Public Religion, Presbyterian Style

A Renewed Interest in “Public Religion”

We are in a time in which the topic of “public religion” is being revisited. Most are now intuitively aware that there is something amiss with the late modern conceit that religion must be cordoned off to the private sphere.

In fact, over the past half century, contestation of this theme has been growing. In an important work in the early 1990s, Public Religions in the Modern World, José Casanova documented the emergent movements of religious deprivatization in the last quarter of the twentieth century. And not just among Christians, but many religious groups had increasingly come to resist the small space afforded them by modern secularism. There are many reasons for this in America. We could begin our explanation from various points, but would especially have to include the impact of the civil rights movement, liberation theology, the emergence of the Religious Right in response to the Sexual Revolution and Roe, and then the civil religion during the Cold War that pitted the Christian West against atheistic communism. All of these can be subsumed under the label of the American “culture wars,” which were also battles about public religion. But then the 1990s could be characterized as a relative social and political detente. A healthy economy and geopolitical dominance papered over many of the cultural differences. Many of the debates seemed to be exhausted. History appeared to have ended with the hegemony of liberal democracy and neoliberal capitalism. However, 9/11 sent shockwaves into the system, reignited debates about public religion. Islam would not easily submit to secularization. Should Christianity? Had late modern secularism overstepped? Had history ended?

And we are all aware of how things have escalated since the mid-2010s. Catholic integralism had its moment in the spotlight, and for the past eighteen months Christian nationalism has been the topic du jour. But I think we can also see Wokeness, which went into fever pitch during the pandemic, as a form of public religion. There is a religious energy behind Wokeness, and it is stamped by simulacra of religious doctrines, ethical imperatives, and ritual practices. Wokeness, as I and many others have argued, is a heretical civil religion, vying to fill a vacuum left by the evacuation of mainline Protestantism. But in this sense, Wokeness is an apocalyptic gift–it reveals what is fundamental and inescapable, reminds us that politics will always be shaped by a religious vision. Religion will not be privatized, and society cannot live without religion, many are recognizing today.

But while Wokeness bears witness to this fundamental, structural reality, it fills it with the wrong content. And there are also issues with the accounts of the reemergence of public religion by those like Casanova in the field of sociology of religion. They try to envision how religion can fit within the contemporary world, and thus they launch from and are limited by the categories of late-modern liberal democracy. I don’t want to primarily speak for or against liberal democracy, but I do want to ask if there are resources more native to our Reformed and Presbyterian tradition that can help us think well about public religion.

Broad Outline of Classical  Presbyterian Political Theory

From here I would like to outline broad contours of classical Reformed and Presbyterian thought on politics, particularly on the relationship between church and state. These outlines represent a consensus among key Reformed thinkers and original confessional documents.

Twofold kingdom/two powers

Reformed political theory begins fundamentally not just with the comprehensive lordship of Christ, but also his twofold kingdom, over which he administers his authority in different ways.[1] There are two bodies, civil and ecclesiastical, with two different jurisdictions. We will outline these differences according to the Aristotelian “causes” in a moment.

Grounded in Old Testament Israel

But first we need to draw attention to the fact that classical Reformed teaching grounds this distinction between these two bodies/authorities in Old Testament Israel. For instance, consider the chapter in George Gillespie’s (1613-1648) Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, titled: “THAT THE JEWISH CHURCH WAS FORMALLY DISTINCT FROM THE JEWISH STATE OR COMMONWEALTH.”[2] The arguments presented there are cited and echoed in Francis Turretin (1623-1687), James Bannerman (1807-1868),[3] and P.J. Hoedemaker (1839-1910).[4] Hear Turretin: “the church of the Old Testament had its own peculiar polity and form of sacred government, in the exercise of which the ministry had a power distinct from the political according to the institution of God himself.”[5] A citizen was not necessarily a member with full privileges in the ecclesiastical community, and certain members of the religious community, like proselytes, were not necessarily citizens; they could take part in ecclesiastical community even though they did not enjoy full benefits of the commonwealth. Church and state in Israel were distinguished. In another chapter, Gillespie even makes a case for this distinction with reference to what he perceives as two “Sanhedrins” in Israel.[6] Gillespie and Bannerman appeal to Deuteronomy 17, 2 Chronicles 19, and Jeremiah 26 as evidence for two groups of elders, two courts, two groups of office-bearers.[7]

All of these authors observe in the Old Testament two different communities, or social bodies, with unique authorities. The ones who conflated these communities and denied the fundamental distinction in Israel were Anabaptists and Erastians–both of whom have always been opposed by classical Presbyterian political thought.[8] Bannerman mentions this confusion about Israel, and says it has been effectively refuted by Gillespie, “as [were] every other favorite Erastian argument.”[9]

What is the Erastian position that has always been so virulently opposed by Presbyterians?

Erastianism is inspired by the writings of sixteenth-century Swiss theologian Thomas Erastus (1524-1583), who argued that the magistrate is responsible for church discipline. Later Erastians expanded on this, making the case that the magistrate has authority in spiritual and ecclesiastical matters.[10] This led them, according to Gillespie, to “oppose … a church government distinct from the civil.”[11] Several Westminster divines embraced this position. However, the Assembly as a whole did not embrace Erastianism, but instead distinguished clearly between civil and ecclesiastical powers.

This distinction, according to Presbyterian political theory, is de jure divino, and applies at all times.[12] The church is a separate body operating according to a spiritual politics. We will discuss that briefly in a moment.

