By Samuel M. Frost, Th.M.
After Rousseau wrote about the “unavoidable and inherent defect” of any “body politic”, which he compared to how “age and death end by destroying the body”, he wrote, “Such is the natural tendency of the best constituted governments. If Sparta or Rome perished, what State can hope to endure forever…let us not ever dream of making it eternal.” Further, we must not “flatter ourselves that we are endowing the work of man with a stability of which human conditions do not permit” (Rousseau, Jean Jacques, The Social Contract, Barnes and Noble, 2005, from original 1762, pp. 91-93). George Washington wrote to ‘To the Presbyterians’ (1789) that our Government will “give every furtherance” in “the progress of morality and science” with the view that “we may confidently expect the advancement of true religion, and the completion of our happiness” (Church, Forrest, The Separation of Church and State, 2004, p. 110). Of course, in 1792 Washington lamented the divisions among the churches as “the most inveterate and distressing” of all the ills of mankind. “I was in hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the public age, would have least reconciled Christians of every denomination…that we should never again see the religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society” (written to Sir Edwin Newenham, op. cit., 106-107). Just what exactly this true religion devoid of divisions is, having been overcome by the progress of science which cannot be but truth, is not stated. It does not appear to be on the horizon even today.
In spite of the perhaps overt optimism of Washington’s hopes, the framing of the Constitution, with its ideas of checks and balances, rechecks and rebalances, with other ticks and tocks besides, was done so on the basis of the tendency of the human, body politic to become corrupt. Indeed, one cannot begin to read Hamilton or Jay in the openings of The Federalist Papers and not see this point. Separation of powers (Judicial, Legislative, Executive), taken from Montesquieu, must be instituted to ensure against the tendency of that accursed word, tyranny. The pursuit of liberty was something that needed to be protected. From what? “It is obvious, that no human government can ever be perfect; and it is impossible to foresee, or guard against all the exigencies, which may, in different ages, require changes in the powers and modes of operation of a government, to suit the necessities and interests of the people” (Story, Joseph, A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States, Regnery Gateway, 1986, from Story’s original work of 1840). The people.
William Ellery Channing was the grandson of William Ellery, an original signer of the Declaration of Independence. Channing was a Unitarian theologian (Harvard), was considered a “liberal” and deeply opposed Calvinism with its doctrine of depravity of the will. However, and perhaps with great irony, Channing wrote a small tractate, ‘Importance of Religion to Society’ in 1832. In this he wrote, “How powerless conscience would become without the belief in God; how palsied would be human benevolence, were there not the sense of a higher benevolence to quicken and sustain it.” Further, “Once let men thoroughly abandon religion, and who can conceive or describe the extent of the desolation which would follow?” “Take away the purifying and restraining influence of religion, and selfishness, rapacity, and injustice will break out in new excesses” (all from American Visions and Revisions: 1607-1865, Ed., David Grimstead, Copley Publishing, 1999, p. 353-354). Sounds like Calvinism.
What does a religionless society look like? Second, did the Framers ever envision “the people” at large within this Grand Experiment to be ever without Religion (particularly, at least early on, the Christian Religion)? Would this have any recourse to “change” the “powers and modes” of the Constitution? It matters not whether the people become agnostic or atheistic; they may not. However, what if it could become successful that Religion is so watered down and so irrelevant so as merely to be that of the private life of the citizenry? That is, create a society wherein being vocal about Religion was increasingly considered taboo? The mighty progress of science, and the genius of self-referential psychology slowly chips away at the revealed word of Scripture to such a point that revelation is merely secondary, if anything, to the knowledge of man’s ingenious and amazing inventiveness of sophisticated and grand schemes that virtually, if left alone, leaves God in the docks. A peaceful society built without reference, or perhaps at best some vague reference to God is a strong delusion – a rationally convincing and appealing delusion. Besides, with all of the false seizures upon the name of Christ, and the equally powerful demonstration of the divisions within those who proclaim Christ, the question more and more arises from the lips of Pilate: “Ti estin aletheia?” – What is truth? Who knows?
“The Protestant worldview,” writes William H. Goetzmann, “like that of the Enlightenment thinkers, was a cosmic view. All mankind and all human events, past and present, were of a piece-part of the mind of God.” By the end of Goetzmann’s book, Henry Adams, the noted historian, saw the future in America at the entry of the twentieth century as bleak: “Looking at science, he saw only conflicting thought and all that was left was paradox, soon to be replaced by the confusions of twentieth century European Modernism and Psychoanalysis” (Goetzmann, William H., Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism, Basic Books, 2009, pp. 24, 399). This was a far cry from Paine’s utopian vision and Calvinist minister Jonathan Edwards’ “city on a hill” visions. It seems as if history is doomed to failure. Utopian experiments, as Goetzmann documents, all have failed. Marx was wrong. So, what guarantees the success of the West, or America for that matter?
