R. Scott Clark’s knee-jerk appeal to Romans 13

Dr. R. Scott Clark is a Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California and a minister in the URCNA. However, to those on the internet, Clark is primarily a polemicist. On Twitter, his blog, and his podcast, he speaks out against actual and perceived departures from the Reformed tradition including the Federal Vision, antipaedobaptism, hymn singing, theonomy, and more. Clark has gained quite a following online due to his strong rhetoric and his attempt to summarize and simplify various controversial matters.

Some of these issues, such as the Federal Vision and the justification controversy, are very important issues that Dr. Clark sometimes has very helpful comments on. I’m very thankful for that. However, time and time again, Clark’s comments are simplistic and often just uninformed. His commentary on “republication,” for example, is quite problematic – so much so that Robert B. Strimple, his own professor from seminary and now President emeritus & Professor emeritus of Systematic Theology of WSC had to write a memo to the faculty of WSC rebuking Clark’s uninformed blog rhetoric and misunderstanding of the WCF on this point.

Recently, Clark wrote Romans 13 is God’s Word And ‘Abolish the Police’ Is Not in response to some reformed Christian “social justice warriors” who have apparently said that we should “abolish the police” (he provides no link). Clark’s response is a very simplistic appeal to Romans 13. He argues that “such sentiment is flatly contrary to the Word of God and certainly as contrary to the Reformed confession of the Scriptures… To say ‘abolish the police’ is to contradict the explicit teaching of the Apostle Paul.”

Regretfully, this is yet another instance of Clark vastly over-stating his case and ignoring the reformed tradition where it disagrees with him.

Abolish the Police?

More recently, overt resistance to Romans 13 seems to be coming from what has come to be called the “social justice movement” among left-leaning evangelicals one of whom recently declared on social media, “abolish the police.”

To be clear, I do not intend to defend the particular views of the social justice movement. I have a lot of problems with it (see the RL podcast on SJ). I do not know what specific comment Clark is referring to. I have not read it and I cannot find it, so I must surmise what was meant. Do they mean that we should abolish law and order? Abolish defense of the people and the administration of justice against criminals? I really don’t think so. Rather, they are claiming (whether one agrees with them or not) that law and order has been abolished by an abusive police force. Their claim is that in the current system, the police have become tyrants, and therefore they should be abolished and replaced with a different system in order to restore law and order (I am not intending to endorse their proposed system here). Thus it seems the actual question Clark has to address is whether or not resistance to tyrants is biblical (as well as whether or not resistance to tyrants is contrary to “the Reformed confession.”)

He seems to sort of implicitly recognize this as he alludes to whether or not the American Revolution (“a violent rebellion against arguably unjust civil authorities”) was biblical and reformed, but then he ends by claiming that’s actually entirely irrelevant. “Arguably the delegated assembly in the Continental Congress had authority to resist Great Britain but however one comes out on that difficult question, the clear teaching of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 remain and “abolish the police” is entirely inconsistent with it.”

This is just unclear thinking on Clark’s part. If “abolish the police” is dealing with the question of tyranny, then the “difficult question” of the American Revolution is directly relevant. Clark can’t side-skirt the issue and say “Yeah, that’s a tough one, but it’s totally different from abolishing the police.” It’s the same issue. Americans “abolished the king” for being unjust and replaced him with a different system. Some today want to “abolish the police” for being unjust and replace them with a different system.

Resist Tyranny?

So again, the question is whether or not Romans 13 forbids resistance to tyrants. And on that question, the reformed tradition has said “No, it does not.” R. Scott Clark’s friend Kim Riddlebarger correctly notes “Paul is not dealing with the question of what a Christian should do if/when the state (or its ruler) becomes a tyrant.” Clark’s post features a picture of a sword symbolizing the civil ruler’s divine authority. Where does the magistrate get his sword? Does he obtain it by conquering a land? Is he born with it? Does it fall out of the sky directly into his hand as a divine anointing? Does a mysterious Lady in the Lake give it to him? The reformed have said that rulers obtain the sword through the consent of the people. Rutherford explained

I conceive it to be evident that royal dignity is not immediately, and without the intervention of the people’s consent, given by God to any one person, and that conquest and violence is no just title to a crown… Politicians agree to this as an undeniable truth, that as domestic society is natural, being grounded upon nature’s instinct, so politic society is voluntary, being grounded on the consent of men; and so politic society is natural, in radice, in the root, and voluntary and free, in modo, in the manner of their union; and the Scripture cleareth to us, that a king is made by the free consent of the people, (Deut xvii. 15) and so not by nature.

