The Reformation and the Calvinist roots of “Social Contract Theory” and the Founding of America

The Protestant Reformation and its tremendous influence on the political order of today barely gets mentioned by most contemporary (secular) and anti-christian historians.  The very related ideas like; limited Government, the Rule of Law, and the Social Contract Theory all have their origins and developed from the Reformation and more specifically from Calvinism. Instead, contemporary historians (often purposely) omit the influence of the Reformation and point to men like  Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan, 1651), John Locke (Two Treatises of Government, 1689) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau ( The Social Contract, 1762) as the architects of the modern political order whom they consider much more friendly to their bias worldview.
A  friend on facebook posted that he was reading John Locke ‘s Two Treatises of Government. I mentioned Locke  inherited the ideas of “social contract theory” from men like Samuel Rutherford (Lex, Rex, 1644) (whose book Lex Rex by the way means the “Law is King” as opposed to Rex Lex the “King is the Law”).
What many fail to realize is Locke’s “social contract theory” theory was really nothing new at the time. Social contract theory as well as the closely related resistance theology are direct ideological decedents of the Reformation and specifically of Calvinism.  What many say Locke did in order to make it more palatable to an ever increasing enlightenment skepticism was to remove the biblical aspects of it (unlike Rutherford). Jean Jacques Rousseau did the same.
What is often overlooked is that men like Rutherford, Hobbes, Locke, and later Rousseau picked up their ideas on the  “social contract theory” from early Calvinists thinkers like, George Buchanan (A Dialogue Concerning the Rights of the Crown in Scotland, 1579) , John Ponet (A short treatise of political power, 1556), Christopher Goodman (How Superior Powers Ought to Be Obeyed by Their Subjects, 1558) and Theodore Beza (The Right of Magistrates Over Their Subjects, 1572) Many of these were  contemporaries of the great Scottish Calvinist reformer  John Knox who wrote his own book titled The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, 1556 which argued for “limits” on the authority of the then queen Mary (Mary Queen of Scots).

Arguments for “limits” on the authority, and the rule of law (as opposed to the rule of tyrannical men) developed into a biblically based type of “resistance theology” which was even seen in translations of the Bible at the time. For example  King James I of England who was a ardent believer in the “divine right of kings” had the Authorized King James Version, 1611 commissioned because the very popular Geneva Bible, 1560 (created with the involvement of Knox and Calvin) had marginal notes that were considered subversive  to his authority. For example in Exodus 1:19 where the Hebrew midwives disobey the Pharaoh by refusing to kill male Hebrew children states; “Their disobedience in this was lawful, but their deception is evil”  in Exodus 1:22 when Pharaoh gives the decree, the notes say “When tyrants cannot prevail by deceit, they burst into open rage”.

Very popular books at the time like the French Calvinist (Huguenot) tract (Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, 1579) (translated A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants) and Politica 1603 by the Dutch Calvinist Johannes Althusius espoused this same biblical resistance theology. Ultimately, ideologically you can trace this theology back to the influence of John Calvin‘ the theological giant of the Reformation, in his “Institutes of the Christian Religion 1536 where you have the ideological seeds for it, see  Institutes see Book 4: Chapter 20: Section 31 & 32.

Calvinist thinkers developed social contract theory arguing that the ultimate locus of authority (and all law) was derived from God, who then grants and delegates His authority to the people, who in turn delegate authority to the King to execute true justice in the land as defined by God for the people (the King is an executor) .  If the King turned this around believed and behaved as if the final authority resided in him, turned on the people and God, became a tyrant, the people had the right “under God” to resist his tyrannical authority when he decreed laws that were contrary to God and His revealed will found in in the scripture. This “resistance theology” was derived directly from the scriptures especially from Romans 13 and the Old Testament which gave legitimacy to the people to oppose tyrannical authority and abuses that were so common in that era.

