Editor’s note: The following book review appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Eikon.
David VanDrunen. Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2020.
Politics After Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World by David VanDrunen is a work of political theology that advances a robust understanding of human institutions through the framework of the Noahic Covenant. In the past and now into the present, evangelicals have lacked a robust political theology that positively articulates Scripture’s conception of government and other human institutions. While VanDrunen does acknowledge the streams in Christian political thought he is attempting to correct, his book is largely a self-attesting work of political theology that relies on careful exegesis and systematic and biblical theology and that locates itself in continuity with the Reformed and Thomistic traditions of Christians seeking to understand the perennial issue of statecraft.
In the first part of the book, which is dedicated to the theological underpinnings of political theology, VanDrunen begins by laying out a foundational conception of government as having been instituted by God “to be legitimate, but provisional, and to be common, but accountable” (25). In the first couplet of his definition, VanDrunen asserts that government possesses valid human authority over its proper jurisdiction, but this authority is only temporary, as it will no longer exist at the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ (29). The second couplet summarizes the biblical teaching that God instituted government to be an institution for the inclusion of all peoples regardless of skin color or creed while also maintaining that government is morally accountable to God for its actions (35). Thus, government must not discriminate against the people it is obligated to govern. It must instead govern according to the objective moral order.
In chapter two, entitled “Nature, Grace, and Biblical Covenants,” VanDrunen offers a brief survey of the biblical covenants with their terms and promises. The Noahic Covenant is differentiated from the other covenants in that it has “different parties, different promises, and a different destiny” (72). The Noahic Covenant does not mark off a holy people nor entail promises of salvation. Rather, the Noahic Covenant is the covenant that God made with all humanity for the sake of preserving the human race.
In chapter three, VanDrunen argues that the institutions arising from the Noahic Covenant are essential to Christian political theology, which include familial, entrepreneurial, and judicial institutions. Over the course of chapters three and four, VanDrunen traces how these institutions apply to common political societies in carrying out the goals of the Noahic Covenant in the Old and New Testaments. Throughout all of the major events and biblical covenants, including the covenant instituted by the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Noahic Covenant remains the authoritative and guiding covenant for common political communities since “neither the nature of the political authority itself nor its covenant grounding has changed, but God’s identity in ruling it has” (116). Thus, in line with historic Two Kingdom theology within the Reformed tradition, VanDrunen argues that Christ rules both his special covenant people — the church — while also ruling providentially over all peoples.
In chapter five, VanDrunen argues that political communities and humanity as a whole can “know their moral responsibilities before God through the natural law” in fulfilling the terms of the Noahic Covenant (124). This knowledge does not come through rational investigation, whereby participants arrive at an understanding of discrete rules. Rather, it comes from “experience in the world and a keen eye for circumstances” (138), which directs humanity to “understand which courses of conduct are good and bad and become able to put this knowledge
into skillful practice” (139). In sum, people can know what God requires for right and proper action in familial, entrepreneurial, and judicial institutions without access to special revelation. VanDrunen concludes part one in chapter six by reminding Christians that they are to live as faithful sojourners and exiles who love their neighbors well by engaging in politics with a Christ-like attitude while trusting the promises of God to both preserve “human communities under the Noahic Covenant” and to bring about his redemptive purposes to their fulfillment in the new creation (176).
Part two addresses the issue of political ethics within the Noahic Covenant. One of the primary ethical issues VanDrunen identifies is how people of various worldviews, philosophies, and creeds can exist together in a common political body. In chapter seven, VanDrunen argues that barring people from the full rights of political participation on religious or racial grounds “are not justifiable reasons under the Noahic Covenant” (185). Since a pluralistic society constitutes a fragile and easily ruptured coexistence among various groups, governments ought not to have an ambitious policy agenda but rather approach pluralistic society informed by a “substantive but modest common good” (212). VanDrunen contends in chapter eight that familial and commercial institutions exist to support each other in fulfilling the task of multiplying, filling the earth, and subduing creation. While specific policy goals for familial and entrepreneurial institutions cannot be deduced from the Noahic Covenant, policy ought to reflect the biblical ethic of the family that the Noahic Covenant presents and avoid those that are contrary to it (221–225).
