by John Sikkema
“The God who made the world and everything in it is Lord of heaven and earth… He himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man He made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth.” – Paul in Athens (Acts 17).
(Note: this article is part 2 of a series that began with “Christian Political Engagement in Light of Redemptive History“.)
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” God was before all things and before time. God is eternal and self-subsistent. God spoke the world into existence, ordered it, and called it “good” and, after creating mankind in His image, called it “very good.” The creation story takes only two brief Bible chapters. Yet, as Bavinck wrote, it is the “initial act and foundation of all divine revelation” and “of eminent practical value, serving to bring out the greatness, omnipotence, majesty, goodness, wisdom, and love of God.” The biblical teaching of creation finds its centre in Christ the Lord, by whom and for whom all things were created. All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Him, the Son of God and Son of Man.
Image bearers: Equality and authority under God
God created us to be His image bearers in His good creation. Ancient pagan kings often claimed to be gods or sons of gods, and installed their own images in the halls of officials, in temples, on coins and so on. Yet Genesis is remarkable in its teaching that all human beings are image bearers of God and that all human beings are given dominion. This does not preclude differentiated gifts and talents or authority-bearing offices (parent, teacher, etc.), but it does mean that all people are fundamentally equal before God. As Solomon reminds us, “The rich and poor have this in common: The Lord made them both” (Prov. 22:2).
We were created to be God’s vice-regents in His good kingdom. The “image of God” in man is tied to his authority in creation (Gen. 1:26-27, “so that he may rule…”). All possess the basic office of image-bearer and steward of creation. Crucially, as the term image bearer implies and the rest of Scripture teaches, human authority is always authority under God. But authority carries with it the freedom, the responsibility, to make choices. He did not give Adam and Eve detailed instructions for how to spend each minute of every day. Rather, they were to “work and keep” the creation and not eat of a particular tree. Of course, the freedom to develop the potential latent in God’s good creation – to raise children, invent technology, make art, compose songs, write poems, build cities, study nature, and so on – was and is governed by God-given norms of beauty, goodness, stewardship, justice, love, and faith.
God’s sovereignty and providence
Genesis 2 declares that God completed the heavens and the earth and then He rested. Yet, in another sense, God’s work as Creator continues. God created and “upholds all things by the word of His power” (Heb. 1). God rules His creation and providentially directs its history. God says through Isaiah, “This people I have formed for Myself, they shall declare My praise” (Is. 43). Paul preaches that “from one man, God made all the nations” (Acts 17). Paul writes in Colossians 1: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” The Psalms describe God as commanding the weather, small creatures, kings, and all things. Peter writes that “scoffers … deny that by the word of God” He made the earth, judged it with a flood, and now preserves it “by the same word” for judgement and the destruction of the ungodly (2 Pet. 3).
“God’s commanding omnipotence, by which he makes all things to be what they are, is the same in the beginning of creation and in every moment of the history of creation,” Al Wolters explains. “God’s daily work of preserving and governing the world cannot be separated from his act of calling the world into existence.” Thus, theologians find it hard “to make a decisive distinction between ‘creation’ and ‘providence.’” As God’s Word declares, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and exist” (Rev. 4:11). This is true also of civil authorities.
All authority is instituted by God
Paul and Peter refer to civil authority as “instituted” (ESV) or “appointed” (NKJV) by God, with Greek words meaning “commanded” (Rom. 13) and “created” (1 Pet. 2). Some Reformed (specifically, neo-Calvinist) scholars argue that God not only establishes rulers throughout history, but that civil authority in some form is part of God’s original, good creation design. As David Koyzis explains, “Office and authority are the most basic elements of what it means to be human,” and, “there is a certain public coordinative function that requires public authority. I think that recognizing the positive features of civil government gives us insight into its creational basis.” Were it not for the Fall, of course, civil authority would not need the “sword power” to punish evildoers. Nor, I suppose, would parents need to spank their children, or teachers need to suspend students, and so on. But there is little reason to think that an unfallen world would have no teachers, coaches, conductors, workplace leaders, or civic leaders, in some form.