But again, this distinction applies for all time. Thus, Presbyterian politics is opposed to the political theory of both Erastians and Papalists. We do not, à la Catholic integralists, envision church authorities treating the state as the secular arm of the church.[13] Presbyterians are also against the Erastian usurping of ecclesiastical duties.[14] Presbyterian political theology resists both ecclesiastical domination of the state and Erastian encroachment of the state into ecclesial matters.[15] The two must remain distinct and cannot exchange duties.[16] God is sovereign over both bodies; but they remain distinct channels with different instruments.

“Spiritual” power

At this point I want to briefly discuss the term “spiritual” power. This draws attention to the fact that the church is a unique body in the world. Coercive, corporal, or pecuniary instruments are off limits to it; its means are spiritual.[17] And the magistrate cannot perform church discipline. Church discipline is a type of juridical power that is appropriate to the spiritual power, and denied to the civil.[18] This is one of the key problems with the Erastian theory: it opposes the church as a divine institution by absorbing it into the civil, and taking the church’s powers away from it.[19] As Turretin says, Romanists err in excess with regard to church power, whereas Erastians err in defect, by saying that no power is given to the church, or that all that is given to it is given to it through the magistrate.[20] No, the “orthodox” Presbyterian view is that ecclesiastical power is distinct from civil.

Distinguish according to Aristotelian causes

How are they distinct? This brings us to the Aristotelian causes (expanded a bit).[21]

They differ in their efficient cause, or origin. The civil power has its origins in God the creator; whereas the church has its origin in Christ the redeemer; or we could say, respectively, in the Son as God and the firstborn of creation, through whom and for whom all things were created—including thrones, dominions, rulers, and civil authorities; and in the Son as Man and Mediator and head of the church. This is important for our understanding of the state, because it means that God is sovereign regardless of whether the civil body is Christian; and this also allows Christians to recognize legitimate authority even in pagan governments.[22]

The civil and ecclesiastical powers differ in their subjects, or human agents. With regard to officers: political authority can be in the hand of heathens, but this is not true for ecclesiastical authority. And with regard to their members: the conditions for membership are different. The church has no direct authority over those outside her communion.[23]

They also differ in their objects. The state is concerned with all things directly related to temporal well-being—protection of life and property, preservation of civil order, punishment of evil-doers, promotion of virtue and public morals. The church is directly concerned with its covenant members and sacred things. In a moment we will discuss how the civil power also has some indirect concern about these things; but to anticipate this: the state directly advances the secular interests of the polity and only indirectly promotes its spiritual well-being;[24] whereas the church directly furthers the spiritual interests of its members and is only indirectly concerned with contributing to temporal or secular well-being.[25]

These two powers differ in their formal causes. This can be summarized by the difference between the terms magisterial and ministerial authority. Political power is magisterial, and thus legislative and punitive. Spiritual power is ministerial, and thus primarily declarative. Magistrates have control over bodies and other external goods; pastors have no right to compulsory power or infliction of temporal punishments. This distinction leads us to the next Aristotelian cause.

These two powers differ in their material causes/means. There are two swords: the temporal sword is legislative, punitive, and can coerce; the spiritual sword involves no coercion or civil punishments, but consists in preaching the Word, administering of sacraments, and executing church discipline—of which excommunication is the final recourse.[26]

Lastly, they differ in their final causes, or ends. The civil power is ordered ultimately to the glory of God and proximately to civil peace, justice, and order, and thus it is concerned with external observance of public morals. Ecclesial power is directed ultimately to the glory of Christ and proximately to the spiritual good and edification of the church.

Again, these two powers cannot exchange duties. As Bannerman said: “It is impossible for the State to do the work of the Church; nor is this its primary object. It is equally impossible for the Church to do the work of the State …. [T]he line drawn by the finger of God between things spiritual and things civil … must ever limit the power of the Church on the one side, and that of the State on the other. The landmarks between were not set up and adjusted by contract, but of old had their foundations laid deep in the nature of things.”[27] Bannerman goes on to say: “Between the extremes which make the State to be the slave of the Church, and that other extreme which makes the Church to be the slave of the State, there is no position that is safe or consistent with sound principle, except that which asserts their mutual and equal independence.” And Presbyterian political theory is clear that these powers remain distinct even where the state is Christian.[28]

However, as I will go on to explain, while these powers are distinct, they are not entirely independent and unrelated to one another. This will bring Presbyterian political theology into some conflict with Anabaptist and Neo-Anabaptist thought. Yes, Presbyterians reject absolutism from either side, both Erastian civil or Integralist ecclesial varieties. However, classical Presbyterian political theory does not, as a result, endorse public secularism or mere pluralism. Rather, the civil and ecclesiastical powers have duties toward each other.[29]

Duties of Church Toward Civil Power

Many have described Reformed theology as helping to restore the dignity of temporal power. This is partly because the Reformed tradition denies the church direct authority over the civil power, and does not, à la Catholic integralism, perceive the state as the secular arm of the church.[30] Romanists attempt to seize the sword from the state and to refuse to let the state draw its sword without the permission of the pope. This denies the dignity conferred upon political rulers in Scripture. This denial is exacerbated with Romanist pretensions of the papal right to depose unbelieving magistrates.[31]

In contrast, in Presbyterian political theology the church honors the distinct authority of the civil power.[32] The church is not over the civil power, but it is also not immune from it. This differs from Romanists, who imagine certain clergy are exempt from civil sanctions.[33] Rather, citing examples in the Old Testament in which priests were subject to political magistrates in civil and criminal affairs, Reformed theology honors the legitimate authority of civil rulers. But part of this honoring includes exhorting magistrates to do their duties–and if they fail, to rebuke them and pronounce the judgment of God against them.[34]

Duties of Civil Power Toward God, True Religion, and Church

Next, let us come to the duties of the civil power toward God, the church, and true religion.

