Public Square & Theology 101

A Biblical Methodology for Limited Government

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In our previous article, we reviewed the three main worldviews and their relation to big government. This series will interpret how biblical scriptures imply a minimal government, and today’s article will establish a biblical methodology and foundation in favor of limited government. 

When we come to examine the scriptures to see if there is a biblical view of the state, how should we go about the task? There are several principles that should guide our investigation. Today, we will take a look at just one.

Old Testament Teaching 

The first principle involves Old Testament teaching. One should avoid using commands about what Israel was or was not to do when those commands seem grounded in the theocratic nature of Israel. Why? Because it is far from clear whether Israel is a good analogy with the state or with the covenant community—the church. As a theocracy, Israel is not a good parallel to the church/state relationship as depicted in the New Testament and in which we now live because the church is not called to create a theocracy, nor is it to relate to the secular state theocratically (e.g., by trying to impose biblical commandments on the state.) It is arguably the case that Israel is a parallel to the church so that, for example, principles of caring for the poor within Israel should be applied to the church and not to the state. When she was at her best, Israel was a voluntary covenant community.

Does the lack of parallel mean that Old Testament teaching addressed to the people of Israel is irrelevant to society today? Not at all. Old Testament moral teachings that have nothing to do with the special duties of the covenant community are relevant to society in general (e.g., murder is wrong, not because it violates the covenantal arrangement of God with Israel, but because it violates the image of God). More importantly, we should focus our attention on the obligations the Old Testament places on pagan nations. These obligations would apply directly to the United States.

Defining Terms of Address

In this regard, the hermeneutical notion of “defining terms of address” becomes relevant. When a biblical command or teaching addresses, say, someone in Old Testament times, it may address the person as a human being, a worshipper of God, a member of Israel, or a member of Israel at a specific time and place (e.g., when they were about to enter the promised land). Different ways of being addressed are called different “defining terms of address.” In each case, a person or group is addressed precisely within a certain defining context.

Now if I today share that defining term of address, the biblical teaching/command applies directly to me. So if murder was forbidden for ancient Israel because it involved taking the life of an image-bearer of God for reasons other than war, self-defense, or a capital offense, then I must avoid murder since I share in those defining terms of address. By contrast, certain ceremonial commands given to the people of Israel do not have direct application to me since I do not share in their defining terms of address (though I may, with care, derive secondary applications).

Even though there are clear texts given to Old Testament Israel with which we share defining terms of address, many of the law’s teachings are addressed to Israel at a unique place in history. Moreover, in many cases, it is hard to know if a social obligation is due to the theocratic nature of Israel (e.g., a tithe-tax to provide for the priesthood) or if it is a general principle of the state. Given this ambiguity, we should be very careful when applying Israel’s social obligations to the state. Generally speaking, applying Israel’s social obligations to the church is easier to justify since we share with the people of Israel the defining terms of address “members of God’s covenant community.”

In my next article, we will take a look at two more principles for discovering biblical teaching about the state.

Editor’s Note: This series is adapted from the IFWE research paper, A Biblical Case for Limited Government by Dr. J.P. Moreland. Read the full paper here.

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