Archive for the ‘Political Ethics’ Category

Dr. Adrian Pabst
Lecturer in Politics
University of Kent

After a lapse of several years, I am a renewed listener to Mars Hill Audio Journal, having received a subscription as a Christmas present. I can assure you: whether you acquire the issues of this audio journal as MP3 files or CDs, you’ll be able to savor the wide-ranging interviews and commentary with host Ken Myers in various contexts. My favorites are while exercising and driving around doing errands.

One of several fascinating interviews in the latest volume of MHJ (#115) was with Adrian Pabst, Lecturer in Politics at the University of Kent, a Fellow of the Center of Theology and Philosophy, who has written a new book: Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy (Eerdmans, 2012).
From the Mars Hill Audio Journal website we learn the following about the interview:

Adrian Pabst discusses the theological nature of metaphysics. He begins with addressing why metaphysics came to be dismissed by public intellectuals in wider society. Thinkers like Comte, Nietzsche, and Marion viewed metaphysics as a straitjacket, an obscuring obstacle and constraint upon our minds in pursuit of the truth. Pabst takes issue with this disregard of metaphysics, often based on misunderstandings of philosophers, foremost among whom is Plato. He discusses common misreadings of Plato focusing on dualism, and explains how Plato understood the relationship between the unity and multiplicity of the reality we all experience. Pabst highlights the notion of participation as key to this relationship, as well as the fundamentally relational and self-giving nature of truth, goodness, beauty, justice, and other transcendental ideas. While premodern philosophers were able to discover much of the metaphysical nature of reality, Pabst argues the personal and relational nature of the Creator in the Biblical tradition as necessary to explain the most basic questions of matter and reality that Plato could not answer. Pabst explains how a truer understanding of metaphysics would make “the common good” a coherent concept and aid in the cultivation of an alternative modernity.

Midway through the interview, Ken Myers both summarizes and editorializes upon what he and Adrian Pabst had just finished discussing. Says Myers:

At the beginning of this segment I said that modern politics typically excludes discussion about the nature of things from political debate. The political debate about good policies must be grounded in some idea about how to define the common good. And behind visions of the common good there are usually unstated assumptions about “the good.” Perhaps one of the reasons our political conversations are so rancorous and so deadlocked is that we falsely assume that we can talk about things like creating wealth, or promoting justice, or redefining marriage without any discussion about what these things really are.

Our deepest disagreements are finally metaphysical, which is to say that they’re finally theological. But we’re not allowed to bring such fundamental questions into public debate, even though metaphysical and theological assumptions are regularly smuggled into our policies.

In short: we cannot talk about “the common good” without defining “the good,” and we cannot define “the good” apart from metaphysics—which is to say: we cannot define “the common good” apart from theology, and without reference to God.

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all-cashIn some ways, the blog “Christian in America” is often interesting, occasionally helpful, but sometimes unclear.

Take this post, for example.

In a day when Tim Keller has become the target du jour of many Reformed and Presbyterian TR militants, I genuinely appreciate this refreshingly positive appeal to his book, Generous Justice. I deeply doubt the claim that ignoring Calvin, natural law, and common grace accounts for diminished trust undergirding today’s so-called culture war. And I heartily endorse the call to—note the adjective— Christian love, compassion, and civility as essential conditions for effective Christian participation in the public square, though I remain dubious about any call for Christians to “win public trust” in the public square.

There you have the heart, the thrust, the meat of the post.

A throw-away line?

My concern, however, involves a single sentence that, in the context of current discussions among Reformed and Presbyterians about Christian participation in the public square, without further explanation and concretization, may become nothing more than a throw-away line.

The precise function of this sentence in the author’s argument is quite unclear. In the essay, and in the concluding paragraphs, there is so very, very much with which to agree. But then the fog comes rolling in.

The point is not that we should avoid disagreements or that we should compromise our fundamental commitments. Heaven forbid. The point, rather, is that we need to work hard to conduct our disagreements, to wage our political campaigns, and to convert our cultural opponents with a spirit of love and respect – to allure them rather than to defeat them. Such love and respect involves the recognition of truth wherever it appears alongside the sort of honesty that allows us to communicate our deepest concerns. It also requires, I believe, the acceptance of the particular political virtues on which our governmental system depends – equal regard, commitment to deliberative processes, and a willingness to compromise within the constraints of basic justice and morality.

