Saturday, September 15, 2012

Against Cameronianism

During the late 1600s, an error entered into Presbyterian circles.  This period (about 1660 to 1680) was a time of great persecution of Presbyterians in Britain.  During the 1640s, the governments of England, Scotland, and Ireland had agreed together in the Solemn League and Covenant, in which they had promised to work towards uniformity in religion along the lines of the orthodox Reformed faith.  However, when Charles II was restored to the throne around 1660, although he had sworn multiple times to uphold the Covenant, upon attaining actual power he reneged on his oath and reversed the Covenant, even eventually making a law that the Covenant must be abjured by all those holding public office.  Episcopalianism was reestablished as the official church form of the three kingdoms, and worship according to Presbyterian principles was declared illegal.  Of course, faithful Presbyterians continued to carry on anyway, and there was a great period of persecution (later called the "Killing Time") until tolerance for Presbyterianism was declared at the Glorious Revolution around 1688.

Needless to say, the attitude of Presbyterians during this time to the civil government was not very positive.  A few Presbyterian ministers, including Richard Cameron, began towards the last part of this period to develop and put forward an understanding of Christian duties to civil magistrates different in an important respect from that previously held to.  According to Cameron and some others (who later remained separated from the re-established Presbyterian Church of Scotland), civil magistrates are only legitimate and only have authority to command obedience if they fulfill the biblical requirements which pertain to civil magistrates.  They must rule in accordance with God's Word and in the fear of God, and with a proper respect for the rights of their subjects; and if they do not, they are not legitimate, authorized magistrates.  Under this thinking, a claimed magistrate who is an atheist could not be recognized as a legitimate civil magistrate, as he is not living up to the pattern God has set out concerning civil magistrates.  Therefore, the people have no obligation to obey him.  (See this view articulated in the Cameronian Sanquhar Declaration and in the Informatory Vindication, and in the later Act, Declaration, and Testimony.)  This view became known as Cameronianism.  Those who held to it and who remained aloof from the established Church of Scotland after the Glorious Revolution became known as the Society Men, and later as Reformed Presbyterians.  Historically, the Reformed Presbyterians have not recognized as legitimate the civil governments under which they have lived.  However, in more recent times, many RP denominations have become more lax on this point or even abandoned it, while some still hold to the historic position.

In contrast to this Cameronian view stands the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the official confession of the Church of Scotland since the 1640s during the time of the Second Reformation.  The Confession says this:  "Infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrates' just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to them" (WCF 23:4).

I believe the Westminster Confession to represent the correct viewpoint on this issue.  I would like, therefore, to provide a case for this position.

One of the central texts in the New Testament discussing civil magistracy is Romans 13:1-7:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.  Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.  For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:  For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.  Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.  For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

This passage has a parallel in 1 Peter 2:13-17:

Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.  For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men:  As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.  Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.

There are two errors that are often made with regard to these passages.  One of these errors is to read the texts as entirely and nothing but descriptive in nature.  That is, the texts are read as describing the duty of those who live in a society to submit to the civil government of the society, but as not containing any prescriptions for how the civil magistrate should govern.  In this view, the texts do not teach any duties of the civil magistrate, or give any normative authority to the magistrate, but only tell individuals to follow his laws.  In this view, civil magistrates are just people who have managed to attain rule over a society, without any authorization from God, and therefore there are no rules designated for their office (although they are under moral rules as normal human beings).  There are no duties they have to fulfill, but we are told to obey their laws.

There are two problems with this view:  1. The texts obviously imply an authority given to the magistrate, and rules for his conduct as a ruler.  Why would Paul and Peter tell us to submit to civil magistrates if they have no legitimate authority?  By telling us to submit to them obedience, honor, and taxes as "their due," the texts are obviously indicating that the magistrates have a right to demand these things of us.  It would be absurd to say that we ought to pay taxes to magistrates as "their due" and at the same time say that magistrates have no authority to ask us to pay taxes.  And why are we asked to give a special honor to magistrates when they have no special honor because no special authority?  Why are we asked to submit obedience to magistrates as "their due" when they have no authority to demand obedience from us?  It is evident that these texts indicate that a special authority to command obedience and taxes and to receive honor has been granted to civil magistrates, and that they have a right and a duty to demand and expect these things from us.

Also, if the texts are purely descriptive, they are highly misleading.  Clearly, it is not always the case that civil magistrates give praise to the good and punish the evildoer.  Too often magistrates reward the evil and punish the good.  This is especially noteworthy considering that at the time of the writing of Romans and 1 Peter, Christians were and would continue to be even more the subjects of great unjust persecutions by the civil magistrates.  Paul's and Peter's words clearly go beyond the merely descriptive, painting a picture of the ideal function of a civil magistrate--that is, what a civil magistrate is supposed to do (whether he actually does it or not).  But to describe what someone is supposed to do is give that person a duty and authority to fulfill it.  Therefore, these texts must be read as not only descriptive, but also as prescriptive.

