Round Table Discussion

Christianity and the Legitimacy of Government

The late Paul J. Tillich (1886-1965)—not exactly a hero to conservative Christians, Protestant or Catholic—spoke of the rival impulses that cause agony in personal and community decisionmaking, which he defined as the clash between autonomy and heteronomy. In autonomy—literally, "self-law"—individuals think of themselves as a law unto themselves; in heteronomy, "other-law," they see themselves as subject to alien rule. The solution to this tension, according to Tillich, is theonomy, "God-law." It is easy to affirm this advice in principle, on the personal level, at least for the Christian, because, as Jesus said, "If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed."

The problem arises at the social level. "Theonomy" has become the slogan for a small group of theologians called reconstructionists, who believe that it is the duty of Christians to create a social order that will install and enforce the biblical law of the Old Testament. This principle has not worked all that well even when it has been energetically tried, as in the English Republic under Oliver Cromwell, or in Puritan New England. For the Christian, the proper motive for obedience is love. Jesus said, "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15). Unfortunately, such being the human condition, this principle does not work very well even in the Christian community,...

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