The attempt to limit government that almost succeeded
King John was in turmoil. England was under interdict from the Pope, and he himself had been excommunicated. There were threats to the realm from home and abroad. The new century was not particularly working out for him. By 1213, however, he had been absolved from excommunication, the clergy reinstated to their churches. But now a group of barons was breathing down his neck. They demanded his affirmation that he would continue “to maintain the ancient laws of the realm.” His track record on that score was not encouraging.
It is every Englishman’s heritage that Magna Carta established the rights and freedoms of Englishmen. But Magna Carta became the document that kings would use to destroy its very principles. Three months after the signing of the Great Charter civil war was still evident, over the principles in the Charter. In other words, the Magna Carta was never really implemented in its original form.
The years prior to 1215 were of great disturbance in England. The disturbance was over the extent of the power of the king. And there were nobles to the north of London who favored no increase in the monarch’s powers. Naturally, the king disagreed with this, and was willing to use whatever force was necessary to have his way. The issue was money—taxation.
The barons, however, were united in their views and willingness to do whatever was necessary to limit the king’s powers. They saw any increase as a denial of their freedom.
To understand this background, step back to Alfred the Great and his willingness to apply Old Testament legal requirements as the laws of England. Among these were a strong sense of property ownership, found in Exodus chapters 21-23.
Originally published October, 1991.
We take many things for granted. When we have a headache, we reach for the aspirin. When we’re sick we pay a visit to the doctor. When we’re hungry we go down to the supermarket and buy our food. When the car’s out of gasoline, we pull up to the bowser and “fill ‘er up.” When we wish to have a holiday, we think little of hopping into the car for a 1,000 kilometer journey, and maybe no more about jumping aboard an airplane for a favored destination. We accept these things as just being “there.” Yet it is clear that a few centuries ago, and even only a few decades ago, many of the things we take for granted were not available. Our forefathers did not take these things for granted. Why, then, is it possible for us to have this attitude about a whole range of economic goods and services that our forefathers did not enjoy?
For an understanding of this we must start in the Bible at the book of Genesis, and the very first chapter. Here we discover several things pertinent to a study of wealth.
First, it is clear that God, our Creator, is a creative Being. He works in the act of creation, and continues to work, personally governing and supervising all that occurs in His creation.
Using political power to bestow benefits on the poor only encouraged the poor to expect entitlements.
The global financial crisis highlighted yet again the age-old question of government control of the economy. Can government really ‘control’ the economy and keep it in ‘balance’?
It also highlighted the changes that have gone on around the world in recent decades. China and India, for example, have become economic powerhouses, even though their economies have been centrally managed. But the significant changes in these places have not come through more government control, but with the government getting people involved in ownership in the means of production.
But the Evangelicals, convinced of the rightness of their own moral convictions, were happy to bypass the church as the agent of change and contribute to the development of state intervention.
The Russian experiment in publicly owned goods turned out to be a failure. Even after the Berlin Wall came down and the markets were liberalized, there was a period of failure, since the private economy had not established itself. The Russian leaders moved everything along with their creative bonds, given to the citizens who could then exchange them for stock ownership in companies. In other words, they made each citizen an instant capitalist to teach them the important lesson: You have to take care of yourself.
It is unfortunate that Western nations such as England lost their world economic leadership. And it is a tragedy that they lost it under the impetus of well-meaning Christians such as William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury. The Evangelical awakening following the Wesleyan revivals created a religious fervor in England of great magnitude. It promoted Christian values, and Christians saw the need to be catalysts of change. And the British parliament became the tool for righting many of the social wrongs that were evident. Whether it was slavery, children working in coal mines, or establishing a 10-hour working day, government legislation was the vehicle to usher in the new morality of the Victorian Evangelicals.
Writing in the 19th century, Henry Buckle put together a three-volume History of Civilization in England (1869). Buckle was no friend of Christianity, and was happy to witness its demise in his time. But his observation as to the cause of the decline of the influence of Christianity is rather revealing. Speaking of the decline of ecclesiastical power and the emergence of what he called “religious liberty”, Buckle made these comments:
Among the innumerable symptoms of this great movement, there were two of peculiar importance. These were the separation of theology, first from morals, and second from politics. The separation from morals was effected late in the seventeenth century; the separation from politics before the middle of the eighteenth century. And it is a striking instance of the decline of the old ecclesiastical spirit, that both of these great changes were begun by the clergy themselves. . . . Warburton, bishop of Gloucester, was the first who laid down that the state must consider religion in reference, not to revelation, but to expediency; and that it should favour any particular creed, not in proportion to its truth, but solely with a view to its general utility. . . .
