Cultural Amnesia + The History of the American People

New Warhorn Media post by Nathan Alberson:

It seems worth repeating the Two Kingdom Theology of Escondido and VanDrunen is a modern deviation from the previous versions. Confusing the two is annoying to those of us who hold to C2K (Classical Two Kingdom) not R2K.

VanDrunen for example says Christians are not under natural law as Christians but only as members of the common kingdom. This is because he adopts a radical Law/Gospel hermeneutic that isn’t the consensus reformed hermeneutic. On the other hand Joe Boot who forwards the Mattson book rejects the Covenant of Works and thinks any Law/Gospel distinction is dualism, whether Mattson agrees I don’t know but that is the outworking of his view.

Going back to older works from Junius,Turretin, Beza, Bucer, Calvin, Vermigli and others is honestly a better solution to not fall into either ditch of antinomianism or legalism. It requires more thought and work to apply it to our current context but I see little worth in trying to maintain the status quo of R2K advocates vs 1K Kuyperian Neo Calvinists types.


In terms of readily accessible online resources, I have found Timon Cline at American Reformer to be one of the best summarizers of Reformed political opinions in the 16-18th centuries. He enjoys smiting both Theonomists and political Baptists, and has good facility with primary and secondary sources. His recent Wholesome Severity is very good.


Cline has been super helpful.

The conundrum we face is that both history and Scripture demonstrate that most men of most generations are unregenerate. Moreover, men who live only for this world will be especially attracted to positions of power. So if the first table of the Ten Commandments is going to be enforced by the civil magistrate, most of the time it is going to be enforced by the unregenerate in support of true heresy and against biblical Christianity. Maybe that is the way it ought to be, but when secular law and constitution are so malleable to those in power, I can hardly imagine we would be better off if they were also arbiters of faith and error.

Agreed. Partly because I’m from a baptistic background, I have never thought that the case for the civil power enforcing the first tablet of the Law to be especially sound - and not least because when it has been tried in practice, the consequences have been, often, pretty messy. Your comments about the conundrums involved in the civil power’s involvement are spot-on. The church, historically, has done much better at speaking truth to power than it has to exercising power itself.

I think Gillespie illustrates how differently Reformed men think today versus what was a majority (if not consensus) view in the 16th and 17th centuries. Our paradigms are quite different, and so too our conclusions. Gillespie’s views were out of fashion in Reformed thought by the early 18th century and by the end of the 1700s, American presbyterians amended the WCF to reflect the shift in opinion.

In their rejection of Gillespie et al. in the 18th century, our forefathers were taking advantage of cultural capital that had been built over centuries - thus John Adams (descendant of said 17th century Reformed men) could say, "“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Adams and the other Founders replaced God’s moral law with the more anodyne “virtue”, but we see where that move has gotten us today. As our federal and state governments pursued sectarian neutrality and stopped enforcing the first table of the law (e.g. sabbath laws) , I think i can say - with Gillespie – that their ability to recognize/enforce any moral law at all has been eroded dramatically. And so this drive to limit government intrusion into personal religious decisions by not enforcing the first table has actually led to a proliferation of laws to govern men’s actions. We have less liberty now not more, and we have a government that is enforcing morality, it just happens to not be a Christian one.

I don’t know if we’d be better off if the Biden administration was enforcing the First Table of the law, but I also find it hard to imagine we’d be worse.


My father grew up in Massachusetts in a time when if the local police saw you working on your own home’s roof on a Sunday, they would tell you to get down.

This was just a couple of decades before the good Bay Staters voted for Ted Kennedy while Mary Jo Kopechne’s body was practically still warm.

So color me skeptical that enforcement of the first table of the Law of Moses leads in practice to a lot of righteousness.

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True. But GIllespie did not have the benefit of seeing three more centuries of history. What is the condition of the Church of Scotland today?

I will concede that the Bible may require the civil magistrate to enforce the first table of the law, but I am under no illusion that it would produce a more moral people. In fact, in comparing nations around the world, there is a lot of evidence that Christian piety and practice lasted longer for a larger fraction of the population in the United States than in other nations with established churches and less religious freedom for those outside the state church.

Consider the New England Puritans. It is difficult to imagine a more ideal situation for creating a lasting Christian society – a fresh start with a population composed entirely of believers committed to purity in doctrine and practice. Yet it was over within a couple of generations. I’ve seen articles explaining that if the Puritans had only did this or that, it would have worked, but that seems man-centered to me. Your remark strikes me as similarly man-centered. My view is that Puritan society ended because the succeeding generations were, in God’s providence, mostly unregenerate. The decline of true religion was not the result of lack of enforcement the first table; rather, the lack of enforcement of the first table was the result of the decline of true religion.


