Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Calvin, Interposition, and "the Problem of Othniel"

With all the talk about the Arizona law and state protests against healthcare reform it is important to trace where many of the arguments for interposition originated:

A while back, Jon Rowe replied to my post that claimed that the Declaration of Independence was a document of interposition by stating: "The DOI is NOT a Document of Interposition." He lays out the heart of his and Dr. Gregg Frazer's case for Christianity "properly understood" with the following:

"To Calvin, the Bible categorically forbids revolt. No exceptions. Calvin did discuss the ability of intermediate magistrates to interpose and remove a tyrannical King; but he stressed it must be done pursuant to some positive legal mechanism, like the Congress impeaching the President pursuant to the provisions in the US Constitution. Again, revolt is still forbidden. Therefore if the Continental Congress could make the argument, which they seemingly did in parts of the DOI, that King George and Parliament were violating British law AND if there were some recognized legal method under British law for declaring independence, perhaps what the FFs did could "fit" with such a notion of "interposition."
The problem with this argument is the, "AND if there were some recognized legal method under British law for declaring independence, perhaps what the FF's did could fit with such a notion as interposition." This quote is grounded in John Calvin's narrow view of what qualifies as a valid form of interposition. The problem is that Calvin is not a reliable source on this topic because his own words on resistance to tyranny contradict themselves.
 With that said, I think it would be helpful to examine the writings of Calvin to see why his definition of what is a valid reponse to tyranny is not Christianity "properly understood."

In Institutes on the Christian Religion Book Four Chapter 20, Calvin emphatically endorses the idea that government is instituted by God. Frazer and Rowe are also correct that Calvin exhorts people to submit to good and evil rulers alike. He then goes on to say that when one finds himself under the rule of a tyrant his first assumption should be that he is under God's curse. Here is Calvin:

"But it we have respect to the word of God, it will lead us farther, and make us subject not only to the authority of those princes who honestly and faithfully perform their duty toward us, but all princes, by whatever means they have so become, although there is nothing they less perform than the duty of princes. For though the Lord declares that ruler to maintain our safety is the highest gift of his beneficence, and prescribes to rulers themselves their proper sphere, he at the same time declares, that of whatever description they may be, they derive their power from none but him. Those, indeed, who rule for the public good, are true examples and specimens of big beneficence, while those who domineer unjustly and tyrannically are raised up by him to punish the people for their iniquity. Still all alike possess that sacred majesty with which he has invested lawful power. I will not proceed further without subjoining some distinct passages to this effect. We need not labour to prove that an impious king is a mark of the Lord's anger, since I presume no one will deny it, and that this is not less true of a king than of a robber who plunders your goods, an adulterer who defiles your bed, and an assassin who aims at your life, since all such calamities are classed by Scripture among the curses of God."
Calvin then goes on to bring some balance to the discussion and acknowledges that oppression is not always the curse of God. He allows that oppression often occurs when kings violate the God given responsibillities that go along with their delegated authority. He also cites examples of both lawful and unlawful exceptions that allow for resistance to tyrants. Here is Calvin again:

"Wherefore, if we are cruelly tormented by a savage, if we are rapaciously pillaged by an avaricious or luxurious, if we are neglected by a sluggish, if, in short, we are persecuted for righteousness' sake by an impious and sacrilegious prince, let us first call up the remembrance of our faults, which doubtless the Lord is chastising by such scourges. In this way humility will curb our impatience. And let us reflect that it belongs not to us to cure these evils, that all that remains for us is to implore the help of the Lord, in whose hands are the hearts of kings, and inclinations of kingdoms (Prov. 21:1). "God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods." (Ps. 82:1). Before his face shall fall and be crushed all kings and judges of the earth, who have not kissed his anointed, who have enacted unjust laws to oppress the poor in judgement, and do violence to the cause of the humble, to make widows a prey, and plunder the fatherless 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."
Later, Calvin adds that one should not rebel against unjust tyranny but should look to God for his deliverance. He then goes on to the say that he is speaking only to private men and begins to expound on the impeachment-like exception given to lower magistrates:

"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."
So Calvin, Jon, Dr. Frazer, and I all agree that the bible states that government is something that God instituted among men, that tyrants do exist, that tyranny results from both the curse of God and kings that claim the God given authority of their station and yet deny the responsibilities, and that God desposes tyrant kings. The controversy is what constitutes a proper response to tyranny.

Rowe and Frazer endorse Calvin's view that seems to limit these responses to an impeachment-like scenario. It seems that they believe that the bible teaches that private men should just "obey and suffer" under tyranny. My concern is in how they pronounce Calvin's teaching on this subject more sound than others. This concern is rooted in him placing Othniel among the "class of deliverers being brought forward by the lawful call of God to perform such deeds, when they took up arms against kings" in one breath and then limits responses to tryanny to impeachment in the next. I call this the "problem of Othniel."

Here is the story:

"The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD; they forgot the LORD their God and served the Baals and the Asherahs. The anger of the LORD burned against Israel so that he sold them into the hands of Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram Naharaim, to whom the Israelites were subject for eight years. But when they cried out to the LORD, he raised up for them a deliverer, Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother, who saved them. The Spirit of the LORD came upon him, so that he became Israel's judge and went to war. The LORD gave Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram into the hands of Othniel, who overpowered him. So the land had peace for forty years, until Othniel son of Kenaz died."
Does this sound like an impeachment? If not then the great John Calvin completely contradicts himself! What is going on here?

I think we see a conflict within Calvin himself here that sheds some light on the struggle that God fearing colonists had many years later when trying to decide the best possible remedy for dealing with the their own tyrant king. It is the same struggle we see with Paul in Romans 13. The struggle is for balance between two competing concepts: 1. the sovereignty of God 2. free will of man. An over-emphasis on the former ends in a fatalistic outlook that tells people to just "obey and suffer" and let God take care of it. A over-emphasis on the latter can end in rebellious anarchy that leads to mob rule.

I think Calvin, Paul, and at least one key founder feared both extremes and allowed for ways to check tyranny while also guarding against anarchy. This is why we see use of the doctrine of interposition in its many forms repeatedly throughout the history of the Christian West all the way up to today. My question to Jon Rowe and Dr. Frazer is why they ignore "the problem of Othniel" and continue to elevate the contradictory teachings of John Calvin over others on the proper form that interposition should take?


  1. I like the layout of this blog. I am trying to look around and get ideas from other people's blogs for my own to make it better. Thanks a lot. I actually got to yours because one of your favorite movies, Hoosiers, was mine as well.

  2. It was one of the regular templates and I just adjusted some of the colors.