Beza said “[T]he authority of all magistrates, however supreme and powerful they are, is dependent upon the public authority of those who have raised them to this degree of dignity, and not contrariwise.” And this consent was conditional. Again, Beza

[L]et those who so far exalt the authority of kings and supreme rulers as to dare maintain that they have no other Judge but God alone to whom they are held bound to render account of their deeds, furnish proof that there has been any nation anywhere which has consciously and without intimidation or compulsion of some kind subjected itself to the arbitrary rule of some supreme ruler without the express or tacit addition of the proviso that it be justly and fairly ruled and guided by him.

That is why Calvin said lesser magistrates have a duty to resist tyrants who have broken their contract with the people and become tyrants (4.20.11). Calvin and Beza argued that private persons may not resist, but other reformed theologians pointed out that private persons cannot be bound to a contract that has been violated by a tyrant, and thus they too may resist. Rutherford: “There be no mutual contract made upon certain conditions, but if the conditions be not fulfilled, the party injured is loosed from the contract… A tyrant, without a title, may be resisted by any private man. Quia licet vim vi re-pellere, because we may repel violence by violence; yea, he may be killed.” (For more on this point, see here and here).

This was the basis for the reformed revolution in Scotland and, subsequently, the Solemn League and Covenant between Scotland and England resulting in the Westminster Confession. The immediate context of the Westminster Confession was resistance to tyranny. Writing during the time of the Assembly, Samuel Rutherford’s “Lex, Rex” provides perhaps the most robust treatment of the question of resistance from a reformed pen. He demonstrates that the law is above the king and that the king’s authority only extends insofar as he is himself in submission to the law. As I have demonstrated in a previous post, resistance to tyranny, even by private persons, is completely consistent with the Westminster Confession. So much so that when the tables turned, Scottish Presbyterian works on political theology were banned and they became enemies of the state. That is why the American Revolution was known as the “Presbyterian Rebellion” (see Gardiner and Boettner too). In his dissertation, E. Calvin Beisner demonstrates the connection between reformed political theory and the Declaration of Independence.

So today’s question regarding the police comes down to disagreement over whether or not they have become tyrannical. That is not an issue I am going to address in this post. (It’s a discussion worth having, but it’s not the discussion we’re having right now.) If they have, then image bearers have a right to “abolish the police.” Whether or not that is prudent and whether or not Christians should exercise that right (it may be better for the sake of the kingdom of heaven to patiently suffer), is another question. Rather than a biblical rebuke, Clark’s post simply winds up being a demonstration of the incompleteness of his own political theory and his inadequate exegesis.

Most modern reformed Christians have not thought deeply on this issue. They have not read anything beyond Romans 13, 1 Peter 2 and Book 4 Chapter 20 of Calvin’s Institutes. Our perspective has largely been shaped by our education in government schools (which does not teach us to think critically about political theory), not by wrestling with the whole counsel of Scripture. And we have been content living in a prosperous America where we haven’t had to deal, in a practical manner, with these questions like previous generations of reformed had to. But that time is coming to an end and we will once again be forced to think more rigorously. Knee-jerk responses will not suffice.

Romans 13?

So resisting tyranny is consistent with the Reformed confession of Scripture, but is it consistent with Scripture? In Romans 13, Paul is not answering the question “May I disobey/resist a civil authority?” As Clark himself admits, Christians may disobey and resist civil authority. Pointing to Acts 5:29, Clark notes “There are exceptions of course” to our obedience. He says Paul “knew full well that Rome had a pagan religious orthodoxy and that Christians would suffer under it, as he did and as other believers would… He knew they would be unjustly arrested, tortured, and, in some cases crucified (as Peter was) and burned to death as were Christians in the mid-60s AD in Rome.”

