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Travis Fentiman

Puritan Board Freshman
The following piece may be the least known, but most important, short document of the Westminster Assembly. A book was circulated in London arguing that God is the Author even of Sin, this being purportedly for the benefit of saints taking comfort in this in their trials.

The Westminster Assembly requested the English civil Parliament to suppress this blasphemous book. The Parliament ordered the burning of the book, and that the Westminster Assembly draw up a declaration in order “to declare to the people the abominableness of it.” The declaration, unanimously approved by the Assembly, with none dissenting, very helpfully and carefully condemns the sentiments of the book that go too far, as many do today, and precisely defines how God orders sin for good, while not being the efficient cause of it, sin coming solely from the creature at God’s effective permission.

In this short piece, see a model example of how the civil government and the Church ought to cooperate between their distinct jurisdictions unto godly purposes, and how censorship of that which is immoral (it violating God’s Law) is good and necessary.

 

NaphtaliPress

Administrator
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Excellent, @Travis Fentiman . I really appreciate this. Is the book that argued that God was the author of sin still available?
It was burnt in St. Paul's churchyard by the government on July 29, but Thomason records buying a copy on July 25 and it thus must be in EEBO via Thomason Tracts. I don't think it was John Archer the author of this, but some other fellow I know took up considerably time of the assembly and they did review literature for heresy or maybe it was a committee that reported to them.
 

Seeking_Thy_Kingdom

Puritan Board Sophomore
Fascinating read! It makes me consider our dependence of freedom of Religion and free speech. Both are highly protected and deemed essential in our current day, but at the cost of how many souls?
 

BRK

Puritan Board Freshman
Fascinating read! It makes me consider our dependence of freedom of Religion and free speech. Both are highly protected and deemed essential in our current day, but at the cost of how many souls?
Recently I have been thinking about the traditional rights that many Americans, including American Christians, value so dearly, such as freedom of religion and speech. I wonder if there is a Biblical basis for establishing these rights within the sphere of government. It seems to me that, in many cases, these rights have been taken for granted and idolized as part of a civil religion which might be called "Americanism". I don't know if I'm formulating my thoughts on this clearly, but the article posted and your comments correspond with some things I've been mulling over recently, especially concerning the use of these rights in ways which violate the Moral Law.
 

Travis Fentiman

Puritan Board Freshman
Recently I have been thinking about the traditional rights that many Americans, including American Christians, value so dearly, such as freedom of religion and speech. I wonder if there is a Biblical basis for establishing these rights within the sphere of government...


As for my take on it, which I believe was a dominant reformed view during the puritan era:

All civil, positive rights are to be based on the natural and moral laws of God, as those are the only things that can (legitimately) bind the creature's conscience and activity. Civil authority, or any authority, has no more authority than those; everything else is arbitrary and man-made traditions and human commandments.

Hence no one ever has a right to sin or do wrong, or to violate God's natural and moral laws (such as by practicing different religions, speaking corrupt speech, etc.), and therefore persons ought not to have a 'civil right' to those things.

It is true that due to human limitations, especially in the external public sphere, for which the magistrate is responsible, there necessarily will be many things that the magistrate ought not to, or cannot prosecute. But, as Rutherford carefully distinguishes in a few places, there is quite a difference between a passive, negative, not enforcing of God's law due to inadequate human and governmental processes, or even a limited toleration of certain immoral acts for the greater social good (as is found in Scripture in a few places), versus a person having a right, in any sense of the word, to do an immoral act.

And when God comes to judge, and all subordinate, secondary, dependent, enforcers of authority flee away, it will be very clearly seen that persons never had a right, in any sense of the word, to sin.

Part of the issue is, according to natural law and Scripture (Rom. 13:4, etc.), human authorities only have authority from God unto what is good, true, and right. They have no authority to uphold what is wrong, bad, or untrue. Its a one sided authority, not two sided. Hence human governments have no authority to civilly uphold sin or anything contrary to God's natural and moral laws.
 

User20004000

Puritan Board Sophomore
“Hence no one ever has a right to sin or do wrong, or to violate God's natural and moral laws (such as by practicing different religions, speaking corrupt speech, etc.), and therefore persons ought not to have a 'civil right' to those things.”

Travis,

If I understand you correctly, I must disagree. That no one ever has a right before God to sin, does not imply that one ought not be protected from civil penalty for many sorts of sins. And if one ought to be protected in this sense, then how is there not a civil right to sin, though not a moral right to sin?

