Monday, June 29, 2020

Presbyterian Roots of American Liberty

As we approach Independence Day, it is good to remember that one significant root of American liberty was the biblical teaching of Puritan and Presbyterian pastors. This teaching was carefully articulated back in 1644 by Rev. Samuel Rutherford in his book Lex, Rex. In the context of the English Civil War, he argued against the divine right of kings and for a biblical view of civil government and lawful resistance to tyranny. At the same time he worked as a commissioner of the Church of Scotland to the Westminster Assembly which would produce the doctrinal standards that would define Presbyterianism to the present day.

Rev. Rutherford and the others at the Westminster Assembly were careful to teach due honor and loyalty to civil authorities, as they wrote in their confession of faith: “It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honor their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience’ sake” (WCF 23.4). Yet, they also argued that the king did not have arbitrary and unaccountable authority to do as he pleased - other governing authorities like Parliament could resist him in certain cases (or the Continental Congress, in the case of the American colonists). It is a complicated topic and Lex, Rex was not a simple book, but here I want to share a few quotes from it (I have also written more about a Reformed approach to resisting tyranny at this link).

On checks and balances due to man's depravity:

“Power and absolute monarchy is tyranny; unmixed democracy is confusion; untempered aristocracy is factious dominion...all three thus contempered have their own sweet fruits through God's blessing, and their own diseases by accident, and through man's corruption; and neither reason nor Scripture shall warrant any one in its rigid purity without mixture.”

Against treating kings like God, who determines right and wrong:
“That which is the garland and proper flower of the King of kings, as he is absolute above his creatures, and not tied to any law, without himself, that regulateth his will, that must be given to no mortal man or king, except we would communicate that which is God's proper due to a sinful man, which must be idolatry.”

On tyranny and resistance:
“Therefore an unjust king, as unjust, is not that genuine ordinance of God, appointed to remove injustice, but accidental to a king. So we may resist the injustice of the king, and not resist the king. 8. If, then, any cast off the nature of a king, and become habitually a tyrant, in so far he is not from God, nor any ordinance which God doth own.”

“A tyrant is he who habitually sinneth against the catholic good of the subjects and the state, and subverteth law.”

On rulers’ duty to secure private property rights, rather than being destructive of that end by claiming unlimited power:
“… to conserve every man’s goods to the just owner, and to preserve a community from the violence of rapine and theft, a magistrate and king was devised …. And a king being given of God for a blessing, not for man’s hurt and loss, the king cometh in to preserve a man’s goods, but not to be lord and owner thereof himself, nor to take from any man God’s right to his own goods.”

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