Friday, February 23, 2024

America: The Revived Roman Republic

Biblical conspiracy theorists hypothesize about the identity of the "revived Roman Empire" who will host the Antichrist during end times or something like that. 

I'm not getting into that.

Many different currents flowed into the ideological stream of the American Founding. The Greco-Roman current is unquestionably one of them. Though much emphasis needs to be added to the Roman part, especially the Stoic philosophy of those noble ancients.

Though I haven't read the book yet, Jeffrey Rosen's new book seems like one that will shed some much needed light on this particular dynamic. 

Set all of the conspiracy nonsense aside, one thing America's Founders explicitly seemed intent on was "reviving" not the evil Roman Empire of Caesar's tyranny, but rather that of the noble Stoic Roman Republicans whom those tyrannical Caesars wiped out.

But yes, understandably, for their time, what America's Founders did was "new" and thus in some meaningful way "different" than the ancient system that so inspired them.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Observations on Senator Josh Hawley's Christian Nation Piece Part II

See Part I here.

More from Sen. Hawley:
God gave rulers authority to command and coerce, but only insofar as they protected the liberties of the people. God instructed the people, in turn, to obey “the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1), but only insofar as the rulers honored their liberties. Winthrop envisioned a covenant made with God: Only a godly nation would win God’s favor and prosper under his direction of human affairs. But the political covenant was also—and this is crucial—an agreement between the rulers and the ruled. Should the authorities break the terms of God’s delegation of governance and assault the people’s freedoms, then the people had a right to defend themselves, even to rebel.

I emphasized what is in bold. This is an extremely loaded and contentious understanding of Romans 13. Great Britain, against whom America rebelled was every bit as "Christian" and "biblically informed" as America was and their political pulpits didn't understand Romans 13 with these qualifications. Arguably their understanding was the more "fundamentalist" in terms of a "literal" reading of the verse and chapter.

More from Hawley:

It is a small step from covenants to constitutions, and if this rehearsal of the evolution of early modern political thought brings to mind John Locke, it should. Locke learned covenantal theory from the French Calvinists and converted it (sometimes dubiously) to his own use. Thus, whether from the Puritan settlers or from the Calvinist-influenced Locke, covenant has long been in the American bloodstream. ...

There is precisely zero evidence that Locke learned covenantal theory from the French Calvinists. The American Founding had many different currents that flowed into its stream and the "Calvinist resisters" (as I like to call them) were certainly one of them. Locke was a much stronger current and he has nothing to do with them. There is a provable connection between Locke and Hobbes (and the Anglican divine Richard Hooker). 

Locke's teachings complete with the "state of nature/social contract and rights" (what he got from Hobbes) did find their way into the founding era "political sermons." But whether such teachings are in according with traditional Christianity is entirely debatable. 

More from Hawley:

I have attempted only the barest sketch of the Bible’s influence on America’s most enduring ideals. Others have traced the argument in greater detail. Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism demonstrates the Christian taproot of Western rights. In The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought, Eric Nelson identifies the biblical ground of our political institutions. There is real value in getting this history right, because it tells us what sort of society America has truly been. ...

I'm not familiar with Siedentop's work (though I hope one day to be), but am intimately familiar with Nelson's. Yes it's a work that all interested in this topic should check out. I'm not sure whether Hawley fully understands or accurately represents it in his brief mention. Nelson's thesis does not focus on America but rather prior European (it's in the title of the book!) writers (many of whom indeed did influence America's founders). And he connects their thought to all of the nations (mainly Western) that comprise "modernity." 

Nelson's work focuses on one group of thinkers -- the "republicans" -- in contrast to the "liberals." Madison's excerpt from Federalist 10 that I featured in Part I well represents the "liberal" perspective. And Madison's liberal view is in tension with the "Hebraic republican" view.

The bottom line is this: Madison didn't believe in limits on the accumulation of and the consequent redistribution of wealth. But the Hebraic republicans did. Indeed someone from the "Christian Left" who believe in such would find much ammo for their perspective in Nelson's book. 

Something else notable about the Hebraic republicans featured in Nelson's book is the content of their theology. I'm no theologian, so I'm not one to judge. But for those looking for "sound  theology" you really need to question their hermeneutics and exegesis. In short, they argued that the Old Testament taught "republican" form of government that demanded redistribution of wealth in the form of "agrarian laws." (They thought the way the OT dealt with debt and the Jubilee was an agrarian law.)

The way I see it, the concepts of "republican" government and "agrarian" laws have nothing to do with the Old Testament. But these thinkers (James Harrington of "Oceana" fame is one of the most notable) argued otherwise. I see them as grafting on post-hoc these Greco-Roman principles to the Old Testament.

Also note when the authors of the Federalist Papers discussed the concept of republican government precisely NONE of the Hebraic republican rhetoric was invoked. It was mostly Greco-Roman metaphor (just look that their surnames like Publius). 

A final point of analysis. More from Hawley:

... But the nation’s ideals, social institutions, and habits have all been Christianly shaped. And this is a good thing, maybe especially for Americans who are not Christians. Precisely because of the Christian influence, American society has protected the liberty of all to speak, to worship, to assemble and petition, to share in self-rule.

A little while ago, Hawley stepped in it by spreading a phony quotation attributed to Patrick Henry:

“It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason, peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.” 

The actual quotation came from 1956 in a magazine called The Virginian. It was from an article about Patrick Henry. It is good that Hawley doesn't repeat the error in this article. Though I do note that Hawley's sentiment seems influenced by the commentary from The Virginian. (No, it's not plagiarism; I'm just noting the apparent influence.) 

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Observations on Senator Josh Hawley's Christian Nation Piece Part I

He wrote this for First Things, a respected scholarly journal. Let me note up front I'm not interested in fighting political-cultural war battles over the "Christian Nation" issue. Plenty of folks on "the other side" have given Hawley hell over his positions here. Though, Hawley does posit his position in the context of fighting a political-culture war over this issue for his side. 

With that, I will make some observations on the soundness of his historical claims with a focus on his political-theology. 

Let's start with this passage from the good Senator:
... The Founders read Roman historians, yes. Some were influenced by Enlightenment philosophies. But the Bible has been the main source of our national ideals. From the age of the New England Puritans to the Great Awakening that prepared the ground for revolution, Scripture has molded our common life from the first. Consider: Our ideal of the individual has Christian roots. So too does our constitutionalism. Our great traditions of progressive reform were animated by an ardent Christian spirit—as was conservative resistance to their excesses. Even in our most bitter conflicts, Christian culture has been America’s common ground.

The term "national ideals" is amorphous political speak. I think where his claim is at its strongest is that Christianity was important at the cultural, local, decentralized level. Where it's at its weakest is that the ideas are responsible for the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution. One thing I do appreciate about the claim is that it (properly) intimates there are various ways of understanding the faith. A "Christian Left" for the progressives and a "Christian Right" who resist.

But what we will then see is that his idealized politics ends up "coloring" his theological understanding of Christianity, in "questionable" ways. His history likewise is cherry picked and idealized. 

Next passage:

Conservatives have their own version of the secular myth, one that usually comes with appeals to the market or James Madison or both. Some conservatives—the neoliberal types—argue that free-market exchange supplies all the common meaning we will ever need. We can unite in the cause of moneymaking, they say. But you don’t need a society for that. Corporations and trading zones will suffice. Other conservatives look to the Constitution for salvation, as if that document were a perpetual motion machine that can operate on its own, no common affections or moral purpose needed. Set faction against faction and the republic will endure forever! But Madison never said any such thing. He presumed a baseline of shared culture, language, and moral outlook—a very robust baseline, by modern standards. The truth is that no constitution, however well designed, can unite a people who do not hold a common conception of the good. No system of checks and balances can replace a common moral vision. 

