There is a lot to comment upon with this book. I offer my perspective on the book’s strengths and weaknesses, and then offer a few concluding comments. You can find the first part here, where I provide a chapter-by-chapter summary of Stephen Wolfe’s A Case for Christian Nationalism.
First, Wolfe has written an extensive Christian reflection on the reality of political or social order. He has tried to articulate and explicate a very specific argument. The argument is essentially that the civil government (and his emphasis is on the national level of government—at least in the U.S.) is duty-bound to advance the good—both earthly and spiritual—of the citizenry. As such, it is simply the case that the civil (especially national) government ought to lead or rule in a way that advances both the earthly and spiritual good of citizens.
Second, Wolfe has worked through a significant body of literature (both explicitly Christian literature as well broader, not explicitly Christian literature). He is particularly interested in mining the various political-theological insights from the 16th and 17th century Reformed Protestant tradition, but turns as well to such ancient statesmen as Cicero. He comments early on that he is not a theologian, and is happy to lean on the great Reformed Protestant voices as central building blocks of his project. While some (e.g., Brian Mattson) have criticized Wolfe for ignoring those aspects of the Reformed Protestant tradition that are not as friendly to his project, I benefitted from Wolfe’s summary/exposition of the Reformed Protestant tradition as it touches on political theology.
Third, Wolfe is not content to hem and haw, stammer and stutter, etc. He is a man on a mission and says what he means, and means what he says (as far as I can tell). He does not appear to be afraid to work out the implications of his project (which includes the possible persecution of heretics, requiring church attendance, and even suggesting that a Christian minority might be able to lead in taking over the levers of political power—all in the service of the project of advancing the goods of citizens—both the citizens’ earthly and spiritual goods. While some (e.g., Kevin DeYoung—whose review I benefitted from), severely criticized Wolfe’s 40ish page Epilogue, I found it somewhat refreshing for a work of scholarship like this to end on a rather free-wheeling and informal way. Nonetheless, I do not necessarily agree with all that was argued or suggested in the Epilogue.
Fourth, Wolfe is offering a very thoughtful and thorough answer to a perennial, unescapable, and critical question or issue which faces any Christian attempt to forge a biblical-theological understanding of civil government. This is the basic question: by what standard? That is: by what standard should the civil government rule, legislate, or govern? The question becomes more acute, of course, in light of Paul’s teaching in Romans 13. For in that classic passage, the apostle of grace teaches that the civil magistrate(s) is/are:
- “God’s servant for your good” (13:4)
- “a servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (13:4)
- “ministers of God” (13:6)
Wolfe is quite happy and eager, and is quite explicit, that the civil magistrate is all of these things, and therefore of course the civil magistrate must rule in an explicitly Christian way—including (at least potentially) the suppression of heresy, requiring church attendance, and perhaps even applying the death penalty in some cases of particularly egregious blasphemy. In short, Wolfe joins a significant chorus of persons (e.g., Patrick Deneen; though this is still certainly a minority, I would think) who are quite eager to affirm that classical liberalism of virtually every stripe is a dead letter, and it is time for Christians to “wield power” on behalf of the church—and this means a quite explicit establishment of Christianity in the legal-political sense.
During the entire time I have been thinking about these issues (beginning sometime in my teens), there seems to have been a clear pattern that has dominated politics in the U.S. There has been—in my view—a kind of two-pronged schema: (1) the call from the Left to expand the size, scope, reach, and influence of the role of government—at all levels, but particularly at the level of the federal government; (2) whatever areas are within the scope of these various levels of civil government must be sanitized of any religious (especially Christian) influence whatsoever. This expanding and secularizing political two-step has been relentless and vicious, and has put Evangelicals and various political conservatives and traditionalists on the defensive (to say the least). It has also marginalized Christians and conservatives/traditionalists (again, to say the least). Wolfe, but also various Catholic integralists, are apparently saying (and this is my somewhat playful “paraphrase”):
“Okay, enough is enough. The real game is not a kind of civil classical liberal live-and-let-live. We see that now. If what we are really engaged in is a kind of realpolitik wherein some vision of ‘the good’ is going to be advanced by the various levels of civil government (again, especially the federal government), and this is going to happen by force, and this vision of the good is going to be inescapably and inextricably religious, then so be it. Count us in. We will play too. Let’s do this.”