As Johannes Althusius, in probably the most important work of early Reformed political theory, explains, government leads what is governed toward its end. For humans and human society, this involves concerns about body and soul.[35] And Bannerman argues that the magistrate’s duties toward religion are not derived from the personal character of the particular magistrate, but the nature of his office.[36] He must, in some way, regardless of whether he is a Christian, concern himself with higher realities.[37] This leads us to discussion of the magistrate’s duties toward the two tables of the Decalogue.

Both tables of the Decalogue

Classical Reformed teaching on politics is grounded in discussion of the Decalogue, which is an encapsulation of the natural law–of what is morally demanded at all times for all peoples. I don’t have time to expand much on this, but many others have done great work on this in recent years, helping retrieve the natural law for Reformed theology.

In classical Reformed political theology, the magistrate has duties toward both tables, not just the second.[38] Certainly, his duties toward the second table are more direct, but overall his job is to ensure that the civil laws correspond to natural law.[39] And this natural law also tells us that we were made to worship and honor God. Thus, the magistrate has a concern for proper worship, ie., has a concern for the first table.[40] But his role here is somewhat less direct. As Gillespie argues, the magistrate’s scope of care is bigger than his scope of direct operation.[41] We will have to include other key concepts to help explain this. But the Jus Divinum Regimenis Ecclesiastici, in its exposition of the political and ecclesiastical teaching of the Westminster Assembly, says that the magistrate does have some role to punish first table offenses. And Turretin says that magistrates ought to be guardians of both tables. And Althusius argues that magistrates must strengthen true religion and its practice; they reward virtue and punish offenses against either table.

Two key concepts in classical Reformed political theory help us here: “nursing fathers” and circa sacra.

“Nursing fathers”

The concept of the magistrate as “nursing father” comes from Isaiah 49:23, and I will briefly explain what it means in Reformed political theory.[42] But one thing to note from the outset is that this image was largely developed to supplant another biblical theme that had come to dominate medieval Catholic political theory and was used to justify Catholic persecution of Protestants. That theme is from the parable of the wedding banquet in Luke 14, from which Augustine had taken the biblical language of “compel them to come in” to justify the church’s use of state force to coerce heretics into the Catholic Church. This theme became dominant in successive centuries, justifying religious coercion. The Reformed looked for other resources, and found in Isaiah a prophecy about magistrates defending and promoting the true religion that was taught by the churches. John Calvin was key in developing this theme in his popular 1551 commentary on Isaiah, and this idea became exceedingly popular among Presbyterians, Anglicans, and even Congregationalists. According to Calvin, magistrates who defend the true, Reformed religion obtain “this highest pinnacle of rank, which surpasses dominion and principality of every sort, to be ‘nursing-fathers’ and guardians of the Church.’” To be worthy of this rank, Calvin argues, princes must be “about removing superstitions and putting an end to all wicked idolatry, about advancing the kingdom of Christ and maintaining purity of doctrine, about purging scandals and cleansing from the filth that corrupt piety and impairs the lustre of Divine majesty.”[43]

The nursing father tradition was developed to explain that the magistrate does not have direct authority over religious matters, but provides external protection and support. The magistrate must not coerce and compel with regard to religion, but does collaborate with spiritual authorities to promote true religion.[44] The magistrate has a duty to care about these matters, argues Turretin, but is not authorized to directly advance these goods. Rather, the magistrate must attend to them indirectly.[45] This leads to the other key Reformed political principle: circa sacra.[46]

Circa sacra

The magistrate has concern for religious matters, but advances them indirectly. The civil power has “external care” of religion as a nurse-father.[47] Appeal is often made to figures like Moses, Joshua, Hezekiah, Josiah, Asa, Jehoshaphat, et al. who assisted the reformation of religion in their days without displacing the proper ministry of ecclesiastical authorities.[48] The magistrate thus exercises authority “about ecclesiastical objects, but politically, not ecclesiastically. Circa sacra not in sacris.[49] Turretin says this can be performed without abrogating the power which belongs to church authorities, “because although [the two authorities] are concerned with the same object materially still it is not the same formally.”[50] The two powers are concerned with these matters in a different way. Bannerman says that “there is much which the civil magistrate may do ‘circa sacra,’ without involving him in the charge of interfering ‘in sacris,’—much that he may do, when in friendly alliance with the ecclesiastical society, to promote its spiritual objects, while he is in no way departing from his own sphere as the minister of the State, or assuming the character or powers that belong to the Church.”[51]

To explain what can and cannot be done, Turretin first argues that the Reformed position stands between the views of Erastians and Anabaptists. Regarding the right of the magistrate about sacred things and care of religion, the Erastians sin in excess and the Anabaptists sin in defect; the former claim too much ecclesiastical power for the magistrate, the later remove the magistrate from all care of ecclesiastical things. The Reformed mean, as summarized by Turretin, is this: “the pious and believing magistrate cannot and ought not to be excluded from all care of religion and sacred things, which has been enjoined upon him by God. Rather this right should be circumscribed within certain limits that the duties of the ecclesiastical order be not confounded, but the due parts be left to each.”[52]