I will let people read Madison's Federalist 10 to which was above alluded. Hawley puts words into Madison's mouth he never said, but on "set[ting] faction against faction," THIS is what Madison said:

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

This does resonate with the notion of setting factions against one another in a pluralistic, commercial republic. So maybe the conservative (or "neoliberal") "secular myth" has something to it at least with regards to Madison. 

More from Sen. Hawley:

... The Romans prized property rights—for certain people—and the Greeks and Romans both praised the liberty of the citizen to share in ruling the city, but the advent of individual liberty accompanied by personal rights awaited the New Testament’s announcement of freedom in Christ. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” the apostle Paul announced. This was deeply personal freedom of a radically new kind.

I think it's a fair point to credit Christianity for laying a fertile ground for the concept of individual, which as Hawley accurately notes, "[t]he West would spend centuries working out its implications," but it's simply mistaken or bad theology to attempt to credit Paul in these passages for preaching political liberty. That would come much, much later. The "centuries." Paul noted this in the context of also telling slaves to obey their masters, after all.

More from Sen. Hawley:

... The Ten Commandments (for example) are moral duties, to be sure, but they also adumbrate individual rights. They define the obligations of individuals, which entail the political freedoms individuals must enjoy in order to meet them. Over time, Christian theorists would come to see that God’s injunctions require the rights to worship, to marry, to pursue an honest profession, and to live generally in a manner pleasing to the Lord.

The term "over time" is what saves this passage. Yes, it took a long time. Any honest reading of the Ten Commandments though in particular are in tension with these freedoms, even if they are ultimately reconcilable from a Christian and biblical perspective. America's Founders were clear that the "rights to worship" applied universally, not just to Christians. This includes the inalienable right to break them by worshipping what some might see as false gods. 

More from Sen. Hawley:

Then there is constitutionalism, another Christian contribution to our nation’s identity. On board the Arbella as it was sailing for a new world, John Winthrop told his fellow colonists that they were making a covenant with God; they would be a “city upon a hill,” a light to all the world, a community committed to God’s law. Winthrop came by the idea of covenant naturally. Christians had been reading it in their Bibles for centuries. God made a covenant with Noah, and then with Abraham, and then with Moses and David after them. The God of the Bible was a covenant-making God. By the 1600s, Christian theorists had come to explain God’s purposes for government in terms of covenant.

I'm of the mind that America was "founded" in 1776, not 1619. The period to which Hawley refers was when America was actually Great Britain. These covenants were also done prior Britain's own Glorious Revolution (which led them in a more democratic-republican direction) and were explicitly done under the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, one thing against which America especially rebelled. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Who Were the Unitarians?

Much has been written here about the "unitarians" of the Founding era. John Adams averred he was one, as did Abigail Adams. But were they Christians?


Well, they certainly considered themselves Christians, and protested quite vociferously when accused of not being Christians, usually by competing "orthodox" clergy.

It all came to a head around 1815, when William Ellery Channing---generally regarded then (as now) as exemplary of that era's unitarianism---answered some prevailing charges against unitarianism in

A Letter to the Rev. Samuel C. Thacher on the Aspersions Contained in a Late Number of the Panoplist, on the Ministers of Boston and the Vicinity
.


Image result for 1815 A LETTER TO THE REV. SAMUEL C. THACHER ON THE ASPERSIONS CONTAINED IN A LATE NUMBER OF THE PANOPLIST, ON THE MINISTERS OF BOSTON AND THE VICINITY

Now, perhaps the defining feature of unitarianism was that it didn't believe in the Trinity---as John Adams noted, 1 + 1 + 1 would equal Three, not One. Hence the term "unitarian."

There were other orthodox doctrines rejected, too, namely, as Channing wrote:

"I fear, that the Author of the Lord's prayer will, according to this rule, be driven as a heretick from the very church which he has purchased with his own blood. In that well known prayer I can discover no reference to the "inspiration of the holy scriptures, to the supreme divinity of the Son and Holy Ghost, to the atonement and intercession of Jesus Christ, to the native and total depravity of the unregenerate, and to the reality and necessity of special divine grace to renew and sanctify the souls of men;" and these, let it be remembered, are _five_ out of the _six_ articles which are given by the Reviewer as fundamental articles of a christian's faith."


So that's what they didn't believe. So what did they believe? Channing wrote:

"The word UNITARIANISM, as denoting this opposition to Trinitarianism, undoubtedly expresses the character of a considerable part of the ministers of this town and its vicinity, and the commonwealth...We both agreed in our late conference, that a majority of our brethren believe, that Jesus Christ is more than man, that he existed before the world, that he literally came from heaven to save our race, that he sustains other offices than those of a teacher and witness to the truth, and that he still acts for our benefit, and is our intercessor with the Father. This we agreed to be the prevalent sentiment of our brethren." 


Is that Christian enough? Certainly not to the orthodox clergy and various laymen of the time who stood in opposition to them.

Probably not Christian enough for most Christian theologians of any stripe today, certainly not evangelical or orthodox.

But perhaps Christian enough for the sociologist or the historian. "Unitarian Christian" is my own preference, both descriptively and definitively, at least for our best understanding in this day and age. [Channing and others used "'rational' Christians," but in our day, I'm not sure that's helpful or descriptive enough, although it's certainly a proper term. Channing himself published a popular tract in 1819 called Unitarian Christianity.]

Do read Channing's letter for yourself, as there's more than can be sketched or excerpted here. It offers an excellent window into what is called the Unitarian Controversy today, and clearly outlines the issues and the players, a clarity we need to consider the unitarians properly in the scheme of things.


The primary qualitative sine qua non for an understanding of unitarianism as Christianity is a belief that the Bible is literally the Word of God--even if corrupted over the centuries by churches, churchmen and assorted prophets and scholars, even if well-intentioned. The following excerpt from Channing contains too many ellipses [by a Dr. Jan Garrett] to be taken as a primary source, but it conveys enough of the unitarian view of scripture to serve as a starting point.

1 Thes. v. 21: "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good."


I shall [try to explain] the [methods we use] in interpreting the Scriptures . . . and . . . some of the [teachings] that [they] . . . seem to us clearly to express.
I. We regard the Scriptures as the records of God's . . . revelations to mankind, . . . Whatever [ideas] seem to us to be clearly taught in the Scriptures, we receive without reserve . . . We do not, however, attach equal importance to all the books in this collection.
Our religion . . . lies chiefly in the New Testament. . . . whatever [Jesus . . . ] taught, either during his personal ministry, or by his . . . Apostles, we regard as of divine authority . . . This authority, which we give to the Scriptures, is a reason . . . for studying them with peculiar care, and for inquiring . . . into the principles of interpretation . . . by which their . . . meaning may be [determined] . . .
Our [primary guideline] in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for [human beings], in [human] language . . . and that its meaning is to be sought in the same [way] as that of other books. . . . God, when he speaks to the human race, [abides by] the established rules of speaking and writing. . . . Now all books, and all conversation, require in the reader or hearer the constant exercise of reason; . . . their . . . [meaning] is only to be obtained by continual comparison and inference. Human language, . . . admits various interpretations; and every word and every sentence must be modified and explained according to the subject which is discussed, according to the purposes, feelings, circumstances, and principles of the writer, and according to the [features] of the language . . . he uses. These are acknowledged principles in the interpretation of human writings . . .

