Freedom, Science and Christianity: A Response to James Valliant Part II

Recently Peter Cresswell published a guest post by James Valliant, which originally appeared on SOLO. In Freedom, Science and Christianity: A Response to James Valliant Part I, I addressed Valliant’s claims that science and freedom of religion were unanimously opposed by Christians and the success of science and freedom of religion in Europe was solely due to the influence of pagan ideas which the church sought to suppress. Then in The Theological Foundations of the Enlightenment Philosophers, I further documented how Enlightenment defences of freedom of religion were grounded in earlier theological writings. Here I will continue my critique of Valliant’s article.

3. Valliant contends that it is absurd to suggest that “the US declaration of independence is based on Judeo-Christian ideas.” His reasons, however, are once again based on ignorance of Christian intellectual history.

First he ridicules the idea of Christian influence, “We are asked to believe that it took a mere 1,776 years of reading that darned Bible before any of those great and learned Christian scholars figured out its true political implications!” Valliant seems blissfully unaware that many ideas expressed in the declaration were expressed by Christian writers sometimes hundreds of years prior to 1776.

The claim that there is a creator and that this is self-evident, are ideas that go back centuries in Christian theology. Moreover, the contention that people are created equal is found in the book of Job and would not have been contested by many medieval or patristic theologians.  Mark Murphy has noted that the idea of ‘consent of the governed’ was also accepted in political thought of the Middle Ages.[1] In fact, a form of ‘consent of the governed’ was actually a key feature of feudalism; under this system the monarch was elected or chosen by the land owners and could be deposed by the land owners.[2] Nicholas Wolterstorff has documented that the notion of natural rights had its origins in medieval canon law and theological reflections of the middle ages.[3] Many of the ideas expressed in the declaration were defended centuries earlier by Calvinist tracts such as Lex Rex and Vindicae Contra Tyrannos. In fact, medieval theologians criticised absolute monarchy, debated the question of just revolutions and so on resulting in the birth of the Magna Carta.

The declaration simply repeats the argument for liberty, put forward by John Locke in his Two Treatise of Civil Government. Locke’s argument occurred in the context of an exegetical debate with Robert Filmer about whether or not the bible supported absolute monarchy. Locke’s main argument was that because human beings are created by God, they have an inalienable right to life and liberty and so could not licitly sell themselves or give another person arbitrary or total power over them. In making this argument, Locke actually appropriated an ancient rabbinical argument against slavery which was alluded to by the Apostle Paul (1 Cor 7:23) and is implicit in the Torah (Lev 25: 42). Paul’s appropriation of this argument was the basis for the Christian abolition of slavery in the early Middle Ages. Valliant’s ignorance about what Christians did not support or write about prior to 1776 does not mean that these texts do not exist.

Valliant continues with the claim that Paul told Christians “to just ‘obey’ the governmentalauthorities’ placed over us, because God has appointed them, by St. Paul himself, who likely wrote during the reign of the monster Nero.” This again is a caricature, as I have pointed out elsewhere, the context (which Valliant ignores) qualifies Paul’s command. Moreover, the passage Valliant cites was written during the early part of Nero’s reign when Nero was strongly influenced by Seneca the Younger and Barrus and his rule was widely considered to be competent and relatively enlightened. When Nero later degenerated into a monster the scripture, rather scathingly, describes Nero as a satanic beast whom Christians are required to resist – not obey!

Valliant also seems blithely unaware of the fact that Paul wrote as a prisoner of Rome and was himself executed by Nero for refusing to pay homage to Nero (as were many other Christians). His picture then of Paul as a proponent of advocating unqualified obedience to Nero is simply inaccurate.

4. Valliant similarly quotes Paul’s admonition to slaves to obey their masters in contrast to the US Framers who “thought slavery was evil, too, and it was this belief that provided the basis (e.g., see the Gettysburg Address) for later abolishing it” as evidence that abolitionist ideas originate from ancient Greek/Aristotelian thought and not Christian theology. Apart from the fact that Jefferson was himself a slave owner, Valliant’s understanding is extremely selective.

First, opposition to slavery in various forms has a long history in Christian thought and practice. It predates the American Founding by hundreds, maybe, thousands of years. Early Christians advocated emancipating slaves, a practice exhorted by several leading theologians and early church councils.  W.E.H. Lecky contends that early Christian saints such as Melania, Ovidius, Chromatius, and Hermes, between them liberated almost 20,000 slaves.[4] Later, in 315, Constantine made it a capital offence to steal a child and bring it up as a slave. Justinian, in the 6th century, abolished earlier roman laws prohibiting the freeing of slaves. Similarly St Bathilde, a runaway slave who became the wife of King Clovis II in the 9th century, campaigned against the slave trade as did other notables, St Patrick in the 5th century, St Anskar in the 9th century and St Wulfstan, St Anselm in the 11th century. Rodney Stark notes that Christian opposition to slavery in the lead to its effective abolition within in Europe during the Middle Ages. Stark goes on to document that Pope Eugene IV (1431-1447), Pope Pius II (1458-1464), Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484), Pope Paul III (1534-1549), Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644) issued papal bulls against slavery. In addition, the Roman Inquisition condemned slavery on 20 March 1686.

All of the above occurred hundreds of years prior to the US Founding Fathers.[5] In fact, evangelical Christians, such as William Wilberforce, had brought about the abolition of slavery peacefully in the British several decades before the US fought a civil war over it. Moreover, Stark’s analysis shows that the earliest abolitionist tracts within the US were w by Puritans – actually by one of the judges at the Salem witch trials. The abolitionist movements in the US were overwhelmingly religious in orientation.[6] The suggestion then that opposition to slavery was without Christian precedent and was a novel idea proposed by the revival of pre-Christian ideas in the Enlightenment is implausible. The issue of slavery is a particularly bad example to substantiate Valliant’s thesis given that in the pre-Christian pagan world slavery was widely practiced and accepted. In fact Aristotle, Valliant’s pre-Christian Greek hero, famously defended slavery (in three chapters no less) contending the enslavement of other races was natural.[7]

Valliant’s reading of scripture is also questionable. While it is true that Paul exhorted slaves to obey their masters, this by itself does not entail support for slavery anymore than my paying my taxes constitutes my agreement with taxation laws. Moreover, Valliant ignores the numerous other things both the scriptures and Paul stated about slavery, which contradict and condemn the practice of slavery that existed in America. In fact, the enlightenment philosopher who most influenced the US, John Locke, appealed to these very texts both explicitly and implicitly, to condemn slavery. Once again, Valliant ignores crucial facts of Christian intellectual history to come to his stereotypical conclusions.

[1] Mark Murphy “Natural Law, Consent, and Political Obligation” Social Philosophy & Policy 18 (2001) 70-92.
Regine Pernoud,  Those Terrible Middle Ages : Debunking the Myths (San Francisco: Ignatius Press,  2000) 128-129.
[3] Nicolas Wolterstorff  Justice Rights and Wrongs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).
[4] W.E.H. Lecky History of European Morals: From Augustus to Charlemagne (New York: D. Appleton, 1921) 2:69.
Rodney Stark For the Glory of God: How Monotheism led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts and the end of Slavery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).
[6] Ibid.
[7] Aristotle The Politics Bk I iii, iv, v.

Freedom, Science and Christianity: A Response to James Valliant Part I
The Theological Foundations of the Enlightenment Philosophers
The Theology of the Declaration of Independence
The “Dark Ages” and Other Propaganda
Guest Post: James Hannam on Dan Brown’s History of Science
Slavery, John Locke and the Bible
666 The Number of the Beast
R 13: Romans, Revelations and the Role of the State

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