Reformed Libertarianism Statement & Principles
Reformed libertarianism is a view of politics, or civil governance, informed by a Reformed theology (a view of Scriptural teaching expressed in the historical Reformed confessions) and a Reformed philosophy (a view of created reality directed by Scriptural teaching).
Reformed Libertarianism Statement
Table of Contents
Reformed libertarianism is a view of politics, or civil governance, informed by a Reformed theology (a view of Scriptural teaching expressed in the historical Reformed confessions) and a Reformed philosophy (a view of created reality directed by Scriptural teaching). Based on a Reformed theology and philosophy, the following summarizes a Reformed view of 1.) culture, and 2.) society, as the broader context within which our view of politics is set, followed by 3.) civil governance.
1. What Is Culture?
1.a. Human production
Culture is the human activity of having dominion over the earth; being fruitful, filling, ruling, and subduing the world, cultivating and keeping it. Culture is also the result of that labor, the secondary environment of human production within the natural environment. Being made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:15; 9:1-7), designed to exercise dominion, human beings, even fallen in sin, cannot help but act purposely, labor, and cultivate the creation, including ourselves.
See: Henry R. Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (1959; rep., 2001), p.xvii, 25ff.
1.b. Reciprocal layers
Human cultivative labor and its results can be understood in terms of various layers. On the surface, as it were, people manifest observable behaviors, some of which can be called customs, and produce material artifacts of all kinds. At a deeper layer communities and institutions are developed for numerous ends, and these often reflect, at a deeper layer still, the numerous values according to which people discern what concrete activities to do and how to go about them. And at a base layer people embrace what may be called worldviews; basic understandings of what the world is and diverse purposes within it. And these various cultural layers exist in a dynamic of reciprocal influence. Human technologies, practices, and communities affect values and beliefs, and vice versa.
See: G. Linwood Barney, “The Supracultural and the Cultural: Implications for Frontier Missions,” in The Gospel and Frontier Peoples: a report of a consultation, December 1972 , ed. Robert Pierce Beaver (1973), p.48-55. Partially quoted
1.c. Based in religion
The activities within all these layers are all cultural activity. Both Christians and non-Christians participate in all these sorts of activities. By them we form the histories of our individual lives and of civilizations alike. As an expression of our being God’s image, all human action is fundamentally grounded in ‘religion,’ which is our central orientation either towards the true God revealed in the Christ of Scripture, or away from Him towards a false idol. (Romans 1:18-25; Matthew 15:18-19)
1.d. Structural norms, directional conformity
The image of God in human beings can be understood as having two dimensions. There is a ‘structural’ or official dimension, and there is a ‘directional’ or normative dimension. By structural, we refer to God’s creational laws or ordinances that are in force for created things, constituting such things as the kind of creatures they are. (In this sense we mean structure for creation and cultural activity, not structures of creation and culture; that is, not things or cultural products themselves). As there are different kinds of created things, so there are also different kinds of creational laws. Some laws are directly compelling, such as physical laws, for example the law of gravity. Other laws, while always in force, are appealing. That is to say, they can be violated. These appealing sorts of normative laws especially apply to cultural activity and human action generally, and may be referred to as norms (oughts/shoulds), for example logical norms, such as the “law of (non-)contradiction”. By directional, we refer to negative deviation from and positive conformity to God-given norms.
See: Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained (1985; rep., 2005), p.59, 88, 97.
Also see: Anthony A. Hoekema, Created In God’s Image (1986), p.68-73
1.e. Fall, redemption, and common grace
After the fall into sin, humanity retains the structural dimension, continuing by God’s common grace to be His image as those who have an office of authority, called to exercise dominion (epitomized in making judgments). Yet by the fall into sin unregenerate humanity loses the deepest positive directional dimension of that image, no longer judging rightly. In the regenerate person the image of God is renewed in Christ, in true righteousness, holiness, and knowledge. While Christians are centrally re-directed towards God, they can still sin, suffer the effects of sin, and deviate from God’s norms, including those for cultural activity. Nevertheless, the renewal of the image in Christ by redemption provides the possibility for Christians, in some measure, to discern and live in positive accordance with God-ordained cultural norms. Conversely, while the unregenerate are in a basic condition of mis-direction away from God, by God’s common grace, they can in some measure act in external accordance with certain norms.