Let me tell you something. Unlike some of the more enlightened leaders in my denomination, the pastor of my church has really hateful and bigoted views on the nature of man, woman, and sexuality. And consider how heretical those views must be since he is out of step in a denomination that is retrograde compared to the pure Christianity of the PCUSA, UCC, and other churches that apply the latest findings of psychology and sociology to properly interpret Scripture and follow in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus by affirming everyone – love is love. By permitting my pastor to continue to divisively teach that certain acts and attitudes are sin, the government is failing in its duty to suppress false doctrine for the honor of God and the unity of society.

Moreover, my pastor does open-air preaching and holds a Bible study at the local university every week – imagine the impressionable young minds that could be led astray by false teaching. Every preacher should be required to have a government-issued license to ensure that preaching is done only by those whose theological views have been thoroughly vetted to be in accordance with the pure Gospel as articulated by the current presidential administration and how five members of the Supreme Court decide to interpret the Bible.

Replying to @Joel above:

… What is the condition of the Church of Scotland today?

Best described as, “a curate’s egg, good in parts”. A lot of the evangelicals/ conservatives have long decamped, to any of the Free Church groups (there are several) or to the Baptists, which in a Scottish context means, “pretty conservative indeed”. It comes down to the situation on a church-by-church basis.

If the Scriptures teach that the civil magistrate has a duty to enforce the first table of the Law, then let’s work toward that, trusting God. If the Scriptures teach that the civil magistrate has a duty to enforce the first table of the Law, then those arguing against this practice need to be honest and say, “But we can’t obey Scripture, because power will end up in the hands of the wrong people, and it always goes poorly, and…”

If the Scriptures don’t teach that the civil magistrate has a duty to enforce the first table of the Law, then he has no business doing so, to say the least.

The question is, what do the Scriptures teach?

The presbyterian church in the US inherited the first position and eventually changed to the second. Was this because of a better understanding of Scripture?

The prophet Jeremiah obeyed God thoroughly and “things didn’t go well for him”. When viewed through the eyes of the flesh, nothing in the Christian life makes sense. In Hebrews 11 the second half of that chapter, things “didn’t go well” for many. Yet they are commended for their faith, and if they had shrunk back to hold on to “good results” before their eyes in their day they would not have pressed on to their eternal reward.

I’m not accusing anyone of shrinking back. But the arguments against I’ve seen so far seem similar to:

“If we go this direction we’ll be tortured; there will be chains and imprisonment; we’ll be stoned, sawn in two, tempted, put to death with the sword; we’ll have to go about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated, wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground”

But these things were not evidence that our fathers misstepped. They were walking by faith, and are commended for it.

I am not sure whether the Scriptures teach that the civil magistrate should enforce the first table of the Law, but it is hard to be patient with arguments from cost that sidestep this question. If the Scriptures teach it, we must be willing to even lay down our lives for the truth and teach our brothers to do the same.

So, what do the Scriptures teach?



Let me attempt to be more clear about my own position. Cline’s article is (broadly) summarizing a debate where the two sides are represented by Roger Williams and George Gillespie. Within the American republic, Williams view has won out. Cline is arguing that despite Williams visceral popularity, that Gillespie’s argument has not been refuted. I agree with Cline.

When the civil magistrate enforces the first and second tables of the law, he is restraining evil and wickedness, not regenerating hearts. Gillespie is clear that he does not believe that civil magistrates create righteousness but rather create conditions where righteousness can flourish - and that’s why they’re given the power of the sword.

The irony is that we’re arguing about enforcing the first table of the law as if the magistrate’s enforcement of the second table is established. Of course it was… but no longer. Does the magistrate punish murderers (abortion); sexual sin (adulterers et al); thieves (antifa/BLM rioters); liars (many government persons)?

What is happening is that some Reformed Christians are beginning to be re-convinced that Gillespie is right that the second table will cease being enforced if the magistrate doesn’t enforce the first. As Daniel says, the question is whether or not this is what God requires of the civil magistrate.

I should add that Cline also recognizes the absurdity of this discussion in these late imperial times. Conservative Christians are in no position presently to actually initiate a change in the way the magistrate behaves, or at least not re-impose a magistrate that would enforce either table of the law justly. But it would be nice for the Church to come to a consensus on what the magistrate should do.


Joel - I can appreciate being wary/fearful of a corrupt state church or magistracy, but i wonder how your argument is any different than a feminist arguing that wives should not submit to their husbands because there are bad men? You’d respond that this is God’s command and design. As Daniel says, that’s the question here too and you seem to concede that the Bible may require the civil magistrate to enforce the first table of the law? If so, we not only may but certainly will get periods where the magistrate is wicked (ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel as two examples).

