Friday, September 29, 2006

Romans 13:

I don't mean to revive the debate between Jim Babka and Dr. Gregg Frazer over whether the principles of our Founding are consistent with the Bible and orthodox Christianity. But I have uncovered a couple of interesting sites which might shed light on this issue.

I am debating a fundamentalist from the Caribbean named Gordon Mullings, infamously known on the Evangelical Outpost comments section for writing book length posts.

In Mr. Mullings's world, everything in America's Founding principles matches up perfectly with his fundamentalism. I pointed out that arguably the American Revolution was un-Biblical because Romans 13 seems to state that revolt is never justified. After all, that's what John Calvin taught. Further, I noted that our key Founders and the Unitarian ministers from Founding era New England like Mayhew, West, Chauncy and Gay who preached pro-revolutionary sermons, were Enlightenment rationalists who took a cafeteria like approach to the Bible and elevated man's reason over revelation. Their unorthodox theology and reliance on reason is relevant because it made it easier to "explain away" controlling Biblical texts, like Romans 13.

Mullings disagreed and wrote "MAYHEW ETC ARE WITHIN THE BIBLICAL, REFORMATION ERA TEACHING ON THE MATTER ON THIS POINT." Jim Babka raised a similar point which deserves answering. Though our key Founders and the Unitarian minister whom they followed were not "orthodox" in their theology, there was a pro-Revolutionary sentiment that had developed (which may or may not have influenced our Founders) in Protestantism among thinkers who seemingly were orthodox, some of them Calvinist, in their theology. Works like, for instance, Samuel Rutherford's Lex Rex, the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (English title: A Vindication Against Tyrants), and the Dutch Plakkaat van Verlatinge (a.k.a., the Dutch Declaration of Independence)(1581).

Mr. Mullings argues that, though the Unitarian ministers' entire theology may not have been orthodox, the pro-revolutionary messages of Mayhew et al. were Biblical. I replied that one could view it conversely -- that even Christians who claim/seem to be orthodox (or evangelical/fundamentalist/inerrantist, whatever term is proper) also use the "cafeteria" method when it suits them. Samuel Rutherford et al., like the Unitarian clergy in New England, sought to "explain away" what is clearly written in Romans 13.

When researching this issue, I discovered this post by Brad Delong from 2002 which references this article in First Things by Justice Scalia directly on the subject.

While Scalia doesn't speak of the American Revolution, the thesis of his article is that Romans 13 demands that Christians obey the civil magistrate. Delong rightly concludes that according to Scalia's "literal" reading of Romans 13, the American Revolution would be un-Biblical.

In a speech last May--"God's Justice and Ours"--published in First Things, Scalia--approvingly--quotes St. Paul on the Principate, the form of government of the Roman Empire in its first two centuries: "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. (Romans 13:1-5)"

Notice that what Scalia approves of is not praise of a healthy representative democracy. It is not praise of a wise, merciful, and saintly king. What is praised by Saul of Tarsus and Antonin Scalia--what is "ordained of God" and is "the minister of God... for good... [and] to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil"--is the Principate, the government of the Roman Empire under the Julio-Claudian dynasty, than lurching its downward progress from Augustus to Nero. Yet Saul--and Antonin--tell us that even this government must be obeyed: "Ye must needs be subject... for conscience sake." To fail to obey the government is (as long as the government is not more tyrannical than Tiberius, Caligula, or Nero) morally blameworthy, and contrary to the will of God. As Scalia says later on, this prohibition extends not just to revolt or secret transgression but even to open civil disobedience, which is, in Scalia's view based on the false assumption that "what the individual citizen considers an unjust law... need not be obeyed."

My first reaction upon reading this was to think, "Whoa!" And then to think, "What about the American Revolution?" Wasn't the moral obligation to obey George III and his ministers, not very tyrannical compared to Tiberius and Nero, much stronger than the moral obligation to obey Nero and his proconsuls? Does Antonin Scalia really think that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were moral cretins, whose deeds of rebellion against the ordained-by-God George III were unholy, immoral, cursed by God? Is Antonin Scalia about to abjure his oath of allegiance to the Constitution of the United States, swear allegiance to Elizabeth II Windsor as the rightful heir-general of George III Hanover, and fall under the tyrannical sway of the handbag of monarchy? We know that Scalia condemns Martin Luther King, Jr. as a moral cretin for failing to obey the segregation laws of his day. But how much further does he go? There seems to be no stopping point before the equivalent of Nero. Thus Charles de Gaulle for his rebellion against the collaborationist French government of Philippe Petain and Pierre Laval stands, in Scalia's eyes, condemned as an enemy of God. The milestones of English liberty--the barons' rebellion that brought us Magna Carta, the Long Parliament claiming powers of right rather than privileges of grace, the Glorious Revolution of 1688--all of them, all of them much worse than the acts of civil disobedience that Scalia condemns expressly, and all of them revolts against God's will.

Of course, one can explain away Romans 13 with context. But almost any text, including the prohibitions on things such as homosexuality, can be explained away by context. I have nothing against such "cafeteria Christianity"; such is, from my perspective, a more desirable form of the faith than the "fundamentalist" strain, one better suited to modern "liberal democracies." But when fundamentalists invoke "context" -- and then proceed to explain away inconvenient Biblical texts -- it seems to me that they try to have their cake and eat it too; that is, they engage in cafeteria Christianity and at the same time deny that they so do.

In any event, whatever the context, Romans 13 offers no support to the "Christian Nation" myth. If Romans 13 really stands for the proposition, as Mr. Mullings argues, of "just government under God," then psychopathic Pagan Tyrants like Nero and Caligula had "just government[s] under God." With a standard that low, it's hard to imagine what wouldn't qualify as a "just government under God."


