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One of the most influential works which convinced people to support the American Revolution was a pamphlet by Thomas Paine called "Common Sense". (I first heard about it on Liberty's Kids!) "Common Sense" is famous for Paine's first-principles account of the purpose of government, and how the British monarchy has fallen short of that ideal. Less well-known, however, is chapter 2 of the pamphlet, where Paine lays out a Biblical case against monarchy:

Monarchy is ranked in scripture as one of the sins of the Jews, for which a curse in reserve is denounced against them. The history of that transaction is worth attending to.

The children of Israel being oppressed by the Midianites, Gideon marched against them with a small army, and victory thro' the divine interposition decided in his favour. The Jews, elate with success, and attributing it to the generalship of Gideon, proposed making him a king, saying, "Rule thou over us, thou and thy son, and thy son's son." Here was temptation in its fullest extent; not a kingdom only, but an hereditary one; but Gideon in the piety of his soul replied, "I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you. THE LORD SHALL RULE OVER YOU." Words need not be more explicit: Gideon doth not decline the honour, but denieth their right to give it; neither doth he compliment them with invented declarations of his thanks, but in the positive style of a prophet charges them with disaffection to their proper Sovereign, the King of Heaven.

About one hundred and thirty years after this, they fell again into the same error. The hankering which the Jews had for the idolatrous customs of the Heathens, is something exceedingly unaccountable; but so it was, that laying hold of the misconduct of Samuel's two sons, who were intrusted with some secular concerns, they came in an abrupt and clamorous manner to Samuel, saying, "Behold thou art old, and they sons walk not in thy ways, now make us a king to judge us like all the other nations." And here we cannot observe but that their motives were bad, viz. that they might be LIKE unto other nations, i. e. the Heathens, whereas their true glory lay in being as much UNLIKE them as possible. "But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, give us a King to judge us; and Samuel prayed unto the Lord, and the Lord said unto Samuel, hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee, for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, THAT I SHOULD NOT REIGN OVER THEM. According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even unto this day, wherewith they have forsaken me, and served other Gods: so do they also unto thee. Now therefore hearken unto their voice, howbeit, protest solemnly unto them and show them the manner of the King that shall reign over them," i.e. not of any particular King, but the general manner of the Kings of the earth whom Israel was so eagerly copying after. And notwithstanding the great distance of time and difference of manners, the character is still in fashion. "And Samuel told all the words of the Lord unto the people, that asked of him a King. And he said, This shall be the manner of the King that shall reign over you. He will take your sons and appoint them for himself for his chariots and to be his horsemen, and some shall run before his chariots" (this description agrees with the present mode of impressing men) "and he will appoint him captains over thousands and captains over fifties, will set them to clear his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots, And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers" (this describes the expense and luxury as well as the oppression of Kings) "and he will take your fields and your vineyards, and your olive yards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give them to his officers and to his servants" (by which we see that bribery, corruption, and favouritism, are the standing vices of Kings) "and he will take the tenth of your men servants, and your maid servants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work: and he will take the tenth of your sheep, and ye shall be his servants, and ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shell have chosen, AND THE LORD WILL NOT HEAR YOU IN THAT DAY." This accounts for the continuation of Monarchy; neither do the characters of the few good kings which have lived since, either sanctify the title, or blot out the sinfulness of the origin; the high encomium of David takes no notice of him OFFICIALLY AS A KING, but only as a MAN after God's own heart. "Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel, and they said, Nay, but we will have a king over us, that we may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us, and go out before us and fight our battles." Samuel continued to reason with them but to no purpose; he set before them their ingratitude, but all would not avail; and seeing them fully bent on their folly, he cried out, "I will call unto the Lord, and he shall send thunder and rain" (which was then a punishment, being in the time of wheat harvest) "that ye may perceive and see that your wickedness is great which ye have done in the sight of the Lord, IN ASKING YOU A KING. So Samuel called unto the Lord, and the Lord sent thunder and rain that day, and all the people greatly feared the Lord and Samuel. And all the people said unto Samuel, Pray for thy servants unto the Lord thy God that we die not, for WE HAVE ADDED UNTO OUR SINS THIS EVIL, TO ASK A KING." These portions of scripture are direct and positive. They admit of no equivocal construction. That the Almighty hath here entered his protest against monarchical government is true, or the scripture is false. And a man hath good reason to believe that there is as much of kingcraft as priestcraft in withholding the scripture from the public in popish countries. For monarchy in every instance is the popery of government.

