John Scott Redd Jr., president and associate professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary near Washington, DC, spoke about Reformed theology’s beliefs about government during Providence’s Christianity and National Security Conference in November 2019. The following is a transcript of the lecture.

Christianity & National Security Conference 2019 – John Scott Redd Jr. Transcript 

Top bar said that having two Catholics in a row would keep you awake before lunch. I’m not sure what happened. The Reformed guy showed up late in the morning. So this hopefully won’t be… hopefully I’m intellectually ambient for you. What I would like to do is look at this broad topic, the reformed notion of the State, recognize this is all, this is a huge topic and there are many different expressions of how it could be understood. Myself, I was drawn to this question early in life, right out of college as I assume many of you are.  

I came to Washington, D.C. with a desire to write and to be involved with the political discussions of our day and fell into communication because of course they paid better than journalism. And I was involved in contiguous time in politics since the mid to late 90s. Washington D.C. It was an interesting time to kind of cut my teeth as a reformed Christian in the Washington D.C. area and that began a trajectory that has now led me to the Reformed Theological Seminary where I teach the Old Testament. For many people that means I teach esoterica, I teach irrelevance, some people might even say, however I think that it’s relevant. And that interest in what it means to be a Christian and particularly a reformed Christian who thinks highly of scripture is on par with… you just mentioned how you think about the State. 

And this led me to begin, on our campus, the Institute for Theology and Public Life, where we’re really looking at how we connect the… the powerful app of systematic theology, of reformed theology, to the public square, not so much staying in that abstract space of theorization, and not ending up with the opponent guides and policy prescriptions. But rather, what are the ideas that inform what we do?  

And so, I would like to talk just for about, about twenty minutes or so, about some of the key things that we need to think about if you’re a re… if you’re coming out of a Reformed mindset and even if you’re not, because you might say wait a minute, this actually helps in how I’m doing, the work that I’m… I’m up to. We like to share our theology and the contributions that it has had and of course a lot of these contributions are going to overlap with other traditions. And personally, I would like to start with this idea of what is theology? 

One of our professors at the Reformed Theological Seminary, John Frame argues that theology is the application of Scripture, okay, so start with that. The application of Scripture, okay. By individual persons, okay, interestingly now we’re talking about the subjective aspect, you’ve got the Scripture, you know, that the subjective aspect of the person doing the application, in two situations in life. In other words, in two particular aspects and moments in history, time, and place that are inhabited by, I’m adding this last word, inhabited by finite creatures. And I think that’s important because I think as we’ve looked at Church history and we look at how they apply their traditions into the idea of the state, we have to recognize that they don’t know everything that we know now and there are things that they knew that we don’t know now in part because we are all finite individuals, right? 

So as a, as a Calvinist, I can say drawing off of the tradition of Calvin, I can also say that I disagreed with Calvin in some points because, like Calvin, I see my historical predecessors as being provisional, right? That’s actually the word that the council following the Reformation, growing out of everything that the Councils have done. Calvin said wait, wait a minute. Don’t throw it all out. It’s provisional, tested, which I think is Scripture. And so that’s what I would do with Calvin as well, right there with Knox and… and Kuiper and whoever we’re going to have my tradition. 

So let me start with a couple of themes, a couple of Biblical theological themes that I think can help us better understand how we should think about or approach the State from a Biblical point of view. So I’d like to start with the topic that I think most of us would begin with. It’s true of both Catholic and… and reformed thought, and it’s this idea of divine kingship and of course, the reformed tradition makes much of divine kingship, you hear it in the phrase sovereignty. But this idea that God’s authority over the Heavens and the earth is without caveats, without exception, it’s without… and there’s no kind of secondary ideas. 

This is based in the old Christian Trinitarian doctrine of a saint, the idea that God is simple but He is whole and complete and non-contingent, and he’s the only thing that is right. Everything else is contingent, including the State, including the universe, including us ourselves. God Himself, however, is not. He is divine king. The Psalmist says the Earth was the Lord’s to the fullness thereof, the world and all who dwell therein.  

Okay. You noticed that lack of caveat. It’s not Israel is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. It’s not the Church is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof where those who follow God are the Lord’s in the monastery. It’s the whole earth and the whole cosmos because God is King and He owns the world. It’s His. This is why Jesus can say as Jesus is taking the authority that’s been given to Him by the Father. He can say all authority in Heaven and on earth is Mine. Notice He doesn’t just say the way of the Church. He doesn’t just say it’s the authority of My people or whatever the Gospels proclaim, something like that. All authority in Heaven on the earth is Mine.  