Think “West Side Story,” with the Jets and the Sharks agreeing to meet for a “rumble.” Except no one is going to engage is some entertaining dance scene, with an ultimately happy ending. As I have watched things develop over the last decade or so, it is as if the gloves are coming off. Whatever James Lindsay’s strengths (and there are many, and I really like having him in my corner—in certain ways), his answer—returning essentially to the insights of the Enlightenment, is a dead end. Wolfe’s position that the Enlightenment option of classical liberalism—which seems to presume some kind of “neutral” public square—has in many ways proved inadequate, is fundamentally a legitimate assertion which must be taken seriously.
Now, however, let me turn to what I think are the chief weaknesses of the book.
Nature and Grace
A key theological/philosophical theme throughout the book is Wolfe’s use of “nature” and “grace.” Here Wolfe is clearly working in a Thomist frame, but wanting to work within the Thomist “nature/grace” schema as worked out in various Protestant Reformed luminaries. Wolfe (I believe) sees himself as applying a basic principle: “grace perfects nature.” One of the ways Wolfe does this is by laying out a syllogism, a syllogism which in different ways is worked out through the rest of the book:
- Civil government ought to direct its people to the true religion.
- The Christian religion is that true religion.
- Therefore, civil government ought to direct its people to the Christian religion.
If the reader of this review has not read Wolfe’s work yet, I would encourage the reader to ponder this argument. I believe it has a certain force, and is not easily evaded. It is at least worth thinking through.
Early on, however, I thought: “I am not sure if this is going to work out along biblical lines.” In particular, at one point Wolfe writes: “The Gospel adds no new principles of earthly life, but earthly life is restored because of sanctification, which is the infusion of Christ’s holiness in us” (p. 15). “No new principles of earthly life?” I think I see where Wolfe is going, but such lines—common throughout the volume—give me pause. I will suggest below that pushing the “nature/grace” schema in certain ways gets one in theological/conceptual trouble.
As Wolfe introduces and explicates this argument, he writes: “One important principle of this work is that a supernatural application can follow from a natural principle, or put differently, that a natural principle can be fulfilled by a thing of grace” (p. 183). Or: “natural principles can have supernatural conclusions” (p. 183). Or: “a supernatural truth can interact with a natural principle and soundly produce a supernatural conclusion” (pp. 184–85). Or: “The fact that natural principles can have supernatural conclusions is crucial for my argument throughout this book” (p. 185).
Thus, there is a “nature” which is good. “Grace” does not destroy this natural state of things, but perfects it. The “natural” order which Wolfe has in mind is the (good) reality of persons forming political entities to accomplish certain ends. “Grace” does not destroy or annul or abolish such natural motivations and activities. Rather, “grace” perfects such “natural” activities, so that argument goes.
What is one to do with this basic “nature/grace” approach? We should note that Wolfe begins his work with some important comments about his method. For example, in defining Christian Nationalism, he writes: “I proceed from the meaning or denotation of the words involved, particularly nation and nationalism, and I then consider nationalism modified by the term Christian” (p. 9). If one were going to take a certain kind of general Thomistic stance and apply it to political theory, it would be hard to improve upon such a statement.
But this “nature/grace” approach is understandable, for Wolfe is quite clear he trying to write a Christian political theory. He takes the Protestant Reformed tradition as a starting point (fine), and alloys this with his own understanding of the nature and grace. Wolfe is quite upfront, saying several times that he is not really a theologian, but a Calvinist who is taking the Reformed dogmatic tradition as something of a given, and working from there.
Fair enough, but let us take an insight from Thomas Aquinas, and work it out a bit. In Thomas’s De Ente et Essentia (On Being and Essence) he could write: “a little error in the beginning leads to a great one in the end” (the first sentence in De Ente et Essentia). Herman Dooyeweerd (1894–1977) was a Dutch Reformed philosopher, and he was no fan of Thomas and the Scholastic tradition of which Thomas was a part. But we could say that Dooyeweerd would have agreed with Thomas’s basic assertation that “a little error in the beginning leads to a great one in the end.” Dooyeweerd offered a trenchant critique of the “nature/grace” paradigm and schema. (One need not follow Dooyeweerd to appreciate his insights).
Dooyeweerd suggested that there are a number of key schema or “motives” which have dominated Western thought (among other works, the most central is his magnum opus, New Critique of Theoretical Thought). Three of these schema or “motives” are:
- The Greek form-matter motive
- The scholastic nature-grace motive
- The humanistic nature-freedom motive
Dooyeweerd’s point was that these schema/motives were fundamentally non-Christian. Thus, the advocates/proponents of these general schema/motives tended to oscillate between the two poles of each schema:
- Between “form” and “matter,” as in Greek thought.
- Between “nature” and “grace,” as in scholastic thought.
- Between “nature” and “freedom,” as in humanistic thought.
