Would There Have Been Civil Government Without the Fall?

Sharing Options
Show Outline with Links


There is an error in the sentence below, which I have struck from the essay: “Rutherford distinguishes “power of government and power of government by magistracy” (Q2, emphasis mine). Absent the fall, he grants the former and flatly denies the latter.” Power of government simply he would regard as self-defense, and unnecessary without a fall. Mea maxima culpa. I can correct it here, but can’t fix it in the video—so you will have to do that. HT: JM


Right at the outset, it may seem to you that my title has posed an odd question. And admittedly it is odd, but that doesn’t make it any less important. If the Christian gospel is aimed at the restoration of Eden, then a few reflections on the nature of Eden would seem to be appropriate, and even fruitful. The Scriptures begin with one tree of life in the middle of one Garden (Gen. 2:9), but end with trees of life up and down both sides of the river (Rev. 22:2). Where we came from is relevant to where we are going—and how we should behave along the way.

If we pose such questions in the right spirit, we will not be chasing wispy speculations, but rather will be coming up with questions that lead us to a broader understanding of much weightier issues. Asking whether the trees in the Garden—trees five minutes old—had rings in their trunks, is to ask whether the world just created had the appearance of age. Asking whether good stories would have been possible in a world where no one knew what an evil antagonist was is to ask about the very nature of stories. Asking whether it would have been possible for Adam to shuffle a deck of cards before the fall is to ask whether any kind of entropy existed before the fall, and if so, what the limits of that entropy were. Entropy is bad in the New Testament (Rom. 8:21), so how could it have been good in Genesis? Another example: we know that there would have been no clothes to cover our shame in an unfallen world, for there would have been no shame. But would there ever have been clothes for glory?

And so to ask if civil government would have existed without a fall is to ask a really important question about the very creational nature of man. What sort of creature are we? Apart from a fall, with a population of hundreds of millions, would there have been a polis? And if a polis, could there have been a polis without politics?

Agreed on All Hands

I believe that it can safely be said that all parties to this discussion should agree that, at a bare minimum, if there had been no fall government would have been radically different from what we see now. With a population of sinless millions, we would have no need of SWAT teams, for example. An unfallen polis would not have needed police.

We would not have ungodly government, which is a huge change, and we also would not have government made necessary by the presence of private sector ungodliness out there in the world. But it is really hard for us to imagine civil government with the coercive element taken out, and if we could imagine it, it is then hard to imagine it bearing the name of civil government. All of that is granted as baked into the nature of the question we are asking.

At the same time, while we have trouble imagining a good story with no “bad guys,” yet for us to try to persuade people that Heaven has no stories would seem to me to be an attempt to become one of the bad guys.

So I want to argue that we should keep the name of princes, just as we should keep our stories, not because we are wedded to the politics of coercion, but rather because the removal of that coercion reveals something at the heart of government that is not at all dependent on the presence of sin. And I want to argue that this something is majesty (1 Chron. 29:25).

Take away sin, and you do take away the need for handcuffs and hangmen. But does taking away sin do the same thing to hierarchy? Is it hierarchy, handcuffs, and hangmen in an unholy trinity? Or is hierarchy in a different category?

A Sort of Dominion

This entire question is not one that greatly occupied the Reformed scholastics, at least not that I can find, but we do get some help from Rutherford.

Apart from the names used to describe it, there appears to be agreement that certain natural and organic forms of government would exist without a fall. These governments would include those resulting from marriage and family, and Rutherford also grants, with Aquinas and Aristotle, “a sort of dominion of the more gifted and wiser above the less wise and weaker . . . but there is no ground for kings by nature” (Q13, p. 142). So he grants the authority of husbands over wives, parents over children, and the wise over the simple, but does not want those wise rulers to be called kings, or sheriffs, or rulers for that matter. 

But the kind of government he allows for is the only kind of prelapsarian government I want to argue for—although I believe there is something substantial and more majestic there. But greater majesty does not mean that it would be any less natural or organic.

Remember this context. Near the end of his life, Rutherford (who was already dying of natural causes) was marked for execution (for having written a book), and when the king’s agents arrived to arrest him, he had this to say. “I have a summons already from a superior Judge and I behove to answer my first summons and when your day arrives I shall be where few Kings and great folks come.” Put another way, Rutherford may be excused for not seeing the glory of “magistracy” shining through their persecuting activities. Perhaps the character of Charles II obscured his view of what could have been, thus losing me a key ally for my cause here.

