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Thursday, December 8th, 2005


More Readings of Romans 13

Christopher Atwood and I have had some discussions of Romans 13 and the American Revolution. I think Atwood is inclined to the position that, though the American government was a legitimate authority once it was established, the insurrection was wrong. I am inclined to believe that the Revolution could be justified. (I am not so clear on when I would feel justified in taking up arms.) Henry Melchior Muhlenberg is known as the father of American Lutheranism, and I found a some journal entries of his from 1776 that suggest yet another reading than either of us offered:


JULY 4. Today the Continental Congress openly declared the united provinces of North America to be free and independent states. This has caused some thoughtful and far-seeing melancholi to be down in the mouth; on the other hand, it has caused some sanguine and short-sighted persons to exult and shout with joy. It will appear in the end who has played the right tune. This remains as a comfort to believers: There is One who sits at the rudder, who has the plan of the whole world before him, to whom all power in heaven and on earth is given, and who has never yet made a mistake in government. He it is who neither sleeps nor slumbers and who has asked his people to pray, "Hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done."


AUGUST 22. This morning, about eight o'clock, two companies of Colonel Pott's battalion from up in the country stopped at the Providence church. I was asked to give them a word of admonition in English and German in Augustus Church, for they were on the march to the camp in Jersey and were members of the Episcopal and Protestant churches.
    Since I could not with good conscience refuse, I acceded to their request, for one should in charity be impartial and emulate the heavenly Father, who makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. I have not been charged with the task of investigating and comprehending the matter in controversy, nor is it possible for me to determine which party has the highest and best right, whether the one has a better right to make serfs of the inhabitants of America by force and to reap what they have neither plowed nor sowed, or whether the Americans have as good or even better right to defend the rights and privileges granted and stipulated to them by the highest God and by former crowned heads. Contending parties cannot be their own judges, and private persons possess no infallible scales to weigh without error the preponderant arguments of both sides.
    This is evident in this controversy in the many writings pro and contra, indeed, even in the speeches made on both sides of the conflict in parliament. Therefore, since the ministers neither can nor should be arbiters in such a conflict, they do best if they commit the whole thing to the only and highest Judge of heaven and earth and follow the rule of the Spirit of God given through the Apostle Paul, Romans 13, "Let every sould be subject unto the higher powers," etc. If God's governance ordains or suffers that a king or a parliament or a congress should have power over me, then I must be subject to and serve two discordant masters at the same time.
    The English address I based on 1 Samuel 17 and the German on Psalm 27. The mothers and relatives wept over the departure of their loved ones.
[Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, Notebook of a Colonial Clergyman ed. by Tappert and Doberstein (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1959), pp. 161-164.]



Several things are to be noted here. One is that Muhlenberg sees the American case in a better light than the English case. The English, at best, are pressing a right to make the Americans into serfs. The Americans, at their best, are defending God-given rights.

But more interesting to me is how he sees Romans 13 played out. He doesn't see us as subjected only to a victorious party. No. This is more pragmatic a vision. We are subject to the one in power. And that may be a day-to-day matter. It has more to do with who has control of the town than who has the right to rule. In a sense this may sound more demanding than another view of Romans 13. But in another sense it does not. You don't end up with the same numinous view of authority if powers that be mean whoever happens to have more guns to threaten you with. In Muhlenberg's reading, there were two governing powers. The King and the Congress. Both called for soldiers. Fighting on either side could be argued to be right. It wasn't the pastor's job in such a case to try to adjudicate in a case like this.

Muhlenberg's son John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg was one of George Washington's generals in the Revolutionary Army. He left his pulpit to go off to war. I would love to read his interpretation of Romans 13!

11:30 pm Pacific Standard Time

[  posted by Rick Ritchie  |  12 comments  |  Permalink  ]