Saturday, March 29, 2008

Romans 13:

I've done much studying and thinking about the passage of Romans 13 as it relates to the biblical view of government, especially the American Revolution. I've concluded there are alternate interpretations and will charitably concede that Romans 13 doesn't stand in the way of traditional Christian supporting the American Revolution -- and indeed many traditional orthodox Christians did support the American Revolution (and French Revolution!).

However, Romans 13 gives as much, arguably more support to the Tory position which demonstrates that the Bible or the Christian Religion spoke little to the cause of the American Revolution and consequent construction of the US Constitution. Sure traditional Christian ideas were *a* source of ideological principles. But not the primary source (other sources include Enlightenment, Whig, Common Law and Greco-Roman principles; Enlightenment and Whig were key).

It's true that preachers did give sermons on behalf of the American Revolution, key to getting the Christian populace to go along with the notion of revolt against Great Britain. 1/3 of the populace were Whigs in favor of revolt; 1/3 were Tory loyalists, and 1/3 were on the fence. And many of the Tory loyalist were devout orthodox Christians who genuinely believed Romans 13 commanded them to remain loyal to Great Britain.

Many of the Whig preachers used very unorthodox hermeneutics and a-biblical Lockean ideas to argue on behalf of revolution. Some of these preachers were orthodox Christians, most notably John Witherspoon. Some preachers, especially in New England were theological unitarians, most notably Jonathan Mayhew, explicit enemies of Jonathan Edwards' "Great Awakening."

Given these preachers (including John Witherspoon) arguably taught the opposite of Calvin's position on revolt, it's puzzling to see some forces overstate the "Calvinistic" influence on the American Revolution. Calvin's teachings on revolt clearly support the Tory position. It's true that some later Calvinists, most notably Samuel Rutherford, did try to carve out a Calvinist argument for revolt, focusing on Calvin's doctrine of interposition, which is the closet Calvinist teachings come to supporting anything like America's Declaration of Independence. But, little evidence connects Rutherford's influence to the American colonies. And no evidence ties Locke to Rutherford. Locke never cites Rutherford.

John Calvin's teachings on the civil magistrate and Romans 13 are available online here. Calvin says in no uncertain terms submit to and obey even the most unrighteous or tyrannical civil magistrates. The traditional understanding of Romans 13 is that God ordains the higher powers. The people are accountable to their rulers and the rulers to God, not the people. And many of those higher powers will be, for whatever reason, not "Godly" or "good" rulers but pagan tyrants, as was the leader Paul told believers to submit to in Romans 13 -- Nero of the pagan Roman Empire. The buck stops with the ruler not the people, and if the ruler does evil, God will punish the ruler; the people still have to submit to tyranny. Christians could still follow their conscience and "obey God" rather than "man," if there were a conflict between the two, but must nonetheless accept the legitimacy or legality of their punishment for civil disobedience even if it means being thrown to the lions or in Christ's case, crucified.

Again, I'm not saying this is the only proper way to understand Romans 13, but it was the dominant, traditional understanding until the Enlightenment era of Revolution. Indeed, according to Calvin, God will give the people an SOB tyrannical ruler to punish them. The people must still submit to that tyrannical leader or else, you resist God when you resist the magistrate. I wrote more about that here. But as Calvin put it:

I will not proceed further without subjoining some distinct passages to this effect. We need not labour to prove that an impious king is a mark of the Lord's anger, since I presume no one will deny it, and that this is not less true of a king than of a robber who plunders your goods, an adulterer who defiles your bed, and an assassin who aims at your life, since all such calamities are classed by Scripture among the curses of God.

But let us insist at greater length in proving what does not so easily fall in with the views of men, that even an individual of the worst character, one most unworthy of all honour, if invested with public authority, receives that illustrious divine power which the Lord has by his word devolved on the ministers of his justice and judgement, and that, accordingly, in so far as public obedience is concerned, he is to be held in the same honour and reverence as the best of kings.

