Several years ago, I published an article entitled, “Render unto God what is God’s. You too, Caesar,” which is an explanation of Jesus’ famous interaction with the Pharisees and Herodians regarding paying census tax to Caesar. The point of that article was to discuss, among other things, the central issue of the passage: God’s authority versus man’s authority—i.e. a version of Theonomy vs. autonomy.
Concerning the nature of authority in general, R. J. Rushdoony wrote,
All authority is in essence religious authority; the nature of the authority depends on the nature of the religion. If the religion is biblical, then the authority at every point is the immediate or mediated authority of the triune God. If the religion is humanistic, then the authority is everywhere implicitly or explicitly the autonomous consciousness of man.
This fact was central to the discussion over Caesar’s authority. While the Roman government was certainly legitimate in its time and place, Caesar was also a living blasphemy: claiming for himself the titles “Son of God” and “High Priest.” He claimed a power and authority he did not have, even though his office itself was ordained of God. He was executing that office in a satanic way, yet God used it in His Providence to judge much of the world, including Israel in AD 70. Caesar’s authority, however, was certainly also religious—it was just the religion of rebellious and God-defying man. This conflict of religions was certainly at the heart of the Pharisees’ question to Christ about His “authority.”
The Article Rehashed and Mangled
My “Caesar” article was featured in my opponent’s closing statement of our recent debate. Sadly, it was among his many misrepresentations of theonomic writings and thought. In what follows, I will show not only the misrepresentation, but use the occasion further to relate solid theonomic teaching on the issues that have been raised due to it.
Jordan claimed that the Pharisees denied the authority and legitimacy of the Roman government because it was pagan. He said, “They didn’t want to recognize the authority of a government that didn’t implement the exhaustive detail of the Mosaic Law.” He then argues against Theonomy:
And yet, what does Jesus tell them? You see, under a Gentile regime, Jesus did not expect Caesar to uphold the first table of the Law. . . . These are things that were belonging to God.
But Caesar did have civil authority—and he does have civil authority today, in spite of the pluralistic nature of government. Was Caesar implementing a tax authorized under Israel’s civil code? No, it was not. And yet, did Jesus recognize the legitimacy of the government that would tax them contrary to the civil code of Israel, and the answer is “Yes!” And Jesus didn’t take the opportunity to lecture the civil magistrate otherwise.
Jordan then moved to contrast this understanding with my theonomic comments on the passage in an attempt to show my deficiency, and thus to demonstrate how poorly theonomists fare in the face of this passage. Indeed, Jordan mocked theonomic explanations of this passage as “hermeneutical backflips” in a “desperate attempt” that “ranges from comical to farcical.” And then, apparently to justify that mockery, he quotes me.
To that end, he quotes from the article I wrote on this subject. This is how he quotes me: “Second, notice they asked a legal question, ‘Is it lawful….’ The word itself leaves it unclear whether they meant Roman law or God’s law. . . . Does Caesar have legitimate authority to demand tribute?” Jordan retorts,
Let me ask the question: “Is that really the question? Were they really approaching Jesus as a lawyer? . . . They knew that it was legal. The question was, was it moral? Was it right?
Two things are of note here: The first is a deceptive edit of what I said. This gives illegitimate room for the immediate question Jordan asked. Second is the larger fallacy that he would build upon it.
First, the unscrupulous edit. If he had carried over the rest of the quotation, Jordan would not have had occasion to set up the question and retort, “Were they really approaching Jesus as a lawyer? . . . They knew that it was legal.” Here is the full quotation with the parts Jordan excised in bold:
Second, notice they asked a legal question, “Is it lawful….” The word itself leaves it unclear whether they meant Roman law or God’s law, but since it was already Roman law to pay the tax, the question certainly aimed at the law of “the way of God.” The question, again, and the Greek [exestin; cp. exousia, Matt. 21:23] makes it clear that the issue is one of fundamental authority. Does Caesar have legitimate authority to demand tribute? Do we have authority from God to pay to Caesar?
By leaving these out, Jordan created the impression that he had come up with this qualification and was throwing it back at me in retort. With this ploy, he presented the quotation as if I had missed the point, when in fact I am the one who made the point to begin with.
Then Jordan moved in to create an even worse false impression. Upon this edit quotation, Jordan then chose an almost tangential fact in my article to present as if it were what I intended to be the main point of it. He said,
My opponent says this: “Well, it wasn’t a sales tax or an income tax. That’s the issue. It wasn’t a sales tax or an income tax. Because if it was a sales tax or an income tax,” he says, “obviously God . . . Christ wouldn’t have been for that.” But he says, “It was a head tax or a poll tax relating to the census.”
Theonomy has all the answers, doesn’t it?
It has nothing to do with what kind of tax it was. It had everything to do with whether the government had this authority, and secondly, whether the government was legitimate that didn’t enforce the civil code of the nation of Israel. And certainly, it was.
