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We’re All Erastians Now

One way to frame post-Reformation church history is by what Robert Rodes (a Notre Dame law professor, not the Confederate) identified as an Erastian-High Church dichotomy or “tension” working itself out across then-already-dwindling Christendom.

In a narrow, most historical sense, Erastianism represents the views of the eclectic layman theologian-physician, Thomas Erastus. Presented by the Swiss Calvinist—once a suspected as a Socinian but later exonerated—was a posthumously published proposal in 1589 not all that radical: sacraments, as at least a means of grace and sanctification but possibly a converting ordinance, should not be bandied about. That is, the withholding of Eucharist, as a mode of church discipline, was improper and overbearing. The logic was simple: removal of the means of moral change from the sinner on account of his sinning was counterproductive and cruel. Instead, civil and ecclesiastical sin alike should be punished by the state only. In the subsequent decades, what came to be known as Erastianism took on a life of its own, especially in England. Famously, a minority of Westminster Assembly Divines shared Erastus’ basic conviction on discipline and combined it in their post-Reformation English context of the Henrician settlement—the monarch being, at least formally, supreme governor of the church.

Thomas Coleman, John Lightfoot, Bulstrode Whitelocke, and, most notably, the lawyer polymath John Selden belonged to the Erastian faction in the assembly. Parliament, almost to a man, was Erastian. They did call the assembly after all, and, in the end, declined to ascribe to the Confession’s article on church censures. The barrister, parliamentarian, and pamphleteer extraordinaire, William Prynne, was also a notorious Erastian, though ecclesiologically Presbyterian. The common denominator amongst the Erastians was political Hebraism (though many of them were also lawyers; always natural bureaucrats). In The Hebrew Republic (2010) Eric Nelson observes that,

When the Westminster Assembly of Divines convened in July of 1643 (in defiance of Charles I) to debate the proper form of the Church of England, the three most prominent Erastian spokesmen were all eminent Hebraists – Thomas Coleman (nicknamed “Rabbi Coleman”), John Lightfoot, and John Selden. Indeed, in the English context, one can say without much exaggeration that to be a Hebraist was to be an Erastian, and vice versa.

Political Hebraism was a multifaceted, fascinating element of early modern Protestant political theory—heavily present amongst the Dutch—that can’t be fairly examined here. What the Westminster Erastians believed, however, was the since Old Testament Israel provided the best model for Christian society, and since there was, in their view, a single jurisdiction (civil and ecclesiastical) in that ancient society, and since it was governed by what the Erastians styled Hebrew monarchs, the same model ought to be adopted in England. Erastus himself had almost certainly not gone that far, but the development of the English Erastians of the mid-seventeenth century possessed some intuitive appeal. If civil and ecclesiastical was basically blended, and if the church lacked proper coercive force, then the coercive power should handle all punishments. More was wrapped up in the arguments of Selden, et al., but that was the gist. (For more, see chapter six of William Hetherington’s History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines.)

Naturally, no contemporary American evangelical would subscribe to the above. (Most of them would instinctually and dutifully recoil from Prynne’s views, in particular.) Erastians, by in large, are not treated favorably in the historical record even though, in my humble opinion, the position has not been sufficiently cataloged nor adjudicated. Whilst Parliament rejected Chapter 30 of the Confession, it wholeheartedly embraced Chapter 23 which places a heavy burden on the magistrate to uphold true religion and support the church. This was all standard fare back then. Franciscus Junius, a noted political Hebraist, had gone so far as to say that “the magistrate in his political order assists his society in aspiring to the gate of eternal salvation.” None of this was in tension with seventeenth century Erastian view; it may have been heightened, in fact. It was still recognized that the temporal power served at the pleasure of God, to his glory, and for man’s ultimately eternal good. In this way, the submission of the temporal to the eternal or spiritual was indirectly maintained. (Not so today.)