Whether you agree with the argument about civil authority’s roots in God’s original creation or not, the Bible is clear that God, who created the world by His word and will, also appoints or “creates” rulers (Col. 1). Civil government is not a “necessary evil” but a gift from God in a fallen world, established for His purposes. The Creator and Lord of heaven and earth “rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Dan. 4:17). He directs the heart of the king as He wishes (Prov. 21:1). God declares to Israel and other nations what He has done, is doing, and will do, which the Bible presents as consistent with His authority as Creator: “Thus declares the Lord, who stretched out the heaves and founded the earth and formed the spirit of man within him…” (Zech. 12:1). Paul teaches, “The God who made the world and everything in it is Lord of heaven and earth…” This same God “gives everyone life and breath and everything else [and] from one man He made all the nations…” (Acts 17). His creating, sustaining, and ruling are intricately connected. In short, He is sovereign.
God’s sovereignty over all nations and rulers is cause for trembling (Ps. 2) and rejoicing: “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth” (Ps. 67:4).
A high view of civil government
In light of the Scriptural truth that God establishes civil authority, Calvin wrote: “Wherefore no man can doubt that civil authority is in the sight of God not only sacred and lawful, but the most sacred and the most honourable of all stations in mortal life.” For civil magistrates to acknowledge this truth would be of great consequence, Calvin thought:
This consideration ought to be constantly present to the minds of magistrates since it is fitted to furnish a strong stimulus to the discharge of duty… What zeal for integrity, prudence, meekness, continence, and innocence ought to sway those who know they have been appointed ministers of divine justice! How will they dare to admit iniquity to their tribunal, when they are told that it is the throne of the living God? How will they venture to pronounce an unjust sentence with that mouth which they understand to be ordained as an organ of divine truth? With what conscience will they subscribe impious decrees with that hand they know has been appointed to write the acts of God? In a word, if they remember that they are God’s viceregents, it behooves them to watch with all care, diligence, and industry, that they exhibit a kind of image of the divine providence, guardianship, goodness, benevolence, and justice. (Institutes, Book IV, ch. 20-6)
A high view of civil government indeed! But don’t we need to account for the fact that all people, including civil magistrates, are sinful? Certainly. In future articles I will talk more about the calling of civil government in a fallen world and the abuses of civil office. For this article it will suffice to remember that, in the Fall, Adam and Eve bought into the lie that they could determine good and evil apart from God and be as gods themselves. In their disobedience, they denied their status as creatures and God’s authority as Creator. God, who made Adam and Eve and freely gave them everything, had every right to withhold from them one thing. He had every right to set before them their task and calling in creation.
Lessons for today
“Fools” and “scoffers” deny God as Creator (Ps. 14, 2 Pet. 3). Ditch the doctrine of creation and we can easily forget our finitude, our dependence, and our accountability. We cease to see ourselves as creatures of a good Creator. We may in turn see ourselves as victims of fate or material forces. Or we may see ourselves as gods, ignoring our limitations and sinfulness and trying to construct utopias based on human ideologies, which are, at root, idolatrous. Deny the sovereignty of God and we worship other sources and forms of sovereignty.
“[W]ithin every political society there occurs, implicitly, an act of worship of divine rule,” O’Donovan writes. “[This] explains, as very few attempts at theorizing the foundations of politics ever do explain, the persistent cultural connection between politics and religion.” But idolatrous worship “sanctions an idolatrous politics.” For example, modern political thought asserts that “we set up political authority, as a device to secure our own essentially private, local and unpolitical purposes.” This humanistic doctrine, says O’Donovan, “has left the Western democracies in a state of pervasive moral debilitation, which from time to time inevitably throws up idolatrous and authoritarian reactions.”
To remember the story of creation is to remember that God is in control of all things and sovereign over all human governments. We have authority in this world, yes, but always authority under God. God appoints human rulers, to whom we must submit, yet we are all fundamentally equal, dependent, responsible, and accountable before God. We are given freedom and creative abilities, but we are not autonomous. We cannot define good and evil for ourselves. As the world was created by the word of God, so truth, beauty, goodness, and justice are determined by God’s word, not ours. And as we will see in future articles, despite human rebellion, God’s law and purposes for His creation endure.
 Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, at .
 Creation Regained, 13.
 Ibid, 20.
 See also Professor Koyzis’ book, We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God.
 Ibid. Civil office bearers might coordinate the stewardly use of natural resources, the development of public infrastructure, and so on. See also Wolters, note 1, and Jonathan Chaplin, Herman Dooyeweerd: Christian Philosopher of State and Civil Society, ch. 8. Conversely, Bavinck says “it was sin that made the institution of church and state necessary for the preservation of the human race,” in Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, p. 391.
 The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology, 49.