A comment on ‘But seriously 2’

My friend Steve posted a comment on that item – about Pilate’s judgement of Jesus – and I thought it worthwhile to respond specifically as a post.

Here’s the comment…. 

I can’t get a connection to the Field essay you refer to but I found Rutherford. I don’t read him as writing about a ‘confessional’ state or rebelling against a government.

“The king, as king, is a just creature, and by office a living and breathing law. His will, as he is king, is nothing but a just law; but the king, as a sinful man, is not a just creature, but one who can sin and play the tyrant; and his will, as a private sinful man, is a private will, and may be resisted. So the law saith, “The king, as king, can do no wrong,” but the king, as a man, may do a wrong. While as, then, the parliaments of both kingdoms resist the king’s private will, as a man, and fight against his illegal cutthroats, sent out by him to destroy his native subjects, they fight for him as a king, and obey his public legal will, which is his royal will, de jure…” XXIX – p.146

It is dense but the sense is clear, it is the man, Charles Stuart, who is in rebellion against his office, the Crown.  The parliaments and the people are to uphold the law and the government and bring a criminal and rebel to justice.

It is couched in religious language and uses biblical exemplars in its argument but ‘Lex Rex’ is a work of politics and the arguments made are the same as those that would be made later by John Locke and Thomas Jefferson with language and examples from Graeco-Roman politics and philosophy.

The middle half of the seventeenth century in British history should be more closely studied, especially in the US. The echoes and parallels with contemporary Iranian politics are quite clear.
Rutherford and his contemporaries write in language and terms that would very readily communicate our meaning and vice versa.

When you do that it comes as no surprise why our argument with the Shia is so furious, they are coming to stand for what we stood for in the days of our youth.

And here’s my reply to it…..

I confess that in the original post I didn’t go back behind Field to Rutherford.  Back in Rutherford’s time some royalist had written a book entitled ‘Rex Lex’ – ‘the King is the Law’, and Rutherford had written in opposition a book titled ‘Lex Rex’ – ‘the Law is the King’ saying that the king himself had to be subject to the law or he could be opposed by his people.  This dialogue did eventually lead to our modern pluralist democracy (with which Rutherford in fact would have disagreed, and Field also!), so it’s not all bad.  However, as an exposition of the Christian/biblical position it is deeply flawed.

I disagree with the suggestion that Rutherford wasn’t writing about a confessional state; in his argument with the king of his day, both sides took a ‘Christendom/Christian-state’ position. The king wanted and was willing to use his power to enforce, in Rutherford’s eyes, an inadequately reformed Anglican confessional state which was almost ‘papist’.  Rutherford and his party wanted a more biblical/reformed/Puritan confessional state and believed it would be right to fight to secure that.  This conflict and its English parallel led to the Civil War of the 1640s and after Charles II’s restoration the Covenanter rebellion in Scotland.

The background to Rutherford’s ideas is in Paul’s words in Romans 13, and Peter’s in a parallel passage in I Peter, telling Christians to ‘be subject to’ the authorities and not to rebel; the acceptance of establishment in the Roman state after Constantine had led to a distortion of this teaching with such ideas as the ‘divine right of kings’.  With a recognition that this had not quite worked out ideally, men like Rutherford saw the need to disobey bad rulers, and in line with Constantinian thinking looked for a justification to rebel and fight against such rulers to establish a ‘more Christian’ state.  One attempt at this was to try to separate between the ideal office of the king and the occasional non-ideal sinful man who held the office; the one could not be opposed, the other, they thought, could be.

It sounds good, in words; but the distinction is really just academic.  The man and the office can’t be so easily separated in practice, except by reducing the king to little more than a figurehead as in our modern democracy.  Even then those who aren’t just figureheads may not rule in a way satisfactory to Puritan Christendom-seekers so you can still end up with a dilemma about rebelling against a ‘sinful’ government….

And of course, when you put these ideas into practice, the rebellion still leads to a bloody civil war with Christians killing – in the 17th century, killing one another.  In our modern world essentially similar arguments are made by Ian Paisley – very much a descendant of the Covenanters – in his commentary on Romans (prepared while in prison after a protest in Ulster).  At the culmination of his exposition he says “The chief magistrate is divinely ordained, the office is sacred, but a Hitler who usurps and abuses the office is not divinely ordained, neither are the laws of such a tyrant to be obeyed when they oppose the law of God.”  Such thinking sparked off the ‘Troubles’ in Ulster which have killed some 2000 people in my lifetime; and unlike Rutherford’s and Paisley’s distinction, those deaths are not academic!

Paisley’s ‘but a Hitler…’ is actually a slip in the logic which distorts Paul’s real intention in order to justify the ‘armed resistance against tyranny’.  Paul would have said that Hitler, like the evil Pharaoh of the Exodus, or the Emperor Nero, though his acts were not divinely approved, was nevertheless indeed divinely ordained and that Christians were to be subject to him and not rebel.  Paul, who in 2 Corinthians 10 vv3-4 makes clear that Christian warfare is not with physical weapons, would have put his distinction in a different part of the argument, as Peter did in Acts ch 5.  For Paul and Peter – and both would have said they were following Jesus in this – the bad commands of a Hitler are indeed to be disobeyed, for ‘we must obey God rather than men’.  However, the Christian disobeying the tyrant remains ‘subject to’ the God-appointed ruler; instead of armed rebellion, the Christian accepts an unjust martyrdom, as both Paul and Peter did under Nero.

On the Americans see AA Hodge’s exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, wherein he uses Rutherford-like arguments to justify the American War of Independence, and fails to see that they are unbiblical….

I can only agree with the comparison to Muslim politics and Shia positions; the problem is precisely that Muhammad followed the example of the Roman Imperial church of his day, but not the example of Jesus and the NT, by setting up a state religion which considered warfare by a religiously totalitarian state to be legitimate on behalf of his teaching.

More on all this when my ‘But Seriously’ strand gets round to Romans 13 in fuller detail….

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