I would argue that the ‘salt of the world’ is indeed the preserver of all things in creation. “For the sake of the Elect”, Jesus taught, “those days will be cut short” (speaking of those days well after his departure). If not, “all flesh would perish.” In Psalm 2, which is more or less a template of the Reign of Messiah in the New Testament writings, we are given an amazing and prophetic vision that under-girds the fabric of all creation in terms of its purpose and its design.
Psalm 2 is directly quoted in the NT four times. It is clearly alluded to fourteen times (according to the UBS Fifth Edition Greek NT). From the Gospels through Acts, Paul’s letters, Hebrews and John’s letters to a large portion in the Revelation, Psalm 2 remains constant. This Psalm is classified with others as Royal Ascension, or Enthronement of the King psalms. “The hymns of Israel sketch a picture of the world where God is king and the kingdom is glorious. The entire creation is the work of God (19), and everything in creation is well ordered to sustain life (104). His power is evident in the forces of nature that he controls (29). The king of creation maintains order over the forces of chaos and evil (93). God created humanity as the pinnacle of his creation (8)” (Bandstra, Barry L., Reading the Old Testament, Thomson Wadsworth, 2004, p. 433). With this world as God’s Kingdom, wherein both His people and the wicked dwell, the psalmist envisions a time wherein one upon David’s throne will rule over the “gathered kings of the earth” (Ps 2.2). These kings are ‘enraged’ (2.1), and seek together to throw off God’s yoke. It is a battle scene that encapsulates history in a single instance or moment. “Against the LORD and his Messiah” they cry. The one who “sits in the heavens” simply scorns them. He speaks to them in his wrath (2.3). He terrifies them in his fury. He has exalted his king to his holy throne, a king of the kings of the earth who want that placement, but can’t get it – try as they may throughout history. The LORD’s king is his “son” (2.7); a son of David as well. The “nations” are given to him as an inheritance to do with as he wills. The earth itself is given to him (2.8). He rules the kings of the earth that gather together against him with a rod of iron, dashing their schemes to pieces. Hitler’s 1000 Year Reign is reduced to twelve measly years where he ends up with a self inflicted bullet to the head deep in a bunker under the dirt. Heed the instruction, the psalmist says, you gathered together kings of time and history; all of you that claim rule over his earth for your own means of advancement and prosperity which God has given to you. “Serve the LORD with fear and trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he quickly visits you with wrath and rod” (2.12). “Blessed are those who take refuge in the LORD.” Refuge in time of war. There is a battle raging.
What is remarkable to us is that the NT writers applied this psalm to their own times, seeing the “rulers” in their own day, as David saw them in his, as “gathered together” against the LORD. As stated, the psalm is timeless in terms of the encapsulation it depicts. John’s imagery, specifically quoting the psalm, depicts the Lamb, “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev 1.5) in a cosmic battle with the “kings gathered together to make war” (which is a verbatim use of 2.2 with Rev 19.19 in the Greek) which are upon the “beast” – a conglomerate image with the Harlot Mother of harlot daughters – who rules over the kings of the earth, which, in turn, devour her. A wicked empire of “kings of the earth” devouring their own rider/ruler. Enraged in futility. It matters not in the visions’ depiction as to what time or province the Great City/Harlot and her harlot daughters because it applies to all the “kings of the earth.” David’s vision is seen from above; from God looking down and seeing the entirety of human governments in a single instance of gathering of the kings against him. It matter not, from a human perspective, whether Sennacherb or Pharaoh Ahmose I, or Alexander the Great are centuries apart; they are all gathered together against Him and his Royal son. This visionary way of seeing things is without time. All the Kings of the earth, the Presidents, the Prime Ministers, the Csars, Dictators and Primates are gathered together at once. Submission to the Enthroned son is the order. Kiss him, or he visits quickly with wrath. God rules the world. This rather ancient way of expressing the rule of the Pantheon over the meager affairs of humankind, a cosmic battle pictured in a single flash, is what happens as the times expand chronologically; when this king comes, and another one goes. It matters not where on the map nor when on the calendar. Psalm 2 happens with unbroken consistency, whether penned in David’s day or uttered in the early days of the Apostles, or later in the visions of John. It is because of this understanding that the psalmists eventually come to see “all the nations” as worshiping the LORD; every single one of them. God will convert the world. The kingdoms of the world belong to him and the “pinnacle of his creation” shall be crowned with glory and honor, ruling upon the creation with everything under their feet. What this means, what the resurrection and exaltation of Messiah means, is that world has been manifestly sent notice: “And he has appointed a set time wherein he will judge the world through a man. He has given us the total assurance of this by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17.31). The raising of the dead man, Jesus of Nazareth, signaled the end; the resurrection of the dead and the co-heirs with the Son raised in glory immortal to inherit the ends of the earth as their King already has in his possession.