Ezra Stiles, American Jacobin

[This was originally published in 2008.]

Something quite interesting I’ve learned researching the French Revolution is, like Vietnam and Iraq of the modern era, the event was quite popular in America in the beginning, but lost mass appeal only after things started going so terribly wrong. Given France greatly helped America achieve victory over Great Britain in the Revolutionary War, most (but not all) American patriots initially supported the French Revolution. Most Founding-era Americans viewed this historical event done in the name of “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” as an extension of American Revolutionary principles. Most commentary that explains the meaningful differences between the American and French Revolutions, why the former succeeded and the latter failed, was written after the fact. Those who supported the American cause but opposed the French from the beginning, like Edmund Burke, were a minority then, but whom today we herald for their predictive wisdom.

The spirit of the age (the “zeitgeist,” if you will) of the American and French Revolution was Enlightenment — liberty, equality, rationalism, the rights of man, hatred of political tyranny and confidence in man’s reason were the enlightenment ideals in which both American and French Revolutionaries fervently believed. On religious matters, Enlightenment led many to reject Christian orthodoxy for deistic or unitarian rationalism. However, many remained true to Christian orthodoxy while simultaneously embracing Enlightenment ideals. These republican Enlightenment ideals, I would stress, are, for the most part, not authentically biblical concepts even if orthodox Christians promoted them or the Bible was used to advance such ideas.

First, the Bible is not at all a political revolutionary book. Jesus (or his disciples like Paul) did not abolish one social or political institution. Not tyrannical government, not chattel slavery, not rule of Kings, not one. Today social liberals who preach the “social gospels” I believe misuse the Bible as do the Christian Marxists who advanced “liberation” theology. However, American Whigs who used the Bible in revolt against Great Britain were just as guilty of advancing something the Bible does not support: the right to political revolution. Be it the American or French (or quite frankly any political) Revolutions, Marxist governments or a modern social welfare state, none of these notions is “biblical.” And all who would use the Bible in support of such are equally guilty of misusing the good book.

The Ancient Israelites had a theocracy, not a republic as one Whig preacher inaptly posited. Many of these political sermons reproduced by the Liberty Fund, as fascinating as they are to read, are about as hermeneutically sound as biblical arguments in favor of same-sex marriage.

What should bring this point home is many of these same theologians who argued on behalf of the American Revolution from the pulpit — some orthodox Christians, some theistic or unitarian rationalists who rejected Christian orthodoxy — likewise used similar arguments to support the French Revolution. The most notable aphorism of the pro-revolutionary theology of that era was “rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” Now, this sounds nice, and as a liberty loving, tyrant hating classical liberal, this is the kind of God in which I would like to believe. However, this notion — like America’s Declaration of Independence — is hardly biblical. Theistic yes, biblical no.

A great article by Gary B. Nash, which you probably can’t access without paying $9 unless at a library or educational institution with license privileges, details exactly what I’ve noted above: the plethora of “patriotic American preachers,” some orthodox Christians, some not, who supported the French Revolution, at least at the beginning and saw “the project” as a continuation of the American Revolution. The follow page that I’ve reproduced discusses Ezra Stiles, President of Yale, one of the most notable patriotic Whig preachers, who was both an orthodox Christian and an Enlightenment rationalist who originally supported the French Revolution and saw its ideals as a continuation of the American Revolution.

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28 Responses to Ezra Stiles, American Jacobin

  1. Jon stated:

    “These republican Enlightenment ideals, I would stress, are, for the most part, not authentically biblical concepts even if orthodox Christians promoted them or the Bible was used to advance such ideas.”

    Why?

    As I read through Hunt’s essay on Kraynak, I am starting to believe that his views are not authentically biblical concepts. Both are most certainly part of Christian thought so the historical battle is clear. The theological battle is not germane to AC maybe we can have it here. I would open it up with how Kraynak’s belief in higher and lower humans is consistent with imago dei? If you go back to the root of his and Frazer’s views of human nature and put an ax to it, then the rest of the tree comes falling down.