Turretin lists things that are off limits for the magistrate: civil authorities cannot make new articles of faith or institute or enjoin new worship; it does not belong to them to preach the Word or administer sacraments; they cannot exercise ecclesiastical discipline; they cannot prescribe to ministers the form of preaching or administering the sacraments, etc.[53]

However, Turretin goes on to explain other duties the magistrate can perform circa sacra without exercising power in sacris: the magistrate ought to establish sacred doctrine and pure worship of God in the state according to the Word; to conserve it when established or to restore and reform it when declining; to protect the church and restrain heretics and disturbers of ecclesiastical peace; to promote the glory of God; to defend and propagate true religion and hinder the confusion of religions; to provide for the ministry of Word and sacraments where it does not exist; to cherish and defend it where it does exist; to open and encourage schools as seedbeds of state and church in which youth are instructed; etc.[54]

One important task that the magistrate performs circa sacra is calling an ecclesiastical council in extraordinary circumstances.[55] Classical Presbyterian expositors often refer to instances in the Old Testament in which magistrates initiated councils, as well as examples of Christian emperors and kings who followed their lead: Constantine with Nicaea; Theodosius the Elder with Constantinople; Theodosius the Younger and Valentinian with Ephesus; and Marcian with Chalcedon. The Leiden Synopsis of Purer Theology and Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici are very good on this topic.[56] If a great controversy is riling the church or if worship, doctrine, and discipline have fallen into disarray, then the magistrate has the authority to insist on a council. And afterwards, he has the right and duty to back the ecclesiastical decisions in ways that are appropriate to his political power.

Collaboration and “Establishment”

I would like to conclude this overview section with a brief discussion about the good of such forms of collaboration, and even the idea of “establishment.”

First I would like to be very clear: the primary point in our analysis thus far has been less about the needs on the side of the church and Christianity in general for public support; rather the focus has been on the duty of the civil authorities and public institutions to recognize God and true religion. But I do think that Bannerman is on to something when he argues that strong separation between church and state doesn’t actually secure the spiritual independence of the church, for history has shown that the state has a track record of progressively turning against the church when it is not for the church.[57] There is no neutrality, argues Bannerman; the state will inevitably relate to religion in some way.[58] “The state must have to do with religion, and … if not [in the way] of friendly co-operation and consent, then of hostility and opposition.”[59] Bannerman goes on to say that since church and state do inevitably relate in these ways, the conclusion must be that “since they are both ordinances of God, and as such not intended to injure or destroy each other, they must have been designed to co-operate.”[60] And Bannerman does not believe such cooperation threatens the spiritual independence of the church.[61]

Thus, there is the possibility for cooperation, which can benefit the church. However, the main concern is what is needed for the state in order for it to fulfill its duties and secure its proper goods. Althusius argues that turning away from either table of Decalogue is devastating for the commonwealth. This leads him to imagine forms of establishment for the sake of civil society.[62] Bannerman also makes a case for the connection between the civil and ecclesial bodies–which is fundamentally predicated upon their ineliminable distinction.[63] But, Bannerman argues, they have a “duty” to connect.[64] And the Leiden Synopsis goes so far as to say that “[t]he greatest possible harmony should be fostered.”[65] Magistracy and ministry, appointed by God for the good of men, are “mutually aiding and auxiliary each to [the] other.”[66] Thus, though they remain different powers, they can coordinate, which is mutually beneficial.

Recognize vs. create

I will get to why this is important in a moment. But let us just make a few distinctions here. First, the recognition of the church by the state does not mean the creation of the church by the state;[67] rather, explains Bannerman, “[the magistrate’s] recognition of [the church] proceeds upon the acknowledgment that [the church] existed by Divine authority and institution before.”[68] Thus, the power of the church is not derived from the commission of the state.[69] Bannerman goes on: “in every case in which the state knows its duty, it will seek to enter into alliance with the Church, and lend to its claims of power a civil recognition and warrant. But … the recognition of the civil magistrate … does not imply that the origin of Church power is from the state, but the very reverse: it amounts, in fact, to an acknowledgement that the source from which it emanates is Divine.”[70] According to classical Presbyterian political theory, the state must, for its own good, recognize the divine body in its midst.[71]

Two meanings of “establishment”

A second distinction: the term “establishment” can be used in multiple ways. Either as recognizing a church and professing its religion publicly, or combining that with material support, usually in the forms of benefits from taxes.[72] The latter, though not out of bounds in the Reformed tradition, is not required and in some circumstances is imprudent. Bannerman, expounding on the Westminster Confession says: “We have the general principle of the duty of the nation and magistrate to recognize religion and the Church. And why? Because it is, I believe, at all times and in all circumstances incumbent on him to do so. We have not the special application of the principle in reference to pecuniary support.”[73]

Public religion and toleration

The third distinction: establishment doesn’t necessarily mean abandonment of religious toleration.[74] Public religion, especially Presbyterian style, can go together with toleration–though, of course, at various points, practice has fallen short. As mentioned above, Reformed political theory explicitly rejects any notion of coercing faith.[75] And the likes of Turretin see in the Romanists, especially in the Spanish Inquisition, the attempt to compel faith.[76] Turretin even explicitly rejects the standard invocation of Augustine’s interpretation of Luke 14:23. The Reformed reject the idea that this biblical text underwrites religious compulsion through physical means. No man can lord over conscience. Faith must be voluntary. Hear Turretin:

