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Is God or the State Absolute? The Unity and Diversity Problem

Our theology determines who is the rightful ruler.

There are massive political, philosophical and theological issues arising from one of the oldest issues mankind has thought about over the millennia: the problem of the one and the many, or the universal and the particular. How can we have unity while celebrating diversity?

Politically speaking, pushing the extremes ends up in all sorts of problems. Over-emphasis on unity at the expense of diversity leads to statism, to tyranny, and to oppression, with the masses considered to be inconsequential, only existing for the good of the whole. The over-emphasis on individualism leads to anarchy and chaos, with nothing able to hold things together. Social cohesion and stability are quickly lost.

A traditional motto of the United States of America is found in the Latin phrase E pluribus unum. It translates into ‘One out of many’ or ‘One from many’. The American melting pot whereby people from around the world (especially Europe) came to live and blend in is an example of this more or less functioning successfully.

But here I want to discuss the political situation in light of the broader philosophical and theological context. And Christian thinkers have long looked to the Trinity as the ultimate way to do justice to this matter. Let me mention just three recent thinkers. Dutch Reformed theologian Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987) spoke often about this. As he wrote in his A Survey of Christian Epistemology (a part of his The Defense of the Faith):

We may contrast this doctrine of the Trinity with Plato’s thought by calling attention to the fact that for Augustine the Trinity furnished the basis of the principles of unity and diversity in human knowledge. In other words the Trinity is for Augustine as for all orthodox Christians a conception without which knowledge were impossible to man. That there is plurality which man must seek to relate to some underlying unity, is patent to all men. From the earliest dawn of reflective thinking it has been the effort of man to find unity in multiplicity. But the difficulties that meet one when trying to speculate upon the question of unity and plurality are that if one begins with an ultimate plurality in the world, or we may say by regarding plurality as ultimate, there is no way of ever coming to an equally fundamental unity. On the other hand, if one should begin with the assumption of an ultimate abstract, impersonal unity, one cannot account for the fact of plurality. No system of thought can escape this dilemma. No system of thought has escaped this dilemma. Many systems of thought have denied one of the horns of the dilemma, but all that they have accomplished by doing this is to find relief in the policy of the ostrich.

Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984), who was a student of Van Til, also made much of this matter. As but one example, in his 1972 volume, He Is There and He Is Not Silent, he looks at the Trinity as being the one and only answer to the problem of the one and the many:

We must appreciate that our Christian forefathers understood this very well in A.D. 325, when they stressed the three Persons in the Trinity, as the Bible had clearly set this forth. Let us notice that it is not that they invented the Trinity in order to give an answer to the philosophical questions which the Greeks of that time understood very dynamically. It is quite the contrary. The unity and diversity problem was there, and they realized that in the Trinity as it had been taught in the Bible they had an answer that no one else had. They did not invent the Trinity to meet the need; the Trinity was already there and it met the need. They realized that in the Trinity we have what all these people are arguing about and defining but for which they have no answer.

Let us notice again that this is not the best answer; it is the only answer. Nobody else, no philosophy has ever given us an answer to unity and diversity. So when people ask whether we are embarrassed intellectually by the Trinity, I always switch it over into their own terminology—unity and diversity. Every philosophy has this problem and no philosophy has an answer. Christianity does have an answer in the existence of the Trinity. The only answer to what exists is that he, the triune God, is there.

Of course, in his later books, Schaeffer very much developed the political implications of all this, including in his critiques of statism. But that I have addressed elsewhere in various articles such as this one.

Lastly, I want to highlight the work of Rousas John Rushdoony (1916-2001). He also followed Van Til and others in this, but he made a helpful contribution to the discussion by tying in creedal orthodox Christianity with the fate of the West and its political institutions.

