| E-Mail | | Anabaptists | | Previous | | Next | | Contents | | V&FT

A Theonomist Looks at the Reformers

Some Theonomists have asserted that the Reformers were Theonomists. One Theonomist of some minor significance in the movement, R. J. Rushdoony, has called this allegiance into question. We can again begin with the German reformers and then move to Bucer and Calvin.

and Natural Law

"Luther denounced God's law
in favor of statist law."
-- R.J. Rushdoony

Rushdoony points out three forces that moved Luther away from a theonomic view of the Law. One was the Anabaptists, obviously the major concern of this study. Another was his views on Natural Law. Let us look first at Luther's view of Justification by Faith, which Rushdoony assesses:

Luther saw both the law and sin as abolished and declared that, 'To the extent that I take hold of Christ by faith, therefore to that extent the Law has been abrogated for me. ' This is antinomianism, and alien to St. Paul."(p. 674)

In 1529, Luther, in the Small Catechism, gave a sounder view of the law, but his brief statements therein could not undo the damage of his more extended attacks on the law. Too often Luther felt that the only way to establish the doctrine of justification by faith was to deny works and sanctification. He wrote on August 1, 1521, to Melanchthon, "Sin cannot separate us from God, even if we commit murder and fornication a thousand times a day."3 With saints like this, the world has little need for sinners. (p. 652)

Rushdoony points out that it was the Anabaptists who, by their consistency, forced Luther either to adopt Biblical Law or to reject it. Luther chose the latter alternative, and brought out his arsenal of Natural Law arguments to rebut God's Law:

The law suffered badly at the hands of Martin Luther. Partly in reaction to the peasant uprising, and to the Anabaptists, Luther turned sharply against the law, which he denounced intemperately, in a sermon of 1525, "How Christians Should Regard Moses." Luther held that the law of Moses binds only the Jews and not the Gentiles. "We will not have Moses as ruler or lawgiver any longer." Luther found three things in Moses: "In the first place I dismiss the commandments given to the people of Israel. They neither urge nor compel me. They are dead and gone" except as an example or a precedent. "In the second place I find something in Moses that I do not have from nature: the promise and pledge of God about Christ. This is the best thing." Neither of these uses of Moses has anything to do with law, and the third even less so "In the third place we read Moses for the beautiful examples of faith, of love, and of the cross, as shown in the fathers, Adam, Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and all the rest." We are also given examples of godless men and their destinies. But, "where he gives commandment, we are not to follow him except so far as he agrees with the natural law."1

Luther thus paved the way for the full-fledged return of scholasticism and the natural law, as did Calvin by his sometimes weak views on Biblical law. The first revival of scholasticism came thus in Protestant rather than Catholic areas of Europe.

Kevan, in commenting on the origin of antinomianism, noted that

Antinomianism was the theological contrary to Puritanism in its doctrine of the Law of God in Christian experience. Apart from its early appearance in New Testament times, and in Valentinian Gnosticism, the formal rise of antinomianism has usually been associated with Johannes Agricola, sometimes called Islebius, an active leader in the Lutheran Reformation. In his search for some effective principle by which to combat the doctrine of salvation by works, Agricola denied that the believer was in any way obliged to fulfil the moral Law. In the Disputation with Luther at Wittenberg (1537), Agricola is alleged to have said that a man was saved by faith alone, without regard to his moral character. These views of Agricola were denounced by Luther as a caricature of the Gospel, but in spite of this, the Antinomians made repeated appeal to Luther's writings and claimed his support for their opinions. This claim, however, is based merely on certain ambiguities in Luther's expressions, and general misunderstanding of the Reformer's teaching.2

Kevan to the contrary, the "ambiguities in Luther's expressions" rested in very serious ambiguities in Luther's thinking.

(Institutes, 651-652)

Luther's reaction against the Anabaptists was also a reaction against their quasi post-millennial views of the Sovereign power of the Holy Spirit to make men obedient and bring about the promised Age of Peace. The Lutheran Churches have followed.

The Talmud, in dealing with land laws, insisted on God's ownership of the earth. Because of God's total lordship and sovereignty, the land, even in the hands of heathens, is under God's jurisdiction. The heathen thus are accountable, according to the Talmud, to God for the care of the earth under law, and for the payment of the tithe.6 It is fashionable for many "Christians" to express their contempt for the Talmud; despite its many vagaries, at this point, and elsewhere, the Talmud gave better practical recognition to the sovereignty of God than did Luther, Calvin, and many others. Luther, having denied the law of God, pushed his hostility to the point of denying everything associated with it, including the Jews and the Talmud.

