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Law and Liberty

England’s William Blake and Germany’s Johann Wolfgang von Goethe were contemporaries whose lives straddled the divide between the 18th and 19th centuries. Both pursued interests beyond poetry (art for Blake, drama and science for Goethe). Both wrestled with the relationship of law to liberty, ultimately to arrive at starkly opposed conclusions.

Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede,
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A Tale of Two Poets
England’s William Blake and Germany’s Johann Wolfgang von Goethe were contemporaries whose lives straddled the divide between the 18th and 19th centuries. Both pursued interests beyond poetry (art for Blake, drama and science for Goethe). Both wrestled with the relationship of law to liberty, ultimately to arrive at starkly opposed conclusions.

As Chalcedon founder Rev. R. J. Rushdoony noted, Blake was determined to insure that freedom be extended without limitation, everywhere. Committed to the absolute value of freedom, Blake decided to unshackle the vines in his vineyard by instructing that no one was to prune them. They would be left free to grow as they pleased. Blake’s principled stand for freedom came at a price: the vineyard overgrew and produced little to nothing in the way of a harvest. Having made an idol of abstract freedom, he learned how little an idol truly profits its maker. The vines simply operated according to the indelible law already graven upon them by their Maker.

Blake disliked law because it imposes restraints, and restraints cramp potential. He practiced what he preached. His no-pruning rule did, in fact, remove all restraints upon his vineyard’s potential — namely, its potential to behave like an out-of-control weed incapable of producing wine.

Goethe, more clear-headed, recognized that law and liberty were complements, not opposites. “Only law can give us freedom,” he observed. In so saying, he reposed the ground of liberty on its only sure foundation. Implicit in Goethe’s statement is the notion that true liberty is a limited liberty — that without limits, freedom becomes inaccessible. To Blake’s anarchism, Goethe opposes a limited government.

Goethe’s take on government differs from the view (attributed to Jefferson) that the government that governs least, governs best. “What is the best government? That which teaches us to govern ourselves.” Goethe saw a limited role for government, and chided politicians for their Messianic rhetoric: “Legislators and revolutionaries who promise liberty and equality at the same time are either utopian dreamers or charlatans.”

Now, neither Blake nor Goethe is a reliable guide where Biblical faith is concerned. Blake was a religious mystic, while J. Gresham Machen affirms without hesitation that Goethe was not a Christian. Nonetheless, Blake’s and Goethe’s respective positions have been an integral component of Christian discourse through all the ages.

In our age, Blake has the upper hand. Liberty is destroyed in the name of liberty because the ground of liberty — God’s law — is conspicuously eviscerated. As Rushdoony observed, when liberty is redefined as freedom from all restraints, we find that this “new liberty” is simply “old sin” warmed over. Self-government fades from view and the modern power state takes over.

Law and Morality
In an age marked by mindless maxims, proverbs, and aphorisms, it’s difficult to pick out the most damaging ones. Somewhere near “the summit of abomination” must be the old saw that “you can’t legislate morality.” This is a myth that must be continually re-exploded, using the same artillery that Rushdoony directed toward it for half a century: “All legislation is enacted morality.” All laws discriminate between those who obey them and those who break them, punishing certain behaviors while protecting others.

Humanists have sucker-punched Christians with this pat phrase, which is actually shorthand for a very different affirmation: “You can’t legislate Christian morality.” They fully intend to legislate a humanistic morality, and this they do with a vengeance.

As usual, Rushdoony puts it into a nutshell. The question, says he, is not whether we legislate morality or not, but rather, which morality will be legislated. This speaks to the source of law in a society, which Rushdoony held — correctly — to be the only valid indicator of who the God of a society is.

Every society confronts two choices, and will ultimately affirm one or the other. On one hand is the path to true freedom: “For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; He will save us” (Is. 33:22). On the other is the presumed path to freedom from God, cloaking an inexorable slide into statist slavery: “For the Secular State is our judge, the Secular State is our lawgiver, the Secular State is our king: it will save us.” This is a tall order for the Secular State. To function as an all-powerful Messiah “mighty to save,” it must acquire total control and use law to remake man in a new image.

Limited Government
If God’s law could not make men holy “because it was made weak through the flesh,” it is senseless to expect man’s law to achieve this goal. The state knows no other crowbar than legal coercion and humanistic legislation. It has no access to God’s resources of grace and regenerating power: it can only work with the old humanity in Adam. Humanists have faith that utopia can be built by sufficiently expanding the power of the state. Their toolkit includes compulsory education in state schools to insure that the new humanity is built according to the dictates of the elite planners.

The Bible sees power states as fundamentally inhuman, depicting them as vicious beasts (Daniel, Revelation) or predatory mountains (Psalm 76). Against these states, which evidently do “consider equality with God something to be grasped” (Phil. 2:6), the Scriptures restrict the legitimate domain of the state. As Rushdoony put it, “The purpose of Biblical law, and all laws grounded on a Biblical faith, is to punish and restrain evil, and to protect life and property, to provide justice for all people. It is not the purpose of the state and its law to change or reform men: this is a spiritual matter and the task for religion.”

Without Christian self-government, freedom is already inaccessible, and the power state steps in to fill the vacuum. When Christian liberty is taught in tandem with Christian responsibility, we can work “with one shoulder” to see all things put in subjection under Christ’s feet. Then all spheres of government — self-government, family government, church government, and civil government — will at last find their proper balance under God’s law. This happens when God’s law occupies its “lawful” place (cf. 1 Tim. 1:8) as the pattern for sanctification, rather than the means for salvation.

The Role of the Church
Many have been quick to limit the applicability of God’s law. Sanday and Headlam in their commentary on Romans insist (without contextual warrant) that in Romans 15:4 Paul restricts the value of the Old Testament to two points: “the great moral and spiritual truths of the OT, and the witness of the OT to Christ.” They say of Paul’s statement that “his words cannot be quoted to prove more than this.”1

How does Romans 15:4 read? “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.” Rushdoony does justice to Paul’s meaning concerning the absolute subject, “whatsoever things were written aforetime.” Says Rushdoony, “the meaning of these words cannot be reduced to a purely personal and pietistic level. The experiences of the prophets and kings in the civil sphere are as fully intended for our teaching and guidance as anything else.”2

If the church continues to “make void the law through faith” rather than “establishing the law” (Rom. 3:31), we will find ourselves bound by humanistic law instead. God’s commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:3), but the growing juggernaut of humanistic law grows more burdensome by the hour.

The church is to proclaim and apply every jot and tittle of God’s Word (Mt. 5:19). In an Orwellian era, the church’s trumpets must make a distinct sound. If we lose sight of our Lawgiver, we risk becoming salt that has lost its saltiness, fit to be cast out and trodden underfoot — i.e., we become slaves according to George Orwell’s vision of humanism’s future: a boot stamping on a human face forever.


1. Sanday, William and Headlam, Arthur C, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Epistle to the Romans, 8th ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903), 396.

2. Rousas John Rushdoony, Romans & Galatians (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1997), 277.

Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede

Martin is the senior researcher for Chalcedon’s ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s publications, Arise & Build and The Chalcedon Report. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.

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