Saturday, May 1, 2010

Calvin, Interposition, and "the Problem of Othniel"

With all the talk about the Arizona law and state protests against healthcare reform it is important to trace where many of the arguments for interposition originated:

A while back, Jon Rowe replied to my post that claimed that the Declaration of Independence was a document of interposition by stating: "The DOI is NOT a Document of Interposition." He lays out the heart of his and Dr. Gregg Frazer's case for Christianity "properly understood" with the following:

"To Calvin, the Bible categorically forbids revolt. No exceptions. Calvin did discuss the ability of intermediate magistrates to interpose and remove a tyrannical King; but he stressed it must be done pursuant to some positive legal mechanism, like the Congress impeaching the President pursuant to the provisions in the US Constitution. Again, revolt is still forbidden. Therefore if the Continental Congress could make the argument, which they seemingly did in parts of the DOI, that King George and Parliament were violating British law AND if there were some recognized legal method under British law for declaring independence, perhaps what the FFs did could "fit" with such a notion of "interposition."

The problem with this argument is the, "AND if there were some recognized legal method under British law for declaring independence, perhaps what the FF's did could fit with such a notion as interposition." This quote is grounded in John Calvin's narrow view of what qualifies as a valid form of interposition. The problem is that Calvin is not a reliable source on this topic because his own words on resistance to tyranny contradict themselves. With that said, I think it would be helpful to examine the writings of Calvin to see why his definition of what is a valid reponse to tyranny is not Christianity "properly understood." 

In Institutes on the Christian Religion Book Four Chapter 20, Calvin emphatically endorses the idea that government is instituted by God. Frazer and Rowe are also correct that Calvin exhorts people to submit to good and evil rulers alike. He then goes on to say that when one finds himself under the rule of a tyrant his first assumption should be that he is under God's curse. Here is Calvin:

"But it we have respect to the word of God, it will lead us farther, and make us subject not only to the authority of those princes who honestly and faithfully perform their duty toward us, but all princes, by whatever means they have so become, although there is nothing they less perform than the duty of princes. For though the Lord declares that ruler to maintain our safety is the highest gift of his beneficence, and prescribes to rulers themselves their proper sphere, he at the same time declares, that of whatever description they may be, they derive their power from none but him. Those, indeed, who rule for the public good, are true examples and specimens of big beneficence, while those who domineer unjustly and tyrannically are raised up by him to punish the people for their iniquity. Still all alike possess that sacred majesty with which he has invested lawful power.  I will not proceed further without subjoining some distinct passages to this effect. We need not labour to prove that an impious king is a mark of the Lord's anger, since I presume no one will deny it, and that this is not less true of a king than of a robber who plunders your goods, an adulterer who defiles your bed, and an assassin who aims at your life, since all such calamities are classed by Scripture among the curses of God."

Calvin then goes on to bring some balance to the discussion and acknowledges that oppression is not always the curse of God. He allows that oppression often occurs when kings violate the God given responsibillities that go along with their delegated authority.  He also cites examples of both lawful and unlawful exceptions that allow for resistance to tyrants. Here is Calvin again:

