Romans 13: Person (Decretive), Office (Preceptive), or Both?

Louis W. Hensler III, JD, professor at Regent University’s School of Law, wrote a tremendously helpful paper for the Regent University Law Review titled “Flexible Interpretations of ‘The Powers that Be’ from Constantine to Mandela and Beyond.” He outlines two different understandings of “the powers that be” in Romans 13:1-7 and traces the interpretations over the last 2,000 years, showing how Christians have tried to answer “How can Paul’s teaching here about the role of rulers as “servants of God” be squared with the practical experience that rulers sometimes are and/or do evil?”

The first view, labeled the positivistic interpretation says the meaning of

“the powers that be are ordained of God” is that “God is sovereign, and this [sovereignty] seemingly extends to the placement of particular governing authorities over their subjects.”63 In this process, God sovereignly superintends so that the ruling of even evil rulers ends up redounding to good in some ultimate sense: “Paul means that consciously or unconsciously, willingly or unwillingly, in one way or another, the power will praise the good work and punish the evil.” (50)

The second view, labeled the legitimistic interpretation sees it as

Paul’s normative teaching concerning what rulers ought to do rather than as a description of what rulers in fact do,67 although the context pushes against this reading… Romans 13 serves as a sort of yardstick against which the legitimacy of rulers can be measured.72 Yoder identified this legitimistic interpretation of Romans 13—the passage includes “certain basic outlines of the prescriptions which God has divinely established for the state to fulfill.”73 The “state” that fails to fulfill those God-ordained functions is no state, and no submission is owed to that state.74

Hensler observes

What is unique about Paul’s instruction in Romans 13 regarding the relationship between ruler and ruled is that, unlike Paul’s other teachings concerning relationships of power, in which he addresses both sides of the power relationship, the position of ruler fulfills no rhetorical role in Romans 13:1–7.92 While first century rulers might have had an interest in Paul’s writing, the ruler could not respond to the purpose of Paul’s writing.93 Paul addresses only the ruled, not the ruler.94 (53)

What follows is both a selective summary and my own application and commentary on Hensler’s paper. Rather than positivistic and legitimistic, I prefer to sort the logical options according to God’s two wills. God either “ordains” the powers that be providentially (He empowers specific men to rule over others by His decree) or preceptively (He establishes an office/institution of ruler/civil government that every society must fill and must submit to).

A. The Context of Paul’s Writing: “the Powers That Be” Persecute the Church Pre-312 A.D.

Irenaeus (positivistic/decretal):

[E]arly church leaders accepted the idea that even though rulers tended to be hostile to the church, those particular hostile rulers had been personally selected by God himself. In his major work railing against gnostic dualism, Irenaeus quoted Romans 13 to show God’s direct control over the selection of human rulers.101… Irenaeus resolved the tension between the character of the rulers that Christians knew and the role for rulers that Paul proclaimed (ministers of God) in another way. According to Irenaeus, God imposed the fear of the sword wielded by these human rulers to bring to mankind “some degree of justice” and “mutual forbearance through dread of the sword.”103 In this limited way, human rulers are “God’s ministers.”104 But Irenaeus taught that all human rulers, not only the good ones, perform the role of God’s minister.105 Accordingly, God appoints kings

suited to those who are at the time placed under their government. Some of these rulers are given for the correction and the benefit of their subjects, and for the preservation of justice; but others for the purposes of fear and punishment and rebuke; others, as the subjects deserve it, are for mockery, insolence and pride; while the just judgment of God . . . passes equally upon all.106

Thus, all people receive from God rulers suited to their needs. Good people may get good rulers who make them better. Bad people may receive bad rulers as a punishment. But all rulers, good and bad, are God’s ministers for good.

Origen (legitimistic/preceptive)

Origen then addresses in more detail a question that had been discussed briefly by Irenaeus: “What then? Is even that authority that persecutes God’s servants, attacks the faith, and subverts religion, from God?”113 Origen responds to this rhetorical question by drawing a perhaps imperfect analogy between rulers as given as a gift from God and sight as a gift from God.114 Origen’s text reasons that even though vision is a gift from God, people have the power to use the gift of sight for good or for evil.115 So God has given human rulers for good purposes even though they may be put to a bad use.116 Nevertheless, according to Origen, worldly judges are God’s ministers because they punish many of “the crimes that God wants to be punished.”

Here we see the beginnings of the legitimistic interpretation that understands God’s “ordination” as a reference to his preceptive will, though not fully worked out. God ordains the institution of civil government, which may be used properly or improperly by men.

B. The “Conversion” of Constantine: The Church Becomes “the Powers That Be”

Constantine converted to Christianity and it eventually became the official religion of Rome. “This shift in perspective presented a new possibility for the interpretation of Romans 13. Now, for the first time, Romans 13 might be applied to rulers as well as to ruled.137”

C. The Middle Ages Begin: The Church over “the Powers That Be”

Ambrosiaster

Ambrosiaster saw Paul’s injunction to obedience to human law as a sort of stepping stone toward righteousness: “The earthly law is a kind of tutor, who helps little children along so that they can tackle a stronger degree of righteousness.”149 This view would have been unthinkable in the context of Church/state hostility in which Paul wrote.150… “In effect, Paul sees the divine law as being delegated to human authorities.”153 Ambrosiaster’s significant shift from “God sovereignly uses even bad rulers to do good” to “God delegates the divine law to human authorities” was part of a larger work that became quite influential.

Chrysostom

Chrysostom continued to struggle with the question that had plagued the church in the pre- Constantinian era—how can an evil ruler be called “God’s minister”?160 Chrysostom’s solution to this difficulty has become one of the most widely- adopted by Christians seeking to avoid the apparent sweep of Paul’s teaching in Romans 13.161 Chrysostom did not agree with Irenaeus that God appoints all rulers—rather, Chrysostom taught that Paul was talking about God’s ordaining the institution of government, not appointing particular rulers.162 Thus, according to Chrysostom, while the institution of government is “ordained” by God, individual rulers may not be so ordained.163 Under this interpretation, Paul is commanding merely respect for the office of the ruler, not necessarily submission to the particular ruler’s commands.

Chrysostom buttressed his interpretation by pointing out the openness of the terminology used by Paul in Romans 13—the text says “ ‘there is no authority except from God,’ ” not “ ‘there is no ruler except from God.’ ”164 Chrysostom thought the word used by Paul exousia was more likely to refer to the institution of government than to individual rulers.165 But Chrysostom’s interpretation seems doubtful because he fails to take account of Paul’s next sentence. As Chrysostom notes, Paul writes that “there is no authority [exousia (singular)] except from God.”166 Chrysostom fails to account for Paul’s next clause: “the powers [exousiai (plural)] that be are ordained of God.”167 Even if the clause quoted by Chrysostom could be interpreted to apply to the concept of government generally, and not to individual rulers, that interpretation is difficult to maintain through the next phrase, which speaks of the powers using the plural, thus suggesting that Paul has multiple individual powers in mind, and not merely one concept of institutional power.

Chrysostom’s interpretation may have been foreshadowed in Origen’s idea that evil human rulers are God’s good gift put to a bad use.168 Origen’s idea moves toward abstracting from particular rulers, who may be evil, to the general concept of rulers, which is good.169

Augustine

By Augustine’s time, the original gap between the Church and the political “powers that be,” which resulted in Paul’s addressing Romans 13 exclusively to subjects and not to government, was gone: “government was deeply involved with religion” and “Christians were deeply involved with the government.”176… The Donatists whom Augustine was persecuting apparently complained that the Christian authorities who were persecuting them should follow the example of the Apostles, who “did not seek [laws against impieties] from the kings of the earth.”190 Augustine’s response was direct: “Then there was no emperor who had believed in Christ, no emperor who would serve Him by passing laws in favor of religion and against impiety . . . .”191 Of course, earlier emperors had passed laws in favor of religion and against impiety, but Christians, including Jesus and Paul themselves, had been at the receiving, not at the giving, end of that earlier persecution.192 Augustine defended physical persecution by citing the positive examples of the “[m]any” cases of “bad slaves” who were “called back to the Lord by the lash of temporal scourges.”193 By “embracing in principle the use of coercion against schismatics and heretics, [Augustine] lays a general foundation for religious persecution,”194 making him, in essence, “the first theorist of the Inquisition.”195

Theodoret

Some of Theodoret’s commentary seems to agree with Chrysostom, at least to the extent that although God ordains the concept of rule, He does not appoint particular wicked authorities: “the divine apostle made ruling and being ruled dependent on the providence of God, not the appointment of this one or that: the authority of unjust people is not by God’s mandate—only the provision for government.”204 But then Theodoret takes a page out of Irenaeus’ book, teaching that “in his wish to correct the fallen,” God “even allows them to be ruled by wicked rulers.”205 Theodoret finally returns to Chrysostom’s argument: “For it is not the wickedness of individual rulers which comes from God but the establishment of the ruling power itself.”206

Theodoret’s attempt to combine Chrysostom (office) and Irenaeus (person) is important to note. The two interpretations are mutually exclusive. As Chrysostom said, if God’s ordination refers to the office or institution of civil government, then it does not refer to the ordination of any particular person to that office. Conversely, if God’s ordination refers to every particular ruler then it does not refer to the office or institution in general. If it refers to the office then it has nothing to do with wicked rulers. Theodoret’s self-contradictory interpretation will be taken up by others later.

Glossa Ordinaria

The commentary in the Glossa adopted Irenaeus’ position that both good and evil authorities were ordained by God: “Concerning a good authority, it is clear that God has appointed it. It can be seen that he has also reasonably appointed evil authority, since the good are themselves purified by it and the evil condemned, while the authority itself sinks lower.”212 All “power” comes from God, including the wicked ruler’s power to harm: “The power of harming is given to wicked and unworthy rulers so that the patience of the good may be proved and the iniquity of the evil may be punished.”213 Even an evil ruler “does not harm the good person but purifies him.”214 The commentary clearly recognizes that rulers do not always praise good and punish evil, but notes that those who do good always will be praised or benefitted, even by evil rulers: “you will have praise from it—even if it is an evil authority, since you have occasion for a greater crown.”215

Aquinas

Aquinas apparently understood Paul to be requiring submission to all higher powers, good and bad: “he says indefinitely higher powers so that we may subject ourselves to them by reason of the sublimity of their office, even if they are wicked.”221 Aquinas makes this universal obligation of submission abundantly clear in his comments on verse three, in which Paul states that “rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.”222 Aquinas comments that “[t]his can also refer to evil rulers, who are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. For even though they sometimes unjustly persecute those who do good, the latter have no reason to fear; because if they endure it patiently, it turns out for their good . . . .”223… Further, echoing the earlier line of teaching beginning with Irenaeus and citing the Old Testament example of Assyria sent to punish Israel, Aquinas argues that “even wicked rulers are God’s ministers for inflicting punishments according to God’s plan; although this is not their intention.”226

Note Aquinas’ continuation of Theodoret’s contradictory combination of Chrysostom and Irenaeus. We owe obedience to all rulers out of respect for the office, which has been ordained by God. This would imply that we do not have to be subject to wicked rulers since they are acting contrary to their office. Therefore he switches to Irenaeus’ interpretation that refers to God’s providential ordination of individuals, not the office.

D. Seeds of Separation of Church and State Sown in the Reformation

Martin Luther

Luther clearly concluded that Paul’s teaching concerning submission to rulers applied, not only to good rulers, but also to “evil and unbelieving rulers.”234 As discussed above, some taught that Romans 13 could be used as a yardstick, not only for the conduct of the believing ruled, but also for the ruler by interpreting Paul’s phrase “the powers that are are ordained by God” to mean that “the powers that are of God are ordered.”235 Luther definitively rejected such reinterpretation. Luther’s conclusion from Paul’s teaching in Romans 13:1 was that “whatever powers exist and flourish, exist and flourish because God has ordered them.”236…

This survey of the teachings of Martin Luther on Romans 13 is a good place to revisit the distinction, introduced by Chrysostom, between the abstract concept of government and the more concrete specific individual governors. Word choice becomes important here. Modern English translations of Romans 13 translate the original Greek exousia into the rather abstract English word “authority.” Older English translations used the somewhat more concrete word “power.” It is worth noting here that the Vulgate, Luther’s “Bible” before he translated the Bible into German, translated exousia as potestas [power] instead of auctoritas [authority].239 Luther’s translation came down firmly on the side of the more concrete rather than the more conceptual term. “The principal organizing idea in Luther’s political thought is Oberkeit.”240 Oberkeit does not connote an abstract concept as the word “authority” does.241 Oberkeit “cannot fail to call to mind the persons who are in authority, ‘superiors’ . . . . And this property of the term sits well with the character of Luther’s thought, for he tends to personalize political authority.”242 This word choice facilitates Luther’s acceptance of the idea that God chooses individual rulers.

Luther moved readily from the abstract Oberkeit to the personal die Oberen (‘superiors’), signifying persons of superior political status. This translation of Oberkeit as ‘authority’ is far from felicitous. It not only implies a distinction between ‘authority’ and ‘power’ which Luther precisely did not make. It also suggests an abstract quality to Luther’s thought which it lacks: when speaking of Oberkeit he thought in terms of persons (and more often than not one person, a prince or lord), equipped with power. He alternated freely between ‘authority’ (Oberkeit) and ‘those in authority’ (die Oberen).243…

In interpreting Romans 13, Luther focused on the Christian’s obligation to submit to government force, not on the need to cooperate with some abstract concept of orderly government:

The crucial term here is Gewalt, which, according to the Grimms’ Deutsches Wörterbuch, means any or all of: power, strength, might, efficacy . . . empire, rule, dominion, mastery, sway, jurisdiction, government, protection . . . potestas, facultas, imperium, dictio, arbitrium, ius . . . potentia, vis, violentia, iniuria, indignitas. Its most prominent meaning, however, is force, power or might. . . . Gewalt can mean—and often in the text does mean—mere coercion, force, or violence.246

The mere existence of the power, not its “legitimacy,” was the crucial fact for Luther… Thus, for Luther, the point of Paul’s teaching in Romans 13 was that God had given the power of coercion, or force, to rulers, and Christians must submit to that power, not that God had given good government and that Christians ought to submit to the government as long as it is good.248

The Anabaptists:

non-resistant

The left wing of the Reformation would sweep away the Constantinian influence on the church’s view of its relationship with the state: “With believers’ baptism, nonresistance, and the rejection of the oaths binding Christians politically to Christendom, the Anabaptists sought to establish a faithful church separated from Christendom.”256 Luther’s interpretation of Romans 13 is not inconsistent with this non-resistant wing of the Anabaptist movement.257

resistant/revolutionary

Müntzer and his followers destroyed the Mallerbach chapel near Allstedt in the spring of 1524, and Müntzer followed up that summer with his Sermon to the Princes, in which he turned Luther’s interpretation of Romans 13 on its head: “Saint Paul . . . says that the sword of rulers is given for the punishment of evildoers and to protect the pious.”263 This is the first step in Müntzer’s radical interpretation of Romans 13—the passage is a command to the powers that be themselves, not merely to those who are to submit to the powers that be.264 Luther “saw the sense of the passage as an injunction for Christians to be obedient to secular authority since it is ordained by God,” but Müntzer “uses the passage to enjoin positive action by rulers to promote a Christian society.”265 Thus, the approach of the radical Anabaptists fit well with the post-Constantinian ideas of Chrysostom and his followers, that Romans 13 could be put to a use that Paul could not have imagined—as an injunction to temporal rulers.266

Hubmaier

Luther’s position is similar to the pre-Constantinian position taken by Irenaeus and to that ultimately taken by the moderate Anabaptist leader, Balthasar Hubmaier… In discussing Romans 13, Hubmaier analogized human rulers to natural forces controlled by a sovereign God:

Now, God always punishes the wicked, sometimes with hail, rain, and sickness, and sometimes through special people, who have been ordained and elected for this. Therefore Paul calls the authorities handmaidens of God. For what God can do himself he often prefers to do through his creatures as his tools.273

Calvin

Calvin tended to see ordained government as more of an unqualified blessing. Government “powers are of God, not as the pestilence, hunger, war and such like punishments of sin, are said to be of him; but because he hath appointed them for the lawful and right administration of the world.”278 Calvin distinguished between good government, which is the ordinance of God, and bad government: “tyrannies and unjust dominations, inasmuch as they are full of deformity, are not of the ordinary government.”279…

In thus seeing bad government as God’s blessing that man has put to bad use rather than as God’s punishment of man’s evil, Calvin tended to align his view a little more closely with those of Origen and Chrysostom and their followers.282 Calvin reads Paul’s teaching as going beyond merely commanding Christian citizens to submit—Calvin thought Paul also was writing to rulers about how they ought to view their own role.283 Calvin saw Paul as commanding magistrates to use the sword to punish evil men.284 Thus, there emerged from the Protestant Reformation two strains of thought concerning “the powers that be.” Luther and the more moderate/pacifist wings of the Anabaptists tended to focus on the Christian’s obligation to submit to all rulers, good and bad, as instruments sovereignly ordained by God.285 Calvin and the more radical Anabaptists tended to see Romans 13 as teaching further that rulers are to be self-conscious instruments of God.286

Hensler does not draw this out (perhaps because he is not aware that Calvin actually taught non-resistance to tyrants – Waldron demonstrates this very clearly in his unpublished master’s thesis), but Calvin clearly followed Aquinas and Theodoret’s self-contradictory combination of Irenaeus and Chrysostom. Romans 13 refers to God’s ordination of the institution of civil government. However, when rulers step beyond the bounds of their office, we must still submit to them because God is providentially using them for His purposes (to punish a people for their sin). In his commentary on Genesis 14, Calvin says

[T]hough Chedorlaomer had rendered so many people tributary to him by tyranny rather than by lawful authority, and on that account his ambition is to be condemned; yet his subjects are justly punished for having rashly rebelled. For although liberty is by no means to be despised, yet the subjection which is once imposed upon us cannot, without implied rebellion against God, be shaken off; because ‘every power is ordained by God,’ notwithstanding, in its commencement, it may have flowed from the lust of dominion, (Romans 13:1.)

And in his Institutes:

But if we have respect to the word of God, it will lead us farther, and make us subject not only to the authority of those princes who honestly and faithfully perform their duty toward us, but all princes, by whatever means they have so become, although there is nothing they less perform than the duty of princes. For though the Lord declares that a ruler to maintain our safety is the highest gift of his beneficence, and prescribes to rulers themselves their proper sphere, he at the same time declares, that of whatever description they may be, they derive their power from none but him. Those, indeed, who rule for the public good, are true examples and specimens of his beneficence, while those who domineer unjustly and tyrannically are raised up by him to punish the people for their iniquity. Still all alike possess that sacred majesty with which he has invested lawful power… even an individual of the worst character, one most unworthy of all honour, if invested with public authority, receives that illustrious divine power which the Lord has by his word devolved on the ministers of his justice and judgment, and that, accordingly, in so far as public obedience is concerned, he is to be held in the same honour and reverence as the best of kings.

And, first, I would have the reader carefully to attend to that Divine Providence which, not without cause, is so often set before us in Scripture, and that special act of distributing kingdoms, and setting up as kings whomsoever he pleases. (Institutes 4.20.25-26)

Vermigli

Hensler does not mention Vermigli, but he is worth commenting on as he agreed with Calvin and quotes Chrysostom in support.

This place of the Apostle partaineth to that commandment of the law, Honor thy father and thy mother. For in the olde time, as Aristotle also wryteth, in his Politiques, fathers gave laws to their famely, and to them were as kings. And amongst the Romanes the Senators were called Patres conscripti, that is, appointed Fathers. For a magistrate is nothing els but the father of the country…

A magistrate is a person elected, and that of God, to defend the lawes and peace, and with punishments, and the sword to represse vices and evils, and by all manner of means to advaunce vertues. The efficient cause is God, the end is the preservation of the lawes and of peace, the banishing away of vices and discommodities, and the increase of vertues…

But for that we see that in kingdoms many things are done overthwarly and unjustly, lawes are perverted, and the commandments of God are violated, many thinke that it can not be, that such powers should be of God. But as Chrysostome very well admonisheth, the thing itself, that is, the principall function, must be distinguished from the person. For it is not to be doubted but that the person, for as much as he is a man, may abuse a good thing, but the thing it self considered apart, forasmache as it is good, cannot come from any els where but from God…

Howbeit God observeth this order, to use wicked and ungodly Princes to punish the wicked doinges of the people… And after that men being in this sort chastised doo returne unto God, eh comforteth them, and provideth for them gentler princes, and more just governers… Wherefore not only good and just princes doo raigne by the wil of the lord, but also ungodly and wicked tiranns…

I would to God they which beare dominion, would always have this in theyr mind, that that office which they execute is the ordinance of God, doubtles they would not then in such sort abuse it. (Commentary on Romans)

Virmigli distinguishes clearly between the two wills of God:

[F]or that evill princes, and such which after that by wicked means have obteyned the kingdome, doo by worse meanes governe it, these I say in that they thus beastly behave themselves, have not a respect to the will of God, which is revealed unto us either by the law of nature, or in the holy scriptures. For by that will of God theyr doinges and endevors are most manifestly reproved. And in this manner they are sayd not to raigne by God, for that they apply not themselves to the written and revealed will of God. Howbeit it can not be denied but that God by his hidden and effectual will would have them to raigne to that end which we have now declared.

He distinguishes yet moves fluidly between ordination by God’s preceptive will and God’s providential use of rulers as instruments, blending the two together when it is convenient to explain why we are to submit to rulers (because of their office) even when they are wicked and disregard the office (because God is providentially using them to chastise us). The result is self-contradiction. (See more here.)

The Magdeburg Confession

The Confession took the position that Paul was requiring submission only to those authorities who are “ministers” or “servants” of God.291 Governments that persecute the good are not God’s “ministers,” are not “ordained of God,” and, therefore, do not fall under the obligation of submission taught in Romans 13.292 The idea here is that in describing powers as “ministers of God,” Paul was delimiting the obligation of submission.293 As long as the power acts as God’s minister, then the power is owed an obligation of submission.294 But when the power exceeds its authority by acting contrary to God’s will, then the power loses its delegated authority and with it the obligation of submission.295

Note that this is the necessary logical consequence of the belief that Romans 13 refers to the ordination of an office or institution.

Beza

Beza had previously approved the Magdeburg Confession, which laid the groundwork for an interpretation of Romans 13 that permitted Christian resistance to evil rulers.299 Beza admitted that the tyrant “is most often an evil or scourge sent by God for the chastisement of nations.”300 Yet, he accepted the right of the “oppressed” to use “remedies in addition to repentance and prayers.”301 Beza did not, however, extend to the private citizen the right of resistance of a tyrannical sovereign—that right was reserved for lower magistrates.302

E. Samuel Rutherford and the Popularization of Resistance Theology

Rutherford

Rutherford’s approach is consonant with that taken in the Magdeburg Confession. Also, like Chrysostom, Rutherford grounded his understanding of the distinction between the person of the king and the office of the ruler on Romans 13.307 Rutherford affirmed that Paul was writing of the office, not the particular person.308 By thus bringing Chrysostom and the Magdeburg Confession fully together, Rutherford made it possible for the follower of Paul to resist a tyrannical ruler while obeying Paul’s command to submit to the office.309 Thus, Rutherford concluded that Romans 13 commands “subjection to the power and office of the magistrate in abstracto.”310 According to Rutherford’s reading, Paul’s text would not require subjection “to the abused and tyrannical power of the king.”311

To spell out Rutherford’s logic in greater detail, he believed that Paul commanded subjection to “higher powers.”312 “But no powers commanding things unlawful, and killing the innocent people of God, can be . . . higher powers . . . .”313 When tyrants command the unlawful and kill the innocent, they do so “not by virtue of any office.”314 Thus, rulers “commanding unjust things and killing the innocent” are not the “powers ordained of God” of which Paul writes in Romans 13.315 The office is ordained of God, but such personal tyrannies are not.316…

“But the man who is king, commanding unjust things . . . is not the minister of God . . . ; therefore the man may be resisted, by this text, when the office and power cannot be resisted.”320 Rutherford repeatedly emphasizes Chrysostom’s distinction between the abstract “office” and the concrete “officer”: “Paul . . . forbiddeth us to resist the power, in abstracto; therefore, it must be the man, in concreto, that we must resist.”321 Rutherford forcefully rejected the interpretation that whatever “powers that be” are therefore “ordained of God” and therefore owed submission: “nor dream we that the naked accident of royal authority is to be feared and honoured as the Lord’s anointed.”322 Rutherford addressed the example of the specific power that was in place at the time of Paul’s writing, the Roman emperor Nero, and argued consistent with all else Rutherford had said that Nero, the bloodthirsty “persecutor of Christians,” was owed no subjection.323

The American Revolution

Buzzard and Campbell likewise observed that “[t]he New England clergy generally taught that as long as the king enforced God’s commands, he was owed obedience and assistance. If, however, he violated God’s commands, the people had the authority to resist him.”338… [Elisha] thought a proper understanding of Romans 13 required an appreciation of the distinction “between the powers which are, and the powers which are not.”346 Subjection is owed only to the powers that be.347 “On the other hand—the powers that are not, are not . . . the powers that are of GOD, not his ordinance, and so no subjection to them [is] required in this text.”348 Legal powers are “the powers that be” and “arbitrary” powers are the powers which are not.349…

To avoid what [Samuel] West labeled “the doctrine of unlimited passive obedience,”356 he employed what will by now be a familiar interpretation of Paul’s letter. He assumed that Paul was teaching that the “magistracy” rather than that particular “magistrates” are ordained by God.357 Once he determined that magistrates are ordained of God only in the sense that the institution of magistracy is necessary “for the preservation and safety of mankind,” then he succinctly concluded that “resistance must be criminal only so far forth as they . . . act up to the end of their institution, and ceases being criminal when they cease being the ministers of God.”358… Good rulers are ordained by God, but wicked rulers are ordained by Satan.362

To his credit, West did not entirely ignore the context in which Paul had written his letter: “I know it is said that the magistrates were, at the time when the apostle wrote, heathens, and that Nero, that monster of tyranny, was then Emperor of Rome . . . .”363 After suggesting that Paul may have written toward the beginning of Nero’s reign, when the emperor might have been characterized as a “minister of God for good,” West maintained that, to the extent that Nero was a tyrant, the plain meaning of Paul’s text is that Nero was not ordained by God and therefore not due submission.364…

Like Samuel West, [Zabdiel] Adams interpreted Paul’s phrase “the powers that be are ordained of God,” not to mean that particular “rulers are elevated to their places by the immediate agency of heaven,”371 but rather that government in general “is of divine appointment.”372 Thus, the ministers of Colonial America were able to reconcile the teaching of the Apostle Paul in Romans 13 with the American Revolution.

