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“Conservative Liberalism” after Christendom

In his recent book, David VanDrunen makes a protestant case for politics based on the natural law. We need an approach to government that recognizes the built-in moral fabric of the universe, yet refrains from exercising too much ambition in telling people how they must live their lives.

Debating the merits of religiously oriented approaches to politics is not typically an exhilarating experience, but that has changed in recent years. We now find ourselves in a robust debate between conservatives over whether they should stand by the liberal democratic tradition or move beyond liberalism toward a more holistic and integrated state that is capable of enforcing the social and moral—if not religious—norms that they embrace. Most of the participants in this debate have been Catholics, with few evangelicals offering substantial contributions. For this reason, the release of David VanDrunen’s latest book, Politics after Christendom, could not have been better timed. VanDrunen is a Reformed evangelical and serves as professor of systematic theology and ethics at Westminster Seminary California. While his work does not take direct aim at current skirmishes, VanDrunen delivers a meaningful contribution to that ongoing conversation by outlining his own approach to political engagement after Christendom.

Political Theology and Political Ethics

VanDrunen’s work is careful, lucid, and thorough. He successfully mines the depths of Scripture to offer a biblical account of political engagement, both a framework for approaching questions of politics and government and an application of that framework to a host of contemporary issues. The book concludes with his reflections and evaluation of the traditions of classical liberalism and conservatism. Following his examination of both, VanDrunen ultimately endorses a “conservative liberalism” that attempts to apply the best of both traditions, while avoiding what he sees as the pitfalls of nationalism and progressivism.

In the first half of his project, VanDrunen constructs a massive framework for Christian political engagement premised on four foundational elements: natural law, Augustine’s two cities, Reformed theology’s two kingdoms, and the Noahic covenant. According to VanDrunen, civil government is a legitimate but provisional institution. God has established government “as the ruling authority of political communities,” but only for a limited time and purpose. Likewise, government is a common but accountable institution. Government exists “for the benefit of the human race” as a whole, and every human government is morally “accountable to God and his standards of justice.” Upholding justice is the chief end of civil government, and it exists to pursue that end “toward the entire human community within its jurisdiction without discriminating by ethnic or religious identity.”

The Noahic Covenant and Natural Law

Some readers will be puzzled that VanDrunen would consider God’s covenant with Noah to be foundational for political theology. Why not begin in the Garden at creation, or with the Mosaic or Davidic covenants? These are legitimate questions, and VanDrunen successfully answers them by examining both the content and context of the Noahic covenant. The “creation mandate” God issued to the man and woman in the garden was straightforward: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28). God commissioned man and woman to multiply through offspring and to rule over his creation. But after the fall of man and the great flood, God sets about the task of remaking the world beginning with Noah and his family. In Genesis 9 God commissions Noah in a way that is similar to, but not the same as, his instruction to Adam in the garden. As VanDrunen argues, “the creation mandate is refracted through the Noahic covenant” to account for the reality of life in a fallen world.

 

With the Noahic covenant, life in the world begins anew, and VanDrunen sees the Noahic covenant as the proper basis for establishing both political communities and civil government for at least three reasons. First, it is universal in scope, applying to all mankind. Second, it is preservative in nature, as there is no salvific or redemptive dimension to this covenant. Third, it is temporary and stands only between the time of Noah and the eschaton. From this covenant VanDrunen identifies three critical elements forming the Noahic ethic, each of which gives rise to a specific human institution.

First, God’s command to be fruitful and multiply yields “familial institutions” capable of producing and raising up offspring to once again populate the earth. Second, God’s gift of plants and animals for humans to eat yields, by necessity, “enterprise institutions” capable of the kinds of creativity and technological innovation needed to feed the world’s growing population. And third, the truly novel aspect of the Noahic covenant is God’s command that the shedding of human blood requires a just and proportionate penalty—something unnecessary prior to the fall (Gen. 9:6). In God’s directive “to bring justice against destructive people who harm fellow human beings and thus hinder the work of familial and enterprise associations,” VanDrunen finds warrant for “judicial institutions” capable of promoting justice and enforcing penalties against transgressors.

For VanDrunen, the judicial institutions authorized by the Noahic covenant establish the basis and legitimacy of civil government. The chief end of government, therefore, is to promote peace and administer justice in human affairs by determining “what sorts of harmful conduct require redress, to resolve conflicts, and to enforce appropriate penalties and remedies.” But upon what basis is “justice” established?

