About Corazon

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Romans 13 and the American Revolution

Over at my other blog (American Creation) a large debate over the significance and interpretation of Romans chapter 13 has been raging for the past few months. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Romans 13, it is a chapter in which the Apostle Paul lays out some of the "rules" regarding a Christian's duty to follow civic leaders. Here are a few of the more important verses from that chapter:
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.

2. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

3. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:

4. 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.

5. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.

6. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.
As is evident in the aforementioned verses, Paul admonishes the Christian populace to submit to even the wickedest of leaders because "Whosoever resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God." In other words, to defy a leader is to defy God himself.

Immediately prior to the American Revolution, a decent percentage of theologians became deeply concerned with the Biblical implications of the American Revolution. Was God going to be angry at the colonists for their rebellion to the British King? Especially when we consider that Paul was admonishing the Christians to submit to the horrific reign of Nero? After all, if submission to Nero was imperative to the salvation of the practicing Christian, what right did the American colonists have to rebel against a King who wasn't nearly as bad?

As I mentioned before, this has been a very intense and thorough debate over at my group blog. I have watched, over the past several months, my fellow blog brothers debate this issue into dust. This debate usually follows the same rough outline where one person will enter the ring armed to the teeth with quotes from Locke, Rutherford, Sidney, Mayhew, Calvin, Jefferson, etc., etc., etc. Not soon after, my email inbox will be full of comment notifications, full of anxious rebukings, most of which are, like the original comment itself, delivered with powerful counter-punch material from some of the same sources. Now, it's not that I dislike this back-and-forth debating over this singular (and in my opinion, relatively unimportant) issue. On the contrary. I have found the debate to be both extremely enlightening and quite entertaining. I've admired the abilities and passions of the "key participants" (you know who you are) along with the enormous arsenal of knowledge and understanding they possess.

With that said, my personal beliefs are that the Romans 13 issue was a mere side issue compared to the other pressing challenges taking place. In a nutshell, I simply do not believe that this was as big of an issue as many are making it out to be. Please, don't get me wrong here. I realize that it was a major issue for many people. After all, obeying the will of God is no small sack of potatoes, and I realize that many people believed that salvation (not just worldly freedom) hung in the balance. However, if we take a step back and look at the grand picture, I believe we can see that the American Revolution was much larger than one simple chapter from the "Good Book" and that war with Britain was going to happen with or without Romans 13.

With all of that said, I am going to try and play along as best I can. Let's assume that I am completely wrong and that the Romans 13/God sanctioning rebellion was not only an issue but THE ISSUE of the American Revolution. Given this new sense of importance I still maintain that the debate surrounding Romans 13 was not that big of a deal for those involved in the American Revolution.

Why you ask? Because the matter had already been resolved...


...At lest for those who established the American republic.

Long before the Founding Fathers arrived on the scene the debate over the Kingship/rule of law had been raging for centuries. As has been pointed out numerous times on this blog, a number of important theologians, thinkers, and civic leaders took up this very cause as their own. Everyone from Locke to Rutherford, Sidney to Montesquieu helped to mold how the founding generation would come to understand the relationship between God and government, government and the people and the people's duty to government.

Much has been made of Romans 13 and rightfully so. But there is another Bible chapter to consider; one that inspired a certain Samuel Rutherford to challenge Divine Right kingship. In Deuteronomy 17 we read:
14 When thou art come unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein, and shalt say, I will set a king over me, like as all the nations that are about me;

15 Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother.

16 But he shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he should multiply horses: forasmuch as the Lord hath said unto you, Ye shall henceforth return no more that way.

17 Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away: neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold.

18 And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that
he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites:

19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them.

20 That his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left: to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he, and his children, in the midst of Israel.
For men like Rutherford, this was clear-cut evidence from God himself that the LAW was king, not the other way around.

Algernon Sidney, whom Thomas Jefferson credited (along with Locke) as being one of the primary sources for the American conceptualization of individual liberty, agreed with Rutherford's interpretation that the rule of law was to be superior to any kingship. To defend his thesis, Sidney appealed to the very laws of nature:
If there be any precept, that by the light of nature we can in matters of this kind look upon as certain, it is, that the government of a people should be given to him that can best perform the duties of it. No man has it for himself, or from himself; but for and from those, who, before he had it, were his equals, that he may do good to them. If there were a man, who in wisdom, valour, justice, and purity, surpassed all others, he might be called a king by nature; because he is best able to bear the weight of so great a charge; and, like a good shepherd, to lead the people to do good . . . Solomon tells us, 'That a wise child is better than an old and foolish king.'


