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Saturday, December 01, 2018

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.

1 comment:

Tim Kowal said...

The teachings of Jesus of Nazareth were always shrewd, stands to reason the teachings of Paul of Rome would not exactly be hamhanded either.

The church has always understood the concept of martyrdom, which presupposes the reality of unjust rulers. Indeed, some early Christians took that presumption to extremes. The Christian church in its early years, responding to the frequent martyrdom of believers in the Roman empire, held a council in the town of Elvira in Spain in 309 AD to discuss those Christians who were killed for openly defying Roman gods. The council decided against martyrdom: "If someone smashes an idol and is then punished by death, he or she may not be placed in the list of martyrs, since such action is not sanctioned by the Scriptures or by the apostles." http://faculty.cua.edu/pennington/Canon Law/ElviraCanons.htm.

A Christian is not a kamikaze; faith demands making an effort to avoid detection when necessary. Spitting on idols isn't martyrdom -- it's stupidity.

Obeisance and resistance are equally unChristian if you insist on being a putz about it.