2. What Is Society?
2.a. Neither individualistic, nor collectivistic
Society is not a single whole. Rather, by society we mean the numerous individual and communal relations of several varieties. There are inter-individual relations, communal relations, and inter-communal relations. While only individuals act, neither society, nor any communal relation can be properly reduced to only inter-individual relations. And an individual is never a mere part of a given community of which they are a member. Communal relations differ from inter-individual relations in being comparatively more enduring and involving authority arrangements. Neither individuals, nor communities are more basic than, or have their origin in, the other. Individuals and various communities are themselves wholes, ultimately structured or normed by God in creation. In this sense, we reject both an individualistic and a collectivistic view of society.
See: Roy Clouser, The Myth of Religious Neutrality (1991; rev., 2005), chapter 12.
Also see: Herman Dooyeweerd, A Christian Theory of Social Institutions (1947)
2.b. Societal sphere sovereignty
There are distinct communal spheres, or kinds of communities. Each kind of community is distinguished from other kinds by its own intrinsic nature, differently characterized in its organization and purpose, governed by its own God-given norms. For example, there are familial, ecclesial/faith, political/civil, commercial, social, charitable, medical, educational, and aesthetic/arts kinds of communities among others. No single kind of community properly encompasses or regulates all the others. Nor does any particular community of a given kind properly encompass or regulate all the others of that same kind. Each kind of community has its own particular function and its own kind of limited authority and competence directly ordained by God, not mediated by any other kind. This has been called ‘sphere sovereignty.’ We reject the collectivistic view of so-called ‘subsidiarity,’ which, while seeking to be bottom-up, affirming that the lowest level of organization has original jurisdiction, nevertheless subsumes all societal communities (as so-called ‘mediating institutions’) under an all-encompassing state.
See: Gregory Baus, Dooyeweerd’s Societal Sphere Sovereignty (2006, rev. 2017)
Also see: Kerry Baldwin, Economics, Hierarchy, and the Question of the State’s Inevitability (2018) and Inconceivable! The Plausibility of a Stateless Society (2018)
2.c. Polycentric and emergent societal order
Society is ordered and governed polycentrically, that is, within a variety of relations and particular communities of different kinds. A political order, or communities/institutions of civil governance, does not have a task of comprehensively regulating society. Rather, the God-given task of civil governance is exclusively limited to administration of civil justice. The broader polycentric societal complex is coordinated emergently, through the self-governance of each instance of the varieties of relations and each particular community of the several distinct kinds. By God’s creational design, a dynamic societal harmonization comes about cumulatively through the varieties of normative human action, but apart from any human individual’s or community’s specific intention or attempt at comprehensive coercive regulation. Any attempt at coercive regulation of society overall violates the nature of society, the various norms and relations, and the distinct kinds of community with differentiated and limited authority ordained by God, and so introduces wide-ranging distortions and disorder.
Commercial or economic inter-individual and inter-communal relations and communities in society are normed by God to properly function in terms of a ‘free market,’ that is, according to the God-given norms for the acquisition and use of scarce resources and voluntary exchange. Any coercive government restrictions or regulations, going beyond administration of actual civil justice, on the acquisition, ownership, or use of resources, no matter what the intention or pretense (whether this involves money, credit, investment, production, products, distribution, consumption, buying, selling, renting, speculation, saving, labor, employment, services, wages, prices, etc) are all reprehensible violations of economic, moral, and civil justicial God-given norms, and is ultimately destructive to proper societal functioning and well-being.
See: Shawn Ritenour, Foundations of Economics: A Christian View (2010).
Also see: Per Bylund, The Seen, the Unseen, and the Unrealized: How Regulations Affect Our Everyday Lives (2016)
3. What Is Civil Governance?
3.a. Civil justice distinguished from morality
Civil governance is the administration of civil justice, that is, the adjudication of disputes over ‘civil’/political rights according to the God-given norms of civil justice, with the rules and enforcement that accompany it. Civil (or political) justice and rights concern legitimately coercively-enforceable normative claims on one’s person or property. In this sense, civil justice (concerning civil rights and obligations) is distinguished from the sense of what is due to others regarding properly non-civil/non-political claims. For example, that which is properly moral concerns what is loving. Violations of civil justice may always be immoral, but not vice versa. Lying and coveting are immoral, but do not necessarily involve ‘crime’, that is, the violation of civil/political right.
See: Lysander Spooner, Vices Are Not Crimes (1875)
3.b. Self-ownership and property right
All humans are created by God, and so He is every person’s Owner. God in Christ is the Creator and Owner of all things (Colossians 1:15-17). At the same time, having created humans in His image, God has given each person a stewardship over themselves and their property. In relation to other humans, we call each person’s stewardship their self-ownership. And this self-ownership can be extended to acquisition of ownership in scarce resources. Ownership is the right to exclusive control, use, or disposal of a resource. We call this ‘property rights’ (in one’s person and things; cf. Exodus 21:16; Matthew 20:15; Acts 5:4); one’s civil/political right.
