1689 Political Secularists?
Dr. Renihan, the 1689 Confession, and Christian Nationalism
Recently on Twitter several of the louder evangelical anti-Christian Nationalists were challenged to clarify whether they disagree with the reformed confessions on the topic of the magistrates.
All of them stated simply that they agreed with the 1689 London Baptist confession. I do not think that they really do, in a meaningful sense. Or to say this in another way: I believe that they are reading twentieth century political models and frameworks back into the seventeenth century. What was religiously neutral for the Particular Baptists would today be considered an extremist far right Christian political order. That is, the seventeenth century baptists would never have accepted the idea—held explicitly by conservative evangelicals today—that a political order could fulfill its true role as an open, (classically) liberal, secular state. To claim that secularist political theologies of the twentieth century would have been endorsable by the signers of the 1689 Confession simply defies credibility and contradicts the writings of the particular Baptists.
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I realize I harp on this all the time, but this is a stellar example of our present political rhetoric being built upon the secularization of historical religious debates. It is also a continuation of the theme that they don’t actually know what people like Wolfe are arguing, as the misrepresent him on the daily.
This article will use the above Twitter thread as a foil to summarize key pieces of Dr. James Renihan’s exposition of the 1689 Confession. Dr. Renihan, of course, is likely the world’s foremost expert on the English Reformed Baptists and their various confessions. I do feel obligated to say that Dr. Renihan is one of the most irenic (aimed at peace and unity) academics in the Reformed world and he would disapprove of the use of his book for the purposes of disunity and cheap social media points. So I don’t want to give the impression that I am doing this. He would also most probably not identify as a Christian Nationalist.
Finally, the point of this article isn’t to provide a “1689 defense of Christian Nationalism.” But since I spent many years within the 1689 orbit, I am familiar enough with things to want to comment on it. It is actually important for another reason: of all the (truly) Reformed communities in the post-Reformation West, the particular baptists are, for certain historically experiential and theological reasons, the least likely to be Christian Nationalists. So pointing out the extent to which they are closer to Wolfe than they are to modern Reformed Baptists on some issues of political theology can be instructive and re-orienting.
Dr. Renihan makes clear that the purpose of Chapter 24 in the confession is not to provide “an exhaustive treatise about government and its role in society.” Moreover, Dr. Renihan observes, there is so much more that the dissenting Baptists could have (and sometimes did) interacted with, related to the beneficial functions of state and civic morality, had the confession been the appropriate place to do so. This chapter is not a holistic political theology and the confession, as Renihan has argued at length in so many other places, was intended to be broad enough to include a variety of opinions that would satisfy the signers of this confession.
Right away, Renihan implies that the confession is at odds with secular liberalism: “The basis of the civil magistracy is found in the order established by God himself.” The 1689 view of political order is not metaphysical neutrality, but is rather shaped by the lens of a Christian metaphysical vision. Renihan makes the distinction between God’s two kingdoms and argues that “this chapter addresses matters in the earthly realm under the dominion of the triune God.” And even more strongly, Renihan connects the “ordination” of the magistrate to God’s sovereign rule. The magistrate reflects the cosmic rulership of the Christian God.
Immediately, we realize that, like Wolfe’s Christian Nationalism, for the Confessionalists, all political authority is derived from the Christian God, and is built along a specifically Christian understanding of world historical development. The 1689 confession is not at all consistent with the metaphysical basis of twentieth century liberal democracy— its political theology is not religiously neutral in the sense that it does not give equal footing to Christian and non-Christian world visions.
Dr. Renihan then argues that God, being “king of all the world” (page 450) “established earthly rulers in all places for specific purposes.” These purposes, Dr. Renihan argues in completely agreement with Wolfe (and contrary to the complete [perhaps willful] misunderstanding of many evangelical anti-Christian Nationalists), are for civil ends, rather than religious. And yet, despite this position (which made the Baptists politically anti-conformist), “since [civil magistrates] are appointed by God, the primary purpose of earthly rulers is to govern the common kingdom for his own glory” (page 451). Magistrates ought to have the glory of God in view, according to Dr. Renihan.
But Dr. Renihan does not just stop there at the metaphysical level; he also cites another dissenting Puritan, Richard Baxter.He uses Baxter here (page 452) to argue that, in Baxter’s words, the good magistrate “will take Gods Law for the only Universal Law to the world, and conform their own as By-Laws to it.” While this is obviously where theonomists jump in with their own methodology (one which I have stated on multiple occasions I have serious problems with), it is more historically accurate to consider this as consistent with the Christian Natural Law tradition. On its face, even Richard Hooker himself might endorse it. But in any case, it is certainly not a statement of religious neutrality, even if it is denominationally or inter-Christendomly (I made up this word) neutral.
Magistrates, Dr. Renihan elaborates, “are to function for the public good.” How, should we define this good? Hint: it had nothing to do with prosperity, public transportation projects, or medical services.
Renihan answers in order to “define how this phrase was understood in the dissenting churches." He writes that “they are to support that which is morally right and punish everything that is not.” And even more explicitly, Dr. Renihan writes: “Because they are God’s representatives on earth, their actions mirror his.” Here is Wolfe, expressing the same:
The prince, unlike the church minister, is a mediator—“a vicar of God”—in outward, civil affairs. As Calvin said, civil rulers “represent the person of God, as whose substitutes they in a manner act.”