Modern Context

The Third Reich

Bonhoeffer noted again (as Luther, Bonhoeffer himself, and others also already had) that Paul’s command was “addressed to the Christians, not to the powers.”411 Bonhoeffer understood Paul’s command to demand submission to whatever powers “exist,” be they good or bad, both sorts of powers God will use to work for the good of Christians.412 But Bonhoeffer also saw that Romans 13’s failure to address any command to “the powers that be” cuts the other way as well: “No State is entitled to read into St. Paul’s words a justification of its own existence.”413…

So Bonhoeffer saw the State as ordained by God in a limited way, much as Luther did415—it is a (sometimes passive or even resistant) tool that God uses to accomplish His purposes on earth.

This view of the state is confirmed in Bonhoeffer’s understanding of Paul’s assurance that “rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.” In Bonhoeffer’s view, Paul noted that the Christian need not fear the State, not because the State is the self-conscious “minister of God,” but because God sovereignly controls the State, even in its mistakes, to accomplish His divine purposes.416 This is so even if the State punishes the one who does well—in that case, such punishment is the humble calling of the follower of Jesus, who likewise was punished for doing good.417…

This interpretation of Romans 13 might be characterized as a theology of the State, but it is not a theology for the State.

Murray

Hensler does not include Murray, but I mention him here because of his comments regarding the two wills of God.

The propositions that the authorities are of God and ordained of God are not to be understood as referring merely to God’s decretive will. The terms could be used to express God’s decretive ordination but this is not their precise import here. The context shows that the ordination of which the apostle now speaks is that of institution which is obliged to perform the appointed functions. The civil magistrate is not the only means decreed in God’s providence for the punishment of evildoers but God’s instituted, authorized, and prescribed instrument for the maintenance of order and the punishing of criminals who violate that order. When the civil magistrate through his agents executes just judgment upon crime, he is executing not simply God’s decretive will but he is also fulfilling God’s preceptive will, and it would be sinful for him to refrain from so doing.

For these reasons subjection is required and resistance is a violation of God’s law and meets with judgment. (NICNT, p. 148)

Hensler

Henser himself concludes

I tend to think that Paul’s statement in this paraenetic section of Romans is primarily about the believer’s life in light of the sovereignty of God… While hostile rulers might naturally engender fear, the believer who does good need not fear, for the ruler’s hostility always will be filtered through God’s sovereign control. God will see that the believer who does good receives praise, either now or hereafter.

He surveys more sources than I have included here and offers extended comments beyond what I have shown here. His paper should be read in full.

Further Remarks

Translation of “The Powers that Be”

An important question is how exousiae should be translated.

Paul commands this submission to exousiae, translated in the King James Bible as “powers.”55 The term exousiae is “remarkably open” and “unmarked,” i.e., the reader could interpret the term “in a wide variety of ways.”56

55 Romans 13:1 (King James) (“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.”). Most modern English translations translate exousia as “authorities” instead of “powers.” See infra notes 326–27 and accompanying text; see also NOONAN, supra note 26, at 8 (“Paul refers to the government as the ‘exousia,’ ‘the powers,’ not ‘the authorities’ or ‘the state,’ as some translations put it.”)...

A significant shift in the interpretation of Romans 13 among English- speaking scholars can be discerned at about the turn of the twentieth century. With the publication of The Twentieth-Century New Testament, the familiar phraseology of Romans 13 that had been quite consistent in English translations for five hundred years underwent a significant change, and this change helped to solidify the interpretation of Romans 13 expounded most forcefully by Samuel Rutherford.324 The Greek word exousiais had been consistently translated “powers” as in “the powers that be are ordained of God.”325 But with the dawning of the new century, English translators began to translate exousiais as “authorities.”326 The producers of this shift tended not to be “language or textual experts,” but rather “ministers and laypersons” who were focusing on “ease of reading.”327 This shift in translations facilitated a particular approach to Romans 13.3 28 Describing civil magistrates as among the “powers” to which believers should submit carries a sense of something that is, without regard to its legitimacy.329 Ernst Kasemann made this point forcefully:

Paul is not . . . reflecting on the process by which those powers that be of which he speaks . . . came into existence. For him the man who has asserted himself politically has a God-bestowed function and authority simply as the possessor of power de facto. This is why I translate the Greek word exousia and its derivatives by power [German Gewalt], powers, holders of power: I want to include tyranny and despotism, which in any event reigned supreme over wide stretches of the Roman Empire.330

Switching the language used by Paul to refer to political officials from “powers” to “authorities” fits better with the idea that such “authority” might be either legitimate or illegitimate. Power, by contrast, either is or is not.

As I showed in a previous post, the proper way to understand God’s ordination of Nebuchadnezzar is that he was granted the power to kill anyone who opposed him – not a lawful office.

Meaning of “Be Subject”

The context of Romans 13 is Jewish zealotry against Rome, not a question about obeying various laws of Rome. Christians were in danger of getting swept into a Jewish rebellion at a time when the full, final curse of the Old Covenant was about to be poured out upon Jerusalem by Rome in AD70. Hensler notes

Paul begins the passage by declaring to his readers a broad obligation to submit: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers”; the Greek word translated in the King James Bible as “be subject unto” is hypotassomai, “a hierarchical term.”51 It is important to note that the word is not synonymous with “obey.” “The Greek language has good words to denote obedience, in the sense of completely bending one’s will and one’s actions to the desires of another. What Paul calls for, however, is subordination.”52 The word chosen by Paul generally does not mean “obedience”…

The conscientious objector who refuses to do what his government asks him to do, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, or the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to put him to death, is being subordinate even though he is not obeying. 54 (48-49)

Samuel Waldron agrees.

The word Paul uses (the Greek verb, hupotasso) is precisely the one we would expect if Paul is intent on inculcating the opposite of revolution and rebellion. Subordination (the translation I favor for bringing out the meaning of the verb, hupotasso) is the virtue which has for its contrasting vice, rebellion… Ordinarily, of course, subordination includes obedience. These two things, however, cannot be simply equated… Is the conscientious disobedience mandated by the Scriptures an exception to the requirement of subordination found in Rom. 13:1? To put the question more clearly, Is such conscientious disobedience insubordination, rebellion, or incipient revolution? The answer clearly must be negative! Conscientious disobedience to certain of the demands of ordained human authorities is clearly consistent with the strictest subordination to their general authority. Lenski sees the matter very clearly when he asserts, “Refusal to obey was not in any way standing against the arrangement of God and the governmental authority this high court possessed.” (“Political Revolution in the Reformed Tradition: An Historical and Biblical Critique” unpublished)

Romans 13 does not command us to obey the edicts of our rulers. It commands us to not violently resist and overthrow them.

However, the question arises: If the powers that be refer to God’s decretive will, not His preceptive will, why are we commanded to be subject? As Rutherford noted it is “his revealed will which must rule us.” Hubmaier compared “the powers that be” to natural disasters and sickness. Yet we are not commanded to submit to storms or illness, but may work to overcome them. Thomas Watson said

God’s providence is greatly to be observed, but we are not to make it the rule of our actions. ‘Whoso is wise will observe these things.’ Psa cvii 43. It is good to observe providence, but we must not make it our rule to walk by. Providence is a Christian’s diary, but not his Bible. Sometimes a bad cause prevails and gets ground; but it is not to be liked because it prevails. We must not think the better of what is sinful, because it is successful. This is no rule for our actions to be directed by.” (A Body of Divinity)

I believe the answer is to be found in God’s command to Judah that they submit to the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar. This was not simply a natural law duty that all image bearers must submit to anyone who invades their country. God led Israel many times to resist oppressors and to rebel successfully against them. Rather, this was a positive law given to Judah and was specially revealed by prophets. It was an Old Covenant curse for their disobedience to Mosaic law. It ushered in “the times of the Gentiles” to rule over Judah (Israel was no more). Waldron notes

The period of the Gentile kingdoms is, then, the period of the Theocratic disruption. The special thing about these kingdoms is not their geographical extent, but the fact that they bear rule over the people of God in the interim between the disruption and restoration of the Theocratic kingdom. They replace the Theocratic government during this interim… The Apostle Paul utters what is only the logical conclusion of all this in Rom. 13:1 when he says, “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” The statement is often understood (and is certainly true [in light of the above, I disagree -BA]) in the abstract or general sense, but it is nonetheless the fruit of a rich historical movement. For it was of the Roman Empire, the fourth and iron kingdom of Daniel 2, of which Paul was speaking. The four Gentile kingdoms of Dan. 2 include ultimately all non-Theocratic civil authority ruling over the people of God till the end of the age and the dawning of the Theocratic kingdom. Nebuchadnezzar’s authority becomes that of his sons, and their authority devolves to Cyrus and his successors, and thence to Greece and Rome. Rome’s authority unfolds to include all human, civil authority during this age until its eschatological consummation in the kingdom of Antichrist. (“Political Revolution in the Reformed Tradition: An Historical and Biblical Critique” unpublished)

Christ came to establish the kingdom of heaven, but in an “already/not yet” tension. It exists spiritually but not yet physically on earth. While we wait for his return we are to remain subject to “the powers that be” – the Gentiles whom God has given the strength to be “king of the hill,” whether justly or unjustly. They are rulers de facto regardless of whether they are rulers de jure. We are to endure unjust violence following the example of our Lord while we wait for his return when he will have vengeance on wicked rulers who rule without lawful authority, though by the providence of God (just as Nebuchadnezzar was judged by God for doing exactly what God ordained him to do).

Conclusion

Here is a paraphrase I’d like to offer for consideration:

Let every soul be subject to the powers over them. For there is no power but from God and the powers that exist have been providentially placed there by God. Therefore whoever rebels against those powers is rebelling against what God has appointed, and those who rebel will bring judgment on themselves. (For rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you want to be free from fear of the one who has power? Then don’t resist him and you will receive his approval. For a powerful ruler is God’s instrument for your good. But if you disobey God and rebel, be afraid, for God has not empowered him with the strength of the sword in vain. He is God’s instrument to administer retribution on those who disobey (such as Jerusalem). Therefore you must not rebel, not only because of the wrath of the powers but also because of your conscience (because you know that God has providentially given them power for your good). For this reason you should also pay taxes [see Hodge, Haldane, Stuart for translation], for they are God’s servants attending continually upon this very thing. Pay everyone what is due: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

If Romans 13 refers to God’s providential ordaining of powerful rulers (mighty men) whether they be good or evil, then it does not refer to God’s preceptive ordaining of an office. Conversely, if Romans 13 refers to the institution of civil government then the command to be subject is limited to rulers who properly fulfill their duty of punishing evildoers. If they punish those who do go good, they do not have to be submitted to: rebellion is permissible. That is the logically necessary conclusion as Rutherford ably showed. Calvin, following Theodoret and Aquinas, attempted to avoid this necessary conclusion by conflating the two concepts. We owe obedience to the office because it has been instituted by God, but when a person in that office oversteps his office he must still be submitted to because God is providentially using him for His purpose. But Calvin cannot have his cake and eat it too. He must pick one or the other. The majority of his followers saw the contradiction and chose the ordination of office interpretation, thus advocating resistance. I think perhaps it is time to return to Irenaeus’ ordination of persons interpretation. That is the only interpretation consistent with God’s ordination of Nebuchadnezzar and it makes much more sense of the context of Romans 13 as well as the principle of lex talionis and the avenger of blood. These powers are still accountable to the moral law that binds all people, especially the 6th and 8th commandments. They don’t get special exceptions. We may remind them of that, but we are not to take up arms against them.

Related Reading:

De jure magistratum (On the Rights of Magistrates) – Beza

Theodore Beza wrote De jure magistratum (On the Rights of Magistrates) in 1574. It provides a helpful, somewhat concise summary of reformed thought on civil government at the time.

The Origin of Magistrates

People desire to be ruled, so they elect someone to rule over them.

To give a clearer answer to this question I must first lay down certain principles constituting as it were the foundations of the whole question. Assuredly, (it is clear) that peoples did not in the first instance originate from rulers, but whatever peoples desired to be ruled by a single monarch or by chief men elected by them were anterior to their rulers. Hence it follows that peoples were not created for the sake of rulers, but on the contrary the rulers for the sake of the people, even as the guardian is appointed for the ward, not the ward for the guardian, and the shepherd on account of the flock, not the flock on account of the shepherd. This proposition is not merely obvious in itself but may be corroborated by the history of nearly all nations, So much so that God Himself, although he had elected Saul to substitute him for Samuel in accordance with the desires of the people, yet willed that he should be chosen and accepted as King by the suffrages of the people. Thus David, although he had first been chosen as king by God Himself, yet would not undertake the administration of the Kingdom except he had first been confirmed by the suffrages and unfettered concord of the tribes of Israel. (Question 5)

The Purpose of Magistrates

Magistrates are necessary for the preservation of the human race.

In short, if we would investigate the histories of ancient times recorded by profane writers also, it will be established — as indeed Nature herself seems to proclaim with a loud voice — that rulers by whose authority their inferiors might be guided were elected for this reason that either the whole human race must needs perish or some intermediate class must be instituted so that by it one or more (rulers) might be able to command the others, (and) protect good men but restrain the wicked by means of punishments. And this is what not only Plato, Aristotle and the other natural philosophers — furnished with the light of human reason alone – have taught and proved, but God Himself by the utterance of St. Paul writing to the Romans, the rulers of almost the entire world, confirmed this with clear words. There the origin of all States and Powers is with the best of reasoning derived from God the author of all good. (Question 5)

The Constitution

Those who elect a ruler lay down conditions for that ruler.

[T]he people existed before there was any magistrate and that the magistrates were made for the sake of the people and not vice versa… [T]he authority of all magistrates, however supreme and powerful they are, is dependent upon the public authority of those who have raised them to this degree of dignity, and not contrariwise… I maintain that as long as right and justice have prevailed no nation has either elected or approved kings without laying down specific conditions. (Question 6)

[L]et those who so far exalt the authority of kings and supreme rulers as to dare maintain that they have no other Judge but God alone to whom they are held bound to render account of their deeds, furnish proof that there has been any nation anywhere which has consciously and without intimidation or compulsion of some kind subjected itself to the arbitrary rule of some supreme ruler without the express or tacit addition of the proviso that it be justly and fairly ruled and guided by him. (Question 6)

Constitution Limited According to Its Purpose

The people have no authority to delegate a ruler contrary to the purpose of magistrates (the peoples’ self-preservation).

[A]n agreement whether freely manifested by or extorted by means of violence or intimidation from the whole people or a majority of them should rather be annulled than observed if it were established beyond doubt that such agreement was clearly incompatible with fairness and honor. For who would persuade himself that some nation would freely, wittingly and unconstrained wish to subject itself to some ruler to this end that it might subsequently be murdered and utterly destroyed by him? (Question 5)

[I]f someone were to furnish an example of peoples who upon being defeated in war surrendered at discretion and swore to the conditions dictated by the victors, it would not be enough for me to answer with the lawyers that (undertakings) extorted by violence or intimidation which is the rule of consciences does not easily permit oaths of that kind to be heedlessly violated. But I shall further add that even if any people has consciously and of its free will granted assent to an undertaking which is as such evidently sinful and opposed to the law of nature, such obligation is null and void; so little ground is there for reasonable doubt whether that obligation which was contracted as a result of violence or intimidation or of open deceit and malpractice should be regarded as valid and binding.

Constitution Limited According to the Law of God

[T]he authority of all magistrates (with however great power and sovereignty they be vested) is as it were hedged in by these two limits set by God himself, namely Piety [first table] and Charity [second table]. And if they themselves should chance to transgress these, it will be well to call to mind that saying of the Apostles: “It is better to obey God than men” lest we be of the band of those whom the Lord cursed by the mouth of Micah because they obeyed the impious commands of their King, or lest we follow the perverse examples of those who worshipped even the most cruel tyrants as if they were gods, ascribing to them the titles and acts of God. (Question 1)

Obedience to Rulers

Inasmuch as only the will of almighty God is the eternal and immutable Rule of all Justice, we declare that it must be unconditionally obeyed. As regards however the obedience due to Princes, they too would doubtless have to be obeyed always and unconditionally if they ruled constantly in accordance with the utterance of God. Since however theirs is often the contrary case, such obedience must be made subject to the following condition, namely that they command nothing impious [first table of the law], nothing unjust [second table]… Pharaoh’s command to slay all the male offspring of the Jews was unjust and the midwives rightly refused to obey him, whose houses or families God therefore blessed… The command of Jezebel, however, to slay the prophets of God was both impious and unjust; therefore Obadiah who not only refrained from slaying them but concealed them alive and nourished them, acted piously. (Question 1)

Illegitimate Rulers

A conqueror or an elected ruler who violates the election agreement is an illegitimate ruler.

Since these principles which were demonstrated above concerning the origin of kings and other rulers have been established, it follows that they are not legitimate rulers who by force or deceit usurp that authority which by no right belongs to them… Of such tyrants there are two kinds: for some, in violation of the laws laid down and received, usurp tyranny over their fellow-citizens… Others however, not content with that absolute power which they rightfully acquire over their own people, extend their dominions at the cost of their neighbors’ liberty and increase them by means of fortified boundary-lines; for this reason have monarchies ever since the origin of the world achieved such wide dominions; of this the sacred writings offers us an example in Nimrod… it was a true remark which the captive pirate dared to utter when he was dragged before Alexander; he declared that he differed in no way from (the king) but that the latter plundered the world with a multitude of ships whereas he did so with but a single vessel. (Question 5)

Self-Defense Against a Conqueror

Private citizens may defend themselves against any non-elected conqueror, whether foreign or domestic.

[I]f anyone strives to seize or has already usurped an unjust tyranny over others, whether he be a stranger or whether as a viper he leaps from the womb of his country that by his birth he may cause her death, then shall private citizens before all else approach their legitimate magistrates in order that it may be the public enemy he cast forth by the public authority and common consent of all. But if the magistrate connives (at the attempt) or in some way refuses to perform his duty, then let each private citizen bestir himself with all his power to defend the lawful constitution of his country, to whom after God he owes his entire existence, against him who cannot be deemed a lawful magistrate since he either has already usurped that rank in violation of the public laws or is endeavoring to usurp it. (Question 5)

[H]e who launches an attack upon those who are in no way subject to him… may lawfully be prevented even by force of arms and by any (citizens) soever, even of the humblest station, to whom he desired to do violence, since they are by no obligation bound to him. (Question 6)

Self-Defense Against Lesser Magistrates

Only magistrates have the authority to act in self-defense against other magistrates.

[I]f it were to happen (as happens only too frequently in our times) that one lower magistrate should undertake some act of violence against another against the express will of their superior, then I should assuredly say that the magistrate who had been wronged is, when he has first exhausted all legitimate and peaceful means, entitled to equip himself with the armor of the laws and to oppose unjust violence with a just defence as was done by Nehemiah against Sanballat and his associates. (Question 4)

Self-Defense Against a Tyrant

Three kinds of subjects… some are private citizens performing no duty of public administration… others [are] inferior magistrates… [others are] the bridles and reins to keep the supreme ruler to his duty.

Private citizens may not defend themselves from a lawfully elected ruler.

Private citizens may not offer resistance to their lawful ruler who is a tyrant… [N]o private citizen is entitled on his own private authority to oppose the tyrant with violence against violence, but that it in every way behooves him either to depart from the realm of that (ruler) and change his domicile or to bear the yoke of the tyrant patiently by taking refuge with God in prayer…

[H]e who has once been approved and accepted by his people, though he abuse his right, yet retains the basis of his authority as against his own private subjects, since an obligation entered upon publicly and by mutual consent cannot be dissolved and broken by the will of any private citizen. For were this otherwise, endless disorders, worse even than tyranny itself, would ensue, and in the place of a single tyrant whom it might be our intention to cast down, a thousand would succeed. Furthermore, a single reason derived from the authority of the Word of God should here be of greater weight than anything else that could be adduced to the contrary. St. Paul in prescribing their duty to men in private station not merely forbids them to resist their rulers (supreme rulers as well as subordinate) but enjoins us to obey them also for conscience sake…

I maintain that no one in private station is allowed to set himself in open violence against a tyrant to whose domination the people of its own free will previously consented; for if we must so far abide by private contracts, pacts, agreements and undertakings that we suffer damage rather than break our word, how much more should private citizens be on their guard lest they in any way refuse to honor an obligation entered upon by a solemn and public agreement?…

[P]rivate citizens, unless they have authority from a subordinate magistrate or the saner part of the Estates, concerning which more is discussed shortly, here have no other just remedy but reflection combined with patience and prayers which God will assuredly not always reject and without which all other remedies however legitimate will be subject to His curse. (Question 6)

Lesser magistrates may defend themselves and private citizens, but they may not punish the tyrant.

[T]he obligation between the king and the officials of the kingdom is mutual and that not the entire administration of the kingdom is entrusted to the king alone but only the highest rank, and that the subordinate officials severally hold part of it each in accordance with his own rank, and that on fixed conditions on either side. If those conditions are not kept by the subordinate magistrates the supreme magistrate is entitled to discharge them…

In the contrary case, however, if he who has received the royal dignity either by being elected thereto or by hereditary right openly departs from those conditions under which he was expressly recognized and approved as king, who would be inclined to doubt that the subordinate magistrates of the kingdom and further the very provinces also and the cities whose administration has been entrusted to them are automatically (ipso iure) free from their oath… [W]ould it not be just according to all law, diving and human, that by reason of the oath taken by them to ensure the observance of the laws, somewhat greater (liberty of action) should be granted to these subordinate magistrates than to those (citizens) who are of entirely private station and without any public office?… [W]e are not treating the tyrant who must be utterly thrust and cast down from his throne, but we are inquiring whether no one can and should in accordance with his rank set himself against his open violence (Question 6)

The Orders or Estates may and must punish and dethrone the tyrant.

