Saturday, April 24, 2010

Our First Liberation Theologists

They probably weren't "the" first; but they were our (that is America's) first.

This collection of "Political Sermons of the American Founding," Ellis Sandoz, ed. provides extremely informative material that illustrates the political-theological dimension of the American Founding.

The collection includes not just the most notable "Whig" sermons, but also some "Tory" loyalists.

I've long studies this dynamic and am known for seeming to endorse an understanding of "Christianity" that is anti-liberationist.

As it were, the "liberty" the Bible speaks of is entirely spiritual (freedom from sin or its consequences) not political at all. Jesus didn't overturn one social institution, not political tyranny, not divine right of kings, not chattel slavery.

And Christianity, properly understood, is entirely compatible chattel slavery and demands believers submit to government period, even if said government is a pagan tyranny as was Nero's, arguably the ruler Paul told believers to submit to in Romans 13.

Now I am not a "Christian." So it's really not up to me to personally endorse any version of the faith or say who gets to be a Christian. For my own personal reasons, anyone who calls himself a "Christian" gets to be one, even if he is a atheist. Jefferson thought himself a Christian and certainly passes my very easy to pass test for what is a "Christian."

But my own personal reasons are just that. There are competing definitions of what Christianity means. And some take their faith more seriously and define it more narrowly.

The Church itself, since at least 325 AD, has carefully guarded orthodoxy and put heretics in not a good place. There is interesting debate on whether heretics merit the label "Christian." I've uncovered quite a bit from orthodox believers who answer that question negatively. There's more to come.

Perhaps heretics merit the label "Christian" as an adjective, but not as a noun. Arians and Socinians, (or to use more current examples Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses) as it were, are not "Christians," but believe in a "Christian-heresy."

But to bring us back to Sandoz's collection, historically up throughout the Protestant Reformation, the understanding of Christianity and liberation that I outlined above (I would argue) prevailed. That is, the "orthodox" guardians of the faith did not endorse the notions that the Bible teaches political liberty rights, a right to revolt against tyrants, any more than it teaches Arianism or Socinianism.

But if you look for *thought* that predates the Enlightenment that questioned the prevailing orthodoxy, you'll almost certainly find it. Indeed, "Christian" figures from the Enlightenment tended to embrace Arianism, something that goes back to 325 AD. Ditto with theological universalism (universal salvation, something in which a number of notable early church fathers believed).

It was after Henry the VIII, Luther and Calvin (all of whom, by the way, were with the Roman Catholic Church in endorsing the notion that men do not have God given rights to political and religious liberty, to revolt against tyrants, etc.) -- after much schismatism -- did authorities question their traditional understanding of the Bible and political liberty.

An interlocutor, trying to find official Catholic sources for the idea of resisting tyranny (I'm sure there is much "lower" Roman Catholic chatter, but we were trying to find top down authoritative sources), pointed me to POPE PIUS V'S BULL AGAINST ELIZABETH (1570).

Well, it doesn't say anything about believers having a God given right to resist tyranny, tyrants losing their Romans 13 status as "rulers," or "rulers" somehow having to pass a test of "godliness" or justice in order to qualify as "rulers." But it does speak of "usurpation."

And indeed, were there not a "usurpation" of power by Henry the VIII, the Church wouldn't have dealt with the circumstance in England POPE PIUS V'S BULL discusses.

But it was during that period -- after Henry the VIII, Luther and Calvin -- problems with persecution within Christendom (Catholic persecuting Protestants, vice-versa and Protestants persecuting each other) lead to more "liberation" talk. So much so that said talk became a "meme" within Christendom. And it was mainly those on the receiving end who did the loudest talking.

And Sandoz's collection features when the Christian liberation talk reached fever pitch.

The million $$ question, though, is: Is it sound theology? On a personal level, as a non-Christian, I really don't have an answer.

But I can make an analogy: I see the pro-liberty sermons in Sandoz's collection as classically liberal liberation theology. And that kind of liberation theology is about as authentically Christian and hermeneutically sound as modern collectivist liberation theology.