Although the magistrate ought to be anxious about the salvation of his subjects and to omit none of those things which are in his power to procure it, it does not follow that this ought to be done by violent and unjust means repugnant to divine and natural law, to the example of Christ, and to the spirit of Christianity, which breathes both pure charity and gentleness; also the practice of the apostles and of the ancient church. Teachers and not torturers are to be employed here. More is gained by admonishing than by threatening and by teaching than by killing.[77]

Toleration is a value for Reformed political theory. Certain religious errors do have rights with reference to civil authorities,[78] though they never have rights with reference to God.[79] This places limits on toleration. Toleration is for the sake of conscience — for the sake of serving God, rather than man.[80] Thus, it is not absolute.[81] And absolute toleration is an impossibility in any society. “The theory of full toleration, on the principle of absolute and even-handed indifference on the part of the state alike to truth and falsehood,” explains Bannerman, “is a mere theory, and nothing more. It is impossible to carry it out fully and fairly into practice.”[82] Certain things will always be ruled out of bounds for a society. No man can have a right, regardless of conscience claims, to do that which is morally wrong and a threat to civil society.[83] Now, it is very difficult to determine that line, but this is the burden of magistracy.[84]

This brings us to the religion that undergirds the political body and public morals. Every society will have a public religion. This is inevitable. Just like every church will have a creed.[85] The most dangerous ones are those that remain invisible, and implicit–because when the commitments are walled off from contestation, people do not know how to conduct themselves, and things can change at the arbitrary whims of those in power. We should make things more explicit. Including the religion around which our polity is ordered and which undergirds our public morality.

This does not mean that we should use civil punishments to lead people to salvation, or political means to compel faith.[86] Again, Reformed public theology is against coercing faith. But total toleration is a myth. The limits are moral wrong (defined by God’s law) and civil welfare. But civil welfare also concerns matters about the first table. Thus we come to the issue of blasphemy and heresy. Magistrates have a duty here.[87] There are some forms of blasphemy and heresy, public expressed, that undermine respect for the religion undergirding the civil order. We need to make some distinctions here. Some heretics tear at the foundation of the faith whereas others do not overthrow that foundation. The first should be treated with civil instruments, whereas the second should be addressed by ecclesiastical authorities, whose final recourse is excommunication from the church. And the primary issue regarding the magistrate’s concern with heresy and blasphemy is public promulgation, not mere private belief. Here is another distinction: some merely err and remain open to correction, or at least willing to keep their views to themselves. Others are obstinate and seek to win many to their side. If these views are dangerous to society, but kept private, the magistrate must practice toleration. But if they are virulent in their promulgation, the magistrate has a duty to step in.[88] As the Synopsis says: “at times the civil ruler can coerce those who are revilers of the highest degree who irreverently deny God, overturn common religion with shocking reviling, and disturb the peace and harmony of the republic.”[89] But severe caution is prescribed.[90]

Revisiting the Revisions to Westminster Confession of Faith

All the above prepares us to revisit the revisions to the Westminster Confession. How should we interpret these?

James Hutson on church and state in Early Republic

Let us first comment on the church-state situation in the Early Republic. As James Hutson explains in Church and State in America, the Reformed Christians brought the “nursing fathers” understanding of the relationship between church and state with them to America.[91] This was the “governing metaphor” for church-state relations in the Early Republic.[92] Furthermore, most of the debates in the post-revolutionary period about establishment were focused on the issue of taxation for ministry funds, explains Hutson.[93] However, there was broad agreement by almost all Protestant groups on other legitimate supports for the nation’s churches. For instance, protecting the Sabbath, promoting religion in public schools, promulgating legislation inspired by the moral law in the Bible, test oaths for public office, and even legislation against blasphemy.[94]

Chad Van Dixhoorn on American revisions to WCF 23 and 31

But eventually the American Presbyterians did change the Westminster Confession on civil and ecclesiastical power. What did they change? The revisions mostly had to do with Chapter 23, Paragraph 3 on the civil magistrate. In his masterful guide to the Westminster Confession, Chad Van Dixhoorn explains that American Presbyterians were bothered by the language about the magistrate’s duty to defend and promote religion, suppress blasphemies and heresies, and reform corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline.[95] However, I think people reading such comments might misunderstand classic Reformed teaching if they don’t have the concepts we have discussed thus far. Always in Reformed teaching, these matters were not the direct purview of the state, but under their concern as nursing fathers, circa sacra. Even Bannerman comments on the original Westminster Confession about this: the magistrates were to suppress heresy bycall[ing] synods.”[96] The former was the object, the latter the means,and thus,the magistrate had indirect oversight of these matters. And magistrates could be present at synods or councils, but not exert Erastian jurisdiction over them.[97] And even on the calling of councils, I am not convinced by Van Dixhoorn’s interpretation. He says that the original drafters at the Assembly had clouded judgment because they were convened themselves by Parliament.[98] But, in my opinion, this gives them too little credit, and also fails to account for the long tradition of conceiving of such circumstances. And this framing also fails to sufficiently account for the radical opposition to Erastianism that has always informed Presbyterian political theory. Furthermore, Van Dixhoorn argues that American Presbyterians viewed establishing a national church as a confusion of the two governments.[99] I can’t speak to that historical account of the American Presbyterians, as this history is not an area of expertise for me, but I can say two things about that idea. First, if the civil authorities in establishment arrangements don’t directly interfere with church affairs, how does establishment inherently entail a conflation of powers? As discussed earlier, Presbyterians were adamant, even in conceiving of establishments, about maintaining the distinction between the two governments, and were always on alert from absorption from either side. Second, the language of “national” establishment just confuses the matter, since there was never a national established church in America, though there were establishments about the state level. This is part of the American experiment, native to our national story.

