Thursday, November 13, 2008

Brief Comment on Babka v. Frazer Debate

I alerted readers of my personal blog and Positive Liberty of the "rerun" of the Babka/Frazer debate and I made a brief comment on Frazer's latest comment. I've reproduced the key part of my comment below.

Frazer is a fundamentalist who believes the Bible is the inerrant infallible Word of God. His honest, literal interpretation of the Bible leads him to conclude a) that the concept of political liberty (whether what today's libertarians desire or the "unalienable right to liberty" as invoked in the Declaration of Independence) is not found within the Bible's text, and b) a proper understanding of Romans 13 teaches America's Founders sinned when they revolted against Great Britain when they should have submitted. As Frazer writes:

That view –- based on what Romans 13 actually says -- was the majority view throughout the history of the church up to that point. Jonathan Boucher and Samuel Seabury (for example) were prominent Anglican ministers who argued the traditional literal (and biblical) view of Romans 13 and against revolution.

....Regarding I Samuel 8...the primary point is that Israel rejected God as their king and that any human regime which follows will inherently be inferior. Second, a warning about kings is not equivalent to support for political liberty. Before this time, Israel was ruled by a series of judges and before that by Moses. All of them, like the first two kings to follow, were appointed by God – not expressions of political liberty. The reason rule by the kings would be worse was that they had rejected God – not because they would lose political liberty. They had no less political liberty under the kings than they did under Moses. In fact, they ended up with more “liberty” (in the libertarian sense) under the kings because the kings abandoned the Law of God which regulated every aspect of their lives! As Jonathan Boucher pointed out, God does not express concern about political liberty in the Bible. God is concerned about spiritual liberty – freedom from the bonds of sin.

Frazer's point that Tory preachers Jonathan Boucher and Samuel Seabury followed what the Bible actually says and the Whig preachers followed, not scripture, but Locke's Enlightenment teachings has the effect of ripping the rug out from underneath the "Christian Nation" thesis. The Tory preaches posited "Christian principles"; the Whig preachers posited "Enlightenment principles."

I'll say this: Romans 13 is one of the passages of the Bible whose interpretation can be reasonably disputed. Theologically orthodox Christians who believe the Bible the inerrant, infallible Word of God, yet who argue the compatibility between the Bible and the Declaration of Independence must at the very least concede the following: That Jonathan Boucher and Samuel Seabury literally interpreted the Bible in good faith and determined the right answer was submit to Great Britain, not rebel. Reasonable people may disagree over how to properly interpret Romans 13. But reasonable people cannot possibly conclude that Boucher and Seabury were not arguing their case for submission to Great Britain/against American rebellion in good conscience from the Bible/Christian principles.


Tom Van Dyke said...

That view [for submission, not rebellion]–- based on what Romans 13 actually says -- was the majority view throughout the history of the church up to that point.

What church? Before Protestantism, the "church" was the Roman Catholic church. Aquinas in the 13th century had already framed the conditions where an unjust king could be toppled.

The Scholastics, the theologian/philosophers who followed Aquinas, developed that view even further, as Algernon Sidney, one of the Founders' great influences, says here:

I'm going to keep posting that link until someone gets it. There's your "smoking gun." Sidney argues it's the "Schoolmen," not "Enlightenment" principles, who got there first. In his very first line, Sidney writes:

"...the principle of liberty in which God created us..."

I'm puzzled that Dr. Frazer seems to completely miss the English Civil War---or "Puritan Revolution," where Calvinist Presbyterians fought the king. The argument over Samuel Rutherford is an academic point.

[See in particular the Scottish Covenant forced on Charles II, where although the king remains in place, parliament becomes the legislator of even religion.]

A turnip truck reading of Romans 13 may read a forbidding of rebellion, but that reading had long vanished in Christian thought, from the Schoolmen through the English Civil War. Now, the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 restored the monarchy in the form of William and Mary, but in a weakened state and the principle that sovereignty lies with the people [parliament in this case] was established in fact, just as Aquinas had established it in theory some 300-odd years before.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ha. Sir Robert Filmer, to whose "Patriarcha OR THE NATURAL POWER OF KINGS" [1680] Locke's First Treatise on Government was a direct rebuttal, blames those damn papists for corrupting the impressionable Puritans. Another "smoking gun" for the collection.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Aquinas in the 13th century had already framed the conditions where an unjust king could be toppled.

Re what you wrote about Aquinas, that's very interesting, but I would wonder whether before the Protestant reformation his theory had *any* practical application. Before the Reformation, the political and theological buck stopped with the Pope who obviously wasn't going to permit any rebellion against himself. Right?

I'll email Dr. Frazer and see if he wants to respond to the rest. He may be oversimplying history. But I think he's right regarding the idea that the Whig preachers turned to Locke's natural law/natural rights teachings that had nothing to do with the Bible. And the Tory case was more likely to rely on the "traditional" understanding of Romans 13.

I can accept that there had long been a "different" understanding of Romans 13 (the one amenable to revolution or resisting higher powers). But, currently, I'm convinced that was the dissident, not the dominant standard in Christendom. Of course, until the age of Revolution (staring with the British, then the American, and then the French). The Straussians tend to view all three of these revolutions as Enlightenment, not biblical events.