  2. “First, the Bible is not at all a political revolutionary book. Jesus (or his disciples like Paul) did not abolish one social or political institution”

    True but he did not condemn the numerous times that the Jews did it the the Old Testament either did he? We know that the Spirit of God came on Othniel and that even John Calvin himself, not classical liberal by any means, used this as an example of proper revolution from the Old Testament.

    “The Ancient Israelites had a theocracy, not a republic ”

    Not true depending what theocracy means. Moses allowed the people to select their own leaders did he not? Is that not what a republic is? Either way, the bible really does not say much of forms of government as it does not about Church government. I think this is what God gave man reason for. Neither Jehovah or Jesus condemned Moses for allowing the people to select their own leaders.

    ” The most notable aphorism of the pro-revolutionary theology of that era was “rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” Now, this sounds nice, and as a liberty loving, tyrant hating classical liberal, this is the kind of God in which I would like to believe. However, this notion — like America’s Declaration of Independence — is hardly biblical. Theistic yes, biblical no.”

    So the numerous times that God warns the leaders not to oppress the people or they will be punished means what? If Abraham was commisioned to establish righteousness would this not mean protecting the image of God in man like Noah was charged to do? What about “destroying the works of the devil”? Is not tyranny a work of the devil? God sure thought it was when he condemned it repeatedly in the Old Testament. He even warned Israel what would happen when they asked for a King.

    If we start with the glory of God as seen in Ex 34 and realize that imago dei one of God’s way to reflect His glory and take our theology from that perspective it surely makes sense to protect the image of God in man from a tyrant. This is the tall weeds of biblical analysis but why are people like Aquinas and others wrong and Frazer and the fatalists right? Just saying they are is not enough. You have to bring some biblical proof at some point Jon.

    As far as the differences between the French and American Revolutions I think the secular humanist view the nature of man was the catalyst of the former and not that latter. That is unless you can quote the founders belief in the perfectibility of man. Federalist 51 surely does not take that tone.

    This is sloppy Jon. I know you wrote it a while back but I have refuted soundly much of this and I am not sure why you keep posting this stuff.

  3. We need to focus on 3 general views of human nature here:

    1. Total Depravity
    2. Fallen but capable of flourishing in certain respects
    3. Perfectable

    The first two are Christian and the second was more or less the view of the Founding. The first is Augustian and anti-reason and natural law. It also take an authoritarian view that is like Plato’s rule of the elite that seems to have resulted in the Divine Right of Kings. The third one is the Enligtenment view. That was the view that more of less took hold in the Enlightenment. That is unless you have evidence otherwise?

    Moderate rational Christian political thought is not the same as Enlightenment political thought for the reasons I just stated. Authoritiarian political thought is not correct biblical thought because it violates imago dei.

  4. Brad Hart says:

    King, I would suggest reading Simon Schama’s book, “Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution.” He lays out, in great detail, what Jon is saying here (BTW, have you read this book, Jon? Schama sort of mentions your Vietnam analogy in a roundabout way.).

    I think the key word in Jon’s post is ORTHODOX Christianity. Sure, they may be a part of some wider definition of Christianity but I don’t think they are biblical concepts. As Jon states, later individuals did employ the Bible to JUSTIFY these principles, but they did not use the Bible to CREATE them.

  5. Brad,

    They absolutely did use the Bible. Aquinas did right? If we get away from the soteriological aspects of this what is orthodox debate, and we should because it has nothing to do with political theory, the line of theological reasoning that Jon labels “Enlightment” is Christian for sure. I go back to him saying that Aquinas did not support resistance a few weeks ago when the quotes I provided show he clearly did.

    We can have an intelligent discussion about which method of interpretation is correct but to say that ideas that are taken right from the Bible are not is just wrong. This is just plain revisionism.

    I am not nailing Jon personally because I know he gets a lot of this stuff from Frazer and others like Kraynak that think the same way. But to say that their, what many would say is a warped, view and say it represents “orthodox” Christianity is inaccurate. It is a major stream of thought but not the only stream of thought. See the discussion on the posts on Islam very similar.