As a matter of fact, you know, uh, J. I. Packer as some of you know, the Anglican theologian points out this is the foundation for the Great Commission. So as we go out and proclaim the faith as Christians, we do so on the foundation that God already owns and has all authority and has given it to us through Christ Jesus. So this idea that even human authorities like the State, even an atheistic State, right? Even a… even a State that deliberately rejects the triune God still derives its authority from the Lord, from divine kingship.  

When Paul writes in Romans 13 that the Lord has given Caesar the sword… the power of the sword, you know, he’s talking about a young Nero. He’s not talking about a Christian, you know, administration. He’s talking about Nero. Now it’s before Nero goes nuts, but it’s still Nero. Nonetheless, he says he’s given him the power of authority. So Nero gets his authority from God and will be held responsible by God for what he does with his authority. We see this in the Old Testaments and the prophets who talk about the fact that the nations will be judged by God. There are oracles against the nations in every one of the Prophetic books. Isaiah has it from Isaiah 14-23, you close out Jeremiah, the Kin*g James Bible version of Jeremiah. Ezekial has it in the middle, the twelve minor prophets have them int he middle of it. Jonah, this comes from… Notice the prophets aren’t just talking to Israel. They care about the ruler and the rulers were held responsible according to the divine authority. 

Now there’s an extension in that, okay? There’s an extension from divine kingship to my second point and that’s the safety of all human beings. Help our brothers, and all human beings are made in the image of God. Now I didn’t think we could understand that because apart from this idea of vocation, we need to know how God reigns. And what does God do as King? He builds His palace, He builds His sanctuary, as it were. And that is the earth and other things for that matter, and that is about the work of completing that sanctuary, is about the work of completing that palace.  

The account of Genesis 1 has us begin with this kind of chaotic State, where light cannot thrive. It can’t, to use a modern term we hear a lot, flourish. Light can’t flourish. And what does he do? He draws up out of the chaos. He draws up out of the chaos, separating the waters and bringing the land out of the waters. You have light and dark, the waters above, the waters below. You have earth and waters and there was… He fills those things. He puts the sun and the moon in the sky and then he puts a… this is a word that is interesting in ancient near eastern zoology, He puts the fish in the waters, okay, stand by, and he puts the fish in the waters above. Those are the birds. Okay. You know, in the zoological classification fish and birds are going to be in the same group because they dwell in the waters. Okay. And then on earth He puts all of the creatures of the earth on it on day six. He’s created this place that was formless and void, now it has form and that substance, and then what does He do?  

He creates man and woman in the image of God and He says go out, fill the earth, and subdue it. We should think about what the Lord has just done by filling the earth and then making humanity in His image to then go and do that too. He’s fundamentally saying you are kings derived from me. Go out, fill the earth, and subdue it. Notice they have a trajectory too. They have a teleology or an eschatology they are supposed to do. This whole program is supposed to end with the earth being formed and filled with images of God reflecting back His glory. 

Now in the Christian tradition we call that the cultural mandate, this idea that we are all kind of all deeply down in our very essence the image of God, and therefore we reflect Him in a variety of ways. Whether that’s reason, linguistics, aesthetics… You name it. Being human means being in the image of God. Even after the fall, that judgement that we are in the image of God, that judgement is not rescinded. So it’s even true for the unbeliever. As for the believer, we all bear that dignity and that kind of inner desire for flourishing, though now it is hindered, right?  

And hence, we come into this need for the State in our modern day. This discussion. We are now hindered under the curse of sin and hence we require the state in order to maintain order, we require the state to continue this work of flourishing, of filling the earth and subduing it. It’s interesting to imagine, and I’ll actually argue that for Christians, following the recognition when we are called to go out and proclaim the Gospel, creating new images, redeemed images of God and discipling the nation. So even the Great Commission is… is sort of sprouting out of this idea of cultural mandate. It’s not a… It’s not a new cultural mandate, it’s an extension of it, okay, that you are to go out and form the earth and subdue it to the proclamation of the Gospel. 

But when I come to any State, whether that’s the Chinese State, or whether that’s the State… in Syria right now under… under duress, when I come to that State I recognize that they are made in the image of God that bears dignity over all the humans over which they are reigning. And I want to think, then, how do I help them? How can they be aided in that effort of forming and filling the earth?  

I’ve actually had… you asked a very good question about the Church in persecution in China. I was in China last October, right as the first wave of persecution was beginning against the Early Reign Church, it just so happens I was teaching a class. As I was leaving out of Detroit to fly over the globe and come down into Shanghai, I got these last news reports before the internet was lost of this happening. And interestingly when I landed the… the class I was teaching, many of whom were connected to this Church didn’t know about it and it was only over the course of the week you could see the rumors coming in as people were becoming aware of what was happening to their brothers and sisters.  