There are many sins that are detectable and, therefore, do not pertain to “human limitations” as the reason magistrates “ought not to or cannot prosecute.” Magistrates out not punish any detectable sins that ought not to be considered crimes. Greed, gluttony, unkindness and lustful looks might be catalogued under non-criminal sins. If such sins were brought before the courts, the magistrates ought not punish them. Doesn’t that cash out as a civil right to commit non-criminal sins since liberty to sin would be protected? If so, then this doesn’t hold true: “They have no authority to uphold what is wrong, bad, or untrue.”

Behind all this is the question of which sins should be deemed criminal. But the epistemic limitations of natural law in the civil realm is not my concern here. No matter what one’s view of that is, surely the magistrate should not punish for such detectable sins, even should the sinner come as his own accuser. How does that not cash out as a civil right to sin - a protection from civil penalty?

You did cite an exception that I’ll interact with here, but I don’t think it was intended to preempt the point I just made. Tell me if I’m wrong. Most sins ought not to be considered criminal; many of those sins are indeed detectable and often publicly confessed. Not to punish such an enormous amount of sin does not seem to be what you’re driving at with your exception for “a limited toleration of certain immoral acts for the greater social good.” The reason I don’t think you would apply that here is it wouldn’t be “a limited toleration” of sin but rather a massive toleration of every day non-criminal sins.
 
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Travis Fentiman

Puritan Board Freshman
Hi Ron,

I apologize that it is not my intention to discourse at length on this subject (though I don't doubt your inquiries are genuine and well-meaning). While I could have elaborated and qualified myself more, at length, I do find the general paradigm that you are apparently coming from, and arguing, unpersuasive, and it is not what one finds in Rutherford, whom I am following.

Just to make a few points that persons can chew further, if they desire:

I agree that persons can be protected from civil punishments for many sorts of sin, for certain greater good purposes. This is in fact how reformed theologians explained God tolerating certain sinful civil practices in Israel, and regulating them, for the hardness of their hearts, lest they be utterly consumed.​
Such might be considered a 'civil right' in the sense of a positive right for good order in the civil commonwealth, but that action is only not-punished due to the greater good reason, it is not a right, moral or civil, in itself, and it is often contingent on many conditions, which may not hold for all times and circumstances. For instance, a person who is undeniably guilty of a crime has many 'rights' for good order, which protect him for certain purposes, until he is actually found guilty by the public court, and then those 'rights' may no longer pertain to or protect him. Ultimately such 'rights' for good order are not absolute, are variable, and may, in certain circumstances, be withdrawn.​
A magistrate need not always punish according to strict justice, but may (and ought at times) have clemency or leniency, especially if a person self-confesses, especially as all discipline is to be for the good of the person and the community.​
I never said a magistrate ought to punish all detectable sins; and there is a difference, I believe, between 'detectable' and 'public'.​
A sin in front of someone else is by definition public in some regard (even if done in the four walls of a private house, or one's house), and may likely be civilly scandalous. Hence Job says that if he should have kissed his hand upon looking at the sun, a form of superstitious idolatry, he would have been liable to be punished by the judge (Job 31:24-25,28), and that was known from Natural Law simply (the 2nd Commandment). I don't believe your form of the distinction between a sin and a crime can account for this.​

The universal reformed doctrine was that the magistrate is a Defender of God's Moral Law, and is to make civil laws and penalties in order to protect God's moral law in society. The distinction as to what may be civilly prosecuted (or what are 'crimes'), as recognized even by secular books of jurisprudence, hinges on what can be adequately confirmed, has significant enough consequences so as to be worth the time and effort of the community's sanctions (that is of the communal public court), etc. The sin of slander, if it has such sufficient significant consequences, may hence (rightly) be prosecuted as a crime in American courts.​
And there is a difference between the magistrate positively upholding 'what is wrong, bad or untrue' by a claim of 'authority', versus them simply not punishing such.​

Blessings to you, Ron, and may the Lord lead us in further considering these things (though I won't be discoursing further on this subject).
 
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User20004000

Puritan Board Sophomore
You’re left in the end with civil magistrates (in accordance with biblical precept) protecting with the sword one’s liberty to commit non-criminal sins. On that all Christians should agree. My point is that protection under the law (for instance for empirically observable greed) cashes out as a civil right to such sin. The civil right to biblically established non-criminal sins could be abolished only under tyrannical human government. Accordingly, at best your issue is semantic with respect to whether one’s civil “right” is being protected in such cases. What’s rightfully being protected by the sword in such cases if not one’s civil right to greed?

Case in point. Abortion is an unfortunate civil freedom in our country. If abortion were outlawed, I’d call that the rightful outlawing of a most unfortunate and heinous right under the civil law. Whereas if empirically observable greed were outlawed, that would entail the wrongful outlawing of a moral non-right that should remain a civil right.
 
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