Reformational Roots of the Social Contract; Reformed motives behind the American Revolution

30 Oct

From Dr. David Hall:

Contrary to much secular thought, the historic emergence of a social contract that guarantees human liberty stems from the seedbed of Geneva’s Reformation. To be sure, a different social contract, the humanist one, had its cradle in the secular thinking of the Enlightenment. The one I refer to as the social covenant (to distinguish) has resisted tyranny, totalitarianism, and authoritarianism with consistent and irrepressible force; the other has led to oppression, large-scale loss of life, and the general diminution of liberty, both economic and personal.

Following is a brief review of five leading tracts from the Reformation period that had wide and enduring political impact in support of liberty: The Right of Magistrates (1574) by Theodore Beza, The Rights of the Crown of Scotland (1579) by George Buchanan, Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (1579) by Phillipe du Plessis Mornay, Politica (1603) by Johannes Althusius, and Lex Rex (1644) by Samuel Rutherford

A Signal and Unique Contribution

To view these comparatively reveals a common fabric of political ideas that have evolved from this unique basis of thought. Much antecedent Western political thought is hopelessly confused if this lacuna is not illuminated. Moreover, it is not too much to claim that Western society owes many of its best political advances to the theology emanating from Geneva.

The evolution of resistance against monopolism had its root uniquely in Reformation thought. There were, to be sure, seedling precursors to Reformation thought that cannot be developed in this essay. For example, Augustine and Aquinas, along with the best of Roman Catholic theology of the state, provided earlier and enduring support for this social covenant and resistance to tyranny. Antedating the Reformation teaching in Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, Aquinas argued that Christians are “obliged to obey authority that comes from God but not that which is not from God…. Whoever seizes power by violence does not become a true ruler and lord, and therefore it is permissible when the possibility exists for someone to reject that rulership….”

Turning points prior to the Reformation, however, were few and far between. The quantum advances in the doctrine of resistance during the years 1550—1650 were so monumental as to deserve notice as a signal and unique contribution. This Reformation evolution of a social covenant was subsequently manifested writ large in the origin of our Republic–despite the massive secularist mythos to the contrary.

Though medieval sources contained precedents for resistance, the Genevan paradigm especially animated the pursuit of theological foundations for greater democratic expression. In The Cultural Significance of the Reformation (1911), Karl Holl described the Reformation as initially setting “a rigid limit to the absolute power of the state.” Further, he conceded “to the Reformation respect for being the first of all in modern times to have prepared the way for freedom of conscience in the state. All further victories with respect to tolerance rest on this first step….”

Everywhere Geneva’s Calvinism went, so did its views of putting government in its place by opposing tyranny. Calvinism “placed a solid barrier in the path of the spread of absolutism.” Even though Holl admits that some precursors of human rights were found in the Middle Ages, the normalization of universal human rights did not arrive except as a consequence of the Reformation impetus. Further, this advance was not merely the modification of a single point but “included in itself the transformation of the whole concept of the state.” Planting the seeds that would eventually bear fruit in the American Revolution, Protestants generally laid the foundation for the motto on Thomas Jefferson’s seal: “Resistance to Tyrants Is Obedience unto God.”

Read the rest

There’s a reason for the content of this American Revolutionary era sketch (“An Attempt to Land a Bishop in America”), which places right alongside “Locke,” “Calvin’s Works” (the document in flight, most immediately endangering the would be American Bishop)  The Reformation political theology, with its decentralization of authority, anti-absolutism, equality and liberty in the congregation, covenantal and constitutional framework of church polity, directly led to cries for constitutional and federal-republican political reform.

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