  6. Brad,

    Imago Dei is the root concept of resistance theory. It was created using the Bible. Resistance theory is at the heart of the DOI. Aquinas and Bellarmine’s words on this are just about the same as Jeffersons. Assuming he did not read them, and he never cites them that I know of one time in his life, don’t you think it is pretty amazing the concepts were so well known that they stayed intact? Does anyone claim that Aquinas is not part of orthodox political thought?

  7. Brad Hart says:

    KOI writes:

    “They absolutely did use the Bible. ”

    Yes, to JUSTIFY those Enlightenment principles, but I fail to see where they CREATED them out of biblical teachings.

    “We can have an intelligent discussion about which method of interpretation is correct but to say that ideas that are taken right from the Bible are not is just wrong. This is just plain revisionism.”

    I have to disagree. I don’t see it as revisionism in the least. I see it as fact. I’m not talking about one’s interpretation of the “Good Book” either. What I am saying is that I think Jon is right. The Bible wasn’t where these concepts came from.

  8. “The Bible wasn’t where these concepts came from.”

    Resistance theory based on imago dei is not from the bible? You gotta back that one up.

  9. Brad Hart says:

    I think you are giving Imago Dei more credit that it deserves. But hey, that’s just me.

  10. Brad Hart says:

    And let me ask you this question: what is so specifically Christian about Imago Dei? Plato and Aristotle debated this stuff long before Christianity showed up.

  11. “I think you are giving Imago Dei more credit that it deserves. But hey, that’s just me.”

    It was the basis for resistance theory. Resistance theory is what the DOI was based on. That is among many other ideas that were created using the Bible that the founders borrowed. I am not so sure that your point is the same as Jon’s. He is saying the people who came up with these ideas were using the Bible improperly. It comes down to a truth question.

    As far as this being uniquely Christian, the Dispatches crowd search far and wide to find a similar concept for the rights of man in history and I saw none. That is unique. A lot of the other stuff is borrowed or a Christianized version. I have found evidence that the founders used Christian rights talk in the face of the revisionism of saying it Enligtenment thinking. When confronted with that seeming fact, then people grasp for the Greeks and Romans for things that are not there.

    The bottom line is that there is a stream of Christian political thought out there from some major hitters that most people know nothing of. When we hear Christian and politics in the same sentence we think Divine Right. I used to as well but it is not good history.

  12. “Yes, to JUSTIFY those Enlightenment principles, but I fail to see where they CREATED them out of biblical teachings. ”

    They were not Enlightenment principles. That is unless Aquinas was part of the Enlightenment? I ask again if you think he used the Bible? This is the key point that kills this argument. The other is the Enligtenment view of the nature of man. I see not one person has tackled that since Dr. Hall brought it up. I have to start asking why not?

    America was not a Christian Nation per se but it was influenced by Christianity a hell of a lot more than most people think. I would add a hell of a lot less by the Enlightenment than most people think. Anyone that denies that needs to start coming up with quotes from the French Revolution about the sinful nature of man. I am fairly sure you ain’t gonna find it.

  13. Jon Rowe says:

    King the idea that men have inherent dignity based on their being created in God’s image is general principle of which many different specific and contradictory outcomes can follow. For instance, Gregg and Kraynak believe in Imago Dei but most certainly do NOT believe that a right to rebel against tyrants in the face of the plain text of Romans 13 follows. That’s one reason why a natural law supplement is necessary for those who want to argue for a right to rebel in the face of Romans 13. And even still, with such a supplement it doesn’t necessarily follow that men have a right to rebel against tyrants in the face of the plain text of Romans 13. Gregg as a fundamentalist doesn’t believe in the natural law. But Kraynak as a devout Roman Catholic does. And still doesn’t believe in such a right to rebel.

    Likewise I think you misunderstand Aquinas. I’ve seen his prooftext and it is NOT “the same” as what Jefferson writes in the DOI. AND you have yet to the see the quotes from Thomas where he notes that Romans 13 means you submit to tyrants.

