Monday, April 1, 2013

Otis Q. Sellers on “The Powers That Be”

Otis Q. Sellers (1901-1992) was a prolific ultra-dispensationalist Bible teacher who believed that since the end of the period recorded in the Book of Acts, mankind has been living under a "dispensation of grace" (Ephesians 3:2). During this special administration, according to Sellers, this planet has not been host to any genuine religious authorities.  From Pentecost until the time marked by Acts 28:28, however, Christ-commissioned spiritual authorities did rule on earth and, Sellers argues, it is they, not "civil magistrates," who (according to tradition) are those whom Roman 13 refers to as "the powers that be." One day, Sellers believed, God will lift the historical "parenthesis" in order to resume, and globally extend, his temporal rule on earth and re-appoint human intermediaries between Christ and Man.
By posting this expression of hermeneutical revisionism I no more intend to endorse Sellers' eschatology than he intended to endorse anarchism.  Sellers was concerned only to argue that Romans 13 does not teach what "everyone knows" it teaches.  (Eric Voegelin, who fled the Nazis, had little patience for clerics who invoke it to justify obedience to the State.  See his "Theoretical Inquiry into Romans 13" on this blog.) Undermining Received Opinion is always a recipe for getting my attention and, when it is well done, respect. 
This is also an opportunity for me to acknowledge gratefully not only Sellers' influence on my thinking during my intensive study of his writings in the early '80s, but also his graciousness and generosity during the New York conferences and dinners I was privileged to attend. -- Tony Flood

“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.” This is Paul’s positive declaration recorded in Romans 13:1, and there is no verse in Scripture that has been misapplied more than this one. In all church theology “the higher powers” are made to be the civil authorities, whoever they may be in any country and at any time. And it needs to be said that of all the absurd interpretations ever made by theologians, this one takes first prize. It is unworkable and unbelievable, and it cannot be followed out through the additional statements that follow this declaration.
The initial declaration of Paul seems to present no great difficulty, since most law-abiding men are quite willing to be subject to those who rule over them, so far as the submission required does not conflict with duties toward God. However, the next statement, which is actually a part of the sentence, creates impossible difficulties. If “the higher powers” means the civil authorities, I cannot believe this statement; and I doubt if any of my readers can believe it unless they are given to simple-minded credulity.
Paul enforces his first statement by declaring that “there is no power (authority) but of God.” If this is applied to civil authorities, then we must believe that their authority comes from God; but the idea that those who govern derive their just powers from the consent of those governed, as our Declaration of Independence so majestically declares, must be rejected. That their authority comes from God, I do not believe and this I reject.
It would be interesting to know who first applied these words to civil authorities. One suspects that this happened in the days when men believed in the divine right of kings, when the civil powers and organized religion (the church) worked hand in glove to maintain absolute domination of the lives and thoughts of the people. Whoever it was began a chain of errors that have been millstones upon the necks of many whose sole desire is to believe and practice whatever is written in the Word of God. This passage they cannot believe unless they close their eyes to the most obvious facts and divorce it from all that follows. The assiduous Bible student knows that Paul did not intend to convey any such ideas since he had already told the Corinthians to ignore the civil authorities when one believer had a matter against another (1 Cor. 6:1-3).
After his initial declaration in Romans 13:1, Paul goes on to say that “the powers that be are ordained of God.” The phrase “the powers that be” has become by popular usage a familiar synonym for the civil authorities, but this cannot be what Paul meant when he first wrote these words. If this is what it means, then we must believe that all civil authorities are God ordained men, that anyone who resists them is resisting the ordinance of God, and that all who do resist shall receive to themselves condemnation. This I do not believe, and this I cannot believe.
If I believed this, I would have to believe in the divine right of all who govern. And if these words speak of civil authorities, then we must admit that some of the heroes of the faith, whom we now honor, are honored because they did the very thing condemned here. History is filled with the deeds of faithful and heroic men who defied the civil powers in order to worship and serve God according to the light they had received. With them it was even as Peter said to those who ruled in Jerusalem, ‘Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4: 19, 20).
It would seem that the first two verses of Romans 13 present enough problems for those who insist that this passage sets forth the Christian’s duty toward civil authorities, but every declaration that follows creates another major problem. “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil,” Paul continues. These words, if applied to civil authorities, are in direct contradiction to those spoken by Christ when He warned the apostles to, “Beware of men: for they shall deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; and ye shall be brought before governors and kings for My sake” (Matt. 10:17 18).
These words applied to civil authorities would make perfect saints out of all who govern, but we know from experience that this is not the case. Too numerous to mention are the rulers who have persecuted those who have done good and have favored those who have done evil. God’s Word does not teach ridiculous things; therefore, it cannot be that the “higher powers” or “the powers that be” in Romans 13 has any reference to civil authorities.
This becomes still more evident when the balance of Paul’s words is considered. We will go over this in a more accurate and literal translation.
You desire, do you not, to have no reason to be afraid of the authority? Well, do the thing that is right, and you will have praise from the same. For the authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword for no purpose: it is God’s servant, an avenger to inflict punishment on evildoers. Wherefore, it is necessary to be in subjection; not only be-cause of wrath, but also because of con-science. For because of this you are paying taxes also; for they are God’s servants, constantly attending to this very thing. Rom. 13:3-6.
After reading these words, the reader should ask himself if he believes that tax collectors are God’s servants who are doing His work in imposing and collecting the taxes laid upon us.
Through the years I have consulted many commentaries on this passage, commentaries from my own library, in other libraries, and from the shelves of bookstores. All of these have agreed that Paul speaks here of civil authorities, but all problems are ignored and all difficulties are glossed over. One expositor sums up his comments by saying: “Since there are no spiritual authorities among men today to whom these words refer, then, in spite of the great difficulties created, we must apply them to civil authorities.”  This commentator stumbled upon the solution when he said, “no spiritual authorities today.” This is the key to the whole matter. But what about the day when these words were written, the time period to which they should be applied? Will anyone dare to say that there were no such authorities in the thirty-three years of which the book of Acts is the history? There were men of God on earth then of whom every word spoken here was true, and to whom every statement could be applied without modification or alteration. These words belong to that New Testament time period, “The Acts Period” (see Issue No. 23).
The chief characteristic of this time was the presence upon earth of God-commissioned, God-empowered, and God-authorized men called Apostles. We first read of this great authority in Matthew 10:1 where we are told that Jesus Christ gave them power (exousia-authority) over unclean spirits and over all manner of sickness and disease. This authority was in no way based upon their faith, devotion, or holiness. It was given even to Judas Iscariot (Matt. 10:4). This authority was renewed and extended in Matt. 16:19; John 20:22, 23; and Luke 24:49. These words made these men the “higher powers” (Gk., superior authorities) of the Acts period.
We see this authority exercised in Acts 3:6 when Peter used it to bring complete healing to a man over forty years of age who had never walked. We see it from another standpoint in Acts 5 when he pronounced a sentence of death upon Ananias and Sapphira. He spoke and their death followed. He did not wear the sword as an empty symbol. We see it in the life of Paul in Acts 13 when he spoke the words that brought total blindness on Elymas the sorcerer. We see it again in Acts 14 when Paul commanded the impotent cripple to “Stand upright on thy feet.”
The superior authority that was given to men in the Acts period was not limited to the twelve apostles. In Rom. 12:8 Paul exhorts those who rule to do it with diligence. He instructed the Thessalonians to recognize those who “are over you in the Lord” (1 Thess. 5:12). There were gifts of government (1 Cor. 12:28), and some were set among the out-called ones for this specific purpose. All who possessed this gift qualified as “higher powers,” or superior authorities to whom all believers were to be subject.
When we read Romans 13:1-7 in the light of these positive truths, all questions are answered and all difficulties disappear. The apostles and other divinely appointed rulers of the Acts period were the “higher powers” to whom every soul was to be subject. They had their authority from God and they were ordained of God. If anyone resisted their authority, he resisted God’s arrangement; and such actions were sure to result in divine punishment. These authorities were never a terror to good works, only to the evil.
If any complained of the power of these men (the words of Rom. 13:3 would indicate that some did), they were told to do good and they would have no cause for fear, and would be sure to receive praise. But if they did evil, they would have every cause to fear; for these men did not bear in vain the power to exact the most severe penalties. They were God’s servants, His avengers to execute wrath upon those who did evil.
Thus, we find in Romans 13:1-7 a most powerful argument for rightly dividing the Word of Truth (2 Tim. 2:15), and the necessity for recognizing to the fullest extent the unique position of some men in the Acts period and the unique character of God’s dealings with men at that time.
In regard to the believer’s present relationship and responsibility toward human government, I have said nothing. This is not the subject of this study, and with this Romans 13:1-7 has nothing to do.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

James Redford on Romans 13 and Titus 3:1

As I have an interest in dislodging the sediment of encrusted theological opinion, I post an excerpt from James Redford's 2001 essay “Jesus Is an Anarchist,” the full text of which I had taken from and posted on about five years ago.  

It is often claimed that Christians are required to submit to government, as this is supposedly what Paul commanded that we are supposed to do in Romans 13. Thus:
Romans 13:1-7: Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience' sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God's ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.
But in actual fact Paul never does tell us in above excerpt from Romans 13 to submit to government! – at least certainly not as they have existed on Earth and are operated by men.
In fact, Paul would be an outright, boldfaced hypocrite were he to command anyone to do such a thing: for Paul himself did not submit to government, and if he had then he would not even have been alive to be able to write Romans 13.
For Paul himself disobeyed government, and it is a good thing that he did as we would not even know of a Paul in the Bible had he not disobeyed government. As when Paul was still only known as Saul he escaped from the city of Damascus as he knew that the governor of that city, acting under the authority of Aretas the king, was coming with a garrison to arrest him in order that he be executed.
This was right after Saul's conversion to Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus. The Jews in Damascus, hearing of Sauls conversion, plotted to kill him as a traitor to their cause in persecuting the Christians. Saul was let out of a window in the wall of Damascus under cover of night by some fellow disciples in Christ (see Acts 9:23-25).
In none of Paul's later writings does he divest himself, or disassociate himself, from these actions that he took in knowingly and purposely disobeying government: in fact, this very event is one of the things that he later cites in demonstration of his unwavering commitment to Christ (see 2 Cor. 12:22-33)!
Indeed, ever since Paul's conversion to Jesus Christ, he spent the rest of his entire life in rebellion against mortal governments, and would at last – just as with Jesus before him – be executed by government, in this case by having his head chopped off.
Paul was continuously in and out of prisons throughout his entire ministry for preaching the gospel of Christ; he was lashed with stripes 39 times by the "authorities" for preaching Christ; he was beaten with rods by the "authorities" for preaching Christ; and none of these rebellions of his did he ever disavow: indeed he cited them all as evidence of his commitment to Jesus (again, see 2 Cor. 12:22-33)!
But even more importantly, if Paul is saying in Romans 13 what many people have said he meant, i.e., that people should obey mortal, Earthly governments, then it is questionable whether Paul could even be a genuine Christian.
For as was pointed out above, Jesus would not even have existed as we know of today had it not been for Joseph and Mary intentionally disobeying king Herod the Great and escaping from his reach when they knew that Herod desired to destroy baby Jesus (see Matt. 2:13,14).
Thus, if indeed Paul meant in Romans 13 that we are to obey Earthly governments then this would mean that Paul would rather have Joseph and Mary obey king Herod the Great and turn baby Jesus over to be killed.
So what in the world is going on here with Paul and Romans 13? Is Paul a hypocrite? Is Paul being contradictory? Actually, No to both. Once again, as with Jesus's answer to the question on taxes, this is another ingenious case of rhetorical misdirection.
Paul was counting on the fact that most people who would be hostile to the Christian church – the Roman "authorities" in particular – would, upon reading Romans 13, naturally interpret it from the point of view of legal positivism: i.e., that such people would take for granted that the "governing authorities" and "rulers" spoken of must refer to the men who operate the governments on Earth.
But never does Paul anywhere say that this is so! (Legal positivism is the doctrine that whichever gang is best able to overpower others with arms and might and thereby subjugate the populace and who then proceed to proclaim themselves the "authority" are on that account the rightful "Authority.")
But before proceeding with the above analysis, what would the motive be for Paul to include such rhetorical misdirection in his letter to the people at the church of Rome? In answering this, it must be remembered that just as with Jesus, Paul was not free to say just anything that he wanted.
The early Christians were a persecuted minority under the close surveillance of the Roman government as a possible threat to its power. Here is Biblical proof of this assertion written by Paul himself:
Galatians 2:4,5: And this occurred because of false brethren secretly brought in (who came in by stealth to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage), to whom we did not yield submission even for an hour, that the truth of the gospel might continue with you.
Paul never intended that his letter to the Roman church be kept secret, and he knew that it would be copied and distributed amongst the populace, and thus inevitably it would fall into the hands of the Roman government, especially considering that this letter was going directly into the belly of the beast itself: the city of Rome.
Thus by including this in the letter to the church at Rome he would help put at ease the fears of the Roman government so that the persecution of the Christians would not be as severe and so that the more important task of the Church, that of saving people's souls, could more easily continue unimpeded.
But Paul wrote it in such a way that a truly knowledgeable Christian at the time would have no doubt as to what was actually meant.
The Church leaders at the time would have known that Paul obviously couldn't have meant the people who control the mortal governments as they exist on Earth when he referred to the "governing authorities" and "rulers" in Romans 13, for that would have made Paul a shameless hypocrite and also meant that he would desire that baby Jesus had been killed (for surely the histories of Paul and Jesus's lives would have been fresh on their minds).
The only answer that can make any sense of this seeming riddle is that one doesn't actually become a true "governing authority" or "ruler" simply because one has managed by way of deception, terror, murder and might to subjugate a certain population and then proceed to thereby proclaim oneself the "King" or the "Authority" or the "Ruler."
Instead, what Paul is saying is that the only true and real authorities are only those that God appoints, i.e., one cannot become a real authority or ruler in the eyes of God simply because through force of arms one has managed to subjugate a population and then proclaim oneself the potentate.
Thus, by saying this Paul was actually rebuking the supposed authority of the mortal governments as they exist on Earth and are operated by men!
"Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God." (Rom. 13:1.) leaves wide open the possibility that those who control the mortal governments on Earth are not true authorities as appointed by God.
The fallacy most people make when encountering a statement such as this is to unthinkingly and automatically assume that Paul must be referring to the people in control of the mortal governments that exist on Earth – for after all, don't these people who run these Earthly governments call themselves the "governing authorities"? Do they not teach their subjects from birth that they are the "rulers" and the "authorities"?
But when we factor in the life history of both Jesus and Paul, then it can leave no room for doubt: Paul most certainly could not have been referring in Romans 13 to the people who control the mortal governments as they exist on Earth – otherwise Paul would be an outright hypocrite as well as an advocate of deicide against baby Jesus. Indeed, God Himself directly confirms this very thing:
Hosea 8:4: "They set up kings, but not by Me; They made princes, but I did not acknowledge them."
But, some may inquire, what about Paul telling us to pay taxes in Romans 13:6-7? Thus:
Romans 13:6,7: For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God's ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.
But does Paul really tell us to pay taxes here? Again, just as with Jesus, nowhere does Paul actually tell anyone to pay any taxes!
Paul continues with the rhetorical misdirection that he started in the beginning of Romans 13, knowing – just as Jesus knew before him – that those who would be hostile to the Christian church would automatically assume what they are predisposed to assume: i.e., that the taxes and customs "due" are due to those in control of the governments who levy them.
But here Paul was being wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove, as Paul never said any such thing. For when Paul says "Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs" this just begs the question: to whom are taxes and customs due?
The answer to which could quite possibly be "No one." And this is precisely how Paul proceeds to answer his own question-begging statement, in Romans 13:8-10:
Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, "You shall not commit adultery," "You shall not murder," "You shall not steal," "You shall not bear false witness," "You shall not covet," and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
So there we have it in no uncertain terms: Owe no one anything except to love one another! Yet since when have taxes ever had the slightest thing to do with love?
As was explained above, all mortal governments throughout history steal and extort wealth from their subjects which they call "taxes," yet at the same time governments make it illegal for their subjects to steal from each other or from the government.
Thus in taxes we see that historically all governments do to their subjects what they outlaw their subjects to do to them. Thus, all Earthly, mortal governments, by levying taxes, break the Golden Rule which Jesus commanded everyone as the supreme law.
In the earlier discussion on Jesus and taxes we learned that when Jesus said "Give on to Caesar that which is Caesar's and give unto the Lord that which is the Lord's" he was, in effect, actually saying that one need not give anything to Caesar: as nothing is rightly his, considering that everything that Caesar has, has been taken by theft and extortion.
And what of Paul writing in Titus 3:1: "Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work"? As was clearly demonstrated above, Paul was referring to the true higher authorities as recognized by God, not to the diabolical, Satanic, mortal governments as they have existed on Earth – as Paul spent his entire ministry in rebellion against the Earth-bound, mortal "authorities," and was at last put to death by them. (For other cases of righteous disobedience to government in the Bible, see Exo. 1:15-2:3; 1 Sam. 19:10-18; Esther 4:16; Dan. 3:12-18; 6:10; Matt. 2:12-13; Acts 5:29; 9:25; 17:6-8; 2 Cor. 11:32,33.)
And as further proof of this, consider Paul's advice to Christians as regarding being judged by what the government considers the "authority":
1 Corinthians 6:1-8: Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life? If then you have judgments concerning things pertaining to this life, do you appoint those who are least esteemed by the church to judge? I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren? But brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers! Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated? No, you yourselves do wrong and cheat, and you do these things to your brethren!
Paul said that the government judges "are least esteemed by the church to judge"! It is clear that he considered them to be no authority at all!
But moreover, even Jesus didn't consider the Earthly, mortal "rulers" to be true rulers and authorities! Thus:
Mark 10:42-45: But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, "You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."
By saying this Jesus was in fact rebuking the supposed "authority" of the Earthly "rulers"! Just because mortals on Earth may consider someone to be an "authority" and "ruler" does not mean that God considers them to be so!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Eric Voegelin on Romans 13

The following “Theoretical Inquiry into Romans 13” has been taken from Eric Voegelin, Hitler and the Germans, translated and edited by Detlev Clemens and Brendan Purcell, University of Missouri Press, 2003, 178-183.  In a nutshell: "The presupposition of this entire instruction is naturally that one lives in the Roman Empire at the time when the Stoa had established the ethics of worldly order.  That means that the imperial government, its officials and their administration, in fact obey and sanction the moral law in the Stoic sense. . . . There isn’t a word there that one should be subject to any authorities whatsoever, let alone . . . that one should have to be subject to the authorities even when they do evil. . . . The passage is quite obviously directed toward persons in the Christian community who misunderstand the freedom of the Christian under God as meaning that one no longer has to obey the ethical order of society, that is to say, it is directed toward those who violate this ethical order.  These are admonished that in this aion we find ourselves in, there is also a moral law, the one that will be sanctioned by these higher authorities."

And now, in concluding this investigation on the Evangelical side, a theoretical inquiry into Romans 13 for the Evangelical part, and then for the Catholic part an inquiry into the theological idea of the corpus mysticum Christi, so that the decadence I have repeatedly spoken of will come to light.
In all the documents, Evangelical and Catholic, with which those belonging to the communities were enjoined to obey Hitler, there are two texts from the Bible invoked by the clergy in order to command obedience to the authorities.  Among the two, on the Catholic side, in the documents I will present to you next time, the fourth commandment is preferred.  That commandment is “Honor your father and your mother.”  This father and mother is now interpretatively expanded as “Honor the state, carry out its laws, obey the authorities!”  Please note that.  Not a word of all that is in the fourth commandment—for the good historical reason that precisely in the covenant of Sinai, within which the Decalogue was announced, the people existed under God and not under authorities.  There was no occasion for speaking about having to obey any kind of authorities at all.  So it is unhistoric and anachronistic, and if such an alteration of an interpretative kind were made to a text in a secular context by a scholar, one would say: Absolutely barefaced falsification of the text!  When theologians do it, then it is the church.
The same is now done with Romans 13, and here indeed the link is Luther, who in this regard is fully adopted by the Catholic Church, that is to say, that “everyone should be subject to authority.”  That is the first sentence of the thirteenth chapter in the letter to the Romans in the Luther translation.  Of this assertion, that “everyone should be subject to the authorities,” there is not an iota in Romans 13.  I will now therefore undertake an investigation of Romans 13—which is always gladly referred to, especially this first verse—as a whole.  I have for this purpose translated the text.  The whole text of chapter 13 in the letter to the Romans falls into three parts: the first part, verses 1–7, the second part, verses 8–10, the third part, verses 11–14, and I will read out and comment on each of them.  The first part, verses 1–7, reads, in literal translation:
Every soul must submit to the higher authorities, for there are no authorities except those under or by means of God.  And the existing authorities are ordered by him.  Therefore, whoever rebels against the order of the authorities, resists a divine order.  And those who offer resistance will bring judgment [krima] down upon themselves.  For rulers are not terrors for the good but only for the evil.  If you do not want to fear the authorities, do what is good, and you will have their approval, for they are God’s assistants, in order to do good to you.  However, if you do evil, then fear them, for they do not bear the sword without reason.  They are God’s servants, who cause his anger to be felt by him who does evil.  Therefore you should submit yourself to them, not only from fear of anger, but for conscience’s sake.  Therefore also bear these burdens, for they are the servants [leiturgoi] of God, who dedicate themselves to this service.  Fulfill all your duties, tax where tax, tolls where tolls, fear where fear, honor where honor, is due.
So that is the first part, of which only the first verse is ever quoted.  The language Paul speaks here, in order to clarify the relation to the authorities, as he calls them, is conventional, taken from the Stoic philosophy of politics.  The idea is that of a hierarchy of authorities in the cosmos, where God is in the highest place, in the lower places are the authorities in society, in the lowest place is man himself.  That is the hierarchy of being in its order.  So, whoever fits into this order must submit to the law of the world, which for whatever reasons has provided that there are also orders in society and representatives with the power of punishment, who must take care that men obey the moral law and that its violations are punished.
The presupposition of this entire instruction is naturally that one lives in the Roman Empire at the time when the Stoa had established the ethics of worldly order.  That means that the imperial government, its officials and their administration, in fact obey and sanction the moral law in the Stoic sense.  That is the presupposition.  There isn’t a word there that one should be subject to any authorities whatsoever, let alone, as we shall then see from the documents the next time, that one should have to be subject to the authorities even when they do evil.  Let alone what Kant, for example, following Luther, read into obedience to authorities, that the authorities are holy or anything of the sort.  Nothing of this.  The passage is quite obviously directed toward persons in the Christian community who misunderstand the freedom of the Christian under God as meaning that one no longer has to obey the ethical order of society, that is to say, it is directed toward those who violate this ethical order.  These are admonished that in this aion we find ourselves in, there is also a moral law, the one that will be sanctioned by these higher authorities.  The kingdom of God, that comes only in the future.  So, on the whole, it is not very different from Aristotelian politics, which also presuppose ethical behavior through orientation of the spirit and the continuous practice of the virtues.
It then presupposes the corrective—since people are inclined not to be virtuous—for violations of this order.  The correctives in this case are the power of public order, the higher powers, the municipal authorities, the archontes of the polis, whose responsibility it is for restraining these violations or, if they still take place, for punishing them.