One may protest this contains too much theological leeway to be considered "Christian," but as one unitarian argued in the 19th century, it certainly qualifies as Protestant!

Monday, December 25, 2023

On This Night in 1776, Washington and the Continental Army Save the Revolution

"Christmas, 6 P.M….It is fearfully cold and raw and a snow-storm setting in. The wind is northeast and beats in the faces of the men. It will be a terrible night for the soldiers who have no shoes. Some of them have tied old rags around their feet, but I have not heard a man complain….I have never seen Washington so determined as he is now….He stands on the bank of the stream, wrapped in his cloak, superintending the landing of his troops. He is calm and collected, but very determined. The storm is changing to sleet and cuts like a knife…." (from the Journal of Colonel John Fitzgerald, Continental Army, December 25, 1776)

On Christmas Night of 1776, approximately 2,400 soldiers of the Continental Army huddled together against the biting cold on the banks of the Delaware River.

Under the cloak of darkness and the relentless assault of winter, they were poised to navigate the treacherous, icy waters of the Delaware. Their destination: a surprise attack on the formidable Hessian mercenaries – a group renowned for their ruthless efficiency and, on a couple of occasions, brutality.

These were indeed the darkest hours for the fledgling American cause. At the onset of summer, General George Washington commanded a force of over 20,000. Now, thanks to disease, defeat, and desertion, fewer than 3,000 remained.

Yet, in this hour of despair...

General Washington's determination and the courage of the Continental Army would save the American cause.

You can read more about Washington's crossing of the Delaware and the battle at Trenton at Mount Vernon's website...

The Trenton-Princeton Campaign

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

‘To fear God: Masonic thought at the Founding’

    
For a glimpse into Masonic thought at the creation of the United States, I share with American Creation a small portion of a sermon delivered before a group of Freemasons in 1784 on St. John the Evangelist Day, one of two feast days traditionally celebrated in Freemasonry. December 27 has been reserved for historic occasions, such as the founding of the United Grand Lodge of England in 1813; and standard events, such as the following church sermon, alike.


To Fear God:
The 1784 St. John’s Day Sermon 


On St. John the Evangelist Day 1784 at Morristown, New Jersey The Rev. Uzal Ogden delivered a sermon before Lodge No. 10. As best I can determine, he was not a Freemason, but with the surname Ogden, it is easy to see he had family connections to the fraternity, most probably to Moses Ogden and others at St. John’s Lodge in Newark. As for Lodge No. 10, this is the mysterious lodge in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, chartered by the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania. 

From the 1781 Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania Book of Proceedings. It’s a safe bet that this Dr. Blatchley is Bro. Ebenezer Blatchley, a Past Master of Lodge No. 10 who, in 1787, retroactively signed onto the formation of the Grand Lodge of New Jersey. Little is known about the lodge, except that it was chartered in 1767 by the Provincial Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania (Antients) and was empowered to meet within five miles of Basking Ridge.

The reverend
, an Episcopalian, was known to preach at Trinity Church in Newark and at the more famous Trinity Church in Manhattan, as well as at St. John’s Church in Elizabethtown. He graduated from Princeton University at age 18, and was ordained in 1773 at 29. He was an experienced speaker by age 40 when he preached this sermon to the local Freemasons, and he did so without notes. The reason we have it today is the lodge requested a written copy for publication, causing the reverend to put quill to paper after the fact. Historically, we readers find ourselves one year after the Revolutionary War ended and almost two years before the founding of the Grand Lodge of New Jersey.

This sermon is far too long to reproduce here, so I will summarize one of its four key ideas: “to notice what it is to ‘fear God.’”

What is it to fear God? When the candidate for the degrees of Freemasonry seeks admission to any of New Jersey’s lodges, the Worshipful Master orders that he be in “the fear of the Lord” upon entering. It must be important because it’s in all three degrees. It is more specific than belief in a higher power. What does it mean?

To fear God, Ogden said, is to love or to serve Him. He illustrates this with multiple quotations of Scripture, including two attributed to King Solomon: “It shall be well with those who fear God.” (Ecclesiastes 8:12) And “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10)

By the fear of God, he continues, “we are to understand a due observance of religion, which it may be said, consists of three particulars: knowledge, faith, and practice.”

“The first principle of religious knowledge requisite we should be acquainted with,” Ogden says, “is that there exists some Being superior to ourselves, who gave excellence to Creation, who inhabits eternity, whose knowledge is infinite, whose presence fills all space, whose power preserves and sustains all nature, and who possesses all possible perfection.”

“Can we behold the heavens above or the earth beneath,” he adds, “without acknowledging the infinite power, wisdom, and goodness displayed by some, though to us, invisible Architect?” 

Faith, Ogden’s second particular in fearing God, also is the first of the principal rounds of the ladder—Faith, Hope, and Charity—reaching to Heaven that Freemasonry discusses in its First Degree. Ogden begins: “But it is to no purpose we are informed of these things unless we believe them. ‘Without faith,’ it is said, ‘it is impossible to please God, for he that comes to Him must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him.’”

“To hope for the friendship of God,” he adds, “while we disclaim His authority…would be irrational, as futile, as it would be to…behold the light if deprived of the organs of vision!”

Of the third of his particulars—practice—Rev. Ogden is all about character. “Although it is most reasonable we should offer to our Almighty Creator and divine benefactor the oblation of our hearts; and though Christianity is calculated to deliver us from infamy and woe, and to exalt us to honor and happiness, how often are its benefits rejected?” he asks. “How many are there, even of those professing to revere this dispensation of mercy, who live regardless of its precepts, and who, in their actions with men are so far from ‘doing as they would be done unto,’ that no feelings of humanity, no sense of honor, nor any fear of divine vengeance, nor any thing but present punishment can divert them from acts of dishonesty, barbarity, and flagrant impiety?” 


While there is no obvious documentation of Rev. Uzal Ogden being a Freemason, it is clear that Lodge No. 10 chose its speaker for St. John the Evangelist Day wisely. He anticipated his audience and crafted his remarks accordingly, and we are fortunate the lodge opted to have his sermon printed so posterity may enjoy it.
     

Friday, November 10, 2023

John Locke on Romans 13 and the duty to obey the government

 Today, John Locke is held to be an Enlightenment philosopher, "Enlightenment" used as rationalism in contradistinction to religious faith and the Christian Bible. However, the Founders largely considered him simply a very smart and elegant Christian thinker. What is not largely known even among scholars is that Locke's final life project, after the [anonymous!] publishing of his historic Two Treatises of Government, was a study of Paul the Apostle's Epistles.



Re Romans 13:1

"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."

this passage was and is the most troublesome political passage in the New Testament, and was responsible for literally millions of words exchanged on the question of political liberty. Men like John Calvin largely took it as an absolute prohibition against anything resembling revolution or revolt against even the meanest of rulers.


John Locke's treatment of Romans 13 is pretty straightforward: Christians are not exempt from obeying lawful authority just by virtue of being Christian. They have to obey the same laws as everybody else.

But on what is "lawful authority," Locke says Paul the apostle "is wholly silent, and says nothing of it," because for Paul or Jesus "to meddle with that, would have been to decide of civil rights, contrary to the design and business of the Gospel"---which of course was the business of salvation, of preparing for the next world, not this one.

Locke notes that it was Paul's intention and prudence, that such "sauciness, sedition or treason" was, in those times of Roman "insolent and vicious" rule, a "scandal to be cautiously kept off the Christian doctrine!" [The exclamation point is Locke's.]

Thus Paul's admonition is not one of political or theological right, but merely of prudence.

Founding era preacher William Ellery Channing made a similar argument about why the New Testament didn't explicitly ban slavery: "a religion, preaching freedom to the slave, would have shaken the social fabric to its foundation, and would have armed against itself the whole power of the state." Jesus didn't preach violent revolution, that his church would be arming itself against the whole power of the state. Indeed, we recall that many were disappointed he wasn't that kind of Messiah.

But that is not a Biblical endorsement of slavery either:

The perversion of Scripture to the support of slavery is singularly inexcusable in this country. Paul not only commanded slaves to obey their masters. He delivered these precepts: "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." This passage was written in the time of Nero. It teaches passive obedience to despotism more strongly than any text teaches the lawfulness of slavery. Accordingly, it has been quoted for ages by the supporters of arbitrary power, and made the stronghold of tyranny. 
Did our fathers acquiesce in the most obvious interpretation of this text? Because the first Christians were taught to obey despotic rule, did our fathers feel as if Christianity had stripped men of their rights? Did they argue, that tyranny was to be excused, because forcible opposition to it is in most cases wrong? Did they argue, that absolute power ceases to be unjust, because, as a general rule, it is the duty of subjects to obey? Did they infer that bad institutions ought to be perpetual, because the subversion of them by force will almost always inflict greater evil than it removes? 
No; they were wiser interpreters of God's Word. They believed that despotism was a wrong, notwithstanding the general obligation upon its subjects to obey; and that whenever a whole people should so feel the wrong as to demand its removal, the time for removing it had fully come. Such is the school in which we here have been brought up. To us, it is no mean proof of the divine original of Christianity, that it teaches human brotherhood and favors human rights; and yet, on the ground of two or three passages, which admit different constructions, we make Christianity the minister of slavery, the forger of chains for those whom it came to make free.

Thus Romans 13 can turn Christianity into the ally of tyranny by its acquiescence to it. Further, sayeth Locke, the "lawful authority" question must be decided by worldly standards, to be "determined by the laws and constitution of their country."

And so, if a legal argument to separate from Britain's constitutional monarchy could be made---and indeed the 27 "repeated injuries and usurpations" in the Declaration of Independence like "For imposing taxes on us without our consent" (taxation without representation) was such an attempt---then there was no theological impediment per Romans 13 to such a separation.

Further, Locke asserts "the doctrine of Christianity was the doctrine of liberty," using for his example that 
Christians were "freed" from observing the "Mosaical" law.

In other words, Locke is dispensing with any supernatural argument that unlawful rulers should be obeyed because it's God's will because Romans 13 says so. According to John Locke, it doesn't say that.



[ HT to Ben Abbott for the citation and link.]

CHAP. XIII. 1—7.
This section contains the duty of christians to the civil magistrate: for the understanding this right, we must consider these two things:
1. That these rules are given to christians, that were members of a heathen commonwealth, to show them that, by being made christians and subjects of Christ’s kingdom, they were not, by the freedom of the gospel, exempt from any ties of duty, or subjection, which by the laws of their country, they were in, and ought to observe, to the government and magistrates of it, though heathens, any more than any of their heathen subjects. But, on the other side, these rules did not tie them up, any more than any of their fellow-citizens, who were not christians, from any of those due rights, which, by the law of nature, or the constitutions of their country, belonged to them. Whatsoever any other of their fellow-subjects, being in a like station with them, might do without sinning, that they were not abridged of, but might do still, being christians. The rule here being the same with that given by St. Paul, 1 Cor. vii. 17, “As God has called every one, so let him walk.” The rules of civil right and wrong, that he is to walk by, are to him the same they were before.

2. That St. Paul, in this direction to the romans, does not so much describe the magistrates that then were in Rome, as tells whence they, and all magistrates, everywhere, have their authority; and for what end they have it, and should use it. And this he does, as becomes his prudence, to avoid bringing any imputation on christians, from heathen magistrates, especially those insolent and vicious ones of Rome, who could not brook any thing to be told them as their duty, and so might be apt to interpret such plain truths, laid down in a dogmatical way, into sauciness, sedition, or treason, a scandal cautiously to be kept off from the christian doctrine! nor does he, in what he says, in the least flatter the roman emperor, let it be either Claudius, as some think, or Nero, as others, who then was in possession of that empire. For he here speaks of the higher powers, i. e. the supreme, civil power, which is, in every commonwealth, derived from God, and is of the same extent everywhere, i. e. is absolute and unlimited by any thing, but the end for which God gave it, viz. the good of the people, sincerely pursued, according to the best of the skill of those who share that power, and so not to be resisted. But, how men come by a rightful title to this power, or who has that title, he is wholly silent, and says nothing of it. To [405] have meddled with that, would have been to decide of civil rights, contrary to the design and business of the gospel, and the example of our Saviour, who refused meddling in such cases with this decisive question, “Who made me a judge, or divider, over you?” Luke xii. 14.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

How Dr. Waligore Categorizes Different Theologies


This post is intended to be a brief overview of Dr. Joseph Waligore's new book on deism. I plan on having much more to say, but in this post, I try to hit some main points.

Waligore observes and constructs a number of different theological categories in his analysis to compare and contrast with the theology of deism. "Christianity" generally requires belief in orthodox Trinitarian doctrine and authority of the entire Bible (it's mainly Protestant Christianity that is being analyzed, so it would be the 66 book Protestant canon). 

There is one kind of "traditional Christianity" that, for lack of better words, is neither "freethinking" nor "ecumenical" on doctrine and dogma. Even though many more than two traditions within Christianity could be invoked to serve this purpose, it's mainly Calvinism and High Church Anglicanism that serve as useful guideposts in his book. (Though other forms, like Arminianism are also analyzed.)

Waligore observes the voyage of (Protestant) Christianity to Deism, by noting two OTHER Christian traditions that in the 17th Century started to engage in "doctrinal freethinking" for lack of a better term. The Cambridge Platonists and the Latitudinarians (the name refers to "latitude" on matters of doctrine). Though the reason why they merit the label "Christian" is again, they tended to endorse orthodox Trinitarian doctrine and the authority of the entire Bible.

One potential point of criticism is as much as we want figures to neatly fit into different "boxes" that we construct for a better, more accurate understanding, is that people often don't neatly fit into those boxes. For instance, Samuel Clarke gets put in the "Latitudinarian" not "Unitarian" box; though arguably he could fit into either one. The boxes tend to bleed into one another. 

But the pages I included in the photos on the Cambridge Platonists illustrate such freethinking (many of them seemed to flirt with some kind of modified universalism, and belief that human souls pre-existed and exercised their will prior to their physical birth, among other things). Yet, they remain "Christian" because, again, they claimed their heterodox ideas didn't contradict either the Bible or the doctrines of the Church of England.

By the time we get to the Unitarians, they lose the label "Christian" because of their disbelief in the Trinity. But Waligore stresses that they tended to have more respect for the entire Bible than the deists did. 

And that sets the stage for an intense, meticulous analysis of the various forms of deism. And the chief message of this book is that while there are certain points that can be drawn to form a "deist" creed, belief in a non-intervening watchmaker God was actually a minority belief among the deists. Deism came in many varieties and most of them believed in a Providential God. And for those who did believe in Providence, they much more freely "picked and chose" what parts of the Bible they thought legitimately revealed and which parts they thought not. 

Waligore also stresses that while the deists in general venerated man's reason as a discerner of truth, the notion that God was ultimately benevolent was the primary lens through which they viewed theology. Anything part of traditional Christianity or any other creed that they deemed made God look less than perfectly benevolent was cast aside.

Dr. Joseph Waligore's New Book on Deism



I've been absent from blogging for a few months because of a busy work-life (better to be busy than not!), but I've been planning on writing a great deal on this book by Dr. Joseph Waligore, in part because he closely reads our American Creation blog and our research has influenced the contents of this book.

I plan on having a lot more to say on the contents of this book; but it is a true "game changer" on how to understand the definition of "deism." Now, the current scholarly consensus defines deism as belief in 1. a non-intervening cold, distant watchmaker God who; 2. issues no special revelation, performs no miracles, doesn't communicate to man and consequently to whom praying would be a waste of time.

Waligore demonstrates that this definition is mistaken. Now, it's possible that because of how terms are understood in academic and other discourse, that we are "stuck" with this definition for now. However, keep in mind then that many of the historical figures whom we associate with "deism" from Washington, Franklin and Jefferson to Robespierre and many other figures of the French Revolution were not "deists." We need either a different term, or we need to qualify the term "deist" with an adjective like "warm deist," "providential deist," "Christian-Deist" etc., etc. 

Friday, July 14, 2023

AI Art -- American Revolutionary Period

Not sure how many of you have jumped on the AI art trend, but I thought I'd try something a little light today. Something not too intellectually heavy and (hopefully) not too controversial -- though I know many people detest artificial intelligence (AI) and all it stands for. But I'm not selling these. Just doing these for fun. So, here are some of my recent AI art creations inspired by the American Revolutionary time period. 

A Black soldier in the Continental Army

A Colonial American woman baking in her home

A blacksmith works in his shop

A British drummer boy

I know I haven't posted much in a while. Been busy. But if you like these, I may post some more. 

And, eventually, I may try to post some articles again. :-)

Blessings to all!

Friday, May 12, 2023

"Levelling" the Playing Field: John Lilburne, the Levellers and Combining the Protestant/Enlightenment Models of Resistance Theory

 

Resistance Theory, or the study of how different groups and individuals came to justify their opposition to authority, has emerged as a pivotal battlefield for modern historians.  In recent years, this battle seems to be waged by scholars who advocate for either the Protestant Reformers or Enlightenment thinkers as being the principal agents whose teachings and efforts proved most significant in fostering the ideas behind Resistance Theory.  And while efforts have been made to bridge both the ideas of Protestant Reformers and Enlightenment thinkers into a cohesive narrative that explains the origins of Resistance Theory, the gap between these supposed rivals remains. 

The 17th century witnessed significant political and social upheaval in England, particularly with regards to how nobility and citizenry came to define their relationship to one another.  In many respects, this era was the defining period for how Western Civilization would negotiate the bond between rulers and subordinates and the duties of each.  It is during this era that a group known as the Levellers emerged as a powerful and potent voice that came to embody many of the key elements of Resistance Theory.  Led by their fearless advocate John Lilburne, the Levellers developed a unique justification for opposition to authority that came to personify the very best of both the Protestant Reformers and the Enlightenment thinkers, making them the quintessential bridge that ostensibly links these apparent rivals.

The Protestant Arguments for Resistance Theory

            To better understand how the Levellers serve as a bridge linking both the Protestant and Enlightenment contributions to Resistance Theory, a general review of some of the key arguments behind both the Protestant and the Enlightenment ethic is warranted.  For the Protestant camp, scholars have, in recent years, insisted that many if not most of the ideas deemed special to Enlightenment thinkers were present in the Reformed traditions of Protestant Reformers.[1]  In essence, it was the fires of Protestantism, sparked and fueled by the difficulties of the Reformation, in which early reformers found the justifications to oppose their authority figures. 

This is no small claim, since Christianity itself had served as the justification behind Divine Right Kingship throughout Europe.  One example of this subjugation was the way in which Paul’s admonition to the Romans was afforded significant (or even histrionic) significance in what the Medieval world would call the Divine Right of Kings.

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 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.[2]

One would be hard pressed to find a set of verses in all Christian scripture that have caused more anxiety and debate in the study of Resistance Theory than these few words from Paul.  For centuries they came to dominate much of the public discourse on the question of how a “good Christian” should submit to authority, and when “righteous rebellion” to God’s chosen leaders was warranted.  Divine Right Kingship was not some passing fad that simply faded with time but rather was the bedrock for organizing the whole of society.  As one historian of Divine Right Kingship put it:

That the ideal State is the kingdom of God upon earth, and that no other can be an object of veneration to a Christian, is the notion that lies at the heart of Medieval Europe…the Pope, as most plainly the depositary of Divine Authority, afterwards the Emperor, as called to his office by God’s election and appointment, claims to be the true and supreme head of the Christian commonwealth, by Divine Right of the Lord of the world.[3]   

God’s division of responsibility between Pope and King meant that matters both spiritual and temporal had been given their divine sanction.  For the common Christian, this meant that both religious and governmental superiors exercised substantial influence on a laity now made fully dependent upon their will and pleasure.[4]

            Scholars who advocate for the Reformation Era as the nucleus of Resistance Theory ideology are quick to point to figures like John Wycliffe, who paved the way for later Protestant Reformers by attacking these foundations of Divine Right Kingship.  Wycliffe is significant because he not only opposed the rulers of his time, but he also led a movement of followers who took up his cause and carried it to the masses.  Known as the Lollards by their detractors, these followers of Wycliffe breathed new oxygen into the fire that Wycliffe had ignited through his extremely incendiary rhetoric.  Wycliffe was never one to shy away from taking shots at the ecclesiastical authorities of his time, particularly bishops, abbots and monks, whom he called “heretics” who “sacrifice unto idols…even more than the sacrifices of the priests of Baal” and whose form of worship “give their attention to ritual, flattery detraction and falsehood, rejecting scripture and neglecting to rebuke sin.”[5] And to his secular leaders, Wycliffe was equally harsh, calling the reign of King Richard, II not sanctioned by divinity.[6] 

These teachings, spread throughout Europe by both Wycliffe and his Lollards, posed a clear threat to both the authority of the Church and the king, and served as the inspiration for later Protestant Reformers who would take up Wycliffe’s mantle and advocate for opposition to authority.   In addition, the fact that England already seemed to embrace a spirit of reform before the Reformation even began indicates that the fires of popular dissent were already spreading before Luther or Calvin ever came on the scene.  As one historian has noted, “The ingredients of early Protestantism proved already numerous in the reign of Henry VIII, yet among them Lutheranism may scarcely be regarded as predominant, and Calvinism as yet remained almost negligible…we may now confidently ascribe a role of some importance on the popular level to the still vital force of Lollardy.”[7] 

