“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them to serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the inequity of the fathers on the children to the third and forth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
So commands the LORD God in the first two commandments (by the Protestant numbering). Applied to the individual Christian, these two commandments forbid the worshipping of false God, and forbid the worshipping of the true God according to vain imaginations. These commandments confront us with the fact that the One God is a jealous God and commands absolute allegiance and absolute loyalty. According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the first commandment requires “us to know and acknowledge God to be the only true God, and our God, and to worship and glorify him accordingly.” Sins forbidden by the 1st Commandment include, “denying, or not worshipping and glorifying the true God. Likewise, the 2nd Commandment “requireth the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in His word. Sins forbidden by the 2nd Commandment include, “worshipping God by images, or any other way not appointed in His word.”
Application of these commandments by Kings and rulers has lead to disastrous results. Catholic civil magistrates torturing heretics. Protestant civil governors forbidding the Roman Catholic Mass. The sword used to deny the liberty of conscience and the freedom of worship.
Setting aside the question of how these commandments apply within the pragmatic framework of a pluralist society, I wish to ask the question of how should they apply in the context of an explicitly Christian civil polity?
First, we must recognize that these commandments are primarily directed to the covenant community of the redeemed. The preamble provides the context, “I AM the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” No body politic has the right to proclaim itself the new Israel. The Church alone is the Israel of God and her boundaries transcend the geography dimensions of the nation-state.
Do these commandments therefore have no implications for the civil government? The key, I believe, is to recognize that the 1st and 2nd commandments, like all of the commandments, have been fulfilled and transformed by Christ. He is the I AM that brought deliverance to His Church. He is the LORD our God who has revealed the true God in His Triune glory. He is the King who rules the nations. He is the LORD who commands their allegiance. He is the incarnation of Deity, whose jealousy demands our loyalty.
All of this adds up to more than pious cant. There are real political implications at stake. Implications that rocked the Roman Empire and that laid down the ultimate foundation of religious liberty and freedom of conscience.
First, we must recognize that the Christ who has revealed to us the True God has also declared, “my Kingdom is not of this world.” John 18:36. 2K is not a fabricated innovation of Escondido, California. In some sense, it it the common theological heritage of Western Christendom, despite the caeseropapism of the Anglican settlement. It was the doctrine that called Thomas Becket to stand against King Henry II. It was the doctrine of the Scottish Covenanters against the Stuart Kings. It is the doctrine of the great Augustine who reminds us that their are two cities, one whose end his heaven and one whose fading glory will ultimately extinguish with the passing of the age.
Understanding that these two cities are founded on different principles and have different ends, we are able to distinguish how these commandments apply differently to the City of man than they do the City of God. The City of God, or the Kingdom of God, is founded upon the principle of Triune Love. The city of man is also founded upon love, but love of a different kind. Citizens of this city do not share a common love for the True God but on things local, good, but fading. But these two cities dwell together in one geographic location. More importantly, these two cities dwell together within the same heart. The Christian is called to simultaneous citizenship in the City of God and the city of man.
Dual loyalties create unique tensions. In one way or the other, the story of Christendom was the story of unresolved tension as Emperor struggled against Pope. Bishop struggled against Governor. The intractable problem was exacerbated by the division of Western Christendom at the time of the Reformation. Who is sufficient to distinguish the competing claims of multiple confessions claiming to be the True Church? Christ’s sheep hear is voice. Put no confidence in princes. The city of man is not competent judge of the City of God.
Ironically, Christ’s transformation of the 1st and 2nd Commandment, by driving us to the one who said “render unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar” allows us to recognize that the separation of church and state is more than a pragmatic solution, it is of the essence of a Christian theory of civil government.
Although the faith of the American founders might leave much to be desired, on the issue of church and state they successful helped resolve Christendom’s seemingly intractable problem.