November 05, 2003

Reformation 2

A while back, I responded to a post by Brian Ulrich on the subject of an Islamic counterpart to the Protestant Reformation. (I made a few comments on this theme in an interesting discussion along the same lines over at Unmedia a while back.) I have been unhappy with what I have written, largely because the subject of the Reformation is vast--the extant primary sources are overwhelming, never mind the secondary literature. It's not a subject that lends itself to blog posts.

The other day I was skimming through The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World: The Influence of Calvin on Five Governments from the 16th through the 18th Centuries by Douglas F. Kelly, and came across this quote, dealing with John Knox, the Scottish reformer, and his dealings with Mary Stuart, the Scottish queen who wanted to reimpose Catholicism on the Scots and, more broadly, the British Isles. Knox opposed her marriage to Don Carlos, the son of King Philip II of Spain, and told her so to her face.

Mary: What have you to do with my marriage? Or what are you within this Commonwealth?

Knox: A subject, Madam, born within the same. And albeit I neither be Earl, Lord nor Baron within it, yet has God made me (how abject that ever I be in your eyes) a profitable member of same; Yea, Madam, to me it pertains no less to forewarn of such things as may hurt it, if I foresee them, than it does to any of the Nobility.

If I recall correctly (and the Kelly book is a useful refresher) Knox derived his notion of political liberty and popular sovereignty almost exclusively from his reading of the Old Testament. Calvin, who had some legal training at a time when legal scholars were trying to understand their civil, Roman legal codes in historical context (a lesser known by-product of the humanist, Renaissance tradition) came up with two notions -- one, that lesser magistrates could resist the tyranny of the top magistrate (read checks and balances), and a second, that individuals had recourse to "private law" (that is, their own moral consciences) to justify resisting tyrants. The former idea came from Calvin's reading of Roman law (Justinian, actually, so the reference is to the later, Christian Roman law); I can't recall for sure, but I think Calvin developed the latter idea out of whole cloth.

A lot of these ideas were developed out of a specific historical context. On the one hand, the Catholics were only too happy to persecute Protestants. On the other, the spectre of truly radical, millenarian, anarchical groups forced the moderate Protestants (and I'd include Calvin and Knox in that group) to temper their rhetoric -- to make clear that they accepted temporal authority, while suggesting conservative grounds (conservative, that is, relative to the true whackos -- the Christian Taliban of the day) for opposing temporal authority. So as radical as it was for John Knox -- a nobody in the eyes of traditional Europe -- to give a queen marital advice, one notes that in addressing her, he is polite nonetheless.

Posted by Ideofact at November 5, 2003 11:41 PM