In the year Anno Domini 2022 Stephen (of “Wolfeshire,” his bio says) has launched a manifesto sparking the imagination and enthusiasm of a large cohort of energetic, young, American men. There is a Holy Land to liberate from infidels and their enablers—the anemic and compromised relics of the post-war generation. That Holy Land is the United States of America. His manifesto is a theological train wreck and a political mishmash of dangerous and historically deadly ideas. I hope that many will turn away in disillusionment before they get to wherever they are headed, because the waters are not going to part.
Stephen Wolfe’s The Case For Christian Nationalism (Moscow: Canon Press, 2022) is a manifesto that has garnered a great deal of online publicity. Scoring as the #1 bestseller in Amazon’s “Nationalism” category, the book has enjoyed a large boomlet of popularity across a wide and diverse conservative Christian audience. More noteworthy is the sheer intensity of reaction the book seems to get out of its readers—both its lovers and its haters. “I am not exaggerating,” writes one Twitter fan in possession of an advance copy: “this book is the most comprehensive work of Christian political theory written in the modern age.”
That certainly raised my eyebrows. In a modern age that boasts, say, Oliver O’Donovan’s Desire of the Nations, something has arrived to take us to even greater heights of understanding about Christianity, Christendom, pluralism, the state, the church, and nations? Alas, the hype is unwarranted. The book has an initially impressive veneer, but it is exceedingly thin. I evaluate this book as a serious work of scholarship not because it is, but because I know that unsuspecting readers might believe that it is. And I care a great deal about unsuspecting readers.
Let me begin at the end of the book, which in my view occurs on page 118:
One of the conclusions from the previous chapter is that neither the fall nor grace destroyed or abrogated human natural relations. The fall did not introduce the natural instinct to love one’s own, and grace does not ‘critique’ or subvert our natural inclinations to love and prefer those nearest and most bound to us. The fall introduced the abuse of social relations and malice towards ethnic difference. Grace corrects this abuse and malice, but it does not introduce new principles of human relations. The instinct to love the familiar more than the foreign is good and remains operative in all spiritual states of man. (117-18, emphasis added)
You might ask why I would describe this paragraph on page 118 as the “end” of a 475-page book? Because the sentence that follows begins, “Having established these conclusions…” Since, as I will explain at length, Wolfe has in no way “established” these conclusions, everything that follows from page 118 to page 475 is essentially superfluous. There may be some material of interest—and some of it will elicit comment—but none of it reaches the heart of the matter.
As for that admirably distilled paragraph, I observe that one of the most obvious and central concerns of the New Testament is precisely a “new principle of human relations.” It is a principle that brought no small amount of controversy, completely occupied the agenda at the very first church council, and continued to find stubborn resistance in the churches of Asia Minor, particularly in Ephesus and Galatia. Jews and Gentiles, separated for all previous ages, are now brought together into one household. One family. One body. One man. Those who continued to act on their “natural instincts” to love the familiar more than the foreign, who thought that grace does not “critique” or “subvert” their natural inclinations to love and prefer those nearest and most bound to them, were, Paul clearly says, opposed to “the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). So strong were these “natural” inclinations and so strong was the tribal peer pressure involved that even the Apostle Peter succumbed to it.
When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. (Gal. 2:11-13).
Paul is not talking about mere ecclesiastical fellowship. Those with a dualistic cast of mind, as Wolfe most certainly has, might be tempted to think that this controversy was over “spiritual” or “heavenly” matters rather than the “earthly” or mundane—plenty more on that later. But this controversy is as mundane as it gets: Peter will not eat with the Gentiles, and certain Jews followed his example and together they formed a little clique full of familiar faces. A scene from an average high school cafeteria on any given day. And this “natural” inclination was contrary to the truth of the gospel.
This episode, recounted for us in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, does not appear in Stephen Wolfe’s book. Nor does Pentecost. Nor does the Jerusalem council. Not even the Tower of Babel warrants a mention. Key biblical texts dealing with questions of ethnicity and nations do not exist within the covers of The Case For Christian Nationalism. Stephen Wolfe has written a conclusory paragraph that appears to flatly contradict one of the central gospel themes of the New Testament directly related to his topic, and this raises at least two questions: how did we get here? And, more important, how might we avoid getting here? It will be useful and perhaps illuminating to back up.
Be that as it may, Wolfe invokes a right to simply assume the “Reformed theological tradition,” and it is certainly true that we all must start somewhere and assume something. And so the book is filled with quotations from what seems an impressive collection of Reformed luminaries. There are two problems.
First, the Reformed tradition is not monolithic; not only has it experienced an age of robust theological development and refinement, there have been centuries of intramural debate all along the way over a host of issues, some of which rather importantly impinge upon Wolfe’s case—the extent of the fall and its noetic effects; the “wider” and “narrower” senses of the image of God; the relation of revelation and reason, and more. Wolfe himself sometimes acknowledges these internal debates in his lengthier footnotes. Page 44 reveals that “Thomas Goodwin disagreed with this view, taking what I estimate to be a minority view […].” In the footnote on the following page Wolfe claims that while “many in the Reformed tradition” believed that Adam was under a probationary period, “this position is imposed on the text of Genesis and is theologically unsound.”
