Christ and the Kingdoms of Men, David C. Innes, foreword by Carl R. Trueman. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2020.
Summary: Explores the civic and political responsibilities of Christians and the proper purposes of government.
This past electoral season underscores the urgency for the need of principled foundations for our political life and civic engagement. Here, as elsewhere, Christians ought look first at the foundations of their faith, as revealed in the scriptures. David C. Innes sets out to do this. It is important to note at outset that this is framed within a Reformed perspective reflecting theological convictions of Calvin and Abraham Kuyper.
Innes begins by grounding this theology in the Kingdom of God, revealed in his rule over creation, working through the vice-regency of human beings, even pre-fall, to fill and govern the creation, and in a fallen world, to provide various institutions of authority from the family to government to restrain evil and to provide for peaceable conditions allowing people to flourish secure in their life, health and possessions. With the coming of Christ comes not only redemption but the inauguration of God’s kingdom or rule that will transcend all earthly kingdoms, of which we are still necessarily a part, until the return of Christ.
Centering on Romans 13:1-7, Innes develops the proper role of government in the punishment of evil, protecting life and property, and positively protecting the exercise of piety and morality and liberty. Good governments praise the good. The challenge is governing in a fallen world, one where trust may not be assumed. Innes writes thoughtfully about the “political problem,” the tension between the power involved in government’s exercise of its proper role, and the restraints needed against excessive power. He explores Lockean government, upon which western democracies are modelled, both in the limits placed upon government and the creation of individual self-sovereignty under the law and its assertion of radical personal freedom.
Innes would argue for an ordered civil society in place of radical individualism, with limited government by the consent of governed under the rule of law. Running through this is the idea of subsidiarity, that what can be done at a lower level ought not be done at a higher or central one. Rights are what we would expect of one another. Following Romans 13, the proper response of one is submission to the government, save where this conflicts to obedience to God.
Up to this point, I would find myself in basic agreement. It is where Innes goes with the question of resistance that troubled me. He speaks of the role of inferior magistrates who ought act when those above them fail to act in the interest of the people. By this, he offers theological justification for the American Revolution. My problem is two-fold, at least. I do not find this principle of the inferior magistrate in scripture but only cited by the author in Calvin’s Institutes. Secondly, the same principle has been used to justify nullification in the lead up to the Civil War, and the secession of states that led to this costly and bloody war. Some use similar principles to argue for overturning authorities exercising public health powers in pandemics by mandating masks and other prudent measures for the common good (while ignoring ordinary measures like traffic laws that exist for similar reasons). At very least, it seems this idea, unless hedged about by the rule of law, may be arbitrary and dangerous to the public order.
I’m also troubled that this is the only form of resistance Innes proposes. I do not find any treatment of either the prophetic resistance of the Old Testament, nor the faithful resistance of the church against empire evident in Revelation. I do not see him put forward warrants for protest and non-violent resistance on the part of citizens that arguably in many societies has brought about political changes (I think of the Velvet Revolution of the Czech Republic). It does not seem that Innes envisions a society where people are subject to political oppression and do not have “inferior magistrates” to act on their behalf, unless this doctrine allows that leaders of such movements act in this role.
However, I must commend Innes on the concluding chapter for his discussion of citizenship and statesmanship. I do find here some of what I missed in the previous chapter in the role of a good citizen under tyranny. In more ordinary times, he also stresses the civic duties of citizens in the pursuit of the common good and the role of those who govern as statesmen who work, even in a pluralistic society, to preserve the liberties of all and the common good.
I think Innes offers a good, clear outline of a Reformed theology of government and the citizen. I would suggest that if one wants to read in this area, one not confine oneself to this book, but read more widely. Some suggestions may be found in the recommended readings. I would also suggest James Skillen’s The Good of Politics (review). Skillen comes out of the Reformed tradition, but draws on a much wider array of sources. However, this book lays out good basic groundwork for the basis and purpose and limits of government within God’s purposes, and the proper role of citizens.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.