I want to thank you to Doug for the consideration of considering my response on taxation. He has, as may be expected, volleyed back. After carefully weighing his counterexamples and their stated implications, I don’t think they make the case. They actually support my thesis more clearly.
First, I would like to note in passing that I think the sideswipe at motive is neither helpful nor conclusive. Doug writes, “While this [Joel’s view] makes life simple on the conscience front, making every decision of whether to pay taxes or not a prudential one, the simplicity is, ironically, too easy.” One can, however, just as easily dismiss Doug’s tax-friendly view as the one that “makes life simple” because it’s less radical. It adheres more closely to the conservative status quo. After all, a position that says, “we need lower taxes, but some taxes are legitimate” is the platform of the Republican Party. Such a position makes life more simple because it does not rock the boat, soothes contextually-modern consciences who fear radicalism and “libertarian” (a term Doug introduces) things, and puts a smile on the face of today’s would-be Constantines, or worse, Caesars.
I actually had a section in my original post along these lines. I removed it—because it introduces fallacy, is liable to misinterpretation, and simply does not aid the progress of the Scriptural analysis. And, and we see, it cuts both ways anyway.
That aside, on to more substantial things. In the last post, I said that we must define what we mean by “warrant.” I would like to add something that should be obvious: we must do the same thing with the term “legitimate.” This term is even easier than the last because it has a legal pedigree derived from one of the Latin words for “law.” That word is the same from which we get our word “legislation.” In this sense, we should be able to agree that no law (and thus no tax) is “legitimate” unless it has express warrant in God’s law—i.e. God’s legislation.
Even saying “God’s law,” however, leaves room for ambiguity. One important distinction to maintain is similar to, perhaps even derivative of, the one we maintain in regard to “God’s will.” There is a “prescriptive” will (or “revealed will”), and then there is a “decretive” will (or “hidden,” or “secret” will). The revealed will we find in Scripture. The so-called hidden will is hidden within God’s decree for all things, and is revealed in history. This latter is inscrutable—no man can know it, discern it, or approximate it. God’s revealed will is the law by which we are called to live. God’s historical, decretive will is what we are required to live in.
The foregoing is part of a large set of doctrine which could use many pages of elaboration, but just one point should help our context. It is frequently the case that what God reveals to us as history is on the surface directly at odds with how He calls us live in his Word. Human wisdom will never explain this—it is inscrutable. God tolerates and allows all kinds of sin and perfidy to pervade His redemptive history. There is everything: murder, adultery, theft, deceit, intrigue, etc. All of the Ten Commandments are broken along the way, and yet the history leads through all the failures of Abraham, Israel, David, Solomon, and more, right up to Christ Himself, our salvation.
Are we warranted, in light of those failures, to view sin, destruction, or even unique judgments upon sin, as the blueprint of “God’s law” for society? Are we allowed to reinstitute any historical deviation from God’s revealed code simply because it appears along the way in God’s revealed history, and then call that deviation “God’s law”? Are we allowed to call such instances “legitimate” law in the normative sense?
An example may help. The prescriptive will expressly forbade Israelite Kings from multiple marriages (Deut. 17:17). David and Solomon, among others, clearly broke this law in history—Solomon on a grand scale. Yet both are considered righteous kings, no? And David, a man after God’s own heart. They are both considered types of Christ. David went beyond multiple wives into rank adultery, then conspiracy to commit murder. Shall we use these examples of sin to excuse modern day civil executives when they transgress the revealed law in similar ways?
Anyone here care to say Bill “I-did-not-have-sexual-relations-with-that-woman” Clinton imbued the Oval Office with godly dignity? That his example could legitimately be codified as law? If biblical historical narratives can have the force of normative law, as Doug’s examples assume, then we would be forced to say yes.
And by that standard, any sin can be justified, especially in civil government.
With this distinction in mind, we can turn to Doug’s two counterexamples. They are the historical example of Joseph in Egypt, and Jesus’ words to Peter when confronted by the Temple tax collectors.
The Tyranny of Egypt
Enough has been said already to see why Joseph’s special situation cannot serve as normative law. For starters, we have no indication that the 20 percent tax he imposed on the Egyptians was even revealed by God. The text does not say this (and neither did Doug, to be fair). The text indicates this was Joseph’s personal solution to a coming crisis that was revealed by God.
