Toward a Biblical View of Civil Government

Written by Robert D. Culver Reviewed By Clark H. Pinnock

In this volume, which is an example of the fairly good quality of scholarly research which can emanate from North American orthodoxy, we find a clear and comprehensible survey and discussion of all the biblical texts which bear on the state.

The book is divided into two parts: a shorter section including five chapters which set forth the general doctrinal background of the subject, including the relation of the state to the powers of darkness which dominate the old aeon, and a much longer one, containing fifteen chapters, in which the author works painstakingly through the biblical documents stage by stage, and seeks to evaluate the social, political, and economic teachings of the Bible. I found the treatment thoughtful and often wise, and the writer well read and articulate. To mention two details almost at random, Culver does not pick up on the possibility advanced by Trocmé that Jesus makes use of the institution of jubilee in his own preaching, and is not impressed either by Cullmann’s so-called ‘Christological’ interpretation of the state, which relates the ‘powers that be’ of Romans 13 to Paul’s wider ‘exousiology’, even though he wishes to affirm a demonic dimension to the state himself.

The major difficulty which arises in connection with the book is the apparent failure to perceive that a recognition of a demonic side to the state ought to affect our exegesis of specific biblical texts on the subject. Thus, alongside the Bible’s ‘Yes’ to the state is also its emphatic ‘No’. Our desire and duty to be submissive to the government does not amount to unthinking obedience to it when it makes demands on us that cannot be granted. Just because the state lies in Satan’s realm as well as within God’s providence we ought to be watchful, vigilant, and even suspicious of its aims and designs. In his extended exposition of Romans 13, Culver says nothing to suggest the revolutionary character of our submission to the state. Granted, he does speak of the ‘rare occasion’ when a person might experience a conflict between the demands of the state and the requirements of God’s moral law, but he obviously does not consider that this will be a normal occurrence. In an age which has experienced the Nazis, Vietnam and Watergate, we may well wonder whether our stance toward the state would be only rarely or more regularly one of resistance. The complete absence in the book of any modern-day application of these principles is thus a serious limitation, an almost inexcusable omission. The reader is left with the impression that he ought to be submissive and supportive of the state even in our day when the ‘powers that be’ and the powers of death are almost synonymous. To correct Culver, one needs to read Jacques Ellul, William Stringfellow and John Yoder.

Less significant, but still important, is Culver’s belief that the entire Sermon on the Mount is irrelevant to the question of civil government. Jesus’ ethics refer, it seems, to the private behaviour of individual disciples, and not the public duties of civil magistrates. Undoubtedly these officials will be relieved to be informed of that, and indeed many of them act in a manner which shows clearly that is what they believe; nevertheless, we may well ask whether the normativeness of Jesus’ testimony to the nature of God’s kingdom and righteousness has been taken seriously. Surely we have in the Sermon a vision of what God’s will for human government is, and one which should inform the Christian’s attitudes and actions in that direction.

In closing, there are several less fortunate traits in the book. For one thing. Culver goes out of his way to express his quite chauvinistic views on the matter of the role of women in church and society even though it is quite uncalled for by the argument. Nor is he able to resist setting forth his opinion that in the United States Constitution is to be found the most admirable incarnation of the desirable balance between the powers of order and disorder. And in the epilogue, where what little contemporary application there is can be found, the author declares that few Christians will find themselves in the ranks of those who oppose capital punishment. Perhaps we ought to be grateful that we are spared any more extensive application of the author’s position to the issues of contemporary life.

Clark H. Pinnock

McMaster Divinity College, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada