Last week I finished John Witte, Jr.’s book ‘The Reformation Of Rights; Law, Religion, and Human Rights In Early Modern Calvinism.’ In my estimation Witte crafted his book so that the first half presented Calvinists who emphasized the need for a Calvinistic social order and structure, still admitting the need for freedom and liberties within that order while the last half of the book presented Calvinists who emphasized the need for a Calvinistic social order and structure to allow for expansive freedom and liberties within that Calvinistic social order.
This follows the idea of form and freedom of which Dr. Francis Schaeffer often referenced. Dr. Schaeffer argued that the countries that embraced the Reformation excelled because they found the proper relation between form and freedom. Expansive liberties can only survive among a religiously homogeneous people who can live within a set social order form precisely because they are religiously homogeneous. The danger, over time, of providing increasingly expansive liberties, is that the homogeneity of the people begins to break down thus causing threat to the very social order that generously provides the expansive liberties. To the contrary if any social order does not provide genuine liberties then that social order can only survive by dint of brute force and will constantly be in danger of being overthrown. Witte’s book testifies that the genius of successful Reformed social orders is found in creating a delicate balance between form and freedom.
The issue of expansive liberties applies especially to minority religious groups that exist among a majority expression. Questions arise as to how much freedom can be extended to them without overthrowing the social order. Ancient social orders such as imperialistic Rome solved this problem by allowing all religions as long as all of the religions worshiped Caesar. As such the religious homogeneity that provided the social order glue was Emperor worship with the the other religious expressions being submissive after thoughts to the true religio licita. All other religious expressions had to serve the lawful religion. The refusal of Christians to confess ‘Caesar is Lord,’ confessing instead that ‘Jesus is Lord,’ accounts for why the Christians were arrested for treason and sedition. Imperial Rome understood that Christianity, in attacking the lawful religion of the social order, was attacking the social order that was based on the religious homogeneity of the people.
Witte’s work reminds us that Reformed tradition through thinkers like Calvin, Beza, and Althusius, provided for a distinctly Reformed social order, while later Reformed writers like Milton and other English puritans with unfamiliar names like Overton, Lilburne, and Walwyn emphasized the necessity for expansive liberties.
“For by natural birth, all men are equally alike born to like property, liberty, and freedom, as as we are delivered of God by the hand of nature into this world, everyone with a natural, innate freedom and property (as it were writ in the table of every man’s heart, never to be obliterated) even so we are to live, everyone equally and alike to enjoy his birthright and privilege; even all where God by nature hath made him free.
[E]very man by nature [is also] a King, Priest, and Prophet in his own natural cirucit and compass, whereof no second [person] may partake, but by deputation, commission, and free consent from him whose right and freedom it is.”
The interesting thing to note though is that the men mentioned above were originally pushing for those expansive liberties against a prevailing social order that was not Reformed (King Charles’ High Anglicanism) though Milton continued to push for them in the new Cromwellian order. Further it is interesting to note that almost a century prior the very kind of expansive liberties that the Puritans pushed for during the oppression of King Charles and Arch-Bishop Laud their Calvinist forefathers had rejected in Geneva when they were pushed by the Genevan man of letter Jean Morley. Some might conclude that what was previously considered out of bounds in a Reformed social order a century leader was considered standard Reformed fare when pursued in defiance of an oppressive order that was anti-Reformed. Is this a case where Reformed views had changed or is it case that different circumstances call for different responses?
So great was the emphasis by Milton on rights and liberties that Witte notes that the Puritan era English Parliament would eventually group Milton and the ana-baptist Roger Williams together as radicals who deserved censorship. With this admission Witte calls into question John Milton’s Calvinistic credentials.
In a future post I will seek to highlight and summarize Milton’s appeal for far reaching expansive individual and personal liberties. Some would see in these appeals a template for future liberties that would be granted by future Democratic and Republican governments so coming to fruition in the West.