Historically Reformed vs. American Reformed: Church and State

The phrase “Reformed Libertarian,” which I coined in 2012, has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Most often, it has wrongly been thought to be a sort of endorsement of modern reconstructionism, or something similar. After all, it seems to some that the “Reformed” part is a qualification on the Libertarian part.

One of the things that has most impacted me in the last several years has been the extent to which the “Reformed” tradition is not at all a unified one. There have been monumental developments in theology and political theory– the latter stemming from adjustments of the former. My own libertarianism is not compatible with an early-Reformed understanding of the nature of the church and state in relation to the covenants of God. That is, if I held to the understanding of the covenants that was commonly held in Reformed circles in France and the Netherlands prior to the English developments in the 17th century, my libertarianism would not be possible.

As one who believes that we should always be learning, correcting the mistakes of our intellectual forebearers, I have come to realize the extent to which the greater Reformed tradition was dead wrong– dangerously and embarrassingly wrong– on matters of church and state. There is no reason to whitewash this. We must accept it and improve upon it, rejecting the historically Reformed position where it is wrong and refining it where some of its principles can be saved. For example, Robert Reymond writes of these wrongs in his magnificent Systematic Theology:

The nature of the church’s authority is exclusively spiritual and moral, over against the civil and legislative authority of the state—also a divinely appointed authority (Rom. 13:1–7)—the latter authority often manifesting itself in physically coercive ways against human violence and public disorder. That is to say, the church’s authority is strictly ministerial and declarative, not imperial, magisterial, or legislative. The church has no police force or battalions of soldiers. The medieval church was dead wrong when it endorsed, under Innocent IV’s bull Ad extirpanda (1252), the use of torture to break the will of heretics and to extort recantations from them, and penalized the unrepentant with confiscation of goods, imprisonment, and their surrender to the “secular arm,” which meant death at the stake. The Spanish Inquisition in 1479 under Ferdinand V and Isabella, in particular, was aimed at Jews, Muslims, and later Protestants, and under its first Grand Inquisitor, Tomas Torquemada, burned some two thousand people for heresy and expelled from the Holy Roman Empire Jews who refused to be baptized. The church was wrong when in the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries it launched the Crusades (eight or nine in all) to recover the Holy Land from Islam. Martin Luther was wrong when he called for the German princes to use the sword against the Anabaptists in 1531 and 1536. The Protestant leaders at Geneva, including John Calvin, were wrong when they burned Servetus as a heretic. The English Reformers under Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I were wrong when they employed the secular authority to persecute Roman Catholics. And the theonomic reconstructionists of our day are just as wrong when they call upon the state to execute false prophets, witches, adulterers, and homosexuals.

Reymond, Robert L.. A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith: 2nd Edition – Revised and Updated (Kindle Locations 17794-17808). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

Several of the great moments of improvement on the matter of church and state included the English congregationalist dissent from Presbyterianism and the particular baptist dissent from both. But further, and more relevant to the American experiment was a sharp distinction between what Charles Hodge referred to as the standard Reformed (Geneva, Germany, France, Holland, and Scotland) position and the American Reformed position on matters of church and state. The American position was “of very recent origin” during the time Hodge wrote on this. From Constantine to the Medieval Church to the Lutherans to the Church of England, there was the ingrained and penetrating mistake of confusing the roles of church and state (or, more particularly due to the development of pure libertarian theory, “civil governance”). It was all Constantine’s fault. But the early Reformers missed the opportunity to cast away his influence completely.

The standard and pre-American Reformed position on the magistrate, among other things, was that (Hodge’s words):

He ought to establish the true religion, and when established, faithfully uphold it, and if corrupted, restore and reform it. (b) He should, to the utmost, protect the church by restraining heretics and disturbers of its peace by propagating and defending the true religion and hindering the confession of false religions. (c) Provide proper ministers, and sustain them in the administration of the Word and sacraments, according to the Word of God, and found schools as well for the church as the state. (d) See that ministers do their duty faithfully according to the canons of the church and the laws of the land. (e) Cause that confessions of faith and ecclesiastical constitutions, agreeable to the Scriptures, be sanctioned, and when sanctioned adhered to. (f) To call ordinary and extraordinary synods, to moderate in them, and to sanction their decisions with his authority.

The Westminster Confession, as adopted by the Church of Scotland, taught the same general doctrine. The 23rd chapter of that Confession contains the following clause: “The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven, yet he hath the authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the faith of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline be prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed; for the better effecting whereof he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.”

What made the American Reformed thought different was that it adopted an entirely new conclusion. It, at long last, gloriously shook off the weight of the Constantine infection.

The American Reformed dissented from the traditional Reformed view, bravely. As Hodge states frankly:

When this Confession was adopted by our church in 1729, this clause was excepted, or adopted only in a qualified manner; and when our present constitution was adopted in 1789, it and the corresponding passages in the Larger Catechism were omitted.

Instead, the American Reformed tradition cast off the confusion of church and state, which stemmed from a confusion between the eternal and temporal kingdoms. And as Hodge writes:

[the attempt to confuse church and state] has always been injurious to religion and inimical to the rights of conscience, we have reason to rejoice in the recently discovered truth that the church is independent of the state, and that the state best promotes her interests by letting her alone.

As the history of Reformed thought has evolved and been improved upon, so we should continue with this spirit of critical thinking and not taking every doctrine of the past as the final arbiter of truth and falsehood.

The Reformed Libertarianism of this site embraces a Reformed theology that does not always agree with Calvin and Beza and Rutherford. And there is no reason to hide this. The most distinguishable and obvious aspect of this site is our political theory; and it is in this area that the historically Reformed thinkers of ages past would most obviously disagree with us.

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