By Dan Coats
The Non-Aggression Principle is an axiom which states that all aggression is illegitimate. It has been stated in many ways over the years, especially with the rise of 19th century classical liberalism, market capitalism, individual human rights, and limited government. John Locke formulated it as, “Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” Murray Rothbard in his essay War, Peace, and the State put it this way:
“No one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.”
When asking if this axiom is Biblical, we are not asking whether the Bible explicitly spells out the NAP. You won’t find Rothbard 2:8 in the Bible. So in asking this question, we must not ask for a mere proof text. What we must ask is “does the NAP (as far as it goes) accurately summarize the individual moral obligation in God’s Moral Law of each human toward every other human?” Jesus positively summarized all the Law and the Prophets in the Great Commandment, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:25-28) and in the Golden Rule, “Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets” (Matt 7:12). Can threatening or initiating violence against our neighbor ever fit into Jesus’ definition of loving our neighbor?
The implications of the NAP, if it were applied consistently, are massive. If the NAP accurately summarizes (as far as it goes) the moral obligation of individuals as they relate to their neighbor, then does it apply to groups of individuals? If it applies to groups, then does it apply to groups calling themselves States? This would force us to conclude that States, founded as they are on coercive taxation and routine initiations of violence against the property rights of their subjects, are illegitimate. For example, try taking the command from God’s Word, “Do Not Steal” and run it through the same analysis from individual to group to group-with-shiny-badges-and-uniforms. At which point, is it Biblical to say there is an exception to Do Not Steal?
Many Christians are content with mere hand-waving and obfuscation and no shortage of appeals to utilitarian consequentialism at this point (“What about the roads? What about national defense? If we don’t tax the people, what about X?”). Some obfuscation arises with a refusal to precisely define the State. There is also a problem of reading too much into the text of Scripture and eisegeting meaning into a text such as when many Christians resort to using Romans 13 as a Foe Hammer and bashing their opponents on the NAP over the head. As CJay Engel writes, the relationship between the Christian and the State is a multifaceted issue and texts like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:17 do not do away with the question being asked. He says that most Christian thinkers make a critical category error:
The first category that needs to be addressed is whether God has ordained the State in history…
The second category that needs to be addressed is whether God commands the Christian to subject himself to the State…
They assume that because we ought to be generally subject to the State, this means that there is no moral (or economic) problem with the State’s activities whenever it doesn’t prohibit that which God commands or command that which God prohibits. In this way, things like Social Security (a retirement scheme which exists by government coercion), because saving for retirement in itself is not contradictory to God’s precepts, are far too often completely ignored by the Christian political thinker. But what they don’t realize is that there is a third category that we must consider; namely whether the individuals who run the State have the moral authority to act contrary to God’s transcendent and binding moral law.
This is exactly what we must ask! Where does God give moral authority to a group of individuals to act contrary to the moral law? No one is disputing that we need some sort of civil magistrate (not necessarily the State) to enforce property rights in society (Do not steal, Do not kill, Do not defraud). But, we can’t merely assume things about the State, resort to prooftextism, and eisegete meaning that isn’t there into Romans 13.
Historically, there have been Christian views about the State ranging from evil-but-necessary to being God’s “wonderful gift” to mankind.
Augustine wrote of “two governments” in the City of God, and this developed into the Two Kingdoms views of Luther and Calvin in more detail. The Two Kingdoms view is that there is the common realm made up of unbelievers and believers which God oversees in His common grace on all- in which it is ordained by God that there be magistrates and even evil people like Nero to wield authority over others for the higher purposes and plan of God for all of human history- and there is also the Spiritual realm made up of the Church, the true Israel of God, a nation of priests who are awaiting their eternal city and must endure in this present evil age as the Israelite exiles in Babylon did. While this is all well and good as far as it goes, if imprecise language is used allowing obfuscations to creep in, it can also lead to a dangerous positive political theory and strict dualism that leaves for no voice of the Church upon governments or the human institution of the State. It its worse forms, this theology posits that God, not merely ordaining that evil States come to pass, actively creates such States, as unqualified good gifts to manage the affairs of the common realm, imbuing them with special privileges to violate aspects of God’s law so that they may not be hindered to punish violations of the the law by other aggressors. Yet, Augustine’s original view of political authority was that without Justice, kingdoms were just criminal enterprises. He tells the story of a pirate being captured by the State:
Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.
Such a view of the State should sober us from thinking very highly of it. As Christians we should long for Justice and should seek governing institutions that enforce justice while acting justly themselves. Nero could be said to be “God’s servant” in Romans 13 in the same way that God ordains other evils to take place to serve His will in a decretive sense (He decrees that they come to pass) while not ordaining them in the sense of His preceptive will or will of disposition (that they obey his commands and he delights in them). To the extent that States serve justice and punish wrong-doing (actual violations of individual property rights), they can be rightly said to be serving God. To the extent that they violate God’s law themselves, they violate the preceptive will of God and can not please him. So in asking about the Non-Aggression Principle, we are merely asking the same question Augustine brings up in City of God. How does government perform its tasks without taking away Justice? In other words, does the Non-Aggression Principle, and specifically God’s moral commands such as Do Not Steal and Do Not Murder, pose a lingering question unanswered by Statist Christians on this topic?