  14. Brad Hart says:

    Ditto what Jon said.

    “As far as [Imago Dei] being uniquely Christian, the Dispatches crowd search far and wide to find a similar concept for the rights of man in history and I saw none.”

    Look up Plato and Aristotle. They didn’t use the words “Imago Dei” but they argued over the exact same stuff. Imago Dei is not a uniquely Christiian idea. People were tossing it around 450 years before Jesus came on the scene.

  15. Jon,

    Natural Law does not contradict the Bible. Aquinas interpreted Romans 13 different than Frazer. It is obvious from the quote I supplied. It may not be the exact same as Jefferson but it DOES allow for resistance to tyrants. If you say it does not then I have to ask why?

  16. “Look up Plato and Aristotle. They didn’t use the words “Imago Dei” but they argued over the exact same stuff. Imago Dei is not a uniquely Christiian idea. People were tossing it around 450 years before Jesus came on the scene”

    They were arguing rights based on God? I have to see proof Brad. They also were for the most part pan-theists. Aristotle said that some men were slaves by nature did he not?

  17. James Hanley says:

    Natural Law does not contradict the Bible.

    Your version of natural law, perhaps. But I think it’s a bit late in the game for anyone to be claiming natural law can be so determinately delineated. (And that’s operating on the assumption that such a thing as “natural” law exists, which no one’s ever demonstrated to my satisfaction.) In fact I think you’re just playing a game of logical definition.

    1. I believe in the Bible.
    2. I believe in natural law.
    3. The Bible is infallible.
    4. Hence, natural law cannot contradict the Bible.

    But you can’t prove that any of the first three are true. If any of the first three are false, or–given they way I’ve written them, not held by someone else–the fourth does not follow. It’s not really a solid logical deduction in the classic “Socrates is a man, all men are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal” model, because of the uncertainty of the three premises.

  18. “Your version of natural law, perhaps. But I think it’s a bit late in the game for anyone to be claiming natural law can be so determinately delineated. (And that’s operating on the assumption that such a thing as “natural” law exists, which no one’s ever demonstrated to my satisfaction.) In fact I think you’re just playing a game of logical definition. ”

    Sorry James, I meant to say that this was from the point of view of Christians that believe the Bible is true, including Romans 13, and believe in natural law. In other words, they are not going to throw out the Bible and claim natural law. They had a different interpretation. Jon and I discuss this so much I think we both understand that we are not so much talking truth claims as historical points of view. I should have been more clear.

    Jon,

    Here is Jefferson/Commitee and Congress as compared to Aquinas and Bellarmine:

    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). ”

    How is what Jefferson and company say really any different than what Aquinas says? It says that when he becomes a tyrant he can be deposed. It is cut and dried. Obviously Aquinas did not believe that natural law contradicts the Bible. So he just interprets the Bible differently than Frazer in regards to what Romans 13 means. Both are Christian thought historically.

    I have not studied it in depth beyond Aquinas but I would not be surprised if the right to depose tyrants is not older and more prominent than divine right and absolute authority if we open up the thought beyond the years Frazer uses to the totality of Christian thought.

  19. “For instance, Gregg and Kraynak believe in Imago Dei but most certainly do NOT believe that a right to rebel against tyrants in the face of the plain text of Romans 13 follows. That’s one reason why a natural law supplement is necessary for those who want to argue for a right to rebel in the face of Romans 13. ”

    It in the face of what Romans 13 say ACCORDING TO FRAZER. If he is wrong then their is no need to go around the Bible to natural law. Why would a Christian that believes the Bible is true even want to? They just believe that in the full context of the Bible Romans 13 cannot mean what Frazer says it does. This interpretation may be wrong but it is just as much a part of Christianity as Frazer’s view.

    In short, if the founders that did care if God was on their side wanted to find an interpretation of Romans 13 to fit their view that they had a right to depose a tyrant king they did not have to invent anything new. The arguments were there long before the Enlightenment.

  20. Jon Rowe says:

    King,

    I’m pretty certain Thomas had MORE to say on Romans 13. I’m currently looking it up now. But even what you reproduced from him isn’t exactly what Jefferson says in the DOI.

