Friday, May 22, 2020

Frazer Responds to Van Dyke

Gregg Frazer responds to Tom Van Dyke's comment on Frazer's recent post. The response is posted below.

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My initial post was designed to help Mr. Hart; my second to respond to Mark’s comments.  Perhaps Mr. Hart and Mark see greater relevance in this discussion.

It is Mark who is claiming that “Reformed” political thought had a strong influence on the history of the Founding – not me.  As I see it, Reformed thought had very little relevance to the Founding (although a few who belonged to Reformed denominations did have great relevance).

I don’t think it matters whether anyone actively argued against Beza’s (and others’) view during the Revolutionary period.  It is enough that they did not buy into it.  As I see it, it is relevant because the Calvinist churches held to Calvin’s view and, thus, were hesitant/unwilling to support rebellion.  Evidence for that is the singular importance of Jonathan Mayhew and his sermon against “Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance” which has been called the “Morning Gun of the Revolution.” According to key witnesses at the time, Mayhew’s sermon was a turning point in getting pulpit support for the cause. 

  1. Why would that be if they already subscribed to the views of Beza et al.?
  2. Why did they cite Mayhew and Locke and not Beza – or Calvin, for that matter?  (other than a few scattered references to one or two Reformed guys)

Calvin’s view matters because it was a hurdle that the rebels had to get over in order to recruit from arguably their primary source: the New England pulpits.

Theology held by historical people in historical circumstances is part of history.  Often, theology drives history (as Mark is claiming is true of the American Revolution).  The Puritans came to America because of theology. Religious wars have been fought because of theology.  For many, the most important historical events of all time were theological and in fulfillment of theological prophecy.

Mark claims that there are “good reasons to believe” that Calvin “embraced the view that private persons can actively resist tyrannical governments.”  The passages I cited from Calvin say exactly the opposite and Mark has not offered any that say what Mark claims.  I don’t think there are any.  Calvin says one must “disobey” tyrannical rulers when they require one to do evil, but that is a far cry from taking up arms in rebellion.  Disobedience is not active resistance in the sense that Mark must mean the term in order to use it in support of rebellion.  Note that in the quotation from Calvin’s commentary on Daniel, Calvin says not to “obey”; Mark converts instruction to not “obey” into “justly overthrown.”

He further claims that Calvin sanctioned and encouraged “resistance by lesser magistrates” and that there is “little doubt” that “Calvin taught that inferior magistrates may justly and biblically offer active resistance to tyrants.”  But Calvin never refers to “lesser” or “inferior” magistrates in this context – not once.  This notion comes from commentators on Calvin – mostly in the last 40 years – not from Calvin himself.  Furthermore, Calvin never calls for taking up arms to overthrow a ruler (which must be what Mark means by “active resistance”). 

And again, he says that there is “good reason” to believe that Calvin “reached the conclusion that private citizens may as well” – but there are no passages from Calvin that say that, either – quite the contrary, as I’ve posted.  To say that God’s people must “resist evil” is a truism.  Believers in God must not give in to sin (e.g. Gen. 39:7, 9, 12; Psa. 119:11; James 4:7).  It is not to say take up arms against a tyrannical government. The context itself shows that, as Calvin applies it to public prosecutors and princes.  He’s not calling on princes to resist evil by ruling justly instead of to satisfy their own desires?  He’s calling on them to overthrow themselves?  He’s not calling on prosecutors to resist evil in the sense of prosecuting crimes, but to overthrow the government? On what basis should we draw that conclusion?  Of course all are supposed to pursue justice and righteousness, but that does not justify any/all means. 

The only times in which Calvin “embraces” violent overthrow of a tyrant are the times he stipulates that God Himself raises up avengers with a “special vocation” from God.  That is God removing a ruler – not men.  It certainly has no reference or relevance to private citizens/”the people” or individuals deciding on their own that rebellion is appropriate.

I am curious: what is Mark’s interpretation of the passages I quoted in my initial post on this subject?  Why do they not mean what they clearly say?