For our purposes we can bracket whether Dooyeweerd must be followed fastidiously here. But let us think in the big picture sense for a minute. The final (and true) motive was:
- The radical biblical motive (of creation, fall, redemption, consummation)
One of Dooyeweerd’s central critiques of the various strands of Western thought is that various non-Christian philosophies and worldviews each tend to follow one of the first three listed above. This is a mistake, for they each start in the wrong place. Hence, they start in the wrong place, with the wrong “motive,” and so always end up in contradiction and confusion. That is: “a little error in the beginning leads to a great one in the end.”
I have become convinced that one of the ways to come to terms with Wolfe’s project is to recognize that one of his key starting points—the “nature/grace” dualism—likely determines in certain ways where he goes, or ends up. I have also become convinced that when his nature/grace starting point is combined with other key building blocks of his project, one can see why he ends up where he does, and why perhaps many of us will be unable to follow him.
Several aspects of his basic building blocks would be the following:
- The nature-grace dualism
- A lack of serious attention to Scripture
- Not taking into account the historical-redemptive sweep of Scripture which is also a key element of the Reformed tradition (e.g., Geerhardus Vos and Richard Gaffin)
Perhaps this combination of (1) the nature/grace dualism, with (2) a lack of serious attention to Scripture, along with (3) not taking into account the redemptive-historical sweep of Scripture, helps explain some of the lacunae in Wolfe’s account.
Wolfe has built a system consisting centrally of (1) his fundamental three-part syllogism, which is combined with his (2) nature-grace dualism. There is so little attention to Scripture and the historical-redemptive sweep of Scripture that his account is ultimately theologically anemic and incomplete. Thus, his account of “two-kingdoms” is generally rooted in key Reformed Protestant dogmaticians (whom I love), rather than Holy Writ. Yes, he admits that he is working as a historian within the tradition, but at some point the tradition that gave us Sola Scriptura requires the Reformed scholar to engage the text.
One example. Wolfe has been roundly criticized for his views on ethnic commonality and the like. This aspect of Wolfe’s thesis was bound to generate criticism, but especially so in our own highly politically-pitched day. One can understand something of Wolfe’s point: should I criticize my best friend from high school, a Korean friend, when he returns to our hometown after college having married a sweet Korean woman? Of course not. Should any person be surprised (or morally appalled or offended) when many persons’ spouses have many similarities to themselves? Of course not. But at the same time, one reads Wolfe’s various comments on ethnicity and the like looking in vain for what distinguishes a Christian understanding of ethnic relations from a non-Christian account. One wonders if some deep reading in Geerhardus Vos, or Richard Gaffin, or Graeme Goldsworthy or the like—all persons who have written at length in the area of biblical theology and the redemptive-historical nature of the canon—would have yielded a different understanding of ethnicity.
I have in mind fundamental and architectonic biblical principles flowing from Genesis 12:3—where God promises to bless all nations through Abraham; or Revelation 5:9 and 7:9—where persons from every tribe and language and people and nation, surround the throne of the Lord Jesus, praising Him. Ephesians 2 is especially important. While I think this text is somewhat abused at times to advance a somewhat confused articulation of “racial reconciliation,” the text most certainly does help Christians think about the way in which perhaps a more “ethnic” emphasis in the Old Covenant has been transposed in the New Covenant. Thus, in Ephesians 2, a key reality is that God has created “one new man” (2:15), and God has brought Jew and Gentile into “one new body through the cross . . .” (2:16). Thus, all Christians are now “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (2:19).
While it is not fair to criticize someone for not writing the book one wishes the author to have written, it is nonetheless fair to point out that a closer attention to Scripture would have strengthened or improved or corrected a key argument of someone’s book.
A Fair Look at Romans 13?
Any Christian political theory must come to terms with Romans 13, where Paul can clearly teach that God has instituted civil government, and calls the civil magistrate “God’s servant” and a “servant of God” (13:4), “ministers of God” (13:6), and “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (13:4). As I read Wolfe’s book, I was reading Wolfe repeatedly and consistently argue that the civil magistrate must act for the good of the people—which includes earthly and heavenly good, and argue along the following lines: “At this time, power is wielded against the church. Let us wield power in support of the church” (p. 386). Wolfe can even suggest that a minority of Christians might just be able to “establish a political state over the whole without the positive consent of the whole” (pp. 345–36). Indeed: “if a Christian minority can constitute a secure commonwealth for true justice and the complete good, then they can disregard the withholding of consent by non-Christians” (p. 346).
