Friday, July 4, 2008

The American Revolution and Romans 13

As we celebrate once more the founding of our great nation, a question comes to mind as to its origin. The question concerns not the historical details, per se, but rather the theological justification. Lutherans have long held that the apostolic directives of Romans 13 require proper respect and obedience to the governing authorities, even if that authority is seen as morally suspect. The escape clause, as it were, is the other apostolic directive in Acts that reminds the church of the greater responsibility to obey God rather than man when the one attempts to restrict the other, especially the freedom to proclaim the Gospel.

I have often wondered, in light of the above, how a Lutheran would reason through the right to engage in revolutionary activity against a governing authority that did not seem, at the time, to be restricting the church's right to proclaim the Gospel. For those interested in a brief article by stellar Lutheran theologian that explores the dynamics of this question, you are encouraged to read Dr. John Warwick Montgomery's online article The Revolution: Christian In Spite of Itself (1996) which was excerpted from Christians in the Public Square, provided by the original Issues, Etc.

At the end of the article Montgomery writes:
"Were the American revolutionaries correct and the loyalists wrong? To the casual observer, it may appear very doubtful that in an age of increasing Parliamentarianism George III really offered a serious threat to English liberties, and taxation without representation seems a considerable distance from that abridgment of free decision-making which would imperil the Gospel. Likewise, the belief of many colonial pastors that the potential establishment of the bishopric in America would unify church and state so as to eliminate free expression religiously and politically (cf. Carl Bridenbaugh's Mitre and Sceptre) perhaps appears to be little more than a typical example of escalation-theory among the clergy. However, we of the twentieth century have-or should have-a perspective on totalitarianism that the eighteenth century itself lacked, and we can now see how fragile a flower liberty is and how readily its abridgment in one respect can lead to its destruction in general.

The American revolutionaries, whatever the theoretical justification they personally offered for their action and however unbiblical the beliefs of some of them were, did in fact choose to preserve the scriptural ideal of liberty and became the chief torchbearers of that ideal in the modern world. As so often happens in a fallen creation, to opt for one teaching of Scripture is to run afoul of another, and our revolutionary forefathers can well be criticized for the ease with which they glossed over the obligations of Romans 13 in choosing the "liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free." But their dilemma is the dilemma of every person in a fallen world, and-looking back on their decision from a 200-year vantage point-it is difficult to believe that they erred in creating a nation dedicated to the principle of individual freedom, where decisions for Christ could take place without fear or favor."

What do you think of Montgomery's reasoning? Is it right to even judge their decisions from our historical vantage point? Admittedly, it is difficult to be critical of their actions in light of the questions one would raise to a person's patriotic loyalties. I am very supportive of my country and have often appealed to Romans 13 for obedience and respect to the current government. It is for that reason I still wonder now how such thinking would have worked in in the 18th century.

On March 29 of last year I wrote a blog article "To What Degree Must We Obey?" in which I included a paper I had put together entitled "Romans 13 and Submission to the Governing Authorities." It can be accessed here if you care to read more.


Carl Vehse said...

"our revolutionary forefathers can well be criticized for the ease with which they glossed over the obligations of Romans 13 in choosing the 'liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.'"

What do you think of Montgomery's reasoning?

Elsewhere I posted these comments in 2006:

Perhaps others will provide relevant Scripture, but Lutherans have plenty of Confessional support for unalienable (or natural) Rights, including life, liberty (and marriage), and the pursuit by both heathen and Christian (temporal) happiness (vainly for the former, and from God's Word for the latter), also the right of holding property.

For the details, check out the Apology, XVI.9; XVIII.4; XXIII.6-7,9-12; and LC.I.43,157.

Also note the Declaration of Independence's reference to the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" comes from William Blackstone's Commentaries and refers, respectively, to "This will of his maker is called the law of nature" and "The doctrines thus delivered we call the revealed or divine law, and they are to be found only in the holy scriptures." The Lutheran Confessions contained a similar view.

In his "On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church", (First Principles of the Reformation or the Ninety-five Theses and the Three Primary Works of Dr. Martin Luther, translated by Henry Wace, D.D. and C.A. Buchheim, Ph.D., London: John Murray, 1883, pp. 194-196), Martin Luther had this to say about liberty and freedom:

"I say then, neither Pope, nor bishop, nor any man whatever has the right of making one syllable binding on a Christian man, unless it is done with his own consent. Whatever is done otherwise is done in a spirit of tyranny.... I cry aloud on behalf of liberty and conscience, and I proclaim with confidence that no kind of law can with any justice be imposed on Christians, whether by men or by angels, except so far as they themselves will; for we are free from all."