In his important 1971 volume, The One and the Many, he spends nearly 400 pages looking at these themes. In the first chapter of the book he says this:

In orthodox trinitarian Christianity, the problem of the one and the many is resolved. Unity and plurality are equally ultimate in the Godhead, and temporal unity and plurality are on a basis of equal validity. There is thus no basic conflict between individual and community. The individual lives in community, and the community flourishes as the individual finds himself and grows in terms of consistently Christian faith. Instead of a basic philosophical hostility between individual and government, believer and church, person and family, there is a necessary co-existence. Neither the one nor the many is reducible to the other. They cannot seek the obliteration of the other, for that involves self-obliteration. The Augustinian and Calvinistic faith, by its hostility to subordinationism, holds, if developed, the possibilities for true social order, and, to the extent that Augustinianism and Calvinism have been followed, Western culture has developed both freedom and order. When christological subordinationism has set in, that is, the subordinate status of the second person of the trinity affirmed, statism has arisen, as in Byzantium Russia (with its docetic Christology), Anglicanism, and modernism, to cite but a few instances. The equal ultimacy of the one and the many is disturbed, and the order of revelation demoted. The Roman emperors were intensely aware of this fact, and, to promote statism, supported Arianism and other subordinationist views as essential to the maintenance of the state as the one true order in which man’s life was totally comprehended. The hostility to Athanasius rested on this premise. The Council of Chalcedon in 451, by affirming the full trinitarian faith, was thus the significant victory that led to what is called Western civilization.

And in another key volume, The Foundations of Social Order (1968) he develops this theme in great detail. As he says early on in the volume while discussing The Apostles’ Creed:

The Creed thus has vast implications concerning history because of its declaration that God is the creator of all things. This declaration immediately makes God the source of all ethics, of all morality, and of all law. In all non-Christian systems, the source of ethics and of law is the state; it is the polis, the empire, or the kingdom. There is no understanding the gulf between Aristotle and Plato, for example, and Christianity, apart from this fact, and the gulf cannot be legitimately bridged. Either God is the true source of morality and law, or the state is. If God is the true source, then the Word of God must be harkened to by church, state, school, and every sphere of life as the one authoritative source of morality and law. As institutions and orders declare law, they must do it ministerially, as administrators under God. The Word of God therefore speaks to every sphere, including church and state, and the Word of God is over the church and corrects and disciplines the church.

It is significant, and it was inescapable, that, as the early church formulated the creeds, the councils that announced the creeds also announced canons, or canon law, to govern the church and believers, and to declare God’s law to the state. It was impossible for creedalism to develop without a parallel development of canon law. As the creeds progressively formulated the reality of God’s sovereign power and Christ’s role as priest, prophet, and king over man and history, the councils simultaneously brought life under the canons of the faith, under Biblical law and morality. The vitality and relevance of canon law has declined as Biblical creedalism has declined, and as statist law and ethics have progressively governed the church.

Some 180 pages later he concludes his study with these words:

Every social order has an implicit creed, and this creed defines the order and informs it. When a social order begins to crumble, it is because the basic faith, its creed, has been undermined. But the political defense of that order is usually made the first line of defense: it becomes the conservative position. But, because the defense is politically rather than creedally informed, it is a superficial defense and crumbles steadily under a highly doctrinaire and creedal opposition. Thus, Cicero’s defense of the Roman republic was a spirited and heroic effort, but it was also the epitome of impotence. The republic was already dead; Cicero himself did not believe in the religion on which the republic had been based. When Cicero could not accept the religious foundations which made an aristocracy sovereign how could he expect the rebellious masses to accept it? Cicero’s position was essentially personal, and the various defenders of the republic were more linked by purely personal tastes and interests than a creedal position. Julius Caesar was able to capitalize on the new creedalism and make himself the religious and civil head of the new movement. Similarly, today humanism is the creedal basis of the various democratic and socialistic movements. The clearer the humanism, as in Marxism, the more direct its use of power, because it operates in terms of a consistency of principle. The conservatives attempt to retain the political forms of the Christian West with no belief in Biblical Christianity. Apart from vague affirmations of liberty, they cannot defend their position philosophically. The conservatives therefore become fact-finders: they try to oppose the humanist by documenting their cruelty, corruption, and abuse of office. If the facts carry any conviction to the people, they lead them only to exchange one set of radical humanists for reforming radical humanists. It is never their faith in the system which is shaken, but only in a form or representative of that system. The success of the subversives rests on their attack on the creed of the establishment, and its replacement by a new creed. When the foundations are provided, the general form of the building is determined. When the creed is accepted, the social order is determined. There can therefore be no reconstruction of the Christian civilization of the west except on Christian creedal foundations.

One need not agree with everything Rushdoony writes to see the importance of how he links orthodox Christianity to the social and political order of the West, and how when the Christian faith is rejected, that political and social order begins to unravel.

At the end of the day either the triune God is Lord, or the state is Lord. It seems everywhere in the West today we are seeing the latter occurring – to our great detriment and destruction.