Unfortunately, Wolfe only spends less than three pages on Romans 13 (pp. 349–51). When Paul wrote Romans (around A.D. 57) Nero would have been the emperor. Wolfe offers this brief treatment or Romans 13 in chapter 8, “The Right to Revolution.” But, if Nero was a wicked ruler (which virtually all would agree he was), why would Paul not counsel Christians to not submit to the emperor? And why did Paul not counsel his readers to engage in revolution—since in this chapter Wolfe is most certainly making the case for revolution (at least as a morally acceptable option, given the right circumstances)?
But Wolfe’s articulation of “power ordained of God” is an interesting one. He argues that “since the powers ordained of God are only for good, no power ordained of God can command what is evil, and thus no evil command is conscience-binding, for only God can bind the conscience, whether immediately or mediately” (p. 350). Almost every word in this argument must be examined.
Paul writes in Romans 13:1: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” The words “authorities” and “authority” is the Greek word exousia, and can indeed be translated as “power, authority,” and Greek lexicons do list “an office, magistry,” or “the body of the magistrates” as options (the intermediate edition of Liddell and Scott). But when Wolfe uses “power” (p. 350) he is speaking in an abstract or ideal sense. Thus, he can write that “the powers ordained of God are only for good” (p. 350, my emphasis), and hence “no power of God can command what is evil . . .” (p. 350). Here is what is happening, I think:
- Paul is saying (if I may paraphrase and extrapolate): Every civil power (=magistrate) has arisen (and this is indeed a mystery) under God’s sovereign rule. These powers will do a variety of things (both good and evil), given that we live in a fallen world. But such powers, ideally, should act for your good.
- Wolfe is saying: Political power (manifested at times by the magistrate) only really exists when they are being used “for good.” For “power” (in the abstract), if it is truly ordained of God, cannot command evil.
In short, whereas Paul is using “power” (“authority,” the Greek exousia) in the sense of a civil magistrate, Wolfe seems (I think) to be using “power” in a more rarefied sense—and hence it only exists when it is commanding the good. Thus, when one (1) resists a civil magistrate who is either commanding a person to sin, or is forbidding one from obeying God, one is not actually (2) “resisting” the “authorities” (“powers”), for in a sense the powers/authorities have been interpreted as only, in a sense, actually existing (as ordained by God), when they are commanding “the good”.
In short, Christians—in a sense—cannot really even resist the “powers/authorities” unless the powers/authorities are commanding something righteous, or these powers/authorities are commanding something which accords with God’s moral nature. For, when a civil magistrate commands something not in accord with God’s moral nature, this “power” or “authority” has in fact in this situation dissipated or disappeared.
As I read Wolfe’s volume, I repeatedly wondered why nationalism was the preferred mode of thinking. A part of this—I believe—is because of the way he structures his argument. Wolfe sees something like “nations” as what would have developed if Adam had not fallen. When this premise is combined with a Thomistic “grace perfects nature” schema, a conclusion quite naturally follows: The gospel (“grace”) “perfects” what was given with creation (“nature”)—a natural world that would eventually result in the development of “nations.”
As I read the volume, however, I kept asking—why not prefer smaller political entities or units—thus, prefer states in a U.S. context, or provinces in a Canadian context? That is, why an emphasis on the nation. Wolfe is clearly a certain kind of conservative. He mentioned sympathies for paleo-conservatism in our podcast with him, a sympathy which I share. As Christian thinkers reflect upon our current situation, we should ask: how did we get to a situation where we live in a world where a shocking amount of political power is centralized in leviathan-style central or federal or national governments? Given Wolfe’s training and scholarship he knows all of this.
Wolfe makes a significant number of references to the German political theorist Johannes Althusius (1563–1638). Althusius offered his own unique political theory, especially as seen in his 1603 Politica (=Politica Methodice Digesta, Atque Exemplis Sacris et Profanis Illustrata). Althusius articulated a view of political order in which there are many different kinds of overlapping political units or entities, all with significantly limited authority. Authority flows from the people “upward,” and this political authority (what would eventually be called the “consent of the governed”) could always—given the right situation—be recalled. Althusius can be understood in opposition to Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), who, in his Leviathan, offered a quite different understanding. For Hobbes, people are born with virtually unbounded freedom, but for the sake of political peace and security, surrender their freedom to “leviathan.” But with Hobbes this surrender of freedom is virtually a one-way (and one-time) act; people, in a sense, engage in a significant gambit: they surrender their freedom to a centralized authority, which in turn “agrees” to provide a certain level of order in society.