5 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Calvin’s view matters because it was a hurdle that the rebels had to get over in order to recruit from arguably their primary source: the New England pulpits.


Yes, and that was exactly my suggestion for your last book, to show both sides, including the one that won. Perhaps the next one, then.

Quoting Calvin chapter and verse is a mere academic exercise if you can't show where anyone else did. You appear to be declining the challenge, Gregg.

I have not run across that line of argument in my own studies and even in your own book,

https://www.amazon.com/God-against-Revolution-Loyalist-Political/dp/0700626964

with the exception of a single Presbyterian outlier, John Joachim Zubly--who was chased out of Savannah--the theological opposition are all Anglicans, not Calvinists.

And as Mark David Hall points out here

https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1080&context=hist_fac


Yet, as Perry Miller pointed out,
“[i]f we were to measure by the number of times a writer is
cited and the degrees of familiarity shown with his works,
Beza exerted more influence than Calvin, and David Pareus
still more than Beza.” This is significant for our purposes
because the latter two thinkers expressed significantly more
radical theories of resistance than did John Calvin.

Moving to the founding era, political leaders generally, but
particularly those from New England, often owned or referred
to Reformed literature. It is not surprising that Princeton
President John Witherspoon owned Calvin’s Institutes, Beza’s
Rights of Magistrates (1757) and Buchanan’s The Law of
Scottish Kingship (1579). More intriguing is that John Adams
declared that John Poynet’s Short Treatise on Politike Power
(1556) contains “all the essential principles of liberty, which
were afterwards dilated on by Sidney and Locke.”


Since you fail [or decline] to present support in the Founding for Calvin OR opposition to Beza, the Vindiciae contra tyrannos, Vermigli, Buchanan, Ponet [Ponyet], and the all the rest of the Resistance theorists, John Calvin himself is immaterial to this discussion, and parsing his voluminous writings is a theological pastime, for the footnotes.


[As a point of order for the rabies theologorum portion of our program, my understanding is that the claim of Calvin's tenuous support for revolt is to be found in his later commentary on the book of Daniel, not his earlier masterwork Institutes of the Christian Religion. Your quotes from the latter are already stipulated.]

I believe everyone here has stipulated that the latter bans revolt. However, Calvin's stance may have grown fainter on this issue [especially in light of the persecution of Calvinists in Britain and France], and even if not, you yourself have stipulated that a sizable number of later Reformed thinkers rejected that ban completely--so far as to asserting that resistance to tyrants is a Christian duty.


It is that theology that the historian is interested in: The historical and even ecclesiastical fact is that the post-Calvin resistance theology won. Cousin America ran off with the Presbyterian parson, and right or wrong, as Walpole noted, that is the end of it.

jimmiraybob said...

"'Reformed' political thought had a strong influence on the history of the Founding."

Would this even be relevant to the middle and southern colonies?

Mark David Hall said...

Outside of New England, Calvinism was less dominant, but by 1776, Reformed congregations accounted for 51% and 58% of the churches in the middle and southern colonies respectively. Particularly noteworthy in these regions were Scottish and Scotch-Irish immigrants, most of whom were Presbyterian. In Pennsylvania, for instance, Presbyterians accounted for 30% of the population by 1790 and held 44% of the seats in the state legislature by the late 1770s. In the South, most political elites were Anglicans, but in the late eighteenth century, Presbyterianism was the fastest growing faith in the region, and its adherents were rapidly becoming a significant factor in state politics. J. C. D. Clark points out that well over a majority of the leaders of North Carolina’s militia were Presbyterian elders and that Presbyterians dominated the proceedings that produced the famous Mecklenburg Resolves, which reportedly declared that “all Laws and Commissions confirmed by, or derived from the Authority of the King or Parliament, are annulled and vacated” more than a year before the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Anglicans played a disproportionate role in leadership positions in the American founding on both sides. One could view the Whig/Tory split as a second English Civil War that took place in America. The Church of England by this time was a big tent. "Latitudinarianism" encompasses all sorts of doctrinal differences.

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