If integralish proposals are routinely and summarily dismissed, then surely an even closer blending of church and state wherein the state/civil power assumes a more directly religious role would be discarded with all the more desperation. Or so it would seem. True enough, the more moderate Erastianism—if in name only for all intents and purposes—that corresponds to the Church of England today likely does not keep Americans (or Englishmen, for that matter) up at night. But this is only because moderate Erastianism is no threat to the more radical and modern Erastianism with which contemporary evangelicals operate.

Borrowing from Rodes, what I will refer to as a radical/modern Erastianism is manifest in late-modern, (formerly) Christian, pluralistic societies. Seventeenth century concerns being expired, it is in this broader, somewhat ahistorical, sense that the Erastian impulse remains relevant for the present.

What all manifestations of Erastianism share, Rodes says, “is a view of the institutional church as one of a variety of institutions through which a Christian society conforms itself to the will of God.” But the new Erastianism is, we might say, a capitalist and pragmatist Erastianism in its internal logic. The playing field is leveled. In our context, all associations are equal and governed by principles of fair play, non-aggression, and voluntarism. “Erastianism tends to see the church as subject to the same limits as any other social institution in its attempt to further the ultimate destiny of human beings.” By contrast the “High Church” position,

[S]ees the religious dimension of life as imposing a fundamental limitation on the scope of secular government. It is capable, therefore, of looking at the church as occupying an area closed to secular government and to all those institutions secular government controls.

What Rodes, showing his hand a bit, calls the “venerable” Erastian tradition—contradistinguished from a totalitarian one—is predominate today. “[W]e can think of the dominant theme in American church-state thinking as a kind of free-enterprise Erastianism.” It describes our current “church-state nexus,” culturally, legally, and otherwise. This, in part, because “Erastianism, properly understood, is not a subordination of religious to secular concerns; rather, it is a placing of religious concerns on the same level with all other concerns of a Christian government.” Now, again, the Westminster Erastians would not have recognized Rodes’ (secondary) description. It may well be unworthy of the name. It is, nevertheless, instructive for the present as an apt descriptor within the historical paradigm established at the outset.

In a nutshell and mentioned already, modern Erastianism is institutional levellism, otherwise known as liberalism. Within Rodes’ “free-enterprise Erastianism,” not only are all associations or institutions within the state leveled but so too, obviously, are denominations. All churches become equal “vehicles for the Christian commitment of the state.” (And the claims of those churches are merely some among many institutions and associations with equal right to the socio-political and moral trajectory of society.) Rodes dubs this a “Pluralist Christendom.” And at one time, maybe it was properly so called—in America, Protestant ecumenism would be more accurate to describe the early republic’s religious composition. Now the pluralism has clearly overtaken the Christendom.

Rodes also identifies that state support of religion within a pluralist, if religious, society cannot favor one sect over the other. That function of the state is essentially nullified. What the state ends up doing is affirming the lowest common denominators between sects which are, in turn, gradually diluted by the Erastian logic that all associations (including churches) are equal beneath the state. Jeffersonian indifference to one sect over the other tends, and was intended, to nullify all.

To be clear, the modern Erastian (like the old Erastian) can still insist that the civil power is concerned with morality, virtue, and religious things, generally. In fact, they are perfectly positioned for the organic argument. That is, that a Christian society is beneficial, even optimal and desirable, so long as it emerges from the bottom up and absent coercion through fair play competition. The concerns of the church must compete in the marketplace of ideas. They deserve no privilege. If they do not win it is because they do not deserve to.

This is, more or less, what contemporary evangelicals ascribe to, usually under the banner of “religious liberty.” It is a fundamentally Erastian position, even if they do not realize it, wherein the church is subordinated to the state rather than the other way round. It is the natural result of “neutrality.” Evangelicals may insist that a scenario of non-subordination of state or church, of pure equilibrium, is possible, but history presents an inescapable dichotomy. Choose a side. And the Erastian position, in its radical/modern sense as sketched above, is a fundamentally liberal one wherein the church, with no inherent priority, is valued according to its contribution to the larger liberal project. That is, insofar as it affirms and perpetuates the level playing field, the values of pluralist democracy, by otherwise debasing itself.

