May

04

2012

Justin Taylor|12:47 pm CT

The State Does Not Have the Authority or Power to Cure All Ills

Vern Poythress:

Many Western humanists expect the state to cure all ills. When they see a problem, such as suicide, drug addiction, oppression, war, poverty, sexual exploitation, racial hatred, or mere ignorance, they are greatly distressed. Their feelings of distress and indignation are in a sense proper, but because they do not admit that the root of these ills is found in human sin, they look for immediately engineered human solutions. After all, if human nature is basically good, the difficulty must not really be that intractable. It must be solvable, and solvable now. Any delay is reprehensible. The state has the maximum concentration of power and resources for the job. Hence the state must institute a program to solve the problem. If the problem cannot be solved merely by throwing money at it, then a state-run educational program can do the job.

Hence in the twentieth century we have seen the growth of huge state bureaucracies. Moreover, in many political arguments it is simply assumed that the state is the proper agent for the job. The debates tend to be confined to the question of expediency and quantity: whether the citizens are willing to foot the bill for still another program, and whether one program rather than another will be effective.

We must break out of this foolishness. The state is not god, nor is it the savior of humanity. It cannot remedy all ills. Moreover, contrary to humanist thinking, the state’s legitimate authority is limited by God. The state does not have the right simply to meddle in any affair that it chooses. Only God has universal, unbounded authority. The authority of the state consists only in what has been delegated to it by God. The state must confine itself to doing those things for which it has a God-given responsibility.

Hence, when we see some difficulty in the world, we must not immediately clamor for state action to eliminate the difficulty. It is not enough merely to demonstrate that there is a difficulty, and that the difficulty is serious. We must always ask what are the just means for dealing with the difficulty. We must not blindly assume that state action is appropriate or approved by God. Prayer, individual action, action by churches, action by voluntary organizations, and other forms of action are all alternatives. State action needs to be justified as part of the legitimate sphere of authority given to the state. Such action is appropriate not merely if we can show that it might “help” in some pragmatic sense, but only if we can show in addition that it is just when measured by the limited authority that God has given to the state.

—Vern S. Poythress, “False Worship in the Modern State,” The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1991), 291-2. For his positive take on what should be the case, see “Principles of Justice for the Modern State.”

View Comments (7) Post Comment