The Philosophy of the Reformation and Its Historical Impact, by John Immel – Part 4
Taken from John Immel’s third session at the 2012 Conference on Gospel Discernment and Spiritual Tyranny
Published with permission
~ Edited by Andy Young
(Continued from part 3)
Now I want to make a series of contrasts.
The Enlightenment begins around 1650, give or take. The Enlightenment thinkers included men such as John Locke, David Hume, and Adam Smith. From these men comes a large amount of the foundational thought of human freedom, human competence, and human liberty. Enlightenment thought influence our Founding Fathers – Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson to name a few.
Recall that the three English civil wars were religious wars. The American Civil War was not a religious war. It was a war specifically fought in pursuit of liberty and freedom.
In an article written in 1786 by James Madison, “A Memorial in Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” Madison weighs in against the establishment of civil government, civil patronage, and religion. I want you to notice the Founding Fathers’ clarity on the arguments against merging the state, no matter how small, with ecclesiastical establishments.
“We, the subscribers, citizens of the said Commonwealth, have taken into serious consideration [that] a bill establishing provision for teachers of the Christian religion and conceiving of the same if finally armed with sanctions of law, will be a dangerous abuse of power.”
There was no illusion here. The nature of Christianity, as our Founding Fathers understood, was that it was a dangerous force to be contended with when it was merged with the power of the state. Madison then goes on to detail several reasons for this understanding.
“1. Because we hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth that religion or the duty which we owe our Creator and the manner of discharging it can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force and violence.”
This was revolutionary. While this idea had circulated amongst any number of different sects and any number of different intellectual ties, for the first time, there was a formal effort to challenge at the root that religion could not ever be merged with the force of the state. But rather the force of government was to be tempered by intellect and reason.
This is a central Enlightenment idea.
“2. Because the rulers who are guilty of such encroachment exceed their commission from which they derive their authority and are tyrants. The people who submit to it are governed by laws made neither by themselves nor by an authority derived from them, and are slaves.”
“3. Because the free men of America did not wait till usurped power had stricken itself by exercise and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle.”
Hold that thought. I will come back to that in a moment.
“We revere this lesson too much soon to forget it. Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians in exclusion of all other sects?”
This is why the historic fight between Calvinists and Arminians gained some attraction, because we fail to identify the principle that Madison is arguing here. The issue is not necessarily the Arminian perspective versus the Calvinist perspective. The issue at central root is man’s fundamental competence to master his own life, however that may be accomplished. The reason all other doctrinal fights are useless in this instance is because, at the root, until you defend man’s right for moral existence, you have lost. Madison makes this observation in point seven.
“7. Because experience witnesses that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, and in both, superstition, bigotry and persecutions.”
It is important to understand that our Founding Fathers had no illusions about the nature of what Christianity was and was not. They understood its broad history. They understood what Puritanism did. They understood what the Massachusetts colony theocracy did. For many of them, it was close enough to their lifetime that it would not have been lore as if we were learning it out of the book. They certainly would have been within striking distance of the religious wars in England and the tides of warfare that swept across the face of the earth.
James Madison goes on to say in Point 8.
“8. Because…what influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on civil society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; and in no instance have they been seen as the guardians of the liberties of the people.”
This is one of the most scathing denunciations ever! Until Christians are guardians of the liberties of the people, all we are doing is perpetuating spiritual tyrants.
Madison wrote this a mere ten years from the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. I want you to notice that this memorial and remonstrance takes place dead square between two events: from the specific overthrow of tyranny in 1776, within ten years’ time we already have a religious movement trying to use civil authority to create patronage. In other words, you have a specific group of people seeking to create a means by which others pay taxes to support a religious organization. They were trying to use taxation to advance sectarian orthodoxy.
Madison is arguing for the supremacy of human reason, and he is denouncing the use of civil authority – the merging of religious faith and the power of the state. He is saying it is a menace. Christianity is a menace because Calvinism demands war for all who refuse to bow to its edicts. The current Calvinist defenders can pooh-pooh my point all they like, but I win this argument only because all I have to do is educate people on the public record. This is not complicated.
The Founding Fathers had no illusion about the destructive force of Christian religion, and it is the most virulent forms of Christian thought that the Founding Fathers put absolute barriers in place to curtail this acquisition of civil power. For the first time in human history, men sat down and they finally said, “No, man is entitled to the sum and substance of his own life,” and they penned these words:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed that 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 new governments laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers.”
Let’s do a contrast.
- Man is incompetent.
- Man is morally guilty.
- Man needs the force of government to compel him to good action.
- Government is an unquestionable manifestation of God’s appointment.
- God is wrathful and offers man no rights of existence.