 2. The second problem with the purely descriptive view is that this is contradicted by the rest of the Scriptures.  We see many places in Scripture where the civil magistrate is given direct commands by God to carry out his task, which gives prescriptive authority to the magistrate.  In the Law of Moses, we see rules for the appointing of civil magistrates, which are echoed at other places in the Scriptures as well.  And we see many commands directed to the authority of magistrates, such as commands to punish certain crimes in certain ways.  Crimes could not be punished merely by the whims of the people.  A criminal, before receiving sentence, must be lawfully tried by a lawful court, not simply captured and hung by a group of vigilantes.  We also see an implication of the magistrate's prescriptive authority in the obedience offered them by the people of God throughout the Scriptures (some examples of which I will provide shortly), and by the judgments of God threatened against magistrates for ruling unjustly.  None of this makes any sense if magistrates do not have any prescriptive authority from God to function as magistrates.  Therefore, even if our two immediate texts do not in themselves indicate a prescriptive role for civil magistrates (which they do), they ought to be read as implying such in light of the rest of the Scriptures.

The other error made with regard to our two texts is the error made by Cameronians--that the passages are not descriptive at all but are entirely prescriptive.  In the Cameronian view, Paul and Peter are not at all telling Christians to submit to presently-existing civil magistrates, but they are only outlining the sort of magistrates that ought to exist and saying that if they did exist, they would deserve obedience, honor, etc.

There are two main problems with this view that parallel the two problems with the previous view:  1. The texts themselves clearly suggest a present duty to existing civil magistrates, and they are clearly referring to the current Roman rulers in particular (even though those rulers were not Christian but pagan, and not always just in their laws and actions).  This is evident because both Paul and Peter bring up this subject not in order to discourse abstractly on the ideal role of hypothetical civil rulers who might sometime exist, but to press upon Christians a present duty of obedience to civil rulers then existing.  The occasion of their comments regarding civil magistracy in both cases is instructing Christians how they should live in the world that they were then living in.  Paul says, "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God."  Which governing authorities is the Christian to be subject to?  The ones that actually "exist," the ones who are currently actually functioning as "governing authorities."  The authorities that actually, currently exist are appointed by God, because "there is no authority except from God."  Clearly, Paul is telling us to submit to the actually-existing civil authorities now in place--which in the time of writing in Rome (where Paul's letter was sent) would obviously be the Roman civil rulers.  Granted, Paul, in the course of his instruction here, veers off into a description of ideal civil magistrates, which do not always well fit the descriptions of current rulers, but he does so only in the context of the subject of actual submission to current rulers, which leads him to it.  His logic runs in this way:  "You have an obligation to obey the civil rulers who actually rule over you, because civil rulers have been given authority by God.  Their job is to praise the good and punish the evil, and therefore you should give them appropriate honor, obedience, taxes, etc."  Paul goes into the ideal description as he gives the job description of magistrates, without intending to imply that all magistrates fill that description equally well, but with implying that anyone whom God in his providence has put in the role of civil ruler has civil authority and therefore deserves our obedience simply because of the role providence has given him.

Likewise,  Peter tells us to "submit to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake," and then mentions "the king as supreme" and "governors . . . sent by him."  Who is this king, and who are these governors?  Clearly, as this is a present duty for Christians, Peter is speaking of present civil rulers.  The context, as with Paul, is instructions for Christians in their present lives.  Peter's next statement (in verse 18) is relevant as well:  "Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward."  Which masters should servants be submissive to?  Their own current, actually-existing masters, and even to the ones who are harsh.  Now, it is a sin for masters to be harsh; but their being so does not give a license of disobedience to servants.  The instructions here are parallel enough (and the context is the same) that light is shed by verse 18 on verses 13-17 as well.  Peter's basic message is, "Obey the authorities who actually rule over you."  But his instructions, like those of Paul, also imply a prescriptive role for authorities.  Magistrates in particular are said to be "for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good," clearly paralleling Paul's language in Romans 13.  It is clear, then, in both of these texts, that there is a descriptive and not just a prescriptive element involved in the instructions, and that the command to us to be submissive to civil rulers is not limited to ideal or hypothetical civil rulers, but to actually existing civil rulers, whether they be Christians or pagans.

