As postmen pile bag after bag before a befuddled judge, the defense attorney bellows, The U.S. Post Office, an official arm of the United States Government , recognizes Kris Kringle as the one, the only Santa Claus.-- We all know the scene. It plays every Christmas. Of course, the judge immediately dismisses the case to save his political skin, but the dismissal only works because the judge is yielding to a coordinate authority within the American system -- in this case, the United State Postal Service.2
The Christmas message in this familiar scene is more profound than it seems. Forget about who Kris Kringle is, or claims to be. Think about the judge's ruling and the nature of American law. A judge in the New York State Supreme Court yields to the authority of a bunch of mailmen because he can, and because he needs to; and American audiences find his decision believable, if somewhat laughable. Yes, in America such things can happen. After all, such things have been happening since the War for Independence . Lesser magistrates, to use a Puritan phrase, are always telling off bigwigs and putting them in their places. This American attitude toward law and authority has distinctly Christian foundations, however, and they are wrapped up with the Christmas story.
The Incarnation and Authority
Christmas celebrates not merely the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, but the Incarnation of the divine Son of God. "The Word was made flesh," we are told (Jn. 1:14 ). In the womb of the virgin Mary, the eternal Logos assumed true human nature. Without giving up His deity, the Son of God took to Himself true humanity. Jesus Christ is God incarnate, God in the flesh.
For the pagan world, however, the state was God incarnate. Pagan societies worshipped god-kings and raised pyramids and ziggurats to the religion of political power. Polis and empire were religious institutions, and pagan man defined himself in terms of them. The state was savior; the state was sovereign.
Christianity overthrew the worship of man and slew the Beast (cf. Rev. 19). But a new humanism weaseled itself into the church and tried to use the very idea of the Incarnation to revive the worship of man and the myth of the divine-state. For Jesus was God and man. But what did that really mean?
The Gnostics had held forth a divine Christ masquerading in the appearance of flesh. The Arians made Christ the greatest of creatures, a Son of God by adoption, and worshipped him as such. The Nestorians split Christ into two persons, one human and one divine: they worshipped Him as a man who had become God. The Monophysites blended the human and divine into one nature and erased the line between Creator and creature. All of these heresies had similar political implications.
If the Incarnation were unreal, then the immanent power of God still rested in the state. If Jesus Christ were only a created being who received worship, or an ordinary man who somehow became God, then the doorway to divinity might be open to all. God might have many sons, Caesar among them. In each case, salvation becomes a function of the state, a matter of legislation and technocratic control. For society, as for the human soul, the issue is fundamental. The ancient church confessed the truth of the Incarnation with these words:
We believe: in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God; begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made; being of one substance with the Father by Whom all things were made: Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the virgin Mary, and was made man.3
"one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation".4
The Incarnation was a unique event. Only Jesus Christ is both God and man. Only He has all power in heaven and earth (Mt. 28:18). All human authority is, therefore, limited and subject to His word. No king, no emperor, no state, can rightly maintain a claim to divinity or to divine sovereignty.
One Law, Many Administrations
The earliest confession of the church was "Jesus is Lord." One Lord necessarily means one law. Just as surely, however, it means many administrators of that law -- in other words, a decentralization of government. For no man, institution, or office can fully exercise the authority that is Christ's. No man can wield sovereign power. Instead, Christ ordains multiple authorities within human society. The way He arranges those authorities can be wonderfully complex.