So it is classic politics, a bit Hellenistically changed in terms of vocabulary, but that is all.  And always presupposed is the moral order as what these higher authorities make effective in this world.  What now these men should really do is by no means merely to obey the authorities; rather that comes now in verses 8–10. There it says:
Owe no one anything, except love for the other, for whoever loves his fellow man has fulfilled the law.  For the commandments “you shall not commit adultery, you shall not kill, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,” along with all the other commandments, can be summed up in this one rule, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love cannot do evil to the neighbor; the fullness of the law, therefore, is love.
If now we translate the language of Paul into the philosophical language of Aristotle, we would have to say this: All the different virtues from which the concrete commands follow are subordinated to what I call the existential virtues, in Aristotle, justice, philia, love, which is the fundamental ethic of the political community, as the philia politike in the spirit, the homonoia, the noetic virtue, that is positive order.  Subordination is required under the existing authorities, whose precise goal it is to reestablish order, only if this positive order, which is enjoined here, is not kept.
Now the Christian element in this matter is something different.  It is that all these negative worldly admonishments—subordinate yourself to the authorities or the powers!—should be existentially characterized by their positive accomplishment through love, which has then become one of the theological cardinal virtues.  All of this becomes more urgent because the end of the world, spoken of in verses 11–14, is imminent:
And above all, you should be aware of the critical time [of the kairos] and the hour for you to awaken from sleep. [Demands formulated like this go back to Heraclitus,] For salvation is closer to us today than when we first believed. [That means, the time from now to salvation is shorter than from that point in time when we began to believe up to the present. So, in a short time, in our lifetime, the end of the world is coming.] The night is almost over and the day is near. Let us therefore cast aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us live decently as in the day, not with feasting and drinking, with lust and fornication, with quarreling and jealousy. Put on the Lord Jesus Christ [as the armor of light], and do not turn your thoughts toward the desires of the flesh.
So, a carefully thought-out literary context aimed at those who are inclined to misunderstand the Gospel and the arrival of the aion as implying that one may now be licentious, that everything is permitted.  But nothing of the kind.  In this aion the higher powers, to which one must subordinate oneself, continue, and behavior toward the neighbor is positively characterized by love as the existential, spiritual virtue.  And above all one should bear in mind that the end of the world and the second coming of Christ is close, very close indeed, closer than the time from the beginning of our faith, which has already run out, and that in this situation of the critical time one should therefore behave according to the kairos.
All of this has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with one having to be subject to any kind of authorities—above all, naturally, nothing to do with having to comply with the Hitler laws, as the bishops commanded, in their pastoral letters, by invoking the fourth commandment and, here, Romans 13.  This scandalous misuse of a literary text for subjugation—and, indeed, for unconditional subjugation—under the authorities in the sense of power politics, if it happened on the secular side, would also be considered a barefaced falsification.  But again, in the theological sphere one may say such things about the relations of church and state, with which the New Testament has nothing to do.
However, of late, there has been a certain relaxation of these misinterpretations.  In 1963 the Berlin bishop Otto Dibelius—I am now still speaking of the Evangelicals—published a study on the authorities.[1]  And already from the layout of the book, in the first part on Romans 13, you can see an interpretation not very different from what I have given you here.  In the second part, he discusses Luther and the authorities, the bowdlerizing of this text through Luther’s notion of authority.  Further, he treats of the objections, that Romans 13 also held good for the totalitarian state, and finally considers the freedom of a Christian.  These would then be the problems of the second and third parts of the letter to the Romans.  There we see that already something has been relaxed.  But all of this relaxation takes place under a very ominous indication.  I will read out this passage to you:
But when we speak of Romans 13, it is a question, firstly and above all, of a theological matter within the church.[2]
And a page later:
Once again: it is a question within the church how an important passage of the Bible is to be interpreted.  But certainly it is a question that must be considered by the Christian throughout the whole world.[3]
That is a masterpiece of barefacedness.  Christ has come among men, but what he has said may only be interpreted by the theologians.  It is only a matter within the church.  And if the theologians within the church interpret the passage of Romans 13 in such a way that their fellow citizens are slaughtered, not even then is it a public matter having to do with men and victims.  Oh no, it remains even now a pure theological matter within the church.  Here again you have this problem of the complete lack of human awareness among Christians.  Christ is a private possession of the socially institutionalized organizations one pays church tax to.  Even the lay people within the church have no say here and may not say, “Look, but that isn’t in the Letter to the Romans 13 at all.”  And naturally whoever does not belong to the church, for example, Jews, who will be slaughtered, have no say, because these theologians have interpreted the letter to the Romans in this way.
So, there is this complete perversion in the treatment of Scripture, this complete failure to be a member of human society, this complete failure in the duty of being a citizen as well as a human being, this arrogance in treating Christianity and the words of Christ as a private matter for theologians, which then can cause horrible murderous wrong.  That is still the attitude of Bishop Dibelius in the year 1963.  That’s how things are!

