On January 30, 1750, Jonathan Mayhew stood in the pulpit of Old West Church in Boston and preached what was to become one of the most famous sermons in history. The occasion was the 101st anniversary of the death of King Charles I. The challenge that Mayhew addressed before his congregation was the question of whether rebellion against a tyrant was a violation of the Bible's command in Romans 13 for Christians to submit to political rulers.
In a sermon eloquently entitled A Discourse on Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers, Mayhew argued that the command in Romans 13 is not absolute and does not apply to tyrannical rulers. He compared this command with the commands for children to obey their parents, servants to submit to their rulers, and wives to submit to their husbands. Mayhew argued, for example, that the command for children to obey their parents does not require children to submit to being killed if their father has gone mad and is trying to murder them, and I would add that if a father were trying to murder his children, any older child with the ability to stop him would have a duty to do so with whatever force is necessary. Mayhew reasoned that this limitation to the command for children to obey their parents applies just as much to the command for Christians to submit to the government.
Mayhew's sermon has received a lot of criticism in recent days from men claiming that his arguments were founded on the writings of the enlightenment philosophers instead of on the Bible. I've debated against various theologians and historians making this claim, and I was recently challenged by historian John Fea to write a response to his criticism of Mayhew. Fea's argument is presented in his book Was America Founded As a Christian Nation? Here is the reply that I submitted after reading his book:
In your book, you argued that Mayhew "was committed to interpreting the Bible predominantly through the grid of natural law and reason." Two rejoinders could be made to this claim.
1) The vast majority of Christian scholars since the time of the Apostles and the vast majority of Jewish scholars extending back many centuries prior have always held that natural law and sound reason will never contradict the revealed law of Scripture. James Wilson provides an excellent summary of this position in his Lectures on the Law.
2) Mayhew referenced no less than thirty-five different passages of Scripture in support of his conclusions. I hardly think that such a diligent comparison of Scripture with Scripture is indicative of a man who is "committed to interpreting the Bible predominantly through the grid of natural law and reason." Did Mayhew use logic and reason in his argument? Of course he did! His position is neither illogical nor unreasonable, but the mere fact that he used his brain does not mean that he sought to change Scripture to match his own musings.
You then claimed that "Mayhew began his sermon by affirming that Romans 13 required Christians to be obedient to government regardless of whether the government was a monarchy, republic, or aristocracy."
That's a bit of a misrepresentation on your part. Mayhew mentioned the different forms of government in order to argue that any view of Romans 13 must be applied equally to all forms government and to all levels of government. Mayhew's point was that no one in his day was applying the passage universally like that. Those arguing for total obedience were only making that argument in regards to monarchs. As Mayhew put it:
"The advocates for unlimited submission and passive obedience do, if I mistake not, always speak with reference to kingly or monarchical government as distinguished from all other forms and with reference to submitting to the will of the king in distinction from all subordinate officers acting beyond their commission and the authority which they have received from the crown. It is not pretended that any persons besides kings have a divine right to do what they please so that no one may resist them."
You also wrote that "According to Mayhew, Romans 13 could not be advocating unlimited submission to government because such a practice did not conform either to the true meaning of the passage or to the dictates of reason."
Actually, Mayhew claimed that such a practice would be contrary to EVERY passage of Scripture, and he demonstrated that claim by referencing no less than thirty-five separate passage in support of his view.
You claimed that Mayhew's interpretation of Romans 13 "required ministers like Mayhew to move beyond the plain reading of these texts."
But Mayhew did not move beyond the plain reading of the text (unless you consider comparing one passage of Scripture with other passages using similar terminology to be moving beyond the plain reading of the text). Mayhew compared the commands in Romans 13 with similar commands given to children, wives, and servants. He demonstrated that the interpretation of Romans 13 as a command for absolute submission would be ludicrous if applied to passages that used similar wording for other categories of submission.
You went on to say that "In order to turn these passages into revolutionary manifestos, Mayhew needed to interpret them with a strong dose of the ideas of political philosophers such as John Locke."
This is speculation at best. Mayhew never once mentioned Locke in either the text of the sermon or his footnotes. In fact, a comparison of Mayhew's sermon with Locke's notes on Romans 13 reveals very few similarities between the two documents, and Locke did not reference Romans 13 at all in his Two Treatises of Government. I can't find any support for your claim that Mayhew based his view of Romans 13 on the philosophy of Locke.
And finally, you argued that "the liberal or 'Lockean' interpretation of these biblical passages was a minority position in the history of the Christian church and was relatively new in the history of Protestantism."
This particular error was probably due to simple ignorance on your part. I'm not saying that to be derogatory. Theology is clearly not your area of expertise, so your mistake is understandable. The truth is that Mayhew's view of Romans 13 has a very lengthy and robust theological history. For example, when Sir Robert Filmer wrote his book Patriarcha in defense of the very same divine right of kings that Mayhew was arguing against, Filmer (writing nearly 100 years prior) claimed that the view later expressed by Mayhew had been around for centuries. Filmer wrote that:
“Since the time that School-Divinity began to flourish, there hath been a common Opinion maintained, as well by Divines, as by divers other learned Men, which affirms ... That the People or Multitude have Power to punish, or deprive the Prince, if he transgress the Laws of the Kingdom.”
According to Filmer, this idea that Christian people had a right to rebel against evil rulers had permeated both the Catholic and the Protestant branches of Christianity for a very long time prior to Mayhew's or even John Locke's birth.
Filmer was mistaken on this point only in that he did not trace the history of this doctrine back far enough.
We have records of from church fathers as early as the second century making arguments similar to Mayhew's. Irenaeus argued that “God has always preserved freedom, and the power of self-government in man.” Tertullian claimed that “the king indeed must be honoured, yet so that the king be honoured only when he keeps to his own sphere.” Origen presented as an axiomatic truth the idea that "those persons would do well who should enter into a secret association in order to put to death a tyrant who had seized upon the liberties of a state."
You claimed that Augustine would have opposed Mayhew's view, but when we read Augustine, we find him arguing right alongside Mayhew that “A law which is not just does not seem to me to be a law.”
Thomas Aquinas presented the same claims when he wrote that: "A tyrannical government is not just, because it is directed, not to the common good, but to the private good of the ruler, as the Philosopher states. Consequently there is no sedition in disturbing a government of this kind."
Aquinas went on to argue that when a man is wrongfully condemned by an unjust ruler "such a sentence is like the violence of robbers, according to Ezech. 22:27, 'Her princes in the midst of her are like wolves ravening the prey to shed blood.' Wherefore even as it is lawful to resist robbers, so is it lawful, in a like case, to resist wicked princes."
I could go further and trace this doctrine from theologian to theologian all the way down to Mayhew and his contemporaries, but I'll stop here for sake of brevity. You can find a more detailed list in my book The Bible and the Constitution which is available as a free download on the book page of my website IncreasingLearning.com
Your claim that Mayhew's interpretation of Romans 13 was a minority view with a relatively recent history is hilariously erroneous. As I pointed out in my previous comment, Mayhew's sermon was a well exegeted summation of a doctrine that has been taught by Christians for as long as Christians have been around to teach. Mayhew's claims fall well within the bounds of established and orthodox Christian doctrine.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
Contact Us if you would like to schedule Bill to speak to your church, group, or club.
"Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning." (Proverbs 9:9)