2010 Ligonier Regional Conference - Session 8 - Robert Godfrey
Dr. Robert W. Godfrey delivered our final conference lecture on the topic of statism. This is what he had to say on this important and timely subject.
What is statism? It is the claim or exercise of the power of the state as absolute over society. Statism insists that no other entity has rights except those derived from the state. It says that the state is supreme over all things.
In the ancient world, we see statism manifested in ancient Rome’s claim to bring civilization to the barbarians. Ancient Egypt made divine or quasi-divine claims for itself. The state was supreme because pharaoh was god. It was pharaoh who ensured that the sun would rise and the Nile would flood as needed. His claim led to others giving their service to build pyramids so that he could continue his work after his death.
These civilizations thought that the power of the state is the source of all rights, privileges, and activities of a nation. Statism is thus a fruit of the fall, as Satan tempted Adam Eve to become like God through eating the forbidden fruit. In ancient kingdoms, the rulers were said to be gods.
Christianity was something of a cultural challenge to those status claims. When Caesar said he was a god, Christians said, “no he is not.” Rome responded, “Christians are atheists because they deny both the Roman gods and that Caesar is god. Christians are traitors because they will not accept the claims of Caesar.” Christianity challenged Rome regarding its absolute authority.
With the conversion of the Roman emperor, a whole new dynamic entered society. The emperor still claimed supremacy and the church, not in an entirely biblical manner, claimed that it was supreme. Thus, the Holy Roman Emperor and the pope both claimed to have all power and the emperor tried to get the pope to submit to him and the pope tried to get the emperor to submit to him. This, despite its flaws, did introduce some ideas of limited government. The pope could tell people when not to obey the government. We see the beginnings of a check on government authority in all this.
With the rise of modernity, things began changing in the West. Louis XIV in France claimed again to have absolute power over all spheres and demonstrated it by building Versailles and naming himself the “Sun King.” The French Revolution tried to put a check on this, but only substituted one tyranny for another.
Statist claims grew stronger in the West as Christianity began losing its intellectual and cultural power. Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, and others like them put forth claims that their religiously neutral or anti-religious, scientific ideologies would make life better. They did make life different, but what the New Atheists fail to acknowledge is that the decline of Christianity’s cultural power in the West led to fascism and communism, the modern statisms of the 20th century. Both claimed, on scientific principles, that they would be able to create a new world order and that the state should have all authority to accomplish this end. Richard Dawkins wants the state to determine what students can believe and to criminalize our efforts to make our children Christians. How different is this than the notion of the rights of the state found in Hitler and Stalin?
Hitler said he was building a German Reich that would last for a thousand years. He got this figure from the thousand-year reign of Christ in the book of Revelation. Statisms in the West are typically secularizations of the Christian religion. Hitler also promoted science. One of the first steps he took was to execute disabled children because they were genetically flawed and needed to be eliminated so that the master Aryan race could be built into the new humanity. The Nazis were serious in their own evil way that science could prove Jews and others were inferior and should be eliminated. Note that it is wrong to call the Nazis crazy. They were not insane, they were evil. But if Darwin is right, why is their point of view, also known as Social Darwinism, wrong? If there is no truth and only power, why should social Darwinism be passé.
Stalin was even worse, if anything, than Hitler. He just covered his tracks better. Millions upon millions of Russians were murdered. If you were well educated, an aristocrat, a farmer who rejected collectivism, a Ukrainian, or if you brought uncle Joe bad news, you were in trouble. The Soviet Union put up icons of Marx and Lenin and Stalin — the quasi gods who would build a new heaven and new earth — all throughout the USSR.
One of the ways we need to respond to secularism and the new atheism is to make them face the fact that the most bloodthirsty century of history was the 20th century, which was foisted upon us by those claiming scientific insight. They should not be able to avoid the consequences of their ideology, which is utter inhumanity. The death, torture, bondage, and mind control of millions in the USSR and Nazi Germany is reprehensible. Biblical Christianity is the only ideology that could resist them.
