The Political Authority of the American Founding Fathers

Mr Andrew Kelley writes at The Two Cities against ‘asserting what the founding fathers did or didn’t think as arguments for how people should or shouldn’t think about America today’. While I find there a point worth making, I wish to give some qualifications to my support. While I like to analyse other people’s sayings (not just Peter Lombard’s Sententiae) and subject them to my own mind, there is an authority in tradition that cannot be discounted. At the very least, tradition gives us a framework for understanding what we already have to build on, not least in questions of biblical exegesis and Christian doctrine.

It is true that John Calvin is no infallible interpreter of Scripture, and neither is Martin Luther or Richard Hooker or John Davenant or James Ussher or John Donne, but I see these men as friends who are older and wiser, and deeper steeped in the thought of God: both directly, in their reading of Scripture, and indirectly, in their attention to what other Christians before them have said. The need, in selecting and learning from these friends, is to stay close to God’s revelation and listen to what will push us deeper into the truth. But there are times when we will actually respect their opinions – and this I say as someone who very rarely respects the opinions (qua opinions) of any still living in the presence of mortals – and, in some manner, submit to their authority.

A similar principle holds for considering the good in politics. God has given us both natural and special revelation of what’s politically good and what isn’t: in the Bible both historical examples and explicit principles, and outside the Bible all the history and tradition we have inherited. We may, of course, read what America’s Founding Fathers wrote in, say, the Federalist Papers and Anti-Federalist Papers, in order to hear their reasoning and judge it by the standard of holy Scripture. Hierarchy, which is deference to authority, is not the problem. The danger is not at all that we take a certain set of Founding Fathers as authorities; the danger is if we instead take them as inviolably canonical, not subordinating them and their thoughts to the higher authority of God. If James Madison should contradict God in a matter of political principle, it is vain to take the word of James Madison as gospel, though he have the support of multitudes besides.

Can we respect others’ opinions and trust their expertise? Yes, but this is a qualified yes. We must be willing, though not always able, to revise our views, even those had on reasonably good authority, and to submit them to the test, and to reject whatever’s shown to be unbiblical. This is, as the Holy Ghost regenerates our hearts, our duty in politics as well as elsewhere. Since the ordinances of even a biblical Jewish commonwealth can in fact run up against the commands of God, as Acts shows us, we cannot doubt but that biblical judgement is more than a theoretical possibility: it is practically necessary to know something about political theology.

So the Bible really does give us political principles. Many have been discussed by Christian thinkers through the centuries, but I think there are at least a few basic ones. First, political authority comes from God, as St Paul tells us plainly in Romans. Second, God limits political authority such that, if we must choose, we ought to obey God rather than men. Third, even though there is ample reason not to impose Mosaic law on all times and places, we cannot invent for ourselves what justice is. Fourth, all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Christ, the Second Adam, and therefore any ordinance that forbids the gospel, and the fruit of the Spirit, is unjust and unlawful: against such there is no law. Derived from Scripture, at minimum, are these four principles of government, whether the authorities be the Great Sanhedrin or the Turkish sultan or the presbytery of Edinburgh.

Since the trouble isn’t that a Christian accepts the authority of America’s Founding Fathers, and the duty is to submit all judgement to holy Scripture, which reveals without error the law of God as well as the gospel, the cure to idolatry is this: to reaffirm sola Scriptura even for politics, and to read widely enough to receive a broad range of (especially Christian) thought on special and natural revelation of the principles by which God governs human society. We may appeal to Patrick Henry, an orthodox Anglican, as an authority; we may even appeal to John Adams, who later in life was a Unitarian, or to Thomas Jefferson, a Deist. But no less should we read St Augustine and Aquinas and Hooker and Althusius, while keeping in touch with Locke and Hobbes, in order to find expositions of principle and readings of history that agree with the Scriptures. In this way we will learn to conduct our politics wisely in the sight of God, and in the fear of our great King.

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