Daniel said...

It is worth noting that support for the American Revolution was common among orthodox Christians, including Calvinists. Most prominent among orthodox Christian signatories of the Declaration of Independence was John Witherspoon. Even in England, John Wesley originally supported the American Revolution for rational and Biblical reasons; he later reversed his position, causing much damage to his Methodist movement in this country. In Scotland, Calvinist thinkers(using rational methodology) such as Thomas Reid deemed the Revolution to be justified.

It is probably fair to say that many prominent orthodox scholars of the era placed as much weight on Reason as on Scripture. At times, Jefferson's anger at Calvinists looks like the heat of a family squabble. Their metaphysics differed greatly, but the methods a(nd most conclusions) were very similar.

Wesley's positions on the Revolution were rooted at least as deeply in reason as in revelation (which included reference to Romans 13). He changed his mind, not due to a closer reading of Romans 13, but due to an emprical conclusion that the English colonial government was not really terribly oppressive.

It seems unlikely that modern Fundamentalists would approve of any of the prominent Christians of the Enlightenment. But then, very few people are happy with a thorough examination of the views and methods of their intellectual heros.

Brian Tubbs said...

Citing context is entirely appropriate. You seem to argue that fundamentalists or literalists must (by logical necessity) accept every verse a stand-alone proposition. That is NOT fundamentalism.

Most fundamentalists believe the Bible should be interpreted 1) according to a historical-grammatical framework (read: context), and 2) under the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

Brian Tubbs said...

As for Romans 13, it comes down to whether you believe our submission should be to the INSTITUTION of government or to the INDIVIDUALS who happen to occupy the institutional offices. Obviously, there is no distinction so long as the individuals in government are acting according to the lawful bounds and purposes of government. But what if a person illegally seizes power? Must Christians immediately switch their allegiance to such a tyrant?

gregspolitics said...

Paul, unfortunately, does seem to be saying that the authority being exercised comes from God and, therefore, must be obeyed. Presumably, a tyrant ATTEMPTING to overthrow the government could be opposed but if he wins, then Paul's position would appear to be that must mean he is the person God wants. Of course, all of this is written in a time where the Roman government was about the best you could get and its existence facilitated the spread of Paul's ultimate messge. The whole problem with Paul is the belief that holding authority comes from God which does not appear to be what Jesus was saying about rendering unto Caesar (Mark 12:13-17). First, Caesar's things and God's things are different and there is no implication that God has endowed Caesar with any authority. Second, what he says should be rendered to Caesar is really pretty minimal. Caesar minted the coin so the coin is his but that is not in any way the same thing as rendering obedience unto Caesar.

Gordon Mullings said...


Since Mr Rowe has attacked me by name I will observe here that the understanding of the meaning of Rom 13 that I have used is in fact of longstanding importance in biblical studies [the [proto-unitarians etc were simply echoing longstanding covenant theology in the American colonies]. Through the associated doctrine of interposition by lower magistrates, it played a crucial role in the Bible-based reformation theory of Government and revolution to depose tyrants. The 2nd paragraph of the US DOI aptly summarises the steps in the process, and was written by interposing magistrates to justify their action. Bamberg's comments on this are well worth consulting.

Further to this, Mr Rowe has subtly misrepresented my positions in his summary dismissal, as can be seen by comparison with my online note here and the current thread at EO. My point is that biblical Christianity should not be automatically regarded as an enemy of liberty as it materially contributed to its rise, starting with Vindicae [1579] and flowing on through the US fonding and to the wider world. I have explicitly denied that this was the sole stream that so contributed, and mark the distinction between those who were Christians and those who were influenced by the biblical worldview. Biblical Christianity is of course the enemy of licence, an easily confused counterfeit of liberty.

Next, Mr Rowe fails to recognise [though it was pointed out to him] that Nero had TWO distinct phases to his reign, [1] while he was under the tutelage of Seneca and [2] after he dismissed him. It is during the last that the tyranny emerged and -- as I noted in the discussion in the EO thread in which it came up -- it led the Roman peole to hold him a mad and dangerous tyrant and to overthrow him, circa 68. Of the first phase, the Catholic Encyclopedia aptly notes: The first years of Nero's reign, under the direction of Burrus and Seneca, the real holders of power, were auspicious in every way. A series of regulations either abrogated or lessened the hardships of direct taxation, the arbitrariness of legislation and provincial administration, so that Rome and the empire were delighted, and the first five years of Nero's government were accounted the happiest of all time, regarded by Trajan as the best of the imperial era.

Paul wrote Romans in 57 AD, in the former phase of Nero's reign, and is not on record as to the reign of Caligula. In Rpm 13 he laid out the general principle of government that it is God's institution to do good tot he community and to defend it from evildoers [v 4], and should be honoured as such.

As a Hebrew, who then went on to cite Moshe in vv 8 - 10, he was plainly aware that God opposes oppression and tyranny, and therefore empowered that worthy to lead a revolution that overthrew the tyrant, then went on to institute new Government based on explicit covenant with God as a nation under God with appropriate institutions for such. The core principle of the resulting law was that one should love one's neighbour as oneself, and such love, as Paul observed, will do no harm. '

This last is of course exactly what Justinian picked up on in his Corpus Juris as the foundation stone for law and justice.

I will cross-post at my own blog.

Jonathan said...

Great comments. I didn't know that about Wesley.

Ultimately, regarding Romans 13 and the right to revolt, like other important moral issues -- slavery, and religious liberty -- one could argue that the Bible gives no definite answer and orthodox Christians have been on both sides of the debate and have quoted Scripture to justify their positions.