- God appoints man to a predetermined existence of suffering and bondage.
- God’s sovereignty appoints man to slavery.
This is the Puritan construct. This is Reformation theology. This is Calvinism. This is the most virulent form of Reformation thought.
Contrast this with what comes out of the Declaration of Independence:
- That man is competent to understand.
- That man can understand the world in which he lives.
- That his epistemology is fully intact.
- That by virtue of that ability, truth is self-evident.
The equality of human creation endows all with the same right. There is no election to specific privilege, yet in the Calvinist construct, the men standing in the pulpits today are claiming a special privilege.
Man has a right to life, liberty, and happiness, yet the Calvinist construct says there is no such thing; that any effort towards right or life or liberty or the claim to any happiness is a self-deception and a manifestation of your depraved nature. Just government is a product of human consent.
Consider this, that for almost 1,800 years, the Church had said that it was the divine right of kings to dictate government, and that government was in fact divinely appointed. Man had no right to question, for the most part. Whatever happened was in fact the product of God’s will.
The American Declaration of Independence was the first time in human existence that men articulated that just government must be the product of human consent. I am only governed in as much as I choose to let you govern me. Truth is not the property of the state. The state is in fact the servant of man’s defense. This was revolutionary.
The advances of man, the things that have eradicated human suffering across the board, are directly tied to human liberty, because when man is free, man is free to think. Thinking men are free to create, and creating men are free to exchange value with whomever they chooses to associate. Man can better his life as he sees fit, and he can solve the problems of the beggarly elements of this earth.
I am able to do in the 21st century what a paltry number of human beings had ever been able to do, and it is directly related to the legacy of human competence, human freedom, and human liberty. You do not get this level of prosperity with the ideology of the Dark Ages. Every place this ideology has manifested itself, it has driven man back to the Dark Ages.
These exact same metaphysical assumptions that are in Calvin are in Augustine. These exact same metaphysical assumptions that are in Augustine are in Islam. Notice that if you go to any place in this world where there is a purely Islamic state you will see the dark ages in modern times: you will see the same paltry human condition from over a millennia ago in western civilization. This is true because the ideas are the same.
Liberty, freedom, thought; they are absolutely tied together. Human competence and human liberty are essential for the benefit of man.
I have now come full circle in my argument. The cohesive structure of ideas from the metaphysical premise to the epistemological ability to the ethical understanding to the political action; all of them run in a progressive line of thought. This is the answer to my original observation:
The Gospel According to John Immel, chapter 3:1-3
1. All people act logically from their assumptions.
2. It does not matter how inconsistent the ideas or insane the rationale. They will act until that logic is fulfilled.
3. Therefore, when you see masses of people taking the same destructive actions, if you find the assumptions, you will find the cause.
Christians love to thump their ESV while laying claim to the Declaration of Independence and the Founding Fathers. They hold freedom of religion as a certainty. They love the prosperity that rational thought, logic, and industry produce. But they do not even blush at the hypocrisy when they pound that same ESV to claim solidarity with Reformation orthodoxy. They will then rate John Calvin as the great reformer of Geneva. They will speak sagely, calling Jonathan Edwards their homeboy, not once realizing the philosophical schizophrenia. These are mutually exclusive worldviews.
In the world of election and limited atonement, there is no such thing as self-appointment and self-determination. There is no such thing as self-governance, because you do not own you.
In a world of irresistible grace, there is no such thing as private property, private possessions, or even personal boundaries, because whatever good you have is a manifestation of God’s grace, and all grace is administered by His stewards of grace.
And in a world of predestination, there is no right to inquire. In a world of predestination, there is no human sensibilities to be conservative. Your pain and your suffering is irrelevant. Who are you, O man, to challenge God, to inquire the things of God, the mysteries of God! Your pain is what you should have.
In the metaphysical world of T.U.L.I.P., there is no real justice. Everything is one great big fat sin before God, because the nature of man is utterly offensive to God. If you happen to be a part of the group that gets picked, it’s all good. And if you don’t, then it sucks to be you. The threat of damnation hangs over your head like the Sword of Damocles. Your sin violates God. So, who are you to demand recompense for a violation of sins against you? How dare you speak justice? You don’t own you.
Or do you?
This is the first choice. This is the fight within the ages. Who owns man?
Father, in the name of Jesus, we must live in understanding. Never before has man been defended. We’ve defended you and we’ve swatted our own. But never have we defended man’s right to live, right to exist, right to live, right to prosperity; never have we done this successfully. To throw off the tyranny of the ages, Father, we need your wisdom and understanding. We need to have the eyes of our understanding opened, that our insides will be filled with light. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
~ John Immel
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