Having denied the law of God, Lutheranism then had to deny the victory promise4 by that law. Accordingly, in the Augsburg Confession, Article XVII, in the last paragraph, it is declared of the Lutheran churches that,

They condemn others also, who now scatter Jewish opinions, that, before the resurrection of the dead, the godly shall occupy the kingdom of the world, the wicked being every where suppressed (the saints alone, the pious, shall have a worldly kingdom, and shall exterminate all the godless).7

The movement of the church so charted is from victory to defeat.

Luther himself began with victory and ended in defeat, a self-tortured, guilt-ridden, and bloated man. He who had been the hope of the Christian poor had been denounced by them as Herr Luder, Mr. Liar, decoy, law scoundrel, or carrion. Luther could rightfully plead that his was not a theology of social revolution, but he had raised false hopes among the peasants. "Sola Scriptura" was his standard: the word of God alone. This to the people meant not only justification by faith but also the sovereign law of God. To that law they appealed, and Luther denounced God's law in favor of statist law.

(Institutes, p.658-9)

and Natural Law

"With these words Melanchthon joined hands with Caiaphas."

Greek philosophy was resurrected by St. Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274). The Reformers played their part in keeping Aristotle alive by renouncing Biblical Law. Critical in this regard is Melanchthon, who was Luther's right-hand man.

Melanchthon did not betray Luther when "he constructed a new doctrine of natural law based on Aristotle and Biblical theology which in many respects is identical with that of St. Thomas. The similarity to Thomism was not accidental."8 Having denounced God's law, the only alternative was Thomism and natural law. The Reformation / was thus stillborn.

Melanchthon drew up the first formal statement of the Protestant position, Loci Communes Rerum Theologicarum, in 1521. Rushdoony gives this document special attention:

3. Natural and Supernatural Law

The Bible does not recognize any law as valid apart from the law of God, and this law is given by revelation to the patriarchs and Moses, and expounded by prophets, Jesus Christ, and the apostles. To have two kinds of law is to have two kinds of gods; not surprisingly, the ancient world, like the modern, was polytheistic; having many laws, it had many gods.

Some will deny this. After having adopted a Greek and rationalistic concept of natural law, they attempt to graft it into Biblical religion. Witness, for example, the reason of Melanchthon in Loci Communes:

Some laws are natural laws, others divine, and others human. Concerning natural laws, I have seen nothing worthily written either by theologians or lawyers. For when natural laws are being proclaimed, it is proper that their formulas be collected by the method of human reason through the natural syllogism. l have not yet seen this done by anyone, and I do not know at all whether it can be done, since human reason is so enslaved and blinded--at least it has been up until now. Moreover, Paul teaches in Rom. 2:15 in a remarkably fine and clear argument that there is in the Gentiles a conscience which either defends or accuses their acts, and therefore it is law For what is conscience but a judgment of our deeds which is derived from some law or common rule? The law of nature, therefore, is a common judgment to which all men give the same consent. This law which God has engraved on the mind of each is suitable for the shaping of morals.1

By this thesis, to which the Reformation leaders virtually all gave assent, they denied the Reformation. Unregenerate, fallen man, unable to save himself and guilty of holding down or suppressing the truth of God in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18), is somehow able to know a law inherent in nature and make it a ground "for the shaping of morals"! With such thinking as this, the Reformers were busy castrating themselves! Melanchthon gets his first natural law from Romans l rather than nature. The second he grounds feebly in Genesis 2:8, although why he needs a single verse to support his position, having disposed of all the books of Moses, he does not tell us.

1 . Wilhelm Pauck, editor, The Library at Christian Classics, vol. XIX, Melanchthon and Bucer (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), p. 50.

Of special interest to the Anabaptists was Melanchthon's second law, which sanctioned state action against them. Rushdoony comments,

The "natural" foundation for Melanchthon's second law of nature is majoritarianism:

Therefore, those who disturb the public peace and harm the innocent must be coerced, restrained, and taken away. The majority must be preserved by the removal of those who have caused harm. The law stands: "Harm no one!" But if someone has been harmed, the one who is responsible must be done away with lest more be harmed. It is of more importance to preserve the whole group than one or two individuals. Therefore the man who threatens the whole group by some deed that makes for a bad example is done away with. This is why there are magistracies in the state, this is why there are punishments for the guilty, this is why there are wars, all of which the lawyers refer to the law of nations (ius gentium) .3

With these words Melanchthon joined hands with Caiaphas, who said concerning Christ, "that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not" (John 11:50). The persecution of the early Christians, and of all disturbing minorities, is given firm ground in this natural law.

and Natural Law

"They uttered blasphemy and
called it reformation."

