February 17, 2016

Reformed Libertarianism and Anabaptists

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

Over at the Reformed Libertarian Facebook group, there was a question asked regarding the similarity —or differences— between so-called “Reformed Libertarianism” and the early Anabaptist movement. The question was posted as follows:

How would you respond to the charge that the “Reformed Libertarianism” of this page is less Reformed and more like “Anabaptist Libertarianism” in its politics (realizing that there is a bit of a variety among the admins and regular commenters on the anarchist continuum)?

The question came to mind as I read this comment on the historic background of the Belgic Confession this morning: “Its immediate purpose was to demonstrate that the Reformed Christians were not trying to overthrow Philip and his government, as were some radical groups among the Anabaptists. Among the teachings of some Anabaptists was the belief that all earthly rulers were illegitimate and that only Jesus Christ was King.” 

– Daniel Hyde, “Welcome to a Reformed Church” p. 14.

I think this is a great question, and something that has come up in my mind on occasion. Answering it allows me to elaborate on several things of important detail regarding our understanding of the state.

Firstly, I freely admit that, historically speaking, our own political theory is not that of the Magisterial Reformation; and neither is it Calvin’s. If that per se is the definition of “Reformed,” then our political theory is not “Reformed.” However, in saying this, the resulting ramifications are to distance the entire American “Old Princeton” theological school and some earlier Congregationalist and Savoy Declaration theologians from the definition of Reformed in their (broadly speaking) theory of a just government. While these two traditions of Reformed thought did not have a tremendous amount to say about what we would consider “political theory” per se, they did have a perspective that was entirely unique in comparison to the previous generations of Reformed theologians. In short, political ramifications of Reformed theology have evolved since Calvin.

However, I also am of the opinion (and he can correct me if I am wrong), that the questioner would disagree with the more theocratic political theory of the early reformers as well. In such a case, he too would be less Reformed. And in fact, there are many, especially of the theocratic “Covenanter” persuasion that would consider the Congregationalists and American Presbyterians as less than Reformed. So then, definitions are important.

The working definition of Reformed at this site and the RL Facebook group, however, is an adherent of “one or more of the Reformed Confessions, including the Westminster Confession, 1689 London Baptist Confession, the Savoy Declaration, and others.”

So then, with this as our background, I would approach the actual question as follows.

The question, being prompted by the quotation, is trying to discover where Reformed Libertarians stand in light of the Anabaptist position that 1: the present ruler should be overthrown and 2: that earthly rulers were illegitimate.

The Reformed Libertarian view takes the Rothbardian position, which stands opposed to the Anabaptist “revolutionary” position, in that the means toward challenging the authoritarian state is in peaceful dissent, “lesser magistrate” secessionism, and, as a last resort, optional self-defense.  In other words, we aren’t trying to topple Obama, the Reformed thinkers of the cited time were right not to try to topple Philip, and the Roman Christians in Romans 13 weren’t to topple Caesar. In fact, in my own personal opinion, the entire argument of Romans 13 has less to do with the positive establishment of a state (properly defined) and more to do with the general Christian response to the de facto ruler as not drawing unnecessary attention to themselves. Sort of like how a homeschooling group that teaches… certain theological and economic ideas would be wise to just keep to themselves and not attract the ever-interventionist desires of the Federal Government. As for the secessionary doctrine of the “lesser magistrate,” one can’t get more traditionally Reformed than that!

But I think the second aspect of the quotation requires more nuance. The Reformed Libertarian believes that there is a distinction between the role of governance, which is legitimate, and the agency that fulfills this social role, which may or may not be legitimate. The Anabaptists had no such distinction and believed that all hierarchies of social authority were illegitimate. The Reformed Libertarian believes that the coercive power required to enforce “law and order” is appropriate, so long as the “law and order” in question is just. This is because the role of governance must be present in order to respond in a prosecutorial manner to actual crimes. The Anabaptists, it seems, did not give legitimacy to this role. The Reformed Libertarian believes in a social order organized around the principle of private property. The well-known Anabaptist dismissal of private property (this Hutterite quote is a nice summary of their position: “private property is the enemy of love!” — See Rothbard for more on the Communist Anabaptists) categorically eliminates the possibility for the role of governance structure in their ideal society.

Lastly, the Reformed Libertarian, in recognition of the need for a certain agency to fulfill the role criminal prosecutor and arbitrator, advocates that this agency, whether it be delivered on the free market a la Rothbard or more along the lines of community judges a la Hoppe or some other structure, be systematically consistent with the very set of property norms and ethical rules that it claims to be confronting. This means that an agency which systematically undermines the right to be secure in one’s person and property, in order to allegedly enforce this right, is a contradiction in terms.

In summary, the Reformed Libertarian continues the progress made from the Magisterial Reformation (less Magistrate doctrine) to the Congregationalists (who denied the Church power over the state, and vice versa) to the American Particular Baptists (who plead with Jefferson for religious freedom and promoted toleration and private property rights). In light of the theoretically rigorous historical developments along this path, the Reformed Libertarian wants to push all things to their logical and necessary conclusions. In that sense then, Reformed Libertarians have little to do with the Anabaptists at all. And we continue to criticize their socialism and their confusion of the spiritual kingdom of heaven with earthly, physical efforts toward Utopia (as most “Christian socialists” do).

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com