Who among “us” could disagree? Who among “us” would disagree? Does anyone among “us” disagree with this?

The immediately following paragraph begins with a contrastive statement:

There are certainly lines we will not be able to cross. We cannot support the state’s refusal to protect innocent life nor can we endorse its moral affirmation of same-sex marriage.

It’s almost as if the author had written: “But even though we must be loving and respectful, there are certainly lines we will not be able to cross.” “We” can go only so far, and no further.

Then follow two examples: “we” cannot support abortion and same-sex marriage. (I surmise the author meant: “We should not support” the state’s permitting these activities.)

Without any further explanation of this claim, however, we are immediately led back to the essay’s main thesis:

But even in a society in which the state stubbornly pursues such policies, we can maintain the sort of social and political commitment to our fellow citizens that makes trust possible, whether by helping to carry the enormous burdens faced by single mothers or by seeking to alleviate the fears of tyranny among those committed to the sexual revolution, whether by supporting legal recognition (and its consequent privileges and benefits) of non-marital relationships or by demonstrating to gays and lesbians our unshakeable and sincere commitment to their equality under the law.

Again, let me state my hearty agreement with this call to compassionate justice as the essential Christian witness in the public square.

However, for several years now, advocates of Christian participation in public life have been criticized loudly and aggressively, even derisively, by some proponents of modern versions of “two kingdom” theology for seeking to explain and concretize the cash value of precisely that conviction being expressed in the underlined sentence. Election year 2012 provided ample opportunity for such concretizing. But as soon as someone began to concretize that assertion underlined above—as in: recommend that Christians find alluring, loving, respectful, and viable ways to oppose abortion or same-sex marriage, at the ballot box, in political campaigns, etc.—that’s when simple believers were shut down, loudly, aggressively, and derisively with rhetoric about “you may not bind the believer’s conscience” or “don’t confuse the kingdoms” or “quit blurring the spiritual and the temporal.”

An invitation

Without concretizing that underlined sentence—consider this an invitation—that sentence functions, in the paragraph cited and in the essay as a whole, as nothing more than a throw-away line. The sentence is nestled in that paragraph just firmly enough to be able to claim, if necessary: look, we’ve been saying all along that “we” cannot support legalized abortion or same-sex marriage. In other words, the sentence provides just enough “cover.”

But DO something as Christians to incarnate that Christian conviction?

Well, many of us would like to see the cash value. Do those underlined words really mean anything? May pastors and Christian citizens put legs and feet under those words, from the pulpit and beyond the church parking lot? Should they?

Oh, I know . . . there is a plethora of political options (“the Bible doesn’t tell us about policy details”) . . . and Christians will disagree among themselves (“you may not bind my conscience, so you’d better not proclaim anything concrete from the pulpit”). “We”—Joe and Jane Christian—need to hear what this “cannot support” looks like. Does it look at all like:

— participating as a Christian citizen in the March for Life in Washington?
— organizing a Christian foundation to fund and maintain shepherding homes for unwed mothers?
— self-identifying as a Christian citizen with a political party and a political candidate that defends the life of the unborn?
— volunteering as a Christian citizen at a crisis pregnancy center?
— supporting counseling services that compassionately assist people in “coming out” of their homosexual lifestyle?
— organizing as Christians to promote a referendum in defense of marriage?

Some versions of Christian liberty refuse to permit preachers to say anything concrete about what Christians should DO to show that “we” “cannot support the state’s refusal to protect innocent life.” And it sounds noble to thump loudly that we cannot “endorse the state’s moral affirmation of same-sex marriage.” But just try to insist, against some modern “two kingdom” advocates, that Christians should oppose the state’s moral affirmation of same-sex marriage, and you’ll be left . . . without legs and feet under that noble conviction.

Convictions without cash value?

Sounds just a tad like . . . faith without works. Visible good works. The kind that others may see and give glory to our Father in heaven.

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Drew soccer

Grandson Andrew Hans Kloosterman moving the ball downfield.
Photo © Nelson D. Kloosterman

With this very helpful post, the discussion of “two kingdom theology” is surely being advanced!