    “If any society of people have a right of choosing a king, then the king so established can be deposed by them without injustice,”

    What if they don’t have the power of “choosing” the king or their rulers. The theory of the DOI assumes that men by nature ALWAYS have the power to choose their rulers. Thomas’ statement is qualified with an “if.”

    “or his power can be curbed, when by tyranny he abuses his regal power”

    This on its face seems to talk about a King’s power, not the King’s status as ruler.

    The DOI states men can revolt against tyrants and remove them. This doesn’t seem to say that. According to Acts 5:29 men could always disobey rulers when needed to obey God. I’ve seen a lot of Catholic sources that state you don’t need to obey unjust laws; but they always stop short of revolt or claiming that rulers stop being rulers when they are tyrants.

    The only exception they made there was when one party was legitimately in power and thru violence or illegitimate means someone comes along and “usurped” power as rulers.

    We could understand a self serving Catholic explanation: The RCC is in power and then someone comes along and takes power away from them. Hence the “new” power is “usurped”; lets get the Catholics back in power (they made these arguments during the Reformation and Anglican “usurpation”).

    I know that the American Founders used the rhetoric of “usurpation.” But I don’t quite follow the argument. The governing law stated that ENGLAND was in charge. If anything the colonists led by Washington were the “usurpers” according to (what I understand) is the Catholic understanding of the concept.

  21. Jon Rowe says:

    1. I believe in the Bible.
    2. I believe in natural law.
    3. The Bible is infallible.
    4. Hence, natural law cannot contradict the Bible.

    Another problem is there is all sorts of nuances that we can play with 1-4 that lead to contradictory results. What James wrote above is the traditional Roman Catholic/Thomistic understanding of reason & revelation (also endorsed by some Protestants). But KOI, as far as I understand his point of view doesn’t believe in 3. Kings’ understanding is closer to John Adams’ (and perhaps Jefferson’s; but Jefferson disregarded a lot more of the Bible than King and J. Adams did).

    Their syllogism is as follows:

    1. I believe in the Bible.
    2. The Bible is not infallible but rather contains interpolations.
    3. I believe in natural law, substantive truths as discovered by reason.
    4. Hence, natural law helps explain my understanding of the Bible and may even help identify what are interpolations.

    I think a lot of Patriotic Preachers like Jonathan Mayhew, Charles Chauncy and Samuel West adhered to such an understanding of the Bible.

    Gregg Frazer sees this as “reason trumping revelation.” King and Tom do not.

  22. Jon Rowe says:

    My latest post here deals with some of the quotations from founding era patriotic preachers on the matter.

  23. Brad Hart says:

    “They [Plato and Aristotle] were arguing rights based on God? I have to see proof Brad.”

    Irenaeus, the man who is recognized with distinguishing between the IMAGE of God and the LIKELINESS of God (Gen. 1:26) was deeply influenced by the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. For Plato, our existence as embodied souls is accidental. Mortality is a bit of a myth…almost like a Matrix type thing (Neo’s world wasn’t real but he thought it was, even though he was in a giant test tube and nothing more). This is where Socrates drew his analogy of mankind’s soul being trapped in a physical body to be like a pearl oyster trapped in its shell. Aquinas, however, followed Aristotle, who taught that humans are soul-body composites whose joint existence is what constitutes the “image of god.”

    In his “Summa Theologica” Aquinas draws upon both Plato and Aristotle (mostly Aristotle) to explain humanity’s “intellectual formation.”

    In other words, Plato’s ideas regarding humanity’s “godliness” were “revined” by Aristotle, whose ideas were taken up by Irenaeus, whose ideas were taken up by Aquinas.

    And the Bible was sort of a side show. Aquinas used it, yes, but his ideas come from the “pagan” philosophers.

