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Theocracy

By R. J. Rushdoony
May 01, 2007

(Reprinted from the soon to be published book Sovereignty).

Tierney, in discussing The Crisis of Church and State, 1050–1300, observed in passing that “theocracy is a normal pattern of government.”1 More distinctly, we must say that theocracy is the normal pattern of government, in that men, whatever the form of polity they adopt, see it as right and ultimate; authority is given in a variety of names, e.g., the dictatorship of the proletariat, the consent of the governed, the general will, the divine right of kings, and so on, but in each case the form expresses the rightness of things. The god who rules may be a man, a class, a race, or a majority, but it is still a form of ultimate power. The word democrat comes from demos, people, and kratos, usually rendered as rule but which can also mean to take possession; thus, democracy means that the people take possession and rule. Sovereignty and rule are attributes of God, and to claim the right to rule in one’s own name is a claim to sovereignty or divinity. As Fritz Kern pointed out, medieval thinking, until quite late, regarded sovereignty as an attribute of God alone: “[T]he people in the Middle Ages were no more regarded as ‘sovereign’ than was the monarch … The monarch, on the one hand, and the community on the other, are joined together in the theocratic order in such a way that both are subordinate to God and to the Law.”2

False theocracies are the rule of men; true theocracy is the rule of God’s law in men and over men. True theocracy requires a very limited church and state. Giving more power to men, either privately or institutionally, is no substitute for the rule of the triune God in the lives of men.

We are told of Cardinal Richelieu that there was madness in his family. The cardinal himself, in “his spells of mental aberration,” thought himself to be less than a man; he “imagined himself to be a horse.” Richelieu’s elder brother, a half-wit, feeble-minded and delusionary, believed that he was the first person of the Trinity. Richelieu took this brother out of his Carthusian monastery and made him the Cardinal-Archbishop of Lyon.3

Such madness is a dramatic and compelling fact. However, all claims to sovereignty by men and their institutions are even more insane, however routine and humdrum their expressions. Such bland and colorless insanity is in fact far more dangerous than the more dramatic expressions of madness.

Friedrich and Blitzer have seen the origins of the modern state in large part in the idea of “reason of state.” (This was not a new idea in the modern era, but it certainly took on new meaning.) It was popularized by the Jesuit Giovanni Botero (1540–1617) in Della ragione di stato (1589) and was quickly popular. It facilitated the shift from ethics to politics, or the blending of the two.4 In the modern state, the core of power has been found in “developing effective bureaucracies.”

In the 1970s, while lecturing in Washington, D.C., I referred adversely to bureaucracies to an audience which included such men. They were very unhappy, but, at the same time, gracious and courteous in their objections in a private discussion which followed. Their thesis was a very interesting one. First, they made it clear that, from their perspective, a bureaucracy does not initiate policies but simply develops the implications of congressional legislation. Second, they said, the men in a bureaucracy prefer anonymity and dislike public attention. While some like to see their names appended, with other names, to a document, the majority do not. For them, an impersonal approach is best, because all actions must be seen as departmental actions or policy decisions. A personal stance defeats the function of a bureaucracy. Third, contrary to the opinion of many, whether the bureaucrat is in the Internal Revenue Service or elsewhere, he is usually a quiet and timid man, one who prefers to perform an anonymous task rather than gain public attention.

The sincerity of the men could not be questioned. They saw themselves as each performing a limited task in a limited place. What was, however, equally clear, was their sense of public duty and mission. This is a noteworthy fact. During the age of Pope Alexander VI and his son Cesare Borgia (1458–1507), a great advance was made in the efficiency of the Vatican and its various arms. Almost a century later, Pope Sixtus V spoke of “St. Peter, Alexander, and Ourselves,” thereby summing up church history in three names. In the mid-seventeenth century, Urban VIII cited four: “St. Peter, St. Sylvester, Alexander, and Ourselves.”5 In terms of the administrative history of the papacy, there was good reason for this high rating given to Alexander VI. However, in terms of faith and morals, Alexander merits an abysmally low rank! Men working under Alexander VI could, however, have had a strong sense of public duty and mission, very much like our modern bureaucrats. In both cases, men could have vindicated their calling as service to an essentially and morally valid institution.

