We see in the opening chapters of Genesis a wealth of material related to political theology. We witness a God whose rule includes the act of creation. We see the importance of creative words as introducing the rule of law. We encounter a creation mandate that reveals man to be a rational, fruitful, working being created to rule over the world. Finally, we observe the Fall into sin and death requiring new laws to respond appropriately to the onset of evil, as well as the new (and necessary) tool of coercion to offset humanity’s depraved recalcitrance.
“In the beginning”
So opens Holy Scripture, telling of God’s creation of the world from nothing. When discussing political theology, we must consider the proper place to begin. A Protestant political theology should start with Scripture, particularly Genesis 1-3 and the creation of the world.
God exists, Genesis 1:1 tells us, “[i]n the beginning.” He alone stands without beginning and thus unmade. His first recorded action in Genesis is that He, “created the heavens and the earth.” We must consider the relationship between creator and creature in the political context. We revere our Founders. In this we do not differ from many other political communities who also revere the men or gods who founded their city, whether it be Solon or Athena. To create involves exercising rule over the created. The creator’s rule stems from a certain right over the creature. The created owes something to his endower as a matter of justice. In addition, the creator rules by defining his creation in its development. This definition involves a fundamental kind of lawmaking—establishing the nature, and thus the end or telos, of the creature. Thus, God calls on animals to reproduce “according to” their “kind” (Genesis 1:11-12, 21, 24-25). Their “kind” entails a set nature for each, a pattern to follow. Put another way, the laws of nature and of reason, as Richard Hooker referred to them in his Lawes, stem from what God made.
God speaking creation into existence (“Let there be”) teaches a political lesson as well. People talk with reverence regarding the “rule of law.” Such governance requires words; one must communicate the law’s content. It demands that we subject ourselves to its prescription precisely as spoken. God could have created by some other, physical action. His “hands” might have formed the earth, his “fingers” fashioning animals. He did not. He spoke into existence. God’s spoken creation is an act of lawmaking, thus in God’s words we find the supremacy of law. Rulers can employ power in other, more physical fashions. But the spoken and later written word is primary; physical force secondary and supportive. As primary, verbal governance reveals a rational God, rationally creating the universe, meant to be understood and obeyed by any other rational beings to which He gives existence.
Thus, from the start, God did not intend humans to be ruled like rocks or even like cattle. They were meant to observe, to hear, and to know God’s laws and respond, knowingly and willingly, in obedience. This role for man, implied in God’s very speaking creation into existence, sets him apart. We see rule established in other forms by God’s creative speech. The sun and moon both exist to “rule” (Genesis 1:16) over day and night. The sun and moon order time, including seasons and years. Though both sun and moon are irrational entities “ruling” over irrational entities, the rule found in the natural world reveals a political principle: even inanimate objects require ordering and some entity to do the ordering. Moreover, we as rational beings must respond to these rulers and to their subjects. These orderings set rhythms for which human laws must account. They help to define our experience in a manner to which governments must conform.
At the end of each day, the good God pronounces His creation “good,” going on to say, “very good” of the creation as a whole. This concept of goodness also directly affects political life. God creates in conformity with His own nature. Politics seeks the good. Thus, it must know the good to rightly pursue its end. Genesis tells us that politics, to know the good on earth, must know the creating One who is good first and foremost. As all other goods stem from His, and pale in comparison to His, the student of politics must also be a student of theology proper. To know God is to understand the ends of political life—the righteousness and justice political power acts to achieve.
This task helps us to consider man as created in God’s image. John Calvin locates the substantive portion of this image in our own righteousness and holiness. Politically speaking, we show the image of God in us when we think, feel, and act justly. Good politics, therefore, reinforces this divine image, so tarnished by the events of Genesis 3. Just political action falls far short of regeneration and sanctification. But it does push us to act as we ought, making a small recovery of our unfallen nature.
The Creation Mandate
We next turn to the laws God gives human beings. Yes, creating man with a fixed nature establishes laws for him. But God gives explicit commands to Adam, rules that help explain his nature and thus his purpose. First, God commands mankind, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” In tandem with this command, God finds no suitable helper for Adam until He creates Eve. This requirement addresses an important starting point for considering the human beings who will inhabit political communities. Some political philosophers start from the perspective of the individual, especially Early Moderns like John Locke. Others begin from the communal view, with ancients like Aristotle and Plato leading the way. Early moderns certainly saw a role for human community, and ancients did not ignore the individual. However, which perspective you start with makes a big difference. The command to be fruitful and multiply means human communities from the start involve families, not merely individuals. Politics, then, will spring from and have concern for humans as they exist in community. We are naturally social beings, an insight that is as biblical as it is Aristotelian. Even pre-Fall, Adam would have made human laws to regulate these interactions. These laws would not have involved coercive restraint, but cultivation and education. Along similar lines, pre-Fall politics must concern itself with families. It must encourage and facilitate fruitfulness. It also must regulate the interaction between families so as to assure the proper ordering of family life.
The creation mandate continues that man should “subdue” the earth and “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Rule—we could even say politics does not arise as a punishment for the Fall. It originates as part of man’s rule over the earth and all that is in it. Calvin saw a small bit of God’s image in this mandate. Man will subdue the earth and the animals in accordance with certain rules for their cultivation. In other words, man will make and enforce laws. These laws would conform to those already established by God at creation. Adam must know. Then he must regulate according to that knowledge. Thus, the relationship between natural law and human law existed prior to the Fall, wherein the latter applies the former.
The world and the humans inhabiting it do not stay perfect, of course. Genesis 3 recounts humans’ Fall, through Adam, into a state of sin and death. The Fall holds political importance both in how it happens and in what it means for humanity going forward.
Regarding how, we must begin with the spoken law God gave to Adam and Eve. They might eat of any tree in the Garden of Eden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.