It then belongs to princes to know how far they may extend their authority,
and to subjects in what they may obey them . . . .
—Junius Brutus, A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants (1579)
Temporal authority is ministerial or delegated authority, subject to God and His law.
—Rousas J. Rushdoony, The One and the Many (1971)
The Self-Revealing God
When we talk about true liberty it’s important to always have a context for the discussion. This is important because for most Americans it’s presupposed that freedom and liberty, like the Atlantic Ocean … are just there. That liberty is a natural thing. But is that really true?
The truth is, liberty in the modern sense came after the Reformation. In this article, I’m detailing a few byproduct thoughts that came to bloom during that period. The Pilgrims (as products of the Reformation) and many other early immigrants held firmly to these important truths. And, it’s these “common assumptions” that provide the context for all freedom discussions. Here they are:
The God of Scripture transcends all of His creation. The God of Scripture is also distinct from everything He has made. This means that anything “created” can never be divine. Further, nothing God has created can serve as a point of metaphysical contact or bridge between Himself and His created world. This is why God forbids idols and magic. In fact, idols and magic are really an insult to the majesty of God because they purport to be bridges. All this just means is that since God is transcendent and sovereign, we can’t pull His strings or make Him dance to our tune.
On the other hand, the God of Scripture isn’t the god of deism. He isn’t the ineffable, wordless god of the Arians or the “Wholly Other” of neo-orthodoxy. The God of Scripture is a self-revealing God. It is the nature of the Father to reveal Himself, especially in His Son. Bottom line: God communicates and reveals Himself to us by His Word and Spirit.
The Word was made flesh through the operation of the Holy Spirit. God became man. God revealed Himself in human history in the Person of Jesus Christ. But even in this perfect union of deity and humanity, the divine remains divine and the human remains human. Jesus is one Christ, “not by confusion of substance, but by unity of Person,” the creed tells us. God’s perfect revelation of Himself doesn’t blur the Creator-creature distinction.
This brings us to Holy Scripture. The God who speaks His Word (Logos) eternally also speaks into human history. The God who eternally breathes forth His Spirit breathes that same Spirit into our world and into our history. The Word who became flesh continues to speak to us today. This transcendent, Triune God speaks to men and women in Spirit-inspired Scripture. He infallibly and authoritatively communicates His Word to us in ordinary human language. He reveals His truth and law. He gives us promises and precepts. He draws near and requires us to believe and obey.
There is only one God. There is only one Christ, one Mediator. There is only one infallible revelation of that God and Christ. And so the Reformers defended the doctrine of sola Scriptura. They also spoke of the perspicuity and sufficiency of Scripture.
Scripture and Authority
The Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura means that Scripture alone is God’s holy, authoritative, infallible revelation of Himself. There are no other divine words. There are no other Bibles. There is no human authority that stands above or beside the Bible. In fact, no other “holy book” even claims to do that.
The perspicuity of Scripture means that God has spoken plainly. The sufficiency of Scripture means that God doesn’t need to add any more words or signs to Scripture in order to accurately communicate His truth and law. There is no lack or defect in Scripture that might open the door for someone to impose on us a new “thus saith the Lord.”
Authority and Liberty
Holy Scripture, then, is the only proper foundation for all human authority. In it, the sovereign Creator speaks to all mankind. He speaks to us individually and collectively. He reveals absolute truth that all men are bound to acknowledge. He provides His holy law that all men are bound to obey. And, through Scripture, God has established three covenantal institutions or forms of government to apply and implement that law. Those institutions are family, church and State. Scripture defines these institutions and sets their functions and boundaries. It assigns to each its own sphere of responsibility and action.
The responsibility of the family is cultural and economic stewardship. More broadly, its concerns are mutual help and companionship, vocation and work, the nurture and training of children, ownership and inheritance, and care for its aged or disabled members.
The responsibility of the church is the proclamation and maintenance of God’s covenant among men. The church holds the keys of Christ’s Kingdom … the preaching of God’s Word, the administration of the sacraments, and church discipline (Matt. 16:16-19; 18:15-20).
The responsibility of the State is justice. The State exists to enforce God’s law in the civil realm. Its duties are far more limited than those of family and church and mostly negative in character. (However, Americans today escape their family and church responsibilities by assigning the state practically all duties that are in reality the prerogative of family and church.)
Each of these covenant institutions derives its authority from Jesus Christ. Their authority is, by nature, limited and subject to God’s Word. No human institution is the final and infallible expression of God’s will. All God-ordained institutions are expected to cooperate with other institutions in pursuing a godly social order. And if any one usurps authority not granted to it by God, the others are obligated to protest and check that usurpation.
The Lesser Magistrate
Out of the Reformation came the doctrine of resistance to tyranny under the leadership of the “lesser magistrate.” The roots are in John Calvin and his Institutes. The doctrine finds fuller expression in the Huguenot tract, A Defense of Liberty against Tyrants (1579), and Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex (1644). It is essentially this: The same God who appointed the king also appointed lesser magistrates, lesser nobles, rulers and judges. They all have the responsibility to enforce God’s law for their people’s good. If the king becomes a tyrant, if he sets himself against God’s law, the lesser magistrates not only have the right, but the duty and obligation to bring him back to his God-ordained responsibilities or … if necessary … to overthrow his rule and replace him with a more righteous leader.
Of course, Scripture makes clear that the same principle applies to all forms of human government. A child may appeal to his mother if his father commands him to do something evil. A wife may appeal to the church elders and to the local civil authorities if her husband is abusive. A church member may appeal to higher or broader church courts if the local elders are irresponsible or corrupt. A church, or its proper courts, may dismiss a pastor or teacher who is promoting heresy. The civil authorities may investigate and arrest a pastor who is embezzling his flock’s money. The churches in a city, state or province are obligated to protest wickedness in civil government, even to the point of issuing anathemas. Within God’s social order, there is always another court of appeal. That’s really the key that provides “the balance” we’ve enjoyed since the Colonial period: The ability to appeal.
Christian liberty is freedom we enjoy within the law-order established in God’s Word. It means we have the freedom to live responsibly and joyfully in family, church and state without fear of tyranny and oppression. Christian liberty also means accountability and responsibility, not only to God, but also to those He has put in authority. It means that those in authority are limited by God’s law and must be rebuked or replaced in an orderly manner if they use their authority for wickedness. This means Christian liberty is a byproduct of the Gospel.
The only alternatives to Christian liberty are tyranny and anarchy … the freedom of the one or the few to oppress all the rest, or in case of anarchy… the freedom of the people to destroy each other through lawlessness. All other social conditions are simply transition stages from tyranny to anarchy or anarchy to tyranny.
Of the two conditions, anarchy is the most short-lived. Usually when it has run its revolutionary course, the people will insist on order. If it’s not an order found in Scripture, then the tyranny and despotism of the one or few will fill the vacuum. But here’s the important thing for any discussion of liberty in America today:
Until Americans submit themselves to the Gospel of Christ, they will always prefer the tyranny of men. They will love either tyranny or anarchy. Those who wish to walk joyfully over the bridge we call liberty … must know how the bridge is built. We must relearn the very structure of liberty.
For Further Reading:
Junius Brutus, A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants, or Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (St. Edmonton, Canada: Still Waters Revival Books,  1989).
Samuel Rutherford, Lex, Rex, or The Law and the Prince (Harrison, VA: Sprinkle Publications,  1982).