Three notes for further reflection:

1. The term eschatology is not simply a “time word”—as in: something we wait for until after we die. As strange as it sounds, the Bible teaches us that the future is now already. For the Christian, the future drives and shapes the present. In the Bible, eschatology is always for ethics!

2. Based on this post, there seems to be a very close resemblance, if not identity, between this description of “two kingdoms theology” and the “already/not yet” distinction long employed within Reformed biblical studies—as in: “the kingdom of God is already present but not yet complete.” That’s been the diet for decades of students of Geerhardus Vos and  Herman Ridderbos and Richard Gaffin and George Eldon Ladd and Graeme Goldsworthy and . . . the list could go on and on. So then, what’s new?

3. Please munch on this sentence from the post: “Temporal actions are spiritual for Christians both because they point to the justice of the coming kingdom and because they carry with them eternal rewards.” The eternal rewards of faithfulness-in-history—now that deserves a book!

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H.H. Meeter ImageWe continue our discussion of the relevance of H. Henry Meeter’s classic work, The Basics of Calvinism, to contemporary discussions within the Reformed and Presbyterian world concerning the Bible, the church, and the world.

In chapter 10, “The Best Form of the State,” Meeter discusses the important matter of how Calvinism understands Christianity to relate to the state.

Can there be a Christian state?

This question, Meeter argues, cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” In fact, there are three ways in which the term “Christian” can be seen as relating to the state.

1. The first is what I would call the descriptive sense. In this sense, the state is not a Christian institution at all, Meeter argues, since it is “an institution of God’s common grace in this world by means of which God in his providence checks sin and promotes a moral world order” (pp. 85-86). As instituted by God around the world and in various cultures, the state as an institution is not a distinctly Christian formation. A state can function in Muslim countries, Buddhist countries, etc. In a descriptive sense, then, the state as an institution is not Christian.

2. The second sense I would call the normative sense. The state may be called Christian, “whenever a state is permeated with a Christian spirit and applies Christian principles in the administration of civic affairs” (p. 86). In this use, Meeter claims, “all states should be Christian, according to the conscience of the Calvinist, even though many states are not Christian. If God is the one great Sovereign of the world, then his Word should be law to the ends of the earth. . . . The Calvinist, whose fundamental principle maintains that God shall be Sovereign in all domains of life, is very insistent on having God recognized in the political realm also” (p. 86). Concretely, for the state to be guided by God’s Word, just as much as the church and the individual, means the following:

A state is Christian in this [normative] sense when, with God’s Word as its guide, its government maintains respect for authority, punishes evil according to divine ordinances, does not seek to disregard the guilt and responsibility of government officials or of its citizens, maintains the sanctity of marriage and the human family, guards the Sabbath, promotes philanthropy, honors the church and its mission in this world, and in similar ways reveals that it is permeated with the Christian spirit insofar as this relates to its own sphere of government (p. 86).

3. The third sense is what I would term the Christological sense, namely, “that Christ is recognized as the Ruler of the state just as he is of the church, so that all government officials are adjudged to be subject to his command” (p. 87). Among those who have maintained this view are the Arminians (this was an issue at the Synod of Dort in 1618-19), the Erastians, and occasionally, Roman Catholics. In this view, Christ is the Head of the state as well as Head of the church.

The “two kingdoms” theology of H. Henry Meeter

In response to the third sense, Meeter formulated a clear understanding of the rule of Jesus Christ in the world, which formulation is essentially an expression of a two kindgoms theology. Although the following citations are lengthy, careful reading of them will pay dividends for clear discussion and analysis.

Meeter explained several errors associated with claims made by Arminians, Erastians, and Roman Catholics. He concluded his analysis by explaining how Christ can have authority over all things, and yet be limited in the exercise of his Mediatorial, redemptive authority.

