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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Christianity and the Social Contract Theory

I did not write this post. It was written a couple of years ago by a young man I know, back when he was about seventeen, I guess. I thought some might find it interesting.--MOTW
Many people have been given the strong impression that the social contract theory was originated by John Locke. If one is lucky, a person may have heard that this theory was introduced by Thomas Hobbes in his book Leviathan (1651). Yet, on the whole, the routine history class casually mentions that Enlightenment thinkers developed the political system of contract theory and that this idea shaped the way our country (the United States) designed its government. However, the basic idea of the social contract theory was not originated by Enlightenment thinkers, nor even by Hobbes, but by Post-Reformation Christians. Often being placed in a government with a state religion, Catholic and Protestant minorities developed a Biblically and philosophically based system of government that included the social contract theory so that they could be justified in resisting the state if necessary. Though later philosophers (like Hobbes and Locke) added to and secularized these political theories, the fundamental ideas of contractual government were achieved by Christians long before the Enlightenment; notable examples of this include the “Stephanus Brutus,” Johanne Althusius, and Samuel Rutherford.

For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the term, the social contract theory is the idea that government is an institution created by the people for the people’s own good. Without government, mankind would be in a state of disorder that is not beneficial to its desires of peace, property, and happiness. In order to avoid such a state, people lay down certain rights in order to form a government and appoint officials to enforce those laws. When this happens, a contract is formed. The people swear loyalty to the officials and the officials swear to rule for the people’s good. When the people empower the government to rule over them, they do not give away that power to cause pain for pain’s sake, but only in so far as to accomplish an orderly society that is in their interest. As such, if the government ever became tyrannical and were to abuse its powers, the people would have every right to resist and change that government in order for it to accomplish its purpose. This is the basic idea of the social contract theory.

In 1579, the Vindiciae contra Tyrannos, published under the pseudonym of “Stephanus Brutus” on behalf of the French Huguenots, argued that government is founded on two contracts which, if broken, would justify the resistance of the people towards the government. As Ernest Barker described it in Church, State, and Study, the first contract was a covenant between God on the one side and the king and people on the other. In this covenant, the king and people promise to serve God in return for salvation and grace. The maintenance of the covenant depends on the faithfulness of the people and the king. The second contract, which is of more interest, lays down a thought out version of the social contract theory. In this contract, “The people are the stipulator, and the king the promisor. The people … asked whether the king would rule justly and according to the law. He then promised to do so. And the people … replied that they would faithfully obey, as long as his commands were just” (Brutus, History, 931). It is a contract in which the people swear obedience in return for the king’s protection. Since both of these contracts were formed with conditions on the parties involved, the breaking of these conditions, even if it be by the king, breaks the contract. “‘It is, then, not only lawful for Israel to resist a king who overturns the Law and Church of God, but if they do not do so, they are guilty of the same crime and are subject to the same penalty’….” (Brutus, European, 491). This means that if the king rules tyrannically, the whole people (as opposed to a single individual) are obligated restrain or remove him. With these two contracts, “Brutus” laid down the basic framework of the social contract theory.

In Politica methodice Digesta, which obtained its complete form in 1610, a Protestant German jurist named Johanne Althusius presented a political theory with layered contracts that placed the ultimate power of government in the people. William Dunning, when commenting on Althusius in his A History of Political Theories, notes that Althusius starts off with the assertion that mankind is riddled with associations formed by their members for certain means. These associations vary in size, from community organizations, to cities, to the nation-state. In the smaller organizations, individuals themselves agree to certain conditions in order to maintain certain ends. When doing so, these individuals retain their natural right to obtain the desired ends and to withdraw from the organization if it works contrary to the agreement made. This kind of contract then happens again as local organizations make contracts with each other in order to obtain certain ends for their constituents. This process repeats itself until it culminates in the nation-state which is headed by the king. The people as a whole are represented in the ephors, officials beside the king, who pledge their loyalty to the king. He, in turn, promises to rule justly for the ephors’ constituents. Next, as in most contract theories, Althusius argues that, if the king breaks the contract, the ephors and/or the whole people have the right to take back their power and oaths of loyalty. This follows simply from the fact that the contract is nullified if the king breaks its conditions. With his strong analysis of the subject, Althusius presented a fuller version of the social contract theory long before the Enlightenment.

In Lex, Rex (1644), Samuel Rutherford, a Scottish clergyman, argued that, though government is a general command of God, the foundation of government rests on a covenant amongst the people. According to Rutherford, “All civil power is immediately from God in its root; in that… God hath made man a social creature… who inclineth to be governed by man…” (Rutherford, 1). However, besides this and the general commands in the Bible for government, the power of creating specific governments and officials is a power reserved to the people. When the people appoint a king, “They give to the king a politic power for their own safety, and they keep a natural power to themselves which they must conserve, but cannot give away...” (Rutherford, 84). “[Since] … they give it out, conditionate, upon this and that condition, … they may take again to themselves what they gave out upon condition if the condition be violated” (Rutherford, 6). In other words, since the foundation of a government comes from its duty to protect the people, the people have the right and obligation to overthrow a tyrannical government because such a government is doing something which it was never meant to do. Using these and several other arguments, Rutherford added to a Christian understanding of contractual government.

While it is very true that Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke and Rousseau developed a well-thought version of the social contract theory, this idea obviously preceded them. Discovered in a time of need, the social contract theory resulted from an oppressive time in which governments persecuted religious dissidents. As we saw in the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, the Politica methodice Digesta, and from Lex, Rex, the idea that government is created by and for the people is an idea that sprang from a Christian perspective. Through this theory, Christianity has made an important gift to Western politics for centuries past and, most probably, for centuries to come.

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