Second, this solution came in response to a charismatic revelation from God of a unique situation in history: a certain famine that was to come in seven years. Governments today have no such knowledge of the future. They cannot plan seven years ahead for such crises—and to wait until they are upon us is to wait until too late. In fact, this is precisely where modern governments go wrong: central planning and wealth redistribution assume that governments have a level of knowledge that is actually impossible for men. They don’t. They can’t inspect God’s inscrutable will. To try to do so is to claim to be God. Apart from some unique charismatic-type event, this episode is unrepeatable.
Third, this was, again, an episode of judgment in history upon a pagan people. The previous reason above is the precise reason Joseph’s episode is so special: the civil government of Egypt made a claim to divinity. God came in and showed them that only He is divine: 1) He is the one who controls history; 2) He is the one who can foresee history; 3) Nations that defy His law will fall under severe judgment; 4) Nations that make claims (even implicit ones like civil taxation) to divine prerogative will be turned into tyranny and slavery.
Now, all of this is nothing more than the point I made in the last post:
1 Samuel 8 is part of a historical narrative—not an imperative, not normative law. Second, it was not the norm for society in general, but was a special case of judgment that would come upon Israel for setting up a monarchy like pagan nations. If we are to construe anything as normative from this passage, it is that when we find a society under taxation, we can understand that as judgment from God for failing to live up to His law. We can understand that as Christians embracing paganism instead of freedom.
What is true of 1 Samuel 8 is every bit as true of other historical narratives: Joseph, etc.
And as I said above, when we allow ourselves such hermeneutical leeway as to make historical interludes normative law, then we can eventually justify any sin. Sure enough, it is with precisely this passage where the social gospellers have made their case for an allegedly legitimate welfare state. Such an argument has been repeated often, both in the past and recently, and by proponents ranging the spectrum from Jim Wallis to Tim Keller.
You could argue that these men are abusing the doctrine rather than using it faithfully, but that argument hedges in my direction: how does one discern “abuse”? By Scriptural law, or by scriptural historical narratives? If you argue the latter, then you undercut your own position with the very problem you’re trying to solve. If you answer the former, then consistency will lead you to my position.
The Harlot Rides the Beast
The second example does not even support Doug’s own thesis. He writes, “the real test would be those instances when a godly ruler requires taxes (or the equivalent) be paid.” Joseph’s example fits that bill, but fails for the reasons already stated. In the case of Jesus and the Temple tax (Matthew 17:24–27), however, we know that none of the rulers implicated in the scenario could be called godly rulers: not the unbelieving Jewish rulers of the Temple who imposed this particular tax, nor the Caesars to whom Jesus made passing reference with poll taxes and duties in general. So from Doug’s own criterion, this example is moot.
And that is an important consideration, because the fact that they were all ungodly rulers bears heavily upon Doug’s strongest claim. After reading Matthew 17:24–27, Doug provides this rationale:
Now Jesus is making an implicit distinction here between tribute money illegitimately collected (where most of our discussion centers), but He is also assuming that the collection of tribute from strangers is legitimate. He has Peter pay the tribute for prudential reasons (so as to not give offense, distracting them from their main mission), even though the tribute is not owed by them because they are “children.” But what happens to the Lord’s argument if tribute were illegitimate when collected from strangers also? His argument would simply collapse. This means there is a type of taxation that would be legitimate to levy, and therefore which would create a moral obligation to pay.
I don’t think Doug has fully thought this through. First, to say Jesus is assuming anything, ever, is precarious without good support. Sometimes it seems obvious, but may not be. In this case, just because Jesus considers one thing to be illegitimate does not mean He is assuming the alternative to be legitimate. Doug says, “[W]hat happens to the Lord’s argument if tribute were illegitimate when collected from strangers also? His argument would simply collapse.” Hold on. No, it would not. The argument would actually be much stronger in that case. It would be an argument ad fortiori.
Jesus was not assuming the collection of tribute from strangers to be legitimate; He was assuming it to be pagan.
This exchange is actually a magnificent indictment of the Jewish Temple leaders who themselves were trying to justify a category of “legitimate taxes.” I hope to deal with this more fully in a future article. Just a few notes here:
First, from the perspective of biblical law, this was not about civil taxation, it was about the so-called “census offering” which was a function of ecclesiastical law (Ex. 30:11–16). (This payment is not called by biblical law a “tax” but “the Lord’s offering” (Ex. 30:14, 15) and it was paid not to civil rulers but to the temple/tabernacle. The Greek word for “tax” in Matthew 17:24 is didrachma—literally “double-drachma.” It is the same word used in the Greek Old Testament to designate the payment in Exodus 30. The modern translations note this connection by translating this word not merely as “tax,” or wrongly as “tribute” (KJV), but as “two-drachma tax” (ESV, NAS)—a special designation for the Temple “tax.”
