8 September 2005 - Thursday

Williams on civil authority

Preparing for my intellectual history seminar this week, I read a selection from Roger Williams' The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644).

In addition to some powerful figures of speech, the discourse has some fascinating logic. One argument in particular caught my attention. It is very simple (in substance if not style), yet I think it had never occurred to me before. What I like most about it is the doctrinal framework into which it fits. This is a highly evangelical plea for a highly libertarian view of religious freedom, grounded in the Two Kingdoms theory.

Secondly, whereas he [Williams' opponent] affirms that men may make laws to see the laws of God observed.

I answer, God needeth not the help of a material sword of steel to assist the sword of the Spirit in the affairs of conscience, to those men, those magistrates, yea that commonwealth which makes such magistrates, must needs have power and authority from Christ Jesus to fit judge and to determine in all the great controversies concerning doctrine, discipline, government, etc.

And then I ask whether upon this ground it must not evidently follow that:

Either there is no lawful commonwealth nor civil state of men in the world, which is not qualified with this spiritual discerning (and then also that the very commonweal hath more light concerning the church of Christ than the church itself).

Or, that the commonweal and magistrates thereof must judge and punish as they are persuaded in their own belief and conscience (be their conscience paganish, Turkish, or antichristian) what is this but to confound heaven and earth together, and not only to take away the being of Christianity out of the world, but to take away all civility, and the world out of the world, and to lay all upon heaps of confusion?

In other words, according to Williams, if government has a divine right to enforce religious law (the position he rejects), then there are just two possibilities. Either (a) every government is correct in its religious opinions; or (b) even pagan governments have a God-given right to enforce their own false religious ideas.

The first possibility may be dismissed immediately, given the divisions of religious opinion among governments. Every Englishman would have been highly conscious of these divisions; many recent wars had sprung from them. Furthermore, this option would require the state to have a better knowledge of religion than the Church had, since the Church itself had seen so many divisions of opinion. Obviously, government does not automatically know the truth about God.

The other possibility, however, must also be dismissed. It would mean that either pagan lands have no legitimate government at all, or their governments have a commission from Christ to destroy Christianity. The first contradicts biblical observations on government, and the second is simply unthinkable.

Therefore, we must conclude that civil government does not have a divine commission to regulate religious opinion.

This argument works, of course, precisely because both Williams and his audiences believed that government is a divine institution. The entire discourse presupposes the belief that God lies behind the civil authorities and is the source of their right to govern.

In fact, later paragraphs affirm this doctrine explictly. In doing so, these paragraphs provide evidence not only of early thought about religious liberty, but also of early thought about democracy.

First, whereas they say that the civil power may erect and establish what form of civil government may seem in wisdom most meet, I acknowledge the proposition to be most true, both in itself and also considered with the end of it, that a civil government is an ordinance of God, to conserve the civil peace of people, so far as concerns their bodies and goods, as formerly hath been said.

But from this grant I infer (as before hath been touched) that the sovereign, original, and foundation of civil power lies in the people (whom they must needs mean by the civil power distinct from the government set up). And, if so, that a people may erect and establish what form of government seems to them most meet for their civil condition; it is evident that such governments as are by them erected and established have no more power, nor for no longer time, than the civil power or people consenting and agreeing shall betrust them with. This is clear not only in reason but in the experience of all commonweals, where the people are not deprived of their natural freedom by the power of tyrants.

And, if so, that the magistrates receive their power of governing the church from the people, undeniably it follows that a people, as a people, naturally consider (of what nature or nation soever in Europe, Asia, Africa, or America), have fundamentally and originally, as men, a power to govern the church, to see her do her duty, to correct her, to redress, reform, establish, etc. And if this be not to pull God and Christ and Spirit out of heaven, and subject them unto natural, sinful, inconstant men, and so consequently to Satan himself, by whom all peoples naturally are guided, let heaven and earth judge.... [Emphasis added]

So Williams believes that government (like the Sabbath) was made for man, not man for government. He goes further, identifying the right of civil government with the people themselves. Therefore, the argument goes, government control of religion means popular control of religion, even in heathen lands. And since when has God given nonbelievers the right to control his Church?

This is really another form of the same argument given above, but by invoking the specter of undisciplined masses as masters of the Church, it may have had its own special potency. The previous form of the argument, I suspect, might have been less shocking to paternalists than this form.

| Posted by Wilson at 22:57 Central | TrackBack
| Report submitted to the Humanities Desk