I would say, and there’s this common belief and it’s not entirely wrong, but that persecution helps the Church. I think historically speaking persecution does help the Church in short-term. But all we need to do is look at North Africa and see how long-term persecution can really lead to a strong diminishment of the Church. We’re only seeing now actually the Church of North Africa come back after almost a millennia and a half of being, almost going dark. And remember, North Africa is sort of the heart of early Christendom. Okay. So we… we need to be reminded that God through this wonderful glory in the world blesses those who are united with the sufferings of Christ. And so I often tell my students there, I’m going to teach you biology. You’re going to teach me how to be united with the sufferings of Christ. Because I don’t know how to do that even in my context and we can… we can learn much from them. 

And yet also remember it should never lead us, then, to be passive in the face of persecution. So we are all made in the image of God and this has bearing on our view of the State because the State is not operating outside of the connotation. It’s not hovering outside of my sovereignty. It actually derives its authority from God and it is ruling over image bearers who are likewise based in this notion of forming and filling the earth, of bringing order to the earth.  

Another reason why I was interested in the State was for a kind of practical purpose. In 2003, my father, he would… served for 32 years in the Navy, was called back and actually stood up the National Counter-Terrorism Center right outside of Washington near McClane. But if, there’s certain parts of McClane you know, where if you make a wrong turn and you realize suddenly you’re not in a Safeway parking lot anymore, you know?  

And he… he had to ask this question as an elder in a Presbyterian Church, which he was. How do I think of this job in counter-terrorism? What is terrorism? Terrorism at its core is not the effort to kill the most amount of people, it’s not the effort even to win a war. It’s an effort to sow anarchy and fear and confusion, right? It is to push back against that order and that flourishing that… that all humans desire. That’s the power of terrorism. In a way, that… that just kind of gets at this distilled notion of the state, this kind of idea of turning back those who would sow anarchy and chaos and death. Isn’t that what the State is for?  

The reformed tradition also brings, so we’ve talked about divine kingship, about the image of God as being derived out of that. The reformed tradition also grants a strong view of continuity between the Old and New Testaments. This is why I have, as an Old Testament scholar, a lot of interest in how we think about the State. Of course, the Old Testament talks about the State quite a bit and there’s a high view in the reformed tradition of what to do with Israel. We do read the Old Testament. We don’t think it’s esoterica or irrelevant.  

We wonder what does Israel mean for us today and yet how do we understand that in light of the work of Jesus Christ? I’m not receiving the Law of Moses and sort of directly applying that into a situation around me today. For instance, I’m not looking at how Moses handles, you know, treating the Canaanites in the Levant during the period of the Carimean. Okay? That’s very unique, a very particular situation. It’s a fascinating discussion, we don’t have time to go into it. But, I’m not going to take that and apply it directly to modern day politics, right? I’m going to actually follow what Christ Himself does when He is applying the Old Testament into the New. And He’s often taking the teachings of Israel and He highlights the sort of moral aspects that are maintained for all of humanity. Murder, for instance. Murder is… the mandate against murder in the Old Testament. They would say this is a strong foundation to stand upon, not merely for the Church. It’s not just for the Church, the Church isn’t supposed to murder, right? This is for all of humanity. And yet there are these other civil laws.  

In the reformed tradition, we’ve made this distinction between the moral law and the ceremonial law, having to do with the temple that’s fulfilled in Christ, and then finally the civil law as having this kind of different administration in this new, um, ecclesia. And that just means congregation, translating the Hebrew word qahal, which is congregation, this new congregation that Christ has inaugurated.  

What does that mean for us today? Now it’s interesting. Paul will take things like rules about sexual immorality that were capital offenses in the Old Testament for Israel, and he’ll say in 1 Corinthians 5, that has been supplied in our day and age through excommunication from the Church. Now notice he’s not saying the Church has now replaced Israel. He’s not arguing that. He’s saying how do I understand the Old Testament that is written for me, that Jesus says cannot be cancelled out, is not abdicated by a reign, must be fulfilled… Well it finds it’s fulfillment in Christian ethics, particularly under application in the Church.  

So that has to be kind of brought into our discussion of the State. We have a high view of the Old Testament and the continuity of redemptive history. It’s not two stories of redemption, this one story of redemption and when Jesus says I am the true vine, He’s making an audacious claim. There’s reasons why certain people would pick up stones, right? He’s making some audacious claims about Himself and His relationship to the Father.  