[The most notable anti-liberationist present day evangelical preacher is, of course, John MacArthur. You can hear him discuss the liberation theology of the emergent church here. The funny thing is every single criticism of MacArthur towards them could be raised against the Patriotic Preachers featured in Sandoz's collection.]


Mark D. said...

A great set of sermons, no question. I've got the two volume series in my home library and they are fascinating reading. One of the best collections from the Liberty Fund -- much more solid than the companion series, Political Writings of the Founding Era.

This particular series is enlightening reading, particularly for anyone who believes that religion played only a minor role in the public life of the late-colonial and early Republican periods. The churches and religious organizations of 18th century American society were quite active in public affairs and public debate on the great issues of the day.

Tom Van Dyke said...

And Christianity, properly understood, is entirely compatible chattel slavery

Who told you that? "Manstealing" is specifically proscribed in the Bible.


BTW, the word "usurp" is used twice in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I think it supports the contention. Manstealing refers to the stealing of someone's slave.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"Who told you that?"

Interestingly getting a slave through "stealing" a free man was, as far as I know illegal in Western Christendom. The slaves were bought legally from African tribes. And the slaves were usually the losers in tribal war.

Prof. Gates has an NYT article on this. Slavery was not that of the narrative of Kunta Kinte living in freedom in Africa only to be captured by the white man.

That did happen. But it was illegal and not the dominant way slaves from Africa were incorporated into Western society.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Slavery at the time of Colossians wasn't chattel slavery.

There were tons of tracts arguing against slavery on Biblical grounds all through American history. Page 1 from Google:

And it's entirely improper for any historian to even speak of a "proper understanding" of Christianity. He has no standing in theological debates.

Unknown said...

Leaving aside my usual objections(though I do notice the word "arguably" inserted in places that it did not used to be I think it is good) to some of your more sweeping statements, I do think the John Mac Arthur vs. The Emergent Church is an interesting debate that you have tied into the history and asked a good question about.

With that stated, I think the emergent church tends to lean left toward marxist types of liberation theology. So its comparison to the founding political theology is perhaps flawed. Though the movement is so new it is hard to really pin down what they believe.

Unknown said...

"And it's entirely improper for any historian to even speak of a "proper understanding" of Christianity. He has no standing in theological debates"

Unless it is about the history of theology. Which this discussion does touch on a lot.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, you or I or John Calvin or the Catholic Church all can speak of "Christianity properly understood."

However, none of them will agree. So what does "proper understanding" really mean?

Regardless, there were many tracts arguing against slavery on Biblical grounds. Who is to say they are improper understandings of Christianity?

Brad Hart said...

TVD writes:

Regardless, there were many tracts arguing against slavery on Biblical grounds. Who is to say they are improper understandings of Christianity.

True, but there were also many tracts arguing FOR slavery. In the pre-Civil War south we see a lot of this.

I think David Davis' book, "Inhuman Bondage" best answers many of the questions posed here. Yes, Tom is right that the slavery of the Bible was not chattel slavery. In the world before the discovery of America, slavery was primarily the result of either debt, conquest or criminal behavior. It was rare indeed for one race of people to be singled out and enslaved based on their nationality/skin color. Of course, all of that changed around the time of New World discovery. Chattel Slavery became a vital component of the New World economy, and the Bible did help -- at least in a very abstract way if not more so -- to justify the enslavement of Blacks. The curse of Cain, Ham, etc. should ring a bell.

Now, in fairness, the Bible was also used to oppose the same slavery by many who would advocate for abolition over the next few hundred years. As Jon points out, much of Christianity is left to personal interpretation.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Brad, I'm contemplating a post called "Mormonism, Properly Understood." I'm sure you'll like it.


Unknown said...


I would add that the whole interposition thing goes back to Pope Gregory and his battle against certain Kings. Very similar to your example in the 1500's. I taught on this in World History class and only could go surface deep since I was in a Public School but a lot of theological writing came out of that time as both sides looked for theological backing to their cases.

Brad Hart said...

Sounds good to me, Tom, just beware of our other resident Mormon! =)