And right there is the second problem, and it is called being caught on the horns of a dilemma. Now that Wolfe is, by his own admission, estimating and evaluating and picking and choosing which views to embrace within the variegated, broad stream of Reformed thought, and even making bold claims about the exegesis of Genesis and what is or is not theologically sound, he can no longer avail himself of the excuse that he is “not a theologian nor biblical scholar.” After all, on what grounds does he decide that Turretin is right and Goodwin is wrong? How is he discriminating between the two? Mere preference? Whomever happens to be most helpful to him in the moment? (The answers are likely yes, and yes.) Wolfe wants to have his cake and eat it, too. Either one is competent in biblical exegesis and systematic theology or not. If one wishes to confess ignorance of such things so as to avoid the hard work of attending to the Bible, so be it. But one may not then try to sneak competence in on the cheap through the back door.
So it is sleight of hand for Wolfe to claim that he is merely “assuming” some kind of settled Reformed tradition, when in fact he is actively piecing together a collection of selected witnesses and quotations to support a project few of them, if any, would actually support. Wolfe recognizes his work might give this appearance, so he attempts to blunt the criticism:
To my knowledge, my theological premises throughout this work are consistent with, if not mostly taken directly from, the common affirmations and denials of the Reformed tradition. To be sure, some of my conclusions are expressed differently than this tradition. After all, Christian nationalism was not used in the 16th through the 18th centuries. But none of my conclusions are, in substance, outside or inconsistent with the broad Reformed tradition” (17).
This is untrue, as we shall shortly see. But for now I wish to simply observe that Wolfe is, in fact, actively generating a theological jigsaw puzzle, and he draws his lines just squiggly enough to keep inconvenient facts from view. In later chapters, for one example, he enthusiastically appeals to Samuel Rutherford on whether a people may resist and depose a civil magistrate. But on the very first page of Rutherford’s Lex Rex, indeed the very first question, Rutherford argues that while “civil society” (family, tribes, voluntary associations, customs, mores, etc.) is “natural,” (meaning part of the created design), the state, or what he calls “magistracy,” is not natural, but rather a contingent reality. Readers would never know that Rutherford opposes one of Wolfe’s central claims. Likewise, readers may think that his frequent appeals to Herman Bavinck indicate some kind of sympathy for Wolfe’s proposals. But on that score, too, Bavinck will have none of it: “The church no more belongs to the original institutions of the human race than the state” (Bavinck, RD IV:391).
From my point of view, since Wolfe does, after all, seem to believe himself biblically and theologically competent, readers ought to hold his paltry recourse to scripture against him. His habit—I’m sorry, it is impossible to call it that. What I mean is that when he does get around to actually quoting the Bible, which occurs by my count 16 times in a 475-page volume, he habitually quotes a single phrase or a few words in an incidental or purely illustrative fashion. There is zero exegesis of scripture or biblical interpretation of any kind in The Case For Christian Nationalism.
One might think this judgment pedantic or unfair. What does it matter, so long as the concepts are true and his argumentative logic holds? But how would we know if the concepts are true? How are we to evaluate them? Consider, by way of illustration: when O’Donovan wrote Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology, he self-consciously set out to write a Christian account of nations. For him that meant carefully attending to and interrogating the text of the Bible. He sought to learn from scripture what the concepts are and ought to be; what a “nation” is and what “nationhood” ought to entail, and what is God’s plan for the nature and role of nations in redemptive history. Wolfe’s approach is the opposite: “I proceed from the meaning or denotation of the words involved, particularly nation and nationalism, and I then consider nationalism modified by the term Christian” (9). And again: “Christian nationalism is nationalism modified by Christianity. My definition of Christian nationalism is a Christianized form of nationalism or, put differently, a species of nationalism” (10).
So Wolfe begins with a ready-made definition of “nation” and “nationalism” that comes from who-knows-where and only later considers how the Christian faith “modifies” it—the answer being, as it strangely turns out, that it doesn’t modify it at all. Indeed, on his terms Christianity by definition cannot modify it, because “grace does not destroy, abrogate, supersede, or undermine nature” (23). Since he has projected his construal of “nationhood” right back into the prelapsarian Garden of Eden (really, that is the entire thesis in a nutshell), it is therefore invulnerable to any alteration or modification by redemptive grace. That is what that exceptionally lovely and helpful theological phrase, “grace restores nature,” now comes to mean in the hands of Stephen Wolfe—but I am getting well ahead of myself. Wolfe’s “Christian nationalism” is just garden-variety nationalism taken from his own intuitions with an obvious assist from the first few chapters of Aristotle’s On Politics, involving a “Great Man” (31, 290), the “Christian Prince” (277), who is the “nation’s god”(287) and the “vicar of God” (290), and who is in charge of “ordering” everybody and everything to the “national good” (31). I half-expected him to announce that he’s volunteering for the job.
Kicking God Upstairs
Wolfe’s ambivalence toward the Bible has deeper roots, however, than mere feigned ignorance about how to do biblical interpretation. The fact is rather that he doesn’t think he needs to do any biblical interpretation in the first place. The irrelevance of the Bible to the task at hand—political theory—is deeply embedded in his own understanding of reason and revelation, nature and grace. He says it rather straightforwardly:
The primary reason that this work is political theory is that I proceed from a foundation of natural principles. While Christian theology assumes natural theology as an ancillary component, Christian political theory treats natural principles as the foundation, origin, and source of political life, even Christian political life […] Whereas Christian theology considers the Christian mainly in relation to supernatural grace and eternal life, Christian political theory treats man as an earthly being (though bound to a heavenly state) whose political life is fundamentally natural. (18)
Thus begins a work that relentlessly assumes and invokes a divided reality between two realms: supernatural and natural, heavenly and earthly, spiritual and material, grace and nature. And politics and political theory belongs squarely in the latter category; divine special revelation is not its norm, but reason and natural law are its guides. Wolfe is upfront as to the source of this dichotomy: Thomas Aquinas, whom he believes “heavily influenced” Reformed theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries (17).