natural Law is chosen to be applied to the “common kingdom” by Van Drunen and company. But it is not necessary that Natural Law be used here. The historical problem took place, from what I can tell, because the choice seemed to be between this Natural Law theory and theocracy. But this dichotomy assumes the paedobaptist rendition of the covenants. I think that having Coxe’s view of the covenants as our foundation allows us to reject Natural Law and not be forced to take up Old Testament Theocracy. It’s all about the covenants, and I don’t think this is emphasized enough. If one stated that the Bible alone is going to dictate civil law, and then he took up the paedobaptist “one covenant two administrations” view, theocracy seems to be the logical choice.

    But we 1689ers aren’t stuck between a rock and a hard place. We can use Biblical stipulations as the basis for social laws and we don’t have to replicate Old Israel. Van Drunen’s rhetorical success stems from his failure to understand the Reformed Baptist distinctives, or at least to interact with them.

    As for, I need to work more on getting the details out and expressing them in a way that is helpful for the Reformed. There are certain vocabulary barriers at work between the libertarian and the Reformed worlds. These need to be addressed.


    1. I agree that 1689 Federalism is missing in discussions of two kingdoms theology, yet baptist covenant theology serves a vital place in the eventual writing of the non-establishment clause.

      The historical problem took place, from what I can tell, because the choice seemed to be between this Natural Law theory and theocracy.

      Just to clarify, that wasn’t quite the historical setting. That dichotomy is an interjection by DVD (as best I can tell). Depending on how you define theocracy, natural law theory supported it, not opposed. But the history is extremely nuanced and definition of terms becomes rather difficult (define theocracy, vs theonomy, vs Constatinism, vs Erastianism, etc).

      This series is very, very interesting (though note of caution, I believe the author Brad Littlejohn is a Federal Visionist, associated with the Calvinist International, which it appears you’re familiar with): The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed

      a quote:

      In Protestant two-kingdoms thinking, the civil kingdom, despite all of the above, remains both informed by and concerned with the exercise of true religion. While natural law was retained and even championed by many of these thinkers, Scripture remained its authoritative interpreter

      But the relevance of 1689 Federalism is not just with our ability to discard the old covenant (for Luther held to a similar view). It also has relevance because much of the historic debate in Protestantism regarding the state revolves around concepts of the invisible church. I don’t know enough to say if Littlejohn’s analysis is correct, but he argues that the two kingdoms doctrine in Calvin and Luther referred to spiritual/internal/invisible vs temporal/external/visible(including the visible church), and that two kingdoms understanding only later came to be associated with the institutions of church and state:

      Even better was the idea that the church, conceived in terms of the ordained clergy, could autonomously govern its own affairs—a concept derived not only from Beza, but even more so from the paradigm of the “stranger churches,” which many English Protestants had experienced during their exile under Bloody Mary. Such an independent body, moreover, could ensure a much purer and more disciplined membership than the “mixed multitude” of the national Protestant churches—in short, the visible church could approximate the invisible.

      Taken together, these concepts—a detailed Scriptural blueprint for the church, Presbyterian ministers as the authorized interpreters of the same, and the ideal of a pure and disciplined body of “visible saints”—provided the building blocks for a new mutation of the two-kingdoms doctrine. In England, this received its fullest expression in the works of Thomas Cartwright and Walter Travers in the 1570s and 1580s, although Andrew Melville was simultaneously advancing a similar paradigm in Scotland, where it would leave a lasting stamp. For these men, as for VanDrunen, the two kingdoms represent two external manifestations of God’s rule—the one through ministers and their disciplinary regime; the other through magistrates and their disciplinary regime. Each presided over a distinct society with distinct ends, and strictly defined responsibilities.

      (Part 3)

      It is from these independent bodies that the particular baptists emerged.


      1. Brandon: “Just to clarify, that wasn’t quite the historical setting. That dichotomy is an interjection by DVD (as best I can tell). Depending on how you define theocracy, natural law theory supported it, not opposed. But the history is extremely nuanced and definition of terms becomes rather difficult…”

        Yes, nuance and difficult definitions. Such led to my unclear statement. What was meant by the “historical” dichotomy was that Natural Law as principles of law and civil order being derived apart from Propositional Revelation seemed to be the only other option than *Israel’s Theocracy* (specifically). In that case, Natural Law could not be used to support the Mosaic Law. Natural Law requires empiricism and Mosaic Theocracy does not. So if we separate Natural Law and Theocracy like in this way, what else was there historically? Especially in the Reformed world.

        Anyways, Natural Law doesn’t lead to the conclusions that its advocates think it does. Littlejohn can say that Scripture remained Natural Law’s interpreter, but not only does Natural Law not require this, but much of Natural Law came from the Catholic Scholastics and thus as a whole is largely separate doctrine from Scripture. Further, if one is going to claim that Scripture interprets Natural Law, one wonders the purpose of Natural Law. Whose Natural Law is Scripture interpreting? Aquinas’?

        Perhaps one would say that Scripture interprets nature (even this is a stretch), but Natural Law requires a previous interpretation of nature. It is better to say that one’s Natural Law can be compared to Scripture, but in that case it Natural Law is unhelpful, doesn’t add any new information.


  3. Pingback: 1 Cor 5:13 is the general equity of Deut 22:21 | Reformed Libertarian

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