Frazer's thesis is a very Straussian influenced.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jon, pls see the link to Filmer which has more than I can write here. To wit:

1. SINCE the time that school divinity [i.e., the "Scholastics," the Catholic-Thomist theologian-philosophers---TVD] began to flourish there hath been a common opinion maintained, as well by divines as by divers other learned men, which affirms:

"Mankind is naturally endowed and born with freedom from all subjection, and at liberty to choose what form of government it please, and that the power which any one man hath over others was at first bestowed according to the discretion of the multitude."

Filmer ["Patriarcha," published 1680] traced this idea of individual freedom and as natural rights per natural law, and the notion of sovereignty resting first with the people not the ruler---ideas which he opposes but the Founders considered self-evident---directly to the Scholastics, the Catholic-Thomist thinkers like the Jesuit Francisco Suarez [whose book De Defensione Fidei was publicly burned by James I].

[As did Algernon Sidney, and although Sidney disavows the "Schoolmen," [everybody hated the papists] he uses their arguments from the Bible and from reason and nature in his posthumously-published Discourses on Government.

Take a peek at the link. The chapter headings will tell you a lot about where he was coming from. God and the Bible are all over the place.

The "Enlightenment" is conspicuous by its absence. Sidney and Filmer, as seen through the prism of the Puritan Revolution [1640-1660] and the Glorious Revolution [1688]---where one king was executed and another one pitched out---is where the action's at, methinks. The "Straussians" are wrong.

Further, the approach of Strauss' "Natural Right and History," of focusing on "key" thinkers, is useful for studying political philosophy, but is useless for studying the development of ideas that are filtered into creating popular sentiment, like what Jefferson called "the American mind," which he distilled into the D of I, saying that there were no original thoughts of his own in there.

[See his letter to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825.]

The ideas Filmer condemns were as thick as the London air. To attempt to trace them directly to Samuel Rutherford or anyone else is unnecessarily academic. In fact, I think you'll find that the American Revolution-era sermons do not argue Romans 13 against revolt as much as they argue that the crown/king's crimes against colonists don't meet the threshold to justify revolution.

"Mankind is naturally endowed and born with freedom from all subjection, and at liberty to choose what form of government it please, and that the power which any one man hath over others was at first bestowed according to the discretion of the multitude."

Quite an unremarkable statement in 2008, but at the heart of Britain's troubles in the 1600s, and of course the core principles of the American revolution. Neither do we require John Locke for them---they were already around.

[Funny thing is, when I started studying this stuff, I expected that the Catholics would be Main Street for the "divine right of kings." Au contraire, mon ami, au contraire.]

Tom Van Dyke said...

May I add that Leo Strauss' understanding/interpretation of John Locke---which I meself have problems with, but be that as it may---even if true, was not Jefferson's understanding, who likely read him more plainly [exoterically]. And even if Jefferson's Locke was the same as Strauss' Locke, it was certainly not the Locke that informed the "American Mind," which no doubt read Locke at face value.

Even as/if Strauss is valuable for unlocking the secrets in the minds of the Great Thinkers [and their epigones like Jefferson], historians must give first credence to the popular understandings, the ones that truly swung and wrote history. I like Strauss' method for philosophy, not so much for history. It is the difference between the thought and the deed, between theory and practice.

Thought is pure, and a product of the individual mind. But the virtues of practice include prudence, which often necessitates compromise with other individuals, and as such is the enemy of purity. Philosophy is no more synonymous with statesmanship than truth is with wisdom.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Lots of info there for me to digest. I've seen some of it from David Kopel, whose work on the issue, I'm going to reproduce.

Still, I think the point I'm seeing is that 1) there long have been alternate approaches to Romans 13, but 2) Frazer's understanding of Romans 13 was still dominant, until the age of revolution.

After the English, American and French Revolutions, the understanding of Romans 13 that is consistent with rebellion became more popular (arguably dominant in America). But the other understanding didn't go away and is still preached by folks such as MacArthur today.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Something else I think we need to inquire: I think you've presented convincing evidence that medieval theologians formulated liberal democratic ideas. Ideas that 1) Filmer argued against, and 2) Locke and Sidney revived to refute Filmer.

The interesting nuance is that Locke and Sidney did this while doing their most to not credit those theologians. Though, as "natural lawyers" Locke and Sidney could argue those theologians were just "discovering" self evident truths.

So, they downplayed the Catholic influence because they didn't like Catholics. (Locke's original vision of toleration didn't even include Catholics). Why was that? I'm thinking, the Catholic Church is extremely top down and there was lots of illiberal misbehavior from the top. The RC pre-Whigs who formulated medieval liberal democratic like theory didn't seem to be from the "top." What was the official position of the top (those Popes) during this time period?

I'm thinking it couldn't have possibly been liberal democratic, because if it were, then why did Locke et al. hate them so much?

BTW Tom. Your understating of this with the George Harrison analogy has the makings of a good op ed piece in a Roman Catholic journal. , like First Things or the like.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Jon. I also don't believe George Harrison deliberately stole "He's So Fine" by The Chiffons to make "My Sweet Lord."

With music, as in the zeitgeist of philosophy, we are often unaware of our influences. They are "in the air."