Rushdoony continues:

Melanchthon was not alone in this kind of nonsense. Bucer, in De Regno Christi, demanded a totalitarian regime as a consequence of his natural law faith. His advice to Edward VI of England was revealing, and it should be noted that Bucer cited Plato, not the Bible:

And in this it must be ordered. that these should not import or export merchandise other than that what Your Majesty has decreed. And he shall decree that only those things are to be exported of which the people of the realm really have an abundance so that their export may be of no less benefit to the people of this realm, to whom these things are surplus, than to those who take them to foreign countries and make a profit on them. So also he should permit no merchandise to be imported except what he judges good for the pious, sober, and salutary use of the commonwealth. Finally, that a definite and fair price should be established of individual items of merchandise, which can easily be arranged and is very necessary (so fiery is human avarice) for conserving justice and decency among the citizens.

The same statutes must apply to peddlars and retailers, to which task, as it is lowly and sordid, no one should be admitted unless he is lacking in ability or has a physical incapacity so as to render him unsuitable for more liberal skills, as was the opinion of Plato also (Plato, Republic, II, 371 c-d.).8

They uttered blasphemy and called it reformation. They set aside the law of God for man's rationalizing and declared it to be a superior law for men and nations.

Bucer, having booted out God's law for Plato, still spoke piously of God's law and transferred its moral premises to man's natural law:

For inasmuch as we have been freed from the teaching of Moses through Christ the Lord, so that it is no longer necessary for us to observe the civil decrees of the law of Moses, namely, in terms of the way and the circumstances in which they are described, nevertheless, insofar as the substance and proper end of these commandments are concerned, and especially those which enjoin the discipline that is necessary for the whole commonwealth, whoever does not reckon that such commandments are to be conscientiously observed is certainly not attributing to God either supreme wisdom or a righteous care for our salvation.9

9. Ibid., p. 378.

and Natural Law

"The Reformation as a whole moved
from victory to defeat"

Melanchthon was not the only Reformer who substituted Natural Law for God's Law. Rushdoony briefly surveys the Reformation as a whole:

Calvin also made possible the revival of natural law by his loose views of the law of God. The Puritans for a time saved Calvinism from itself by their emphasis on Biblical law, only to succumb themselves to the intellectual climate of neoplatonism and also the lure of the natural law. The Reformation as a whole moved from victory to defeat, from relevance to irrelevance, from a challenge to the world to a surrender to the world or a meaningless withdrawal from it. Rome, Geneva, Wittenberg, and Canterbury retreated also into an ineffectual pietism. They were all now of the world but not in the world! (p. 659)

At times the Reformers used pro-Biblical Law rhetoric. At times they called for the enactment of laws that are also called for in the Bible. How do we explain this inconsistency?

Rushdoony's assessment (pp. 682-683) of the apparently pro-Biblical Law rhetoric of the Reformers is absolutely critical for a proper understanding of the Reformation's attack on the Anabaptists:

The main function of this re-introduction of the Mosaic law is to buttress the power of the state with the death penalty, the duty of obedience, and the like.10

10. For Luther's meandering views on law, see Ferdinand Edward Cranz, Harvard Theological Studies XIX' An Essay on the Development of Luther's Thought on Justice, Law, and Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959).

This harsh assessment of the Reformation, coming as it does from the preeminent Reconstructionist, is not at all out of line from the facts as they are available to us in the writings of the Reformers. It takes a man who is firmly committed to the Law of God and against pagan philosophy to recognize the Reformers' antinomianism and criticize it for what it was.

But the Reformers' antinomianism might also be seen by a man who is committed to pagan philosophy and against God's Law, and who congratulates the Reformers for leaving the barbaric Hebrew traditions found in the Bible and moving forward to modern Keynesian and Darwinian principles of Economics and Politics. Such a man has made a study of the Reformers' departure from the Biblical Laws concerning debt and usury. Rushdoony's conclusions concerning Luther and Calvin have been more than adequately chronicled in the study, The Idea of Usury: From Tribal Brotherhood to Universal Otherhood, by Benjamin Nelson .

Nelson believes, as did the Anabaptists, that Biblical Law calls for a close community among Christians, who live and work together without interference by envious and, power-grabbing non-Christians ("the State") , and does not require an over-specialized debtor-slave economy ("industrialization") dependent upon privileged dispersal of State plunder ("credit expansion"). Nelson and modern man oppose such a free society, and the reader should be alert for disparaging remarks against the relevance and implementation of Biblical Law in society. Nelson also repeats the worn-out notions of Anabaptists as wild-eyed utopians.

Nelson's scholarly study is profiled here.        August Lang is here,