"Wherefore, if we are cruelly tormented by a savage, if we are rapaciously pillaged by an avaricious or luxurious, if we are neglected by a sluggish, if, in short, we are persecuted for righteousness' sake by an impious and sacrilegious prince, let us first call up the remembrance of our faults, which doubtless the Lord is chastising by such scourges. In this way humility will curb our impatience. And let us reflect that it belongs not to us to cure these evils, that all that remains for us is to implore the help of the Lord, in whose hands are the hearts of kings, and inclinations of kingdoms (Prov. 21:1). "God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods." (Ps. 82:1). Before his face shall fall and be crushed all kings and judges of the earth, who have not kissed his anointed, who have enacted unjust laws to oppress the poor in judgement, and do violence to the cause of the humble, to make widows a prey, and plunder the fatherless Herein is the goodness, power, and providence of God wondrously displayed. At one time he raises up manifest avengers from among his own servants and gives them his command to punish accursed tyranny and deliver his people from calamity when they are unjustly oppressed; at another time he employs, for this purpose, the fury of men who have other thoughts and other aims. Thus he rescued his people Israel from the tyranny of Pharaoh by Moses; from the violence of Chusa, king of Syria, by Othniel; and from other bondage by other kings or judges. Thus he tamed the pride of Tyre by the Egyptians; the insolence of the Egyptians by the Assyrians; the ferocity of the Assyrians by the Chaldeans; the confidence of Babylon by the Medes and Persians, - Cyrus having previously subdued the Medes, while the ingratitude of the kings of Judah and Israel, and their impious contumacy after all his kindness, he subdued and punished, - at one time by the Assyrians, at another by the Babylonians. All these things however were not done in the same way. The former class of deliverers being brought forward by the lawful call of God to perform such deeds, when they took up arms against kings, did not at all violate that majesty with which kings are invested by divine appointment, but armed from heaven, they, by a greater power, curbed a less, just as kings may lawfully punish their own satraps. The latter class, though they were directed by the hand of God, as seemed to him good, and did his work without knowing it, had nought but evil in their thoughts."
Later, Calvin adds that one should not rebel against unjust tyranny but should look to God for his deliverance. He then goes on to the say that he is speaking only to private men and begins to expound on the impeachment-like exception given to lower magistrates: 
"But whatever may be thought of the acts of the men themselves, the Lord by their means equally executed his own work, when he broke the bloody sceptres of insolent kings, and overthrew their intolerable dominations. Let princes hear and be afraid; but let us at the same time guard most carefully against spurning or violating the venerable and majestic authority of rulers, an authority which God has sanctioned by the surest edicts, although those invested with it should be most unworthy of it, and, as far as in them lies, pollute it by their iniquity. Although the Lord takes vengeance on unbridled domination, let us not therefore suppose that that vengeance is committed to us, to whom no command has been given but to obey and suffer. I speak only of private men. For when popular magistrates have been appointed to curb the tyranny of kings, (as the Ephori, who were opposed to kings among the Spartans, or Tribunes of the people to consuls among the Romans, or Demarchs to the senate among the Athenians; and, perhaps, there is something similar to this in the power exercised in each kingdom by the three orders, when they hold their primary diets.) So far am I from forbidding these officially to check the undue license of kings, that if they connive at kings when they tyrannise and insult over the humbler of the people, I affirm that their dissimulation is not free from nefarious perfidy, because they fraudulently betray the liberty of the people, while knowing that, by the ordinance of God, they are its appointed guardians."
So Calvin, Jon, Dr. Frazer, and I all agree that the bible states that government is something that God instituted among men, that tyrants do exist, that tyranny results from both the curse of God and kings that claim the God given authority of their station and yet deny the responsibilities, and that God desposes tyrant kings.  The controversy is what constitutes a proper response to tyranny.
Rowe and Frazer endorse Calvin's view that seems to limit these responses to an impeachment-like scenario. It seems that they believe that the bible teaches that private men should just "obey and suffer" under tyranny. My concern is in how they pronounce Calvin's teaching on this subject more sound than others. This concern is rooted in him placing Othniel among the "class of deliverers being brought forward by the lawful call of God to perform such deeds, when they took up arms against kings" in one breath and then limits responses to tryanny to impeachment in the next. I call this the "problem of Othniel."

Here is the story:
"The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD;  they forgot the LORD their God and served the Baals and the Asherahs. The anger of the LORD burned against Israel so that he sold them into the hands of Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram Naharaim, to whom the Israelites were subject for eight years.  But when they cried out to the LORD, he raised up for them a deliverer, Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother, who saved them. The Spirit of the LORD came upon him, so that he became Israel's judge and went to war. The LORD gave Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram into the hands of Othniel, who overpowered him. So the land had peace for forty years, until Othniel son of Kenaz died."

Does this sound like an impeachment?  If not then the great John Calvin completely contradicts himself! What is going on here?

I think we see a conflict within Calvin himself here that sheds some light on the struggle that God fearing colonists had many years later when trying to decide the best possible remedy for dealing with the their own tyrant king.  It is the same struggle we see with Paul in Romans 13. The struggle is for balance between two competing concepts: 1. the sovereignty of God 2. free will of man. An over-emphasis on the former ends in a fatalistic outlook that tells people to just "obey and suffer" and let God take care of it. A over-emphasis on the latter can end in rebellious anarchy that leads to mob rule.

