I have often pondered whether the American Revolution was biblically justified or not, and planning for this year’s Fourth of July inspired me to spend some time and energy researching the subject.
Now before we get started, let me make a statement: Oddly enough, Chris and I each wrote about this same subject without any coordination or knowledge of what the other was working on! I know that this is an emotionally charged issue for some, but I’ve really tried to approach this objectively and do my best to simply hold up the position of the founding fathers to the Bible. So let’s jump in!
It helps to understand some of the prevailing philosophies leading up to the late 1700’s. In 1650, a man name Robert Filmer published the book Patriarcha, which was a defense of the notion that kings and rulers had a divine right to absolute authority. The application of this idea was that kings could do as they pleased, and subjects were required to obey the king no matter what as a matter of religious obligation. While this was predictably popular with the monarchy, it rubbed a certain theorist by the name of John Locke the wrong way.
Locke’s most influential work was entitled Two Treatises of Government, and it swung the pendulum far in the other direction in the year 1690. In the first half, he repudiates Filmer’s claim that kings have a blank check due to divine appointment. In the second half, he describes his belief in an inherent right of man to pursue his best interest, though not at the expense of the collective interest. He also states that if government effectually and habitually hinders that cause, then:
“the people are at liberty to provide for themselves by erecting a new legislative differing from the other by the change of persons, or form, or both, as they shall find it most for their safety and good” – Paragraph 220
This leaves the door open for rebellion (including violent ones) and brings us to the 1770’s when things are getting heated between the American colonists and Great Britain. John Locke was arguably the biggest singular influence on the thinking of the eventual authors of the Declaration of Independence. This much is evident in the wording of the Declaration itself:
“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government” – Paragraph 2
It is noteworthy that in the Declaration, there is a tone of patient forbearance over legitimate grievances and a feeling that the action of independence was brought about as the last resort.
So the question is, how does this hold up to scripture? Let’s start with the elephant in room, Romans 13:1-7.
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God and those that exist have been instituted by God.” – Romans 13:1
Seems pretty cut and dry, doesn’t it? Guess again! There was (and in some areas still is) an argument that this passage should be interpreted as “being subject to the idea of government in general.” They argued that we should be subject to government, though not necessarily the current one. In this framework, a people could rise up, overthrow authority, install a new government, then submit to that. Proponents of this argument will typically use the example of civil disobedience in Daniel, David, Moses, and Peter an John before the Priestly council.
I contend that Romans 13 does, in fact, speak to submission in whatever our current situation is (I am joined by Walvoord & Zuck in this). I come to this position based on a clear reading of the passage as well as the discussion of taxes in verses 6 and 7 (the context is more specific than general), and Ephesians 6:5-9 where our responsibility is expressly directed towards obedience to God regardless of our situation. In the case of biblical examples of civil disobedience, we should note that in those cases they were either peacefully resisting in light of God’s written commands, or were obeying direct commands from God himself or His prophets. I don’t think there’s any record of John Hancock claiming he heard voices from heaven.
I also think the framer’s attitudes towards man’s “unalienable rights” is faulty. “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” are gifts of grace from God, but certainly not rights we are owed. All have sinned, and the wages of sin is death. That is all we deserve, and anything different is mercy and grace from God.
The Bible does speak of freedom for the Christian, but it is freedom from the Mosaic Law (Galatians 4:21-5:13), and freedom from sin (John 8:31-36; Romans 6:15-22). Interestingly, Paul speaks of things more important than freedom, namely the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:19).
To summarize, I personally feel that the justification for the Declaration of Independence is not biblical and, subsequently, is sinful. Those who wrote and signed the Declaration, while many being devout Christians whom I believe wanted to act within the will of God, let their thoughts be consumed with the prevailing philosophy of the times and succumbed to a faulty interpretation of relevant passages of the Bible. This is based on exposition of God’s word, and is in recognition that if I were in their same position, I might very well have come to the same sinful conclusions that they did.
John MacArthur had the following to say about Romans 13:1-7 in The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (1994): “Obviously, [armed rebellion] is forbidden by God, and, judged in light of our present text, it is equally obvious that the United States was born out of violation of Scripture.”
The danger I have found while researching this is that many like to pick a side and declare our founding fathers as wholly good or wholly evil. That is unfair. There are many examples in church history of recognized pillars of faith that have obvious flaws. Luther was disturbingly anti-Semitic and Calvin presided over the execution of a heretic. We can learn from these flaws as well as recognize the positive aspects of past Christian brothers and sisters. After all we should be mindful to pull the log out of our own eyes before looking to the speck in the eyes of others.
But does this unbiblical beginning make our country a sham?
In my next post, I’ll examine the second major work by this same group of men that highlights some of the positive contributions we can thank our founders for… the United States Constitution.