If you look at the headers in Calvin's work here you see things like:

24. Obedience is also due the unjust magistrate
25. The wicked ruler a judgment of God
26. Obedience to bad kings required in Scripture

As one scholar noted Calvinism clearly was the spiritual side of Divine Right of Kings. Arminianism, a much more democratic form of Christianity, gave rise to the democratic or republican spirit of America's Founding. As George Willis Cooke wrote in 1902:

The doctrine of degrees, as taught by the Calvinists, was the spiritual side of the assertion of the divine right of kings. On the other hand, when the people claim the right to rule, they modify their theology into Arminianism. From an age of the absolute rule of the king comes the doctrine of human depravity; and with the establishment of democracy appears the doctrine of man's moral capacity.

Calvin's original teachings did provide a little loophole -- the doctrine of interposition. But Calvin also made clear that interposition must be done through the positive law, like a Presidential impeachment, to use Gregg Frazer's example. Later Calvinists like Rutherford, who had experience with bad kings and looked for a theological way out, would make the most out of this doctrine. And I suppose it's possible to argue the American Revolution was consistent with Interposition and Rutherford's teachings. One would have to argue that Britain violated English law and that America's actions were consistent with English law, perhaps a stretch. See Gary Demar attempt to do so here. But nonetheless, America did not declare independence in the name of interposition. And Locke's ideas in the Declaration of Independence are nothing like Calvin's or Rutherford's notions of interposition and are wholly alien to the Bible and Romans 13. The Declaration says:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Though theistic, there is nothing biblical about the idea that governments' "deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed," or that "the people" have a right "to alter or to abolish" government that doesn't secure "unalienable rights" to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It's not what Rutherford taught, not what Calvin taught, not what Paul taught, not what Jesus taught or what the Bible teaches.

The best orthodox Christians can do is find compatibility with the results of the American Revolution, i.e., Calvinistic or Rutherfordian interposition, and not try to defend the "Christian" content of the Declaration.

This would probably lead to giving up on the notion that the higher law the Declaration invokes is the biblical God's law and the "organic" law of the United States. Many prominent social or religious conservative scholars understand the tension between the broad guarantees of individual rights in the Declaration, its subversive, revolutionary rhetoric and the orderliness traditional Christian morality demands (i.e., Robert Bork, Lino Graglia, Russell Kirk, Thomas Fleming, and many others). As Thomas Fleming put it:

If Dred Scott is a slender reed for conservatives to rely on, the Declaration of Independence is a morass. Whatever Mr. Jefferson and his colleagues thought they were doing (other than restating Enlightenment platitudes that have nothing to do with Christianity), they were not writing the fundamental law of a nation that did not yet exist. If they had been intending to establish Christianity at the center of the American system, they would have used Christian language instead of such deistic phrases as “Nature’s god.” Although some conservatives have made valiant efforts to give the Declaration a harmless reading, Harry Jaffa and other leftists have ensured that the Declaration is read today as a revolutionary manifesto for natural rights that transcend the pettifogging restrictions of the Constitution and the Tenth Amendment, guaranteeing the rights of the states.

Or Lino Graglia:

What [the Declaration] is, of course, is a document meant to justify revolution -- that is, illegal action. Having no human law to rely on -- being in defiance of authority -- revolutionaries necessarily come to rely on the law of God, who, happily, rarely issues a protest.

Heh. As a libertarian, I kind of like the notion that the people, in principle, can revolt if government doesn't guarantee us our unalienable rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet, as a non-Christian, I don't have Romans 13 on my conscience.

1 comment:

Brad said...

Excellent posting. Romans: 13 has always been an interesting micro history of the American Revolution. I guess it is further proof that the Bible can be used (and has been used throughout history) as a means of justifying or condemning virtually any human action imaginable. One only needs to look at the slavery issue to see the Bible's versatile appeal.