There is good news for the church, good news from Revelation. We are impoverished for letting Revelation speak to us about some future events and not the here and now. Revelation talks about statism in terms of Babylon. There is debate as to what Babylon signifies. It does not represent the Devil (the dragon) or false religions (the beast from sea) or false prophets (the beast from earth). Babylon represents state power gone awry. It does not represent some future state or revival of Babylon. Those who are most interested in reading Revelation literally in its promise of a future rise of Babylon will not read Isaiah, which insists that Babylon will not rise again. Both cannot be right, and so one or both must be read symbolically.
Babylon is the symbol of power raised against Christ and his kingdom. The good news is that the first time Babylon is mentioned in Revelation, it is fallen. Living in a Soviet gulag or in Nazi Germany, it was hard to remember Revelation 14:8 — “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great.” No matter how powerful Babylon seems to be, whether it is ancient Rome or the USSR or North Korea or communist China, no matter how great the power of the state, the first thing the Word of God wants to say is that it is fallen — it will not defeat the work of the Lord. It says Babylon will be defeated by the Lamb who was slain, who is the Lord Jesus Christ . Poor Jesus, so powerless, so helpless, so defeated; but when John sees the Lamb, he sees the Lion who has conquered (Rev. 5).
Human history is not made by Babylons but it is made by our Christ, and He will reign forever. We may lament the advance of false ideology, but we cannot lose sight of Babylon’s fall and her brokenness of power. This is what Revelation 17 and 18 are about.
There are so many questions debated in Revelation — who are the two witnesses, what is the battle of Armageddon, and so on. Yet they miss the main point if we are not careful about our focus on these topics. The biggest question I have is about chapter 18, which goes on and on about the fall of Babylon. Why are so many people mourning? Why so much attention to a fall that is not described very dramatically? It is because Babylon is where most people actually live. A lot of people follow false religions and false prophets, but the real truth is that most people do not care anything about ideology and prophets; all they care about is power, wealth, and pleasure. This is what Babylon represents, albeit in their godless form organized to assert themselves in the world. Babylon is not a particular state but one that is godless in its life and that draws the world to itself.
Yet though Babylon falls, the bride will be preserved. Throughout Revelation, the people of God have their citizenship of heaven. Right now we are there as the pure bride of Christ, cleansed and protected. We are not part of the prostitute that loves the world (Rev. 17) but part of the bride. We are not the dwellers of the earth, which are the ungodly in Revelation.
The world does look grand, with power, wealth, and pleasure, and the large majority of people in this world are only looking for these things. But I am struck by the prostitute’s golden cup of abominations because John knew Psalm 75:8, wherein the cup of God’s judgment is described. Babylon — the prostitute — may have a cup for a while and think she is above every sort of judgment, but she isn’t. The Lord will come in judgment.
Yet we do not always have to wait for the last day to see the judgment of Babylon. The beast in Revelation 17 turns on the prostitute. The kings of the earth are always at each other’s throats. It was Hitler’s former ally, Joseph Stalin, who invaded Nazi Germany and helped bring it to its knees. Ungodly powers put limits on each other. God judges evil powers using other evil powers as his weapon.
The lament in chapter 18 is that Babylon fell in an hour. She that seemed so eternal is gone so soon. Just like the Soviet Union. Who could imagine that it would be gone in a day, in an hour? God could because He is still the Lord of history. He rises up and casts down. We may not be able to understand His ways, but he is showing that there is judgment of the wicked. Ideologies that are inhumane will devour themselves, often before the last day.
This is why Revelation is so encouraging. Even though many people want to follow the state because it will bring power, wealth, and pleasure, we must see that the path statism offers is a dead end in the most literal sense of the term.