When I heard this in the debate I was utterly shocked that anyone could read my article and walk away thinking that the side-note about taxation is what I said “the issue” was. I did indeed note, almost in passing, that the tax spoken of here is a poll tax. I hardly said anything that could give the impression that this was “the issue” and that the whole interaction regarding Caesar’s coin hinged upon what type of tax it was. It was a relevant point, to be sure, since this particular tax was required by Roman law to be paid by Roman coin—and thus Jesus was able to expose the Pharisees and Herodians by virtue of the fact they were carrying around an idolatrous coin in the temple nonetheless. But the type of tax is hardly “the issue,” and the article indicates nothing of the sort.
Instead, the article is very clear up front as to what the issue is. It occurs very early in the article under a subhead, in bold typeface, entitled “The Context.” An astute reading might have found that section important. In that section, I wrote:
The whole narrative in which this story sits deals with this theme of the greater authority of heaven versus earthly authority, and the inability of the Jews to tell the difference. This is the very issue Jesus uses to confound the temple leaders when they ask Him about His authority. But the issue is that heaven has authority which man does not; man’s authorization pales in comparison to God’s.
If this were not clear enough, I made it even more explicit, with reference to the particular passage, near the end of the article:
Yes, the people had something of a legitimate debt to Caesar, but Jesus’ lesson was a far cry from saying that the authority of the State is separate or removed in some way from the authority of God, or that we must wait until the end of time until the State comes under God’s authority and judgment. The lesson here is much more challenging, much more comprehensive.
The lesson is, more fully, that all men bear God’s image and God’s inscription. We are all God’s coinage. We all belong wholly to God. All men must “render to God what is God’s.” All men. The Pharisees, Sudducees, the Herods, the masses, and even Caesar himself. Caesar has as much obligation to “render unto God”—bow and submit to God—as everyone else. He as has much obligation to love his neighbors and to obey God’s law as everyone else. He is not a god or a high priest, he is not the source of law and providence; he, like all men, is a man subject to God Almighty’s providence, and God’ Law, and God’s High Priest, Jesus Christ. He has as much obligation to obey; in fact, he has a greater obligation to obey because he represents multiple people in a public office.
So does this sound like an article in which I argued that “the issue” was merely what type of a tax it was? Not only is this not the case, I can’t think of a more ridiculous way anyone could misrepresent it.
The Legitimacy of Unjust Governments
But the story continues. After all, when you tell one whopper, you often have to tell another to cover it up. Jordan continued to develop his argument:
Was Caesar implementing a tax authorized under Israel’s civil code? No, it was not. And yet, did Jesus recognize the legitimacy of the government that would tax them contrary to the civil code of the nation of Israel, and the answer is “Yes!” And Jesus didn’t take the opportunity to lecture the civil magistrate otherwise. . . .
It’s God’s moral law, or else Jesus is telling the Pharisees to do something, frankly, that theonomists would never tell you to do: recognize the legitimacy of that government.
The problem here is two-fold. First, theonomists, on the contrary, have no problem acknowledging the legitimacy of a government despite its unjust laws. Indeed, we have done so in many places—in ironically relevant places, as a matter of fact, as we shall see. Second, Jordan’s argument here commits the fallacy of double standard.
First, is it true that theonomists “would never tell you to . . . recognize the legitimacy of that government”? No. The statement involves a fundamental misunderstanding of Theonomy and unjust government, and theonomists have made this clear often. For example, in the very article of mine from which Jordan was quoting, I made the point he denies to us:
This was an acknowledgement of several things, all of which would have angered the Jews to have to admit: 1) Caesar owns the coin, it is His; 2) the usage of Caesar’s property to your own benefit implies your debt to him to the extent that you do; and 3) Caesar’s enforcement of the recalling of this money (the tax itself) meant that the Jewish people were not free as they pretended, but under foreign bondage still (a clear implication that God’s judgment was still upon them).
They profited by the means, so they had no right to refuse the tax on the means on economic grounds. They enjoyed the order of the Roman Empire, so they had no right to refuse on political grounds. They carried his money right into their own Temple despite the implications, so they had no right to refuse on theological grounds (at least not without repentance). So the Pharisees stood before Jesus and before the crowds, themselves entangled by His words: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” . . .
Yes, the people had something of a legitimate debt to Caesar. . . .
The facts speak for themselves.
Part of the problem here is that our opponents often insist on presenting us as radical revolutionaries who stubbornly desire only to take over the government. Despite the fact we have dispelled this notion countless times, it provides an easy way for some critics, who are otherwise corners by the facts, to dismiss us before their credulous followers and escape accountability. So they often present us as inflexible, unyielding radicals who think the government is illegitimate and must be opposed and replaced for that reason. Not only is this dispelled already in the very article Jordan was referencing, other theonomists have made the point even more clearly.
For example, R. J. Rushdoony wrote more than once about the topic. Ironically, some very relevant teaching in this regard appears in his comments on this very passage about Caesar’s tribute money:
Two kinds of taxation exist, and Christ requires our obedience to both. The world of Caesar seeks to create a new world without God, and without regeneration; it exacts a heavy tax and accomplishes little or nothing. We are, as sinners, geared by our fallen nature to seeking Caesar’s answer. We pay tribute to Caesar thus, in our faith and with our money. The answer to Caesar’s world is not civil disobedience, the final implication of which is revolution. This is Caesar’s way, the belief that man’s effort by works of law can remake man and the world.