The Orders or Estates, established to curb the supreme magistrates, can and should in every way offer resistance to them when they degenerate into tyrants… [N]o nation has either elected or approved kings without laying down specific conditions. And if those kings violate these the result is that those who had the power to confer this authority upon them have retained no less power again to divest them of that authority. [Beza provides historical examples from Rome, Athens, Sparta, Israel, Denmark, Sweden, Scotland, England, Poland, Venice, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and Gaul.] (Question 6)

[I]n all compacts and covenants which are contracted by mutual and sole agreement between the parties, those by whom the obligations were entered into, can of themselves cancel and annul it, whenever reason so demands. Accordingly those who possess authority to elect a king, will also have the right to dethrone him. (Question 6)

In Sum:

The purpose therefore of all that has been said above is as follows, namely that the highest authority rests with kings or other supreme rulers with this proviso that if they violate the nobelest laws and sworn conditions and degenerate into unabashed tyranny nor give heed to sound counsels, it shall be lawful and permitted to the subordinate magistrates to take precautions for themselves and for those over whom they exercise guardianship, and to offer resistance to the tyrant of the people. But the Estates or Orders of the realm upon whom this authority has been conferred by the laws, can and must so far oppose the tyrant and even, if need be, inflict just and deserved punishment upon him until matters have been restored to their former condition. (Question 6)

[E]ven in marriage also, if one party deserts the other, the Apostle proclaims the deserted party relieved of every obligation, because the deserter violates the principal condition of marriage. But let us imagine that someone declares himself willing to keep his wife with him and that he attempts to do so, yet if it becomes known that this man desires to have his wife in order to kill her or to remove her in some other way, will he not have to be regarded in the light of a manifest deserter (of his wife)? But assuredly the design of tyrants does not differ from his since they do not strive to have subjects in their power for any other reason but to persecute and crush them to their destruction while they indulge their own lusts; why therefore should the wielders of judicial authority not pronounce the same judgment over both? But if not even the canons of the Church consider that a wife who cannot safely live with her husband, should be compelled to live with him, why shall a subordinate magistrate not be allowed to take precautions on behalf of himself and his people and to have recourse to the Estates against a manifest tyrant? (Question 6)

Unless they can defend themselves upon the authority of some lawful subordinate magistrate or of the Estates of that nation, private persons must assuredly either go away until such time as a better light shall shine upon them, or bow their necks to the yoke while urgently asking God in constant prayer for patience and meantime proceeding under His chastisements. But it is the part of the subordinate magistrates (to protect against all) strenuously the good laws to whose defense they personally have sworn, each in accordance with the station he has obtained in the constitution of the community, and in general all should strive to prevent the laws and conditions upon which that constitution rests, from being undermined by any violence from without or from within. Finally, emperors, kings or other supreme rulers acquire the highest authority on the understanding that, if it should meanwhile become notorious that they rather plunder the territory of which they have undertaken the government, that cunningly and without self-control they set themselves against law and reason and wantonly break their sworn promises, they can and should be forced, compelled and brought to their duty even by armed force, if it cannot be otherwise, by those who upon special conditions have raised them to this high office. (Question 7)

Christian Meekness

I deny that the patience and gentleness which we require in Christians prevent a man from employing lawful remedies to repel an injury which is being done to him. It is certainly permissible to claim one’s property from an unjust possessor in court, and to lodge complaints with the supreme magistrate concerning the injustice of an inferior; why therefore by the same reasoning should it not be permissible to go to laws against a tyrant before the Estates? (Question 7)

Submission to Providence or Command?

[T]he will of God must be heeded to the extent that He Himself has deigned to reveal it to us; otherwise there would be no crime so heinous but what it could be imputed to the Divine will, since not even those events which are regarded as in the highest degree fortuitous occur by chance or accidentally. Hence it comes about that the man who meets with highway robbers, by whom no one is murdered without the consent of the will of God, has the power in accordance with the authority of the laws to resist them in just self-defense which incurs no blame because no one forsooth has (received) a special command from God that he meekly allow himself to be slain by robbers. Our conviction is entirely the same about that regular defense against tyrants which we are discussing. (Question 7)

Enforcement of True Religion

[T]he purpose of all well-ordered polities is not simply peace and quiet in this life, as some heathen philosophers have imagined, but the glory of God, towards which the whole present life of men should be directed, it therefore follows that those who are set over nations, ought to bring to bear all their zeal and all the faculties they have received from God to this end that the pure worship of God upon which His glory depends should in the highest degree be maintained and increased among the people over whom they hold sway. (Question 10)

True religion in a society is established by the Holy Spirit, but subsequently defended by the ruler by force.

It is one thing now for the first time to introduce religion into some part and another to preserve it when it has already been received somewhere or to wish to restore it when it has gone to ruin and has been buried as a result of the connivance or ignorance or malice of men. For I grant that initially it should be introduced and spread by the influence of the Spirit of God alone, and that by the Word of God (which is) suited to teaching, conviction and exhortation. For this is the particular task of the Holy Spirit which employs spiritual instruments.

It will therefore be the part of a pious ruler who wishes to entice his people away from idolatry and false superstitions to the true religion, to see to it in the first instance that they are instructed in piety by means of true and reliable argument, just as on the other hand it is in the part of the subjects to give their assent to truth and reason and readily to submit. Finally the ruler will be fully occupied in rendering the true religion secure by means of good and noble decrees against those who assail and resist it out of pure obstinacy, as we have seen done in our times in England, Denmark, Sweden, Scotland, and the greater part of Germany and Switzerland against the Papists, the Anabaptists and other heretics. (Question 10)


Comments

Enforcement of True Religion

The magisterial reformers employed a slight of hand on this issue. They argue first that a magistrate is necessary for the self-preservation of society and that all actions of a magistrate must conform to this purpose. The reason societies elect rulers over themselves is because they cannot otherwise defend themselves against violence. Then they argue that life is about more than just surviving. The chief end of man is to glorify God. That is true, but that is a different question. Why is a magistrate necessary? is not the same as What is the chief end of man? It is true that every man ought to “bring to bear all their zeal and all the faculties they have received from God to this end that the pure worship of God upon which His glory depends should in the highest degree be maintained and increased among the people over whom they hold sway,” but that does not answer whether a ruler has “received from God” any authority to repel false doctrine with violence. Beza argued the purpose of a magistrate is determined by its necessity (what it provides that private citizens need but cannot themselves provide) and its authority is limited by its purpose. Thus, the question is, can true religion “be maintained and increased” without a magistrate, or is a magistrate necessary for true religion to “be maintained and increased”?

The strange answer from the magisterial reformers (see Rutherford here) is that true religion can be first introduced and increased “by the influence of the Spirit of God alone… which employs spiritual instruments” but it cannot be preserved without the magistrate. The enforcement of true religion is thus cast in terms of self-defense. Once the true religion has been established in a nation, it must be defended by violence against false worship. But a distinction between the introduction of true religion by the Holy Spirit and the subsequent defense of it by force is not found anywhere in Scripture. Neither Jesus or the Apostles ever used force to defend Christianity. Rather “though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” – which means that violence is not necessary to defend and maintain Christianity. Appeal is made, of course, to Israel. But Israel was established by violence in the conquest of Canaan. It was violent from beginning to end and did not first require a nonviolent establishment, as Beza says is necessary.

It took a while, but eventually reformed theologians started realizing their error. Increase Mather, who initially agreed with Beza and put it into practice in New England, upon later reflection said “A good subject has a title to all temporal possessions and enjoyments, before he is a Christian; and it looks odd, that a man should forfeit his title, upon his embracing the faith.

Private Citizen’s Right to Self-Defense

Beza’s argument for denying a private citizen the right of self-defense is very weak. He was trying to 1) make sense of Romans 13’s command to be subject to rulers, and 2) distance the reformation from the violent, radical Anabaptist revolutions. But his reasoning is self-contradictory. He says private citizens have authority to exercise self defense against a conqueror they did not elect, but they must submit to a tyrant’s killing because they swore an oath to obey him. But he also says the compact was mutual and conditional. Thus if the ruler breaks the agreement, the private citizens no longer owe him their obedience. Later reformed theologians recognized the inconsistency. Sir James Stewart expressed the Scottish reformed understanding when he said “by vertue of this mutual compact, the Subjects, have jus against the King, a Right in law to pursue him for performance… For it is absurd to say, that in a mutual conditional compact, one party shall still be bound to performe his conditions, though the other performeth none” [p. 112, 117 Jus Populi Vindicatum, or The People’s Right, to defend themselves and their Covenanted Religion, vindicated (1669), quoted in Beisner, E. Calvin His Majesty’s advocate : Sir James Stewart of Goodtrees (1635-1713) and Covenanter resistance theory under the Restoration monarchy, p. 187]. Continental reformed political philosopher Johannes Althusius said

[N]o realm or commonwealth has ever been founded or instituted except by contract entered into one with the other, by covenants agreed upon between subjects and their future prince, and by an established mutual obligation that both should religiously observe. When this obligation is dishonored, the power of the prince loses its strength and is ended [Althusius, Politica (Latin), 19.15. quoted in Beisner p. 185] …

In this election . . . certain laws and conditions concerning subjection, and the form and manner of the future imperium, are proposed to the prospective magistrate . . . . If he accepts these laws, and swears to the people to observe them, the election is considered firm and settled. This agreement entered into between magistrate and people is known as a mutually binding obligation. [19.29. quoted in Beisner p. 185] …

If this condition [ruling justly and dutifully] is lacking, the people no longer are obligated to obey. Moreover, the chain of this obligation is dissolved by that one, who first withdraws from the agreements, who therefore loses every right acquired by the agreement, that the other may become free: For the obligation vanishes and is held for nothing, when its essential conditions, on account of which it was concluded, are violated. [38.32. quoted in Beisner p. 185] …

When he abuses his power, he ceases to be king and a public person, and becomes a private person. If in any way he proceeds and acts notoriously or wickedly, any one may resist him [18.95 quoted in Beisner, p. 117]

Thus Beza’s argument that “Private citizens may not offer resistance to their lawful ruler who is a tyrant” is an oxymoron. If a ruler is a tyrant then he is not a lawful ruler and has no right to be obeyed. He is merely a private citizen committing violence against other private citizens. Roger A. Mason referred to this as the “explosive doctrine of single-handed tyrannicide.” [Roger A. Mason, ‘People Power? George Buchanan on Resistance and the Common Man’, in Robert von Friedeburg, ed., Widerstandsrecht in der frühen Neuzeit, in Zeitschrift für Historische Forschung, beiheft 26 (2001), 163–81, at 179. Quoted in Beisner, p. 115] Rutherford summarized the view, saying

[T]he royal dignity doth not advance a king above the common condition of men, and the throne maketh him not leave off to be a man, and a man that can do wrong; and therefore as one that doth manifest violence to the life of a man, though his subject, he may be resisted with bodily resistance, in the case of unjust and violent invasion. [Rutherford, Lex, Rex, Q.XXXII]

If I give my sword to my fellow to defend me from the murderer, if he shall fall to and murder me with my own sword, I may (if I have strength) take my sword from him. [Q.XXXII]

“All Things Lawful” (LBCF 24.3/WCF 23.4)

In 2000, Bob Brown of Reformed Baptist Church gave a lecture titled “All Things Lawful: Or, a Biblical Perspective on Resisting Authority.” It was part of a series on the civil magistrate and it seeks to explain 24.3 of the 2nd London Baptist Confession:

“3._____ Civil magistrates being set up by God for the ends aforesaid; subjection, in all lawful things commanded by them, ought to be yielded by us in the Lord, not only for wrath, but for conscience sake; and we ought to make supplications and prayers for kings and all that are in authority, that under them we may live a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty. 

Brown argues that the phrase “all lawful things” should be interpreted to mean “anything that does not cause you to sin.” He says “We are conscience bound to subject ourselves to every command of the civil magistrate unless that command requires us to break God’s moral law… You must obey God but you must never, ever, under any circumstances take up arms against the king that God put over you.” His main focus is to correct what he sees as a mistaken understanding of the Confession.

First of all, I want to deal with a mistaken interpretation of these words “in all lawful things.” A mistaken interpretation that is usually viewed as some “lawfully contracted civil agreement that bind both the ruler and those who are ruled.” In other words, a social contract. The thought runs like this: The citizens agreed to submit to the ruler and the ruler agrees to exercise his rule within certain negotiated parameters. If his commands fall within those parameters they are lawful and they are to be obeyed. But if they fall outside of those parameters, they are unlawful, in which case the ruler has forfeited his right to rule and may be deposed. Such a ruler, according to this view, has broken the social contract by which he obtained his authority in the first place.

He says this interpretation of the Confession is wrong because the social contract theory wasn’t developed until after the Confession was written. He goes on to argue that it was developed by enlightenment thinkers, notably John Locke, and is therefore unbiblical.

The King That God Put Over You

I actually first listened to this lecture 2 years ago. I took his point hook, line, and sinker. I disagreed with how he applied it to the U.S. Constitution, but what he said about the social contract theory and enlightenment thinking made sense – that is, until I started reading historic reformed political theology.

Brown mentions “the king that God put over you.” Paragraph 1 of the Confession reads

1. God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates to be under him, over the people, for his own glory and the public good; and to this end hath armed them with the power of the sword, for defence and encouragement of them that do good, and for the punishment of evil doers.

The Westminster Confession says the same thing in 23.1 and something similar in 23.4.

4. It is the duty of the people to pray for magistrates, to honour their persons, to pay them tribute and other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience’ sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrate’s just and legal authority, nor free the people from their obedience to him: from which ecclesiastical persons are not exempted; much less hath the Pope any power or jurisdiction over them in their dominions, or over any of their people; and least of all to deprive them of their dominions or lives, if he shall judge them to be heretics, or upon any other pretense whatsoever.

What was very interesting to find out was how reformed theologians believed God places rulers over the people. Brown implies that it is a matter of providence. It does not matter if someone comes to power justly or unjustly. Whoever is in power is whom God has placed over you. That was actually the argument of royal absolutists, not the view of the reformed theologians I have read. Rather, they argued that God places rulers over the people, not immediately, but mediately through the consent of the people.

Samuel Rutherford was one of the most prominent members of the Westminster Assembly. He wrote a very influential book on this question during the time of the Assembly titled “LEX, REX: The Law and the Prince. A Dispute for the just PREROGATIVE of KING and PEOPLE. Containing the Reasons and Causes of the most necessary Defensive Wars of the Kingdom of SCOTLAND, and of their Expedition for the ayd and help of their dear brethren of ENGLAND.” The Westminster Assembly was meeting because of an agreement between England and Scotland. Scotland agreed to provide English Parliament with the support of the Scottish army in civil war if Parliament agreed to establish the true religion in England. Thus Rutherford’s work is the best elaboration of the Confession’s meaning on these points. (See my summary of the book here)

Rutherford said “I conceive it to be evident that royal dignity is not immediately, and without the intervention of the people’s consent, given by God to any one person, and that conquest and violence is no just title to a crown… Politicians agree to this as an undeniable truth, that as domestic society is natural, being grounded upon nature’s instinct, so politic society is voluntary, being grounded on the consent of men.” He explains that God ordained the office of magistrate to be over the people, but who lawfully fills that office is determined by the consent of the people. This is how LBCF 24.1/WCF 23.1 is to be interpreted. “It is evident from Rom. xiii. that all subjection and obedience to higher powers commanded there, is subjection to the power and office of the magistrate in abstracto, or, which is all one, to the person using the power lawfully, and that no subjection is due by that text, or any word of God, to the abused and tyrannical power of the king.”

Furthermore, when the people elect a ruler, they do so conditionally. “There is an oath betwixt the king and his people, laying on, by reciprocation of bands, mutual civil obligation upon the king to the people, and the people to the king (2 Sam 5:3; 1 Chron 11:3; 2 Chron 23:2, 3; 2 Kings 11:17; Eccl. 8:2)… There be no mutual contract made upon certain conditions, but if the conditions be not fulfilled, the party injured is loosed from the contract.” This was not a position unique to Rutherford. He was just expressing the common reformed view. Beza said

[T]he people existed before there was any magistrate and that the magistrates were made for the sake of the people and not vice versa… [T]he authority of all magistrates, however supreme and powerful they are, is dependent upon the public authority of those who have raised them to this degree of dignity, and not contrariwise… I maintain that as long as right and justice have prevailed no nation has either elected or approved kings without laying down specific conditions… [L]et those who so far exalt the authority of kings and supreme rulers as to dare maintain that they have no other Judge but God alone to whom they are held bound to render account of their deeds, furnish proof that there has been any nation anywhere which has consciously and without intimidation or compulsion of some kind subjected itself to the arbitrary rule of some supreme ruler without the express or tacit addition of the proviso that it be justly and fairly ruled and guided by him.

Brown quotes Calvin against resistance, but neglects the fact that Calvin says he is only referring to private men. He says, in the same section (4.20.30-31) that lesser magistrates and the estates who appointed the ruler have a duty to resist and overthrow a tyrant (Beza elaborated the same point). (See here and here for how subsequent reformed theologians pointed out Calvin’s inconsistency in obligating private men to a broken compact).

Clearly, the idea that “citizens agreed to submit to the ruler and the ruler agrees to exercise his rule within certain negotiated parameters” was not an enlightenment idea created by John Locke. Rather, this was the thinking that lay behind the Confession(s). “All things lawful” is to be interpreted as “all things the ruler has constitutional authority to command” (which necessarily excludes any authority to command people to sin). In Rutherford’s words, it refers to “the person using the power lawfully.” Given the civil war context of the Westminster Assembly, I’m not certain how that can be denied.

As we saw in the last post, this was precisely how Colonial Baptists understood their situation, explicitly appealing to this “consent of the governed” theory of government as articulated by Roger Williams as a reason for their refusal to pay the religious tax in Massachusetts. Note also that, on this basis, all the English baptists supported the American Revolution (see p. 198 fn2).

The Declaration of Independence

Brown argues that the Declaration of Independence was an enlightenment document written by a disciple of John Locke (Thomas Jefferson) and was very unbiblical. In His Majesty’s Advocate: Sir James Stewart of Goodtrees (1635–1713) and Covenanter Resistance Theory Under the Restoration Monarchy (his dissertation), E. Calvin Beisner (OPC) shows the great amount of continuity between reformed political philosophy (focusing on Sir James Stewart, who wrote after and in agreement with Rutherford), John Locke, and the Declaration of Independance.

It is not known whether Locke ever read [Stewarts’] Jus Populi. It is not listed in his library, though that does not mean he never owned or read it. Certainly the arguments in it, as we have seen, were common to many defenses of resistance from natural law, natural rights, and constitutionalist perspectives, and Locke’s wide reading in other sources could have stocked him with the concepts and arguments in the Two Treatises without his ever laying eyes on Jus Populi. Yet virtually every significant argument in the Second Treatise appears, in one form or another, often in greater complexity and bolstered by more authorities (human and divine), in Jus Populi

Jus Populi undoubtedly contributed significantly to Covenanter—and consequently wider Scottish and later American—political thought. It likely had an impact on the Claim of Right of 1689, and, as we shall see, its arguments—whether because of direct or indirect influence or simply a shared political discourse—reflect heavily in the American Declaration of Independence (1776)… Elazar has argued persuasively that the Declaration of Independence should be understood as a religious covenant. Viewing it in light of the heavy influence of English Puritan and Scotch-Irish Presbyterian political thought in the colonies during the decades leading up to the Revolution, we should expect to see in the Declaration marked similarities to the typical Scottish Covenanter resistance arguments. While no claim is made here of direct causal connection, the parallels between it and Jus Populi are strong and are to be explained by the shared discourse and perspective of the documents’ authors.

Rebellion or Suffering?

That being said, I sympathize with some of Brown’s concern when he says “Brothers, there is too much of Stallone and Schwartzeneger and Heston in our spirit and not enough of Jesus and John the Baptist, and Stephen the Martyr, and Tyndale.” However, an important distinction has to be made between the rights of all image bearers and the duty of men redeemed by a suffering servant. The fact that we are called to suffer in this life as Christians does not say anything about political philosophy proper. It does not say anything about our rights as image bearers. Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 9 that, for the sake of the gospel, he has chosen not to exercise his rights. I think that is a more appropriate approach for understanding NT commands, rather than denying that men have rights (as Brown does).

[P.S. Brown’s comments about the U.S. Constitution are also very confused (it’s not a living document that speaks through the rulers), but I’ll leave that be.]

Rutherford’s “Lex, Rex” – Summary

Samuel Rutherford was a Scottish Presbyterian member of the Westminster Assembly, which was an assembly of Scottish and English ministers gathered together as an agreement between the two countries called the Solemn League and Covenant, wherein Scotland promised the English parliament military support against the royalists in exchange for England’s promise to defend the true religion. The confession was written in the context of a civil war. Rutherford wrote Lex, Rex in 1644 during the time of the assembly. The full title is “LEX, REX: The Law and the Prince. A Dispute for the just PREROGATIVE of KING and PEOPLE. Containing the Reasons and Causes of the most necessary Defensive Wars of the Kingdom of SCOTLAND, and of their Expedition for the ayd and help of their dear brethren of ENGLAND.” You can find the full text here. You can also find a summary outline here. Page references in this post refer to the Kindle edition.

Lex, Rex serves (at least) two interesting purposes. First, it helps us understand the meaning of WCF 23.1, which says “God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, has ordained civil magistrates, to be, under Him, over the people, for His own glory, and the public good: and, to this end, has armed them with the power of the sword, for the defence and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evil doers.” as well as 23.3 “Civil magistrates being set up by God for the ends aforesaid; subjection, in all lawful things commanded by them, ought to be yielded by us in the Lord, not only for wrath, but for conscience sake; and we ought to make supplications and prayers for kings and all that are in authority, that under them we may live a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty.” Many present-day reformed Christians (here is a good example) often argue that the American Revolution and the concepts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States based on a social compact theory of government are unbiblical and contrary to WCF/LBCF. The problem is that they have skipped over Rutherford (and others), whose views are very much related to America and obviously the confession(s).

Second, Lex, Rex is helpful in that it unpacks the logical implications of Romans 13:1-6. Many today have not adequately thought through the passage. They tend to read it as giving absolute authority to the civil government (whoever providentially happens to have the most power) wherein we must submit to everything it says to do, unless it commands us to sin. Rutherford very forcefully demonstrates that any authority given by God to a civil magistrate is necessarily limited and conditional.

The Royalists

Lex, Rex was written against the “royalists” who argued that monarchs had an absolute divine right that may not be resisted. They argued that monarchy was immediately from God and could be justly established by conquest, by divine unction (prophecy), or by birth (hereditary) and that once established may not be resisted. If the monarch becomes a tyrant, all that the people may do is suffer patiently and pray to God for deliverance. This is actually the way many modern reformed Christians tend to read Romans 13 – they just skip over the monarch part and rest satisfied with their present democratic context instead.

Rutherford, following the reformed tradition, argued that the “root power” (office) of civil government is established immediately by God (Romans 13:1-4), but the particular person who wields that power is established mediately by God through the people by means of election and mutual agreement with the ruler (a constitution – see Beza). “It cannot be said but God giveth the kingly power immediately; and by him kings reign, that is true. The office is immediately from God, but the question now is, What is that which formally applieth the office and royal power to this person rather than to the other five as meet? Nothing can here be dreamed of but God’s inclining the hearts of the states to choose this man and not that man.” (9)

No Divine Unction

A ruler cannot be appointed by divine unction because “There is no prophetical and immediate calling to kingdoms now.” (8-9) Furthermore, even in Israel God’s anointing of an individual to be king did not make him king.

“If the Lord’s immediate designation of David, and his anointing by the divine authority of Samuel, had been that which alone, without the election of the people, made David formally king of Israel, then there were two kings in Israel at one time… Saul, after Samuel from the Lord anointed him, remained a private man, and no king, till the people made him king, and elected him ; and David, anointed by that same divine authority, remained formally a subject, and not a king, till all Israel made him king at Hebron; and Solomon, though by God designed and ordained to be king, yet was never king until the people made him so, (1 Kings i.); therefore there floweth something from the power of the people, by which he who is no king now becometh a king formally, and by God’s lawful call; whereas before the man was no king, but, as touching all royal power, a mere private man” (9).

Conquest is Robbery

Rutherford, following a long line of men going back at least as far as Augustine, argues that a civil government cannot be established by conquest because conquest is theft. “Conquest without the consent of the people is but royal robbery” (8). “The Prelate averreth confidently (c. 17, p. 58) that a title to a kingdom by conquest, without the consent of a people, is so just and evident by Scripture, that it cannot be denied; but the man bringeth no Scripture to prove it. Mr Marshall saith, (Let. p. 7,) a conquered kingdom is but continuata injuria, a continued robbery.” (46) “If the act of conquering be violent and unjust, it is no manifestation of God’s regulating and approving will, and can no more prove a just title to a crown, because it is an act of divine providence, than Pilate and Herod’s crucifying of the Lord of glory, which was an act of divine providence, flowing from the will and decree of divine providence, (Acts ii. 23 ; iv. 28,) is a manifestation that it was God’s approving will, that they should kill Jesus Christ.” (47) This distinction between God’s preceptive will and his will of decree is crucial and will be unpacked further.