Both in church and state, the issue is a very important one, and at stake is a controversy which came into sharp focus in the Donatist controversy. During the latter half of the third century, and well into the fourth, the struggle raged. During a time of persecution many churchmen apostatized in fear, but later repented. The Donatists opposed the reentry of the “lapsed,” whereas the Catholics favored it. At stake also was the validity of such things as baptism when performed by a priest who lapsed. The Catholics held, as have Protestants since, that the validity of baptism rests, not on man, but on God. Therefore baptisms performed by a lapsed priest did not become invalid.

The issue that was not faced then nor since is this: what happens if the priest continues as a lapsed man, i.e., continues to be faithless and disobedient? Assuming that his baptisms, i.e., the baptisms he officiates at, are valid, can a people continue to seek baptism from such a man? Catholics of Alexander VI’s day believed him to be an atheist, and the church, like him, corrupt. It was said, “Do you want to ruin your young son? Then make a priest of him.” Alexander had illegitimate children.6

What is the duty of a man in such a context: in church or in state? The Donatist controversy concerned the restoration ofrepentant lapsed men. What is the moral requirement of men when unrepentant pastors and priests control the church, and when equally ungodly men control the state?

In the area of the church, men have some choice, in that Protestants still have some evangelical and orthodox churches they can join. Roman Catholics have some Eastern churches whose validity they can recognize. What happens in the area of the state? The modern state is either openly or covertly godless; it has legalized abortion and homosexuality, and, increasingly, euthanasia. Shall the Christian abandon civil office in the bureaucracy because a public duty and mission is now a godless one? Or should he work from within to try to change the course of state in some small way?

We find, in Paul’s letters, reference to civil officials who served an evil empire. In Philippians 4:22, “Caesar’s household” may refer to what we would call cabinet-rank officials. Another citation of a Christian official is in Romans 16:23, “Erastus the chamberlain of the city,” which city may have been the corrupt Corinth. Such references are important. Christians then were not pietists who withdrew from the world, or failed to apply their faith to the world and their calling. We know that these men in the generations following the apostolic age at times died for their faith.

Neither a mindless obedience nor a mindless resistance are godly. In current church and state battles, the startling fact at times is the eagerness of some churchmen to batter over absurdities while neglecting central issues.

At stake is an issue which the early church faced, the issue of lordship or sovereignty. The church’s response was, “Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:9–11), not Caesar. For Christians, theocracy must be the normal pattern of all government, in every sphere of government, because God alone is Lord or sovereign. It is basic to the madness of our time, and of all apostate history, to assert the sovereignty of man, or of the state (Gen. 3:5).

The problem with bureaucracies in church and state is that men ascribe to them an area of necessity which is godlike. God’s Kingdom will not end, nor His sovereignty diminish, if churches and states collapse, because all things depend on Him, and He depends on nothing. Isaiah declares:

13. Who hath directed the Spirit of the LORD, or being his counseller hath taught him? 14. With whom took he counsel, and who instructed him, and taught him in the path of judgment, and taught him knowledge, and shewed to him the way of understanding? 15. Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing. 16. And Lebanon is not sufficient to burn, nor the beasts thereof sufficient for a burnt offering. 17. All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity. 18. To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him? (Isa. 40:13–18)

To serve God requires a high seriousness, but not self-importance. Theocracy is the normal pattern of life in every sphere, and the rule of God must govern all our actions. All things must be subordinate to God and His covenant law.

1. Brian Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 1050–1300 (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964), 131.

2. Fritz Kern, Kingship and Law in the Middle Ages (Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1939), 10.

3. Aldous Huxley, “The Lust for Money and Power,” in Theodore K. Rabb, ed., The Thirty Years’ War (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, [1964] 1972), 141.

4. Carl J. Friedrich and Charles Blitzer, The Age of Power (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, [1957] 1970), 7.

5. Clemente Fusero, The Borgias (New York, NY: Praeger, [1966] 1972), 156.

6. Ibid., 204–205.


Topics: Biblical Law, Government, Justice, Statism, Theology, World History

R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965.  His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.”  He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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