One of the most helpful features of Darryl’s argument is that it strips away the last remnants of theocracy and gives us an opportunity to be more consistent with our theological confession. There was unresolved tension in our 17th-century confession between our view of redemptive history as expressed in our covenant theology (covenant of works v covenant of grace) and our politics. Under the influence of theocracy, we tended to allow the state a redemptive function insofar as it regulated or imposed religion by enforcing the first table of the Declaogue or by regulating the order of the church.
I don’t blame our 16th- and 17th-century forebears for doing this. Covenant theology, as I’ve tried to argue elsewhere, did not emerge de novo in the 16th (and certainly not in the 17th-century as some folk continue to insist!). The covenant theology of the WCF has roots in the fathers and various strains of medieval theology, e.g., most patristic and medieval theologians understood Adam to have been in a probationary state. Our covenant theology developed in the Constantinian/theocratic context. Though the 16th- and 17th-century Reformed were able to re-think many things they were not able to re-think politics, and for the most part, science. We can be grateful that the divines had more wisdom than the 16th-century Lutherans and did not confess anything about the power of garlic!
There are historical reasons why it was not possible for the 16th- and 17th-century Reformed to re-think their politics. Both were centuries marked by tremendous upheaval and instability. The rise of social and religious radicals such as the Anabaptists and spiritualists and rationalists (e.g., Servetus) posed a great social threat. It’s not as if they were unable to re-think some aspects of social life. Contemporary Reformation scholarship has shown that Calvin’s understanding of marriage and divorce (he served as legal counsel in his brother’s divorce!) was fairly radical for the time, but wholesale overhauling of civil government was not on the agenda in the 16th-century. The Thirty-Years War and the English Civil War made it unlikely for most of the 17th century as well.
It really only in the European expansion to the New World and in the utter collapse from exhaustion of European Christendom in the 18th century that allowed folk, after the Thirty Years War to re-think the role of the magistrate. Until then it was implausible. Even so, it took a vicious revolution in France, which was a response to the attempt by the papists to re-assert their civil authority (as part of the ongoing campaign to recapture Europe for the Papacy, which turned out to be its last gasp). It’s interesting that the Protestant revolts, the foundations of which were being laid as early as the 1540s in the Protestant resistance literature (e.g., Beza’s De Iure Magistratuum and “Brutus’” Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, were of a different character.
So far as I can strangely, we have mostly accepted the rise of the new science (any geocentrists in the room?) but some of us are having trouble accepting the new politics; but the new politics are the natural result our theology. It was theocracy that was at variance with our theology. We theorized about but did not implement the two kingdoms consistently until the New World.
One of the great things accomplished by the Reformation and the absolutely necessary development (sine qua non), was the distinction between law and gospel. We expressed this distinction in our covenant theology by distinguishing between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.
The political correlate to law/gospel distinction is the that which exists between the church and the magistrate. The latter is a horizontal covenant of works between citizens and between the government and the governed and between governments. A covenant of works is legal: “do this and live.” The state is not a gracious entity. Though a magistrate may choose to exercise grace, such is not proper but alien to it. The judge is not obligated to be gracious. Failure to recognize this fact lies behind much confusion on the right and the left today. Both groups seem to want to make the state an agent of redemption.
I suspect that is because many on the right and the left don’t “get” the distinction between law and gospel. It’s clear that many theocrats and most theonomists don’t get it and those who do live with the same sort of tension between their soteriology and their politics that existed in the 16th and 17th centuries.
What we want from civil authorities (and what they often fail to deliver) is justice. We render to Caeasar so he will pave our streets and protect us from criminals. Instead Caesar often takes our renderings and function as if he is an agent of grace to citizens and corporations as benefits him.
The state does not exist in a covenant of works before God. The only divinely authorized national covenant ever to have been instituted (with national Israel) expired on the cross. This fact explains why the apostles did not prosecute the civil authorities for failing to uphold their national covenant as the prophets did.
The only institution which expresses the covenant of grace is the visible, institutional church. The church is where the covenant of grace is announced, where the minister declares my sins to have been forgiven sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo. To be sure, the minister also announces the law of God, but he does so as an agent of redemption not as a civil authority and he announces he law chiefly to drive sinners to Christ and that those who have so trusted Christ might order their lives according to the divinely revealed moral will. We might say that the church is “legal” in the interests of grace.
The state, as an agent of law, has no interest in absolving sin and is gracious only in the interests of justice.