This is the irony for the predominate evangelical view: if we take the radical/modern Erastian position and see churches as one of many associations then legally and politically the church (or churches) will be treated accordingly. It will be no different than a local YMCA. In which case, no real and special legal protections—i.e., carveouts for bigoty—are cognizable. If churches—amidst a plethora of denominations—are no different than the local Lion’s Club or your local drag queen story hour chapter, and are under the state, why should they be exempt from the dictates of the same? Why should they be afforded alternative hiring practices, for example, when others are not? The church, when levelled, possesses no basis for preferential treatment, no recognition of its definitive, unique, and inherent liberty. Why should they even be able to define the role and purpose of their own ministers?

Rodes boils down pluralist Christendom to a bland affirmation of human dignity and solidarity coupled with a vaguely Christian ethic (i.e., love of neighbor). He has in mind a decidedly Christian interpretation of these values but presents no mechanism of maintenance, so to speak. A pluralist Christendom as a radical Erastianism necessarily cannot supply it.

All of this presents a key question for the post-liberal discussion now still unfolding: is the church one of many—a component of the elusive E Pluribus Unum—is it prima inter pares; or is it wholly other and wholly, in some respect, above? The two options:

Erastianism tends to see the church as subject to the same limits as any other social institution in its attempt to further the ultimate destiny of human beings; High Churchmanship tends to see the church as operating outside those limits.

Further, in a High Church or “integral” Christendom, “there is a political and legal basis for giving the Christian conscience institutional effect.” Not so with the secularist, levellist. thoroughly Erastian counterpart.

As demonstrated, the first option can be designated the present status quo, modern/radical Erastianism, wherein no priority, no preference, is afforded the church. Even then there is no the church. There are many churches, each with equal, competitive status, and no semblance exists in the public reason of true religion as an exclusionary category. The temporal/civil power has been relieved of that duty.

On the other hand, even given the multiplicity of denominations, if the High Church view is adopted, then the church (however defined), in a sense, necessarily transcends the temporal and thereby possesses a unique and inherent liberty—a basis for the preferential treatment its members of all stripes desire. If the church is one among an amalgamation of many, then it deserves no priority. The “religious liberty” its members appeal to in order to justify living out her dictates is irrelevant—a bit counterproductive. But if the church transcends the rest, then, and only then, does religious liberty begin to make sense as it corresponds to the unique liberty and transcendence of the church itself. But then the idea of religious liberty becomes less individualized and more collectivized—or rather, communalized—and thereby receives accountability. This is to transform the idea entirely; to return to an older understanding that consciences err and the fact that the error ostensibly originates from the conscience is no defense. I suspect that assuming that brand of religious liberty would be untenable to most modern evangelicals. Perhaps, then, it is not religious liberty rightly understood to which they cling but the primacy of the individual and his choice. In the long run, by levelling the church within the state the singular, not the plural, has transcended all.

Earlier I noted that historical Erastianism maintained, in its way, the superiority of the spiritual over the temporal, and this by the high view of the magistrate’s role vis a vis the institutional church. This has been jettisoned by modern Erastianism. The magistrate’s highest calling now is to respect and defend the rules of the game, as it were. He should maintain minimal, livable order necessary for competition, market and intellectual, flourish. Now the socio-political primacy of the temporal is complete. And evangelicals wonder why even their fundamentally Erastian claims to religious liberty are increasingly ignored. They bemoan cultural declension but locate no intellectual-structural cause for the same in their own program. It is simply the unassailable result of competition amongst sinful men. It is a blessing of liberty.


Image: Sir Thomas More Refusing to Grant Wolsey a Subsidy, 1523, by Vivian Forbes (1891-1937) (Parliamentary Art Collection)

Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

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