A Hierarchical Cosmos

We live in an egalitarian generation, and so that is the base line assumption for virtually all moderns, and this is why we tend to think that the burden of proof lies on the one who would argue for any kind of hierarchy. Being implicit egalitarians (even the Christians), we believe that the factory settings for humankind are also egalitarian. But as Carl Trueman demonstrates in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, this glib and newly minted assumption is very much a feature of the modern age. We know who has the burden of proof now, but who had the burden of proof prior to Rousseau’s corruptions?

At the moment of creation, it does not appear that God was interested in establishing any kind of egalitarian order. There was no sin present at the moment of creation, obviously, but there were still authorities. There were thrones and dominions.

“For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him.”

Colossians 1:16 (NKJV)

This passage does not mention the creation of man, but that man had a glorious destiny assigned to him in this hierarchy appears elsewhere (Heb. 2:5-10). And it even seems that the destined future glory of man had something to do with the revolt of the principalities and powers, who did not want to give way to such a lowly worm.

“And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord: In whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him.”

Ephesians 3:9–12 (KJV)

So when God elevates man in Christ to rule with Him as kings and priests forever, this will be a demonstration of God’s eternal wisdom to those principalities and powers, and a vindication of His eternal plan.

Moreover, in the time to come, after sin is banished and excluded forever, it does not appear that regal authority is banished along with the sin. Quite the contrary.

“So Jesus said to them, “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

Matthew 19:28 (NKJV)

It should be apparent that the need for the civil magistrate to knock heads and take names is going to be missing from the redeemed and glorified world, just as it would have been missing from an unfallen one, and yet we still have a description of thrones. It therefore appears that there are responsibilities assigned to thrones other than that of dealing with the problems caused by the presence of sin.

Premature Grasping for Rule

The prohibition of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was actually a prohibition of rule, which would seem to be relevant to the point in question. And so everything would seem to ride on whether that prohibition was probationary or permanent. My supposition here is that had Adam and Eve passed their test, they would have been granted access to that tree some time later. And why?

Consider the language of Scripture. Discerning good and evil is what rulers do, and what children don’t do. “Moreover your little ones, which ye said should be a prey, and your children, which in that day had no knowledge between good and evil, they shall go in thither . . .” (Dt. 1:39; cf. Jer. 4:22). This was true of a type of the Messiah, the child born in fulfillment of the promise to Isaiah. “Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel . . . for before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings” (Is. 7:14-16). Extreme old age prevents a man from being able to serve as a judge between good and evil, as Barzillai once observed: “I am this day fourscore years old: and can I discern between good and evil . . .?” (2 Sam. 19:35).

And how did Solomon please the Lord when a vision was given to him at Gibeon? Even though he sacrificed in the high places, he did love the Lord (1 Kings 3:3), and the Lord appeared to him in that high place. So when the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream and told him to ask for whatever he would have, Solomon asked that he be able to discern between good and evil (1 Kings 3:9), and this answer pleased the Lord (1 Kings 3:10). So how did Solomon ask for this? He said first that he was “but a little child” (1 Kings 3:7), and so what deficiency did he think needed to be corrected? “Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people” (1 Kings 3:9-10)? And then we are told in v. 11 that his request amounted to a request to be able to discern justice.

Solomon was “a child” who knew himself to be such, and so he requested that God give him fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which pleased the Lord. Adam and Eve were children who were tempted to forget that they were such, and so they took upon themselves the black robes of rule prematurely. Consequently, our sense of judgment is warped, skewed and cock-eyed, and this is why our deliberations veer toward accusation.

Moreover, this skewed sense of entitled rule is over a fallen race. Had they waited, they would have been given rule (and great majesty) over an unfallen race. The fact of an unfallen race would not make such glory unnecessary and superfluous—rather it would have made such glory genuinely glorious. The absence of sin does not make rule superfluous, but rather glorious.

A Proposed Solution

In the classic texts on the civil magistrate, his assigned role is two-fold. One is to knock the heads of evil-doers together (excluded by hypothesis), and the other is to praise those who do well. First we have the words of Paul:

“For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.”

Romans 13:3 (NKJV)

And then Peter:

“Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.”