My question is, how well-accepted is Thomas Paine's interpretation of these Biblical passages? Is it a minority view among scholars, or is the mainstream view that the Bible is speaking out against monarchy in these passages?

  • I've never heard of Paine or this theory, so I'm pretty sure it's very much a tiny minority. – curiousdannii Apr 24 '15 at 13:33
  • How would someone answer this question? What is a reasonable measure of "how well accepted" an interpretation is? – Flimzy Apr 24 '15 at 14:09
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    As a matter of history, the colonists resisted pressure to start a new monarchy at a time when monarchy was almost universal in the Western world. And monarchy has been on the decline ever since that time period. So whether or not Paine's views are accepted among Bible scholars, they seem to have suffused Western, and even Eastern, culture since that time--not necessarily due to Paine's advocacy of them, of course. – Lee Woofenden Apr 24 '15 at 15:14
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    @curiousdannii Thomas Paine was a very famous American revolutionist. His motivations for this "theology" were political. He was not a theologian, so I doubt theologians quote him at any length. If any churches would quote him they would likely be American. Being American, I've heard this a good deal of times, however, I've also heard that the American revolutionaries were in sin, the exact opposite opinion. – fredsbend Apr 26 '15 at 0:11
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    To close voters, I don't see a problem with the question. It's not primarily opinion based and it is quite clear. – fredsbend Apr 26 '15 at 0:15
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The short answer: no, Paine's opinion is not widely accepted.

First of all, Thomas Paine's opinions on Christianity should be taken with a few grains of salt. He was not a particularly religious person:

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit. 1

Second, there is a large body of theological writing that uses the Bible to argue in favor of monarchy. Thomas Aquinas believed that non-monarchial governments tended to suffer more bloodshed and quoted verses from Jeremiah and Ezekiel to prove it. Others, however, have used the Bible to argue that republicanism or democracy are better options. As might be expected, most of the opinions in favor of monarchy come from ancient and medieval writers, and most of the opinions in favor of republicanism or democracy come from more modern writers (Protestants, in particular).

The passages Paine cites certainly show that the Israelite request for a king was based on wrong motives and came at an inappropriate time. But Jacob had prophesied long before that the Israelites would one day have a king:

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples (Genesis 49:10, ESV).

Christ is also referred to as a king in the New Testament. The Bible never suggests that monarchy is evil in and of itself. The problem is that monarchs may seize control illegitimately, or rule inappropriately. Christ is a legitimate monarch, and, since He is sinless, His rule is just. The same cannot be said of all human monarchs. Modern arguments against monarchy don't generally put too much weight on the I Samuel passage because of Jacob's prophecy. (Additionally, we don't have the advantage of someone like Samuel being able to rule us--the people rejected Samuel's leadership for Saul's, not democracy for monarchy). It is more common for modern Biblical cases against monarchy base their argument on man's fallen nature, contending that it is unwise to place absolute power in the hands of one sinful person.

1: Thomas Paine. The Theological Works of Thomas Paine, pages 31-32. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=4G0tAAAAYAAJ&hl=en

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I'm gathering the OP is asking whether the Bible can be read as being against monarchy. Yes, in some ways. There are certain things God opposes because they directly violate His essence/character. These are moral laws. There are other things which are not matters of eternal spiritual significance, but which are matters of earthly common sense (which God promotes). For example, Jesus acknowledged that building one's house on a poor foundation, such as sand, was foolish. However, the graver spiritual mistake is trusting one's eternity to a poor foundation! Matthew 7:26.

Structures of government mostly fall into the common sense category. In the primary passage Paine cites, the error of Israel was twofold. They were erring in earthly common sense : God forewarned the people about consequences the world has since come to understand. Singular power can do an immense amount of harm unchecked.
Their greater error was not related to the specific government structure but to their spiritual motives for wanting it. 1 Samuel 8:8.

So God is not opposed to monarchy in the same way He opposes murder, but the Bible does advise against it on the basis of common sense.

  • Well, my question is about Paine's interpretation of these specific Biblical passages and whether they're against monarchy, not about the Bible as a whole. – Keshav Srinivasan Apr 27 '15 at 15:10
  • The answer is more or less the same. Paine read the passages much more dogmatically than would most scholars. The sin in asking for a king was the motive to pursue pagan ideologies(1 Samuel 8:8), not the specific structure of government. However, even if their motives were pure, the concept lacked common sense. God laid out the obvious disadvantages and harm absolute authority can do. – user2782001 Apr 27 '15 at 15:37

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