We also have to recognize that statist power is a constant threat. The prostitute hates the church because the church tells the truth. The lie always hates the truth. We should not be surprised when we are hated because of this. The prostitute also hates the clam that there should be any limits on the state’s power. But the bride of Christ endures despite the claims of statism
When the allies liberated Nazi Germany, they found in small town a list of all non-German elements that would be sent to the concentration camps after the end of the war. On this list were some Baptists who refused to send their kids to the Hitler Youth program. In one town there was a large pro-Nazi family that the allies threw out on the street, six hungry children and all. Everyone was afraid to take them in but the Baptists. They resisted the prostitute and showed the love and purity of the bride of Christ in very difficult circumstances. They were evidence that Lord is on his throne, and wonderful things can come about because of this.
What Should We Do?
When we hear about the ideologies we face and read Revelation, we begin to wonder if there is any guide for us. Is there any Christian political advice to follow so that our government does not become a statist government? There are people who already want this statism and do not care which form the government takes, conservative or liberal, as long as they have power, money, and pleasure. This is why people like Nietzsche are appealing. There is a kernel of truth in what they say. It is true that some people talk about truth when they only mean power. We have to be aware of the presence in our own culture of those who do not care about anything but power, no matter how they get it.
Abraham Kuyper is a good guide for us. He was a brilliant academic and a popular speaker, which doesn’t happen very offer. For a time he was a minster and theologian, then he became a politician and prime minister of the Netherlands. He wasn’t just a theorist. B.B. Warfield, the great Princeton Presbyterian, was so impressed with him that he got Kuyper came to speak at Princeton on how Calvinism should affect the modern world. In his lecture “Calvinism and Politics,” he said we have to be very worried because there are two great enemies in the West to a Christian view of politics. One is destructive individualism and the other is statism. Kuyper was a prophet of what would happen in 1917 in Russia and later in Germany. He saw statism coming as Christianity lost its cultural influence. He said the church must bear witness in this world, not withdraw.
This the church’s witness: There is only one sovereign, that sovereign is God. Because He is sovereign, all other institutions are limited in their rights and sovereignty. Don’t let the state do anything but promote justice. The state does not have authority, for example, to educate our children. Kuyper built Christian schools not to protect Christian children from the world but to teach them how to think like Christians. We have to stand up for limits on the state in any way we are able.
There are also limits on the church and families. The Church can’t run the state. Families cannot do the work of the church. Here is the idea of sphere sovereignty, which says that different authorities are over different spheres, leading to checks and balances in this world.
Kuyper provides a model for us, though we don’t follow him blindly. Looking back he saw two different kinds of revolution, one positive and one negative. Positive revolutions include the Dutch Revolt, the English Civil War, and the American Revolution because they were revolts against tyranny in the name of limited government. The English Civil War lead to the rise of parliament and the American Revolution led to the separation of powers in the republic. The French revolution is negative, and Kuyper would have also said the same thing about the Russian revolution and the rise of Nazism had he lived to see them. These revolutions claimed to be against tyranny, but they tore down one form of tyranny in order to build another in the form of an absolute state. These revolutions destroyed families and churches who resisted their goals. Kuyper said we must stand absolutely against such things.
Calvinists have always been troublemakers in a sense. They were the main force behind the American Revolution because they would not stand for tyranny and the imposition of taxes and bishops on the colonies. We are not to be troublemakers for trouble’s sake, but when constitutional government is abandoned, tyranny is the result, and we have a duty to resist tyranny.
Babylon will make war on the Lamb, but the Lamb will conquer Babylon, and those with the Lamb are called and chosen and faithful (Rev. 19–22). These are wonderful adjectives. They are adjectives to be cherished. We who are believers are called out of darkness into light, out of death into life — we are called the bride of Christ. We are not only called but chosen. He picked us, we are precious to Him, He values us, and He gave His own blood for us. We are not a random allotment. He loves us and promises to protect us. Let us be the called, be the chosen, and be the faithful.
The life of this world is not easy. The servant is not greater than the master. If Christ suffered before entering His glory, so it will be for us. But the faithful share in the Lamb’s victory. The theme of Revelation is to conquer. The prostitute, beast, and dragon will not conquer. But the Lamb has and will conquer, and those who are faithful will see a new heaven and earth with no political parties and constitutions but righteousness instead. There will be no darkness or pain. May God hasten that great day!