The answer, rather, is to obey all due authorities and to pay tribute, custom, and honor to whom these things are due. This is the minor aspect of our duty. More important, we must render, give back to God what is His due, our tithes, first-fruits, vows, and sacrifices. The regenerate man begins by acknowledging God, the author and Redeemer of his life, as his Lord and Savior, his King. At every point in his life, he renders to God His due service, thanksgiving, praise, and tithe. His salvation is God’s gift; the bounty he enjoys is God’s gift and providence; the regenerate man therefore renders, gives back to God, God’s appointed share of all things.
Not only is it clear here that Rushdoony advocated submission even to unjust and ungodly governments, but the teaching is actually quite profound. Here is one of the many places the theonomic reliance on God’s work—regeneration—is contrasted with a humanistic order which attempts to accomplish the purposes of God through man’s effort. Rushdoony clearly affirms the biblical model of salvation and rejects the idea that the restoration of even society can come through “man’s effort by works of law.” As such, even civil disobedience—for example, against unjust taxation—should be eschewed as an answer to wicked government (though I am sure this point would be qualified in other ways per Acts 5:29).
Rushdoony generalizes the point in a section titled “Power and Authority” and makes it more explicit. He writes,
Power is strength or force; power can and often does exist without authority. The power of Odysseus and Telemachus, and the powers of the Roman Empire, were real powers, but, in terms of God’s law, they lacked authority, although they had a formal authority merely as legitimate governments in their societies. . . .
Power, when divorced from godly authority, becomes progressively demonic. Authority can be legitimate in a human sense, resting on succession or election, and yet be immoral and hostile to God’s order. Thus, the authority of Nero was somewhat legitimate, and Christians were required to obey him, but his authority was ungodly and implicitly and explicitly satanic in its development. True order requires that both power and authority be godly in their nature and application.
Thus you can see that Theonomy does not require one to reject the legitimacy of an unjust government. Just the opposite. While we may be highly critical of governments, officials, or laws, we nevertheless recognize the legitimacy of such a government even when it is wicked.
Second, the argument would cut just as hard against Jordan’s asserted view that “wicked” government should indeed be reformed—not according to the “civil code,” but according to “God’s moral law.” He argues:
So much of Theonomy is bent on the fact that we should transform government, and with you I am. We should transform . . . it’s wicked; it’s corrupt. But the question is, is it the civic or civil code of the nation of Israel that is the one and only standard?
I suppose what Jordan didn’t recognize is that this argument undermines the previous point he just made about theonomists not being able to recognize the legitimacy of an unjust government. On the one hand, if the theonomic call to reform governments according to the judicial law prevents recognizing those governments as legitimate, then what difference would it make to say we must reform them by God’s moral standard? The problem in this particular argument is not the standard of legal reform itself, but how Christians ought to view a wicked, corrupt government in general no matter what standard by which they wish to reform it. If the argument denies Mosaic judicial Theonomy, it denies Jordan’s “soft Theonomy” as well.
On the other hand, therefore, if Jordan were to maintain the allowance for his own call to reform wicked governments according to God’s moral law as a legitimate call to reform, then he would have to allow the same standard for those of us who also submit to wicked governments in the meantime, acknowledging both their legitimacy and their wickedness, and simply call for reform according to the more particular standard of God’s judicial laws given through Moses.
As it stands, Jordan is engaging in the fallacy of double standard. Jordan can’t have it both ways.
In this installment of debunking Jordan’s “boogeyman quotes” from my debate, we have seen him engage in rather deceptive editing of my words in order to make a point against me. Once the rest of the quotation is supplied, the substance of the point returns to my side, not his, and the force, and well as the integrity, of his argument is lost.
Likewise, the argument built upon that selective quotation falls when we realize it had nothing to do with the main point of the article. The main point, as it turns out, affirms the very thing Jordan accused us of denying.
Further, the fallacies give us occasion to point out that the argument Jordan tried to sustain upon them have been addressed by theonomic writers since Rushdoony. Our written statements in more than one place teach just the opposite, again, of what he presented us as holding.
Finally, discussing the actual theonomic position to date has been instructive also to assess Jordan’s point about reforming wicked civil governments even today. While we have seen him engage in an unfortunate double standard, it is encouraging to hear such a plea for such reform in general. While we may argue over the particular biblical standard by which this ought to proceed, it is nevertheless hopeful to hear him uphold the general Theonomic and Reconstructionist distinctive of reforming modern civil governments according to the law of God.
It is our firm belief that when readers make honest efforts to read our material free from the fallacious misrepresentation so often promulgated by critics, they will arrive at positions, like Jordan’s expressed here, that are actually very close to it. It is then that a meaningful discussion can begin.
 Institutes of Biblical Law, 212.