I think Calvin, Paul, and at least one key founder feared both extremes and allowed for ways to check tyranny while also guarding against anarchy. This is why we see use of the doctrine of interposition in its many forms repeatedly throughout the history of the Christian West all the way up to today. My question to Jon Rowe and Dr. Frazer is why they ignore "the problem of Othniel" and continue to elevate the contradictory teachings of John Calvin over others on the proper form that interposition should take?


Tom Van Dyke said...

King, I'm enjoying your study of Jean Calvin here, but I hope you'll permit me to raise several points of order once Calvin met the American Revolution:

First of all, echoing a bleg from historian Mark David Hall in one of our previous comments section, he was looking for a native-born American or Calvinist [Presbyterian or Congregationalist] clergyman who opposed the American revolution under Romans 13 aside from

Let's help out Dr. Hall if we can. We have people around here who hit the books and just don't spot off. If he's largely right, the remaining Tories, then, would pretty much be those born in England, and/or presumably of the Church of England, who were bound by oath of sacred office to obey the king. [Trading one pope for another, more or less, but that's a different discussion.]

Otherwise, I think Hall is raising a key point not uncongenial to your own, K of I. The Calvinists in America had no theological problem with Romans 13---it was a question already asked and answered in Britain's civil wars of the 1600s.

In fact, there's much historical proof that the British considered America's revolution a Presbyterian thing. [Not Calvin himself, but led almost exclusively by Calvin's spawn! What went wrong?]

Tom Van Dyke said...

Second point of order, the meaning of "interposition" as it was used in the immediate post-Founding period, as a "states' rights" argument, specifically against the Adams/Federalist government's

which brought their downfall in the election of 1800 to Jefferson and Madison's insurgent Democrat-Republican party.

Still, while fanning the flames of opposition in Virginia and Kentucky [and winning a level of "interposition" legislation there], Jefferson and Madison stopped short of any justification of "nullification" by the individual states of the "general" government's legislations.

Perhaps anticipating their own takeover of the levers of the US government themselves? Afterall, the election was only 2 years away. Nah, that would be cynical.


So, as a third point of order, I would not conflate the Biblical story of Othniel and John Calvin on "interposition" under Romans 13 with the current controversy over Obamacare, except in the most general way of linking the concepts. Surely we would not ally Madison or especially Jefferson, who spat upon him, with any of the thoughts of John Calvin. That would surely be a bridge too far in any literal sense, although it might not be cynical to say Jefferson and Madison exploited the concept of "intermediate" magistrates righteously opposing the tyranny of kings, John Adams and the Federalists in this case.

[There's a quote from Jefferson in later life totally trashing the Federalists as monarchists, BTW.]

And as minor point of order, I still have reservations about the term "revolution" used synonymously with "revolt." The American Revolution didn't topple the king, only separated from his his sovereignty:

---There was no "divine right of kings" under Calvin or Romans 13 because

---Sovereignty was given by God to the people, who invest it in their ruler

That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...

---A ruler can forfeit that sovereignty not only by disobeying divine or natural law, but by "usurpation" or "abdication"

[The Declaration of Independence uses the term "usurped" twice and also "abdicated" once. Coincidence? I don't think so...]

In other words, I think the literal use of Calvin has a resonance in the American Revolution. But as time goes on, the echoes are real, but grow fainter.

I reckon the only question in 2010 is whether we can still hear echoes of the echoes, or if their resonance has disappeared altogether.

Good and solid post from King of Ireland, our friend and co-bloggerist Joe W. Great and subtle link at the end for people who actually care about the facts, to dissident clergyman John Ponet's A Short Treatise on Political Power from 1556

of which John Adams wrote

"all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterward dilated on by Sidney and Locke"

Heh. 1556. "The Enlightenment," my ass. Primary point of order made and carried by your post here, K of I. Well done, sir.

Unknown said...

Believe it or not I have to go work on a Sunday. When I get home later tonight I will address some of your points of order. I think all three are excellent points and should help me clarify what I am and am not saying.