“Mere conquest by the sword, without the consent of the people, is no just title to the crown… It is not to be thought that that is God’s just title to a crown which hath nothing in it of the essence of a king, but a violent and bloody purchase, which is in its prevalency in an oppressing Nimrod, and the crudest tyrant that is hath nothing-essential to that which constituteth a king; for it hath nothing of heroic and royal wisdom and gifts to govern, and nothing of God’s approving and regulating will, which must be manifested to any who would be a king, but by the contrary, cruelty hath rather baseness and witless fury, and a plain reluctancy with God’s revealed will, which forbiddeth murder. God’s law should say, ‘Murder thou, and prosper and reign;’ and by the act of violating the sixth commandment, God should declare his approving will, to wit, his lawful call to a throne.” (47)

God’s revealed will, not His secret providence, is our rule. “I grant, often God’s decree revealed by the event, that a conqueror be on the throne, but this will is not our rule, and the people are to swear no oath of allegiance contrary to God’s Voluntas signi, which is his revealed will in his word regulating us.” (40)

Born equals

The royalists argued that a monarch may be born a ruler over the people. Rutherford argued that all men are born equal, with none possessing natural civil authority over the other. “If all men be born equally free, as I hope to prove, there is no reason in nature why one man should be king and lord over another… I conceive all jurisdiction of man over man to be as it were artificial and positive, and that it inferreth some servitude whereof nature from the womb hath freed us.” (2) And “Every man by nature is a freeman born, that is, by nature no man cometh out of the womb under any civil subjection to king, prince, or judge, to master, captain, conqueror, teacher, &c.” (51)

The succession of kings by birth was only ever an exceptional mercy of God given to David, not an established norm. “Not by any promise of a divine covenant that the Lord maketh to the father, as he promised that David’s seed should sit on his throne till the Messiah should come. This, as I conceive, is vanished with the commonwealth of the Jews.” (43)

Rutherford also points out the contradiction in affirming that the just title to ruler can be obtained by birth or by conquest. “If birth be God’s regulating will, that the heir of the king is in God’s court a king, no act of the conqueror can annul that word of God to us, and the people may not lawfully, though they were ten times subdued, swear homage and allegiance to a conqueror against the due right of birth, which by royalists’ doctrine revealeth to us the plain contradictory will of God.” (40)

Thus

“Now there be but these to regulate the people, or to be a rule to any man to ascend lawfully, in foro Dei, in God’s court to the throne. (1.) God’s immediate designation of a man by prophetical and divinely-inspired unction, as Samuel anointed Saul and David; this we are not to expect now, nor can royalists say it. (2.) Conquest, seeing it is an act of violence, and God’s revenging justice for the sins of a people, cannot give in God’s court such a just title to the throne as the people are to submit their consciences unto, except God reveal his regulating will by some immediate voice from heaven, as he commanded Judah to submit to Nebuchadnezzar as to their king by the mouth of Jeremiah. Now this is not a rule to us; for then, if the Spanish king should invade this land… it should be unlawful to resist him, after he had once conquered the land: neither God’s word, nor the law of nature could permit this… (3) Naked birth cannot be this external signification of God’s regulating will to warrant the conscience of any to ascend to the throne, for the authors of this opinion make royal birth equivalent to divine unction; for David anointed by Samuel, and so anointed by God, is not king,— Saul remained the Lord’s anointed many years, not David, although anointed by God; [until the people consented to make them king]” (41)

Origin of Government by Rulers

If neither prophecy, nor conquest, nor birth establish a ruler, then where does civil government come from? Rutherford argued that no individual has the “politic power of government,” but when individuals gather together into a society, such power automatically follows, being rooted in the natural law of self-preservation. When people come together in a society, they appoint a ruler over them as a matter of self-defense. “We defend ourselves by devolving our power over in the hands of one or more rulers.” (2) Rutherford distinguishes between individual self-defense, which is purely natural law, and self-defense through an appointed ruler, which is positive law (derived from natural law) because mediated through man. “We are to distinguish betwixt a power of government, and a power of government by magistracy. That we defend ourselves from violence by violence is a consequent of unbroken and sinless nature; but that we defend ourselves by devolving our power over in the hands of one or more rulers seemeth rather positively moral than natural” (2-3).

The royalists objected to this argument by pointing out that “it is not natural to us to be subject to government, but against nature for us to resign our liberty to a king, or any ruler or rulers” (2). Rutherford sought to evade this point by employing the distinction between something that is known by natural instinct (Aquinas’ “self-evident principles” also known as the primary precepts of natural law, such as “life is to be preserved”) and something that is deduced from self-evident principles through the process of practical reasoning (secondary law of nature).

“[I]t is most true no man, by the instinct of nature, giveth consent to penal laws as penal… but here reason in cold blood, not a natural disposition, is the nearest prevalent cause and disposer of the business. When, therefore, a community, by the instinct and guidance of nature, incline to government, and to defend themselves from violence [self-defense], they do not, by that instinct, formally agree to government by magistrates… this consent proceedeth not from a disposition every way purely natural. I grant reason may be necessitated to assent to the conclusion, being, as it were, forced by the prevalent power of the evidence of an insuperable and invincible light in the premises, yet, from natural affections, there resulteth an act of self-love for self-preservation [which makes men reluctant to give up their rights]… government, even by rulers, hath its ground in a secondary law of nature, which lawyers call secundario jus naturale, or jus gentium secundarium, a secondary law of nature, which is granted by Plato, and denied by none of sound judgment in a sound sense, and that is this, Licet vim virepellere, It is lawful to repel violence by violence; and this is a special act of the magistrate.” (2-3)

Thus Rutherford believes that self-defense is a secondary law of nature, deduced from the primary law to preserve life, and government by rulers is a positive law grounded in this secondary law of nature.

“But there is no reason why we may not defend by good reasons that political societies, rulers, cities, and incorporations, have their rise, and spring from the secondary law of nature. 1st, Because… By what reason a family hath a power of government, and of punishing malefactors, that same power must be in a society of men… If we once lay the supposition, that God hath immediately by the law of nature appointed there should be a government, and mediately defined by the dictate of natural light in a community, that there shall be one or many rulers to govern a community, then the Scripture’s arguments may well be drawn out of the school of nature: as, (1.) The powers that be, are of God (Rom. xii.), therefore nature’s light teacheth that we should be subject to these powers. (2.) It is against nature’s light to resist the ordinance of God. (3.) Not to fear him to whom God hath committed the sword for the terror of evil-doers. (4.) Not to honour the public rewarder of well-doing. (5.) Not to pay tribute to him for his work. Therefore I see not but Govarruvias, 1 Soto, 2 and Suarez, 3 have rightly said, that power of government is immediately from God, and this or that definite power is mediately from God, proceeding from God by the mediation of the consent of a community, which resigneth their power to one or more rulers” (3).

When men in a society face the threat of violence (from within and without) they think through their options and conclude that the only way to preserve their lives and their society is to appoint a ruler over them to wield the sword for defense and punishment. This is a necessary logical deduction that inevitably follows from the “invincible light of the premises.” Since God instilled in man’s nature a desire for self-preservation, and natural law is whatever is conducive towards man’s good (self-preservation), God has ordained the office of civil magistrate and man must therefore appoint people to it in every society and be subject to it.

“1st. That a republic appoint rulers to govern them is not an indifferent, but a moral action, because to set no rulers over themselves I conceive were a breach of the fifth commandment, which commandeth government to be one or other. 2d, It is not in men’s free will that they have government or no government, because it is not in their free will to obey or not to obey the acts of the court of nature, which is God’s court; and this court enacteth that societies suffer not mankind to perish, which must necessarily follow if they appoint no government;” (5)

“So a community of itself, because of sin, is a naked society that can but destroy itself, and every one eat the flesh of his brother, therefore God hath appointed a king or governor, who shall take care of that community, rule them in peace, and save all from reciprocation of mutual acts of violence, yet so as, because a trust is put on the ruler of a community which is not his heritage, he cannot dispose of it as he pleaseth, because he is not the proper owner of the inheritance.” (69)

“[P]rivate men are just lords and proprietors of their own goods… to conserve every man’s goods to the just owner, and to preserve a community from the violence of rapine and theft, a magistrate and king was devised.” (67)

“[W]ithout [a king] in a kingdom justice is physically impossible; and anarchy, and violence, and confusion, must follow, if they be wanting in the kingdom… because men could not in a society defend themselves from violence; therefore, by the light of nature they gave their power to one or more, and made a judge or judges to obtain the end of self-preservation.” (94-95)

“If all were innocent persons, and could do no violence one to another, the law would rule all, and all men would put the law in execution, agendo sponte, by doing right of their own accord; and there should be no need of a king to compel men to do right. But now, because men are by nature averse to good laws, therefore there was need of a ruler, who, by office, should reduce the law into practice; and so is the king the law reduced in practice.” (101)

“It was not want of wisdom, (for in many, and in the people, there must be more wisdom than in one man,) but rather corruption of nature and reciprocation of injuries that created kings and other judges.” (121)

Societies cannot survive without rulers, who will protect society from itself, therefore all men are under moral obligation to appoint a ruler or rulers.

Fatherly Authority is not Royal Authority

Royalists argued that royal authority is fatherly authority. Sir Robert Filmer would later argue that all royal authority is derived from Adam’s and then Noah’s authority over their offspring, which he distributed to his sons over the earth.

“I do not believe that, as royalists say, the kingly power is essentially and univocally that same with a paternal or fatherly power; or that Adam, as a father, was as a father and king; and that suppose Adam should live in Noah’s days, that by divine institution and without consent of the kingdoms and communities on earth, Adam hoc ipso, and for no other reason but because he was a father, should also be the universal king, and monarch of the whole world… A father, as a father, hath not power of life and death over his sons, because, Rom. xiii., by divine institution the sword is given by God to kings and judges; and if Adam had had any such power to kill his son Cain for the killing of his brother Abel, it had been given to him by God as a power politic, different from a fatherly power” (62)

“I doubt if the relation of a father, as a father, doth necessarily infer a royal or kingly authority of the father over the son; or by nature’s law, that the father hath a power of life and death over, or above, his children, and the reasons I give are, (1.) Because power of fife and death is by a positive law, presupposing sin and the fall of man; and if Adam, standing in innocency, could lawfully kill his son, though the son should be a malefactor, without any positive law of God, I much doubt. (2.) I judge that the power royal, and the fatherly power of a father over his children, shall be found to be different; and the one is founded on the law of nature, the other, to wit, royal power, on a mere positive law.” (XII, 50)

Civil Government is a Post-Fall Institution

“[A] fatherly power is such as formally to preserve the life of the children, and not to take away the life; yea, and Adam, though he had never sinned, nor any of his posterity, Adam should have been a perfect father, as he is now indued with all fatherly power that any father now hath; yea God should not have given the sword or power of punishing ill-doers, since that power should have been in vain, if there had been no violence, nor bloodshed, or sin on the earth; for the power of the sword and of lawful war, is given to men now in the state of sin.” (62)

“[T]hat kings should necessarily have been in the world, if man had never fallen in sin, I am not, by any cogent argument, induced to believe. I conceive there should have been no government but those of fathers and children, husband and wife, and (which is improperly government) some more gifted with supervenient additions to nature, as gifts and excellencies of engines.” (79)

“Quest. 3.— Whether magistrates, as magistrates, be natural.
Ans. —Nature is considered as whole and sinless, or as fallen and broken. In the former consideration, that man should stand in need of some one to compel him with the sword to do his duty, and not oppress, was no more natural to man than to stand in need of lictors and hangmen, or physicians for the body, which in this state was not in a capacity of sickness or death; and so government by parents and husbands was only natural in the latter consideration. Magistrates, as magistrates, are two ways considered,—

1. According to the knowledge of such an ordinance;
2. According to the actual erection of the practice of the office of magistrates.

In the former notion, I humbly conceive, that by nature’s light, man now fallen and broken, even under all the fractions of the powers and faculties of the soul, doth know, that promises of reward, fear of punishment, and the co-active power of the sword, as Plato said, are natural means to move us, and wings to promote obedience and to do our duty; and that government by magistrates is natural.
But, in the second relation, it is hard to determine that kings, rather than other governors [aristocracy, democracy, etc], are more natural.” (227-228)

Consent of the People

“I conceive it to be evident that royal dignity is not immediately, and without the intervention of the people’s consent, given by God to any one person, and that conquest and violence is no just title to a crown.” (50)

“Politicians agree to this as an undeniable truth, that as domestic society is natural, being grounded upon nature’s instinct, so politic society is voluntary, being grounded on the consent of men; and so politic society is natural, in radice, in the root, and voluntary and free, in modo, in the manner of their union; and the Scripture cleareth to us, that a king is made by the free consent of the people, (Deut xvii. 15) and so not by nature.” (52)

Rutherford points out that the royalist denial that civil government is established by the consent of the people is absurd because it cannot provide for the initial establishment of civil government in a society. If conquest is no just title and God does not prophetically speak, then all that remains, on their view, is hereditary birth from a ruler. But if no ruler yet exists (and thus no hereditary line), then the people may not ever create a civil government.

“Hence in this case no title could be given to any man to make him king, but only the people’s election, which is that which we say. And it is most unreasonable that a people under popular government cannot lawfully choose a king to themselves, seeing a king is a lawful magistrate, and warranted by God’s word, because they have not a king of royal birth to sit upon the throne.” (42)

Rutherford argues from numerous Old Testament examples, including divinely anointed Saul and David, who did not become kings until the people made them kings (noting that David was anointed by God to be king long before he actually became king by consent of the people). Beyond mere example, Rutherford points to Deuteronomy 17:15 as prescriptive for the appointment of rulers to the office. If the people did not have authority to choose a ruler for themselves, then God could not have commanded them to do so. But God did command them to do so, therefore they must have had the authority to do so. Furthermore, hereditary succession was not assumed but was rather a special favor bestowed uniquely upon David’s line. Yet even then, David’s sons did not become kings without the consent of the people.

“Let royalists show us any act of God making David king, save this act of the people making him formally king at Hebron, and therefore the people, as God’s instrument, transferred the power, and God by them in the same act transferred the power, and in the same they chose the person; the royalists affirm these to be different actions, affirmant incumbit probatio. 3. This power is the people’s radically, naturally, as the bees (as some think) have a power natural to choose a king-bee, so hath a community a power naturally to defend and protect themselves; and God hath revealed in Deut. xvii. 14, 15, the way of regulating the act of choosing governors and kings, which is a special mean of defending and protecting themselves; and the people is as principally the subject and fountain of royal power, as a fountain is of water.” (203)

“[A]ccording to Scripture, nothing regulateth our will, and leadeth the people now that they cannot err following God’s rule in making a king, but the free suffrages of the states choosing a man whom they conceive God hath endued with these royal gifts required in the king whom God holdeth forth to them in his word, (Deut. xvii.)” (41)

“[F]atherly government, being in two, is not kingly, but nearer to aristocracy; and when many families were on earth, every one independent within themselves, if a common enemy should invade a tract of land governed by families, I conceive, by nature’s light, they should incline to defend themselves, and to join in one politic body for their own safety, as is most natural. But, in that case they, having no king, and there were no reason of many fathers all alike loving their own families and self-preservation, why one should be king over all, rather than another, except by voluntary compact. So it is clear that nature is nearer to aristocracy before this contract than a monarchy.” (93)

The Mutual Compact (Constitution)

The people have the the power to

“Limitate, — they giving it [royal power] so as these three acts remain with the people.

(1.) That they may measure out, by ounce weights, so much royal power, and no more and no less.

(2.) So as they may limit, moderate, and set banks and marches to the exercise.

(3.) That they give it out, couditionate, upon this and that condition, that they may take again to themselves what they gave out upon condition if the condition be violated.” (6)

When the people choose a ruler to place over themselves, they do so conditionally.

“There is an oath betwixt the king and his people, laying on, by reciprocation of bands, mutual civil obligation upon the king to the people, and the people to the king (2 Sam 5:3; 1 Chron 11:3; 2 Chron 23:2, 3; 2 Kings 11:17; Eccl. 8:2)… There be no mutual contract made upon certain conditions, but if the conditions be not fulfilled, the party injured is loosed from the contract.” (54).

“If, then, the people make a king, as a king, conditionally, for their safety, and not for their destruction, (for as a king he saveth, as a man he destroyeth, and not as a king and father) and if God, by the people’s free election, make a king, God maketh him a king conditionally, and so by covenant; and, therefore, when God promiseth (2 Sam. vii., 12 ; 1 Chron. xxviii. 7— 9) to David’s seed, and to Solomon, a throne, he promiseth not a throne to them immediately, as he raised up prophets and apostles without any mediate action and consent of the people, but he promiseth a throne to them by the mediate consent, election, and covenant of the people; which condition and covenant he expresseth in the very words of the people’s covenant with the king. So they walk as kings in the law of the Lord, and take heed to God’s commandment and statutes to do them.” (57-58)

“The power that the king hath (I speak not of his gifts) he hath it from the people who maketh him king, as I proved before; but the people have neither formally nor virtually any power absolute to give the king. All the power they have is a legal and natural power to guide themselves in peace and godliness, and save themselves from unjust violence by the benefit of rulers.” (102)

“The law hath a supremacy of constitution above the king. Because the king by nature is not king, as is proved; therefore, he must be king by a politic constitution and law; and so the law, in that consideration, is above the king, because it is from a civil law that there is a king rather than any other kind of governor.” (126)

The People Are Superior to the King

“The people in power are superior to the king, because every efficient and constituent cause is more excellent than the effect… The royal power to make laws with the king, and so a power eminent in their states representative to govern themselves, is in the people… The people can, and doth, limit and bind royal power in elected kings, therefore they have in them royal power to give to the king. Those who limit power, can take away so many degrees of royal power; and those who can take away power, can give power;” (80)

“If the people by other governors, as by heads of families and other choice men, govern themselves and produce these same formal effects of peace, justice, religion, on themselves, which the king doth produce, then is there a power of the same kind, and as excellent as the royal power, in the people; and there is no reason but this power should be held to come immediately from God, as the royal power; for it is every way of the same nature and kind, as I shall prove.” (80)

“[T]he people, having their liberty to make any often, or twenty, their king, and to advance one from a private state to an honourable throne, whereas it was in their liberty to advance another, and to give him royal power of ten degrees, whereas they might give him power of twelve degrees, of eight, or six, must be in excellency and worth above the man whom they consitute king, and invest with such honour; as honour in the fountain, and honos participans et originans, must be more excellent and pure than the derived honour in the king, which is honos partial* patus et originatus. If the servant give his liberty to his master, therefore he had that liberty in him, and in that act, liberty must be in a more excellent way in the servant, as in the fountain, than it is in the master; and so this liberty must be purer in the people than in the king; and therefore, in that both the servant is above the master, and the people worthier than the king… the fountain-power remaineth most eminently in the people, 1. Because they give it to the king, ad modum recipi- entis, and with limitations; therefore it is unlimited in the people, and bounded and limited in the king, and so less in the king than in the people.” (82)

“[T]hey never constituted over themselves a king, in regard of fountain-power; for if they give away the fountain, as a slave selleth his liberty, they could not make use of it. Indeed they set a king above them, quoad potostatem legum executivam, in regard of a power of executing laws and actual government for their good and safety; but this proveth only that the king is above the people, in some respect. But the most eminent and fountain-power of royalty remaineth in the people as in an immortal spring, which they communicate by succession to this or that mortal man, in the manner and measure that they think good.” (82)

Constitution Limited by God’s Law

The people are not free to give whatever authority they want to a ruler. The constitutional authority is limited by God’s law.

“That the people can make a king supreme, that is, absolute, and so resign nature’s birthright, that is, a power to defend themselves, is not lawful, for if the people have not absolute power to destroy themselves, they cannot resign such a power to their prince. (46)

“He who is made a minister of God, not simply, but for the good of the subject, and so he take heed to God’s law as a king, and govern according to God’s will, he is in so far only made king by God as he fulfilleth the condition; and in so far as he is a minister for evil to the subject, and ruleth not according to that which the book of the law commandeth him as king, in so far he is not by God appointed king and ruler, and so must be made a king by God conditionally; but so hath God made kings and rulers, Rom. xiii. 4; 2 Goran, vi. 16; Psal. lxxxix. 30, 31; 2 Sam. vii. 12; 1 Chron. xxviii. 7 —9.” (57)

“My life and religion, and so my soul, in some cases, are committed to the king as to a public watchman, even as the flock to the feeder, the city to the watchmen; and he may betray it to the enemy. Therefore, he hath the trust of life and religion, and hath both tables of the law in his custody, ex officio, to see that other men than himself keep the law. But the law is not the king’s own, but given to him in trust. He who receiveth a kingdom conditionally, and may be dethroned if he sell it or put it away to any other, is a fiduciary patron, and hath it only in trust.” (72)

“It is false that the people doth, or can by the law of nature, resign their whole liberty in the hand of a king. 1. They cannot resign to others that which they have not in themselves, Nemo potest dare quod non habet; but the people hath not an absolute power in themselves to destroy themselves, or to exercise those tyrannous acts spoken of, 1 Sam. viii. 11— 15, &c.; for neither God nor nature’s law hath given any such power.” (81-82)

“[I]t is denied that the people can absolutely make away their whole power to the king. It dependeth on the people that they be not destroyed. They give to the king a politic power for their own safety, and they keep a natural power to themselves which they must conserve, but cannot give away; and they do not break their covenant when they put in action that natural power to conserve themselves; for though the people should give away that power, and swear though the king should kill them all, they should not resist, nor defend their own lives, yet that being against the sixth commandment, which enjoineth natural self-preservation, it should not oblige the conscience, for it should be intrinsically sinful; for it is all one to swear to non-self-preservation as to swear to self-murder.” (84)

“But some may say, Volenti non fit injuria, If a people totally resign their power, and swear non-resistance to a conqueror, by compact, they cannot resist. I answer, neither doth this follow, because it is an unlawful compact, and none is obliged to what is unlawful. For, (1.) It is no more lawful for me to resign to another my power of natural self-defence than I can resign my power to defend the innocent drawn to death, and the wives, children, and posterity that God had tyed me unto. (2.) The people can no more resign power of self-defence, which nature hath given them, than they can be guilty of self-murder, and be wanting in the lawful defence of kingdom and religion.” (178)

“God is the author of civil laws and government, and his intention is therein the external peace, and quiet life, and godliness of his church and people, and that all judges, according to their places, be nurse-fathers to the church. (Isa. xlix. 23.) Now God must have appointed sufficient means for this end; but there is no sufficient means at all, but a mere anarchy and confusion, if to one man an absolute and unlimited power be given of God, whereby, at his pleasure, he may obstruct the fountains of justice, and command lawyers and laws to speak not God’s mind, that is justice, righteousness, safety, true religion, but the sole lust and pleasure of one man.” (105)

“There is no necessity that the reserve be expressed in the covenant between king and people, more than in contract of marriage between a husband and a wife; beside her jointure, you should set down this clause in the contract, that if the husband attempt to kill the wife, or the wife the husband, in that case it shall be lawful to either of them to part company. For Dr Feme saith, “That personal defence is lawful in the people, if the king’s assault be sudden, without colour of law, or inevitable.” Yet the reserve of this power of defence is not necessarily to be expressed in the contract betwixt king and people. Exigencies of the law of nature cannot be set down in positive covenants, they are presupposed.” (118)

“Quest 6.— Whether absolute and unlimited power of royalty be a ray and beam of divine majesty immediately derived from God?
Ans. —Not at all. Such a creature is not in the world of God’s creation. Royalists and flatterers of kings are parents to this prodigious birth. There is no shadow of power to do ill in God. An absolute power is essentially a power to do without or above law, and a power to do ill, to destroy; and so it cannot come from God as a moral power by institution, though it come from God by a flux of permissive providence; but so things unlawful and sinful come from God.” (228)

This last point is extremely important. The authority that Paul refers to in Romans 13 is necessarily limited in nature because it comes from God and God does not give anyone authority to sin. For more on this point, see Rutherford on Romans 13 and the Logic of Resistance.

Duty of the Magistrate

“The safety of the subjects is the prime end of the constitution of government;” (119)

“[R]oyal empire is essentially to feed, rule, defend, and to govern in peace and godliness, (1 Tim. ii. 2,) as the father doth his children; Psal. lxxviii. 71,” (64)

The ruler’s duty is two-fold: administer justice and uphold/defend/enforce the true religion.

“[T]he formal object of one or many governors is justice and religion, as they are to be advanced.” (92)

“All are equally called gods, (John x. 35; Exod. xxii. 8,) if for any cause, but because all judges, even inferior, are the immediate deputies of the King of kings, and their sentence in judgment as the sentence of the Judge of all the earth,” (92)

“[S]ome kings, out of their pretended prerogative, have given four pardons to one man for four murders. Now this the king might have left undone without sin, but of mere grace he pardoned the murderer who killed four men. But the truth is, the king killed the three last, because he hath no power in point of conscience to dispense with blood, Num. xxxv, 31; Gen. ix. 6. These pardons are acts of mere grace to one man, but acts of blood to the community.” (107)

“[T]he king’s power of exponing the law is a mere ministerial power, and he hath no dominion of any absolute royal power to expone the law as he will, and to put such a sense and meaning of the law as he pleaseth.” (137)

“My life and religion, and so my soul, in some eases, are committed to the king as to a public watchman, even as the flock to the feeder, the city to the watchmen; and he may betray it to the enemy. Therefore, he hath the trust of life and religion, and hath both tables of the law in his custody, ex officio, to see that other men than himself keep the law. But the law is not the king’s own, but given to him in trust. He who receiveth a kingdom conditionally, and may be dethroned if he sell it or put it away to any other, is a fiduciary patron, and hath it only in trust.” (72)

“As the king is obliged to God for the maintenance of true religion, so are the people and princes no less in their place obliged to maintain true religion;” (55)

“The king, as a man, is not more obliged to the public and regal defence of the true religion than any other man of the land ; but he is made by God and the people king, for the church and people of God’s sake, that he may defend true religion for the behalf and salvation of all. If therefore he defend not religion for the salvation of the souls of all in his public and royal way, it is presumed as undeniable that the people of God, who by the law of nature are to care for their own souls, are to defend in their way true religion, which so nearly concerneth them and their eternal happiness.” (56)

Distinction Between the Person and the Office

In agreement with the reformed tradition (notably Knox, who defended the view in a public debate), Rutherford distinguished between the office of ruler and the person filling that office. When that person ruled lawfully, they were acting under the authority of the office. When they ruled unlawfully, they were acting as a private individual without authority.

