Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Rational Christianity": A Contribution of Medieval Political Thought

In his last post Brad Hart quoted Montesquieu as saying:

"When the Christian religion, two centuries ago, became unhappily divided into Catholic and Protestant, the people of the north embraced the Protestant, and those of the south adhered still to the Catholic. The reason is plain: the people of the north have, and will for ever have, a spirit of liberty and independence, which the people of the south have not; and therefore a religion which has no visible head is more agreeable to the independence of the climate than that which has one. In the countries themselves where the Protestant religion became established, the revolutions were made pursuant to the several plans of political government. Luther having great princes on his side would never have been able to make them relish an ecclesiastical authority that had no exterior pre-eminence; while Calvin, having to do with people who lived under republican governments, or with obscure citizens in monarchies, might very well avoid establishing dignities and preferments."
This article here provides a different narrative. One that at a certain time in my life I would have totally opposed but now tentatively agree with. It is the narrative of a "spirit of liberty" within certain strains in the Catholicism:

"It will suffice for our purpose to consult, in detail, but two Catholic churchmen who stand out as leading lights for all time. The one is representative of medieval learning and thought, the other stood on the threshold of the medieval and modern world.
 They are St. Thomas Aquinas of the thirteenth century and the Blessed Cardinal Robert Bellarmine of the sixteenth century (1542-1621). The following comparisons, clause for clause, of the American Declaration of Independence and of excerpts from the political principles of these noted ecclesiastics, evidence striking similarity and identity of political principle.
Equality of man

Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”
Bellarmine: “All men are equal, not in wisdom or grace, but in the essence and nature of mankind” (“De Laicis,” c.7) “There is no reason why among equals one should rule rather than another” (ibid.). “Let rulers remember that they preside over men who are of the same nature as they themselves.” (“De Officus Princ.” c. 22). “Political right is immediately from God and necessarily inherent in the nature of man” (“De Laicis,” c. 6, note 1).
St. Thomas: “Nature made all men equal in liberty, though not in their natural perfections” (II Sent., d. xliv, q. 1, a. 3. ad 1).

The function of government

Declaration of Independence: “To secure these rights governments are instituted among men.”

Bellarmine: “It is impossible for men to live together without someone to care for the common good. Men must be governed by someone lest they be willing to perish” (“De Laicis,” c. 6).

St. Thomas: “To ordain anything for the common good belongs either to the whole people, or to someone who is the viceregent of the whole people” (Summa, la llae, q. 90, a. 3).

The source of power

Declaration of Independence: “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Bellarmine: “It depends upon the consent of the multitude to constitute over itself a king, consul, or other magistrate. This power is, indeed, from God, but vested in a particular ruler by the counsel and election of men” (“De Laicis, c. 6, notes 4 and 5). “The people themselves immediately and directly hold the political power” (“De Clericis,” c. 7).

St. Thomas: “Therefore the making of a law belongs either to the whole people or to a public personage who has care of the whole people” (Summa, la llae, q. 90, a. 3). “The ruler has power and eminence from the subjects, and, in the event of his despising them, he sometimes loses both his power and position” (“De Erudit. Princ.” Bk. I, c. 6).

The right to change the government

Declaration of Independence: “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government...Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient reasons.”
Bellarmine: “For legitimate reasons the people can change the government to an aristocracy or a democracy or vice versa” (“De Laicis,” c. 6). “The people never transfers its powers to a king so completely but that it reserves to itself the right of receiving back this power” (“Recognitio de Laicis,” c. 6).
St. Thomas: “If any society of people have a right of choosing a king, then the king so established can be deposed by them without injustice, or his power can be curbed, when by tyranny he abuses his regal power” (“De Rege et Regno,” Bk. I, c. 6). "
The author also goes a lot further and makes a bold statement about early Protestant thought:

"Modern democracy is often asserted to be the child of the Reformation. Nothing is farther from the truth. Robert Filmer, private theologian of James I of England, in his theory of Divine right, proclaimed, “The king can do no wrong. The most sacred order of kings is of Divine right.” John Neville Figgis, who seems little inclined to give Catholicism undue credit, makes the following assertions. “Luther based royal authority upon Divine right with practically no reservation” (“Gerson to Grotius,” p. 61). “That to the Reformation was in some sort due the prevalence of the notion of the Divine Right of Kings is generally admitted.” (“Divine Right of Kings,” p. 15). “The Reformation had left upon the statute book an emphatic assertion of unfettered sovereignty vested in the king” (ibid. p. 91). “Luther denied any limitation of political power either by Pope or people, nor can it be said that he showed any sympathy for representative institutions; he upheld the inalienable and Divine authority of kings in order to hew down the Upas tree of Rome.” “There had been elaborated at this time a theory of unlimited jurisdiction of the crown and of non-resistance upon any pretense” (“Cambridge Modern History,” Vol III, p. 739). “Wycliffe would not allow that the king be subject to positive law” (“Divine Right of Kings,” p. 69). Lord Acton wrote: “Lutheran writers constantly condemn the democratic literature that arose in the second age of the Reformation.”...”Calvin judged that the people were unfit to govern themselves, and declared the popular assembly an abuse” (“History of Freedom,” p. 42)."
Thats right, the author is stating that the Reformation brought the concept "divine right" into prominence. The author then goes on to point out an apparent rift with Lutheran writers and literature that "arose in the second age of the Reformation." This would seem to be some of the resistance theory writings we have perused as of late and seems to point to a change in the thought of later Protestants in regards to political theology. In short, it would seem that early Protestants brought into prominence a doctrine that later Protestants felt obliged to destroy.

With all this stated, I would like to explore a different narrative. One that states that the doctrines of sola scriptura and total depravity ignored the value of human reason and resulted in a death to the "spirit of liberty" in certain strains of Reformed Theology. I would also submit it was resurrected by the return of natural law theory in later writings. An interesting book entitled "The Contributions of Medieval Political Thought" seems to give Richard Hooker a whole lot of credit for this resurrection.

All this would seem to point to a renaissance of Scholastic type reasoning in political theory by the time of the founding era as one of the main catalysts to the Revolution not some departure from historically Christian political theology to something new. Thus my preference for the term "rational Christianity" as opposed to "theistic rationalism" to describe this line of political thought. This provides a third narrative to combat the extremes of both David Barton and Dr. Gregg Frazer.

No comments:

Post a Comment