1 Peter 2:13–14 (NKJV)

If we look at these two passages carefully, we will see a two-fold role for the ruler. The first is to wield the sword against evil doers, which is obviously unnecessary in a world without evil doers. Neither is it necessary to have the mechanisms in place for dealing with such evil doers—no cops, no jails, no armies, no navies. But remove all that, and does anything remain?

Both Paul and Peter say that one of the roles of a ruler is to praise that which is good. And praise for things well done would be entirely relevant in a world without sin, provided the cultural mandate was fully operative. And it would have been fully operative—remember that it was given in an unfallen world. So would Adam our king have had any occasion to praise the first person who invented the wheel? The shovel? The harp? The plow? The clipper ship? The airplane? The microchip?

Imagine. An annual awards ceremony where industry and inventiveness is honored by the king, and where there is no crackle of envy in the audience at all. The gratitude of the king would be great, and all the applause would be genuine.

Medicine Not Food

One last thing. I am a loyal American, and I love our republican forms of government. But I love them as the Founders did, as medicine and not as food. Further, I believe it is most necessary medicine, and it is the best medicine on the market. Three cheers for it.

These institutions do have a commitment to equality, but it is a commitment that has been taken off of its original foundation. This is because there are two approaches to equality, and we have exchanged one for the other.

One supposes that we are all equal in our wisdom and insight, which is the egalitarian take, and the other supposes that we are all equal in our sin, which is the Christian view. One has a commitment to democracy because everyone has something valuable to contribute, while the other has a commitment to check and balances, separation of powers, and a democratic element, because in a fallen world you should want to spread the power around as thinly as possible. In a fallen world, all men deserve to be slaves and no men deserve to be masters, which creates quite a civics problem.

In a fallen world, all men deserve to be slaves and no men deserve to be masters, which creates quite a civics problem.

So ours has been good medicine, but when you start treating the cough syrup like it was a fine Pinot, you are not far off from really bad things starting to happen. You have become delusional, and that is never good. And lo, here we are, with every delusional soul now believing it has the authority and wisdom to dictate what sex they should have been, had those responsible for the cosmos only known what they were about.

Here is C.S. Lewis, just arrived to stick a pin in it.

“I do not think that equality is one of those things (like wisdom or happiness) which are good simply in themselves and for their own sakes. I think it is in the same class as medicine, which is good because we are ill, or clothes which are good because we are no longer innocent. I don’t think the old authority in kings, priests, husbands, or fathers, and the old obedience in subjects, laymen, wives, and sons, was in itself a degrading or evil thing at all. I think it was intrinsically as good and beautiful as the nakedness of Adam and Eve.

C.S. Lewis, Present Concerns, pp. 17-18

Lewis elsewhere describes himself as an Old Western Man, and on issues like this one, it comes out most clearly. Lewis was entirely hostile to egalitarianism, which is a responsibility that we should all take up. I am a republican now, but in the regeneration I will be a monarchist. And I know where I am going.

“A permanent reminder that medicine is not food. Hence a man’s reaction to Monarchy is a kind of test. Monarchy can easily be ‘debunked’; but watch the faces, mark well the accents, of the debunkers. These are the men whose tap-root in Eden has been cut . . .”

C.S. Lewis, Present Concerns, p. 20

Please note that phrase “tap-root in Eden has been cut.” That is precisely what I am getting at here. Had there been no fall, and if there were billions of us, Adam would have been the prince and father of us all, second only to Christ. Adam would not be serving us as the chairman of the central committee. He would not be called comrade, and he would not have been just one of the guys.

There would have been no coercion in this world, but an erasure of coercion would not erase the majesty. Rather, it would allow the majesty and glory to shine through more clearly.

“Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes, or film-stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.”

C.S. Lewis, Present Concerns, p. 20..

But enough about the Kardashians. Enough about Cardi B. Enough about Jenner Man running for governor of California which, despite its perversity, seems fitting somehow. And at least he’s Republican!

Call to Action

The foregoing might seem mighty interesting to you all, but some of you might be wondering what on earth you are supposed to do with it. The world is disintegrating around us, and what should the men of Issachar do? I have no comprehensive plan, but I can suggest a starting point for you. Get Carl Trueman’s book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Read and internalize his arguments. Having done that, embrace the implications of his argument in a way that tempts Trueman himself to denounce you as a menace. Then take it a little further than that.