VanDrunen’s greatest gift to Protestant political thought is the retrieval of the natural law tradition. In the mid-twentieth century, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth famously debated the utility of natural law for Protestant ethics with Emil Brunner. Barth’s categorical rejection of natural law was so forceful and persuasive that the tradition fell out of favor with Protestants for the remainder of the century. But in recent years VanDrunen and a small contingent of Reformed evangelicals have sought to revitalize the natural law tradition among their Protestant contemporaries.

In addressing the issue of justice, VanDrunen begins with accountability. He states, “all human beings know their moral responsibilities before God through the natural law.” He describes natural law as “the idea that God makes known the basic substance of his moral law through the created order itself.” Accordingly, God will hold all human beings—and human institutions—responsible for their moral choices because he has designed the world in a way that is “well-ordered, intelligible, and morally instructive.”

Here VanDrunen pulls together the threads of natural law and the Noahic covenant: “God’s communication of the natural law in the present world is a covenantal act . . . the moral requirements of the Noahic covenant are not unfamiliar to human beings or political communities. Rather, they resonate with what human beings are by nature, as they live in the kind of world they do.” In other words, as human beings live in the world they are immersed in the patterns and moral order of creation and thus confronted by the natural law. But, he contends, fundamentally human moral reasoning accords with the moral order apparent in creation because both are “grounded in God’s own reasoning.” This lays bare the true foundation of VanDrunen’s project, the pivotal connection between natural law and the Noahic covenant: “God communicates the natural law through the created order, but the created order only continues to exist because God maintains it through the Noahic covenant.”

Under the Noahic covenant, governments are authorized to promote justice, and through natural law human beings are able to discern what is just. VanDrunen concludes therefore that civil laws should be grounded in natural law, though he denies such laws “should attempt to enforce all aspects of natural-law morality.” Instead, he argues that knowing and applying the natural law is a “sapiential process” of accruing and maturing in wisdom and that “political communities have to exercise prudence and discretion” as they develop their laws.

Modest Ethic, Massive Structure

VanDrunen begins from a relatively simple premise: the Noahic covenant forms the basis of both political community and civil government. Throughout the book, he repeatedly acknowledges that the Noahic covenant offers only a modest ethic, but from a few simple commands in Genesis 9 he is able not only to construct a basic framework for approaching politics but to reason his way to a defense of markets and a rejection of legal positivism. Despite his careful reasoning, some readers will not be able to follow VanDrunen from his very solid foundation to the various conclusions presented in part 2.

 

Because VanDrunen sees the administration of justice as government’s sole responsibility authorized by the Noahic covenant, he advances an especially limited vision of the role of government. He suggests, for instance, the privatization of roads, and the potential exclusion of government from education and healthcare, and he also questions the validity of state-funded aid to the poor. Each of these may be scrutinized as to whether their existence is a matter of “justice.” But a critical element seems to be missing from VanDrunen’s entire discussion of such matters.

For any government to function, even in a limited capacity, any administrative efforts to promote or uphold justice necessarily entail the function of “ordering” the common life of the people within its jurisdiction. And whether government acts to recognize and codify or to establish new norms to regulate the activities of citizens, the task of ordering common life among the people is not only fundamental to the project of government but will likely exceed the narrow conception of administering “justice” put forward by VanDrunen. While it is true that governments naturally seek to increase the bounds of their authority, it is also true that any meaningful attempt to order the common life of a political community will require more substantive activity than the mere punishment of the wicked. It seems unnecessary, therefore, to argue for the privatization of roads or to question the validity of a social safety net in order to affirm the modest nature of a Noahic political ethic as the proper foundation for political life. In fact, further discussion of how a limited, justice-oriented vision of government rightfully goes about the work of ordering life in the polis would prove beneficial.

Apart from his defense of the Noahic covenant and natural law as foundational for political theology, the real strength of VanDrunen’s project is its utility for contemporary political engagement. The work presents a robust framework for politics after Christendom. And for VanDrunen, this is because Christendom itself was essentially a mistake. “Christians do not need a new and special kind of political theology for life after Christendom,” VanDrunen writes at the book’s opening, because Scripture “never hints that Christians ought to seek the kind of integrated Christian society that Christendom represented.”

VanDrunen recognizes the reality of pluralism not just as a matter of sociology, but of theology itself—beginning with the “common” nature of the Noahic covenant. No meaningful society enjoys uniformity in terms of religious identity and beliefs. And there is no need to pretend otherwise or to use the state to coerce specific beliefs. Instead, as VanDrunen argues, what is needed is an approach to government that recognizes the built-in moral fabric of the universe, yet refrains from exercising too much ambition in telling people how they must live their lives.

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