“The ground of this distinction we desire to be considered from Rom. xiii. We affirm with Buchanan, that Paul here speaketh of the office and duty of good magistrates, and that the text speaketh nothing of an absolute king, nothing of a tyrant… It is evident from Rom. xiii. that all subjection and obedience to higher powers commanded there, is subjection to the power and office of the magistrate in abstracto, or, which is all one, to the person using the power lawfully, and that no subjection is due by that text, or any word of God, to the abused and tyrannical power of the king, which I evince from the text, and from other Scriptures… The powers (Rom. xiii. 1) that be, are ordained of God, as their author and efficient; but kings commanding unjust things, and killing the innocent, in these acts, are but men, and sinful men; and the power by which they do these acts, a sinful and an usurped power, and so far they are not powers ordained of God, according to his revealed will, which must rule us.” (144)

For more, see Rutherford on Romans 13 and the Distinction Between Office and Person.

Conscience Must Decide if a Magistrate Acts Lawfully

Since there is a higher law than the ruler, the ruler is not the final determiner of whether he is acting lawfully.

“[W]hatever interpretation swerveth either from fundamental laws of policy, or from the law of nature, and the law of nations, and especially from the safety of the public, is to be rejected as a perverting of the law; and therefore, conscientia humani generis, the natural conscience of all men, to which the oppressed people may appeal unto when the king exponeth a law unjustly, at his own pleasure, is the last rule on earth for exponing of laws.” (136)

“The king cannot make unlawful war to be lawful by any authority royal, except he could rase out the sixth commandment; therefore subjects must look more to the causes of war than to the authority of the king;” (187)

Resistance

Given the occasion of Rutherford’s writing (a civil war), all of the above is simply laying the groundwork for his main point: rulers may be resisted. Resistance is rooted in the fact that the ruler’s authority is limited and conditional. If the king breaks the covenant, the people are freed from obeying him. “There be no mutual contract made upon certain conditions, but if the conditions be not fulfilled, the party injured is loosed from the contract.” (54)

“They give to the king a Politic power for their own safety, and they keep a natural power to themselves which they must conserve, but cannot give away; and they do not break their covenant when they put in action that natural power to conserve themselves; for though the people should give away that power, and swear though the king should kill them all, they should not resist, nor defend their own lives, yet that being against the sixth commandment, which enjoineth natural self-preservation, it should not oblige the conscience, for it should be intrinsically sinful; for it is all one to swear to non-self-preservation as to swear to self-murder.” (84)

“When the supreme magistrate will not execute the judgment of the Lord, those who made him supreme magistrate, under God, who have, under God, sovereign liberty to dispose of crowns and kingdoms, are to execute the judgment of the Lord, when wicked men make the law of God of none effect. 1 Sam. xv. 32, so Samuel killed Agag, whom the Lord expressly commanded to be killed, because Saul disobeyed the voice of the Lord.” (96)

“[Discussion of commonwealth/society as a pupil choosing a tutor to guide them while underage] There is no community but is major in this, that it can appoint its own tutors; and though it cannot be without all rulers, yet it may well be without this or that prince and ruler, and, therefore, may resume its power, which it gave conditionally to the ruler for its own safety and good ; and in so far as this condition is violated, and power turned to the destruction of the commonwealth, it is to be esteemed as not given; and though the people be not a politic judge in their own cause, yet in case of manifest oppression, nature can teach them to oppose defensive violence against offensive. A community in its politic body is also above any ruler, and may judge what is manifestly destructive to itself.” (69)

“It is denied, that the power, (Rom. xiii.,) as absolute, is God’s ordinance. And I deny utterly that Christ and his apostles did swear non-resistance absolute to the Roman emperor.” (110)

“I utterly deny that God ever ordained such an irrational creature as an absolute monarch. If a people unjustly, and against nature’s dictates, make away irrevocably their own liberty, and the liberty of their posterity, which is not their’s to dispose off, and set over themselves as base slaves, a sinning creature, with absolute power, he is their king, but not as he is absolute, and that he may not be forcibly resisted, notwithstanding the subjects did swear to his absolute power, (which oath in the point of absoluteness is unlawful, and so not obligatory,) I utterly deny.” (118)

“To save the lives of innocents, to repress tyranny, to defend the oppressed, are, by our Confession [the Scottish Confession of Faith, Ch. XIV], good works, well pleasing to God, and so is this a good work, not to suffer innocent blood to be shed, if we may withstand it. Hence it is clear as the sun, that our Confession, according to the word of God, to which king Charles did swear at his coronation, doth oblige and tie us in the presence of God and his holy angels, to rise in arms to save the innocent, to repress tyranny, to defend the oppressed…

So the thirty-sixth article of the Belgic Confession saith of all magistrates, no less than of a king, (we know, for tyranny of soul and body, they justly revolted from their king,) Idcirco magistrates ipsos gladio armavit, ut malos quidem plectant paznis, probos vero teeanter. Horum por-ro est, non modo de civili politia conser-vanda esse solicitos, verum etiam dare operam ut sacrum ministerium conservetur, omnis idololatria et adulterinus Dei cultus e medio tollatur, regnum antichristi diru-ater, fyc Then, all magistrates, though inferior, must do their duty that the law of God hath laid on them, though the king forbid them; but, by the Belgic Confession and the Scripture, it is their duty to relieve the oppressed, to use the sword against murdering papists and Irish rebels and destroying cavaliers; for, shall it be a good plea in the day of Christ to say, “Lord Jesus, we would have used thy sword against bloody murderers if thy anointed, the king, had not commanded us to obey a mortal king rather than the King of ages, and to execute no judgment for the oppressed, because he judged them faithful catholic subjects.’” (221-222)

Not only may society defend itself, it may, under certain conditions, punish the ruler.

“A political society, as by nature’s instinct they may appoint a head, or heads, to themselves, so also if their head, or heads, become ravenous wolves, the God of nature hath not left a perfect society remediless; but they may both resist, and punish the head, or heads, to whom they gave all the power that they have, for their good, not for their destruction.” (129)

“We shall quickly prove that the states may repress this power, and punish the tyrant— not the king, when he shall prove that a tyrannous power is an ordinance of God, and so may not be resisted; for the law of nature teacheth,— if I give my sword to my fellow to defend me from the murderer, if he shall fall to and murder me with my own sword, I may (if I have strength) take my sword from him.” (132)

“Nor can I assent to Junnerius (de officio vrincip. Christia. c. 5 and 17,) who holdeth, “that these voluntary pactions betwixt king and people, in which the power of the prince is diminished, cannot stand, because their power is given to them by God’s word, which cannot be taken from them by any voluntary paction, lawfully;” and from the same ground, Winzetus (in velit. contr. Buchan. p. 3) ” will have it unlawful to resist kings, because God hath made them irresistible.” I answer,— If God, by a divine institution, make kings absolute, and above all laws, (which is a blasphemous supposition— the holy Lord can give to no man a power to sin, for God hath not himself any such power.) then the covenant betwixt the king and people cannot lawfully remove and take away what God by institution has given; but because God (Deut. xvii.) hath limited the first lawful king, the mould of all the rest, the people ought also to limit him by a voluntary covenant; and, because the lawful power of a king to do good is not by divine institution placed in an indivisible point.” (140)

“When the supreme magistrate will not execute the judgment of the Lord, those who made him supreme magistrate, under God, who have, under God, sovereign liberty to dispose of crowns and kingdoms, are to execute the judgment of the Lord, when wicked men make the law of God of none effect. 1 Sam. xv. 32, so Samuel killed Agag, whom the Lord expressly commanded to be killed, because Saul disobeyed the voice of the Lord.” (96)

“If I would go to human testimonies, which I judge not satisfactory to the conscience, I might cite many: the practice of France, of Holland, the divines in Luther’s time, (Sleidan. 8, c. 8, 22,) resolved resistance to be lawful; Calvin, Beza, Pareus, the German divines, Buchanan, and an host might be produced.” (184)

What has been said up to this point is in agreement with earlier reformed political theology, such as Beza (whom we previously discussed), insofar as it is understood to be referring to the right and duty of nobles (typically land owners with authority above private individuals – see previous quotes from Rutherford mentioning “states”) or lesser magistrates to resist. Beza argued that the Estates or Orders were obligated to resist and dethrone a tyrant, but private individuals may not resist a tyrant. They may only hold out their necks and pray for deliverance. As previously mentioned, this was an attempt to honor Paul’s words in Romans 13, but it resulted in a contradiction for the consent theory of government (which Beza held). If a ruler only possessed authority conditionally by way of compact/agreement, and they failed to meet those conditions, the people could not continue to be obligated to their half of the agreement. Rutherford, following Buchanan and Althusius, recognized this fact.

“A tyrant, without a title, may be resisted by any private man. Quia licet vim vi re-pellere, because we may repel violence by violence; yea, he may be killed.” (141)

This has been referred to as “the explosive doctrine of single-handed tyrannicide.”1 The above quote referred to a ruler who had gone so far as to formally become a tyrant and therefore lose his title entirely. But Rutherford argued that even a ruler with a title could still be resisted by the individual in certain circumstances.

“[B]ecause the royal dignity doth not advance a king above the common condition of men, and the throne maketh him not leave off to be a man, and a man that can do wrong; and therefore as one that doth manifest violence to the life of a man, though his subject, he may be resisted with bodily resistance, in the case of unjust and violent invasion.” (169)

“For the lawfulness of resistance in the matter of the king’s unjust invasion of life and religion, we offer these arguments. Arg. 1.— That power which is obliged to command and rule justly and religiously for the good of the subjects, and is only set over the people on these conditions, and not absolutely, cannot tie the people to subjection without resistance, when the power is abused to the destruction of laws, religion, and the subjects. But all power of the law is thus obliged, (Rom. xiii. 4; Deut. xvii. 18— 20 ; 2 Chron. xix. 6 ; Ps. exxxii. 11,12 ; Ixxxix. 30, 31; 2 Sam. vii. 12; Jer. xvii. 24, 25,) and hath, and may be, abused by kings, to the destruction of laws, religion, and subjects. The proposition is clear. 1. For the powers that tie us to subjection only are of God. 2. Because to resist them, is to resist the ordinance of God. 3. Because they are not a terror to good works, but to evil. 4. Because they are God’s ministers for our good, but abused powers are not of God, but of men, or not ordinances of God; they are a terror to good works, not to evil; they are not God’s ministers for our good.

Arg. 2.— That power which is contrary to law, and is evil and tyrannical, can tie none to subjection, but is a mere tyrannical power and unlawful; and if it tie not to subjection, it may lawfully be resisted…

Arg. 3.— There is not a stricter obligation moral betwixt king and people than betwixt parents and children, master and servant, patron and clients, husband and wife, the lord and the vassal, between the pilot of a ship and the passengers, the physician and the sick, the doctor and the scholars, but the law granteth, (I. Minime 35, de Relig. et sumpt. funer,) if these betray their trust LEX, REX ; OR, committed to them, they may be resisted:..

Arg. 6.— If the estates of a kingdom give the power to a king, it is their own power in the fountain; and if they give it for their own good, they have power to judge when it is used against themselves, and for their evil, and so power to limit and resist the power that they gave.” (141)

“[N]o king, no civil power can take away nature’s birthright of self-defence from any man, or a community of men.” (185)

Recalling the distinction between person and office, Rutherford notes

[T]he man who is the king, in so far as he doth those things that are against his office, may be resisted; and that in these we are not to be subject, but only we are to be subject to his power and royal authority, in abstracto, in so far as, according to his office, he is not a terror to good works, but to evil…

The ruler, as the ruler, and the nature and intrinsical end of the office is, that he bear God’s sword as an avenger to execute wrath on him that doth evil,— and so cannot be resisted without sin. But the man who is the ruler, and commandeth things unlawful, and killeth the innocent, carrieth the papist’s and prelate’s sword to execute, not the righteous judgment of the Lord upon the ill-doer, but his own private revenge upon him that doth well; therefore, the man may be resisted, the office may not be resisted; and they must be two different things.” (143)

“The unlawful resistance condemned by Paul (Rom. xiii.) is not upon the ground of absoluteness, which is in the court of God nothing, being never ordained of God, but upon reasons of conscience, because the powers are of God, and ordained of God. But some may say, Volenti non fit injuria, If a people totally resign their power, and swear non-resistance to a conqueror, by compact, they cannot resist. I answer, neither doth this follow, because it is an unlawful compact, and none is obliged to what is unlawful.” (178)

In defense of the right of private individuals to resist their rulers, Rutherford pointed out that running away from authorities, which is permitted in Scripture and granted by all, is also resistance.

“Flying from the tyranny of abused authority, is a plain resisting of rulers in their unlawful oppression and perverting of judgment. All royalists grant it lawful, and ground it upon the law of nature, that those that are persecuted by tyrannous princes may flee, and it is evident from Christ’s commandment, “If they persecute you in one city, flee to another,” Matt. x. 23, and by Matt, xxiii. 34. Christ fled from the fury of the Jews till his hour was come; Elias, Uriah, (Jer. xxvi. 20,) and Joseph and Mary fled; the martyrs did hide themselves in caves and dens of the earth (Heb. xi. 37, 38); Paul was let down through a window in a basket at Damascus. This certainly is resistance… When a murderer, self-convicted, fleeth from the just power of a judge lawfully citing him, he resisteth the just power ordained of God (Rom. iii.); therefore, by the same reason, if we flee from a tyrannous power, we resist that tyrannous power, and so, by royalists’ ground, we resist the ordinance of God by flying.” (159)

Example of Christ’s Suffering

Rutherford makes the important qualification that even though resistance by any man is lawful, it may not be appropriate in every circumstance.

“He might, with more than twelve legions of angels, defend himself, but he would not, not because resistance was unlawful— no shadow for that in the text— but because it was God’s will that he should drink the cup his Father gave him, and because to take the sword without God’s warrant, subjecteth the usurper of God’s place to perish with the sword. Peter had God’s revealed will that Christ behoved to suffer, (Matt. xxvi. 52, 53; xvi. 21— 23,) and God’s positive command, that Christ should die for sinners, (John x. 24,) may well restrain an act of lawful self-preservation, hie et nunc, and such an act as Christ lawfully used at another time. (Luke iv. 29, 30; John xi. 7, 8.)” (181)

Two Kingdoms

During the time of the Assembly, the Presbyterians engaged in lengthy debate with Erastians. The Erastians argued that the civil magistrate was the head of the church and had the authority to govern the visible church. The Presbyterians argued that the church was instituted by God with Christ the mediator as head and established with officers directly under him, not mediated through the civil magistrate. Thus, rather than a divine right of kings, there was a divine right of church government.

P. Prelate. [Rutherford’s opponent] —Sectaries have found a query of late, that kings are God’s, not Christ’s lieutenants on earth. Romanists and puritans erect two sovereigns in every state,— the Jesuit in the Pope, the puritan in the presbytery.

Ans. 1.— We give a reason why God hath a lieutenant, as God; because kings are gods, bearing the sword of vengeance against seditious and bloody prelates, and other ill doers. But Christ, God-man, the Mediator and head of the body— the church, hath neither pope nor king to be head under him. The sword is communicable to men; but the headship of Christ is communicable to no king, nor to any created shoulders.” (211)

This marked a shift from earlier formulations of two kingdoms of the two-fold government of man (held by Calvin and Luther), which referred to the internal (conscience) and the external. Under this formula, the external kingdom included both the civil magistrate and the visible church. The 17th century debate shifted the visible church into the spiritual kingdom distinct from the civil kingdom. For more on this see Confessional Two Kingdoms.

Enemy of the State

Though Rutherford was expressing the reformed tradition’s development of political theology, it was not simply “par for the course” in his day. The Reformation sparked political turmoil and upheaval, led by this doctrine. Driven by the logical interpretation and application of Scripture, these thoughts were revolutionary. From the introduction found in the Kindle edition:

“His work, Lex, Rex, was considered by the government as “inveighing against monarchie and laying ground for rebellion;” and ordered to be burned by the hand of the common hangman at Edinburgh. It met with similar treatment at St Andrews, and also at London; and a proclamation was issued, that every person in possession of a copy, who did not deliver it up to the king’s solicitor, should be treated as an enemy to the government. Rutherford himself was deprived of his offices both in the University and the Church, and his stipend confiscated; he was ordered to confine himself within his own house, and was summoned to appear before the Parliament at Edinburgh, to answer a charge of high treason. It may be easily imagined what his fate would have been had he lived to obey the mandate; but ere the time arrived he was summoned to a far higher than an earthly tribunal.”

Lord willing, I will post an analysis and critique of Lex, Rex in the future.


  1. Roger A. Mason, ‘People Power? George Buchanan on Resistance and the Common Man’, in Robert von Friedeburg, ed., Widerstandsrecht in der frühen Neuzeit, in Zeitschrift für Historische Forschung, beiheft 26 (2001), 163–81, at 179. 

Nebuchadnezzar and Romans 13: Person (Decretive) or Office (Preceptive)?

A basic question of Romans 13 is whether it is referring to a ruler in his person, or a ruler in his office – and subsequently whether the powers that are “ordained by God” refer to God’s decretive will (individual rulers are providentially ordained) or to God’s preceptive will (the office of magistrate is commanded/ordained as an authority over the people). For Calvin and other early reformers, the answer was an inconsistent blending of both (thus a tyrant may not be resisted even if he oversteps the limits of his office). Reformed theologians following Knox (such as Rutherford) saw it as a reference to the office, and thus a tyrant may be resisted (because he oversteps the bounds of his office). (See this brief comparison)

An important question is how Nebuchadnezzar relates to Romans 13. Did Paul have Daniel’s statement about Nebuchadnezzar in mind? Commenting on Romans 13, Riddlebarger says

The Jews knew the Old Testament teaching that all rulers rule only because God raises them up according to his sovereign purposes. This is part of common grace in that God uses such kings–even Gentile kings of pagan nations–to bring peace and order to society. In Proverbs 8:15 it is written, “By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just.” In Daniel 2:21, our Old Testament lesson, we read that God “changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning.” In verses 37-38, Daniel goes on to say to Nebuchadnezzar the ruler of Babylon, “You, O king, are the king of kings. The God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory; in your hands he has placed mankind and the beasts of the field and the birds of the air. Wherever they live, he has made you ruler over them all. You are that head of gold.” No matter how powerful they think they may be, kings rule only at the pleasure of God. God raises up pagan empires to fulfill his purposes.

Did God use Nebechadnezzar “to bring peace and order to society”? Was his rule “part of common grace”? No and no.

There was nothing common about God’s punishment of Israel by the hand of Nebuchadnezzar. His oppression of Judah was a special holy war curse, not common grace. It was a fulfillment of the Mosaic curse found in Deuteronomy 28 for Israel’s disobedience to Mosaic law (Jer. 11:1-17), as was Assyria’s destruction of the 10 tribes. (Note that Mosaic law was given to Israel as a covenant of works for life in the land of Canaan).

Deut 28:15 “But it shall come to pass, if you do not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you:

16 “Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the country…

25 “The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies…

29 And you shall grope at noonday, as a blind man gropes in darkness; you shall not prosper in your ways; you shall be only oppressed and plundered continually, and no one shall save you…

33 A nation whom you have not known shall eat the fruit of your land and the produce of your labor, and you shall be only oppressed and crushed continually

43 “The alien who is among you shall rise higher and higher above you, and you shall come down lower and lower. 44 He shall lend to you, but you shall not lend to him; he shall be the head, and you shall be the tail.

45 “Moreover all these curses shall come upon you and pursue and overtake you, until you are destroyed, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which He commanded you…

49 The Lord will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flies, a nation whose language you will not understand, 50 a nation of fierce countenance, which does not respect the elderly nor show favor to the young. 51 And they shall eat the increase of your livestock and the produce of your land, until you are destroyed; they shall not leave you grain or new wine or oil, or the increase of your cattle or the offspring of your flocks, until they have destroyed you.

Jeremiah 20:4 thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I will make you a terror to yourself and to all your friends; and they shall fall by the sword of their enemies, and your eyes shall see it. I will give all Judah into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall carry them captive to Babylon and slay them with the sword. 5 Moreover I will deliver all the wealth of this city, all its produce, and all its precious things; all the treasures of the kings of Judah I will give into the hand of their enemies, who will plunder them, seize them, and carry them to Babylon. (see full context of Jeremiah for more; cf 2 Kgs 24-25)

Habakkuk 1:5 “Look among the nations and watch—
Be utterly astounded!
For I will work a work in your days
Which you would not believe, though it were told you.
6 For indeed I am raising up the Chaldeans,
A bitter and hasty nation
Which marches through the breadth of the earth,
To possess dwelling places that are not theirs…
9 They all come for violence

2 Chr. 26:17 Therefore He brought against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or virgin, on the aged or the weak; He gave them all into his hand. 18 And all the articles from the house of God, great and small, the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king and of his leaders, all these he took to Babylon.

That doesn’t sound like common grace to me. Nebuchadnezzar’s rule did not bring peace and order in Judah. It was never intended to. His rule (oppression) was wicked, violent, and unjust. It brought death and destruction, not peace and order. His sword was equivalent to famine and pestilence (Jer. 38:2, 17-18). Habakkuk and Asaph the Psalmist (representing the faithful remnant) cry out to the Lord for justice against Nebuchadnezzar for what he did to Judah in Jerusalem.

Habakkuk 1:13 Why do You look on those who deal treacherously,
And hold Your tongue when the wicked devours
A person more righteous than he?
14 Why do You make men like fish of the sea,
Like creeping things that have no ruler over them?…
17 Shall they therefore empty their net,
And continue to slay nations without pity?

Psalm 79:1 O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;
they have defiled your holy temple;
they have laid Jerusalem in ruins…
6 Pour out your anger on the nations
that do not know you,
and on the kingdoms
that do not call upon your name!
7 For they have devoured Jacob
and laid waste his habitation…
10 Why should the nations say,
“Where is their God?”
Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants
be known among the nations before our eyes!

Vengeance Upon Babylon

The LORD answers Habakkuk and promises to punish Nebuchadnezzar according to lex talionis.

Hab. 2:5 “Indeed, because he transgresses by wine,
He is a proud man,
And he does not stay at home.
Because he enlarges his desire as hell,
And he is like death, and cannot be satisfied,
He gathers to himself all nations
And heaps up for himself all peoples…
8 Because you have plundered many nations,
All the remnant of the people shall plunder you,
Because of men’s blood
And the violence of the land and the city,
And of all who dwell in it…
12 “Woe to him who builds a town with bloodshed,
Who establishes a city by iniquity!…
16 The cup of the Lord’s right hand will be turned against you,
And utter shame will be on your glory.
17 For the violence done to Lebanon will cover you,
And the plunder of beasts which made them afraid,
Because of men’s blood
And the violence of the land and the city,
And of all who dwell in it.

The Babylonians knew they were acting as judgment against Jerusalem (because they heard the prophets) and thus sought to excuse themselves.

Jer. 50:7 All who found them have devoured them;
And their adversaries said, ‘We have not offended,
Because they have sinned against the Lord, the habitation of justice,
The Lord, the hope of their fathers.’

But this was no justification for their actions.