Senator Ben Sasse seems to have this dilemma neatly resolved in his mind:
Both Church and state are God’s wonderful gifts, and they are spheres in which Christians can faithfully labor to the glory of God and for the good of our neighbors. But we dare not identify the two, limiting the Church to natural tools, or suggesting that political activity can produce genuine righteousness. For we are ‘dual citizens’ and will remain so until Jesus comes to put an end to our pilgrimage, and to identify all our loves as one.
Thankfully, in making the two kingdom distinction, Sasse avoids the pitfall of establishmentarianism and culture warriorism (The State using the sword to punish various moral failings and establishing the “right” Church) and rightly mentions the Christian’s sojourner status in this present evil age, but in taking his words here at face value we find no effective restraint on the State for anything found in the common realm.
The equation here is A+B=C: A) God ordained the State to exist + B) God commands Christians to be subject to the State = C) The State is a wonderful gift of God that has authority to do whatever it thinks is best within the common realm so long as it does not intrude on the Spiritual realm of the Church.
Sasse virtually makes the exact same category error that CJay Engel points out above and gives us no effective theological means of combating a State operating without Justice– in fact, he leaves us with no measuring stick to even evaluate what the Justice is that the State must follow. It can already take what it wants since its stealing is not stealing. Its killing in war, even in wars that would have been unrecognizable to Augustine as falling under his Just War theory, is routinely placed in another intellectual category than normal killings that a run-of-the-mill murderer would commit. To wit, American Christians are well versed in using the sanitized language of the State in talking about “collateral damage” in the ongoing undeclared wars the US Government is involved in–even dropping bombs in conflicts where it funds and arms both sides.
In other words, the State in this positive political theory (at least as stated) has prerogative to violate God’s commands to individuals and other groups of individuals. Sasse’s view is that the State is ordained to exist, not only in God’s decretive will, but also his preceptive will and will of disposition. God’s “wonderful gift” to us is a State that governs us in the common sphere. So when the State erects a Ponzi scheme like Social Security and forces you to pay into it, it’s totally okay since it has not commanded anything God has not explicitly prohibited and it has not prohibited anything God has explicitly commanded in the Spiritual realm. It is merely exercising it’s given authority to tax you and boss you around in the Common realm. Or when it stealthily taxes you by devaluing your dollars, the State is just managing its affairs in the common realm of finance and managing the national economy. Where ever this positive political theory of the State comes from, it is not explicit in Scripture.
Intimately related to these matters would be Dispensationalism, Covenant Theology, and New Covenant Theology (in other words the frameworks by which we interpret the whole warp and woof of the Bible), and particularly how we interpret the nature of the Old Testament theocracy of Israel, with its civil law code and case law, being carried on or not by the apostolic teaching to the New Covenant Church. Needless to say this is a complicated topic where many perilous traps are laid before we even set out to answer the question of whether or not the NAP is Biblical. What is Biblical? What is carried on in our New Covenant context? What does the text of Scripture explicitly teach about the gentile governments that we live under?
Critics of Reformed Libertarianism within the Christian community often hurl the objection that while the Non-Aggression Principle is perhaps helpful in summarizing negative individual ethics most of the time (ie. the negative golden rule of “Do not do what is hateful to your neighbor”), it is not a sufficient axiom to organize government and society. Oftentimes, they point to Natural Law, the Social Contract, or some other theory to explain their political theory of States and how the same rules do not apply to individuals in government as do apply to individuals outside of it. But if their objection to the NAP was that it wasn’t explicitly taught in Scripture, surely, this should not stand scrutiny either.
We must acknowledge that any political theory bandied about will not be explicit in Scripture. We are trying to exegete the relevant Scriptures and make sense of them in a framework or context. The Reformed Libertarian argument is that the NAP is derived from God’s Moral Law being applied consistently to individuals both within and outside of the governing authority.
We must remember that the question of the NAP and of all libertarian theory is always “What is lawful for the magistrate to punish with the sword?” The Reformed Christian must ask, “What is Biblical for the magistrate to punish with the sword?” Every single law put into effect by the State carries with it the implied threat of violence. Right now, it punishes income tax evasion with the threat of the lethal weaponry at the IRS and the jail cell. Did God authorize that?*
For any Reformed Christian consensus, we have to start with God and His Word.
To answer the question “Is the Non-Aggression Principle Biblical?” we need to answer:
Does the NAP (as far as it goes) accurately summarize the individual moral obligation in God’s Moral Law of each human toward every other human?
Does the Bible anywhere explicitly establish a different set of rules for government than that given to individuals in our New Covenant context?
If the answer to 1. is yes and the answer to 2. is no, the NAP is Biblical and should be our basis for government.
Historical variations of the Non Aggression Principle led to the limiting of State power most exemplified by the libertarian revolution of the American War for Independence. The classical liberal revolution broke down the Ancien Regime and led to an unprecedented new era of peace, prosperity, and liberty. Alas, the radical liberals never realized the full vision of their philosophy.
*Some objections arise: Jesus told his followers to pay taxes. Romans 13 tells Christians to pay their taxes. 1 Peter 2 tells Christians to honor the emperor. Yes, this is all true. But this doesn’t establish an explicit authorization of the governing authorities to violate God’s law. Slaves are also told to obey their earthly masters. Yet, if they can gain their freedom, they can avail themselves of the opportunity.