One final area where Van Dixhoorn’s explanations leave me a bit perplexed is his discussion of the revisions of Chapter 31 on synods and councils. The original version of the confession included a paragraph about the right of magistrates to call an ecclesiastical synod. This was taken out, as Van Dixhoorn notes. Again he attributes the original framing to the sociology of the Assembly divines and their context. He says that Presbyterians increasingly moved from this view, toward one which deemed “a magistrate’s involvement in calling a synod would be the exception and not the rule.”[100] But I’m not convinced that this was not the common understanding prior to the revisions. The original version said magistrates “may” call a synod, and it appealed to instances that were obviously uncommon, which would suggest that the Westminster divines did not likely imagine this as regular.

So, what I am left wondering is either A) how radical these revisions were; or B) if they were radical, whether the redactors fully appreciated the nuance in classical Presbyterian thought. Either way, I worry about how we, in successive centuries, have lost that nuance and succumbed to an increasingly secularist and separatist political theory that abandons our Presbyterian patrimony.

P.J. Hoedemaker on similar revisions to Belgic Confession

To help us address sloppy thinking about these revisions, I would like to appeal to a key critic of similar revisions to a sister confession. P.J. Hoedemaker went to battle with Abraham Kuyper over the latter’s proposed revisions of the article in the Belgic Confession about the civil magistrate. Hoedemaker thought that Kuyper and his colleagues were confused about the original meaning. He explains that an established church does not mean a ruling church or that all who are in the nation are automatically in the church. He also argues that Kuyper and others like him are confused about the arrangement in the Old Testament. It is simply not the case, as explained earlier, that in Old Covenant Israel the church had no independent existence but simply coincided with the state. The Reformed rejected that Anabaptist and Erastian misreading of Old Testament Israel.[101] Thus, the intent to make a distinction between civil and ecclesial bodies is not a reason to alter the confessions.[102] Furthermore, as discussed earlier, classical Reformed political theology always rejected religious coercion. However, to properly understand classical Reformed teaching on the harmony between establishment and toleration we must understand the distinction between freedom of belief versus freedom of profession/promulgation.[103] Persons are free to believe as they wish privately, but not free to publicly attack the religion that is foundational to civil order. What is at stake in the confessional language is public expression, which is different from freedom of conscience. Absolute religious freedom is impossible if one seeks to have a society. Citizens have religious freedom subject to what is required from public order, the freedom of others, and the character of the nations and its institutions.[104] One cannot use religious freedom to overthrow the foundations of society.

Also, some religion will inevitably be recognized as the reference for truth in a given society; such a religion will be distinguished from others. Hoedemaker elaborates: “[F]reedom of religion is something entirely different from freedom of conscience. According to our Confession, the civil government is to determine 1) which religion in the state is to be accepted into the commonwealth and as such is to be protected and administered with public authority; 2) which religion will be allowed and tolerated.”[105] This is what Reformed confessions on civil magistrate and duties toward religion are about–public life. The issue to which the controversial clauses refer is grave heretics and obstreperous blasphemers that undermine public order. Again, the point is public life, to prevent the approved religion from being slandered and thus jeopardizing civil order.[106]

And Hoedemaker is emphatic: classical Reformed political theory maintains that public authorities and institutions can recognize true religion and the church without erasing the distinction between the civil and ecclesiastical societies. Classical Reformed teaching does not put state over church; rather, as nursing fathers, operating circa sacra, civil magistrates are concerned to protect true religion, but are not authorized to rule the church or usurp the church’s duties.

And, likewise, this teaching does not put the church over the state–but the state needs the Word which the church authoritatively interprets.[107] The church seeks to enlighten the state to fulfill its duties; to enlighten, not rule. Classical Reformed political theology wants to free the magistrate to listen to the Word. But the magistrate is not entrusted with the authoritative interpretation of the Word. This is why the church is key. The state is accountable to the Word, which the church interprets. The state is enlightened by the church to fulfill its duties. Hoedemaker summarizes this classical Reformed teaching: “[T]he civil government ought to accept the truth which the church confesses and the light which it kindles for the proper understanding of the Word, to the degree necessary to fulfill its vocation.”[108] The magistrate must be enlightened by the public interpretation of the Word by the church. It must recognize the church as a divine institution that bears witness to truth.

Situating the “Spirituality of the Church”

Finally, I would like to make a few brief comments about the American inflection of Presbyterian political theology commonly referred to as “the spirituality of the church.”[109] This mostly emerged as an explicit position in the nineteenth century.[110] There is much good in it. The primary thing it is trying to protect is to keep the focus of the church on its unique vocation, to safeguard the church’s “spiritual independence,” and to ensure that the church carries out its mission in spiritual, as opposed to political, ways.[111]

But here is the deal: you don’t need something new for this. All of those concerns are already accounted for in classical Reformed political theory. And this new inflection of the tradition leaves out something vitally important in the classic exposition: the state’s duties to God, true religion, and the church. This seems to be lacking because this permutation is particularly concerned with resisting the temptation of the church to get obsessed with current events and political issues. I agree: we should not, through institutional organs of the church, speak to every issue in contemporary politics.

