Theocracy and Toleration

Van Ruler is an advocate of “theocracy,” but he at the same time insists that toleration is “an absolute necessity in the state” (Calvinist Trinitarianism and Theocentric Politics, 186).

It is necessary because every people is religiously mixed, because intolerance invariably leads to coercion, because of the reach of the state’s power, because there are areas of social life that it should stay out of (186-8). 

At the same time, van Ruler thinks it impossible for a state to be wholly tolerant. “Public life, that is to say, the life of the whole as whole, is always ordered by a particular vision, an insight into the truth, into the essence of things. The state must know, for example, what it is to be human, what authority is, what justice is, what community is, what death is, before it makes its many decisions” (189). 

At the time he wrote, there were “some heavy debates” in the Netherlands about whether the Reformed or Roman Catholic vision of marriage should guide state policy. He found it an amusingly outdated debate: “for more than a century and a half the humanistic vision – albeit adorned with a halo of Christian convictions out of the tradition – has dominated the life of the nation and the state” (189).

Intolerance is inherent in human action. It may be possible to tolerate all viewpoints as long as one remains in the realm of theory, “but the moment one moves from theory to practice, from contemplation to action, from discussion to reality, from parliament to government, the moment . . . one arrives at the concretely temporal life of human beings in action, choices must be made. One must say yes to one and no to the other.” Hidden in every decision is an answer to questions about “the totality of being” (185).

This is an intriguing combination of themes: Theocracy is good, toleration necessary, yet intolerance is unavoidable. Is van Ruler able to combine these in a coherent way?

His claim is that toleration is best supported precisely by theocracy, by the Reformation vision of a “state with the Bible.” (196). Scripture teaches the state what is truly human; it inoculates the state against the pretense that it is divine. The Bible teaches the state to “treat people in the way God does,” and shows that “the God of the Bible allows human beings the greatest amount of elbow room.” Thus, “A state with the Bible is obligated by God himself to exercise the greatest degree of toleration possible. Toleration thus is divinely sanctioned.” 

He concludes that “the confession of the truth of the biblical God is absolutely necessary in order to work for and maintain a genuine and lasting toleration, not only as human beings and as church, but also as state” (197). Theocracy is the foundation of toleration.

Van Ruler, I think, underestimates the role of the church in this vision of a “state with a Bible.” After all, the Bible is the church’s book, and will as a practical matter have, if not a monopoly, a large share of the Bible interpretation market. He grants too much autonomy to the state, forgetting that the “state” is made up of people, and if it is a “Christian state” it is made up of Christian people whose main source of biblical knowledge will be the church. 

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