When Luther, Calvin, etc. finally come on the scene, the initial flame of resistance to authority had already been stoked.  The Reformers themselves took the torch of Resistance Theory and added their ow unique perspectives to the narrative.  For men like Luther and Calvin, the issue of opposition to authority was as divisive (if not more so) as issues like sacraments, baptism and Biblical infallibility.  For example, Martin Luther’s understanding of the Apostle Paul’s admonition to “be subject unto the higher powers” that are “ordained of God” (as found in Romans, 13) were not subject to man’s personal interpretation.  In other words, there were limits to how far one could oppose his Sovereign.  As Luther stated in his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Romans, chapter 13 was “truly a most important piece of the New Testament.”[8]  And like the rest of his emerging theology, Luther encapsulated his understanding of Romans, 13 into the framework of his emerging theology on grace vs. works.  As Luther stated:

You must not understand the word law here in human fashion, i.e., a regulation about what sort of works must be done or must not be done. That's the way it is with human laws: you satisfy the demands of the law with works, whether your heart is in it or not. God judges what is in the depths of the heart. Therefore his law also makes demands on the depths of the heart and doesn't let the heart rest content in works; rather it punishes as hypocrisy and lies all works done apart from the depths of the heart.[9]

Luther added clarity to his position on Romans, 13 when he stated unequivocally that leaders were to be obeyed, even when they are evil.  As he stated, “subjects are to be obedient and are even to suffer wrong from their tyrants.”  Luther defended this position when he wrote:

There are some who abuse this office, and strike and kill people needlessly simply because they want to. But that is the fault of the persons, not of the office, for where is there an office or a work or anything else so good that self-willed, wicked people do not abuse it?...Ultimately, they cannot escape God’s judgment and sword. In the end God’s justice finds them and strikes, as happened to the peasants in the revolt.[10]

In Luther’s mind the words of Paul as found in Romans were crystal clear.  A Christian needed to take extreme care, considering the words of scripture before choosing to rebel against their God-chosen authorities.  And as Paul pointed out, support for one’s authority was God’s will, even when those leaders were in the wrong.  These concepts were not lost on Martin Luther, as evidenced by his words and teachings which endorse caution and submission as opposed to outright opposition.   

Martin Luther was not the lone voice of the Protestant Reformation who saw limitations to one’s opposition of authority.  Years later, John Calvin would also weigh in on the matter of how far was too far when it came to open opposition to one’s divinely sanctioned leader.  In his own commentary on the Book of Romans, Calvin spoke openly about one’s Christian duty to oppose authority.  He wrote:

[Paul] calls them the higher powers, not the supreme, who possess the chief authority, but such as excel other men…And it seems indeed to me, that the Apostle intended by this word to take away the frivolous curiosity of men, who are won’t often to inquire by what right they who rule have obtained their authority; but it ought to be enough for us, that they do rule; for they have not ascended by their own power into this high station, but have been placed there by the Lord’s hand. And by mentioning every soul, he removes every exception, lest any one should claim an immunity from the common duty of obedience.[11]

 

And while Calvin acknowledged the Christian duty to oppose unrighteous authority, he too expressed his opinion regarding the limitations expressly mentioned in Paul’s message to the Romans.  In his Institutes on the Christian Religion, Calvin writes, "We are to be subject not only to the authority of those princes who do their duty towards us as they should, and uprightly, but to all of them, however they came by their office, even if the very last thing they do is act like [true] princes."  Calvin also noted, “[w]e must honour [even] the worst tyrant in the office in which the Lord has seen fit to set him"[12]  In other words, John Calvin shared Martin Luther’s hesitation regarding opposition for authority.  There were clear limitations that had to be respected, even if a tyrant was ruling in the most unrighteous of ways. 

It may seem somewhat contradictory in nature to read Reformers like Calvin and Luther both sanctioning and opposing the concept of opposition to authority, but this contradiction illustrates the complexity that is found in Resistance Theory.  Protestant Reformers knew and understood that problems existed in the church hierarchy, and that said problems could not be ignored.  But at the same time, they also felt that absolute opposition constituted a potential breakdown of the social hierarchy, not to mention a blatant disregard for the admonitions of God found in holy scripture.  As one historian who advocates for the Protestant origins of Resistance Theory has reminded us, the Reformers never meant to overthrow the established order but rather to help cleanse the faith by “returning the church to where it should be.”[13]  A complete coup d’etat was never something they would have sanctioned.  Fellow Reformer Philip Melanchthon supports this understanding of resistance to authority when he wrote:

            But here the question is asked: If violation of civil laws is a mortal sin, what                                   should be thought about the violation of ecclesiastical laws which are laid down                           by bishops?  I answer: First of all, one must not obey traditions while militate                                    against a commandment of God, whether they originated with magistrates that                              bear the sword or with bishops, because one must obey God rather than men.[14]

 

The Era of the Protestant Reformation was witness to the proliferation of a vast number of different Protestant denominations.  This proliferation of Protestant denominations was at least in part inspired by the idea that an individual could read and interpret scripture for himself.  Prominent theologians such as Martin Luther, John Calvin and others argued that conscience, guided by one's personal interpretation of scripture, should take precedence over the dictates of religious and political authorities. This elevation of conscience as a moral compass was the foundational concept of how the Protestant Reformation furthered the cause of Resistance Theory.[15]

One of the primary issues many historians have with giving Protestant Reformers credit for helping to give birth to resistance theory has to do with the doctrines found in Protestantism itself.[16]  For example, if humanity is in a state of total depravity and God has chosen, of his own free will, his select few to be saved by unconditional election, how does resistance to authority become a thing in the first place?

What these skeptics fail to recognize is the fact that the Protestant Reformation was not a movement conceived in a bubble and limited to a small geographic location, in a specific period of history.  Instead, the Protestant Reformation was a living, growing movement that spread far and wide, and was never officially concluded at any specific moment of the past.  The Reformation continued to move forward, influencing various nations, cultures, and historic periods.  Consequently, we must then be forced to look at the evolution of resistance theory in the same light as we see a living, evolving and changing Reformation.  The Protestant Reformation did not live and die simply with Luther or Calvin, and the same is true of resistance theory.            

The Enlightenment Arguments for Resistance Theory

This apparent contradiction or limitation on the justification for opposition to authority is where skeptics of the Protestant Reformation model for the origins of Resistance Theory tend to focus their criticism.  Protestant Reformers went only so far in their arguments directed to inspire opposition.  It is that limitation that makes some historians lean toward the thinkers of the Enlightenment as being the actual gatekeepers for Resistance Theory.   As these historians will regularly point out, The Protestant Reformation advanced the cause of Resistance Theory only as far as it benefited their respective Protestant doctrine.  Beyond that, there was no need to champion the cause of open defiance to the political authorities.[17]

            For scholars of the Enlightenment persuasion being the principal motivation behind Resistance Theory, an appeal to the words of men like John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes and others constitute the bulwark of Resistance Theory doctrine. 