However, even Charles Hodge, a preeminent proponent of the “spirituality of the church,” recognizes that sometimes political issues do rise to such a level that religion must speak[112]—classical Reformed theology has conceived of this happening through the mechanisms of synods speaking to extreme situations, especially when magistrates inquire.[113] I worry that some contemporary adherents of frameworks like this would absolutely rule out such occasions. But a question for today: can the church, through institutional organs, speak to widespread gender insanity and mutilation of children?

But even more fundamentally than such extreme occasions, Reformed theology has always argued that the state has a concern with religion. And, surprisingly, Hodge also concedes this.[114] He says that civil governments have to do with religion, and that public morality is inextricably tied up with religion.[115] Yes, Hodge, situating himself distinctly within the American tradition, rejects forcing citizens to pay taxes to support any particular church.[116] However, we already discussed how classical Reformed political theory does not view tax support as a duty to properly connect civil and ecclesial bodies. Hodge also diverges from more extreme expressions of the “spirituality of the church” position in that he condones Sabbath laws and the state suppression of public blasphemy. Furthermore, he says that America is a Christian and Protestant nation; and this not simply because a majority of individuals believe, but because “the institutions, laws, and official action of the government, whether that action be legislative, judicial, or executive, is, and of right should be, and in fact must be, in accordance with the principles of Protestant Christianity.”[117] This is public religion, Presbyterian style, even by a preeminent expositor of the “spirituality of the Church” tradition.

As our society continues to reconsider the relationship between religion and the public sphere—meaning, civil authorities and public institutions—I implore us to attend to the rich, nuanced resources of our tradition, and to think creatively and constructively about how classical Presbyterian principles could guide our political imaginations today.

James R. Wood is Assistant Professor of Ministry at Redeemer University in Ancaster, ON. He is also a Commonwealth Fellow at Ad Fontes, a teaching elder in the PCA and former associate editor at First Things.

  1. See especially, George Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming (London: Authority, 1646), book II, chapter 5.

  2. Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, book I, chapter 2.

  3. See James Bannerman, Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline, and Government of the Christian Church, two volumes (Port St. Lucie, FL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2009), I:117ff, 123.
  4. See P. J. Hoedemaker, Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated against Dr. Abraham Kuyper: A Critique of His Series on Church and State in Common Grace; translated by Ruben Alvarado (Aalten, Netherlands: Wordbridge, 2019), 36, 43f, 99, 101ff; Reformed Ecclesiology in an Age of Confessionalism; translated by Ruben Alvarado (Aalten, Netherlands: Wordbridge, 2019), 45ff. Hoedemaker also deals with this theme in Reformed Ecclesiology, 45ff.

  5. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, volume 3; translated by George Musgrave, edited by James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1992), 277.

  6. See Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, book I, chapter 3.

  7. See Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, 144; Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:123.

  8. See Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, 147; Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:97ff; Hoedemaker, Article 36 of the Reformed Confession, 43ff, 99ff; Reformed Ecclesiology in an Age of Denominationalism, 45ff.

  9. Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:119.

  10. See discussion in Synopsis of a Purer Theology, two volumes; edited by William Den Boer and Riemer A. Faber; translated by Riemer A. Faber (Landrum, SC: Davenant Press, 2023), disputation 48.19; Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:102ff; J.V. Fesko, The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 299ff.

  11. Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, 147.

  12. See Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, 80, 115, 147.

  13. See Turretin, Institutes, III:323f.

  14. See especially Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:101ff; II:351.

  15. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, II:402; cf. I:132.

  16. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:101.

  17. See Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, 81ff; 136ff; Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici: The Divine Right of Church Government (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2020), 87, 103ff; Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:99ff, 225ff.

  18. See Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, 191.

  19. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:23.

  20. See Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, volume III, question 29.

  21. For these, I am largely working from Synopsis, Disputation 48; Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, 81ff; Jus Divinum, 103ff, 140ff; Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:24, 113, 120ff; II:366ff; Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, III:278f;

  22. See Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, 107.

  23. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:252; cf. 278ff.

  24. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, II:394ff.

  25. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:251.

  26. See Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, book I, chapter 4; 138f; Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, III, questions 32-33. Also, for spiritual discipline left in the hands of the church, see the entirety of book 3 of Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming.

  27. Bannerman, Church of Christ, II:364, 402.

  28. See Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, 149.

  29. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, II:351ff.

  30. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, II:352, 363.

  31. See Synopsis, disputation 48.50.

  32. See Synopsis, disputation 50.26.

  33. See Synopsis, disputation 50.25; Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, III, question 27.

  34. See Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, III:319.

  35. See Johannes Althusius, Politica: An Abridged Translation of Politics Methodically Set Forth and Illustrated with Sacred and Profane Examples; edited and translated by Frederick S. Carney (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1995), 21, cf. 160.

  36. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:202.

  37. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, II:363.

  38. See Althusius, Politica, 53, 160, 177; Synopsis, disputation 48.19; 50.40; 50.50; Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, 63, 116, 122; Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, III:321.

  39. See Althusius, Politica, 148.

  40. See Jus Divinum, 125ff; Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, 122.

  41. See Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, 89.

  42. Can see discussion of this theme in Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, 116; Jus Divinum, 122ff; Turretin, III:317ff.

  43. John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, volume 4; translated by William Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009), 40.

  44. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:130.

  45. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, II:364.

  46. See Althusius, Politica, 63; Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, 122f; Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, III: 321f; Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:202f, 154.