  24. “What if they don’t have the power of “choosing” the king or their rulers”

    This is probably mute in the case of the founding because they had lower magistrates that the king allowed them to appoint. But in theory you might be able to say this but I think Bellarmine clarifies things when he says:

    ““The people never transfers its powers to a king so completely but that it reserves to itself the right of receiving back this power”

    The power is in the people and they give it to the King. Vindicae goes through all this in great detail and it is all from the Bible. Though I have not read the primary documents myself and am going on secondary sources that have read it so I could be wrong.

    Jon,

    I think the point here is that Thomas was not even talking about Romans 13 in the quote. If he felt this way then obviously he did not share the same view of what it says as Frazer. I would say he probably believed that it was either government as an institution in general or only legitmate rulers that had the consent of the people. Both VALID interpretations and historically Christian.

    I am not going to get back into the reason vs. revelation thing again right now Jon. It is a good discussion but it distracts from the points made in this post that I feel are wrong. With that said, I think you have it right about how I see reason and revelation in regards to the Bible. Personally that is.

  25. “I’ve seen a lot of Catholic sources that state you don’t need to obey unjust laws; but they always stop short of revolt or claiming that rulers stop being rulers when they are tyrants.”

    Aquinas and Bellarmine did not. I am not saying all of Catholicism did either. This whole idea was either created or exploded(I am not sure of much before Aquinas on resistance theory but have heard that it was in Canon law) in the Investiture Controversy where both King and Pope had theologians write things to justify their positions and undermine the others.

  26. Brad,

    The part of imago dei I am talking about and I think is germane to rights talk is the moral attributes of God imputed to man. This is clearly in the Bible and I would think no where else. The Greeks were pan-theistic or poly theists who seemed to be more afraid of a nasty god or gods than wanting to worship a just and moral god. Complicated stuff for sure.

    But I do have to ask why the Greek stuff always comes up when the Enlightenment angle is refuted? I would also add that Aquinas departed from the Greeks quite a bit and the Bible was the reason. He was no Averrorists(I think that is how it is spelled) meaning he used their ideas only to a point. He more used their questions than answers I would say. Big difference.

  27. Brad Hart says:

    “I would also add that Aquinas departed from the Greeks quite a bit and the Bible was the reason. He was no Averrorists(I think that is how it is spelled) meaning he used their ideas only to a point. He more used their questions than answers I would say. Big difference.”

    And then used the Bible to JUSTIFY those questions?

    I still don’t see how he relied exclusively on the “Good Book” for all of this.

    And in summary, are we suggesting that America’s founding was some Imago Dei/Aquinas/Christian/anti-Enlightenment hybrid?

    I just don’t get all that from our founders.

  28. “I still don’t see how he relied exclusively on the “Good Book” for all of this.

    And in summary, are we suggesting that America’s founding was some Imago Dei/Aquinas/Christian/anti-Enlightenment hybrid? ”

    No one ever said he exclusively used the Bible. The questions are questions that people have had forever and he used the Bible to answer them. In other words, he was using the Bible to answer questions that philosophy alone could not answer. Or maybe more accurate he only used the Bible when he felt he needed too. It was apologetics to me.

    As far as the last statement, I do not think it was based on Aquinas because of Catholic bias. I do think Hooker took off on his ideas and Locke used Hooker for rights. This view made it into the DOI. Was it anti-Enlightenment? No and I never said it was. Was a group that all or most seemed to believe to some degree in the fall of man a bunch of Enlightenment figures? I would say no.

    I guess it comes down to whether one prefers to use the whole reason vs. revelation template or the fallen nature of man vs. the perfectability of man template. As my last few posts at AC should tell you I feel that the former is not as clear template as the latter. There is not Christian Nation or Enlightenment Nation. Both had influence the question is which one had more? I think Jon labels things that were clearly within the scope of Christian thought as Enlightenment and tends to try to use sotierology to do it. I think that is at times dirty pool since political thought is all that really matters.

    I am not blaming Jon I know he does not believe any of it. I do blame Frazer for some of it in that I think it is what kills Christianity when one group calls others heretics to minimize their influence. It is what caused all the religious wars in Europe and was exactly what our founders almost to a man worked hard to avoid.

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