John Murray on the Christian State

Some readers will be aware that I have criticized the Two Kingdoms (2K) view of Christianity and culture in a few places. In 2019, I gave a lecture in which I argued that three distinctive tenets of a Reformed worldview (a biblical revelational epistemology, the absoluteness of God, and the lordship of Christ) point us away from a “Two Kingdoms” paradigm and toward a “One Kingdom with Different Administrations” paradigm — basically a Kuyperian “sphere sovereignty” paradigm but expressed in terms of Christ’s kingship.

John MurrayBrandon Smith, archival editor at Westminster Magazine, recently brought to my attention a 1943 article by John Murray entitled “The Christian World Order” (originally published in The Presbyterian Guardian).1 Murray is best known for his deeply exegetical approach to systematic theology, with a particular focus on Christology and soteriology, and not often as someone who pronounced on matters of political theory and contemporary cultural engagement. But in this remarkably forthright and lucid article, Murray sets forth an indisputably Kuyperian vision of the three societal institutions of family, church, and state. The entire article is worth your time, but I was particularly struck by the section on the state, which makes essentially the same argument I made in my 2019 lecture, albeit with Murray’s characteristic elegance and economy of words. I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing that section here (but read the whole thing).

Everything below the line is from Murray’s article, although I’ve emboldened parts of the text for emphasis.2

The state is the third basic divine institution. It might be thought that, while the redemptive and regenerative forces of Christianity have an obvious bearing upon the individual, the family and the church, yet the state cannot be regarded as coming in any direct way under the demands and influences of the Christian revelation. The state has to do with civil order, the preservation and promotion of civil righteousness, liberty and peace. It will be said that the civil magistrate in the discharge of his official functions has no religious obligations and therefore should not and cannot be regulated in the discharge of his office by the Christian revelation, in other words, that the Bible is not the rule of conduct for the civil magistrate as it is for the individual, for the family and for the church.

This position embraces a strange mixture of truth and error. There is truth in this position insofar as it recognizes the limits of civil authority. Civil authority is not totalitarian. Civil authority must never trespass the sphere of the family, or of the church, and it must guard the God-given rights and prerogatives of the individual. If the distinction of spheres is once blurred or obliterated, then good order is impossible and Christian principles are negated.

It is also true that those in whom is vested the right of civil government must exercise that government in accordance with the laws of the commonwealth. If they are not able to do this in accordance with conscience, then they must abdicate their office or seek by the constitutional means provided by the commonwealth to change those laws. Especially is this the case with believers who recognize that their supreme obligation is to God and to Christ.

But a fatal element of error inheres in this position, if it is thought that the Christian revelation, the Bible, does not come to the civil authority with a demand for obedience to its direction and precept as stringent and inescapable as it does to the individual, to the family and to the church. The thesis we must propound as over against such a conception of the relation of the Bible to civil authority is that the Bible is the only infallible rule of conduct for the civil  magistrate in the discharge of his magistracy just as it is the only infallible rule in other spheres of human activity.

God alone is sovereign. His authority alone is absolute and universal. All men and spheres are subject to God. The civil magistrate derives his authority from God. Apart from divine institution and sanction, civil government has no right to exist. “The powers that be are ordained of God” (Rom. 13:1). Since civil government derives its authority from God, it is, responsible to God and therefore obligated to conduct its affairs in accordance with God’s will. The infallible revelation of His will God has deposited in the Scriptures. It will surely be granted that there is much in the Scriptures that has to do with the conduct of civil government. And this simply means that the Word of God bears upon civil authority with all the stringency that belongs to God’s Word.

Furthermore, the Word of God reveals that Christ is Head over all things, that He has been given all authority in heaven and in earth. The civil magistrate is under obligation to acknowledge this headship and therefore to conduct his affairs, not only in subjection to the sovereignty of God but also in subjection to the mediatorial sovereignty of Christ and must therefore obey His will as it is revealed for the discharge of that authority which the civil magistrate exercises in subjection to Christ. Christian world order embraces the state. Otherwise there would be no Christian world order.

To recede from this position or to abandon it, either as conception or as goal, is to reject in principle the sovereignty of God and of His Christ. The goal fixed for us by the Christian revelation is nothing less than a Christian state as well as Christian individuals, Christian families and a Christian church. And this just means that the obligation and task arising from Christ’s kingship and headship are that civil government, within its own well-defined and restricted sphere, must in its constitution and in its legislative and executive functions recognize and obey the authority of God and of His Christ and thus bring all of its functions and actions into accord with the revealed will of God as contained in His Word. We thus see how radical and reconstructive is a philosophy of Christian world order, if we are to face that conception frankly and address ourselves to the responsibility it entails.

  1. The article can also be found in Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume 1: The Claims of Truth (Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), pp. 356-66.
  2. Note that Murray’s position should not be confused with “Christian nationalism” as the term is commonly used today (whether by its defenders or its detractors). There is nothing ‘nationalist’ about Murray’s view of the state.

3 thoughts on “John Murray on the Christian State”

  1. I probably haven’t read that piece in twenty-plus years. I pulled it off the shelf this afternoon and saw my markings in the margins. I just now read it for the first time since probably the first time.

    It’s striking to me how far Westminster Theological Seminary has drifted from Murray and really the outworking of Van Til. Accordingly, it’s no surprise to me how they’ve struggled for decades with doctrinal infidelity since their initial departure from their confessional roots. Roots, perhaps, that subsequent professors didn’t know existed.

    Anyway, thank you for being the occasion for my reacquaintance with Murray’s article. It brings to mind the number one informal fallacy I associate with the Glenside seminary. False disjunction. In one large respect, it’s their hallmark.

  2. This is very good. I also listened to your lecture at RTS, couldn’t agree more.

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