Thus it was that, in England, theology was finally severed from the two great departments of ethics and of government. . . 
- Volume 1, pp.424-427.↵back
In the first part of this Tribute to R.J. Rushdoony I recalled the personal side of my relationship with him and some of the fond memories I have as a result of a 21-year association.
In this portion of the Tribute, I’m going to highlight what I think is Rush’s very significant contribution to Christian thought.
The name R.J. Rushdoony is tied up with two concepts: theonomy and Christian Reconstruction. But for Rushdoony, these two concepts are tied together in a unique manner.
For those of us raised outside of Reformed circles, his call to return to God’s law was somewhat radical. Yet for those raised on Reformed catechisms, Rushdoony’s view was not that unusual in some respects. Both the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Larger Catechism expound the Ten Commandments using what Rushdoony called “case law”. That is, the Ten Commandments were given substance through the many laws given in the Pentateuch (or Torah).
Many of Rushdoony’s followers, then and now, came from outside the Reformed tradition. What is curious, however, is the hostility Rushdoony received from the Reformed community, and I can understand why.
“The history of Graeco-Roman Christianity resolves itself largely into a criticism of that undertaking [i.e. the Roman ‘effort to create a world which should be safe for civilization’) and of the ideas upon which it rested; viz. that it was possible to attain a goal of permanent security, peace and freedom through political action, especially through submission to the ‘virtue and fortune’ of a political leader. This notion the Christians denounced with uniform vigour and consistency. To them the state, so far from being the supreme instrument of human emancipation and perfectibility, was a straight-jacket to be justified at best as ‘a remedy for sin’. To think of it otherwise they considered the grossest of superstitions.
“The Christians traced this superstition to the acceptance of a defective logic, the logic of classical ‘naturalism’, to which they ascribed the characteristic vitia of the classical world. In this connexion it is important to notice that their revolt was not from nature; it was from the picture of nature constructed by classical scientia, together with its implications for practical life. And what they demanded was a radical revision of first principles as the presupposition to an adequate cosmology and anthropology. The basis for such a revision they held to lie in the logos of Christ, conceived as a revelation, not of ‘new’ truth, but of truth which was as old as the hills, and as everlasting. This they accepted as an answer to the promise of illumination and power extended to mankind and, thus, the basis of a new physics, a new ethic and, above all, a new logic, the logic of human progress. In Christ, therefore, they claimed to possess a principle of understanding superior to anything existing in the classical world. By this claim they were prepared to stand or fall.”
Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940), p. vi.
“The religious rights of the citizens of the United States consist in the enjoyment of his own conscientious choice, amongst all the forms of our common Christianity which were in existence at the time when the Constitution was established. This must be taken as the full limit of fair and legal presumption, as the two first chapters have sufficiently proved. Therefore I hold it preposterous to suppose that a band of Hindoos could settle in any part of our territories, and claim a right, under the Constitution, to set up the public worship of Brahma, Vishnu, or Juggernaut. Equally unconstitutional would it be for the Chinese to introduce the worship of Fo or Buddha, in California. Neither could a company of Turks assert a right to establish a Mosque for the religion of Mahomet. But there is one case, namely, that of the Jews, which forms an apparent exception, although it is in fact supported by the same principle. For, the meaning of the Constitution can only be derived from the reasonable intention of the people of the United States. Their language, religion, customs, laws, and modes of thought were all transported from the mother country; and we are bound to believe that whatever was tolerated publicly in England, was doubtless meant to be protected here. On this ground, there is no question about the constitutional right of our Jewish fellow-citizens, whose synagogues had long before been established in London. But with this single exception, I can find no right for the public exercise of any religious faith, under our great Federal Charter, which does not acknowledge the divine authority of the Christian Bible.”
John Henry Hopkins: The American Citizen: His Rights and Duties, According to the Spirit of the Constitution of the United States (New York: Pudney & Russell, 1857), p. 77 f., quoted in R.J. Rushdoony, The institutes of Biblical Law, volume one (Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1973) p. 581.
From the archives. Originally published October, 1996,
OCTOBER IS THE MONTH to remember the cataclysmic changes brought to the Western world as a result of Martin Luther̓s action of nailing his 95 theses (complaints) to the church door at Wittenbürg. Such was the rather abrupt beginning of Protestantism. This essay has been prompted by an essay, Condition and Prospects of Protestantism, written last century by the Reformation historian, James Anthony Froude. (Available here.) He had been to an evangelical meeting and what he witnessed there caused him to reflect on the Reformation, of which he was one of the foremost historians of his time, and what for him was the contemporary state of Protestantism.
