Thursday, July 17, 2008

Response to Jack: The Necessity of Historical Generalization

I am grateful for your response, my friend. I’m sure you appreciate the difficulty of handling such a complex subject as this. Thousands of volumes have been written on the subject, and if the Lord leaves us, tens of thousands remain to be written still. I plead your forbearance while I attempt a good faith effort (however limited by my lack of ability) to meet your demands for biblical arguments and concrete historical examples.

As for “high level generalizations”, Russ, it’s hard for me to understand why you don’t want me to state the theoretical presuppositions I’m working with. Historical facts abstracted from a historiographical approach are meaningless. Generalizations are not only inescapable but absolutely essential to the acquisition of knowledge. Otherwise, all that’s left is an undifferentiated mass of uncoordinated data.

Being perfectly willing to submit my presuppositions to analysis, I’m interested in hearing from you how they make sense—or not—of the broad sweep of historical events. Biblical grounds are also important because the divine interpretations of events have been revealed. Since we both recognize Scripture’s authority in these matters we will in time be able to discuss what can be validly inferred from revelation.

What I want from you, Russ, is the biblical rationale for why the ideal of self rule in personal affairs derogates from the ideal of a hierarchically ordered society. Also, why does the sin involved in Israel’s desire for a king take priority over the sanctification of kingship in Christ’s messianic office, a kingship, I emphasize, that is not reserved to Christ alone but shared with his people.


Constantine

What are you trying to say or imply, Russ, when you argue about the historical context for Constantine’s reign? It’s all very well to point out that Diocletian reorganized the empire and that Constantine didn’t forge a completely new order. I never said nor implied differently. What was new about Constantine’s reign was his reliance on the Christian God’s favor for the establishing of his office and the peace of his realm.

So, Constantine didn’t make Christianity the official religion of Rome. So what? Forty years after his death Theodosius did. What benefit can you gain by denying that Constantine accomplished much foundational to the establishment of Christianity in the empire, not to mention ignoring what he accomplished for the Church merely by calling the first ecumenical council?


Roman History

The facts of Roman History can, I believe, be best incorporated into a historical account that compares the relative stability under monarchical rule with the confusion that obtained under popular rule. Allow me to quote the great Robert Filmer to this effect:

A little to manifest the imperfection of popular government, let us but examine the most flourishing democracy that the world hath ever known — I mean that of Rome. First, for the durability: at the most it lasted but four hundred and eighty years; for so long it was from the expulsion of Tarquin to Julius Caesar, whereas both the Assyrian monarchy lasted without interruption at the least twelve hundred years, and the empire of the East continued one thousand four hundred and ninety-five years.

Secondly, For the order of it, during these four hundred and eighty years, there was not any one settled form of government in Rome; for after they had once lost the natural power of kings, they could not find upon what form of government to rest. Their fickleness is an evidence that they found things amiss in every change. At the first they chose two annual consuls instead of kings. Secondly, those did not please them long, but they must have tribunes of the people to defend their liberty. Thirdly, they leave tribunes and consuls, and choose them ten men to make them laws. Fourthly, they call for consuls and tribunes again, sometimes they choose dictators, which were temporary kings, and sometimes military tribunes, who had consular power. All these shiftings caused such notable alteration in the government, as it passeth historians to find out any perfect form of regimen in so much confusion; one while the Senate made laws, another while the people. The dissensions which were daily between the Nobles and the Commons bred those memorable seditions about usury, about marriages, and about magistracy. Also the Grecian, the Apulian, and the Drusian seditions filled the market places, the temples, and the Capitol itself, with blood of the citizens; the Social War was plainly civil; the wars of the slaves, and the other of the fencers; the civil wars of Marius and Sylla, of Cataline, of Cæsar, and Pompey the Triumvirate, of Augustus, Lepidus, and Antonius — all these shed an ocean of blood within Italy and the streets of Rome…

But you will say, yet the Roman empire grew all up under this kind of popular government, and the city became mistress of the world. It is not so; for Rome began her empire under kings, and did perfect it under emperors; it did only increase under that popularity. Her greatest exaltation was under Trajan, as her longest peace had been under Augustus. Even at those times when the Roman victories abroad did amaze the world, then the tragical slaughter of citizens at home deserved commiseration from their vanquished enemies. What though in that age of her popularity she bred many admired captains and commanders — each of which was able to lead an army, though many of them were but ill requited by the people — yet all of them were not able to support her in times of danger; but she was forced in her greatest troubles to create a dictator, who was a king for a time, thereby giving this honourable testimony of monarchy that the last refuge in perils of states is to fly to regal authority. And though Rome's popular estate for a while was miraculously upheld in glory by a greater prudence than her own, yet in a short time, after manifold alterations, she was ruined by her own hands: suis et ipsa Roma viribus mil; for the arms she had prepared to conquer other nations were turned upon herself, and civil contentions at last settled the government again into a monarchy.