  47. See Jus Divinum, 97; cf. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, III:279.

  48. See Jus Divinum, 123ff; Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, III:317.

  49. Jus Divinum, 128f.

  50. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, III:280. Emphasis added.

  51. Bannerman, Church of Christ, II:365; cf. Jus Divinum, 131f.

  52. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, III:316.

  53. See Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, III:319.

  54. See Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, III:320.

  55. See Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, 66, 82, 85.

  56. See Synopsis, disputation 49.20-30; Jus Divinum, 123ff.

  57. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:153.

  58. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:136.

  59. Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:137. See also the quotes on I:143, 148: “Judging from the nature of the Gospel and of human society together, or judging from the actual history of the facts, we may lay it down, as a position not to be controverted, that when the civil magistrate does not own the truth and recognize it as a friend, then he will view it and treat it as an enemy. The state cannot be neutral; if it is not professedly Christian, it will, directly or indirectly, be the persecutor of Christianity. … There is but a single alternative presented to us in the matter of the relation of the Church and state. They cannot be neutral, but they may be separated; and by the separation they inevitably become hostile, if not destructive, to each other; or they may be united, and by the union they become the allies and the friends of each other.”

  60. Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:148.

  61. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:149f.

  62. See Althusius, Politica, 75f; cf. 162ff.

  63. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, II:364, 394.

  64. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:124ff.

  65. Synopsis, disputation 50.49.

  66. Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, 85f; cf. 144.

  67. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:124ff.

  68. Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:151.

  69. See Jus Divinum, 95, 144; Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:87.

  70. Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:193.

  71. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:125ff.

  72. This is most clearly discussed in Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:135ff; II:345f.

  73. Bannerman, Church of Christ, II:346.

  74. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:154, 182.

  75. See Synopsis, disputation 50.57; Althusius, Politica, 172f; Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, III:324ff.

  76. See Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, III:323.

  77. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, III:324.

  78. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, II:390.

  79. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:158.

  80. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:58ff; II:378ff.

  81. See Althusius, Politica, 77; Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:165ff, 184.

  82. Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:143.

  83. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:165; Synopsis, 50.61; 50.65.

  84. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:167f; II:387.

  85. This is Carl Trueman’s argument in The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).

  86. See Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, 151.

  87. The following material is informed by Althusius, Politica, 170ff; Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, III:327ff. See also the discussion of Hoedemaker below.

  88. See Synopsis, disputation 50.61.

  89. Synopsis, disputation 50.59.

  90. See Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, III:327.

  91. See James H. Hutson, Church and State in America: The First Two Centuries (New York: Cambridge, 2008), 7. “The Englishmen who first emigrated to America and many who came afterwards in the eighteenth century, especially Scotch-Irish Presbyterians and German Lutherans and Reformed, believed that the Scriptures plainly stated that state-church collaboration was the will of God.”

  92. See Hutson, Church and State in America, 7-11.

  93. See Hutson, Church and State in America, 128ff.

  94. See Hutson, Church and State in America, 132-137.

  95. See Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A reader’s guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2014), 313ff.

  96. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:178f.

  97. See Bannerman, Church of Christ, I:180.

  98. See Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, 314.

  99. See Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, 315.

  100. Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, 411.

  101. See P. J. Hoedemaker, Article 36 of the Belgic Confession Vindicated against Dr. Abraham Kuyper: A Critique of His Series on Church and State in Common Grace; translated by Ruben Alvarado (Aalten, Netherlands: Wordbridge, 2019), 101ff; cf. Reformed Ecclesiology in an Age of Confessionalism; translated by Ruben Alvarado (Aalten, Netherlands: Wordbridge, 2019), 45ff.

  102. See Hoedemaker, Article 36 of the Belgic Confession, 68, 99.

  103. See Hoedemaker, Article 36 of the Belgic Confession, 40f, 121.

  104. See Hoedemaker, Article 36 of the Belgic Confession, 43, 64.

  105. Hoedemaker, Article 36 of the Belgic Confession, 121. Hoedemaker makes a similar point in Reformed Ecclesiology in an Age of Denominationalism, 194: “The state has right and duty to establish that one religion will be recognized while another will be tolerated.”

  106. See Hoedemaker, Article 36 of the Belgic Confession, 124f. Hoedemaker brings up the infamous execution of Servetus under Calvin’s watch here.

  107. Hoedemaker, Reformed Ecclesiology in an Age of Denominationalism, 194.

  108. Hoedemaker, Article 36 of the Belgic Confession, 92.

  109. This position has received a recent defense in the work of Alan D. Strange: Empowered Witness: Politics, Culture, and the Spiritual Mission of the Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2024).

  110. Even Strange admits this. See Strange, Empowered Witness, 16.

  111. See Strange, Empowered Witness, 16, 23, 121.

  112. See Strange, Empowered Witness, 56, 111ff.

  113. See Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, 422.

  114. See Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, volume 3 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), 342.

  115. See Hodge, Systematic Theology, III:342f.

  116. See Hodge, Systematic Theology, III:341.

  117. Hodge, Systematic Theology, III:343.


Related Articles


Other Articles by

Mortal Goods: A Review

James R. Wood finds much to praise and much to disagree with in Ephraim Radner's latest book.

Augustine and Antisemitism

Augustine developed an increasingly mature "witness doctrine" of the Jews throughout his life.

Ordering Our Social Loves

Within their love of God, how should Christians order love for family, nation, and church?

Join our Community
Subscribe to receive access to our members-only articles as well as 4 annual print publications.
Share This