Finally, while it may be a Sisyphean task like trying to get people to say "nuclear" rather than "nukular", it should be pointed out that the Declaration of Independence does distinguish between the government (the people) and the form of government. It was the latter that was changed on July 4, 1776.

Thus, Montegomery's claim that our Revolutionary forefathers "glossed over the obligations of Romans 13", is not true, since, as the government, they (the people) only used their governing authority that God had given them. Today, the President and Congress are not our civil rulers (our "caesars"); they are our elected representatives. We, the people, are the government; we the government have been given the governing authority by God. Those elected and appointed representatives in the three federal branches (as well as state and local offices) carry out their duties on our behalf using the authority we delegated to them within our form of government as specified in the federal and various state constitutions, as amended.

Bob Hunter said...

Speaking as a Canadian living in the US I've seen few good reasons for many of the wars the United States has been involved in nor do I understand the military mindset here.

Carl Vehse said...


Would our Revolutionary War be one of those for which you, speaking as a Canadian living in the U.S., have seen few good reasons?

As for the other five wars the United States has fought, to which, in your opinion, was our mindset not understandable.

Of course Canadians might be less enthusiastic about the War of 1812, but hey, we got our National Anthem out of that one!

Don Engebretson said...

Since your comments were on "Ask the Pastor" by Pr. Synder, in "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" I'd like to quote his final remarks:

"In the final analysis, the Declaration remains a brilliant piece of social and political writing. However, it suffers when used as an illustration of Christian theology. Even as one who celebrates the freedoms promised by Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, et al., I don’t know if I could have, in good conscience urged fighting against England to obtain them. Certainly, if a government is proven to be evil and to be causing evil, resistance may be necessary. I’m just not fully convinced that the causes outlined in the Declaration are completely valid in light of Romans 13. After all, early Christians suffered greater harm under an intolerant and evil Roman government than anything the American colonists ever faced under England without rising in rebellion against Rome."

I think that Pr. Synder has something here when he notes that the Declaration is "a brilliant piece of social and political writing. However, it suffers when used as an illustration of Christian theology"

Your reference from Luther was originally directed at the wrongful suppression of Christian freedom in the Gospel, as was the case under the Roman church. When the peasants openly revolted against the secular government Luther opposed it, even though they undoubtedly had concerns about their own "rights" to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." I believe that one needs to differentiate between Christian freedom in the Gospel and what the Constitution speaks about. That document is not addressing the theological concerns, per se, of the Reformation era.

In the earlier blog article I referenced, I also wrote:

"he early forefathers of this country rebelled based on the ideals of individual freedom and liberty, although these ideals were more a product of the Enlightenment sentiment of their times than what we think of as Christians. When the scriptures talk of freedom, they do not talk of political freedom, but rather freedom in the Gospel, freedom from the power of sin, death and evil. This freedom was the most important, and could be realized even if one were enslaved for a time in this world. Therefore, Paul could surprisingly encourage the slaves of his time to “be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling….”(19) In the case of Philemon, a slave owner who had a legal right to execute his runaway slave Onesimus, Paul does not argue the master’s right or the general morality of slavery, but appeals to Philemon as a brother in Christ. He even offered to pay whatever restitution is needed to cover the slave’s theft."

As to the issue of war, here we get into the whole arena of the "just war" theory. In a footnote of my own article I wrote:

"Christians are not free to oppose the government’s right to assemble an army or to go to war. However, Christian ethicists have evaluated individual acts of war under the “Just War” theory. A Christian could certainly express their disapproval of a given war that the believer felt was “unjust” and unwarranted. They could express this disapproval in any legal means at their disposal."
( )

Carl Vehse said...

I think there are two different understandings of the governing authority here. Neither deny that the governing authority has been established by God. But the difference is in to whom God has (immediately) given the governing authority:

1. The form of government (whether king, emperor, dictator, pope, duke, parliament, president, etc.) is the government to whom God has immediately given the governing authority. The people are only the governed, and may only refuse the government if its rule goes directly against God's will.

2. The people are the government, to whom God has given the governing authority to establish or change a form of government and to delegate to recognized or elected officials within the form of government the carying out of governing duties within the form of government to which the people, as the governed, are to obey.

Depending on one's choice will determine one's view of whether the Declaration of Independence is an illustration of Christian theology and whether the causes outlined in the Declaration are valid in light of Romans 13.

In an analogous way one can think of how God has given the office of the keys immediately to the Church, while the pastor's call is given by God mediately through the Church.

Finally, whether one feels such rights are personally worth fighting for (especially if one already enjoys such freedoms from someone else previously and presently fighting, and dying, for them), is immaterial to this issue of the immediate receiver of the governing authority from God.