Jer 50:10 And Chaldea shall become plunder;
All who plunder her shall be satisfied,” says the Lord.
11 “Because you were glad, because you rejoiced,
You destroyers of My heritage..
14 “Put yourselves in array against Babylon all around,
All you who bend the bow;
Shoot at her, spare no arrows,
For she has sinned against the Lord.
15 Shout against her all around;
She has given her hand,
Her foundations have fallen,
Her walls are thrown down;
For it is the vengeance of the Lord.
Take vengeance on her.
As she has done, so do to her…
18 Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel:
“Behold, I will punish the king of Babylon and his land,
As I have punished the king of Assyria…
28 The voice of those who flee and escape from the land of Babylon
Declares in Zion the vengeance of the Lord our God,
The vengeance of His temple.
29 “Call together the archers against Babylon.
All you who bend the bow, encamp against it all around;
Let none of them escape.
Repay her according to her work;
According to all she has done, do to her;
For she has been proud against the Lord,
Against the Holy One of Israel…
33 Thus says the Lord of hosts:
“The children of Israel were oppressed,
Along with the children of Judah;
All who took them captive have held them fast;
They have refused to let them go.
51:11 Make the arrows bright!
Gather the shields!
The Lord has raised up the spirit of the kings of the Medes.
For His plan is against Babylon to destroy it,
Because it is the vengeance of the Lord,
The vengeance for His temple…

33 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel:

“The daughter of Babylon is like a threshing floor
When it is time to thresh her;
Yet a little while
And the time of her harvest will come.”
34 “Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon
Has devoured me, he has crushed me;
He has made me an empty vessel,
He has swallowed me up like a monster;
He has filled his stomach with my delicacies,
He has spit me out.
35 Let the violence done to me and my flesh be upon Babylon,”
The inhabitant of Zion will say;
“And my blood be upon the inhabitants of Chaldea!”
Jerusalem will say…
49 As Babylon has caused the slain of Israel to fall,
So at Babylon the slain of all the earth shall fall…
56 Because the plunderer comes against her, against Babylon,
And her mighty men are taken.
Every one of their bows is broken;
For the Lord is the God of recompense,
He will surely repay.

The Chaldeans (Babylonians) attacked Israel without cause. Israel had done them no wrong, thus the attack was unjustified (even though it was at the hand of the LORD as a covenant curse).

Lam. 3:52 “I have been hunted like a bird
by those who were my enemies without cause..
58 “You have taken up my cause, O Lord;
you have redeemed my life.
59 You have seen the wrong done to me, O Lord;
judge my cause.
60 You have seen all their vengeance,
all their plots against me…
64 You will repay them, O Lord,
according to the work of their hands.

Power

Note that God does not punish Nebuchadnezzar for doing something different from what God ordained him to do (Jer. 51:7). Nebuchadnezzar is punished for doing specifically what God ordained him to do. This is harmonized by a proper understanding of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, but the necessary implication is that God did not ordain Nebuchandezzar to an office, but for a purpose! God ordained Nebuchadnezzar as king of kings not by lawfully appointing him to an office, as in the case of Saul or David, but by simply giving him the strength and ability to kill whomever he wanted. “In your hands he has placed mankind.”

O king, the Most High God gave Nebuchadnezzar your father a kingdom and majesty, glory and honor. And because of the majesty that He gave him, all peoples, nations, and languages trembled and feared before him. Whomever he wished, he executed; whomever he wished, he kept alive; whomever he wished, he set up; and whomever he wished, he put down. (Dan. 5:18-19)

God then punished him for that injustice by giving another individual the strength and ability to kill and subdue Babylon. God simply uses the mighty men of renown to accomplish His purpose on earth. Giving Nebuchadnezzar a kingdom does not mean lawfully appointing him to an office. It means giving him the power to sinfully crush all opposition. Note Augustine

How like kingdoms without justice are to robberies Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?
For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity… But to make war on your neighbors, and thence to proceed to others, and through mere lust of dominion to crush and subdue people who do you no harm, what else is this to be called than great robbery?

Recall Nimrod

Genesis 10:8 Cush begot Nimrod; he began to be a mighty one on the earth. 9 He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord.” 10 And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. 11 From that land he went to Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah, 12 and Resen between Nineveh and Calah (that is the principal city).

Matthew Henry notes

He is here represented as a great man in his day: He began to be a mighty one in the earth, that is, whereas those that went before him were content to stand upon the same level with their neighbours, and though every man bore rule in his own house yet no man pretended any further, Nimrod’s aspiring mind could not rest here; he was resolved to tower above his neighbours, not only to be eminent among them, but to lord it over them… he gathered men under his command, in pursuit of another game he had to play, which was to make himself master of the country and to bring them into subjection. He was a mighty hunter, that is, he was a violent invader of his neighbours’ rights and properties, and a persecutor of innocent men, carrying all before him, and endeavouring to make all his own by force and violence.”

Calvin:

I thus interpret the passage, that the condition of men was at that time moderate; so that if some excelled others, they yet did not on that account domineer, nor assume to themselves royal power; but being content with a degree of dignity, governed others by civil laws and had more of authority than power. For Justin, from Trogus Pompeius, declares this to have been the most ancient condition of the world. Now Moses says, that Nimrod, as if forgetting that he was a man, took possession of a higher post of honor… he metaphorically intimates that he was a furious man, and approximated to beasts rather than to men. The expression, “Before the Lord,” seems to me to declare that Nimrod attempted to raise himself above the order of men… Nimrod was so mighty and imperious that it would be proper to say of any powerful tyrant, that he is another Nimrod. Yet the version of Jerome is satisfactory, that thence it became a proverb concerning the powerful and the violent, that they were like Nimrod. Nor do I doubt that God intended the first author of tyranny to be transmitted to odium by every tongue.

Gill:

[T]hat is, he was the first that formed a plan of government, and brought men into subjection to it; and so the Jews make him to be the first king after God; for of the ten kings they speak of in the world, God is the first, and Nimrod the second; and so the Arabic writers say, he was the first of the kings that were in the land of Babylon; and that, seeing the figure of a crown in the heaven, he got a golden one made like it, and put it on his head; hence it was commonly reported, that the crown descended to him from heaven.

Rutherford draws out the implications.

Conquest without the consent of the people is but royal robbery… Mr Marshall saith, (Let. p. 7,) a conquered kingdom is but continuata injuria, a continued robbery… If the act of conquering be violent and unjust, it is no manifestation of God’s regulating and approving will, and can no more prove a just title to a crown, because it is an act of divine providence, than Pilate and Herod’s crucifying of the Lord of glory, which was an act of divine providence, flowing from the will and decree of divine providence, (Acts ii. 23 ; iv. 28,) is a manifestation that it was God’s approving will, that they should kill Jesus Christ…

Mere conquest by the sword, without the consent of the people, is no just title to the crown… It is not to be thought that that is God’s just title to a crown which hath nothing in it of the essence of a king, but a violent and bloody purchase, which is in its prevalency in an oppressing Nimrod, and the crudest tyrant that is hath nothing-essential to that which constituteth a king ; for it hath nothing of heroic and royal wisdom and gifts to govern, and nothing of God’s approving and regulating will, which must be manifested to any who would be a king, but by the contrary, cruelty hath rather baseness and witless fury, and a plain reluctancy with God’s revealed will, which forbiddeth murder. God’s law should say, ” Murder thou, and prosper and reign;” and by the act of violating the sixth commandment, God should declare his approving will, to wit, his lawful call to a throne.

Submission to Nebuchadnezzar’s Yoke

If that is the background Paul has in mind in Romans 13, then he is not referring to the ordination of the office of magistrate, but to the providential use of mighty men for His purpose. But if that is the case, why are we commanded to submit? Obedience is a response to God’s revealed, preceptive will, not his secret, decretive will.

A clue lies in the fact that God commanded Judah to submit to the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar.

Jer. 21:8 “Now you shall say to this people, ‘Thus says the Lord: “Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death. 9 He who remains in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but he who goes out and [c]defects to the Chaldeans who besiege you, he shall live, and his life shall be as a prize to him. 10 For I have set My face against this city for adversity and not for good,” says the Lord. “It shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire.” ’

Why did God command them to submit? Was it simply a matter of natural law that they had to submit to a conquering tyrant? No, as Rutherford explains

Conquest, seeing it is an act of violence, and God’s revenging justice for the sins of a people, cannot give in God’s court such a just title to the throne as the people are to submit their consciences unto, except God reveal his regulating will by some immediate voice from heaven, as he commanded Judah to submit to Nebuchadnezzar as to their king by the mouth of Jeremiah. Now this is not a rule to us; for then, if the Spanish king should invade this land… it should be unlawful to resist him, after he had once conquered the land : neither God’s word, nor the law of nature could permit this. (Lex Rex, 41)

(Consider Abram’s behavior in Genesis 14).

He commanded them to submit, by a positive law, in order to weed out the faithful remnant in Judah and spare them. Those who trusted in the LORD and believed his word concerning their judgment would be spared (it wound up being 7,000). Those who did not listen to his warning but listened to the false prophets proclaiming peace in the city would be destroyed.

Jer. 27:8 And it shall be, that the nation and kingdom which will not serve Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, and which will not put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, that nation I will punish,’ says the Lord, ‘with the sword, the famine, and the pestilence, until I have consumed them by his hand. 9 Therefore do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your [c]dreamers, your soothsayers, or your sorcerers, who speak to you, saying, “You shall not serve the king of Babylon.” 10 For they prophesy a lie to you, to remove you far from your land; and I will drive you out, and you will perish. 11 But the nations that bring their necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will let them remain in their own land,’ says the Lord, ‘and they shall till it and dwell in it.’ ” ’ ”

12 I also spoke to Zedekiah king of Judah according to all these words, saying, “Bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him and his people, and live! 13 Why will you die, you and your people, by the sword, by the famine, and by the pestilence, as the Lord has spoken against the nation that will not serve the king of Babylon? 14 Therefore do not listen to the words of the prophets who speak to you, saying, ‘You shall not serve the king of Babylon,’ for they prophesy a lie to you; 15 for I have not sent them,” says the Lord, “yet they prophesy a lie in My name, that I may drive you out, and that you may perish, you and the prophets who prophesy to you.”

This is the context in which the LORD said that the just shall live by faith.

Habakkuk 2:2 Then the Lord answered me and said:

“Write the vision
And make it plain on tablets,
That he may run who reads it.
3 For the vision is yet for an appointed time;
But at the end it will speak, and it will not lie.
Though it tarries, wait for it;
Because it will surely come,
It will not tarry.

4 “Behold the proud,
His soul is not upright in him;
But the just shall live by his faith.

The Times of the Gentiles

Rutherford says “Now this is not a rule to us.” But is it? Samuel Waldron’s unpublished Masters’ Thesis titled “Political Revolution in the Reformed Tradition: An Historical and Biblical Critique” provides an extremely helpful analysis.

It is the subject of the Theocratic kingdom along with its disruption which form the controlling backdrop of the prophecies of Daniel (Dan. 1:17, 9:127). This is wellknown, but its pervasive significance is not generally appreciated. This is particularly true of the foundational visions of Daniel 2 and 7. Why are just these four kingdoms chosen? What is so special about them? Why are not the earlier Egyptian and Assyrian empires the subject of like prophecy? Is it their extent which controls their selection? It is rather the Theocratic disruption which provides the rationale for these prophecies. They begin with Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon and span MedoPersia, Greece, and Rome, because these empires were those to bear rule over the people of God during the Theocratic disruption. They retain this authority till the restoration of the Theocracy (Dan. 2:34, 35, 44; 7:2327). One of the main purposes of these visions was to warn the people of God that not merely the Babylonians, but three additional Gentile kingdoms would bear rule over them before this restoration. Their message is, thus, analogous to that of Dan. 9:24f. It is that not merely 70 years, but 70 sevens must transpire before the Davidic reign returns. Fairbairn perceives this relation.

Not only so; but when the kingdom had fallen to its very foundations, and to the eye of sense lay smitten by the rod of Babylon as with an irrecoverable doom, that precisely was the time, and Babylon itself the place, chosen by God to reveal, through his servant Daniel, the certain resurrection of the kingdom, and its ultimate triumph over all rival powers and adverse influences. In contradistinction to the Chaldean and other worldly kingdoms, which were all destined to pass away, and become like the dust of the summer threshingfloor, he announced the setting up of a kingdom by the God of heaven, which should never be destroyed,a kingdom which, in principle, should be the same with the Jewish theocracy and in history should form but a renewal and prolongation, in happier circumstances, of its existence; for it was to be, as of old, a kingdom of priests to God, or of the people of the saints of the Most High; and as such, an everlasting kingdom, which all the dominions were to serve and obey.

The period of the Gentile kingdoms is, then, the period of the Theocratic disruption. The special thing about these kingdoms is not their geographical extent, but the fact that they bear rule over the people of God in the interim between the disruption and restoration of the Theocratic kingdom. They replace the Theocratic government during this interim.

All of this raises the question of the character and timing of the restoration of the Theocratic kingdom. This is all the more necessary if we are to assess the significance of all this for the church. If the Theocratic disruption continues today, the Church’s relationship to civil government [or rather “to Gentile kingdoms” since we are talking about persons, not an office] will be governed by the principles which governed Israel subsequent to the Exile…

A growing number of evangelical scholars are committed to what might be called a synthesis of these views at least in regard to their view of the coming of the kingdom. These scholars recognize a tension in the N. T. regarding the coming of the kingdom: an “already” and a “not yet” in the coming of the kingdom. They believe the kingdom prophesied in the O. T. unfolds itself in two successive stages. The kingdom foretold by the prophets without selfconscious distinction between these two phases (1 Pet. 1:10, 11) comes indeed, but first in an inaugural and then in a consummate form. This is perhaps the unique feature of N. T. eschatology and pervades its thoughtstructures (cf. for example 1 Cor. 15:20-28)…

Applying this framework to the interpretation of Daniel and the restoration of the Theocratic kingdom, one obtains the result that a tension exists between the “already” and “not yet” aspects of the restoration of the Theocratic kingdom… The “times of the Gentiles,” a reference to the period of the supremacy of the Gentile powers of Daniel, continue till the end of the age. The new Jerusalem in its earthly manifestation is not yet, Rev. 21:17. Jesus, Paul, and Peter command submission to Daniel’s fourth kingdom (Matt. 22:15f.; Rom. 13:1f.; 1 Pet. 2:13f.). Jesus refuses the offer of a position of civil authority in the days of his flesh (Luke 12:13, 14; John 6:15).

Romans 13

Waldron continues

The Apostle Paul utters what is only the logical conclusion of all this in Rom. 13:1 when he says, “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” The statement is often understood (and is certainly true) in the abstract or general sense, but it is nonetheless the fruit of a rich historical movement. For it was of the Roman Empire, the fourth and iron kingdom of Daniel 2, of which Paul was speaking. The four Gentile kingdoms of Dan. 2 include ultimately all nonTheocratic civil authority ruling over the people of God till the end of the age and the dawning of the Theocratic kingdom. Nebuchadnezzar’s authority becomes that of his sons, and their authority devolves to Cyrus and his successors, and thence to Greece and Rome. Rome’s authority unfolds to include all human, civil authority during this age until its eschatological consummation in the kingdom of Antichrist…

[The background to Romans 13] was the influence which Paul feared Jewish nationalism with its revolutionary tendencies might have on the Christian community in Rome. This occasion, I am convinced, provides the key with which to unlock the intent and meaning of Romans 13:1-7… Matt. 22:16, 17; Mark 12:14; Luke 20:21, 22… Acts 5:36, 37… Acts 18:2… Luke 23:19… Luke 13:1… Matt. 24:5, 11, 23, 24… 1 Pet. 2:13-17… 3:13-17; 4:14-16… The warnings and commands of Matt. 5:38-48 were spoken against the backdrop of and in opposition to the attitudes of violent, Jewish zealotry. Matt. 5:38-48 is, however, connected to Rom. 13:1-7 by a web of exegetical connections. This clearly manifests that the kind of attitudes being opposed in Matthew 5 are also the occasion of Rom. 13:1-7 and suggests that the source of these attitudes is the same, violent, Jewish zealotry… Indications are not lacking in the immediate context of Matt. 5:43 which confirm that the enemies mentioned in Matt. 5:43 were specifically the Roman enemies…

This interpretation of these verses delivers the statements of Jesus from being interpreted as universal rules of conduct to be applied in every conceivable situation. Too often evangelicals have made applications of these verses to daily life which are not only totally unrealistic, but completely miss Jesus’ point. Jesus had no intention in these precepts to forbid self-defence or all recourse to legal authority to secure our legitimate rights. He is simply intent on quelling violent and revolutionary tendencies against the Roman authorities among His followers…

The word Paul uses (the Greek verb, hupotasso) is precisely the one we would expect if Paul is intent on inculcating the opposite of revolution and rebellion. Subordination (the translation I favor for bringing out the meaning of the verb, hupotasso) is the virtue which has for its contrasting vice, rebellion… Ordinarily, of course, subordination includes obedience. These two things, however, cannot be simply equated… Is the conscientious disobedience mandated by the Scriptures an exception to the requirement of subordination found in Rom. 13:1? To put the question more clearly, Is such conscientious disobedience insubordination, rebellion, or incipient revolution? The answer clearly must be negative! Conscientious disobedience to certain of the demands of ordained human authorities is clearly consistent with the strictest subordination to their general authority. Lenski sees the matter very clearly when he asserts, “Refusal to obey was not in any way standing against the arrangement of God and the governmental authority this high court possessed.”

(Note that Waldron follows Calvin’s blending of person and office and thus believes these Gentile rulers, including Nebuchadnezzar, are appointed to a legitimate, legal office. His comments here should not be taken as agreement with all of the above. Please encourage him to publish the book. It is very helpful throughout.)

Conclusion

The distinction between person and office in Romans 13 goes back at least to Chrysostom. Most have either argued that Romans 13 refers to both or that it refers only to the office. In light of the above, I think there is strong evidence to consider Romans 13 as referring to the person and not to an office. God providentially empowers mighty men to reign as “king of the hill” during the “times of the Gentiles.” These men do not possess legitimate, legal authority on a human level, but nonetheless Christians are not to seek to overthrow them. We are to wait patiently for our king to return. As the author of Lamentations, representing the faithful remnant, said

3:25
The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul who seeks him.
26
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
27
It is good for a man that he bear
the yoke in his youth.

28
Let him sit alone in silence
when it is laid on him;
29
let him put his mouth in the dust—
there may yet be hope;
30
let him give his cheek to the one who strikes,
and let him be filled with insults.

Moving ReformedLibertarian.com Posts to Contrast

Over the last 6 years or so (wow, time flies) I have written numerous posts over at ReformedLibertarian.com focusing on historical and exegetical theology as it relates to political philosophy. Several months ago it ran into some hosting issues with GoDaddy and has been offline. Around the same time, the editor and owner of the site C.Jay Engel developed some aspects of his political philosophy that has caused him to doubt whether “libertarian” is the most appropriate label (see here, here, and here). I have not yet had time to fully study and reflect upon these developments in order to determine where I may agree or disagree (I think there is much agreement). Regardless, getting ReformedLibertarian.com back up and running has not been a top priority (he is editor of the print magazine Bastion, among other things). It may get back online again at some point, it may not. It’s out of my hands.

In the meantime, I’m going to be moving my posts over to this blog. I’m not sure how long it will take as there is a lot of content and it may take a while to relink everything within the posts. Since my focus was on historical and exegetical theology (rather than the full development and application of libertarianism as a political philosophy, which I left to C.Jay), I don’t anticipate any major changes to anything I wrote. Until I get it transfered, you can find all of those posts in the Post Directory via The Way Back Machine.

Given recent developments in our nation, I will be prioritizing my posts on Romans 13.

Re: Sumpter, White, & Wilson on “Federal Vision Baptists?”

Too Long; Didn’t Read synoposis:

  1. Sumpter acknowledged that the Joint Federal Vision Statement (which Wilson still affirms) is incompatible with the reformed law/gospel distinction and must be rejected.
  2. He clarified that he and Wilson agree with Shepherd that eternal life would have been a gracious gift received by Adam through faith alone, but they disagree with Shepherd in that they believe it would have also been a reward due for work performed.
  3. Thus Sumpter and Wilson are not Shepherdian. But they are also not Westminsterian. They are Shepminsterian. Being Westminsterian would require them to reject the JFVS on the Adamic Covenant (of Works) and then revise their systematic and exegetical theology accordingly.
  4. While clarifying some points, the White & Wilson discussion did not address any of the above (didn’t even mention the JFVS). It was a surface-level softball discussion in response to RSC’s 5 points, not a response to what I argued.

Intro

Last month I wrote a post titled “Federal Vision Baptists?” I’m very thankful that many people expressed appreciation for the post, explaining that they previously did not understand the concerns but now they do. Toby Sumpter and Doug Wilson both responded on their blogs (here and here). Doug Wilson and James White also posted a video discussion response to my post. I am thankful for all of these replies.

Some (many?) people were introduced to the Federal Vision controversy for the first time through my post. I took it for granted that people were aware of it and understood Wilson’s history in it, thus I did not elaborate on any of the history. I rather focused very specifically on one point: the law/gospel distinction articulated in the CoW/CoG distinction. For those who have not studied the controversy, it would be quite easy to conclude (from Wilson’s response) that I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about and that I was simply duped by RSC. If that is your reaction, I would simply urge you to carefully re-read what I wrote and to withhold judgment until you have taken the time to study the controversy more closely.

Along these lines, some have been mistakenly led to believe that Wilson’s discussion with White proved that 1) Wilson is not FV and 2) Wilson is simply Westminsterian. A couple of brief Twitter threads illustrate this (here and here).


The second thread:


Sadly, no, we’re not done.

My original post was long. This one will be as well. There’s no way around it. Wilson’s errors are complicated and require a lot of care to untangle. That task may not interest everyone. This post is written for those who are interested. If you read, please do so carefully.

Woke?

At the end of Wilson’s post he says that my criticism of his theology is really about my disagreement with his “effective opposition to all of that woke foolishness.” To clarify where I stand on that issue, please see my 3-part critique of the social justice movement in the reformed church. Tom Ascol referred to this series as “Perhaps the best analysis I’ve seen of the social justice debate.” I do not mention this to commend myself, but to state as clearly as possible that my criticism of Wilson has nothing to do with being woke.

I chose to address Wilson’s errors because I have seen his influence grow in baptist circles (who are largely unfamiliar with FV), in large part because of Apologia Church. A quick glance at my post directory shows that a detailed understanding of baptist covenant theology is the focus of this blog. Hence my post “Federal Vision Baptists?” was right in line with the focus of this blog as a whole.

Kline/R. Scott Clark?

To clarify another point, I am not a Klinean (though I appreciate many things he had to say). I disagree with Meredith Kline on numerous points. Most pertinent to this discussion, I believe the CoW was an act of voluntary condescension distinct from creation, whereas Kline does not (with implications for how we understand merit – see here and here). Thus I disagree with R. Scott Clark on that point as well.

Summary

My focus was to explain Norm Shepherd’s rejection of a specific and carefully defined distinction between law and gospel, to show Sandlin and Wilson’s agreement with Shepherd on this specific and carefully defined point and to show the implications of that rejection. Shepherd specifically defined “law” in the Reformed distinction between law and gospel as the belief that Adam could earn a covenant reward by his obedience to the law.

[T]he distinction between law and gospel corresponds broadly to the distinction between covenant of works and covenant of grace… That is to say, Adam would earn or achieve whatever eschatological blessing and privilege was held out to him on the ground of perfect law keeping. In this covenant, justification is by works… I would like to offer a different way of looking at the Adamic covenant… Whatever blessing was in store for him was not a reward to be earned by performance but a gift to be received by faith… Paul writes in Romans 4:4, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” [4] If Adam had turned a deaf ear to Satan and obeyed the Lord’s command, he would not have received what was his due, but a gift. He would have received that gift by faith.

(Law and Gospel in Covenantal Perspective)

Note very carefully Shepherd’s appeal to Romans 4:4. He understands that reward due and gracious gift are mutually exclusive. Something cannot be both a gracious gift and an earned reward. It must be one or the other. Shepherd says eternal life has never, ever been a reward earned. It has only ever been a gracious gift received through faith. Shepherd’s rejection of justification by faith alone flows from this starting point. I showed how he winds up redefining both “faith” and “alone” as a result. (I would encourage you to re-read my post to make sure you fully understand these points.) Sandlin stated his agreement with Shepherd’s rejection of this specific and carefully defined distinction between law and gospel.

There is no fundamental gospel-law distinction… I do not believe this [Gen 2:16-17] has anything to do with what is traditionally termed a prelapsarian (or pre-Fall) “covenant of works”: that eternal life was something man was rewarded as merit for his obedience. Before the Fall, this view alleges, man was to merit eternal life and afterward Christ must merit it for us. I disagree… [E]ternal life was not something that Jesus was “rewarded” for being extraordinarily virtuous… Eternal life, even in the prelapsarian period, was of grace, and not of merit.

Gospel, Law, and Redemptive History: “Trust and Obey

Note that both Shepherd and Sandlin acknowledge in their essays that they are departing from the reformed tradition on this point. I do not recall anyone objecting to my representation of Shepherd and Sandlin on this point. The Joint Federal Vision Statement agrees with them on this point.

The Covenant of Life

We affirm that Adam was in a covenant of life with the triune God in the Garden of Eden, in which arrangement Adam was required to obey God completely, from the heart. We hold further that all such obedience, had it occurred, would have been rendered from a heart of faith alone, in a spirit of loving trust. Adam was created to progress from immature glory to mature glory, but that glorification too would have been a gift of grace, received by faith alone.

