Saturday, April 29, 2017

Resist, Revolt, Reason & Authority in the American Founding

I confess a fault in my friendship duties towards Mark David Hall. He wrote a book about Roger Sherman that goes into meticulous detail about reformation sources that influenced the American Founding. He even thanked me in that book (we featured some of the research at American Creation) but I haven't yet read the book.

But I will, one day. I promise.

I am familiar with the argument about Calvinist reformation sources as the inspiration behind the American resistance during the Founding era, in the face of Romans 13. (This article by David Kopel makes similar points.)

Among others, Daniel Dreisbach and Jeffry Morrison, who have collaborated with Dr. Hall are on the same page regarding the influence of Calvinist thought on America's Founding resistance movement.

Arguments contained in America's Declaration of Independence do seem to strongly parallel those of the reformation resisters, but there is more to the story.

This is the controversy: A plain textual reading of Romans 13 (a fundamentalist reading, if you will) seems to categorically forbid revolt. Yet, other parts of the Bible -- Acts 5:29 -- teach disobedience to man (Earthly government) when necessary to obey God. Other parts of scripture -- I Peter 2 (“honor the king”) -- also play in.

What follows is the doctrine among others orthodox biblicists Drs. Gregg Frazer and Mark Noll have taken from such: Submission to government is absolute; revolt is categorically forbidden; obedience to government is a general rule conditioned on the (obvious) fact that if to obey government means to disobey God, obey God and not man. Yet, submit to the civil legitimacy of the tyranny whose civil law demands disobedience to God. Work within the confines of such system for individual justice and systematic change. But ultimately submit, even if it means being a martyr.

John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion teaches basically this with one important caveat: To the extent that the positive governing law permits lower magistrates to resist and suppress the lawless tyranny of higher powers, believers who constitute such lower magistrates can and should take advantage of this option.

The examples that Calvin gives are analogous to Congress by virtue of the constitutional process, impeaching and removing a President.

As dissidents, a great many of Calvin's followers had bad experiences with "higher powers" that persecuted them. Hence, they had incentive to, and did in fact flesh out and play up Calvin's teachings on interposition, on resistance through law. Hence Samuel Rutherford's "Lex Rex" (the King is not Law, rather "Law is King.")

And, as noted, a great deal of what America's Founders, in their conflict with Great Britain, said and did resonates with such. According to the doctrine, the extant positive law must be appealed to as the source of remedies. America's Founders did a great deal of remonstrating with the British authorities appealing to their rights as Englishmen. A great deal of the Declaration of Independence details how Great Britain failed to live up to its own standards of guarantee contained in existing British law.

But Great Britain -- King and Parliament ("Parliament" shorthand for the then existing power sharing arrangement) -- disagreed with the colonists' understanding of British law. So when there is disagreement, how is it resolved? Under extant British positive law, Parliament had the final say.

Of Parliament's power, Blackstone famously noted:
It can, in short, do every thing that is not naturally impossible; and therefore some have not scrupled to call it's power, by a figure rather too bold, the omnipotence of parliament. True it is, that what they do, no authority upon earth can undo.
As Gary North acutely observed: "Blackstone was wrong: beginning eleven years later, the American colonies undid a lot of what Parliament had done."

It's above my pay grade to say whether the American Revolution violated Romans 13. That biblical text was discussed quite a bit in Founding era sermons because it obviously had the potential among a nation whose demographic religion was "Christianity" to stand in the way of the revolutionary cause.

What I don't see however, from the Founding era sermons is a strong explicit reliance on Samuel Rutherford, et al. I'm sure the influence was there. But John Locke and his ideas were more often cited in the revolutionary pulpit. And Locke is not Rutherford; no evidence we have seen connects Rutherford to Locke and Locke made arguments that were more revolutionary in tone. Locke was also less concerned with answering the Romans 13 challenge and more interested in asserting a right to revolt found in nature discoverable by reason.

Later sermons would then apply Lockean principles to the Romans 13 challenge in more detail. Jefferson and company did not invent the theological arguments contained in the Declaration of Independence. The ideas had been brewing in the pulpit the years prior to the revolution and this 1776 sermon by the unitarian Samuel West best encapsulates theology of the Declaration of Independence and the American Cause. Romans 13 is explicitly dealt with there. Locke is cited; Rutherford and the Calvinist resisters are not. The basis for the right to revolt is found in essences in nature, discoverable by reason.

With that discovery in mind, then go and interpret and understand Romans 13 accordingly. This is how West deals with it:
The doctrine of nonresistance and unlimited passive obedience to the worst of tyrants could never have found credit among mankind had the voice of reason been hearkened to for a guide, because such a doctrine would immediately have been discerned to be contrary to natural law.
 On the explicit text of Romans 13, West asserts:
I know it is said that the magistrates were, at the time when the apostle wrote, heathens, and that Nero, that monster of tyranny, was then Emperor of Rome; that therefore the apostle, by enjoining submission to the powers that then were, does require unlimited obedience to be yielded to the worst of tyrants. Now, not to insist upon what has been often observed, viz., that this epistle was written most probably about the beginning of Nero's reign, at which time he was a very humane and merciful prince, did everything that was generous and benevolent to the public, and showed every act of mercy and tenderness to particulars, and therefore might at that time justly deserve the character of the minister of God for good to the people,-- I say, waiving this, we will suppose that this epistle was written after that Nero was become a monster of tyranny and wickedness; it will by no means follow from thence that the apostle meant to enjoin unlimited subjection to such an authority, or that he intended to affirm that such a cruel, despotic authority was the ordinance of God. The plain, obvious sense of his words, as we have already seen, forbids such a construction to be put upon them, for they plainly imply a strong abhorrence and disapprobation of such a character, and clearly prove that Nero, so far forth as he was a tyrant, could not be the minister of God, nor have a right to claim submission from the people; so that this ought, perhaps, rather to be viewed as a severe satire upon Nero, than as enjoining any submission to him.
Either Nero was "a very humane and merciful prince" when the epistle was written or perhaps the epistle should "be viewed as a severe satire upon Nero, than as enjoining any submission to him."  

1 comment:

Tom Van Dyke said...


see also "The Farmer Refuted," where Hamilton reminds Rev. Seabury that the colonies'charters came from the King, before the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that established Parliament's primacy. The D of I explicitly denied Parliament has any authority over America.

"Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here."