But while Wolfe makes repeated use of Althusius, we might say that Althusius is resourced to advance a kind of (quasi) Hobbesian goal of a kind of centralized (Christian) political power (the “Christian Prince”) who can direct people to their earthly and spiritual goods. When I asked Wolfe about this, he understood my line of questioning. But he was firm that he thinks the best option is to concentrate on the nation, not necessarily smaller political units. For the last thirty years or so of my familiarity with Althusius, people have resourced Althusius in order to show why limited and smaller political units can help guard against dangerous kinds of centralized power. We might think of the last 200 years or so in the West as a kind of victory of Hobbes over Althusius. That is, we have seen in the West an ever-increasing kind of desire for centralized political power and authority. Althusius has, traditionally, been used to help advance an argument for smaller political units and authorities, and to argue against the kind of centralized and often totalitarian political vision which seems to flow from a Hobbesian understanding. I wonder if a more thoroughly “Althusian” political vision might have led Wolfe to be less of a “nationalist,” and to be more interested in a smaller and a more human scale of political entities?
Does the Syllogism Work?
We have noted that Wolfe’s work is driven by a key syllogism:
- Civil government ought to direct its people to the true religion [Major Premise: “a principle of nature”].
- The Christian religion is the true religion [Minor Premise: a “supernatural” premise]
- Therefore, civil government ought to direct its people to the Christian religion [a “supernatural conclusion”].
In logic, some of the rules are fairly simple: If the premises are true, and the conclusions follow from the premises, then the argument is both valid and sound. When one reads Wolfe’s syllogism, it might seem flawless. For the Christian, the second premise must be true. Of course, Christians believe that the Christian religion is the true religion. So, if the first premise is true, and the second premise is true, then some form of the conclusion seems to be true.
So, what is one to do? I think it is possible to  question the first premise. I think it also the case that, even if one grants a form of first premise, to  challenge or modify the conclusion.
Regarding the first premise, I think it can be questioned or modified. One could modify it by something like:
- “Civil government ought to so govern in such a way so that persons are given the opportunity to seek the Lord, and it is also the case that civil government ought not to prohibit citizens from seeking the Lord.”
This clearly softens the edge of Wolfe’s first premise, and could lead to a softening of the conclusion. In fact, if we embrace my reworking of the first premise as I have done, we have effectively posited a premise that could serve as the conclusion also. What has happened? Simply this: As I think about argumentation, I am trying to do so with a more explicit reliance on special revelation. I have in fact not granted that one must start with “nature”—I am rejecting the “nature/grace” schema as my necessary starting point. Here I have been helped in my study of logic by Vern Poythress (especially his 2013 Logic: A God-Centered Approach to the Foundation of Western Thought).
We could also expand or modify or develop our premises and conclusions in various ways. Thus, I might argue the following.
- Civil government ought to direct its people to the true religion.
- In a fallen world with fallen creatures, it is wise and prudent for civil government to be satisfied with encouraging righteousness and punishing wickedness.
- The Christian religion is the true religion.
- Therefore, civil government ought to govern in such a way that persons are encouraged to pursue the Christian religion, and are not hindered from doing so.
In short, I think there are numerous ways to re-work or challenge Wolfe’s intriguing syllogism.
It is a testimony to the provocative and stimulating thesis of Wolfe’s volume that his book has generated a plethora of reviews.
I read the work thoroughly and have been encouraged to think and re-think many issues in what is sometimes called “political theology.” It is intriguing that it was published by Canon Press, which is closely associated with Douglas Wilson. I have benefitted from Wilson’s work over the years, and I actually think Wolfe and Wilson are engaging in somewhat different projects. If one reads Wilson closely, he is a Bible guy. I wonder if in the months and years ahead the difference between Wilson’s vision and Wolfe’s vision will become more and more clear. I suspect this is the case.
While I have noted various strengths, I think the Achilles heel is that Wolfe is engaging in a kind of Thomistic “nature/grace” project building upon his fundamental syllogism just discussed above. In short, he has written a political theology without meaningful recourse to Scripture. I wonder if Wolfe might return with a 2.0 version of his thesis, richly grounded in biblical exegesis and theology. Any truly Christian political theology and Christian construal of statecraft requires such labors. I cannot jump on the Christian Nationalist train as articulated by Wolfe, but he is clearly a gifted man. I look forward to what comes next. The kind of secularism which Wolfe rightly bemoans has been, and will continue to be, a disaster. Like Wolfe, many wise Christians have made an obvious point: the future of any nation will either be Christian or pagan (or demonic). Bob Dylan was right:
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed.
You’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the Devil or it may be the Lord,
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.