John Brown’s Essays on Toleration

John Brown’s Essays on Toleration

In the last John Brown blog entry, this man’s life and ministry were briefly introduced.  Many of his works have been republished and are available online, but his essays on the role of government with respect to the true religion are not available online in a friendly-reading format. The first essay (“on the absurdity of all authoritative toleration of gross heresy, blasphemy or idolatry”) will be presented in future Old Paths blog entries.  The first essay quickly jumps into this subject, so it may be helpful for you to first get some background on the topic.

The question addressed in his essay is this:  Should governments tolerate all religions?  A number of related questions are also addressed, such as:  Should governments support the true Reformed religion?  Was the original Westminster Confession chapter on the Civil Magistrate biblical?

John Brown’s essays should help you see why statements made about the role of the civil magistrate within original Reformed confessions (on the matter of religion) were biblical.

A popular view amongst Reformed theologians these days is that governments should only govern “second table” matters (i.e., the second table of the Ten Commandments – thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit adultery, etc.), or that civil authorities should only govern using natural law (i.e., using a universal, “light of nature” sense of right and wrong).  They see the Lord governing in two distinct and separate kingdoms – the church (heavenly work) and the rest of the world (earthly work), with no necessary biblical interaction between the two. What this means to them is that civil authorities must tolerate all religions, because religions are not their business.  (This perspective has historically been referred to as “voluntarism.”)  Compare this to historic Reformed confessions such as these:

And because the powers which God has ordained, and the liberty which Christ has purchased are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ has established in the Church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the Church. and by the power of the civil magistrate.

Westminster Confession of Faith, 20.4

Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; yet he has authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administrated, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he has power to call synods, to be present at them and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.

Westminster Confession of Faith, 23.3

We believe that our gracious God, because of the depravity of mankind, has appointed kings, princes and magistrates, willing that the world should be governed by certain laws and policies; to the end that the dissoluteness of men might be restrained and all things carried on among them with good order and decency. For this purpose he has invested the magistracy with the sword, for the punishment of evildoers, and for the protection of them that do well. And their office is, not only to have regard unto, and watch for the welfare of the civil state; but also that they protect the sacred ministry; and thus may remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship; that the kingdom of antichrist may be thus destroyed and the kingdom of Christ promoted. They must therefore countenance the preaching of the Word of the gospel everywhere, that God may be honoured and worshipped by every one, as he commands in his Word…

Belgic Confession 36.

The shift away from these confessional statements did not start with the American Christians at the time of their independence, but started well before John Brown was even born.  That history will be discussed in Brown’s first essay.