In By Birth or Consent, historian Holly Brewer does nothing less than trace the evolution of the central postulate of liberalism from theory to practice.
Individualism, Consent, and Community
As I discussed earlier, Historian Holly Brewer’s book, By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, & the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority, accounts for changing notions of “consent” in 16th and 17th century Anglo-American society. Her discussion reaches not only the issue of children and consent but also, by implication, the topic of consent as a central postulate of liberalism.
Despite the many virtues of her discussion—indeed, perhaps because of her book’s virtues—I had a nagging sense that a central element of the discussion was missing. This is not a criticism of Brewer. As best I’m able to judge, she accurately reports the intellectual currents of the times she studies. The thing is, I had the same nagging sense of something critically being missed when reading related literature some years ago. Specifically, when reading Reformation-era debates among Protestants on the question of whether baptism should be administered to infants.
Here’s the rub, and Brewer’s chapter on infant baptism brilliantly discusses the point: The question of consent and ecclesiastical community during the era directly parallels the question of consent and political community. That the same question is pressed in both domains in the same time period suggests a similar cause working a reconceptualization of ecclesiology as well as of politics.
The suggestion would be that Baptist ecclesiology reflects social contract theory writ in theological terms. But its influence is not limited to Baptists; Baptists were only those who consistently worked out the theory’s implications for ecclesiology. The theological tangle paedobaptist churches got themselves in during the period over the question of why they baptized infants resulted from their sharing the postulate of consent with Baptist churches but trying to maintain a sacramental practice that made sense under different postulates.
This is the missing factor; one resulting from a false dualism. Brewer sets it out as a decision between “inherited right versus the consent of the people.” By “consent of the people” Brewer means consent of individual people.
Brewer sometimes touches on another option, but does not focus on an older alternative of an organic or corporate understanding of human nature. This is not necessarily in contradiction to individualism. It is, as it were, a human analogue to divine Trinitarianism. It cuts across the dualistic categories of status or consent.
We see glimpses of this in Brewer’s discussion, but she does not neatly distinguish aspects of the organic view of human nature relative to “status” or “inherited right.” For example, Brewer quotes Richard Mather on children of Christian parents being “faederally holy” and their “faederall sanctity,” and so their qualification for baptism.
By “faederall”—the modern word “federal”—Christians of the time meant some sort of union with one’s representative. Thus, for example, the affirmation that the “federal” head of all humanity is Adam. And that the “federal” head of all Christians is Jesus Christ. This “federal” relationship—this union with Adam and with Jesus—answers two questions for the Christians of the time: How and why did all humans fall in Adam’s sin when it is Adam who sinned and not they (the doctrine of original sin), and how and why can humans be saved by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, when it is Jesus who lived, died, and was resurrected and not they?
Sacramental churches—Lutheran, Catholic, and Orthodox—insist this union is a real ontological union of one sort or another. Reformed and Anabaptist churches tend to reject any real ontological union, typically suggesting the union is only symbolic, or leaving the nature of union ambiguous.
But so what? The import is this. As with baptism and ecclesiastical community, so this notion of corporate union has implications for political theory as well.
Brewer’s footnotes occasionally refer to scholarship discussing the king’s “two bodies.” The king has his own physical body, of course. But the king’s body also exists in union with the people, and the people in union with the king. The king’s body encompasses the nation; they exist in organic union.
Critically, in the corporate or organic view, “consent” is no less real for being made by one’s federal representative. We actually catch a residual glimpse of this view in some of the argument over taxation, representation and consent between the American colonists and British metropolitan authorities during the 18th Century.
Any number of quotations could be adduced. For example, Lord Camden, in responding to critics in Parliament in 1775 regarding the British right of “no taxation without representation,” argued,
Taxation and representation are inseparable . . . [F]or whatever is a man’s own, is absolutely his own; no man has a right to take it from him without his consent, either expressed by himself or representative; whoever attempts to do it, attempts an injury; whoever does it, commits a robbery; he throws down and destroys the distinction between liberty and slavery.
Note the suggested reality of consent through one’s representative. One consented when one’s representative consented. This is real individual consent, even though it is not individual-ized consent. While perhaps even antiquated by this time, its assertion invokes a dramatically different view of human nature, a human ontology dramatically different from liberal ontologies.
And here I might fault Brewer a bit, despite the many virtues of her book. In focusing on “status” versus “consent,” she already imposed liberal categories on her subject.
For example, in discussing a baptismal profession of faith being made for an infant by Christian parents, Brewer writes the child has “obviously . . . not made what we would call an ‘informed decision.’” Indeed, he “had made no decision at all.” There she is tone deaf to her subject’s beliefs, and imposes her own. In the older view, consent was real, the decision was real. That it was not made by the individual directly was immaterial to its authenticity.
Needless to say, this older view is nonsense to moderns. The irony for Brewer’s superb book, however, is that, if anything, she understates the depth of the transformation.