But stop and consider the implications for our interpretation of Romans 13 (as Rutherford did). Paul says Christians have no reason to fear civil authority if they do what is good. Did the martyrs Clark refers to fear the civil authority when they did what is good? If so, then Paul’s words simply do not apply to that situation. Clark said “For Paul, anyone who resists civil authority is resisting the institution of God.” When Christians refuse to denounce Christ at the command of the Emperor, are they opposing the ordinance of God? If they are not, then there are two logical possibilities:

1) The Emperor is not an authority established by God.
2) The Emperor’s divine authority is limited and does not extend to everything he may command.

Clark argues “Nero is still God’s minister[.]” If that is the case, then Romans 13 must be teaching that Nero’s divine authority is limited and does not extend to everything he may command – that is, it is conditional. Paul is not stating that Christians must obey everything that the Emperor commands. Rather, he is stating that Christians must obey the Emperor’s command when it is within the limits of his divine authority. Rutherford said “It is evident from Rom. xiii. that all subjection and obedience to higher powers commanded there, is subjection to the power and office of the magistrate in abstracto, or, which is all one, to the person using the power lawfully, and that no subjection is due by that text, or any word of God, to the abused and tyrannical power of the king.” Riddlebarger agrees: “[T]he question as to whether and when the state forfeits such authority is not answered here. As one writer [T. W. Manson] puts it, what Paul does say is ‘resistance to legitimate authority legitimately exercised is wrong.'”

The ruler’s divine authority is to reward the good and punish the evildoer with the sword. That is, his divine authority is to administer justice. Paul was answering the legitimacy question “Does a Pagan Emperor possess any legitimate authority over a Christian?” To which he replied “Yes, a Pagan unbeliever possesses God-given authority over the believer insofar as he correctly administers justice.” But, when he rewards the evildoer and punishes the good, he possesses no divine authority and therefore may be resisted. Again, Rutherford “[K]ings commanding unjust things, and killing the innocent, in these acts, are but men, and sinful men; and the power by which they do these acts, a sinful and an usurped power, and so far they are not powers ordained of God” (see Rutherford on Romans 13 and the Distinction Between Person and Office). Again, Riddlebarger

[W]e do find an important clue here as to legitimate civil disobedience–what do we do when the state willfully punishes those who behave themselves and rewards those who don’t? Does such a government have God’s authority? The answer is “no!” The state has authority when it serves to punish evil doers and provides for the public welfare. It loses its authority when it fails to do so, and must be replaced by a government which will do as God commands.

I assume this is what is meant by “abolish the police.” One may or may not agree with their assessment of our particular situation in 2017, but Romans 13 cannot arbitrate that disagreement. Romans 13 does not tell you who was guilty and who was innocent in any particular incident. Those calling to “abolish the police” are simply arguing that we who have armed the police should now disarm them. It is not inconsistent with Romans 13, as the reformed have said and practiced. “[T]he law of nature teacheth,— if I give my sword to my fellow to defend me from the murderer, if he shall fall to and murder me with my own sword, I may (if I have strength) take my sword from him.” (Rutherford)

Romans 13 is God’s Word, and R. Scott Clark’s post is not. Let’s dig deeper into Scripture on these issues.

Further Reading:

  1. Rutherford’s “Lex, Rex” – Summary
  2. Rutherford on Romans 13 and the Logic of Resistance
  3. “All Things Lawful” (LBCF 24.3/WCF 23.4)
  4. Romans 13 – Where is the Exception?
  5. Colonial Baptists on Rulers by Contract and Religious Taxation as Theft
  6. Kuyper on the Consent Theory of Government
  7. De jure magistratum (On the Rights of Magistrates) – Beza
  8. George R. Knight on Romans 13
  9. Riddlebarger on the Old Covenant Context of Romans 13
  10. Rutherford on Romans 13 and the Distinction Between Person and Office
  11. Ecclesiastes 8:2
  12. David Dykstra on Church & State (and Isaac Backus on Romans 13)
  13. American Vision (Theonomy) response to Clark’s post: Theonomy and Romans 13: a brief response to R. Scott Clark
  14. American Vision: Should we abolish law enforcement? (I don’t agree with every statement, but overall it is helpful)

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