|How Are Christians to View Government?: Lessons from Church History, Part 1|
As people who believe in sola scriptura, we turn to the Bible for help, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of clear guidance there. Leaving aside the question of the relationship between the Old and New Testament, the Bible has nothing to say about how to live in a modern democratic republic where we can have a say in public policy. It tells us to be subject to the governing authorities and to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but it also tells us to give to God what is God’s and that our responsibility is to obey God rather than man.
This is where turning to church history can help us.
Many great Christian thinkers of the past have wrestled with difficult questions concerning the relationship of the Christian and the state, and there are a number of important principles that we can learn from them. In this article, we will look at one key thinker from the early centuries of the church, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430).
Augustine of Hippo
No church father had as much of an impact on Western Christianity as Augustine of Hippo Regius, a city in modern
Augustine’s masterpiece was written in the wake of the fall of Rome to Alaric and the Visigoths in A.D. 407. Roman pagans claimed that the city fell because the Empire had abandoned its ancient gods for Christianity. (Yes, nearly a century after Constantine, there were still pagans in the Empire.) Augustine offered his defense of Christianity in “The City of God.”
Augustine argued that there are two cities in the world, the City of
Under these circumstances, government is necessary to restrain evil. Unfortunately, government is also part of the City of
Augustine’s ideas about the City of Man flow from his understanding of Original Sin, the idea that we have an inbred tendency to be selfish and self-seeking and thus to sin.
In contrast, the City of
The City of
Augustinianism in Action
“The City of God” shaped how Western Europeans understood society for well over a thousand years, even influencing the U.S. Constitution. In particular, it promoted a skeptical attitude toward government. Since governments are part of the City of
As a result, due to the influence of Augustine, all medieval European governments were limited in their authority and had systems of checks and balances to try to prevent anyone from seizing too much power and abusing the people. Among other things, the idea of unalienable human rights given to us by God is first clearly articulated by medieval theologians. Since these rights come from Creation or were given by God in
Augustine’s ideas had a profound effect on Martin Luther, who had been an Augustinian monk, and John Calvin; from Calvin they spread to the Puritans, and from there into the American political tradition. Our ideas of limited government and checks and balances come from Augustinian pessimism about government and its potential for abuse of power.
The system set up in our Constitution was intended to take advantage of self-interest so that each organ of the government would jealously guard its prerogatives and keep the others in check. There was originally no provision for political parties because the Founders believed that parties would act as factions, and that loyalty to faction would outweigh loyalty to institution. In other words, people from each institution (the House, Senate, and the Presidency) would work together across institutional lines to promote their faction’s interests, causing the whole system of checks and balances to break down. History has demonstrated this fear to be well-founded.
Ultimately, the American Founders recognized that because of Original Sin, they could devise the best governing system imaginable, but its integrity would last only as long as men (and later, women) of virtue were elected to office. Once government fell into the hands of the corrupt, it would inevitably become corrupt and abusive.
The Augustinian answer to how a Christian should view the government, then, is quite simple: We should be wary of it, constantly aware of the danger of corruption, and weighing whether the people we elect are people of integrity and virtue. If they are not, we can count on them working to accumulate more power for themselves, and, sooner or later, demanding allegiance to themselves over allegiance to God.
Augustine himself never equated the City of