You will want to read this slowly:

The Bible indeed does state that Christ the Mediator has been given authority over all flesh, and all power in heaven and on earth. However, it does not thereby mean to suggest that Christ has authority over the state as its Ruler, as he is of the church. Christ is directly appointed Ruler over the church and over the kingdom of God. This rulership is given him as a reward for his mediatorial work. But this rulership lies in the sphere of special grace. As far as his redemptive work spreads its wings, he is Ruler and governs by his Word and by his Spirit. As Christ stated: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

But the state, which is, as we know it today, a creation of God’s common grace, does not come under the rulership of Christ as redeeming Mediator. A clue as to how he nevertheless can be said to have authority over all flesh is given us in Ephesians 1:22, where it is stated that God hath put all things under Christ’s feet, “and gave him to be the head over all things to the church.” This prhase, “to the church,” suggests a very definite limitation of Christ’s authority over all things as Redeemer. As Ruler over the church and the kingdom of God, Christ must protect it and direct its destiny through a hostile world. To enable him to do this, he as the Redeemer must be given authority to control all things so that, no matter what these forces may choose to do, Christ has the authority and power from God to control their actions, restrain any possible evil, and direct all things for the benefit of his church and kingdom. . . . This authority, manifestly, is something very distinct from that asserted in the claim that Christ as Redeemer is administrative Ruler over the state as he is over the church. The state, which is a creation of God’s common grace, not of special grace, is, to be sure, subject to the Word of God as a rule of life. But it is not subject to Christ as the Mediator of redemption. In this last sense, therefore, the state cannot properly be designated as Christian (pp. 88-89).

Note the following:

1. Christ as Mediator possesses authority over all flesh.

2. Christ as redeeming Mediator is Ruler over the state in a way different than he is Ruler over the church.

3. The state is (to be) subject to the Word of God as a rule of life.

4. The state is not subject to Christ as the Mediator of redemption.

There are, indeed, remarkable similarities between Meeter’s formulations and distinctions, on the one hand, and some formulations and distinctions promoted by some of today’s “two kingdoms” advocates.  This is why we may speak of widespread agreement among these respective “sides” of the debate.

But there is one crucial and pivotal claim around which the entire discussion revolves. It is this: “The state is (to be) subject to the Word of God as a rule of life.” To put it another way: in Meeter’s view, the Bible is normative not only for the church and not only for Christians, but for the state as well.

By way of advance notice, next time we will hear Dr. Meeter unfold and develop this claim:

But since conscience itself is warped because of sin, and therefore no infallible guide, the state cannot progress properly unless the consciences of its governing officials in the administration of matters of state are guided by the principles of the Word of God. The Word of God, therefore, becomes the ultimate God-ordained standard whereby the will of God must be known, and by which the consciences of state officials, and of citizens as well, must be directed (p. 99).

Until next time.

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Screen Shot 2012-12-06 at 3.00.35 PMIf you hurry, you can get this wonderful primer on classic Calvinism before Christmas. In fact, get a copy for each of your children . . . or elders . . . or pastor!

Chapter 2, “The Place of the Bible” (pages 24-28), features an important section on the relationship between the book of nature and the Bible.

A number of adjectives come to mind to describe this material: sober . . . clear . . . confessional . . . motivational.

See for yourself!

But God also has another book, the Bible. Originally there was only one book, one revelation of God, namely, nature. And in the next world there will again be only one book, the new nature, in which man will see God and his revealed will. Adam saw, and redeemed man in eternity will see, God’s will clearly revealed in his heart and in nature round about him, and will, therefore, have no need of a special revelation in a Bible.
That fact accounts for the existence of the second book, the Bible, or the special revelation as we have it today. This book became necessary because of sin. When man fell, both he and nature changed. Man’s mind became darkened so that he could not see things as they are; and nature was distorted, as the statement in Genesis about “thorns and thistles” suggests. Nature today still is a mirror in which the virtues of God are reflected, but because of sin it has become a decidedly curved mirror. Manifestly, a curved mirror makes things look grotesque, very different from what they actually are. How now is man with his beclouded mind and distorted nature to know God and the universe aright, or to know his true nature and the purpose of his existence? These are three fundamental questions at the basis of his whole outlook upon the world.
How is man to obtain the proper insight into ultimate issues under such conditions? The only solution is that God give him another book, the Bible, in which he clearly and unerringly reveals the truth about these matters to man, and then enlighten man’s darkened mind by his Holy Spirit, so that he will be able to understand this biblical truth.
Thus we see the relation in which the Bible stands to the book of nature. The Bible is not on a level with nature as a revelation of God, but it is rather a corrective of false impressions made by nature in its distorted condition. It presents to us views about God and the universe which nature today does not teach properly. As Calvin states, we must look at nature through the spectacles of the Bible. So then, while God has indeed two revelations which he calls upon his creature to study, the Bible after all becomes the ultimate basis for the whole view of life for the Christian, since he needs the biblical outlook to properly interpret nature and life round about him.