2. Just as with the "purely descriptive" view, the "purely prescriptive" view of these texts is also contradicted by the rest of the Scriptures.  Jesus tells us to "render to Caesar that which is Caesar's" (Mark 12:17), implying (in light of the context) that taxes belong to Caesar.  This parallels Paul's instructions to pay taxes in Romans 13, and Jesus explicitly names the civil magistrate to whom taxes are to be paid in this case--Caesar, the Roman emperor, certainly no Christian and very often no pure and perfect maker of laws, a man who authoritatively authorized pagan worship throughout his empire and even demanded worship to be paid to himself by many.

Paul's conduct and attitude with regard to Roman magistrates in the Book of Acts is illuminating in this context.  Paul's general custom was to show respect and deference to Roman rulers, attributing to them legitimate civil authority in a number of ways:

Acts 24:10: “Then Paul, after that the governor had beckoned unto him to speak, answered, Forasmuch as I know that thou hast been of many years a judge unto this nation, I do the more cheerfully answer for myself.” Paul refers to Felix as a “judge of this nation,” without quarreling with this term, and he speaks to him throughout this speech as to one before whom cases are lawfully tried.

Acts 25:10-11: “Then said Paul, I stand at Caesar's judgment seat, where I ought to be judged: to the Jews have I done no wrong, as thou very well knowest.  For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them. I appeal unto Caesar.” Paul makes a couple of remarkable statements here that should make any Cameronian nervous. He says that he “ought to be judged” at Caesar's judgment seat, implying that Caesar has actual authority to judge in a ruling capacity, and he even appeals to Caesar. He appeals to be tried, as in a legitimate court of justice, at Caesar's judgment seat. Also, he says that "if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die.” Paul does not object to being executed by the Roman rulers if he truly deserves it. But what right do Roman rulers have to execute people? None, according to Cameronians. But Paul differs.

Acts 26:1-3: “Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Thou art permitted to speak for thyself. Then Paul stretched forth the hand, and answered for himself:  I think myself happy, king Agrippa, because I shall answer for myself this day before thee touching all the things whereof I am accused of the Jews:  Especially because I know thee to be expert in all customs and questions which are among the Jews: wherefore I beseech thee to hear me patiently.” Paul speaks to King Agrippa with respect, calling him by his proper title, and appealing to him to hear his case patiently. Clearly, Paul recognizes Agrippa's legitimate civil authority. It should be noted also that Paul's attitude of respect to the Roman and Jewish civil authorities parallels his respect shown to the high priest in Acts 23:5. In the latter case, Paul explained that respect was owed because the high priest was a ruler of his people—implying legitimacy of authority.

The repentant thief on the cross says to Jesus that he and his companion are receiving "the due reward of our deeds."  But their execution would be unjust, if pagan governments cannot be legitimate.

We see this same attitude of respect and acknowledgement of the authority of non-Christian rulers placed over the people by God's providence in the Old Testament as well.  The Book of Daniel, in particular, provides numerous examples.  Consistently throughout the book, Daniel and his friends show deference, respect, and submission to Babylonian and Persian rulers, calling them by their authoritative titles, given them obedience (except when they command sin), accepting government appointments and positions, eating food provided by the government (which would have been stolen food had the government not been legitimate), etc.  The kings of Babylon and Persia, after seeing God's glory, often issue decrees that the God of Israel should be honored on pain of death, and the text suggests that this is a good thing, although if they were not legitimate rulers this would be sinful.  We see the same sorts of things in other books of Old Testament, such as Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Jonah.  It is clear that the Scriptures regard pagan kings as having legitimate authority, even sometimes over the people of God if God places them there providentially.

It is therefore clear that the Scriptures do not share the Cameronian opinion that only godly and Christian civil rulers have legitimate authority.  The Scriptures instead support the view of the Westminster Confession.

Cameronians argue that the Scriptures lay out rules for the electing of godly magistrates (such as in Deuteronomy 1:9-18), and that this implies that those magistrates who do not meet these qualifications cannot be considered lawful magistrates.  But this position pits these passages against other passages, such as those we have looked at, that clearly indicate otherwise.  The fact that God has laid out qualifications for godly civil magistrates implies that we ought not willingly to make those civil magistrates who do not fit those qualifications.  It implies that those who do not meet these qualifications should not try to take the role of civil magistrate.  It implies that civil magistrates who do not fulfill these qualifications are sinning by not doing so.  But it doesn't imply that those whom God has providentially set into power over us who do not meet all of these qualifications are therefore not legitimate civil magistrates.  For example, I should not choose to have Barack Obama be the President of the United States insofar as I have a legal choice in the matter.  I think this entails that I ought not to vote for him to be President.  But it does not imply that he is not truly a lawful civil magistrate, having been elected, or that I do not owe obedience to him.  God clearly in his Word commands two things of his people, and we must hold both of these things together and not pit them in conflict with each other:  God has commanded us to choose only qualified individuals to be our civil magistrates when we have a choice in the matter, and he has commanded us to accept even unqualified individuals as civil magistrates when God in his providence puts such over us and we do not have a say in the matter (or our say is insufficient to change the result).