Beginning with Locke, these scholars are quick to demonstrate how the empirical approach of Enlightenment thinkers breathed new life into old institutions.  Locke’s views on religion have been thoroughly dissected by scholars of all stripes.  And while many historians are quick to point out that Locke was anything but orthodox in his religious persuasions, one would be extremely hard pressed to say that Locke cared nothing for religion at all.  As one biographer of John Locke put is, “Locke was concerned not only with religious toleration by the state, but also with mutual toleration of different sects, churches and their members.”[18]

And with this toleration, John Locke was free to explore avenues of thought that were not necessarily available to his predecessors like Calvin or Luther.  For example, Locke’s interpretation of Romans, 13 presents several unique points that not only build off of earlier opinions of key Protestant Reformers, but also present a clear path for resistance theory to flourish:

That these rules are given to Christians, that were members of a heathen commonwealth, to show them that, by being made Christians and subjects of Christ’s kingdom, they were not, by the freedom of the gospel, exempt from any ties of duty, or subjection, which by the laws of their country, they were in, and ought to observe, to the government and magistrates of it…But, on the other side, these rules did not tie them up, any more than any of their fellow-citizens, who were not Christians, from any of those due rights, which, by the law of nature, or the constitutions of their country, belonged to them. Whatsoever any other of their fellow-subjects, being in a like station with them, might do without sinning, that they were not abridged of, but might do still, being Christians…That St. Paul, in this direction to the romans, does not so much describe the magistrates that then were in Rome, as tells whence they, and all magistrates, everywhere, have their authority; and for what end they have it, and should use it.  And this he does, as becomes his prudence, to avoid bringing any imputation on Christians, from heathen magistrates, especially those insolent and vicious ones of Rome, who could not brook any thing to be told them as their duty, and so might be apt to interpret such plain truths, laid down in a dogmatical way, into sauciness, sedition, or treason, a scandal cautiously to be kept off from the Christian doctrine![19]

Unlike Luther and Calvin, Locke believed that the “magistrate” was meant to protect the masses from a tyrant, and absolute allegiance to God’s Sovereign was not absolute.  In other words, Locke understood Paul’s admonition to the Romans to be a loose guide but not an absolute admonition to always acquiesce to one’s leader.    Locke made this position clear when he wrote, “Our present King William…in the consent of the people, which being the only one of all lawful governments, he has more fully and clearly, than any prince in Christendom.”[20]  Contrary to the words of Protestant Reformers,  Locke gives the specific understanding that submission to one’s leader was contingent upon the rules of law and the consent of the people, which was absent from the Protestant arguments for opposition to authority. 

            Scholars advocating for the Enlightenment model for Resistance Theory do not rely on Locke alone.  Other thinkers like Baron de Montesquieu made mention of how authority was never meant to receive absolute sanction without limitation.  As he wrote in The Spirit of Laws, “The political liberty, of the subject, is a tranquility of mind arising from the opinion each person has of [their] safety. In order to have this liberty. It is requisite the government be so constituted as one [person] need not to be afraid of another.”[21]  Thomas Hobbs echoes these sentiments in his legendary work Leviathan when he wrote:

Because the major part hath by consenting voices declared a sovereign, he that dissented must now consent with the rest; that is, be contented to avow all the actions he shall do, or else justly be destroyed by the rest. For if he voluntarily entered into the congregation of them that were assembled, he sufficiently declared thereby his will, and therefore tacitly covenanted, to stand to what the major part should ordain: and therefore if he refuse to stand thereto, or make protestation against any of their decrees, he does contrary to his covenant, and therefore unjustly.[22]

            There is no dispute that Enlightenment teachings had spread a great deal across Europe.  The dissemination of such ideas inspired important writings that would contribute to the concept of Resistance Theory.  One of the most important of these writings was the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants), written at some point in the middle of the sixteenth century, which was an anonymous treatise that defiantly suggested that the people at large were never responsible for obeying their king.  Appealing to biblical examples in which opposition to authority was warranted by God himself, the Vindiciae portrayed the relationship between king and subordinate as a covenant in which all honor and reverence to God’s laws was promised by the monarch, who in turn received the adoration and allegiance of his subjects.  Any violation of this arrangement was a breach of the covenant and merited the wrath of God’s vengeance.[23]  

Another important document inspired during this time was that of Scottish Presbyterian minister Samuel Rutherford, who in the 17th century published his landmark work Lex Rex (The Law is King) which openly and defiantly challenged the concept of Divine Right Kingship.  As Rutherford put it, “The people have power over the king by reason of his covenant and promise. — Covenants and promises violated, infer co-action, de jure, by law.”[24]

In the minds of scholars who favor Enlightenment thinking as being the chief motivator behind Resistance Theory, it is obvious that the ideas of Locke, Hobbs, Rutherford, etc. are the engines behind the justification for resistance to authority.  Protestant Reformers came up short, and therefore do not deserve the ultimate credit for Resistance Theory.  It is in the Enlightenment that Western Civilization found its justification for the eventual revolutions and oppositions to kings that would ultimately spread throughout Europe and the Americas.

John Lilburne, The Levellers, and Uniting the Protestant/Enlightenment Models

            As already stated, the concept of Resistance Theory has become a virtual tug-o-war between scholars advocating for the Protestant Reformers vs. those in favor of Enlightenment thinkers, each vying for ultimate control of the narrative behind opposition to authority.  And while these debates have yielded much fruit, they have failed to consider how both models have been adopted in the past.  The legacy of John Lilbure and the Levellers is one that merges the best arguments of both the Protestant and the Enlightenment traditions, creating a seamless narrative that gives credence to the whole of Resistance Theory.

When we consider the legacy of John Lilburne, the English writer and activist who is often credited with being the first to argue for “human free born rights,” we must consider what it was that inspired him in the first place.  Lilburne Biographer Pauline Gregg notes that John Lilburne was a man who “had a sense of destiny” who had “amalgamated all that had preceded him.”[25]  Lilburne’s “sense of destiny” certainly accounts for his willingness to boldly decry and lambast the leaders of his time, which gave him tremendous clout during the critical years of the English Civil War.  As another Lilburne Biographer states, “Lilburne was a key figure in the religious opposition of Charles I…and was a significant player in the rift of parliamentary coalition…Lilburne’s positions, then and now, help mark out our own positions in relation to political tyranny.”[26] 

In his writings and public declarations, Lilburne employed the ideas of both Protestant Reformers and Enlightenment thinkers to justify his blatant opposition to authority.  He constructed his understanding on both the backs of men like Luther and Calvin, while at the same time throwing punches with the arms of Locke and Hobbes.  This amalgamation of both the Protestant and the Enlightenment ideas eventually gave birth to a concept of Resistance Theory that embodied the best of both worlds.   

A perfect example of this fusion of Protestant and Enlightenment arguments can be found in Lilburne’s famous pamphlet, “To all the Freeborne People of England” in which Lilburne states, “No power on earth can lawfully force or compel me to believe otherwise than my own conscience dictates.”[27]  Here, Lilburne invokes the Protestant notion of individual conscience as a justification for opposing authority and interpreting scripture for oneself.  At the same time, Lilburne appealed to the Enlightenment idea regarding natural rights and natural law when he stated, “Liberty of conscience, being every man's natural right…it is not to be judged or cut off by human authority, but by the Word of God.”[28]  Lilburne reiterates this Enlightenment theme of natural rights in his pamphlet “England’s Birthright Justified when he writes, “I am born a free-born Englishman, and have as much right to my liberty, to my just propriety, and to my body and soul as any Lord in England.”[29] By appealing to the natural rights of individuals, Lilburne argued that authority should be limited and accountable to the people it governed.

Lilburne’s work inspired his supporters, known as The Levellers, to take up the cause of opposition to authority.  The Levellers came to detest the religious domination of both the Catholic Church and the Church of England, which is where the root of their opposition to authority began to sink deeply into the ground.  The Levellers successfully synthesized both Protestant and Enlightenment concepts to construct a robust justification for opposition to authority.  As one scholar has noted, “By combining the Protestant emphasis on individual conscience and the Enlightenment focus on reason and natural rights, [the Levellers] developed a comprehensive framework for challenging authoritarian rule.”[30]  In essence, this became the Leveller’s hallmark contribution to Resistance Theory. 