[1] Otto Dibelius, Obrigkeit (Stuttgart: Kreuz Verlag, 1963). Dibelius (1880–1967) was general superintendent of Kurmark from 1925 until deposed in 1933.  Deeply involved in the Confessing Church, he was bishop of Berlin, 1945–66; president of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, 1949–61; and a president of the World Council of Churches in 1954.
[2] Ibid., 72 (emphasis in the text).
[3] Ibid., 73.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

"Power Tends to Corrupt": A Reputation-Making Book

Christopher Lazarski's Power Tends to Corrupt: Lord Acton's Study of Liberty  (Northern Illinois University Press, 2012) is, or at least ought to be, a reputation-making book. It is the best extended discussion of Lord Acton's political ideas in sixty years, that is, since Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics, Gertrude Himmelfarb's ground-breaking study. The author achieves this in about the same number of pages (in its body, at least, sans apparatus) but, more importantly, it does so with equal readability, a remarkable accomplishment since English is not his mother tongue.

After having immersed himself in the geopolitical events of early 20th-century Russia, the fruit of which being his 2008 The Lost Opportunity: Attempts at Unification of the Anti-Bolsheviks: 1917-1919, Lazarski shifts gears to the political thought of a 19th-century European who, while not predicting the Bolshevik Revolution, identified the spiritual fault lines that help explain such an anti-libertarian rupture with the past.

Currently Associate Dean in Warsaw's School of International Relations at Lazarski University (founded by a distant relative), our author draws upon Roland Hill's 2000 life of Acton for frame and meat, but does not minutely track that monumental biography. What he does track are the contours of Acton's prodigious learning. He divides his terrain into four parts, three devoted to Acton's areas of research interestthe ancient world (ancient Jerusalem and Athens), the modern alternative (especially the Anglo-American tradition), and the revolutionary crisis to which that alternative succumbed (the French Revolution). A fourth part expounds and interprets Acton's view of the best regime, a question hardly absent from Lazarski's neat encapsulations of the master's texts.

The seamless way Lazarski moves between those summaries and the logic of political ideas is a tour de force of which only a few academics are capable. I felt no mechanical pivoting between exposition and interpretation, but neither was I confused as to voice: without interrupting his narrative flow to hold up a cue card to the reader, Lazarski skillfully makes it clear when he is commenting upon and when paraphrasing Acton.

This book has brought home to me in a new way that "democratism" is the political presupposition of our age. Its presumptive absolute value so informs the popular consciousness that it rarely occurs to anyone to question it. And therefore since "democratic" is a term of uncritical popular approbation, every criticism of democracy, however gentle, must be framed as a reform of what is essentially right. (Any more severe criticism, it is presumed, can only arise from a mind less favorably disposed toward freedom, never from a libertarian perspective.) In the current atmosphere, therefore, one cannot reasonably hope to broaden the readership of a writer who wrote extensively about democracy unless one can show that he at least generally favored it. Lazarski's book is no exception to this rule.