We deny that continuance in this covenant in the Garden was in any way a payment for work rendered. Adam could forfeit or demerit the gift of glorification by disobedience, but the gift or continued possession of that gift was not offered by God to Adam conditioned upon Adam’s moral exertions or achievements. In line with this, we affirm that until the expulsion from the Garden, Adam was free to eat from the tree of life. We deny that Adam had to earn or merit righteousness, life, glorification, or anything else. [bold emphasis added]

Joint Federal Vision Statement

Because Wilson signed this statement, I assumed that he understood it and agreed with it. I thus critiqued him accordingly, showing how I believed he also subsequently adopted Shepherd’s redefinition of “faith” and “alone.” I concluded with two possibilities regarding Wilson:

  1. At best, Wilson is thoroughly confused on the gospel, having been deceived by Shepherd’s false teaching.
  2. At worst, he is a wolf “speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.”

My Error

In my previous post, I erred on two points regarding Sumpter and Wilson.

  1. I neglected one important statement from Wilson in his CREC exam (stating that eternal life would have been due to Adam as a matter of justice).
  2. I treated Sumpter and Wilson as consistent theologians like Shepherd (who formerly held the chair of Systematic Theology at WTS).

Sumpter’s Response

Toby Sumpter responded with a post titled Stainless Steel Theology, Federal Vision, & the Apologia Crew. He and I had a profitable discussion in the comment section. I encourage you to read his post and the comments. In the comments we were able to clarify that his main objection to my post was that Wilson does not in fact agree with Shepherd’s rejection of the distinction between law and gospel as defined above. Wilson used the same or very similar language as Shepherd, but he did not fully agree.

Sumpter argued that he and Wilson do agree with the historic distinction between law and gospel specifically because they do believe that eternal life would have been a reward due for Adam’s obedience to the law, as well as for Christ’s. This would explain why Wilson still affirms the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, while Shepherd does not. Recall in my previous post I said “Wilson hasn’t quite connected Shepherd’s dots. He still thinks Jesus had to obtain something by his faith, rather than, as Shepherd explains simply receive a gift. Wilson still has some law/gospel baggage infecting his view of the IAOC.” It turns out that is because he does not agree with Shepherd that eternal life was never a reward due. Sumpter pointed me to a brief statement from Wilson in his CREC exam (which I had read and noted previously, but then misplaced and could not find again when I wanted to comment on it in my previous post. That is entirely my fault.).

44. Define “merit.” Could Adam have “merited” our salvation? How did Christ “merit” our salvation? My skittishness about the word merit has to do with my rejection of certain medieval assumptions about merit, in which merit practically becomes a quasi-substance. But as a general term of praise, I have no problem with it (as in, “that argument has merit.”). I agree with John Frame in his foreword to The Backbone of the Bible, when he says that “although I prefer to speak of ‘desert’ or ‘justice’ to speaking of ‘merit,’ Shepherd has not convinced me that the last term is simply wrong.” Had Adam obeyed he would have obtained our salvation, and it would have been a fulfillment of the terms of the covenant, and therefore just and right. The same is true of Christ’s obedience. Christ purchased us, and it is just and right that this happen. My problem with merit is that it tends to drag autonomy behind it. Remove that, and I would not want to quibble over words.

Here is what Frame said at more length:

By his own admission, Shepherd has taken positions contrary to some elements of the Reformed tradition: (1) He denies that merit plays any role in covenant relationships between God and man. (2) He denies, therefore, that in justification God imputes the merit of Jesus’ active righteousness (i.e. the righteousness of his sinless life) to his people… Let’s think first about “merit,” thesis… For Shepherd, the covenant relation [including Adam’s] is more like a family than like a business or school… But even in an ideal loving family, parents rightly expect obedience, and the rewards and punishments are just, and so, in one sense, deserved, however much they may differ from the values of the market.

We may not want to use the word “merit” for such desert, but we need to recognize the importance of it… The language of “merit” can be rephrased into the language of “deserving,” which in turn can be rephrased into the language of justice. Although I prefer to speak of “desert” and “justice” to speaking of “merit,” Shepherd has not convinced me that the last term is simply wrong.

This is a crucial point. It means that Wilson rejects Shepherd’s view of the Adamic Covenant and eternal life. It also means he rejects John Murray’s view of the matter (whom Shepherd succeeded at WTS and built upon). Murray said “The promise of confirmed integrity and blessedness was one annexed to an obedience that Adam owed and, therefore, was a promise of grace. All that Adam could have claimed on the basis of equity [justice] was justification and life as long as he perfectly obeyed, but not confirmation so as to insure indefectibility.” Frame says eternal life would have been Adam’s just desert. Murray and Shepherd say no. Here is a table to clarify:

WCFBy nature, man owes obedience to God without expecting anything in return. By covenant, God voluntarily condescends to offer man the reward of eternal life for that same obedience. Thus if Adam fulfilled the terms of the covenant, eternal life would be owed to him as a matter of justice.
Eternal life: reward due (by covenant)
Condition: perfect obedience to the law
MurrayBy nature, man owes obedience to God without expecting anything in return. There is no pre-fall covenant. Eternal life would have been entirely of grace, not something owed, even covenantally.
Eternal life: gracious gift
Condition: perfect obedience to the law
ShepherdBy nature, man owes obedience to God without expecting anything in return. There is a pre-fall covenant. Eternal life would have been a gracious gift received through faith alone (an obedient, living faith that works and trusts in God).
Eternal life: gracious gift
Condition: living faith alone producing obedience to the law
JFVSBy nature, man owes obedience to God without expecting anything in return. There is a pre-fall covenant. Eternal life would have been a gracious gift received through faith alone (an obedient, living faith that works and trusts in God).
Eternal life: gracious gift
Condition: living faith alone producing obedience to the law

I pointed out to Sumpter that the Joint Federal Vision Statement agrees with Shepherd and denies that eternal life was in any way a reward that could be earned by Adam. Sumpter acknowledged that and said the statement was wrong. He said he would write a post clarifying for everyone that an affirmation of the historic reformed distinction between law and gospel requires a rejection of the Joint Federal Vision Statement. (I have not seen that post yet and I have not seen Wilson acknowledge this.)

…But he and Wilson do agree with Shepherd that eternal life for Adam would have been a gracious gift received through faith alone. This is where a tremendous amount of confusion comes in. Shepherd, Sandlin, the Joint Federal Vision Statement, and their critics (including myself) all recognize (per Rom 4:4) that a gracious gift and a due reward are mutually exclusive. They are opposites. Something cannot be both a gracious gift and a due reward. But Sumpter and Wilson believe that had Adam perfectly obeyed, eternal life would have been both a due reward and a gracious gift. They stand very squarely on a logical contradiction.

This was Sumpter’s point about “stainless steel theology.” I was assuming that they understood and affirmed this logical point, and thus criticized them accordingly, when in fact they do not understand and affirm the logical distinction between a gift and an earned reward. Thus I wound up misunderstanding their position, which rests upon contradiction rather than a consistent system of theology. They have one foot in each system (Westminster’s and Shepherd’s).

Steven Wedgeworth wrote a post arguing that Wilson’s doctrine of justification is orthodox. One of the primary statements he used in Wilson’s defense is the statement above agreeing with Frame instead of Shepherd. However, Wedgeworth did not say a single word about what the JFVS says (and Wilson affirms) on this point. I asked him about it in the comment section, which I encourage you to read. I tried discussing this with Wilson in the comment section of his post, but we didn’t get very far.

Wilson’s Response

Wilson also responded in a post of his own. Regretfully, he mistakenly thinks that

  1. The 5 points listed towards the top of my post was my summary of Clark’s take on FV. It was not. That was Clark’s summary of Clark’s take on FV.
  2. That my criticism of him was based upon Clark’s understanding of FV. It was not. My analysis of Wilson is found later in the post and does not rely on Clark’s analysis, but upon my own reading of Wilson.

I quoted Clark’s summary points because

  1. Clark’s post kick-started this recent discussion of FV.
  2. Wedgeworth responded to and interacted with it.
  3. I was continuing that conversation.
  4. The 5 points were helpful in showing how some of the FV issues are related to baptism, while others are not. The point of my post was to help baptists understand how this is not just a paedobaptist issue.

I should have been more careful to note that Clark’s summary statements needed more nuance. For example, I should have noted that Wilson does distinguish between the Adamic Covenant and the Covenant of Grace, as I saw when I read Wilson. However, you will note that when it came to my own analysis, I nowhere accused Wilson of holding to monocovenantalism. I did not rely on Clark to make my point. (That said, a primary point of the monocovenantalism charge is that FV advocates believe the condition of the Adamic Covenant was the same as our condition in the CoG. In that sense it is still relevant to Wilson’s error, if properly qualified.)

I avoided points 3-5 in my post entirely, thus I did not address any needed nuance or how it applied to Wilson.

Norm Shepherd, Law & Gospel

Wilson says

Brandon simply assumes that I am following Norman Shepherd when I am not. He says, for example, “Wilson follows Shepherd in rejecting” the law/gospel distinction. But I don’t reject the law/gospel distinction. I reject a law/gospel hermeneutic. In the experience of a sinner being converted, I absolutely believe in the law/gospel distinction.

First, I acknowledged in my post that Wilson holds to a law/gospel distinction and that he frequently writes against a law/gospel hermeneutic. I specifically quoted Wilson saying “There is a vast difference between a law/gospel hermeneutic, which I reject heartily and with enthusiasm, and a law/gospel application or use, which is pastoral, prudent and wise.” Thus Wilson’s response here misdirects away from my actual argument about what he believes.

Second, I very carefully defined the law/gospel distinction that Shepherd rejected (see beginning of this post). He rejected an objective law/gospel distinction rooted in the covenants. Wilson affirms a subjective use of law and gospel, but insofar as Wilson affirms the Joint Federal Vision Statement, he agrees with Shepherd’s rejection of this objective, covenantal law/gospel distinction. As explained above, I neglected to account for Wilson’s agreement with Frame. That is, I neglected to account for Wilson’s contradictory stance on this issue. He both affirms and rejects the reformed objective law/gospel distinction rooted in the CoW/CoG.

I grant that this could be confusing, and so great care is needed. Shepherd and I (and others) were talking about some similar questions in Reformed theology that really needed to be discussed. But the fact that we were tackling the same or similar problems does not mean that we came up with the same answers. My answers are definitely not Shepherdian. And I am not a neonomian. I am a Westminster “general equity” theonomist. And I stoutly affirm the doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. Why is this so hard?

Whether he got it from Shepherd directly, or from one of his Shepherd-influenced FV-friends, the Joint Federal Vision Statement definitely is Shepherdian in its view of the Adamic Covenant and the law/gospel distinction. “Why is this so hard?” Perhaps in part because Wilson is not a consistent theologian (as Wedgeworth also notes). Another reason is given later.

In his series on FV, Wedgeworth has made it a point to insist that Wilson is distinct from all the other FV men in that he has always “remained within the Westminster system of theology.” But even he recognizes something is wrong here. He calls the JFVS section on the Covenant of Life “incoherent.” He suggests “Perhaps here the Joint FV Statement is attempting to hold Shepherdite and non-Shepherdite views together by avoiding the key points of disagreement. But as it stands, this section is confused.” Wilson objected “the FV document was not the kind of consensus document that Steven seems to assume. I drafted the statement[.]”

White and Wilson’s Response

James White and Doug Wilson had a discussion on Wilson’s version of Federal Vision, specifically in response to my post.

Woke Troll

Twice in the video, White and Wilson refer to me as a woke troll, part of the doctrinal downgrade happening in the church right now in relation to the social justice movement. This is false (see above). Regretfully it seems like White judged this to be the case and therefore chose not to carefully consider what I wrote.

R. Scott Clark’s 5 Points

See above. White chose to use Clark’s 5 points as the basis for their discussion. As a result, they did not address what I wrote.

Monocovenantalism

They did not address what I wrote, or even mention the JFVS. See above.

Adam’s Faithfulness vs Our Faith

White asked Wilson about Clark’s second point: How Adam’s faithfulness relates to our faithfulness. Wilson did not answer that question. Instead, he explained that we are justified by faith alone, but justifying faith is never alone. White, impatient with FV critics, commented that this was “Standard stuff that has been taught for a long, long time.” Yes, the answer was standard, but that’s (in part) because it didn’t address the question. The question is about the fact that FV (including Wilson) confesses (per the JFVS) that Adam would have received eternal life through faith alone, and that such faith would have received eternal life because it consisted of “living trust” – like our faith as well. White did not address this point. Westminster does not teach that Adam would have received eternal life through faith alone.

Tricksy Shepherd, Tricksy Doug?

White explains that Roman Catholics believe we are justified through faith by grace, but they sneak works in because they mean something different by those words. He says Wilson’s critics are accusing him of doing the same thing. This is an important point because this is exactly what Norm Shepherd has done. He has redefined faith to include our works. Wedgeworth notes

some of Shepherd’s arguments were contrary to the basic Reformation consensus on faith and works, particularly his attempts to make faith and works co-instrumental in justification. Shepherd modified this proposal and then made new attempted proposals, but his project continually tried to achieve a sort of synthesis along these lines… Shepherd and some FV men did undermine this initial justification by obscuring the distinction between faith and works[.]

Some of these modified proposals include the idea that Adam would have received eternal life through faith alone and the modification of the traditional threefold definition of faith: from understanding, assent, trust to understanding, assent, living trust.

We deny that the faith which is the sole instrument of justification can be understood as anything other than the only kind of faith which God gives, which is to say, a living, active, and personally loyal faith. Justifying faith encompasses the elements of assent, knowledge, and living trust in accordance with the age and maturity of the believer. We deny that faith is ever alone, even at the moment of the effectual call.

Traditionally and confessionally, this “trust” was “extrospective.” It referred to our trusting in Christ’s work, not our own. The modifier “living” changes this trust into the trust that Adam had: a trusting obedience. In this way Shepherdites sneak works into faith. The Joint Federal Vision Statement chose to affirm both of these modifications.

Wilson says he answers the charge of being “tricksy” by explaining justification is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to our account – not in any way our infused righteousness (sanctification), because in this life sanctification is always imperfect and I need the perfect righteousness of Christ. I was thankful to hear this admission. I do not believe it is something Shepherd would agree with. In order to avoid any further confusion that he is doing what Shepherd is doing with the language of faith alone, Wilson needs to reject the JFVS’ trickery (more below).

However, that focuses more on the ground of our justification. It does not quite address the real controversy: the role of our works as an instrument in our justification. On this point, Wilson has frequently defended Shepherd and FV’s view of faith as obedience. This is part of Shepherd’s trickery. Shepherd redefines faith to include our obedience such that faithful obedience (“the obedience of faith”) is the instrument through which we receive justification. The OPC Report on Justification said

Though not ordinarily challenging the terminology of “justification by faith alone,” they have changed the definition of faith and have therefore changed the meaning of “faith alone.” (26)…

[S]ome FV proponents clearly depart from the Reformed tradition in its understanding of the nature and definition of faith. FV promoters tend to merge faith (our resting and trusting in Christ) and faithfulness (our obedient response to the gospel that entails good works). To do this leads to the confusion of justification and sanctification. Faith, as it pertains to justification, as to its saving office, is extraspective, looking away from all that we are and do and have to Christ and Him alone. This faith is indeed
never alone, being ever accompanied with all other saving graces (WCF 11.2; 14.2). But it must be distinguished from those other graces so that it is clear that our reliance for pardon and being declared righteous is on nothing other than the blood and righteousness of Christ. i.e., his obedience and sacrifice (WLC 73)…

In speaking of justifying faith, Norman Shepherd, like some FV proponents, stresses its active character, that “justifying faith is not only a penitent faith but also an obedient faith” and that faith “entails obedience to God’s Word.”… To assert, as does our Confession (WCF 11.2), that “faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification…” is to distinguish such faith from all that accompanies it. There would be no point of arguing that “faith …is the alone instrument of justification” if the act of saving faith
itself was to be identified with obedience
and good works. One often hears and reads “trust and obey” used by FV proponents as if they were indistinguishable. *303

*303 See, e.g., Sandlin in BOTB, 63-84, for his contention that since there is no law/gospel antithesis of any kind, the dynamic of the pre-and post-Fall divine-human relationship is, and always has been, “trust and obey.”

And here is where the real divide comes in between the Westminster position and that of the FV: some of the proponents of the FV flatten out the differences between the pre-lapsarian and post-lapsarian worlds and argue that the “faithfulness—or, faith-filled obedience—[that] was the basic requirement for Adam” is still the same for us, “After the fall, of course, the same posture of faith is required….[F]aith is still faith.”

While it is quite proper to argue within confessional orthodoxy that God was kind and benevolent in his dealing with Adam before the Fall, what God required of Adam for him to inherit eternal life and to enter eschatological glory was indeed, as Lusk argues, “obedience,” even faith-filled obedience if by that is meant simply an obedience arising out of trusting. What is now required by faith is something quite different. Faith after the Fall involves the recognition that one cannot obey of his own power and must rest and trust in another to do for him what he could never do for himself. (75-76)

Including works (by use of “faithfulness,” “obedience,” etc.) in the very definition of faith… [is] out of accord with Scripture and our doctrinal standards. (88)

In a post responding to this report, Wilson said

To include faithfulness in the very nature of living faith is not to intrude
works. Faithful faith justifies. Faithless faith does not.

From his exam:

By obedient faith, I mean faith that’s alive and therefore does what God expects of it. And what God expects of faith at that moment in time is to believe in Jesus, believe in the gospel, trust in Christ. Obedience does not refer to a lifetime of good works that gets smuggled into that initial moment of faith so that you’re saved by faith and works. Rather, you are justified by the instrumentality of a living faith that obeys what God requires of that faith – and that is the gospel. And then of course that same faith, which doesn’t go away, subsequently demonstrates throughout the course of the person’s life the same demeanor of obedience, or the demeanor of life, the aspect of life.

And recall from the previous post:

[I]n the traditional Reformed ordo salutis, the pride of place actually goes to a type of infused righteousness (regeneration)… The new heart is not the ground of justification any more than faith was, which we have to understand as the instrument of justification. Instead of saying “faith is the instrument (not ground) of justification,” we may now say “the regenerate heart believing is the instrument (not ground) of justification.”

CREC Examination Q105

[L]ife and obedience are essential characteristics of the instrumentality of faith

Obedience Unto Justification

[I]t is indisputable that works is the animating principle of faith.

Faith, Dead or Alive?

I am treating obedient faith and living faith as synonymous… it is obedient in its life, and in that living condition it is the instrument of our justification.

Living Faith

Does obedience (in the context of justifying faith) mean works, or does it mean life? If the former, then mixing it into justifying faith is death warmed over. If the latter, then leaving it out is death stone cold. [In context, Wilson is defending Shepherd here.]

Recapitulation Drives Out Grace

Wilson either agrees with Shepherd’s redefinition of faith and is himself being tricksy or he has been tricked by Shepherd and thinks Shepherd is simply saying that the faith that justifies is never alone. To avoid leading people to think that he is being tricksy, Wilson should reject Shepherd’s trickery. Obedience is not what makes faith living. Faith alone justifies, and the faith that justifies is never alone, but the faith that is never alone is not considered as obedient or faithful when it justifies.

Final Judgment

Wilson says that on the last day, our faithfulness is evidence that points to the genuineness of what God did at that moment of my conversion. In response to further questioning by Tom Hicks, Jr., Wilson said on Twitter that our works are evidence to others, not to God. Furthermore, he says here and elsewhere that this justification on the last day is an open vindication, not a forensic justification before God, which already occurred at our conversion. This is different from Shepherdites who believe Romans 2:13 refers to a forensic justification at the final judgment according to the works that we have done. Wilson does believe Rom 2:13 applies to Christians on the last day, but as best I can tell, he limits the meaning of “justification” to “vindication.” For those interested, Sam Waldron makes the same argument. I believe they are wrong, but I do not believe they hold to the same view as Shepherd.

Objective Covenant and Union with Christ

This is a point that even Wedgeworth acknowledges Wilson still has errors on. However, I did not address this point at all in my post because I focused solely on the points that could be common to baptists. Thus it was a surprise to me when Wilson claimed that I caused confusion on this point because, as a baptist, I simply don’t understand Presbyterian covenant theology and I thus got confused by what Wilson says on the matter. I believe I have a decent handle on the wide variety of Presbyterian covenant theologies (though I am always learning). I simply chose not to comment on it. I may do so in the future.

Shrine to Norm Shepherd

Mocking any concern about the Federal Vision’s connection to Norm Shepherd (such as that elaborated upon in the OPC Report on Justification and acknowledged by Wedgeworth), White said “Evidently you have a shrine to Norm Shepherd in your house.” Wilson said “I’m not a disciple, not a follower. Basically that’s something that is read into this whole thing.”

As explained above, one reason people (at least me) believe Wilson is following Shepherd is because Wilson is following Shepherd on a foundational point (see above), though he is also not following Shepherd on that exact same point, and therefore he is not following through with Shepherd’s rejection of justification by faith alone. Importantly, however, Wilson’s agreement with Shepherd regarding the Adamic Covenant has ramifications for Wilson’s exegetical and systematic theology (more below).

White also said “The reason for the association is to say, well, Shepherd was condemned by this person, that person, this group, that group, that seminary, whatever… and so you throw Norman Shepherd’s name out there as a little more dirt to throw on somebody[.]” This is a very disappointing and deficient analysis by White. The reason for associating those who affirm the JFVS with Shepherd is because the JFVS affirms Shepherd’s departure from Westminster. It’s not about throwing dirt. It’s about theology. Again, White and Wilson did not address the actual point of agreement that I showed in my post.

Wilson’s Attitude Towards Criticism

I mentioned on Twitter that the discussion between White and Wilson was helpful in some respects. I did not think it was helpful in responding to what I wrote. But I did think it was helpful in providing a little insight into Wilson’s involvement in Federal Vision. He explained that the Federal Vision controversy began with the 2002 Auburn Avenue Conference. He said the lines were drawn when John Robbins’ “shots were fired” and thus he fell on the side of Federal Vision – even though it eventually became clear that he was not in agreement with the other men on a number of important points.

However, in Federal Vision No Mas, Wilson explained that he himself bares responsibility for leading people to believe he agreed with the other FV men (Wedgeworth likewise says Wilson bears responsibility). In his video with White, Wilson explained that when he faces criticism, he sees it as malicious persecution for his righteousness. He rejoices and, importantly, he sees it as an indication that he needs “to double down here, This is the target. This is where I need to be.” Thus when he was criticized for what he said at the Auburn Avenue Pastors’ Conference, it seems to me that he “doubled down here” and decided “This is where I need to be.”

The result? “[I]n 2002 and 2003, Douglas Wilson was very much an FV spokesman, and his connection to the FV raised its profile considerably” (Wedgeworth). He wrote ‘Reformed’ is Not Enough in response to the initial FV criticism, he vociferously mocked and derided FV critics for many years, and after the Knox Colloquium, the RPCUS, the PCA, the OPC, and the URCNA reports against FV, he helped draft and then signed the Joint Federal Vision Statement.

What happened 10 years later after things quieted down a bit? Wilson wrote a post stating that he no longer wants to be called FV because of substantial disagreement he has with other proponents of FV (note: law/gospel and justification are not mentioned as points of disagreement, even though Wedgewoth acknowledges FV men such as Jordan were Shepherdites and did undermine justification by faith alone). In that post, Wilson confesses

in retrospect, I have come to believe that there were also a number of critics of the federal vision who were truly insightful and saw the implications and trajectories of certain ideas better than I did at the time. I was wrong to treat all critics as though they were all more or less in the same boat.

There were insightful critics and there were bigoted ones, and I should have given the insightful critics more of a fair hearing than I did, and I should have used the behavior of the ignorant critics as less representative than I frequently did. I believe I was wrong in this also.

Not only were some critics insightful in their critiques, but they tended to be the ones who also were fair-minded about other things. Indeed, I think that those two things usually go together.

Because there was a general melee, in the middle of it I did not want to say or write anything that would be twisted and used against me or my friends. But even in the midst of everything, I did find some things on the federal vision side of things worrisome, and in the same way as did some of our critics. I know that I acknowledged this at times, but I should have done a better job of acknowledging it. I should have acknowledged it with great clarity, and I should have been louder…

My tendency in this was simply to circle the wagons, defending myself and defending my friends. I have come to believe that my robust defense up and down the line contributed to the group-think that was going on.

I am thankful for this confession, but why did it take Wilson 15 years to acknowledge some of what FV critics saw almost immediately? I think Wilson’s attitude towards criticism may provide at least part of the answer. Wilson seems to think that any controversy that comes his way is simply “how God tells his story in the world.” God uses righteous men like Wilson and it will result in controversy. So grab the guns.

It seems to me that this attitude still hinders Wilson from seeing errors in his theology. “So when people say I don’t believe in justification by faith when I do, Jesus says ‘Rejoice.’” It may be the case that some people really do hate Wilson and really are intentionally misrepresenting him. But it may also be the case that Wilson really does have problems with his theology that he is overlooking because he dismisses criticism as malicious persecution.