John - If we’re using anecdotal evidence, then I’d say there was less murder (abortion illegal), less sodomy (sexual sin proliferates in libertine conditions), etc. a couple of decades prior to Ted getting elected. No one’s arguing that those older generations were more righteous; I am saying there was less public evil.

Gillespie’s point is that if the First Table isn’t enforced, then there’s no rationale for enforcing the Second Table. Again, anecdotally, I’d say the evidence is clear that our magistrate doesn’t enforce the Second any longer.

But Gillespie would agree that its not the magistrate’s job to preach repentance or produce righteous men.

Well, it’s more like testimony that the first table of the law was enforced by a civil government in the United States within living memory rather than an anecdote.

And I don’t disagree that public morality was in better shape circa 1950 Massachusetts than it is today. But Massachusetts in particular has rushed headlong into abortion and sodomy in the years since, in ways that even its neighbors have cast side-eye at. As of when I myself left Massachusetts ~25 years ago, one still (mostly) couldn’t buy beer on Sundays, a clear legacy of the Puritans. But abortions and sodomy were near-sacraments.

Coming from the Baptistic side, I am always left with an uncomfortable feeling that my Covenantal brothers are always (often) promising the Millennium but delivering Massachusetts Bay Colony.

It seems to me that with ~1700 years of Christian relationships to states that someone should be able to point to some general success stories here. The fact that we can’t, or that the success stories don’t seem to resemble Reformed/Puritan theonomistic states should be a call for some humility here, especially given that essentially all positions on this topic rest on a long series of if/then statements rather than tight exegesis from clear passages of Scripture.


[I used anecdotal evidence in sense of evidence based on personal experience/testimony as opposed to a study.]

“…promising the Millenium but delivering Massachusetts Bay Colony.” I might prefer Massachusetts Bay to the current regime, but I think this is a common complaint. But we Covenantal brothers might rejoin that Roger Williams argued that tolerance would provide maximum liberty of conscience and what we got was a dystopian surveillance state where as Lewis put it “we’re never alone” and “toleration” has morphed into enforced celebration of wickedness.

One doesn’t have to conflate Postmillenialism with the Reformed position on the civil magistrate, though many Reformed have, mostly modern Theonomists. And I should emphasize that Gillespie is not a Theonomist (and neither is Timon Cline), nor did he predict perfection.

As to “general success stories” - they abound, but none have been permanent. I’d liken it to sanctification. Believers can obtain victory over particular sins for periods of time, some shorter, some longer; but sin always crouches at the door and we fall and repent; at our church we do this publicly every single week. To many outside our church, it might appear that we’ve fallen short of delivering the sanctification - and we’d agree. But we keep trying to perfect our faith despite our repeated failures. Why wouldn’t/shouldn’t our efforts at personal sanctification extend into our life in the body politic - especially in a republic that is by, of and for the people?

I can point to historical episodes where magistrates - whether Reformed, Baptistic, etc. have been more Christian than not, where evil has been restrained (if only for a period) and there has been blessing that followed. Just because we fail, doesn’t mean we don’t continue to strive. The irony is that having a Christian magistrate enforce both tables has been a feature of Christendom whether one is Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox. And blue laws proliferated in many American states (including Williams’ Rhode Island) that have little Reformed influence; Kentucky has been dominated by Methodists and Baptists for 2 centuries and they had no trouble enforcing sabbath keeping because Protestants cross-denominationally were generally in agreement on the issue.

And as to the humility - I hope my comments haven’t come across as arrogant. Certainly not my intent. Humility should certainly flow from our failures which are legion. I’m trying to avoid the cynicism that says because we’ve failed we shouldn’t try again. I also know that this is an internecine debate, but it’s one worth having because I think it would be valuable to have the Protestant consensus on the first table again whether or not we can implement it again in our lifetimes - just like there developed an evangelical consensus on abortion. Roe v Wade exposed our weakness on a biblical theology of life. Evangelicals worked at reaching a consensus and then worked politically to end the practice. And we did this despite the fact that we know evangelicals get abortions and use abortifacient birth control. We’ve striven to limit evil and need to repent of it simultaneously.

As a side note (not that anyone here has said this), Christian magistracy isn’t limited to a republican/democratic form of government. This is the lie of enlightenment liberalism which is being put paid in our lifetime.


I might prefer the Mughal empire (to draw a rough contemporary of Mass Bay from a hat) to the current regime.

I didn’t mean to say that you personally were being arrogant, just that a lot of this discussion (broadly I mean, not this thread in particular) rests on long chains of if/then statements rather than clear instructions from the New Testament.

But I haven’t done the background reading on this so I will bow out. I don’t know that we are so far apart on our positions where the rubber meets the road.