Acton's warnings about democracy's potential for evila moral hazard, "prone to degeneration" (266)all documented here, are not as specific to democracy as this reviewer would like. Tyranny is a human potential, and democracy one possible avenue to it. It can also light the way out of tyranny. As Murray Rothbard argued in Power & Market, democracy has little ethical content: it is either negatively libertarian (favoring the people against its rulers) or positively rights-violating (coercively redistributive). This raises a basic philosophical question, an answer to which Acton tacitly presupposed but rarely addressed explicitly: just what is "rule," what is its object (who is the agent, who the patient)? What do the demos have right to deliberate about?

The democratist presupposes that A must rule not only A (genuine self-rule: the attempt to lead a good life and suppress the libido dominandi in one's own heart), but also may rule B (even when B is not A's child or other dependent). Further, A and B may combine to tell C what to do with C's person and property and back up their will by force. We may find this way of putting the question intolerably abstract, but that is because we are always in the middle of the muddle of our predecessors' making, and sometimes it takes an astringent abstraction to untangle the knot. We are never faced with the "state of nature" (an abstraction Acton rejected, but which one might charitably interpret as a thought experiment). Rather, each of us is always situated in the context produced by the millions of actions of our fellowswho also seem to presuppose that we may all rule one another. And so I was less interested in learning that Acton was "a democrat at heart"why not simply a libertarian at heart?or that there might be such a thing as "libertarian democracy," than why such a description would be significant in the first place.

The leviathan state of Acton's nightmares is alive and well, and while it is not called "totalitarian," nothing in principle is admitted to be beyond its range of possible action. How much terror it must resort to (often, with obscene irony, while prosecuting a "war on terror") is a tactical matter. The "ethical" question is considered settled. Hobbes has won. It is not clear to me what intellectual ammunition Acton the "idealist" libertarian had to discredit Hobbes the "realist" statist besides erudite warnings; but perhaps the job of discrediting the thought of one philosopher falls to another. Other books on Acton have failed to shed light on this point, and I have also come away from Power Tends to Corrupt no less empty-handed. I lay this fault at the feet, not of our author, but of his subject.

Acton referred to a "higher law" and by that term he may very well have meant the law of God, whom he worshipped at Mass, but he didn't spell that out. "Higher law" is as inoffensive to the modern earand about as content-free as is the "higher power" of the Alcoholics Anonymous pledge. It is God "at a distance," to recall a song popular during the first Gulf War. (At a safe distance, one might add.) If God is there, it is only as adjunctive and auxiliary to our pursuits. God has certainly not, according to the modern mind, spoken plainly about what he has done, is doing, and intends to do. Modernity uninstalled the theism program in Euro-American self-consciousness. Acton did not engineer a replacement.

Acton wrote as the seeds of this cultural sea-change were embedding themselves in academia. He had many battles to fight, however, not the least of which was the emancipation of Catholics in the realm. He paid some attention to Darwin, but never seems to have commented directly on the then-new biblical criticism. If Acton the Catholic historian was a modernist on this front (he died before Pope Saint Pius X formally condemned it), then he would not turn to the Bible as a source of instruction on the nature of political rule. Acton believed in conscience as "God's voice," Lazarski records, but conscience apparently untutored by verbal revelation. He believed in divine providence, but only as assisting men in the achievement of their goals, especially preventing the derailing of their humanistic train but, again, not as assuring the accomplishment of God's purposes. Acton famously opposed infallibility as a charism of the pope, but did he not withhold it from Scripture as well? What, for example, was Acton's view of his contemporary Bruno Bauerwho both befriended and tangled with Marx? Pursuing such questions may have impractically lengthened the book, but they also, in my opinion, would have enriched Lazarski's exploration of Acton's answer to the question of the "best regime."

The Bible might have been for Acton something to be reverenced, but not consulted, a worthy object of scholarly investigation and defense by competent Church scholars. He apparently saw no need, however, for his getting involved in that battle. Acton contented himself with general principles, like "liberty," which in his case it functioned as the "transcendental" that harmonized history's multitude of otherwise cacophonous facts. Only in Christianity, however, is liberty, like life, like truth, divinely personified. In Acton, as Lazarski reads him (and as I read him independently), liberty has a wraith-like existence that migrates from culture to culture, age to age, e.g., "departing" from Jerusalem for Athens (40), a substance that acquires new accidents, and accents, as it matures. But in what impersonal cosmos is this impersonal "growth" happening? Unfortunately, I see scant evidence, including all that Lazarski has marshaled and arranged, for the proposition that Christ himself functioned as more than a general principle in Acton's historiography (whatever may have been his religious devotion). We may have in Acton an early exemplar of the modern failure of integration of what a Catholic "personally believes" and what he is prepared to affirm and defend publicly.

All the many facts that Acton had at his command never could be enough for him to write his History of Liberty. That insufficiency might lie in the encyclopedic nature of his plan, and not necessarily in any psychological blocks to his "getting on with it." His insights into the facts pertinent to that history were fatally qualified by the limits of his grasp which, unlike Christ's, never comprehended the whole. Acton must have least implicitly assented to the proposition that in Christ all wisdom is deposited (Colossians 2:3). Christ understands the whole and all its constituent "facts," and in Him they all cohere (Colossians 1:17), and has revealed the framework for interpreting them. Whatever we learn, Christ knew first. Reason is a tool, however, not a principle on par with faith: the power to draw inferences confers no power to generate true propositions from which to draw them. Left to itself, reason cannot supply one universal truth as the ground of induction or induction, but God can do so by his revelation in nature and Scripture. The believing Christian holds that God has actually done so. Now following Catholic tradition, Acton held that all roads of human reasoning, regardless of their objects, lead to God. But from what do they lead thence? The Catholic preferential option for "natural theology" is revealed at this point. If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom as well as its end, its alpha as well as its omega, then reason must start, and not just end, with God.

