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.
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.