The very related ideas of Social contract theory, resistance theology, the rule of law, and limited government, all come to a full head in 17th century England when King Charles I lost his head in the Cromwellian era after the English civil war . Also, in the American revolutionary era resistance theology was alive and well, you can see it in the clergy’s sermons of the day found here – Also as a side; according to US President John Adams, John Ponet’s work (mentioned above) “A short treatise of political power” contained “all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterward dilated on by Sidney and Locke

You see resistance theology in the thinking of Thomas Jefferson when he wrote the American Declaration of Independence:

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…                                                                                                                                   But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security”

Thomas Jefferson then goes into a long laundry list of abuses of King George…

Here is the first US seal that Jefferson proposed (notice the caption “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God”).

Anyway, for a better explanation on the Reformation’s role in the development of the social contract theory see this article:

As a side note Calvinistic resistance theology is spreading like wildfire in China today, here is a link to an article which says:

So when the Chinese house churches first emerged from the rubble of the Cultural Revolution in the 80s and 90s “They began to search what theology will support and inform [them]. They read Luther and said, ‘not him’. So they read Calvin, and they said ‘him, because he has a theology of resistance.’ Luther can’t teach them or inform them how to deal with a government that is opposition.”


Can A Dead Man Resurrect Himself?

I have been having a discussion with my friend Silas on his blog about Calvinism and am hoping that he will discover from this video that Calvinism is perfectly “logical”and not “inconsistent with human reason”…

You can see our discussion here and here and here

Thoughts on “Theonomy” and “The Unity of Theonomy and Natural Law”

Lately I have been doing a lot of reading on Natural Law and Theonomy, I would like to share some thoughts.

In this post I will not be engaging with individual “opponents” of Theonomy but with the basic problem I have with accepting any other position. There is an admitted “theological grid” by which I view problems inherent in the alternatives. The individual particulars or the complete theological grid that lead me to my current position would have to be replaced with something else in order for me to move to any other view.

For starters, I want to make sure my definitions of Theonomy and Natural Law are understood correctly, here are my definitions:

Theonomy: God’s special or “supernatural revelation” His law-word, the sacred inspired scriptures (the entire Bible not just the Pentateuch) from Genesis to Revelation which is the only “objective standard” by which justice, law, and ethics, can truly be measured.

Natural Law: God’s “natural revelation” that he has placed in the heart of all men (Romans 1:18-32, 2:14-16) which, because of sin, is too often suppressed by the sinful hearts of men, and is very often (not always) open to “subjective error“ in the areas of justice, law, and ethics.

Also, I do not pretend to be “unbiased” on this issue, I am an unapologetic theonomist. At this point I have not been convinced of any other position. This is partially because, in a post-modern world, I feel I have no where else to go. For me the word of God is an objective rock, in a sea of postmodern subjectivity. This really, is at the heart of why I hold so tenaciously to Theonomy. In my mind, justice, law, and ethics, need an objective home where I can place my confidence; a way I can measure true truth, from false truth. “Natural Law” all by itself is way too “subjective” for me.

All that being said, I want to press forward on the subject:

Thoughts on the Doctrines that Lead to Theonomy

It appears to me that Theonomy in the realm of “civil law and ethics” is a natural development of certain Reformation core doctrines; I am not sure you can get to the “thenomic position” without holding to these particular (what I believe are biblical) doctrines :

The Calvinistic Theocentric view of the world an life
The Calvinistic stress of continuity between the OT and NT
The Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura
The Reformed doctrine of the Sufficiency of Scripture And the Kuyperian doctrine “Jesus is Lord over all creation“ ( Jesus’ Lordship extends throughout every area and aspect of life, it is not simply restricted to the “sphere of church” or to “individual private piety“)

An aside, I believe Kuyperianism is partly just the natural development of the Reformation doctrine of “the priesthood of believers” with its stress of the sacredness or dignity of all work or callings as opposed to the medieval emphasis of the “superiority of spiritual callings.” This is why I would call Kuyperianism a “Reformation” doctrine. I believe Kuyperianism is a child of the Reformation (that is why it’s often called Neo-Calvinism)

I believe these core doctrines taken to their logical conclusions lead ultimately to the thenomic position, take any of these doctrines out and Theonomy falls.

That said, what I have noticed all to often in reading the opponents of Theonomy, from both Reformed and Non-Reformed, Liberal and Conservative Christians alike, is that there always seems to be a subtle attack on one or more of these Reformation core doctrines that I have mentioned (or these doctrines are so qualified to death, you can barely understand the arguments). As I alluded to in my opening statement, I would have to be convinced from scripture that one or more of these doctrines does not apply to the “civil ethical realm“.

Compartmentalization of the “Sacred” and “Secular”

Another way I have noticed that opponents deal with Theonomy is to embrace some form of compartmentalization of the “sacred” and “secular“. They dichotomize one or more of these doctrines into “two realms“ or “two kingdoms” as it is called; one being sacred or having Biblical ethics which apply to the Kingdom of God and the other being secular with Natural Law ethics that apply to the Kingdom of Man.

These folks who reject Theonomy in the “civil ethical realm“ seem to almost always embrace some type or form of dualism, resulting in the dichotomizing of these above mentioned doctrines, thus resulting in dichotomizing the application of Christian ethics or law into two realms, the “sacred” and the “secular“.

I have real problems accepting these compartmentalizations, first, because there is unity between Natural Law and Theonomy (which I will get to shortly) and secondly, because I accept (because I believe the scripture teaches) the Kuyperian doctrine of “Jesus is Lord over all“ not just the sphere of the Church. “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”. (Phil 2:10-11). “The earth is the LORD‘s, and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).

“Marcionism” or “Dispensationalism”

Other opponents of Theonomy, are prone to essentially compartmentalize or dichotomize the OT and NT. They create radical discontinuities between the two covenants, there is a heavy stress on the “discontinuity” between the OT and NT. These folks seem to embrace either a subtle form of “Marcionism” and or “Dispensationalism,” which makes the God of the Bible schizophrenic and or radically segregates His people into two different people of God.

Because I strongly believe in the doctrine of the immutability of God which teaches that He does not change (nor does He change His ethics), “For I am the Lord, I change not” (Mal 3:6) I cannot accept any kind moral schizophrenia in God. Secondly, because the scripture clearly teaches the NT – OT unity of the people of God: “Only those who have the faith of Abraham are children of Abraham” (Gal 3:6-9) I cannot accept any form of doctrine that radically dichotomizes the people of God or creates a radical discontinuity of the OT and NT.

The Unity of Natural Law and Theonomy

Also, what I have noticed, is all to often in the “civil ethical realm,“ Natural Law and Theonomy are almost always pitted against each other. Natural Law always seems to be offered as the “alternative” solution to Theonomy. These opponents create a kind of division between the two. In my mind this creates two different “law” standards, one in “natural law” and another in “revealed or biblical law” (this also is a big problem I have with the “two Kingdom theory” as opposed to “sphere sovereignty” which I accept). This tension or dichotomy suggests some type of ethical “double standard” or “ethical schizophrenia” when it comes to the “justice, law, and ethics” of God.

In the past, Western jurisprudence (in countries where the Reformation had the biggest influence) regularly recognized the relationship and unity between Natural Law and Theonomy (Theonomy as I have defined it)

Consider Blackstone and Locke who were cited frequently (along with the Bible) by America’s Founding Fathers:

“Man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his Creator, for he is entirely a dependent being. And consequently, as man depends absolutely upon his Maker for everything, it is necessary that he should, in all points, conform to his Maker’s will. This will of his Maker is called the law of nature.

This law of nature, being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original. The doctrines thus delivered we call the revealed or divine law, and they are to be found only in the holy scriptures. These precepts, when revealed, are found upon comparison to be really a part of the original law of nature, as they tend in all their consequences to man’s felicity.

Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered to contradict these.”

Commentaries on the Laws of England – Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780)

“The Law of Nature stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others. The rules that they make for other men’s actions must . . . be conformable to the Law of Nature, i.e., to the will of God.

Human Laws must be made according to the general laws of Nature, and without contradiction to any positive law of Scripture, otherwise they are ill made.”

Two Treatises on Government – John Locke (1632-1704)

Consider also, the 17th century English struggle between the theology of the “Divine Right of Kings” and the theology found in Lex Rex (Samuel Rutherford) “the Law is King“. These arguments were grounded in a long tradition of both English Common Law and Scripture (Theonomy).

All this begs the question in my mind, does God have two different “standards” of justice, law, or ethics? If God judges the nations (“Oh, let the nations be glad and sing for joy! For You shall judge the people righteously, And govern the nations on earth” Psalm 67:4), are there different standards that politicians and judges use? Different “standards of justice” than His own? As Bahnsen has said:

“Others have gone on to maintain that natural revelation (natural law) will be the standard of judgment. However, this either amounts to preferring a sin-obscured edition of the same law of God or to denying the unity of natural and special revelation (and to be willing to pit one against the other) Not only this, but in fact, natural revelation is suppressed in unrighteousness by the sinner, this should dissuade us from thinking that it can be the recognized, functional measure of his ethical obligation.” (Theonomy in Christain Ethics p. 387)

If there is unity between Natural Law and Theonomy, why do we oppose Theonomy, and why as Bahnsen puts it, do we prefer a “sin-obscured edition” of the same law of God?

Why do we (especially Calvinists) underestimate mans nature and his ability to suppress the truth?

Again, in the civil ethical realm, why do we place so much confidence in Natural Law if wicked men suppress “natural truth” in unrighteousness? Why choose the inferior natural revelation over “special” or “supernatural revelation“? I ask myself, could it be, because of contemporary cultural pressures? Could it possibly be, that we have elevated Natural Law over Theonomy because we are afraid or ashamed at what the Bible teaches? Hopefully this is not the reason, but we must be willing to ask ourselves, is it because we are cowards?

I believe the scripture clearly teaches one standard of righteousness and judgment for all men: He (God) “has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained” (Acts 17:31). And secondly, if Jesus Christ is “the ruler over the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5) does He have different standards for different rulers? (believing rulers or unbelieving rulers) Does He give these rulers different standards (Natural Law) than those ultimately found fully manifested in Holy Writ, by which these rulers are to govern and adjudicate justice by?

I say no, a thousand times no, God does not have, two different standards of justice, law, and ethics.

As a side thought (I am open to suggestion), I anticipate some will agree on the unity of Natural Law and Theonomy, and say yes, the same “standard” for rulers, but “quantitatively different”. They possibly might argue that Natural Law has quantitatively less. My question is then, by what standard or criteria do you quantitatively measure? How do you determine what applies and what does not? How do you draw the line between Natural Law and fully revealed Biblical Law (Theonomy)?

Natural Law as a Guide is Not Sufficient Enough

To look to Natural Law as a guide for justice, law, and ethics, seeing the full implications of how badly men will and have, suppressed the truth in unrighteousness. In light of the nature of man and how in the pre-flood world (in the days before “special” revelation, except to Noah), men had degenerated so far and become so corrupt that God said that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5) Realizing that the anthropological nature of man hasn’t changed and that men are prone to degenerate in the same way today. In this light, because of the nature of man, we have to admit that Natural Law as a guide for justice, law, and ethics is not sufficient enough.

Natural Law as a guide for the conscience, in a culture that is in the final stages of post Christianity is not sufficient. This is especially the case in a post-modern culture where western civilization’s collective conscience has been, systematically (through education) and purposely (through legislation) been seared of its Christian inheritance. We must realize that our culture as a whole has been ethically re-oriented, it has been stripped of its Christian moral conscience collectively. Natural Law is not sufficient in a culture where consciences are “manipulated” by modern ideology such as economic and social egalitarianism, and a hundred other isms, where (non-biblical) guilt manipulation is rampant.

Why Theonomy?

In this kind of a culture, because of the depravity of man, we need the objective truth of God’s law-word that sets people and nations free. We need Theonomy as a guide for justice, law, and ethics more than ever. We need the Law of God as an objective standard that informs and teaches the conscience.

More than ever, Western civilization needs (starting in the church, then working its way into every area of culture) a Josiahian revival -a rediscovery of the lost Law of God. We need this revival both in the Church and out. We need modern day prophets who thunder the Law of the Living God to a confused and rebellious culture.

I also believe we need Theonomy to teach and instruct the Politician and the Judge what true “objective” justice, law, and ethics are according to the Living God. We need the “dust broom” of Theonomy to “sweep up” the “suppressed conscience” of Natural Law (that law that God has placed in the hearts of men) to bring them to repentance and to a true understanding of what real justice is which is defied by God.

I might be a little simplistic, but I cannot for the life of me figure out how the missionaries down through the ages taught sexually immoral pagans, cannibals and the like, how to live simply by teaching “Natural Law”? These pagans and their rulers had to be instructed by the law-word of God (Theonomy).

If we reject Theonomy, how pray tell, will Natural Law deal with the increasing modern paganism and sexually immoral climate of today’s current culture, given that the increasing totalitarian state sanctions, teaches, and even encourages (sometimes by persecution of those who deviate) these new modern ethics? How will Natural Law address issues like these:

(keep in mind that modern man’s “conscience” is increasingly being completely reprogrammed to accept modern “values“)

The “Gay” Agenda

Polygamy has Arrived: Britain and Canada Pay Welfare Benefits to Polygamist Immigrants

Increase Sentences for Gay “Hate Crimes”: Scottish Parliament

8-year-old boy returning to class as girl / Teachers making accommodations, preparing to counsel other students

Mock weddings, drag shows and workshops on transsexuality among events planned for students as young as 14 in same-sex marriage campaign

Judge: Teaching How to Use Condom and that Homosexuality is Inborn to 8th and 10th Graders is OK

“China-Lite” : Two-Child Policy Bills Proposed in Philippines Include Criminal Sanctions

UK: Tribunal fines Church England £47,000 for refusing to hire homosexual

34-Year Old Italian Man Gets Slap on the Wrist for Sex with 13-Year Old

Christian Photographer Hauled before Commission for Refusing Same-Sex Job

Court: No Opt-out of Homosexual Indoctrination in Class for Massachusetts Parents

New York Court Rules State Must Validate Canadian Homosexual “Marriages”

B.C. Teacher Kempling May Lose Teaching License for Defending Christian Beliefs

Licensing of Parents

And all this is just the beginning, imagine what other horrors lurk further down the road of Western post-Christianity?

I believe Francis Schaeffer summed it all up in ”How Should We Then Live?”. He points to a painting by Paul Robert called Justice Lifts the Nations, it is on the stairway in the old Supreme Court Building in Lausanne where the judges had to pass each time before going to try a case.


Schaeffer says: “Robert wanted to remind them that the place which the Reformation gave to the Bible provided a basis not only for morals but for law. Robert pictured many types of legal cases in the foreground and the judges in their black robes standing behind the judges bench.

The problem is neatly posed: How shall the judges judge? On what basis shall they proceed so that their judgment will not be arbitrary?

Above them Robert painted Justice standing unblindfolded, with her sword pointed not vertically upward (to Natural Law) but downward toward a book, and on the book is written The Law of God (Theonomy). Down in the foreground of the large mural the artist depicts many sorts of litigation the wife against the husband, the architect against the builder, and so on.

How are the judges going to judge between them? This is the way we judge in a Reformation country, says Paul Robert. He has portrayed Justice pointing with her sword to a book upon which are the words, The Law of God.

For Reformation man there was a basis for law. Modern man has not only thrown away Christian theology; he has thrown away the possibility of what our forefathers had as a basis for morality and law.”

The problem today is the same as in the Garden, modern Adam’s choice is, as Cornelius Van Til said, between Theonomy or Autonomy.

And given that, for me, the choice is clear, it’s Theonomy or Chaos…