Dr. Meeter next reminds us that the Bible does more than interpret the book of nature, since it also discloses the way of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. “Yet,” he hastens to add, “the salvation of man is in fact the central theme of the Bible and is inseparably bound up with the view which it presents of the universe and of human life.”
And then comes this significant and relevant paragraph:

Do not mistake the purpose of the Bible as if it were intended to be a textbook for the various sciences. It is not intended as such. One gathers the facts for the various sciences from the fields which he is investigating—nature, history, psychology, and related studies. However, when the student proceeds to interpret and correlate these facts, relating the truths of any particular science to the whole body of knowledge, then he needs the unifying interpretation of Scripture. We cannot have a proper view of God, the universe, man, or history without the Bible.

Okay, since it’s Christmas season, let’s unwrap the present that Dr. Meeter himself has crafted for us. Here it is:

This book [of Scripture], therefore, besides teaching us the way of salvation, provides us with the principles which must govern the whole of our life, including our thinking as well as our moral conduct. Not only science and art, but our homelife, our business, and our social and political problems must be viewed and solved in the light of scriptural truth and fall under its direction.

This, dear reader, is classic Calvinism. Its claim is very clear, and comprehensive: The Bible’s principles must govern the whole of Christian living in the world.

And this hermeneutic (method of reading and using the Bible), dear reader, constitutes the fundamental problem within current radical “two kingdom theology” and its associated religious secularism that has raised its head among Reformed and Presbyterian folk today.

Next up: H. Henry Meeter gives three answers to the question: Must or can the state be a Christian state? No . . . yes . . . and no. Stay tuned to learn how Meeter managed to merge a Calvinian two kingdom theology with whole life Bible-normed cultural obedience.

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H.H. Meeter ImageBy now, those following carefully our presentation of material from Dr. H. Henry Meeter on “The Bible and Politics” will realize that, given the “sides” often portrayed in contemporary discussions of “natural law” and “two kingdoms,” Dr. Meeter was not what some call a “theonomist” or a “Christian Reconstructionist.” Neither was he a “religious secularist,” like those who insist that the Bible belongs in the church, while unaided reason and natural law govern everything else. But as a classic Calvinist, he firmly believed the Bible is related to politics . . . and education, and more.

How the Bible relates to these areas of Christian cultural activity can initially be expressed this way: the Bible supplies principles that guide and govern Christian cultural activity in the world.

So that’s where we pick up his discussion.

Where in the Bible are these principles to be found? Some think these principles are only to be found in isolated texts of the Bible. And if they are not very successful in finding suitable texts, they soon come to the conclusion that the Bible must not have much to say about politics. The Calvinist believes that the biblical basis for his political or his theological or his social views is not to be found in mere isolated texts. He rather discovers these principles in the rule of faith that runs through the whole of Scripture and manifests itself in a variety of ways, also at times in special texts, such as, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers,” or “By me kings reign” (Rom. 13:1; Prov. 8:15). But these principles are not at all confined to such special texts.
These principles deal not only with such very general matters like the sovereignty of God and the duty of obedience to governments, but also with many other political problems, such as the relation of the individual to the group, the relation of churches and other ogranizations in society to the state, the limits of governmental power, and the rights of individuals. Calvin in developing his political views made much of such biblical principles as justice, equity, and the well being of the people.
The Calvinist insists that the principles of God’s Word are valid not only for himself but for all citizens. Since God is to be owned as Sovereign by everyone, whether he so wishes or not, so also the Bible should be the determining rule for all. But especially for himself, the Christian, according to the Calvinist, must in politics live by these principles. He declares that not only with his soul for eternity, but as well in matters that concern his body in time, he belongs to his faithful Savior Jesus Christ. Him, therefore, he must obey in all walks of life.
The great value of adopting the Bible as his unconditional positive rule of faith and life, also for political matters, will become increasingly clear as we study the various aspects of Calvinistic political theory.

This ends our extensive citation of Dr. Meeter’s thoughts on this matter of “The Bible and Politics.”

