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Historic Confessions and Libertarianism (Answering Doug Wilson, Part 3)

I am very pleased to post this week a series of articles authored by our good friends Joseph Knowles, Terry Gant, and Jeff Wright in response to theologian Doug Wilson’s recent article against libertarianism. While I had intended to write something myself, these three gentlemen have gone above and beyond the call of duty and written a tremendous detailed rebuttal. It’s so large, in fact, that I felt it needed to be posted over multiple days to be absorbed more completely. So, here is Part 3… (If you haven’t yet, start by reading Part 1.)

Have libertarians even read those historic confessions?

For Wilson’s third question we must do something that might read as odd. We will grant the point Wilson’s question aims at but then ask for a chance to say more on the subject.  To that end let us start with granting the point: We do not believe the reformed confessions named by Wilson (The Westminster Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Synod of Dort) leave room for a libertarian vision of limited civic government.[1]  Now we ask for room to say more, which is this: The reality that the confessions named by Wilson do not leave room for a libertarian vision of limited civic government does not, however, mean that the libertarian vision of limited government is incompatible with the Reformed faith.

First, libertarianism is consistent with the Reformed faith in that both agree God has limited the civic government. As a people with a high view of God’s Word Reformed Christians can see there is a limiting of the government’s scope of authority (and duty) before Christ simply in that Scripture tells the government what to do and, in doing so, restricts the government to doing those things and those things alone.  Romans 13 tell us that governments outside of Israel are to oppose evil. The Apostle Peter tells us these governments are also to encourage the civic good (2 Peter 2).  This restraint of evil for the promotion of civic good is God’s assignment to civic government, no more and no less.[2]

As an example, God has deputized the government to punish the murderer.  Also, He has limited the government in such a way that the government is not authorized to set the market price of a bushel of corn. Here there is application the Reformed understanding of the Regulative Principle of Worship that is useful to our understanding of civics, a Regulative Principle of Civics if you will.  God has regulated–and limited–the scope of what the government can and cannot do by His specific assignment of responsibility in Scripture.

Here, too, is an opportunity to consider the principle of Ecclesia semper reformanda est. God has chosen to refine through historical processes His people’s understanding of the practical outworking of the faith once delivered.  That historical record has shown Lord Acton’s famous maxim about power corrupting regularly impacts the decisions of the church – particularly when a close alliance between the church and the state provides opportunity to demonstrate the full force of the understanding of civic government expressed in the reformed confessions Wilson names. On a cold day in 1527, near Zurich, Felix Manz saw firsthand, in his last vision this side of eternity, the danger inherent in the understanding of church/state relationships expressed in those Reformed confessions.  Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, saw the same outside Oxford not twenty years later.

Indeed, in 2020 this same danger is playing out in the streets of the United States of America.  Whatever else it may be, the arrest of Wilson’s church’s members in Moscow, ID for failing to comply with masking and social distancing requirements is evidence of secular religion being enforced through the coercive mechanism of government force.  Those arrests have demonstrated that secularism–what Wilson has called the worship of Demos–is no more resistant to the corruption that arises from a tight union between church and state than Catholicism and Protestantism have proven to be.

This consistent historical pattern of abuse following from the union of church and state is a powerful invitation to consider the words of another reformed confession, that of The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689.[3]  Tom Nettles, an eminent church historian who is also within the Baptist tradition, has noted how carefully the authors of the Second London Baptist Confession’s 24th Article (“On the Civil Magistrate”) worked to maintain continuity with the Westminster Confession while simultaneously drawing appropriate distinctions where their understanding of the faith required:

In this article, they wanted to state as simply as possible the positive doctrine of Scripture. They would not deny the validity of the magistrate; nor would they go beyond what is clearly affirmed in the relevant texts. Their loudest statement of protest came in what they omitted from the statement in the Westminster Confession of Faith. . . .

One word appeared in the WCF that was omitted in the [second paragraph of Article 24]. Instead of “maintain justice,” etc. the WCF inserted “to maintain piety, justice” etc. The Baptists would not have the magistrate insert any of his power into the divine prerogative of creating and maintaining piety in his people. That is the function of the Holy Spirit by the word of God under the faithful labors of God-called ministers of the word in the context of the church. If the word “piety” were maintained, the Baptists would affirm the lawfulness of such power. Given their amendment, Particular Baptists affirmed the right of Christians to serve as magistrates and perform all the necessary functions to maintain stability and justice within and freedom from threatening aggression from without.

Church history has borne out the wisdom with which the Particular Baptists wrote. The magistrate is unable to bear the weight of responsibility foisted upon it by Wilson’s selected Reformed confessions.  This should come as no surprise, considering that God has limited the scope of the civic government’s duty.  Believers concerned to live out the ideal of always reforming their understanding of faith and life before the revelation of God in Scripture will be thankful for the light of the Particular Baptists.

Stay tuned for Part 4 on Friday, October 30.

[1] There may be room for the libertarian position within some forms of the Belgic Confession. Wilson himself, along with a helpful outside reader of this piece raised the possibility of the American Westminster. Nonetheless, considering the spirit of those confessions and Wilson’s question we will not indulge that inadvertent possibility.

[2] Our discussion at this point is not about who defines the evil and good the government is tasked but with addressing but with God’s limitation of civic government.

[3] We realize here that the idea baptists are within the Reformed tradition is, at best, highly contested. Since contesting this issue is not the purpose of this piece, the authors refer the reader to the work of Sam Renihan for further justification of the idea that the English Particular Baptists are indeed within the Reformed tradition. Brandon Adams, with whom Doug Wilson has interacted online before, has also written extensively on the topics of libertarianism and Reformed theology. See here.

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