3.c. Civil justicial norm of non-aggression
Necessarily corresponding to property rights is the obligation to never initiate (or to never employ first use of) coercion against another’s person or property. We call such initiation of coercion ‘aggression’. The only legitimate use of coercion against another’s person or property is in proportional response to prior aggression. Legitimate coercion is exclusively responsive. Aggression against another’s person or property (whether murder, rape, assault, theft, kidnapping, fraud, or the credible threatening of these things) is never legitimate. This norm concerning the legitimate use of responsive coercion and the illegitimacy of initiatory coercion or aggression is often called the ‘non-aggression principle’. It is a God-given moral norm insofar as it is expressed in the Biblical prohibition of murder and theft (cf, Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5). It is also a God-given norm for civil justice, expressed in the Biblical affirmation of the law of proportionate retribution (lex talionis), as self-ownership/property rights delineate that which is properly coercively-enforceable (cf, Genesis 9:5-6; Proverbs 3:30; 1 Peter 4:15).
3.d. God’s ordination of civil governance
Romans 13:1-7 specifies that God prescriptively ordains the administration of civil justice. This involves the legitimate use of coercive retribution (the “sword”) against aggressors (“wrongdoers;” those who commit aggression against another’s person or property), enforcing restitution by aggressors to their victims. According to God’s ordination, civil governance is strictly limited to this task. The civil rulers to which all should submit (also, 1 Peter 2:13-14; Titus 3:1) are those who administer actual civil justice. The claim to civil power or exercise of power or coercion on any pretense that violates civil justice is not ordained by God according to Scripture, and may be legitimately resisted. It is not only orders to sin that must be refused, but any would-be civil regulation beyond the God-ordained sphere of civil justice may be justly ignored. Those who are unjust are not legitimate authorities to whom believers should submit civil disputes among themselves (1 Corinthians 6:1-8).
See: Gregory Baus, Romans 13 and Stateless Civil Governance: A Reformed View (2019)
And Mere Liberty: On Romans 13
And Reformed Political Resistance Theology: annotated bibliography (2020, in progress)
Scripture does not say that anyone in fact owes taxes. Rather, Scripture requires us to pay to others what is actually owed to them (Romans 13:7), that is, to give others what they rightly own. In Matthew 22:15-22 (also Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26), our Lord affirms that only Caesar’s own property belongs to Caesar, and should be given to him. The Lord Jesus neither condones taxation, nor obligates anyone to submit to theft.
An individual or a community may legitimately defend themselves and their property or that of others, consensually on others’ behalf, using proportional responsive coercion against aggressors. This may include lethal coercion and enforcing restitution by aggressors to their victims. However, what is known as ‘war’ as conducted by states is never moral or just. We condemn and reject war in the strongest terms as a great evil. Christians should never participate in a state’s military that engages in any non-defensive actions, and/or coercive actions that are disproportionate, and/or actions that knowingly injure or murder any non-aggressors. Nor should Christians take employment with, or financially invest in, any contractors that supply such a state military’s war-making. (Romans 12:18; Proverbs 1:10-16)
3.g. Our Confessions
The historical confessions (and other doctrinal standards) of the Reformed churches do not oppose resistance to powers that violate civil justice. The Westminster Confession of Faith 20.4 specifies that those who “oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it… resist the ordinance of God.” Tyranny is unlawful, not the ordinance of God, and may be lawfully opposed. The London Baptist Confession of Faith 24.3 specifies that submission is only required to “lawful things commanded.” The Second Helvetic Confession of Faith 30 similarly specifies obedience only to “just and fair commands.” The Belgic Confession of Faith 36 specifies obedience only to “things that are not in conflict with God’s Word,” and denounces all, even civil powers, who would “subvert justice.”
3.h. The state’s Monopoly
A state is a monopoly on the use of coercion and supreme decision-making (or ‘final say’) within a territory. This monopoly involves enforcing a claim to exclusive control or prerogative over persons and property that belong to others, and that the state does not own. As such, all states are aggressors, inherently unjust, and antinormative. Every state is an unlawful usurpation of civil power; a tyranny. States are neither legitimate, nor necessary for civil governance. Legitimate civil governance is non-monopolistic because God has strictly limited civil governance to the administration of civil justice (adjudicating disputes over ‘civil’/political rights according to the God-given norms of civil justice) by coercive retribution against aggressors, enforcing restitution by aggressors to their victims. A state’s monopoly is in principle totalitarian, and always increasingly tends toward totalitarianism in practice.