(From Patriarcha, 2.11-12)

Please note, Russ, that this quotation from Filmer summarizes a response I would make to your argument that the empire was predicated on the republic's accomplishments, which is itself a generalization. On the contrary, I argue, the peace and longevity of her rule was obtained through the leadership of her emperors. If Rome had remained a republic she would have fallen prey to inward strife and foreign invasion during perilous times sooner rather than later.

What we have here is a contest between two theoretical systems. I regard royal sovereignty as a summum bonum. Alternatively, Russ, you offer popular sovereignty as the ideal. Fine. Let's compare our theories by examining first principles in light of Scripture. Along the way, we can indulge in some historical speculation and have fun while we're at it.

(To be continued…)

1 comment:

Jack said...

Fair enough. I would very much like to focus on the biblical argument rather than the philosophical / historical aspects of this question, fascinating as the latter can be.

My case for biblical government has already been published here and here. I don't think you ever responded to the specifically biblical points I raise, but if you did and I missed it, point me to the link and I will take it up from there. Note that the second link has other links to my thoughts on the issue. Both articles were reponses to our earlier debate, so you may want to scroll down in each post to where I discuss my positive case, but the first halves are also relevant.

Since I still have to respond to the second half of your post from last week, I will limit my comments here to answering your direct questions.

"...it’s hard for me to understand why you don’t want me to state the theoretical presuppositions I’m working with."

I have no objection to your stating general principles, just to stating only general principles. Some detail is needed to give the debate roots, otherwise we will merely talk past each other. My comments should not be read as "you shouldn't do this" but rather as "this doesn't answer my question." Moreover, I think some of the generalizations you make are unwarranted, given that there are lots of counter-examples. But it is difficult to critique a generalization when I don't know what specific evidence you consider as relevant.

"What I want from you, Russ, is the biblical rationale for why the ideal of self rule in personal affairs derogates from the ideal of a hierarchically ordered society. Also, why does the sin involved in Israel’s desire for a king take priority over the sanctification of kingship in Christ’s messianic office, a kingship, I emphasize, that is not reserved to Christ alone but shared with his people."

For the anser to the first sentence, see my links above. The second sentence addresses a point that has not come up before, but I am not quite sure I see what you mean. I do not hold that monarchy is intrinsically sinful but rather that it is punitive. When people cannot rule themselves, they are provided with a ruler. Christ did not therefore "sanctify" kingship, he only exemplified what he always had as God. The fact that he also now holds the office as man surely is more supporting of my position than yours, isn't it? Surely if it is "shared with his people" that does not imply a monarchy, though it may allow such when situations warrant. If kingship is attached to humanity then it ideally extends to all men. I see Christ as the fulfillment of Hosea's prophecy "O Israel, you are destroyed,
But your help is from Me.
I will be your King;
Where is any other,
That he may save you in all your cities?" (Hos 13:9)

"What are you trying to say or imply, Russ, when you argue about the historical context for Constantine’s reign?"

I didn't bring Constantine into the discussion. I focused on this because it was the only historical detail that you provided in support of your approval of Christian monarchy's pedigree. I did not offer this critique in the spirit of trying to deny Constantine's contribution to Christian political history, but only in rebuttal to your assertion that it exemplified "an old and venerable tradition". I thought my conclusion was fairly balanced "Does this [i.e. my commentary on Constantine] prove anything? Not really. But it does show that political history is much too complex to be easily summarized." To reiterate my point from above: I do not object to generalizations, but the generalizations must fit the facts and I don't think your description of post-Nicene and pre-Reformation history is sufficiently detailed to warrant the conclusions you draw from it.

I don't want to be dismissive of your long discussion of the Roman Republic but I really haven't the time to go into detail here. Since we would both agree that both a pagan republic and a pagan monarchy will ultimately fail to show either system in its best light, let me just say that your (and Filmer's) analysis of the former are well known and taken into accout by the framers of the American Republic. As I have said elsewhere, Greece and Rome provided mainly negative examples to the Founding Fathers. Although there were many positive qualities that they wanted to preserve from both systems, much of the theory of checks and balances was aimed at preventing the new Republic from making the mistakes of the old.

Also, because I can't resist, I note that Filmer seems to share my view that monarchy is mainly punitive judging by his assertion that "that the last refuge in perils of states is to fly to regal authority". Machiavelli makes much the same point in his discourses, which I discussed here:
"the reason being that when the body of the people is grown so corrupted that the laws are powerless to control it, there must in addition to the laws be introduced a stronger force, to wit, the regal, which by its absolute and unrestricted authority may curb the excessive ambition and corruption of the great."

I don't deny it, but that does not prove that in an ideal age, when perils are past, we shall still have need of such refuge.
"After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them." (Jer 31:33-34)