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The Revolution: Christian In Spite of Itself
from Christians in the Public Square
by John Warwick Montgomery

The single most paradoxical aspect of American history is that though the country's Founding Fathers were deists and not Christians, the nation got off to a Christian start nonetheless. Both the American Revolution and the founding documents arising from it turned out to be-often in spite of the motives of their creators-fully compatible with historic Christian faith. In this sense our national origins might be said to exemplify the fundamental principle of divine economy that men are saved by God's free grace and not by their own works-"lest any man should boast!"

True enough, as Staughton Lynd (Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism) and others with radical axes to grind maintain, the deists were the ones who in particular strove for revolution, having confidence in their own ability to define the eternal moral law and lacking any restraint from biblical revelation. Moreover, studies of the Loyalists by Mary Beth Norton and other specialists have emphasized the extent to which the Christians among them relied upon Romans 13: the believer's duty to be subject to the governmental powers under which he lives. Indeed, in the Federalist reaction that occurred some years after the Revolution, President Timothy Dwight of Yale-one of the great names in evangelical Christianity during Revolutionary times-could say that the Revolution had "unhinged the principles, the morality, and the religion of the country more than could have been done by a peace of forty years."

But the support of orthodox Christians for separation from the mother Country was at least as powerful as opposition to it. One thinks at once of Revolutionary general John Peter Muhlenberg (eldest son of pastor Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the "patriarch of the Lutheran church in America"), who saved the American forces from annihilation at the Brandywine; or of John Witherspoon, distinguished Presbyterian clergyman and signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Particularly among Calvinists, who looked back with approval on the beheading of Charles I and the era of the Commonwealth, revolution was justified when a sovereign so exceeded his legitimate powers that he could be said to have abrogated his proper sovereignty. Since he was no longer sovereign except in name, the people could topple him from his throne without violating Romans 13.

This viewpoint harks back at least to Thomas Aquinas' definition of human law in the Summa: law is "nothing else than an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated." By such a definition, laws that are not reasonable or for the common good can be regarded as no laws at all. Those who ignore them or oppose them by revolutionary action can do so without falling into sin.

But such an approach oversimplifies the issues and is highly dangerous theologically. Who is to determine what laws are really for the common good or are truly reasonable, or whether a sovereign has exceeded his powers to such a degree that Christians can oppose him by revolution without violating the apostolic command to subjection? In a sinful world where untainted laws, princes, and governments never put in an appearance, such a political philosophy theoretically allows Romans 13 to be deemed inapplicable in any given case-and thus saps it of all meaning!

The proper theological answer to this dilemma of maintaining authority yet opposing tyranny comes with recognition of the lesser-of-evils principle in Christian ethics. Over against Aquinas (whose casuistic, hierarchical ethic is at the opposite pole from central Reformation teaching), Romans 13 applies universally, for it is an unqualified assertion; it is always wrong to oppose constituted authority, for God himself has established the ordered structures of life to prevent us as sinful men from anarchically destroying ourselves. Even the worst laws and rulers are better than none, and they too fall within the purview of Romans 13.

However, another fundamental scriptural teaching has to be taken into account: the absolute necessity of freedom of choice in order for genuine acceptance of Christ to occur (John 7:17). Curtailment of freedom of choice may destroy effective gospel preachment, and this may become a greater evil than the (admitted) evil of revolution against constituted authority.

The agonies of such a situation for believers are tremendous, and not every Christian will weigh the pros and cons identically: some will agonizingly opt for authority, while recognizing that they sin by aiding and abetting tyranny of conscience; others will opt for revolution, aware that they are perhaps unleashing the demons of anarchy on an already sin impregnated earth. Werner Elert, in his Christian Ethos, has well described the Angst experienced by German Christians who faced this choice in the early years of the Hitler regime.

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.

Taken from Christians in the Public Square by John Warwick Montgomery, David Kilgour and C. E. B. Cranfield. Used by permission of the Canadian Institute for Law, Theology and Public Policy, copyright 1996. You can purchase Christians in the Public Square by calling the Canadian Institute for Law, Theology and Public Policy at (780) 461-3076.

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