Can we say that contemporary Christianity is living in the tradition of the Reformation? Our answer to that question will depend on our understanding of both the Reformation and what it stood for as well as our understanding of contemporary Christianity.
Neither the pope nor the king could claim to be the spokesperson for God …
Unlike the sixteenth century, our age is not governed by religious debate. We are, instead, governed by political issues. In particular, it is secularized political debate that leaves God out of the discussion. Legislators do not look to the Bible for answers; they prefer to study political economy (which masquerades as economics) for the answers to the issues before them.
We cannot read the history of the Reformation, however, without becoming aware that religion and politics were tied up in a bundle. The implications of religion for politics were understood — and expected — by all. This helps explain the increasing rift between church and state. Kings wanted to be free to govern according to their own laws. The Church, on the other hand, not only wanted to maintain the connection between religion and politics but was insisting that it was the true representative of God on earth both political and religious, even claiming the right to appoint and remove kings.
Against this trend, Martin Luther, came with another message. All men, whether they be in church or state, were to be under the authority of God, who spoke to men and women through the Bible. Neither the pope nor the king could claim to be the spokesperson for God, since God had spoken directly to the people. No intermediary was needed, it was claimed.
[From the archives. Originally published August, 1990.]
Old Testament Origins
In the year 871 A.D., a young king came to the throne in a land torn by warfare and strife. At the age of 21, this young man assumed an enormous responsibility. His country had been invaded and almost completely overrun by people who did not believe in the God that he believed in. They were pagans, intent on pillage, rape, and living off their conquered foes. They were barbaric parasites, living off the economic productivity of their captives who became their slaves. The invaders had sailed in from the north in their long ships, and their military might was such that none had been able to halt their quest for domination of foreign lands. Steadily they encroached on more and more of this young king’s territory, slowly establishing their rulers in the provinces — governors who would maintain allegiance to the invaders.
This young king, Alfred by name, who inherited only a fraction of what was once a large and prosperous land, had other ideas. He believed that this foreign invasion was the handiwork of the God of the Bible, who was inflicting punishment on the people of his nation for their disobedience to the moral requirements found in the Holy Scriptures. Thus, when he inherited the throne, he began a strange course of action. Once he had established that he was unable to beat the invaders militarily, he began a tactic which, to the modern world, appears to be bizarre for one under siege in his own land. Instead of planning a military strike against the invaders, he began a task of Christian reconstruction to rebuild the remains of his nation in terms of biblical law.
First, he searched abroad for biblical scholars who would come to what remained of his country and teach the people the Holy Scriptures. He built churches and monasteries, and insisted that the people be taught and educated in the ways of God Almighty.
Second, he urged that the Scriptures should be translated into the national language. Since this young king was apparently unable to read or write, he imposed upon himself the task of mastering the skills of literacy so that he too could participate in the translation work of the Scriptures. Before he died, he left a legacy of translated Psalms and a choice selection from the early church fathers for his people to read in their native tongue.
An address given in 1992 by Otto Scott
We are living in very strange times. Some are tempted to call them End Times, for our civilization seems to have lost the vision that was responsible for its rise to world dominance only a century ago, and seems now to have lost its direction. Some might even say that it has lost its soul.
This is odd, because other civilizations — and there are other civilizations — seem to have regained theirs. The Islamic world is rising again, thanks to the oil revenues the West has handed over to them. Islam is now arming with missiles containing nuclear warheads and the most advanced warplanes — all products of the West that the West is selling to anyone who pays the price.
China is rising. Its nuclear program is advanced, and again it is benefiting from that which the United States, Britain and France and the West in general is supplying to it. Western technology is changing the world, and is creating new and formidable powers.
In the Middle East Israel is the fourth largest nuclear power in the world. It has nuclear field weapons as well as nuclear-tipped missiles and bombs. And in terms of civilization, Israel must be numbered among the nations not simply because of its position in the Middle East, but because of its influential Diaspora around the world, which maintains cohesiveness today, as in previous centuries, beyond its territorial presence.
When we look at Islam and Israel and China we are looking at civilizations where religion remain a dominant force. One might object that China has no religion, but that would not be true. The religion of socialism has risen in this century to challenge Christianity not from the outside, but from within.