So when we talk about the State, let’s say in the reformed tradition, we talk about the second use of the law. And that use of the law is to constrain evil. Romans 13 talks about this, the… the power of the sword that’s given to Caesar to constrain evil, to push back against oppression, against chaos and death.  

Now that said we don’t want to ignore the civil law in the Old Testament either. So we see for instance, that there are rules about what to do if an ox is known for goring, okay? Right? So you know this is really a common to us, but we might say, what do you do if you have a car that’s known for having it’s wheels fly off when it’s driving at high speeds? Okay. If you have that car, you don’t get it fixed, and it’s wheels fly off, and you kill someone, that might be negligent homicide, right? If you have an ox that’s known to gore someone that gores someone because you don’t have them behind a fence, that is… that makes you under a greater culpability, that if the ox wasn’t known for goring, in which case it might just merely be unintentional or something along those lines. 

Okay. We can grab… we can draw from the Old Testament law and principles for applying theology to the issue of the State. I point out how in Deuteronomy 20, Israel is told it’s not a bad thing for you to expand your name and your borders. You can expand beyond the promises to Abraham, over the river in Egypt to the Euphrates in the North is the two corners of the land of Abraham. And yet the Lord says you can expand out but if you do that, always sue for peace. And you can only go to war if the nation is an aggressor, right? 

So even here in the Old Testament we have these kind of foundations for what will become just war theory. Okay. So we can take some of these same principial foundations and apply them in the situations today. Now these are some basic ideas. Divine kingship, image of God, continuity between the old and the new. And yet if I’m honest with you, I have to say there have been multiple reformed theologies of the State throughout history. And the reason why that is, I believe, is that reformed theology, like the Gospel itself, is applicable into many different situations.  

Go back to John Frame’s definition of theology: applying Scripture to situations in life. And there’s a time, and I can look at Westminster for instance. Okay, so I’m an ordained Presbyterian Pastor, and so I look at Westminster coming out of 1636, and see how the Westminster divines, as we call them, which is somewhat ironic I think as reformed folks have a very high view of divine sovereignty and then we call these humans divines. Okay. But in any case, the divines wrote, right? What did they write? They wrote that Parliament, right, the civil magistrate, has the power to call synods and councils of the Church. And many of you will be surprised, many of you Americans, that the 1788 version of the Westminster Confession is adopted by the American Presbyterians doesn’t include that. Right? It says no, no, no. It is up to the Church to call its synods and councils.  

And here, well, we see two different bodies in two different situations applying Scripture, saying what’s authorized? Not merely what’s prescribed, but what’s authorized in this setting. And the same is true for John Calvin. Often John Calvin’s involvement in the… in the execution of Michael Servetus is highlighted as a fact that reformed theologians can’t support religious liberty. I’d say no, I would argue it is that actually. But I do think John Calvin was wrong on him on the merits of that case. And yet what is he doing? Okay. He said okay what is, uh, what is the power of the State in this context? It… what… what has the State been given and how do they rightly administer that, what are they authorized to do in this case or not?  

With this grand, and I would argue that this is implicitly, not explicitly taught in Scripture, but I think this grand innovation, I mean at… at the historical level, the innovation of religious freedom, I couldn’t believe that it’s a new thing but it’s application as a political doctrine is relatively new. I think that its application is prescribed in Scripture however it is somewhat implicit. You have to look, as we’ve said, to the call for true faith. We have to look as the, uh, as the Scriptures are regularly and witness against hypocritical belief, witness against the idea of compulsory faith.  

Notice here that Jesus, I think in Mark 6, sends out His disciples and He says when you go out into a house and proclaim the Gospel and they reject it, what do you need to do? Shake the dust off your feet, recognizing that it will be worse for those who have heard the Gospel and rejected it than it will be for those who haven’t heard it. That’s a sobering reminder for us, okay? But when? It’ll be in the Final Judgement, okay? He doesn’t say now, go find Caesar and you know, orchestrate a situation in which they have to accept the faith, right? The assumption is that the Great Commission will be articulated through the proclamation of the Gospel and the persuasion of the human heart.  

Okay. And so I think it’s through doctrines like that that we see this implicit prescription for religious freedom of the type that John Frame has described. So that’s just a bit of a case study in how we might apply Scripture in two different contexts in life. Let me end with this. In the 1646 edition of the Westminster Confession, the magistrates are called to, are given authority to call synods and counsels. In the 1788 version, the State is merely described as a nursing father. Okay that’s an… that’s an interesting phrase. Nursing fathers who are caring for the Church. Okay, they are allowing for the context of the Church to take… or they’re allowing for a context in which the Church can thrive. This is like… This is like 1 Peter 2, where they’re called to pray for the magistrate that the magistrate might maintain the peace and tranquility of society, okay? This is again pushing back against chaos and death and this gives us the core of the reformed notion of the State, the idea that it’s continuing the work that we are called to do in the culture mandate as those made in the image of God, deriving our authority from our divine authority, our King who is in Heaven, Jesus Christ on whom and to whom has been given all authority over Heaven and Earth. Thank you. 