If governments arise from the consent of men, and are instituted by men according to their own inclinations, they did therein seek their own good; for the will is ever drawn by some real good, or the appearance of it. This is that which man seeks by all the regular or irregular motions of his mind. Reason and passion, virtue and vice, do herein concur.... A people therefore that sets up [government does it so]...that it may be well with themselves and their posterity.
Which of course sounds awfully familiar to:
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
For Jefferson, who was never a big fan of St. Paul to begin with (you may recall that his version of the Bible contains none of Paul's epistles), Sidney's interpretation of law rang strong and clear as it pierced through the "old school" interpretation of complete submission to God's rulers. In a letter to his chubby little New England buddy John Adams, Jefferson points out just how appealing Sidney's view of government was:
I have lately undertaken to read Algernon Sidney on government...As often as I have read it, and fumbled it over, it now excites fresh admiration that this work has excited so little interest in the literary world. As splendid an edition of it as the art of printing can produce —- as well for the intrinsic merit of the work, as for the proof it brings of the bitter sufferings of the advocates of liberty from that time to this, and to show the slow progress of moral, philosophical, and political illumination in the world —- ought to be now published in America.
Of course skeptics will point out that the American Revolution cannot, in any way, be reconciled with Romans 13 because if Paul admonishes Christians to endure the treacheries of Nero, how can they possibly justify rebellion against a king who simply raised their taxes? Perhaps they are right. There may be no biblical way to justify the American Revolution. I suppose one could cite Biblical examples such as Deuteronomy 17, 1 Kings 11, Daniel's civil disobedience, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego's refusal to obey Nebuchadneezar's laws, Moses, etc., but I doubt much of it would stick. Simply put,much of this debate is based off of personal biblical interpretation.

And such was the case with our founders. The moment that Jefferson, Madison, etc. committed to embracing the perspectives of Locke, Sidney, etc. they also committed, perhaps subconscientiously, to rejecting a literal interpretation of Paul's admonition in Romans 13.

But Paul's lesson wasn't completely ignored either. Yes, the framers of the Revolution were not about to let some obscure chapter from the Bible deter them but at the same time, they weren't about to rush into a reckless rebellion either. The trick was knowing when abuses from tyrannical leaders required a response from the people. Again, Algernon Sidney helped to provide the answer:
Those who had wit and learning, with something of ingenuity and modesty, though they believed that nations might possibly make an ill use of their power, and were very desirous to maintain the cause of kings, as far as they could put any good color upon it, yet never denied, that some had suffered justly (which could not be, if there were no power of judging them); animate them to persist in the most flagitious courses, with assurance of perpetual impunity, or engage nations in an inevitable necessity of suffering all manner of outrages. They knew that the actions of those princes, who are not altogether detestable, might be defended by particular reasons drawn from them, or their laws or their country; and would neither undertake the defense of such as were abominable, nor bring princes, to whom they wished well, into the odious extremity of justifying themselves by arguments that favored Caligula and Nero, as well as themselves, and that must be taken for a confession, that they were as bad as could be imagined.


They who are already fallen into all that is odious, and shameful and miserable, cannot justify fear...Let the dangers never be so great, there is the possibility of safety while men have life, hands, arms and courage to use them but that people must surely perish who tamely suffer themselves to be oppressed.
Or in other words, it is completely silly (and contrary to the laws of nature) to endure inept leaders who had demonstrated their incompetence or their ill will towards their subjects. Or as Jefferson put it:
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.


In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
And while this debate is likely to rage on for months (or maybe even years) here on this fair little blog, I remain convinced that the Founders' understanding of kings and law had already been shaped by centuries of European debate on the matter. Men like Locke, Sidney, Rutherford, etc. (along with many before and after them) helped to mold (and perhaps justify) the arguments for Revolution.

But again, it doesn't really matter because war was a' coming regardless of what the Bible said.

And that's a fact, Jack!

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