What if the fall had not happened? Would institutions like the government have a place? Or is it just a necessary evil that exists only as a means to govern sinners and our selfish impulses? In this excerpt, Richard Mouw explores the goodness, purpose, and design of government, showing that—when functioning properly—government can be life-giving.
The basic cultural spheres have been, for [Dutch theologian Abraham] Kuyper, “there” from the beginning. They are somehow “contained in” the creation. In saying that kind of thing, Kuyper is once again going beyond the explicit biblical data. It’s not like we read the Bible saying that God proclaimed, “Let there be art! Let there be economics! Let there be politics!”
So what does it mean to say that these were a part of the original creational design?
Politics and Creation
The Kuyperian insistence that the political sphere was a part of the creational design is especially interesting in this regard. Like any Calvinist, Kuyper insisted that under sinful conditions governments have a God-ordained ministry of the sword. In a fallen world, political authority has a remedial function. For one thing, it holds our sinful impulses in check with the threat of punishment. I might be inclined to drive ten miles per hour over the speed limit, but the awareness that I might have to pay a fine if caught by a patrol car keeps me in line.
But government also exercises the ministry of the sword. It doesn’t just threaten punishment—sometimes it actually punishes. The police and military arms of the state are empowered to apprehend criminals and administer justice by the use of force. Thus the apostle’s admonition: “If you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4).
Kuyper was not content, however, to restrict the role of government in God’s plan simply to a post-fall function. He insisted that what we experience as political authority under fallen conditions is a manifestation of something already implicit in the original creation design. Kuyper argued in his Stone Lecture on politics that even if the fall had not occurred there would have developed a need for government. Political authority in an unfilled world would not have taken the form of coercive nation-states; rather there would have emerged “one organic world-empire, with God as its King; exactly what is prophesied for the future which awaits us, when all sin shall have disappeared.” Here government is not fundamentally a remedial response to human perversity, but a natural provision for regulating—“ordering”—the complexity of created cultural life.
Kuyper liked to think about what things would be like in the creation if the fall had not occurred. This obviously strikes some as highly speculative. And in an important sense it is an exercise in speculation. For those of us, though, who find biblically inspired imaginative proposals to be useful theological exercises, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The posing of “contrary-to-fact” questions of this sort can shed some light for our understanding of the contemporary world.
When Kuyper speculates about political systems without the fall, he means to illuminate something important about the need for order in human affairs. Suppose a tuba player who lives in an apartment complex wants to practice on a daily basis at the same as a neighbor puts her children down for a nap. Neither is motivated by sinful impulses—they simply have different desires that are in themselves quite legitimate. The tuba player wants to be a good musician, and the woman wants to be a good parent. Or think about traffic patterns. Even sinless people would have to agree about which side of the road they would use when driving their cars. Thus the need for the regulation of group activities, even when it is not necessary to reinforce such regulative activity with coercive threats.
It is with these kinds of considerations in mind that Kuyper says that even if the fall had not occurred we would still need some kind of regulative governing function. To offer an effective rebuttal to that line of argument, it is not sufficient simply to reject the use of the counterfactual as such; rather it is necessary to show that there is something conceptually implausible about what the counterfactual claim is meant to illustrate—namely, the idea of a political order that regulates life in an unfilled world.
During the 1970s, I attended a gathering that focused on “radical discipleship,” and one of the speakers kept describing the United States as given over to “the way of death.” His primary example, of course, was the war being waged in Vietnam—this group was critical of that military operation. He formulated his case theologically by citing William Stringfellow’s argument, quite popular at the time, that the United States was the present-day manifestation of the biblical portrayal of fallen Babylon.
As I listened, I was struck by the gap between this un-nuanced rhetorical depiction of the American political system as given over to death dealing and my own experience that week of accompanying our son on his way to school. He had just started kindergarten, and his daily walk to school followed a path through many blocks in the inner city. As I took the journey with him, I was especially aware, as a parent concerned for the safety of our son, of the places where there were traffic lights and stop signs. Approaching the school, I overheard two teachers mention a fire-safety inspection that the city had conducted the day before. Later, as I drove during the noon hour to the campus where I was teaching, I passed another school where a uniformed crossing guard was taking children by the hand to lead them across the street.
These things that I had taken special notice of as a concerned parent—traffic signals, stop signs, speed limits, crossing guards—struck me as life-promoting services provided by the government. I thanked the Lord for them. In the light of those services, the passionate denunciation of “the American system” as given over to “a way of death” was evidence of a theological myopia.
My uneasiness with that kind of perspective was grounded in what I am presenting here as a basic Kuyperian impulse: there is something about government, when it is functioning properly, that fits nicely into God’s basic creating design for human life.