I know there is some debate over the nature of this atonement money, but I maintain it was not civil taxation. It was never meant to be a “tax.” It was also not supposed to be regular, but only upon raising the militia for war. But in Jesus day, the Pharisees (and possibly others) had turned it into both a civil matter and a regular (yearly) matter. There was debate between sects at the time. This episode in Scripture is Jesus’ answer to that contemporary argument. He settles it according to biblical law.
Since this is discussing the “Temple tax,” we must acknowledge that these collectors were not agents of Rome, but of the Temple. They were Jews. They were imposing an unlawful tax upon those who were supposed to be their own brethren—for they were all supposed to be children of God, children of the Temple, so to speak. Thus Jesus reacted to Peter: “what were you thinking saying ‘yes’?” The kings of the earth (pagan law!) do not even require payments from their own children. Why in the world would God’s own people tax their own children?
The indictment is implicit: Why are God’s children acting like pagans? And, Why are God’s children treating God’s children like pagans tributaries?
Jesus point here does not assume that pagan tribute is legitimate. It assumes that God’s law is true, and that the Israelites had abandoned it with their tax policy. And precisely because these Israelite Temple leaders were imposing pagan tax policy, they had violated God’s Law.
In short, this was one more indictment among many that the then-current generation of Israelites had violated God’s Law, and would thus deserve what was coming in AD 70.
This fact is even more clear in Jesus’ analogy: He refers to the policies of “kings of the earth” (pagans) and their taxes. Here, the words are not didrachma, but telos and kensos. In this context, those words mean, basically, customs duties and poll taxes—taxes directly associated with pagan Rome. Nowhere did God’s Law prescribe any such thing for His people. When the Pharisees (and whomever their additional partisans in this matter may have been) turned the military atonement offering into a civil poll tax like Roman Law, Jesus indicted them for abandoning the law of God’ children and adopting the law of pagan kings, Rome.
Does this mean Jesus therefore “assumed” Rome’s tribute laws, or any of their other taxes, to be “legitimate”? Of course not. When Jesus, in Revelation 17–18, pictures the Jewish Temple establishment as a purple-and-scarlet-clad harlot riding the beast (Rome!), this is exactly the type of harlotry that image was meant to capture: the Jewish leaders had abandoned God’s Law in order to ride the beast of “the kings of the earth” who practiced anti-biblical policies as “legitimate.” When she should have been a light to the world with her policies (Deut. 4), she instead made herself a prostitute “with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication” (Rev. 17:2).
Let me suggest that the church today, as the bride of Christ, ought seriously to check her orientation to the “kings of the earth” as well.
The standard, as always, is God’s Law. And in this case, only that law makes the children “free.” The fact that God’s children must endure pagan policies in the meantime is an aspect of God’s decretive will. It is no more sanctioned in God’s revealed law than was David’s adultery or Joab’s ambush-murder of Abner. The fact that we must endure such violence in the meantime is for the same reason Jesus exemplifies in this passage: so as not to cause “offense.” That is, this is exactly Doug’s criteria of “prudential” payment.
The background makes the case quite clear. Without it, designating certain assumptions to Jesus may appear to make sense; but in light of it, such focus is misleading. Big time. You’ve heard of not seeing the forest for the trees. This is more like not seeing the forest for the toadstools.
Since Jesus’ teaching here reveals that civil taxes are products of pagan, not biblical, law, we must acknowledge that for the children of the kingdom, as I previously argued, all taxation is a prudential matter.
And since both of these passages actually support my main thesis instead of Doug’s, we should also acknowledge that the distinction between “the payment of taxes that are owed, and the payment of taxes that is rendered out of a principled prudence,” for God’s people according to God’s Law, does not hold. It should, therefore, not be the goal for which Christians aim in a free society. To say otherwise is, at best, to argue for taxing like Pharisees; worse, like Caesar; at worst, that Harlot.
Now, I will admit, there is yet another leg on Doug’s stool. This is a worthwhile discussion. But one-legged stools are not advisable podia.
For background on the Temple “tax,” see:
R. T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 665–671.
Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, and Leicester, England: Intervarsity Press, 1992), 451–455.
John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, and Bletchley: The Paternoster Press, 2005), 721–729.