In terms of their ability to merge both the Protestant and Enlightenment models, the Levellers took from each model the best that each camp had to offer.  From the Protestant model the Levellers were profoundly influenced by the idea of covenant theology, which emphasized the contractual nature or relationship between God and humanity at large.  In essence, the Levellers found in the Protestant concept of covenant theology and framework in which could be constructed a model for the relationship between one’s sovereign and the masses at large.  This model would inspire Protestant Reformers to advance their interpretation of Resistance Theory and would filter all the way down to the Levellers who not only adopted the idea but made it their own.  As Historian Tim Rees notes, this “dichotomization of the covenant tradition into unilateral and bilateral approaches is helpful in the analysis of seventeenth-century English developments.”[31]  A seventeenth century England that the Levellers were more than just a little bit familiar. 

In contrast, the preeminent concept that the Levellers gleaned from Enlightenment teachings is the concept of natural law and the social contract theory.  On the surface, these ideas share much in common with the Protestant idea of covenant theology, but they differ greatly on the specifics.  The Enlightenment principles found in the “State of Nature” as Thomas Hobbes argued, were such that each man would seek after his own desires unless a “social contract” was established in which man gave up a portion of his freedom for the greater good.[32]  For the Levellers, this meant that allegiance to one’s ruler was contingent upon that greater good, and if that were to be violated, opposition to authority was warranted. 

The Levellers, inspired by this Enlightenment concept of the “State of Nature” emphasized reason and rationality as essential tools for political and social reform. As a result, the Levellers brought together both the idea of the social contract and covenant theology into one cohesive doctrine that inspired and drove their understanding of opposition to authority.  The Levellers sought to create a society where decisions were made based on logical analysis and spiritual conviction.  This created a healthy aversion to the idea of blind adherence to traditional or divinely sanctioned authority.

The Leveller’s unique interpretation of opposition to authority allowed them to oppose not only King Charles during the English Civil War, but also the reign of Oliver Cromwell in the aftermath of the King’s demise.  As he stated in his formal 1748 opposition to Oliver Cromwell and what he believed to be a tyrannical government, John Lilburne and the Levellers wrote:

Insomuch as we who upon these grounds have laid out ourselves every way to the uttermost of our abilities — and all others throughout the land, soldiers and others who have done the like in defense of our supreme authority and in opposition to the king — cannot but deem ourselves in the most dangerous condition of all others: left without all plea of indemnity for what we have done, as already many have found by the loss of their lives and liberties either for things done or said against the king, the law of the land frequently taking place and precedency against and before your authority, which we esteemed supreme, and against which no law ought to be pleaded. Nor can we possibly conceive how any that in any ways assisted you can be exempt from the guilt of murders and robbers by the present laws in force if you persist to disclaim the supreme authority, though their own consciences do acquit them as having opposed none but manifest tyrants, oppressors and their adherents.[33]

Lilburne would eventually go so far as to be imprisoned, on multiple occasions, for his assertions and beliefs, along with a large number of his Leveller followers.  By promoting opposition to authority, through the many written pamphlets, letters and other written forms, John Lilburne and the Levellers advanced the cause of Resistance Theory throughout England.  The critical formative years of the English Civil War witnessed tremendous upheaval in ways that had not previously been experienced by the English populace. 

            Naturally, the opposition to authority on the part of the Levellers landed them in trouble with the powers of their era.  Faced with numerous trials for heresy, the Levellers were faced with the grim prospect of imprisonment and even death, but also with the opportunity to spread their message even further to both the masses and the governing elite alike.  In his work, “Voicing Dissent,” Historian John Arnold notes that the heresy trials of the Levellers presented “unprecedented opportunities” for the “dissemination of the Leveller’s teachings.”[34]  In short, these heresy trials presented the Levellers with the chance to disseminate teachings and materials that had previously been consigned to pamphlets, petitions, etc. often published under pseudonyms due to censorship and potential punishment. 

Conclusion

The Levellers' clever combination of both Protestant and Enlightenment ideas significantly contributed to the political and philosophical discourse of their time. The Levellers' synthesis of Protestant and Enlightenment ideas serves as a testament to the transformative power of intellectual cross-pollination. Their ability to draw upon diverse philosophical and religious traditions allowed them to construct a comprehensive and persuasive theory of resistance.  As such, the Levellers' legacy remains an important chapter in the history of political thought, highlighting the potential for fruitful dialogue and synthesis between different intellectual traditions.  By incorporating the principles of covenant theory, natural laws/rights and the social contract, the Levellers provided the perfect Rorschach test for Western Civilization to oppose oppressive leadership.  Their work continues to resonate in modern democratic societies, shaping the concepts of freedom, equality, democracy and citizen participation in government.

 



[1] Mark David Hall and Sarah Morgan Smith, “Whose Rebellion? Reformed Resistance Theory in America, Part I” (George Fox University, Digital Commons Publication, Department of History, Politics and International Studies, 2017). Pp. 170.  https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1084&context=hist_fac

[2] Romans 13:1-2.  The Holy Bible: The King James Version (World Wide Bible Assoc.: 2019).

[6] Ibid, 259-260.

[9] Ibid, 164-165.

[12] Ibid, 479-480.

[14] Philip Melanchthon, Commentary on Romans, 215-216.

[16] Gregg Frazer, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation and Revolution (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2012). Pp. 66-68.  Though Dr. Frazer’s book does not focus on the Protestant Reformation directly, his research into Calvinism and its influence on resistance theory is applicable.  Dr. Frazer maintains that the concept of resistance theory was born in spite of the Protestant Reformation, by those influenced by Enlightenment principles. In this book, Dr. Frazer coins the phrase “Theistic Rationalists” and applies it to those whom he believes eventually gave birth to resistance theory. 

[17] Jacob De Roover “John Locke, Christian Liberty, and the Predicament of Liberal Toleration.” Political Theory, vol. 36, no. 4 (August 2008): 523–49. https://doi.org/10.1177/0090591708317969.  Roover highlights the ways in which Protestant Christianity tolerated and in many respects encouraged the continuation of hostile political authority, which would remain intact until the rise of Enlightenment arguments to the contrary. 

[20] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government.  Harvard University Press, 1824.  https://www.google.com/books/edition/Two_Treatises_of_Government/K1UBAAAAYA   AJ?hl=en&gbpv=1

[21] Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, Complete Works, vol. 1 Trans. T. Evans (London: 1748). Pp. 344.  https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/montesquieu-complete-works-vol-1-the-spirit-of-laws

[25] Gregg, Pauline, Free Born John: A Biography of John Lilburne (University of Arizona Press, 2001). Pp. 16.

[26] Michael Braddick: The Common Freedom of the People: John Lilburne & the English Reformation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018). Pp. 282. 

[30] Hammersley, Rachel. The English Republican Tradition and Eighteenth-Century France Between the Ancients and the Moderns. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010. Pp. 13.

[31] Rees, Tim. "The Levellers and Covenant Theology." The Seventeenth Century 24, no. 2 (2009): Pp. 225.  https://digitalcommons.calvin.edu/cts_dissertations/32/

[32] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 610.

[34] John Arnold, “Voicing Dissent: Heresy Trials in Later Medieval England.”  Past & Present, Volume 245, Issue 1, November 2019.  https://doi-org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/10.1093/pastj/gtz025.