Cameronians put forward a number of other texts indicating that God does not approve of ungodly rulers, that he will judge them, that they are sinful, etc., but the comments previously made apply to them as well.  The fallacy is in thinking that if a ruler is sinning in his function and bringing down on himself the wrath of God, then that means that we ought not to recognize his legitimate authority.  But this does not follow.  Again, Scripture teaches both that magistrates have certain prescriptive functions that they have a moral obligation to follow and that they are subject to judgment when they don't fulfill them, and that even those who are wicked in some areas do not thereby lose their legitimate authority to issue lawful commands, and thus that we are still obligated to recognize their authority and honor it.

This should not seem such an impossible combination.  It is the same with parental authority.  Fathers, for example, have certain moral obligations and a certain pattern they ought to follow.  A person who is not willing to follow that pattern ought not to become a father, and a bad father is sinning and is bringing down judgment on himself (and his family).  And yet, at the same time, the wickedness of a father does not necessarily release all his children from being under his authority.  Children do not have the right to say, "My father does not meet the ideal qualifications and demands Scripture suggests for fatherhood.  Therefore, I no longer recognize him as a true father and I no longer owe obedience to him."  Fathers are supposed to raise up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.  But it does not follow that atheist fathers are not due any obedience from their children.

I think that a similar rule applies to church leaders as well, except that it is of the essence of church leaders that they be teaching the true religion.  Otherwise, they are not church leaders at all.  With parents and civil magistrates, on the other hand, as the Confession says, "Infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrates [or the parents']' just and legal authority."  Therefore, church leaders who cease to teach the true religion are no longer church leaders and therefore have no more binding authority; but the authority of parents and civil magistrates extends beyond this.

The parallel to church leaders brings out another qualification worth mentioning.  Although it be wrong for a private member of the church to refuse to submit to the authority of a minister merely on the grounds that he is teaching some error, provided that error does not overthrow the foundations of the true religion, yet it is the proper province of fellow ministers, in the form of presbyteries, synods, and the like, to depose a minister from office if he ceases to teach biblical doctrine in some area.  Likewise, a private citizen has no authority to depose a corrupt civil magistrate from office, or to refuse obedience to his lawful commands on such grounds; but fellow magistrates may, in certain circumstances, have authority to depose an unruly magistrate.  For example, in the United States, if a mayor of a certain town begins to go against the trust committed to him in some ways, a higher magistrate (for example, a state governor) has the authority to put him out of office.  So the people can appeal to higher magistrates, if there be any, against lower magistrates, if they rule unjustly or in a way that violates the appropriate qualifications for office.

Another qualification which would seem to go without saying is that obedience to civil magistrates is only required with regard to lawful commands, or commands that do not require sin.  When a magistrate commands sin, the Scripture is clear that it is our duty to disobey him.  Also, we have a responsibility to engage in self-defense, defense of our households, etc., that in some circumstances might need to be exercised against invasions or attacks by civil authorities--for example, if the magistrate sends henchmen to murder myself and my family.  This kind of ethical consideration will sometimes allow for lower magistrates to protect those under them from unjust demands or attacks from higher magistrates as well.  Just as it is sin for an individual to obey a command to sin from a magistrate, so it is sin for a lower magistrate to govern in his own sphere sinfully out of obedience to a higher magistrate.

I would also add that there may come a point where the civil magistrate has set himself in such a way as an enemy to a person, that that person has no choice but to abandon the relationship of citizen to magistrate.  For example, if the civil magistrate declares a war on me, determined to bring about my destruction, and carries out this war in such a way as that I simply cannot act the part of a citizen (I must live as a fugitive, etc.), then for practical purposes I am free from consideration of his authority, at least for the time being.  But if that situation were to change, and I should be put back into a position where my obedience without sin becomes again possible, I will once again owe obedience.  And there are situations where I might be required to withhold obedience in one thing while granting it in another.

In light of all of these things, I conclude that the distinctive Cameronian position is contrary to Scripture, and that the Scriptural view is that embraced by the Westminster Confession.  I very much appreciate the Cameronian emphasis on the duty of the civil magistrate to follow the law of God, the emphasis on the binding authority of national covenants, etc., but on this issue, they have simply adopted an imbalanced perspective, one at odds with the Bible and the Confessions of historic Presbyterianism.

UPDATE 9/24/12:  I have added a new post with further thoughts relevant to the issues discussed here.

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