Wolfe, Stephen. The Case for Christian Nationalism (pp. 286-287). Canon Press. Kindle Edition.
Renihan writes (page 452):
“The punishments [Magistrates] mete out are types of the judgements that will come on sinners at the last day.”
And again (page 453):
When government uses its power to defend and/or punish, it reflects the supreme kingship of God.
Wolfe’s views are basically the same here:
In a sense, we see God in the magistrate. Rutherford says, for example, that the king “hath a politic resemblance of the King of heavens, being a little god, and so is above any one man.” Calvin likewise states that “when good magistrates rule, we see God, as it were, near us, and governing us by means of those whom he hath appointed.” Elsewhere he writes that “the image of God shines forth in them when they execute judgment and justice.”
Wolfe, Stephen. The Case for Christian Nationalism (p. 287). Canon Press. Kindle Edition.
For more on the idea of civil punishments as being types of Divine Judgement, see Stephen Wolfe’s chapter 7 (The Christian Prince).
Finally, Dr. Renihan deals with an element of the Confession that perhaps touches on the “nationalism” aspect of things. Part of being a good magistrate, he argues, is paying attention to the particular laws and needs “of each kingdom or commonwealth.” While “political systems come and go… [temporary] obligations remain.” Part of the obligations magistrates need to attend is the maintenance of “justice and peace” within particular kingdoms (nations). The objective here is not that they should be seeking some universalistic standard the world round, but rather that the magistrate has been tasked with the well-being of, and “justice for, his own people.”
The combination of a Christian telos for a magistrate that ought to take political action along the boundaries of a Christian meaning to good and bad, together with an emphasis on, and awareness of, one’s own people, is the heart of “Christian Nationalism.” Christian Nationalism is not about the enforcement Old Testament civil laws; it is about seeing the Christian metaphysic as the religious bedrock for a civil society (because all societies have a religious bedrock—a civil cult), and seeing the political order as purposed in displaying the majesty of the Divine before the souls of one’s particular people. Christian Nationalism is not theonomy.
This article is not seeking to argue that subscribers to the 1689 Confession should be, or can be, Christian Nationalists under the full formulation of Stephen Wolfe. I take no official stance on this matter for the purposes of this article. For one thing, Stephen Wolfe’s model rests on a view of Creation dynamics and covenants that may or may not be acceptable to proponents of 1689 Covenant Theology (in my mind, this is still blurry). And for another thing, Wolfe’s own Presbyterianism may make him more sympathetic to the two Westminster Confession paragraphs related to the Civil Magistrate that the 1689 LBCF leaves out.
Though it is also possible that a Presbyterian follower of Wolfe might grasp the particularity of politics and be open to adjustments in this chapter, given changing contextual dynamics of political friends and enemies.
The 1689 Confessional Baptist view of the essence of the civil magistrate is far more similar to the Christian Nationalist one than it is to the priorities and commitments of modernist evangelical political theology. Where the 1689 Confession would most differ from Wolfe’s Christian Nationalism has to do with the role of the Civil Magistrate in upholding the true religion.
However, in honestly and objectively considering the Confession in its historical context, the hesitancy of the Baptists to allow the Magistrate the power to uphold the true religion has less to do with some ultimate demand for metaphysical political neutrality, and more to do with their understanding of the Christian conscience.
This is why Dr. Renihan opens his treatment of Chapter 24 in this way:
Understanding the connection between Christian liberty and the doctrine of the civil magistrate is indispensable, for without property construing the relationship, it may be possible to draw false and ungodly conclusions
Chapter 24 depends contextually, historically, and politically on Chapter 21. An honest reading of Chapter 24 takes into account the political situation of a chaotic England facing the ebbs and flows of constant crises of political legitimacy.
There is nothing in Chapter 24 which suggests a political quest toward secularization and de-christianization of the realm. There is every indication in studying the writings of the particular baptists that the commonwealth was still to be metaphysically Christian, that it was good for the civil order that the Christian God be publicly honored, and that the realm had a special interest in the health and freedom of Christ’s church as a unique institution.
Religious liberty originally—and certainly in seventeenth century England—was never meant to allow religious subversions like atheism, Islam, and so on. Again (get this through your heads!), the secularization of historical religious debates has thrown modern evangelicals for a complete loop!
In summary, reading Dr. Renihan’s exposition of Chapter 24 in the 1689 Confession leads me to the following three positions: 1) the 1689 confession is inconsistent with twentieth-century American liberal democracy; 2) it is consistent with the broadest themes Christian Nationalism in a loose sense; and 3) it is consistent with pre-twentieth century conceptions of religious liberty within the Anglo-American historical context (which is Christendom).
Baxter, of course, is not a Baptist—but Dr. Renihan seeks to develop the 1689 position in light of historical circumstance; something that modern proponents can learn from. Just from a common sensical view, its hard to take seriously those who approach political theology as if their confessional forebearers would be subscribers to the postwar American liberal-democratic (political neutralism) ideology.
This is something that is difficult to get modern evangelicals to see: religious tolerance was originally a reference to a political state that did not commit itself to one particular expression of the Christian religion; that is, religious liberty was a reference to the right of various Christian churches with key theological and ecclesiastical differences to co-exists within the commonwealth.