Notice carefully what Meeter has not said. Several who defend modern religious secularism (religion, the Bible, and Christianity belong in the church) mistakenly allege that their critics must surely hold to the underlined words in bold in the following statement: “The Bible alone is the source of every principle for Christian political activity.” Neither Dr. Meeter, nor Abraham Kuyper, nor John Calvin, nor modern defenders of whole life Calvinism have defended that position.

Rather, one of the most fundamental disagreements lies in the two claims being defended by some modern religious secularists, that: (1) the principles of the Bible are authoritative only for Christians, and (2) the Bible says nothing authoritative for Christian communal cultural obedience in the world today.

One feature of this disagreement involves the following binary thinking: either the Bible alone is the guide for Christian communal obedience beyond the church, or the Bible says nothing for Christian communal obedience beyond the church. The error of this binary thinking is this: if we disagree with the second clause, it is alleged that we must agree with the first clause. If we disagree with the first clause, we must necessarily agree with the second clause. The truth, however, is this: as Dr. Meeter has explained it, neither the first clause nor the second clause is valid. Classic whole life Calvinism has always championed a third way!

But there’s more meat in Meeter! Next time we’ll look at the relationship between the Bible and “the book of nature.”

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Screen Shot 2012-12-06 at 3.00.35 PMFrom the previous blog post, you will learn that we are reproducing here a significant orientation penned by Dr. H. Henry Meeter back in 1939 on the matter of “The Bible and Politics,” a section comprising pages 74-76 in his renowned work, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism (6th edition; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990).

It must be kept in mind that before setting forth his ideas about “The Bible and Politics,” Meeter had already presented, in Part 1 of his book, the cardinal tenets of Calvinism regarding its fundamental principle, the place of the Bible in Calvinism, the role of faith, common grace, and human culture. These preceding seven chapters, then, contain his concise presentation of the integrated system known as Calvinism.

Part 2 contains eighteen chapters (three of them added by reviser Paul Marshall) that discuss the “Political Ideas of Calvinism.” The first of these is Chapter 8, from which these citations are drawn.

Again, listen to Dr. Meeter, and see what you think.

In adopting the Bible as his foundation in political science, the Calvinist takes a position which is rather unique. Most other systems do not attempt to base their views on the Bible. As their authority in affairs of state they will appeal, not to the Bible, but to some such ground as the will of the masses, or the individual sentiment of justice, or natural rights; or they will make of the state an autonomous body, which can decide what it will—always some human ground. This does not imply that adherents of such political systems will always object to your having religious views. Some who are atheists will object to it as the Soviet government is doing. Others are quite willing to allow religious opinions, but they maintain that these religious views should be private matters and should not be injected into politics. Others will go even further and allow religion to color certain political activities, such as the opening of political gatherings with prayer or occasional reference to God in speeches. But when it comes to the drafting of political views, they maintain that the Bible may not be the criterion. In politics, human opinions and human theories must decide. The Calvinist goes back to God. The will of God is determinative for the views which he must hold concerning the state.
How are we to understand the statement that the Bible is the Calvinist’s foundation in politics? Does the Calvinist expect the Bible to provide him with a political platform? It would be folly to expect such a thing. A political party in the United States changes its platform every four years. Despite such frequent changes it is a difficult matter to draft a platform which will satisfy all sections of the country. How then could anyone reasonably expect the Bible to supply a platform which would hold good for all ages and all classes? In fact, the Bible does not even offer us any organized political system which we can use. It does not even offer us a unified theological system. There is a more or less developed political plan presented in the Bible, the so-called Mosaic theocracy, that civil-ceremonial system found in the first five books of the Bible. But that system, according to the very words of Calvin, was made for other times and other conditions and does not hold good for today. In fact, the Calvinist does not believe that there is one hard and fast system of government which the Bible advocates. The Bible does not declare that the government must be a monarchy, or an aristocracy, or a demoncracy. The Bible offers eternal principles which should underlie and control all political systems. These principles never grow old, but like all principles they are eternal, changeless, and pertinent for all times and all conditions. When once one has mastered these principles, then one can build systems and construct platforms to meet existing conditions, and can critically analyze them to judge whether or not they are sound.

Next time: Where are these principles to be found? and Are these principles valid only for Christians?

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