Public Square & Theology 101

An Old Testament Case for Limited Government

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In our previous article, we examined the first principle of how to approach Old Testament teaching to see if there is a biblical view of the state. Today we will discuss the following two principles.

Positive and Negative Rights

To understand my second principle for discovering biblical teaching about the state, we need to make a distinction between positive and negative rights. A positive right is a right to have something given to the right-holder. If Smith has a positive right to X, say to health care, then the state has an obligation to give X to Smith. 

In general, positive rights and duties are correlative. That is, if someone has a positive right to something, then a duty is placed on others to provide that right to that person (or class of persons). Thus the state has the moral right to impose on citizens the duty to provide that right to the right-holder. 

A negative right to X is a right to be protected from harm while one seeks to get X on one’s own. If Smith has a negative right to X, say to health care, then the state has an obligation to protect Smith from discrimination and unfair treatment in his attempt to get X on his own. We learn much if we approach key biblical texts about the state armed with the distinction between positive and negative rights.

An Old Testament View of Limited Government

The third principle is this: Given principle one in our previous article (that it is risky and, in many cases, wrong to get at the state’s nature and duties by applying to the secular state teaching given to Israel), the best way to approach the development of a biblical view of the state is to examine two types of texts. 

The first type of text is Old Testament prophecy when the prophets speak to (usually against) pagan rulers and nations and explicitly state something about their obligations. Here we have biblical teaching about what rulers and nations outside the covenant community were to do to fulfill their proper function. 

Amos 1 and 2

The first two chapters of Amos provide an excellent, typical case in which the prophet berates pagan nations and rulers for doing what they were not supposed to do. Upon examination, it becomes clear that the prophet chastised these nations and rulers for violating people’s negative rights, e.g., for forced deportation of a population, torturing and killing pregnant women, stealing, forced slavery, and murder. There is no expectation in the passage that the nations and rulers were to provide positive rights for people. This is typical of the prophets and their understanding of the responsibilities of pagan rulers and nations. 

In my next article, we will discuss New Testament biblical passages as a case for limited government.

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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