For example, as Christendom developed in the Middle Ages, it multiplied administrative agencies and jurisdictions. There was fief law, common law, village law, canon law, Roman law, merchant law, and so on.5 Each governed some aspect of mediaeval life; each in some measure reflected the higher law of Scripture. Yet this complexity helped to generate freedom. Harold Berman writes:
The pluralism of Western law, which has both reflected and reinforced the pluralism of Western political and economic life, has been, or once was, a source of development, or growth -- legal growth as well as political and economic growth. It also has been, or once was, a source of freedom. A serf might run to the town court for protection against his master. A vassal might run to the king's court for protection against his lord. A cleric might run to the ecclesiastical court for protection against the king.6
Sometimes the complexities of mediaeval government were hard to sort out. Consider this feudal contract, for example:
I, John of Toul, make known that I am the liege man of the Lady Beatrice, Countess of Troyes, and of her son Theobald, Count of Champagne, against every creature, living or dead, saving my allegiance to Lord Enjorand of Coucy, Lord of Arcis, and the Count of Grandpre. If it should happen that the Count of Grandpre should be at war with the countess and count of Champagne in his own quarrel, I will aid the Count of Grandpre in my own person, and will send to the Count and the Countess of Champagne the knights whose service I owe to them for the fief which I hold of them. But if the Count of Grandpre shall make war on the Countess and Count of Champagne on behalf of his friends and not in his own quarrel, I will aid in my own person the Countess and Count of Champagne, and will send one knight to the Count of Grandpre for the service which I owe him for the fief which I hold of him, but I will not go myself into the territory of the Count of Grandpre to make war on him.7
Complicated indeed, but no more so than the American system. And the distance from mediaeval feudalism to American federalism is far shorter than most history texts suggest. The Magna Carta , which we often look to as a forerunner of our own Constitution, was actually a defense of England's feudal order against the usurpations of Norman kings.8 For all its defects, feudalism gave mediaeval Europe a system of government that was limited, decentralized, and contractual.
The Nature of the American System
Rushdoony has pointed out that in America the Christian doctrine of limited powers has meant "first, a division of powers, which naturally implied, second, a multiplicity of powers, and third, a complexity of powers."9 Of course, any analysis of the federal system created by the U.S. Constitution will include a discussion of the division or separation of powers and the accompanying idea of checks and balances. The federal system was meant to be complex for the sake of liberty. But the federal system was never meant to be the primary sphere of American civil government.
In the United States the basic civil government has traditionally been that of the county.10 State government has come next, and the federal government last of all. Yet all three governments deal directly with the individual citizen. Every American citizen lives under the jurisdiction of three or more civil governments. This is actually to our benefit; at least, it was meant to be. Each sphere of civil government has limited responsibilities and, therefore, limited claims. None is the servant of the others; none is the lord of the others. Any one can serve as a buffer against any other should the need arise.
Such is the American system. It is complex, even competitive, but it offers greater protection from tyranny than a simple, monolithic state can ever afford. It gives us multiple authorities and, therefore, multiple channels of appeal. It gives us options. We may appeal the decision of a lower court to a higher court. We may question an act of Congress before a federal court. We may seek state or county intervention against federal usurpation. We can call on Congress to impeach a lawless president. We can recall a wicked governor. In complexity lies a greater opportunity for freedom.
The judge yields to the mail carrier. Where else but in America ? The mediaeval legal tradition has failed nearly everywhere else. So has the Reformation and Puritan tradition of legal resistance by lesser magistrates.11 The long history of decentralization and interposition we enjoy in these United States may likewise be drawing to an end. But it's not gone yet. So no matter how you may feel about Miracle on 34th Street , you might want to watch the climax one more time. And when you do, please raise a cup of eggnog to the truly remarkable thing in the film, the real legacy of Christmas that it celebrates.
1. Miracle on 34 th Street (20 th Century Fox, 1947), written and directed by George Seaton.
2. In 1973, a television remake appeared, but by then the Postal Service had lost its place in the federal government. In consequence, the defense counsel's legal ploy was far less clever and effective, and the nature of the judge's decision was completely altered.
3. The Nicene Creed (AD 325).
4. The Formula of Chalcedon (AD 451).
5. R. J. Rushdoony, This Independent Republic , Studies in the Nature and Meaning of American History (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1964), 11 .
6. Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), Pt. II, quoted in Gary North, Moses and Pharaoh, Dominion Religion Versus Power Religion (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985), 207.
7. James Westfall Thompson and Edgar Nathaniel Johnson, An Introduction to Medieval Europe , 300-1500 (New York: Norton, 1937), 302, quoted in Rushdoony, 34-35.
8. Rushdoony, 14.
9. Ibid., 33.
10. Ibid., 54 and 62. Also see Rushdoony, The Nature of the American System (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1965), 9.
11. Rushdoony, This Independent Republic, ch. 3, Legality and Revolution. Rushdoony discusses A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants , a French Huguenot document. Also crucial is Samuel Rutherford's Lex Rex , a defense of the Puritan Civil War in England . The roots of both documents are in Calvin's Institutes , On the Civil Magistrate.
- Greg Uttinger
Greg Uttinger teaches theology, history, and literature at Cornerstone Christian School in Roseville, California. He lives nearby in Sacramento County with his wife, Kate, and their three children.