Jonathan Rowe said...


No question Anglicanism was the chief political theology source of submit to the King. Ironic in that Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Henry, Marshall, among others were Anglicans and had to therefore, go outside of their churches' official teachings for their justifications on rebellion.

My main beef is with those who argue they instead turned to Sola Scriptura, biblical Christiany. They simply did not.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Likewise with the sermons. I know the Sandoz collection better than most (but not perfectly, not as well as some others). And I'm sure there is more great stuff to be discovered.

However, what I want to see is the American Presyb. and Cong. justifications in their pro-revolt sermons.

I'd argue, you see far more Locke and far less Ponet, Rutherford, and Vindicae. And there is little to ANYTHING in the record that connects Locke to Rutherford, et al.

If I am wrong, show me the money.

King of Ireland said...


I think the burden of proof is on you to show where Locke and Ponnet differ that much. I also linked a an article that Tom linked a while back in the last paragraph that seems to point to a direct link between Vindicae and Adams.

Nontheless, Calvin is not the best sourco on interposition. I think I just managed to get your chief witness thrown out!

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well I think we can point by point show the differences between Ponet and Locke. However, the burden still remains on the other side to show a connection between Locke and Ponet et al. AND to show that the American Presbyterians and Congregationalists who argued pro-revolt relied on *those* Calvinists like Rutherford more so than on Locke.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jon, what burden of proof are you assuming? I think you're in the very least obliged to oppose John Adams here.


..which makes Vermigli the main witness for Calvinism, the story of Othniel being from Judges 3:

The Italian preacher Peter Martyr Vermigli brought Calvinism to England in the middle of sixteenth century, during the reign of Edward VI, but after Mary ascended the English throne, Vermigli’s position in England became untenable, and he fled to Zurich. In a commentary on Romans (1558) and another on Judges (1561), he argued that inferior magistrates, though not the people themselves, have a duty to overthrow a ruler who violates his covenants. The key part of the Judges commentary was reprinted in Common Places, a collection of Vermigli’s works that Calvinist preachers used as a teaching resource in following decades.

If Kopel's correct, that rather cements K of I's argument that Calvin had been surpassed on the topic by equally authoritative Calvinist thinkers, starting with the mighty Vermigli.

see also

from several years ago. It never ends.

King of Ireland said...

Tom stated:

"Still, while fanning the flames of opposition in Virginia and Kentucky [and winning a level of "interposition" legislation there], Jefferson and Madison stopped short of any justification of "nullification" by the individual states of the "general" government's legislations."

My understanding(mainly from reading a lot on the tenth amendment center web site) is that Jefferson did call for nullification. Though I have never really checked out the documents for myself. It is on my list of things to do.

King of Ireland said...

"So, as a third point of order, I would not conflate the Biblical story of Othniel and John Calvin on "interposition" under Romans 13 with the current controversy over Obamacare, except in the most general way of linking the concepts. Surely we would not ally Madison or especially Jefferson, who spat upon him, with any of the thoughts of John Calvin. That would surely be a bridge too far in any literal sense, although it might not be cynical to say Jefferson and Madison exploited the concept of "intermediate" magistrates righteously opposing the tyranny of kings, John Adams and the Federalists in this case."

No matter what we call all this it really just plain old federalism. I do think Jefferson carried many of the same arguments from the DOI into the doctrine of 98. I also think you see the DOI ideals in Federalist 10 and 51 when Madison talks about the best form of government to ensure the protections of individual rights.

I think this modern states rights/federalism movement is foolish to look for intellectual material only back to 1798. Interpositon and the concepts behind it go all the way back to Pope Gregory at least.

I also am willing to bet that a lot of the Protestant resistance theory writers got there stuff from Catholic writings. Especially the one's like Ponet the wrote during the Reformation. Seems he was smart enough not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

King of Ireland said...


I missed the link I used to the piece on Adams and Vindicae a while back. But I think it profound. I was trying to tell Jon way back that the "social contract" came from Christian covenent theory long before enlightenment figures got a hold of it. Vindicae sounds like a good read if one can find it in English.

I think my next posts will concentrate on comparing all these different writings to Locke and the DOI. My suspicion is that there will be little difference.