In chapters nine through eleven, VanDrunen posits a conception of the state as an institution that arises naturally from the Noahic Covenant’s commission to do justice. A Noahic conception of justice is retributive and embodies the biblical principle of the lex talionis by
seeking to be faithful to God’s stipulation that, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Gen 9:6 ESV; 259–260). To limit the authority of the state and its ministers in order to keep them from perverting this task of doing justice, law should be polycentric and
arise from various non-state sources rather than monocentric as advanced by legal positivists (305). The former conceives of law arising from multiple spheres of authority in society, while the latter maintains that law should only come from one source, viz. the state. Thus, since the jural task of the state is its most expressly given command in Scripture, the state ought to maintain a strict protectionist understanding of this task (332–342). When the state fails, civil disobedience may be warranted when the positive law of the magistrate grossly violates the higher natural law (349).
VanDrunen concludes Part two by locating the political theology established by the Noahic Covenant within the current ideological debate concerning classical liberalism and classical conservatism. VanDrunen frames the ideology of the Noahic Covenant as conservative liberalism, which strives to maintain “a social order marked by pluralism and tolerance” (365) rooted in the “Natural wisdom [that] is the perception of the Natural Law” (369).
The primary strength of Politics After Christendom is its biblical realism in presenting a political theology that seeks the preservation of human institutions by a modest conception of the common good for pluralistic societies. Through his providential care and the Natural Law, God has provided a normative framework for preserving common political communities and other human institutions. While much can be gleaned from the age of Christendom in the study of political theology, the “moral — metaphysical — religious foundation” of Christendom has been replaced by liberal polity (360). VanDrunen believes this development has brought political
communities into closer alignment with the biblical ideal to embody an ethnic and religious pluralism (360). A critic may presume that VanDrunen is bending his political theology to fit the circumstances of the present, but as he rightly notes in the introduction, “Christians do not need a new and special kind of political theology for life after Christendom. Rather, Scripture itself provides a political-theological vision perfectly suited for a post-Christendom world” (16). Thus, in the application of political theology, Christians should not seek to impractically impose vestiges of the past on the present situation nor seek to immanentize the eschaton. Instead, Christians should seek to live in the present with a robust and biblical conception of political theology as VanDrunen presents in this volume.
One weakness of VanDrunen’s work is that it seems to over-realize the framework of the Noahic Covenant in its present applications. While VanDrunen acknowledges that the Noahic Covenant provides only a general framework, the specificity and certainty of the demands of the Noahic Covenant seem to extend beyond this generality. For example, while the book makes a compelling case for a protectionist role of the state while at the same time denying a perfectionist one, it seems that a perfectionist conception of the state may be possible since the Noahic Covenant does not explicitly necessitate civil government but only makes it a “morally plausible ideal” as human society organically develops and deepens institutional bonds (84). Perhaps as human societies flourish under the Noahic Covenant, civil governments may be better developed to act in a perfectionist manner.
Politics After Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World offers Christians and broader Western society a comprehensive and biblical framework for understanding right political order amidst the current salient divisions in the political realm. As society increasingly
rejects any political ethic that resembles the Noahic Covenant and as evangelicals struggle to develop a cohesive political theology, this book will be helpful for pastors and the people in their churches to understand the biblical role of the state and their responsibilities before it. This volume possesses both rigorous biblical interpretation and an acute understanding of present debates around political theory, justice, and legal theory in a manner that presents the Noahic Covenant as a substantive and broad structure for approaching the tasks of statecraft and building thriving human institutions.
Caleb Newsom is a M.Div. student in Ethics & Philosophy at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a member at the First Baptist Church of Fisherville.
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