The Foundations of Social Order
(Reprinted from The Foundations of Social Order: Studies in the Creeds and Councils of the Early Church [Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1998], 181-186.)
Every social order rests on a creed, on a concept of life and law, and represents a religion in action. Culture is religion externalized, and, as Henry Van Til observed, “a people’s religion comes to expression in its culture, and Christians can be satisfied with nothing less than a Christian organization of society.”1 Wherever there is an attack on the organization of society, there is an attack on its religion. The basic faith of a society means growth in terms of that faith, but any tampering with its basic structure is revolutionary activity. The Marxists are in this respect more astute than their adversaries: they recognize hostility to their structure as counter-revolutionary activity, as hostility to their establishment. The life of a society is its creed; a dying creed faces desertion or subversion readily. Every creed, however healthy, is also under continual attack; the culture which neglects to defend and further its creedal base is exposing its heart to the enemy’s knife. Because of its indifference to its creedal basis in Biblical Christianity, western civilization is today facing death and is in a life and death struggle with humanism.
The foundations of social order need to be examined, therefore, in order to be understood and defended. First, there is the creedal basis: every law order rests on and is the legal codification of a system of morality, and every morality presupposes a religion, some form of “ultimate concern.” Most religions are nontheistic, but all religions are basic to one or another system of morality. Moral order is an aspect of religious order. Most religions are not theistic but basically humanistic. From the structural perspective, religions can be divided into two great and central classes: theistic and political. In a theistic religion, God is the source of morality and law. The order of the universe is God-given and absolute, and man’s order must be patterned in terms of God’s infallible Word, the Bible. In political religion, politics is the source of morality and law. Aristotle wrote on politics and therefore concerned himself with ethics, and his ethics is the morality of a political order. Ethics for Aristotle basically has an immanent principle of ultimacy rather than a transcendental one. Instead of an absolute order in the universe, political religion sees a developing order which can guide and control, so that God’s eternal decree is replaced by man’s total planning. Man’s predestination replaces predestination by God. Political morality has always been productive of political religions.
The second foundation of social order is the state. The state is the social organization of the creed, the legal structuring of the moral system of a society. The state cannot be amoral, because its every law is the codification of its basic morality. The state cannot be religiously neutral, because it is the religious organization of society in terms of law. When the state claims religious neutrality, it is either self-deception or a deception of the people, and it merely means a neutrality towards its old faith in order to prepare the way for the establishment of the new faith. The state is no less a religious organization than the church, and in some societies more so. In Christian society, church and state are both religious orders, the church as a ministry of grace and the state as a ministry of justice. In pagan society, the state takes priority as the religious order: the temple or the shrine then become aspects of the state’s life and function. Religion can no more be abstracted from the state than from the church. Churches and states may forsake a religion and abandon their creed, but only in order to adopt a new one.
The purpose of the state varies in terms of its religion. Basically, the state can be either messianic or ministerial, either a savior or a ministry of justice. For Biblical religion, the state is the ministry of justice; for non-Christian religions, for political religions, the state is man’s savior. The two concepts are mutually exclusive, and there can be no compromise between them.
The third foundation of social order is sovereignty. Sovereignty can be either transcendental or immanent, resting either in God or being an attribute of man and his order. Basically, the two conflicting concepts are between God’s sovereignty and the claimed sovereignty of the state. If God is sovereign, then He is the creator and governor of all things, and His law over-arches, controls, judges, and assesses all things; nothing can exist or have being apart from Him. If the state is sovereign, then the state must exercise total control and judgment over all things in its world, or its sovereignty is limited and negated. The state seeks, in terms of its claim to sovereignty, to become the determining and overarching power over every domain: no sphere is allowed to function except by permission of the state. The earth, air, water, sky all belong to the state, are used only under the law and tax of the state, and are potentially or actually subject to repossession by the state. The state has assumed that ultimacy over man’s life which properly belongs only to God. The creed of the state therefore requires holy warfare against the Christian creed and faith.
Two absolute sovereignties and sovereigns cannot coexist at the same point in time and space, claiming the same jurisdiction. Because the claims of God and the sovereign state are mutually exclusive, their conflict is inevitable. The warfare between Christ and Caesar is inescapable war, and it is a war unto death.