Any interest in Acton's famous rejection of Pius IX's claim of papal infallibility can divert attention from the more general skepticism he may have felt toward any claim of infallible divine revelation. Lazarski does not ignore Acton's struggles within the Church, but our author's political focus understandably limited the attention he could pay to it, which strife most probably, as he notes, contribute to Acton's failure to complete his "Madonna of the future." It took all Acton had to get on paper what little he did. He had no talent for, or apparently even interest in, explaining what he was doing in terms that would satisfy a philosopher.

In contrast to Scripture's concreteness, Acton waxed platonic about liberty. Although he warned against reification (which occupational hazard of the intellectual Whitehead called "misplaced concreteness"), he himself seems to have committed that offense against clear thought when it came to his key term. For "liberty" refers to personal agency, but is not itself the agent. It is an idea that concrete individuals, who have and create histories, may think about; the idea itself, however, does not, cannot, have a history. (Realizing this, Eric Voegelin altered the course of his research in the 1940s.)

Papal support for arts bolstered Rome's prestige, making it the "metropolis of the Renaissance," but for Acton, the indulging of clerical senses and the Reformation-provoking indulgence racket were not the worst things about pre-Reformation Catholicism. The cardinal sin was rather the Church's abandoning her critical role in counterbalancing royal power, reminding it of its limits under God. There was instead a desire to achieve unlimited political authority for the papacy, making it a supreme global power, attracting in due course the admiration of the first utilitarian and proto-Social Darwinist, Machiavelli. If I may quote the words of Acton's on this point (referenced and paraphrased, but not quoted verbatim, by Lazarski):

"Times had greatly changed when a Pope [Innocent IV] declared his amazement at a nation which bore in silence the tyranny of their king. In modern times the absolute monarchy in Catholic countries has been, next to the Reformation, the greatest and most formidable enemy of the Church, for here she again lost in great measure her natural influence. In France, Spain, and Germany, by Gallicanism, Josephinism, and the Inquisition, she came to be reduced to a state of dependence, the more fatal and deplorable that the clergy were often instrumental in maintaining it. All these phenomena were simply an adaptation of Catholicism to a political system incompatible with it in its integrity; an artifice to accommodate the Church to the requirements of absolute government, and to furnish absolute princes with a resource which was elsewhere supplied by Protestantism. The consequence has been, that the Church is at this day [1859] more free under Protestant than under Catholic governmentsin Prussia or England than in France or Piedmont, Naples or Bavaria." ("Political Thoughts on the Church," Selected Writings of Lord Acton, ed. J. F. Fears, Volume III, 32.)

The denouement of the Church's centuries-long support of state absolutism was her subordination to the modern state, however unwilling. This new settlement put the Church in her place, as it were, as soon as it was politically opportune. What is called "Catholic Social Teaching," whose articulation is historically a matter of yesterday's labors, amounts to the Church's changing of her tune from absolutist statist blues to social democratic rhapsodywhich does not comport well with her conceit that she speaks with divinely protected authority, yesterday, today, and forever.

At the end of Part One, Lazarski asks: "Are not current Western governments aspiring to display the same fondness for specialist, experts, and jurists; a similar faith in rational schemes; and a corresponding disregard for moral considerations, much as did the enlightened government of ancient regime" that Acton excoriated (102)? To ask this rhetorical question is to answer it. The theoreticians of the modern welfare-warfare state do not recognize any limits to their scope of action. They are all Machiavellians now, out or closeted. But while this may make Acton a prophet, it does not recommend him as a political pathfinder, an estate to which he did not in any case aspire. Power is a moral hazard, he warned in so many words, so let's limit it. Let's try to have a "mature democracy," as they do in America. Easier said than done, for as Acton well knew, the battle is primarily against the libido dominandi, the insidious "enemy within."

On a more personal note. Power Tends to Corrupt has not forced me to discard my view of Acton as a "libertarian hero" (expressed in 2006 on his lifelong focus on the struggle for liberty in history entitles him to that designation regardless of what more rigorous anarcho-capitalist libertarians have written. Not that I claimed consistency for Acton, especially on the question of socialism. (But Lazarski's book has reminded me that I prefer Acton inconsistent to any libertarian pamphleteer consistent.) In the light of Lazarski's documentation of Acton's less than hardcore view of free markets, however, I have concluded that the use of "libertarian" to describe him at the very least risks equivocation or anachronism. Kelly Creed's insinuation, however, that I propagandistically cast Acton in the role of a "classical liberal stuntman" depends for its force on her reader's ignorance of my earlier essay and the pains I took there to qualify locating him within the libertarian tradition. Hers was an inexcusable misreading, but as both essays are available on line, interested readers should ignore my protest and decide for themselves.

But my esteem for Professor Lazarski's achievement in Power Tends to Corrupt, to whose rich canvas I have not done justice, does not depend on settling that difference of opinion: I unreservedly recommend it to every student of Acton, novice, apprentice, or master.