The Bible and Liberty

In the course of recounting an online argument, novelist Lars Walker gives an excellent account of how the Bible gave ordinary men and women the conceptual ability to question their rulers, thus, in his words, turning them “from subjects to citizens.”

From the American Spectator:

I’ve written before in this space about the 18th-19th century Norwegian peasant revivalist, Hans Nielsen Hauge. In a book on Hauge’s life published in 1911, bishop and historian A. Christian Bang wrote (my translation): “Everyone knows that the monarchical officials were not accustomed to any contradiction from the people’s side; even when they did not have the law with them, and even when it was a matter of arbitrary and invented laws, they seldom encountered spoken opposition. The people’s congenital respect for authority, their characteristic loyalty, made them quick to submit.… But suddenly people all over the country are turning on the officials; the formerly docile farmers refuse to obey and set their own ideas above the initiatives of the wisest in the land. Men prefer to go to prison, to be martyrs, than to follow the exhortations of the officials.… This is a matter of particular interest as the first significant collision between absolutism and a freer participatory order in our country.”

What Bang is examining here is the first flowering of liberalism — what in Norway is called Venstre, the Left — in one European country. But note its source. This sudden burst of public courage doesn’t rise from the study of Rousseau or Voltaire, and certainly not from Marx, who was just being born about that time. It rose from newly literate peasants reading their Bibles. It was access to the Bible that began to turn ordinary Europeans from subjects into citizens.

Every counterculturalist who ever wore a “Question Authority” button ought to thank black-clad 19th century pietists for coming up with the idea in the first place.

“Historical trivia,” the skeptic will reply. “It could have been any book, the Koran or the Canterbury Tales, just as long as they were reading. It’s the fact that they read, not the particular book.”

No, I don’t think so.

Imagine that peasant, in homespun clothes and wooden shoes, facing the bailiff in his uniform and shiny boots. What gives him the right to talk back? Where does he get the confidence to believe that the bailiff’s brute power — which will certainly see him imprisoned in the short run — must eventually bow before his own common sense? It can’t be a firm belief in the rightness of his own heart. The bailiff has a heart too, as does the king, and they have steel to back them up. No, it’s a supernatural belief that God has spoken in words that simple men can understand, and that that truth has God’s support and must win in the end.

Our modern worldview offers no such assurance.

As Paul Johnson notes in Modern Times, moral relativism always leads to Totalitarianism. Because in a morally relative age, power alone can settle any question.

“Well, you can’t appeal to the Bible anymore,” says the skeptic. “That day is over.”

And that’s what I’m afraid of.

 

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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