Question: Hi. Courtney Ghent from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Can you discuss how theological arguments for religious freedom as well as the arguments of the natural law as testifying to the pre-political nature of religious freedom… Do those ideas conflict with, in any way, with the Kingdom of Israel in the Old Testament, and how might we theologically assert religious freedom and utilize the law well while maintaining the integrity of the Scriptures? 

Answer: Yeah, that’s a great question and, um, and I would argue that you.. You have to recognize there’s a certain, well first of all there’s a certain specialness. Look at the historical situation of Israel as well as the place of Israel in the Old Testament. So first of all recognizing that something like the Carumean is a very particular moment that is accomplishing a very particular thing. And all Christians do need, do need to be reminded that this is… this is something that God closely has His hands on in the Old Testament, and this is a, you know, in the reformed perspective, this would be a type… this would be establishing a pattern that is going to be fulfilled, um, in the final judgement. 

And so, um, we do need to recognize that religious freedom, while it has foundation in political discourse, there is this moment, and we can even argue as C.S. Lewis does that even in the final judgement, religious freedom is acknowledged. It’s just that those who are apostate, those who are unbelieving, are given the just ends of what their religious freedom has led them to. You could go and do something like that. But the other passages like Jesus saying, you know, to those who say they cry out your name and He says I never knew you. It does indicate that it’s a little more complicated than C.S. Lewis lays out in the Great Divorce. Sorry. For those of you who have read Lewis, that you would have ears to hear. 

This is… when we look at Israel, I think we need to recognize that they are filling a space as the people of God, the covenantal people of God, advancing the redemptive, historical program that’s begun, I would even argue, back in Noah. And some people would argue no, that would say that’s merely for all of humanity. I would say it is, but there’s also certain mandates, there’s a redemptive aspect to Noah that is creating a theater in which Abraham can take place. Okay? So Abraham is now promised a land and a sea and Moses is promised, and this is how the people of God are called to operate in the land where we receive those blessings. Okay?  

That’s why I think I’m not surprised when Paul takes Israel, and in the redemptive aspects of the Israelite nation, applies them now to the Church. So when I see Israel for instance punishing unbelief, I would say and now this is fulfilling the Church punishing unbelief, right? So we believe in religious freedom as we’re talking about it at the level of the State, but at the level of the Church, you know, I know that if I were to stand up here right now and to reject, you know, the deity of Christ, I have a presbytery that would, you know, come down on my shoulders right afterwards, right? Because they don’t believe in religious freedom in the level of the Church. They call for a doctrinal subscription that’s how we apply Israel in it’s historical context today and apply it to the situation of the Church.  

And yet I’d also point out, as I mentioned earlier, in Deuteronomy 4, Deuteronomy 20, and elsewhere, Moses is told how to interact with unbelieving nations and it’s not built on the principle of conversion. It’s built on the principle of diplomacy first and… first and foremost. And I think actually the Church would do well to look at those oracles against those nations that we fight in the Old Testament prophets, and note what it is that God is requiring of the unbelieving nations. And that… that would be, that’s a fascinating study that you actually don’t see many people focus on because there are the recent prophets. But what is the Babylon and Edon and Moab, what is required of them according to the Old Testament prophets? Okay.  

Does that make sense? And I think that then helps us understand what’s required then of us as we’re approaching the issue of State. And by the way, a Chinese Christian could also do the same thing. What would be required of the State? How would, you know, a Muslim convert living in Algeria, what is required of the State? What should they yearn for and push for in their own application in their own context?  

Any other questions? Thank you for bearing with me on the Biblical theological discussion for a moment. Um, I… I benefit greatly, because it’s not my field, but I benefit greatly from those who are in more historical or thematic theological space to fill in my… my Biblical wan—wanderings and research with how this has been applied in history. So, while I say I disagree with Calvin, I still benefit greatly from seeing how Calvin applies it.  

As I look at the 1646 confession, it’s interesting to see how believers sitting down with the Scripture applied it into their setting. It’s like looking at case studies to help you think properly and rightly about what you do. And so I encourage you not only to delve into your Scriptures but to delve into history as we did this morning and look at how Churches have applied the Scripture through the illumination of a spirit into a different context. Thank you.