I’m not convinced one way or the other whether the Scriptures teach that the civil magistrate should enforce the first table, and if @Ken merely advanced an argument from Scripture and/or church history, I would have stayed silent. Also, my argument is not based on cost. Instead, my concern is with the assertion that if the first table had continued to be enforced in post-colonial times, we would be better off now, and with the assertion that we would be no worse off if the Biden administration did attempt to enforce the first table.

Here is the relevant analogy. Wife A is married to a wicked man who attends a false church. But the husband mostly holds to the principle that he should not tell his wife what to believe and how to worship, and he permits her mostly to teach what she wants to their children. Wife B is also married to a wicked man who attends a false church, but this husband insists that Wife B believe and worship as he does and teach their children only his wicked and false beliefs. Is Wife B no worse off than Wife A?

In an immediate and superficial sense, enforcement of the first table of the law can create conditions where righteousness can flourish – this is why I require my minor children to attend church – but it cannot create conditions that enable the lasting flourishing of righteousness. I express doubt about the enforcement of the first table by the civil magistrate not because I am worried about what would happen with a bad magistrate but instead because it fails with a good magistrate. So I think Gillespie is wrong – enforcement of the first table does not foster the lasting flourishing of righteousness.


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It would appear that we are at an impasse. But I’ll respond to a couple of things briefly.

Re “This”. I can point to very many general success stories where Christian magistrates have sought to implement both tables of the law in some fashion. What it appears that you want to see is a success story that has been permanent. But governments are like churches, made of fallen men. I can’t think of a church or denomination that hasn’t waxed and then waned when they abandoned orthodoxy. Evangel Presbytery exists because other previously faithful denominations failed to remain faithful. In this regard, governments are no different than churches. Show me a permanently, consistently faithful church and perhaps there might be concomitantly faithful government. The Massachusetts Bay Colony devolved when it’s churches abandoned orthodoxy, not when the magistrate decided to no longer enforce the First Table in a meaningful way.

I agree with “immediate” but not “superficial.” I would submit that Roe v Wade was reversed because Christians demanded that our magistrates recognize the First Table as the foundation for the Sixth Commandment. In other words, it was a Christian re-commitment to the First Commandment that allowed the Sixth Commandment to be properly understood with regard infants in the womb. (I am not under the illusion that this was SCOTUS’ stated opinion, but I absolutely believe that the Christian justices were swayed by Christian arguments that stem foundationally from the First Commandment.) And I would not categorize this result as superficial regarding public righteousness. The irony of course is that many states have reinstated/perpetuated the wickedness through the vote. A situation likely rooted in Roe being decided 50 years ago in that it conditioned the public to wickedness which is now allowing a greater wickedness to take place.

And I may be wrong, but I don’t believe Gillespie argues that enforcement of the First Table produces righteousness, just as he doesn’t believe its the magistrate’s job to create Christians. He argues that its the magistrate’s role is to suppress evil so that righteousness can flourish. The argument is that the First is necessary for the enforcement of the second, but it is not that First Table enforcement creates Christians.

Finally, I’ll stand by my analogy of a wife submitting to a bad husband as closer to the nub. The question isn’t whether which one is worse; the question is whether a husband’s inherent falleness/wickedness invalidates his authority. We generally say “no” unless the husband is causing his wife to disobey the Scripture. You can argue that the magistrate doesn’t have the authority or that he loses his authority when he causes us to disobey scripture; but that’s a different argument. Gillespie (and I) would disagree with you on the first, but not the second.

I’ve appreciated the exchange, Joel and I will leave the last word to you.

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I think this supports my side of the argument. Enforcement of the first table did not maintain orthodoxy in the churches, and if there is not orthodoxy in the churches, how can you expect that the first table will continue to be enforced in a meaningful way? When the heart is corrupt, whatever orthodoxy that may be on the books formally no longer matters – witness the PCA and Revoice.

This seems like an idiosyncratic view. How many Christian justices (more than name only) are on the Supreme Court?

This is doubtful. Even without acknowledging the true God, the natural man can easily see that the enforcement of the second table is necessary for the existence of civil society. Non-Christian societies around the world and throughout history have punished murder, adultery, stealing, and perjury, etc. no less than Christian societies.

You’re changing the question here to something I did not raise and did not argue for. You said that you found it hard to imagine that we’d be worse off if the Biden administration were enforcing the First Table of the law, and I responded that we would be worse off because now we have the freedom (mostly) to preach and teach God’s truth openly. Note that I said nothing about invalidation of authority, but practically speaking, it is better to be able to preach and teach openly with the tolerance the civil magistrate than to have to preach and teach while working around and under repression.

Thanks, Ken. My concern in this exchange has not been with enforcement of the first table per se but rather with the tendency of many Reformed men to assert that things would be better if we only did X, when X is other than preaching the whole counsel of God.