For every sovereign order, sin and evil are a problem. Biblical Christianity deals with sin and evil in two ways. First, the state as the ministry of justice establishes restitution as the fundamental principle of the law. The justice of God must be maintained; there must therefore be restitution by man whenever God’s order is in any way abated or breached, or else God will exact retribution through His judgment. Second, the church as the ministry of grace must proclaim the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ makes atonement for man’s sin against God, and He establishes the order of God in relation to man; this order is communion in Him. Christ’s atoning work affects restitution in relationship to God, even as civil law under God must effect restitution in relationship to man as its duty towards God. Thus, in a higher sense, both church and state have a calling to effect godly restitution, the state as a ministry of justice, the church as a ministry of grace. The goal is “the restitution of all things” in the new creation (Acts 3:21). Restitution is thus the basic aspect of the Christian social order.
The third foundation of social order is thus grace. Man’s problem under any creed is the presence of personal and impersonal evil in the world. Man assesses the nature of that evil and his answer to it is in terms of his creed. For political religions, for humanism, evil is in the environment, and the state’s power to change that environment is its saving grace. The state must remake man’s physical and spiritual environment in order to change and save man. Social change in terms of the state’s plan is statist grace in operation. The bad environment must be destroyed in order to free man. This evil environment sometimes involves persons and institutions, such as the bourgeoisie, capitalists, the clergy, Christians, churches, private organizations, private enterprise, and so on. All these may have to be, and frequently are, “liquidated” or destroyed as part of the process of salvation. Those persons remaining must be “re-educated” in terms of the new creed and out of Christianity.
For Biblical Christianity, the answer to the problem of evil is God’s grace, the grace of God through Jesus Christ and the restitution of all things. Man’s problem is not his environment but sin, man’s desire to be his own god, his own law and principle of ultimacy. Man cannot save himself, either by politics, works of law or morality, or by any other means. Jesus Christ is man’s only savior. Man must live under God’s law order in order to live freely and happily, but the law order cannot save man, nor will that law order long survive, if there be not a sizable body of believers whose life is the law of God. Basic to true order therefore is grace. Without grace, man lacks the character to develop his potentialities, capitalize his activities, and order his life.
Every social order has an implicit creed, and this creed defines the order and informs it. When a social order begins to crumble, it is because the basic faith, its creed, has been undermined. But the political defense of that order is usually made the first line of defense: it becomes the conservative position. But, because the defense is politically rather than creedally informed, it is a superficial defense and crumbles steadily under a highly doctrinaire and creedal opposition. Thus, Cicero’s defense of the Roman republic was a spirited and heroic effort, but it was also the epitome of impotence. The republic was already dead; Cicero himself did not believe in the religion on which the republic had been based. When Cicero could not accept the religious foundations which made an aristocracy sovereign, how could he expect the rebellious masses to accept it? Cicero’s position was essentially personal, and the various defenders of the republic were more linked by purely personal tastes and interests than a creedal position. Julius Caesar was able to capitalize on the new creedalism and make himself the religious and civil head of the new movement. Similarly, today humanism is the creedal basis of the various democratic and socialistic movements. The clearer the humanism, as in Marxism, the more direct its use of power, because it operates in terms of a consistency of principle. The conservatives attempt to retain the political forms of the Christian West with no belief in Biblical Christianity. Apart from vague affirmations of liberty, they cannot defend their position philosophically. The conservatives therefore becomefactfinders: they try to oppose the humanists by documenting their cruelty, corruption, and abuse of office. If the facts carry any conviction to the people, they lead them only to exchange one set of radical humanists for reforming radical humanists. It is never their faith in the system which is shaken, but only in a form or representative of that system. The success of the subversives rests on their attack on the creed of the establishment, and its replacement by a new creed. When the foundations are provided, the general form of the building is determined. When the creed is accepted, the social order is determined. There can therefore be no reconstruction of the Christian civilization of the west except on Christian creedal foundations.
1. Henry Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1959), 245.
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.
Learn more about R.J. Rushdoony by visiting: https://chalcedon.edu/founder