Becoming Westminsterian

In my previous post, I left the reader with two options regarding Wilson. In light of the responses to my post, I do not believe that Wilson fully agrees with Shepherd. Nor do I believe he is thoroughly confused about the gospel. I do, however, think that he is confused and inconsistent. He holds two mutually exclusive ideas about Adam and it has consequences for how he interprets what Scripture says about faith and works.

I do not believe that Wilson is fully Shepherdian (like Sandlin is). But neither is he Westminsterian. He is Shepminsterian. As Wedgeworth noted “I believe that there are important points of his theology which can be criticized, even parts related to FV. He did not always maintain a perfect consistency in his writing.” Wedgeworth also noted, regarding FV as a whole “Every heretic has his verse, as the saying goes, and often the only way to resolve a theological dispute is to press for strict consistency and clarity of definition.” My hope is that Wilson will look closely at the errors he has learned along the way (whether from Fuller, Shepherd, his Shepherd-influenced FV friends, or anyone else) and that he will change his mind and reject them, embracing a theology consistent with sola fide. Chief among these errors is his agreement with Shepherd that had Adam perfectly obeyed the law, eternal life would have been a gracious gift received through faith alone. That is a rejection of Westminster’s doctrine of the Covenant of Works. Affirming Westminster’s doctrine would entail at least the following implications:

  1. Eternal life would have been a reward earned (by covenant), not a gift.
  2. The phrase “faith alone” could not have been applied to Adam’s reception of eternal life.
  3. Paul’s use of “works” and “works of the law” does not merely refer to subjective, autonomous misuse of the law but also to objective, correct interpretation of the Adamic Covenant.
  4. The Adamic Covenant (“the law” Gal 3:12) was not “of faith” – referring to the means of obtaining eternal life.
  5. All covenants do not simply have the same conditions (believe and obey), but rather, the function of faith/belief as an instrument of receiving Christ’s righteousness in the CoG replaces the function of works/obedience in the CoW as the means of obtaining eternal life.

The following elaborates on a few points as it relates to Wilson.

Faith Alone?

How can someone affirm that Adam would have received eternal life through perfect obedience to the the law and affirm that it “would have been a gift of grace, received by faith alone,” (JFVS)? What in the world does “alone” mean in that instance? On this point we have three options:

  1. Wilson disagrees with or doesn’t understand the JFVS.
  2. Wilson holds to a logical contradiction: Adam would have received eternal life through his perfect obedience to the law and at the same time he would have received eternal life as a gift of grace through faith alone apart from his perfect obedience to the law.
  3. “Alone” in this statement does not refer to “apart from his obedience to the law” but rather to something else (i.e. “apart from an attempt to earn without faith”).

The clearest statement of justification by faith alone in Scripture is Romans 3:28 “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” If you recall from my previous post, Wilson defines “works of the law” as “deeds without faith.” This is what he means by “autonomous works” – works done in one’s own strength without faith.

We distinguish between obedience and works because Paul does. In the Pauline vocabulary, deeds without faith is works. Deeds done in faith is obedience.

Obedience and Life

In the New Testament, obedience is a good word. Also in the New Testament, works is not

Like a Gelatinous Pudding

When Paul talks about grace and works driving one another out, he is talking about grace on the one hand and autonomous works on the other.

Obedience and Works

It turns out this is precisely how Wilson understands “alone” in this part of the Joint Federal Vision Statement.

[H]ere are some terms that one ought not be allowed to interchange as though they were synonyms — obedience and works. Not one of us believes that the WCF was wrong to say that Adam had to obey. He disobeyed, and here we are in a sinful world. Had he obeyed, we would not have been. We all hold to the necessity of that obedience, as the Confession says. So when we deny that the gift was conditioned upon Adam’s “moral exertions or achievements,” we are denying the idea of autonomy. We are not denying the idea of trusting obedience, upon which continued bliss absolutely depended. For proof of this, consider another part of that same section in our statement, a passage which Lane failed to cite. We said, “We affirm that Adam was in a covenant of life with the triune God in the Garden of Eden, in which arrangement Adam was required to obey God completely, from the heart.”

The question is not whether we hold to the requirement of obedience. We all hold to that. We are all confessional on this point. The debate is over the nature of that obedience. Was it an aspect of God’s grace to man, or was it to be autonomously rendered by man?

Obedience and Life

So Wilson believes, per the JFVS, that if Adam had perfectly obeyed the law he would have been justified by faith alone – which Wilson explains means justified by trusting obedience: faithfulness. At least in Adam’s situation, Wilson believes that justification by faith alone means justification by faithfulness. Thus there is a reason why I and others have suspected he is being “tricksy” like Shepherd with his affirmation of a Christian’s justification by faith alone. If “justification by faith alone” means the same thing for pre-fall Adam as it does for us, then Wilson denies the gospel. If “justification by faith alone” means something different for pre-fall Adam as it does for us, then Wilson is completely equivocating on this vital phrase, thus creating for himself the problem of people misunderstanding him. Revising his theology by rejecting this Shepherdian doctrine of the Adamic Covenant would enable Wilson to use the phrase “faith alone” consistently and without equivocation.

“of Works” Scripture References

Currently, Wilson rejects the scripture references provided in the WCF, WLC, and 2LBCF regarding the Covenant of Works. WCF 7.2 says “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works” and references Gal 3:12 “And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them.” The Covenant of Works operated upon a principle of law (earned reward) not a principle of faith (gracious gift of an alien righteousness). Wilson does not believe that Gal 3:12 refers to the Adamic Covenant. He believes it refers only to a Pharisaical misunderstanding of the law. It refers to the “works of the law” mentioned above: the autonomous attempt to obey without faith, the attempt at “self-justification.” Properly understood, the law is of faith and always has been. Remember, there is no objective law/gospel distinction in Scripture. Thus Paul cannot be referring to the objective law in contrast to faith. He can only be referring to a subjective abuse of the law to try to justify oneself apart from God’s gracious enabling.

I am a Westminsterian Puritan, and have been throughout this entire controversy.

If Wilson wants to be Westminsterian, he must affirm an objective, covenantal law/gospel distinction. Wedgeworth points to the JFVS “We affirm that justification is through faith in Jesus Christ, and not through works of the law, whether those works were revealed to us by God, or manufactured by man.” He notes “This assertion retains a sort of ‘works principle’ over and against which justification through faith in Jesus Christ is contrasted. Both works ‘revealed to us by God’ and those ‘manufactured by man’ are contrasted against ‘faith.’” I would like further clarification from Wilson on what specifically is meant by “works revealed to us by God” and where he would find that idea in Scripture.

I encourage readers to read the comments I left on Wilson’s blog.

Conclusion

This is an important, but complicated topic. I am happy that Wilson departs from Shepherd’s rejection of Adam’s ability to earn (by covenant) the reward of eternal life. But he must also reject Shepherd’s claim that eternal life would have been a gracious gift received through faith alone. That is self-contradictory and it is not the teaching of Scripture.

Once again, I am happy to be corrected on any errors I have made. I would be happy to discuss this issue further on a podcast with Sumpter or Wilson if they have any desire to.

Federal Vision Baptists?

Prefatory Note: The main purpose of this post is not to tell others how to direct their affairs or to pronounce what actions are tolerable or intolerable. The purpose of this post is to show as clearly as possible what people believe. What one chooses to do with that information is up to them.

We find ourselves in a rather complicated mess. R. Scott Clark says that the Federal Vision has never gone away and that “there seems to be emerging an alliance between conservative Baptists and Federal Visionists,” pointing to the recent ReformCon hosted by Apologia Church as well as the documentary being produced by Founders. James White (an elder at Apologia) responded by calling Clark a Reformed Fundie who is unable to distinguish between things that divide (the essentials) and things that don’t (adiaphora) – the implication being that Apologia Church does not disagree with the Federal Vision men they associate with on the essentials. White has insisted that his points of disagreement with Wilson have been made known through debates they have had. He also argues

Anybody who suggests that myself or Apologia Church are promoting Federal Visionism obviously doesn’t understand what it is… as Dr. Clark summarized it ‘In by baptism, kept in by works,’… We cannot be Federal Visionists because you’re never in by baptism. We don’t believe in infant baptism. We don’t believe that baptism is that mechanism by any stretch of the imagination. So we must just be so stupid that we don’t get it that we’re promoting people that are actually teaching it right under our noses. (1:27:15)

Clark replied

This second objection is not true logically or actually. There is no reason a Baptist could not affirm all of the five points [of the Federal Vision] listed above.

What are we to make of all this?

R. Scott Clark

First, I want to be abundantly clear that I am not an R. Scott Clark “fanboy.” Anyone who follows me online knows that is the last thing I could be described as. Clark banned me from his blog ages ago (7+ yrs?) and of course blocked me on Twitter as well (but at this point who hasn’t he blocked?). I concur with Steven Wedgeworth when he says

It has become increasingly clear that Dr. Clark is an untrustworthy guide when it comes to historical theology… Dr. Clark’s most recent Twitter activity has also raised eyebrows because of the dissonance between his claim to academic authority and the contents of his arguments which are usually not supported by the primary historical sources.

This is true of Clark on a variety of topics (see here for example, as well as here). Robert Strimple even had to write a memo to the WSC faculty chastising Clark for his poor historical theology claims. No one should trust Clark’s analysis of anything.

But does that mean everything he says is wrong?

Federal Vision or Neonomianism?

Clark summarizes the Federal Vision in 5 points:

  1. There is no covenant of works before the fall. The covenant of grace was established before the fall and continues after the fall.
  2. The conditions of the covenant with Adam are the conditions for Christians: faithfulness.
  3. Because there is no distinction between those who are in “the covenant” only externally those who are also in the covenant internally, at baptism every baptized person is endowed with all that we need to persevere and retain what we have been given.
  4. Those who cooperate sufficiently with grace will finally persevere and shall have been elected.
  5. It is possible for those who were truly united to Christ to fall away (apostatize).

Though Wedgeworth argues this does not capture all of what Federal Vision entails, it does represent the main problems – though some FV men like Wilson have sort of walked back and qualified 3-5 (maybe, kind of, not really?). These aspects of the Federal Vision can be put into two categories: neonomianism and the objectivity of the covenant. Federal Vision is a species of neonomianism, distinguished by its view of the objectivity of the covenant of grace. Points 1-2 above mostly deal with neonomianism more broadly while points 3-5 deal with FV’s particular species of neonomianism.

White has focused on the fact that Apologia cannot possibly hold to FV because they completely reject 3 (and the points that follow from it: 4-5). Their view is, in fact, diametrically opposed to FV on this point: the New Covenant is only “internal.” So White is correct that Apologia does not and cannot hold to the Federal Vision.

Clark says

[S]ome Baptists have taught part or all of the FV theology, e.g., John Armstrong was a Baptist when affirmed Norman Shepherd’s doctrine of justification.3 Don Garlington has long affirmed something like the Federal Vision theology.4 The same is true for Daniel Fuller, who has strongly influenced John Piper.5 The latter is actively teaching a two-stage doctrine of salvation in which the final stage of salvation is “by works.”6

Notice that Clark says some Baptists have taught part or all of the FV theology (the 5 points listed), but then only gives examples of Baptists who have held part of the listed points (as far as I know). So what Clark is really arguing is that Baptists can hold to part of FV – the neonomian part. Wedgeworth notes

He has reduced everything back to the Norman Shepherd controversy, and this shows us what he is really up to. All of Dr. Clark’s points are ways to highlight his classic theological foil, neonomianism. This is why he can extend the FV name to someone like John Piper. Dr. Clark is not really talking about the Federal Vision. He is talking about neonomianism… And importantly, it is entirely possible for a form of neonomianism to be present within a kind of Reformed Baptist system, while it would be impossible for FV to be present in one. So Dr. Clark ought to cut to the chase and lead with the term neonomian.

Perhaps Clark has chosen to frame this all as a matter of the Federal Vision because numerous Presbyterian denominations have officially denounced the teaching. But framing this all as a matter of Federal Vision has hindered a meaningful conversation (especially with those who are not aware of the intricacies and history – such as White’s assistant Rich Pierce, who openly mocked the very idea that those official reports by paedobaptists can offer any meaningful critique of a paedobaptist error like FV).

If Clark is really just talking about neonomianism, then that changes the discussion entirely.

Neonomianism

As Clark noted, Norman Shepherd (John Murray’s successor to the chair of systematic theology at WTS) was caught in the mid-70s teaching students that we are justified by faith and works. In a 1975 faculty discussion, Shepherd affirmed that works are an instrument of our justification.

Later, after he was understandably criticized for using this language, he modified his language to justification through our faithfulness [“Obedience is simply faithfulness to the Lord; it is the righteousness of faith.” (The Call of Grace 39)]. He and others became convinced that Romans 2:13, which says, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (ESV) [refers to believers at the final judgment].

Shepherd continued to teach for 7 more years at WTS before he was removed, after which he joined the CRC to avoid a trial in the OPC. However, his beliefs continued to have great influence. In 2001 the OPC added Rom 2:13 as a proof text for WLC90, which states

Q. 90. What shall be done to the righteous at the day of judgment?

A. At the day of judgment, the righteous, being caught up to Christ in the clouds, shall be set on his right hand, and there openly acknowledged and acquitted, shall join with him in the judging of reprobate angels and men, and shall be received into heaven, where they shall be fully and forever freed from all sin and misery; filled with inconceivable joys, made perfectly holy and happy both in body and soul, in the company of innumerable saints and holy angels, but especially in the immediate vision and fruition of God the Father, of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, to all eternity. And this is the perfect and full communion, which the members of the invisible church shall enjoy with Christ in glory, at the resurrection and day of judgment.

Shepherd’s denial of sola fide is rooted in a rejection of what he calls the “works-merit” paradigm.

The biblical paradigm, I would suggest to you, is one that is consistently covenantal without the schizophrenic antithesis between the covenant of works and an antithetical covenant of grace… Proverbs 12:28 “In the way of righteousness there is life. Along that path is immortality” That is salvation by grace in the Old Testament and it is also salvation by grace in the New Testament. The works-merit paradigm has no way of accounting for those words in Proverbs 12:28. In terms of that paradigm this is nothing but salvation by merit or works, but it’s presented to us in the bible as gospel.

(What’s All the Fuss, Lecture 2)

What Shepherd refers to as the “works-merit” paradigm is also known as the law/gospel distinction, referring to the two ways of obtaining eternal life. Shepherd accurately summarizes this view:

Covenant theology became a distinctive mark of the Reformed faith, and the distinction between law and gospel corresponds broadly to the distinction between covenant of works and covenant of grace… That is to say, Adam would earn or achieve whatever eschatological blessing and privilege was held out to him on the ground of perfect law keeping. In this covenant, justification is by works, that is, by the meritorious performance of good works… In the covenant of grace that now takes the place of the pre-fall covenant of works, they are justified and saved on the ground of Christ’s perfect obedience imputed to them and received by faith alone. Faith is the only condition operative in the covenant of grace, and it is not a meritorious condition but an instrumental condition… R. C. Sproul summarizes this commonly received view with these words: “Man’s relationship to God in creation was based on works. What Adam failed to achieve, Christ, the second Adam, succeeded in achieving. Ultimately the only way one can be justified is by works.”

(Law and Gospel in Covenantal Perspective)

However, he rejects this view as unbiblical.

I would like to offer a different way of looking at the Adamic covenant… The issue in the probation was whether Adam… would live by faith or perish in unbelief… He would live and live forever not by the merit of his works but by faith. He would exhibit the principle stated in Habakkuk 2:4 and reiterated by Paul in Romans 1:17, “The righteous will live by faith.” Whatever blessing was in store for him was not a reward to be earned by performance but a gift to be received by faith… Paul writes in Romans 4:4, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” [4] If Adam had turned a deaf ear to Satan and obeyed the Lord’s command, he would not have received what was his due, but a gift. He would have received that gift by faith. The Lord God did not and never does deal with his image bearers in terms of a principle of works and merit but ever and always in terms of a principle of faith and grace. Faith for Adam was what true faith always is, a living and active faithThe method of justification for Adam before the fall is exactly what it is for Paul after the fall: “The righteous will live by faith” (Romans 1:17)… If we ask how sinners are saved under the Mosaic covenant, the answer is clear enough… They are both justified and sanctified by the law, and that is to say they are justified and sanctified by grace through faith… This is not salvation by the merit of good works because the Lord does not deal with us on the basis of works and merit, and never did… God’s children have always lived by grace through faith, both before and after the fall into sin…

From a covenantal perspective, however, law and gospel are not antithetically opposed… In the application of redemption, law and gospel are simply the two sides of the covenant, promise and obligation. All that God promises is a pure gift of sovereign grace, and he leads us into possession of what he has promised by way of a penitent and obedient faith.

(Law and Gospel in Covenantal Perspective)

Note very, very, very well: If “the method of justification for Adam before the fall is exactly what it is for Paul after the fall” then justification by faith alone takes on an entirely different meaning. If someone follows Shepherd’s paradigm, then their affirmation of justification by faith alone is not enough because they mean something different by that phrase. One must press deeper for more elaboration as to what is and is not meant. This is nothing new in the history of theological dispute. Biblical or established terminology is used in an unbiblical or new manner prompting a precise, systematic elaboration of what that terminology does and does not mean. That is not splitting hairs or witch hunting. That is doing theology.

When they say “justification by faith alone” they mean “justification by faithfulness.” Justification apart from works of the law takes on a new meaning in Shepherd’s paradigm. “Works of the law” becomes a reference to something subjective within an individual, not to anything objective in the law. It is argued that the works Paul has in mind are works done with a sinful motive to earn reward. We are justified apart from those works, not because they are imperfect, but because we cannot earn anything from God – hence they are not works done in faith. “Works of the law” are works done without faith. Shepherd says they are

works done in the strength of human flesh in order to obtain the justifying verdict of God… These works of the law were not good works; they were not the obedience of faith wrought by the power of God.

Justification by Faith in Pauline Theology

We must compare Paul with what James says: we are not justified by faith alone apart from works. What James is referring to is “the obedience of faith.” Paul and James are referring to the same justification, but they are referring to different works. Justification is apart from misunderstood, self-wrought works of merit, but not apart from Spirit-wrought works of faith (so they say).

In his PhD dissertation (published 2006), Reformed Baptist scholar Samuel E. Waldron summarizes

[T]here is no place in Shepherd’s theology for anything like the dichotomy between law and gospel that lays at the foundation of justification sola fide for the Reformation. If there is no such thing as meritorious works, if Christ’s work was believing obedience, if the obedience of faith is the righteousness of faith, then we are clearly dealing with a system of doctrine that has no way to express the Reformation’s contrast between law and gospel. Such a system cannot consistently affirm the justification sola fide squarely built on this contrast.

Allegiance to The Westminster Confession is often understood as subscription to its “system of doctrine.” The Westminster Confession accurately represents the Reformation system of doctrine when it grounds its soteriology on a contrast between the law (“the covenant of works”) and the gospel (“the covenant of grace”). Shepherd has no place for such a structure in his theology and cannot, therefore, affirm consistently the “system of doctrine” taught in the Confession he cites so often in his writings…

The classic articulation of justification sola fide is found in the Reformation tradition. To affirm sola fide and not mean by this phrase what it meant for the whole Reformation tradition is simply misleading. The fact is, however, that this is exactly what Garlington, Fuller, and Shepherd actually do. They do not hold the definition of justifying faith held by the Reformation tradition. They do not hold the distinction between justifying faith and evangelical obedience held by the Reformation tradition. They do not hold the dichotomy between law and gospel held by the Reformation tradition. They do not hold sola fide in any of its fundamental characteristics in the tradition. They do not hold justification sola fide in any familiar or meaningful sense. Their affirmation of sola fide, then, only serves to cloud and confuse the true meaning and real purport of their theologies.

Faith, Obedience, and Justification: Current Evangelical Departures, p. 186, 231

Now why would a Reformed Baptist scholar (currently Academic Dean and Professor of Systematic Theology at Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary) choose to do his PhD work on a topic that is irrelevant to baptists? Clearly he thought it was relevant. His dissertation critiques Norm Shepherd, Daniel Fuller (baptist), and Don Garlington (baptist). Garlington was originally one of Waldron’s teachers at the reformed baptist Trinity Ministerial Academy (Al Martin). Waldron clearly saw a connection between these three men’s rejection of sola fide as well as a relevance to his ministry such that it was worth understanding and refuting Shepherd’s ideas. It was not merely an intra-Presbyterian squabble. Waldron obviously shares Clark’s concern over Shepherdism’s ability to influence baptists. This is not a matter of adiaphora.

Neonomianism at ReformCon?

Of course, that raises the question as to whether or not any of the speakers at ReformCon could be said to 1) hold to Shepherd-shaped neonomianism, and 2) be teaching something at ReformCon related to Shepherd-shaped neonomianism (which is hard to determine since the talks have not been posted online – UPDATE: someone let me know the talks have been trickling in on the Apologia YouTube page. I missed that. I’ll give them a listen as soon as I can).

P. Andrew Sandlin

Sandlin was a speaker at ReformCon. His lectures are also part of the academy offered to supporters/subscribers of Apologia Radio. He is ordained in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity. He is Founder and President of the Center for Cultural Leadership. He is a disciple of Norman Shepherd. He was the editor (together with John Barach) of Obedient Faith: A Festschrift to Norman Shepherd (published by the Center for Cultural Leadership), self-described as “A tribute by students and friends to a courageous theologian’s lifelong stand for a full-orbed, obedient Christianity.” He has a chapter in it titled “Sola Fide: True and False.”

He was also editor of Backbone of the Bible: Covenant in Contemporary Perspective. It includes 2 chapters by Shepherd himself (“Justification by Faith in Pauline Theology” and “Justification by Works in Reformed Theology”) and 1 chapter by Sandlin titled “Covenant in Redemptive History: ‘Law and Gospel’ or ‘Trust and Obey’?” In this essay, Sandlin says

The interpretation I offer swerves at points from certain traditional categories. This fact should not be unduly troubling. We Protestants affirm the Bible, not tradition, as the final authority for what we believe and teach and practice… I believe that the Bible presents at root one gospel, one law, one salvation, one ethic, one hope, one faith, all ensconced in one message. This puts me at odds with both traditional dispensationalism and traditional covenant theology. There is no fundamental gospel-law distinction [italics original]…

In the Garden of Eden, God told Adam and Eve that they could eat of all the trees except one-the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2: 16-17). We also know that if they ate of the tree of life, they would have lived forever or gained eternal life (Genesis 3:22). I do not believe this has anything to do with what is traditionally termed a prelapsarian (or pre-Fall) “covenant of works”: that eternal life was something man was rewarded as merit for his obedience. Before the Fall, this view alleges, man was to merit eternal life and afterward Christ must merit it for us. I disagree with Charles Hodge when he asserts that the Bible presents two ways of gaining eternal life, one by works and one by faith… There are not two ways of gaining eternal life, one in the prelapsarian era and one in the postlapsarian era… There is only one way of obtaining eternal life, and there has always been only one way… Eternal life, even in the prelapsarian period, was of grace, and not of merit. Faith and obedience were the means of gaining eternal life, but not the ground [italics original]… the ground of eternal life in the prelapsarian era is the grace of God. What is its instrument and means? I believe that they are really no different than in the subsequent eras-faith in the Lord, accompanied by obedience, and, in fact, a faith that is itself an act of obedience…

Now, this conviction relating to the prelapsarian era has specific implications for the redemptive ministry of Jesus Christ.22 [Footnote points readers to the Christus Victor model of atonement] If eternal life is not something that Adam merited, and if it is not something that man could even conceivably merit (Galatians 3:21), it is not, therefore, something that Jesus Christ himself merited. There is simply no such thing as a meritorious basis of eternal life, and there is no such thing as a meritorious soteriology. It is simply a fiction… [E]ternal life was not something that Jesus was “rewarded” for being extraordinarily virtuous… The righteousness that becomes ours as we are mystically united to him by faith alone is a love-filled, law-keeping righteousness: a faithful trust and reliance on the Father that necessarily issues in good works…

Christ alone saves, and those who place faith in him will obey the law. This, I believe, is the meaning of Romans 2:13: that not the hearers of the law are justified, but the doers of the law are justified. Paul is not setting up a theoretical basis of justification, but an actual basis of justification…

[W]hen you boil it right down, that there is no fundamental distinction between gospel and law.

Gospel, Law, and Redemptive History: “Trust and Obey

Toby Sumpter / CrossPolitic / Doug Wilson

Toby Sumpter was a speaker at ReformCon. He is an elder at Doug Wilson’s church. He is a proponent of the Federal Vision (though recently criticizing some FV men). I have not read anything to indicate he disagrees with Wilson.

CrossPolitic did a live recording at ReformCon. It is a podcast offering commentary on current political and cultural issues in America hosted by Sumpter and two other members of Christ Church. I have not read anything to indicate these men disagree with their pastor, