Monday, December 14, 2009

John Calvin and Jim Babka on the "Doctrine of Interposition"

In my last series of posts I have been trying to shift the frame of discussion from focusing on which people of the founding era were or were not Christian to which ideas of the founding era were or were not Christian.  I have also tried to narrow down the topic to how the ideas of the founding era helped or hindered our progression toward the modern world. I attempted to accomplish this within the frame of discussion of a series of essays at "Cato Unbound" on that topic.  In addition, I have pushed to make this relevant to the present by examining this in the light of how studying these "Second Wave" ideas can help position us as a nation to catch the Alvin Toffler's "Third Wave".  The two questions I have posed are:

Which Christian ideas, if any, helped bring us into the modern world?


Which Christian ideas, if any, helped try to derail us from progressing toward the modern world? 

In attempting to shed more light on the origins of the ideas of the founding era I chose to focus on the Declaration of Independence and the purposes behind it.  I did this in light of one of the "Cato Unbound" essays by Jack Goldstone in which he talked about how the concept of, "free individuals sovereign over a limited state" was the chief catalyst to the emergence of an engineering culture that helped usher into the prosperity of the modern world. 

Since my chosen focus is the Declaration of Independence it seemed logical to focus on the "free individuals sovereign" part of this equation.  With that in mind, I began to outline here American Creation: Gary Amos, the Declaration, and "Christian" Ideas? some of the arguments of Gary Amos in his book "Declaring Independence" where he outlines his case that the Declaration of Independence was crafted as a legal argument in favor of the using the doctrine of "Interposition" to depose the King and declare independence.

Jon Rowe posted this response to my argument here American Creation: The DOI is NOT a Document of Interposition where he brought up some of the thoughts of John Calvin and declared that the Declaration of Independence did not fit with the Calvinist definition of "Interposition".  The following are Calvin's words and a synopsis of "Interposition" from Jim Babka one of Jon's co-bloggers at Positive Liberty from a while back.  Read this over and make up your own mind.

John Calvin on "Interposition":

"30. When God intervenes, it is sometimes by unwitting agents
Herein is the goodness, power, and providence of God wondrously displayed. At one time he raises up manifest avengers from among his own servants and gives them his command to punish accursed tyranny and deliver his people from calamity when they are unjustly oppressed; at another time he employs, for this purpose, the fury of men who have other thoughts and other aims. Thus he rescued his people Israel from the tyranny of Pharaoh by Moses; from the violence of Chusa, king of Syria, by Othniel; and from other bondage by other kings or judges. Thus he tamed the pride of Tyre by the Egyptians; the insolence of the Egyptians by the Assyrians; the ferocity of the Assyrians by the Chaldeans; the confidence of Babylon by the Medes and Persians, - Cyrus having previously subdued the Medes, while the ingratitude of the kings of Judah and Israel, and their impious contumacy after all his kindness, he subdued and punished, - at one time by the Assyrians, at another by the Babylonians. All these things however were not done in the same way.

The former class of deliverers being brought forward by the lawful call of God to perform such deeds, when they took up arms against kings, did not at all violate that majesty with which kings are invested by divine appointment, but armed from heaven, they, by a greater power, curbed a less, just as kings may lawfully punish their own satraps. The latter class, though they were directed by the hand of God, as seemed to him good, and did his work without knowing it, had nought but evil in their thoughts.

31. Constitutional defenders of the people's freedom
But whatever may be thought of the acts of the men themselves, the Lord by their means equally executed his own work, when he broke the bloody sceptres of insolent kings, and overthrew their intolerable dominations. Let princes hear and be afraid; but let us at the same time guard most carefully against spurning or violating the venerable and majestic authority of rulers, an authority which God has sanctioned by the surest edicts, although those invested with it should be most unworthy of it, and, as far as in them lies, pollute it by their iniquity. Although the Lord takes vengeance on unbridled domination, let us not therefore suppose that that vengeance is committed to us, to whom no command has been given but to obey and suffer.

I speak only of private men. For when popular magistrates have been appointed to curb the tyranny of kings, (as the Ephori, who were opposed to kings among the Spartans, or Tribunes of the people to consuls among the Romans, or Demarchs to the senate among the Athenians; and, perhaps, there is something similar to this in the power exercised in each kingdom by the three orders, when they hold their primary diets.) So far am I from forbidding these officially to check the undue license of kings, that if they connive at kings when they tyrannise and insult over the humbler of the people, I affirm that their dissimulation is not free from nefarious perfidy, because they fraudulently betray the liberty of the people, while knowing that, by the ordinance of God, they are its appointed guardians."(bold is mine)

Now Jim Babka from his post found here:


Calvin’s Doctrine of Interposition is a good start. But like all doctrines it is subject to enhanced understanding as knowledge and experience expand. Anything that stands in one place becomes dead and stale. This is true of all forms of knowledge and theology is no exception.

Simply put, Interposition is intervention. Calvin is suggesting, rightly in my opinion, that interposition is acceptable, even in light of Romans 13, but only via a magistrate.Where Calvin and most theologians since his time, particularly Americans, would depart is in our definition of a magistrate. In modern Christian parlance, a magistrate is a qualified leader. 

A leader is someone who has followers! The leader’s qualification would be that the leader has sufficient followers to interpose between king and subjects. In other words, “Does the leader represent people other than himself?” Under Christian Just War Theory, even the monarch lacks the power to take his people into a battle they are sure to lose. The magistrate is under no less a restriction. Nowhere does scripture suggest that kings treat their subjects, or leaders consider their followers, as “living sacrifices.” 

The magistrate, who finds himself in a position where interposition is potentially called for, must move cautiously and with deference to the king. If the magistrate is an obnoxious hot-head, he’s the wrong guy. The magistrate should work within the legal process. He should be methodical — even plodding.


I realize what follows is a bit of an oversimplification of events and that not all of the colonist’s actions could be defended under this doctrine, but…

Our Founding Fathers were magistrates. They worked within a legal process, appealing to the King of England. The King returned the courtesy by taxing and regulating them further — even charging John Hancock with smuggling. Hancock responded by organizing a boycott. The King responded by shutting down the colonist’s tea industry and imposing an English monopoly.

After yet more appeals, the Boston Sons of Liberty responded with a “tea party.” Even in their conduct of the Tea Party, these men broke nothing but a lock. Only the tea was dumped. No other persons or property was harmed. Still, no less than Ben Franklin suggested the tea should be paid for and some colonial merchants offered to pay for it. The British refused.

Instead, the King imposed the “Intolerable Acts,” taking away Massachusetts’ right to self-government, as well as permitting his troops to quarter themselves in colonial homes and receive get out of jail free cards for their crimes. This “train of abuses” heightened tensions and, in the Spring of 1775, the King ordered his men to seize their guns — something no free man can tolerate. Violence ensued. Yet, even then, the organized colonists only prepared a defense.

Then the Continental Congress sent the Olive Branch Petition to King George. The King refused to read the Olive Branch Petition and it was HE that declared the colonists to be in an “open state of rebellion” (not the other way around). The Continental Congress, ever accountable, responded by explaining their actions to the world in Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of taking up Arms — a full year before the Declaration of Independence was signed. It would take that long just to round up the political will to make that significant and final step of actual rebellion.

The magistrates in this story were patient to the point of plodding. They appealed to authority at every step. And it was the King, not the magistrates, which declared the state of the people to be one of rebellion.


The Christian faith is not an individualist faith. American Evangelicals, starting in the 19th century, have increasingly treated it as individualism. But Christianity is, itself, communal (Romans 12, by the way, is one of the passages that demonstrate this point). Liberal Christians take the voluntary communal nature of Christianity and apply it where it doesn’t belong. They have come to view civil government as the vehicle through which ALL Justice, Mercy, and Humility should be carried out or imposed.

Government is an agency of coercion, so essentially the liberals are guilty of imposing their morality on everyone else. Conservatives make the same mistake when it comes to individual behavior. Both groups are easily moved to the position, “There ought to be a law.” Well, there is a law. It’s the Natural Law. It says that humans are, by nature, free — that they own their lives and the right to pursue their bliss. A Christian who recognizes the Book of Nature as a work of God (Romans 1:20) appreciates the discovery and demonstration of Natural Law.

But the student of the Bible must go even further. He or she must recognize the aforementioned Image of God and corresponding Human Will in others, as well as take into account concepts such as Grace and Love and Humility while dealing with others. And for practical, hands-on training in living such a life, Christians are to form communities. These communities are called “church.” Church is not, what the forces of Organized Religion have erroneously turned them into — a building people visit for an hour on Sundays. For it is in church, properly practiced, believers are schooled in patience, mutual submission, and the sharing of one another’s burdens. And part of mutual submission is that one doesn’t strike out on their own. Christians are told to seek counsel from a variety of sources and live their life in the pursuit of Wisdom.

So Interposition is the means by which a sufficient community can make begin a “process of appeal,” to the ruling authority. In our culture, we have the ability to vote, to organize, to publish, and to lobby members of Congress, guaranteed by the supreme law of this land in the First Amendment. These means have narrowed but have not been closed. These tactics have, in several recent instances, proved efficacious. Therefore, Open Rebellion in the United States, at this juncture, is an improper response (at least for Christians) to the tyranny we presently face. Lone Ranger civil disobedience is neither prudent nor proper for a Christian, who would then, “have Romans 13 on their conscience.”

Sounds like the difference between a "communal" and "private or individual" rebellion has already been hashed through some at Positive Liberty.  I think Jim makes a great case that the Declaration of Independence was an "Interposition" and thus a "Christian Idea".  It seems like Calvin agrees with him.  What do you all think?

(P.S. Using Calvin is Jon and Dr. Frazer's best chance to prove their historical case for Romans 13 because he is "Mr. Orthodoxy" that is why I am addressing Calvin first.  As Tom, and Jim in another part of the post above, state correctly, Calvinism does not equal Christianity.  So other evidence will follow...)

(P.S.S Dr. Frazer I see Calvin used Othniel as an example just like I did)

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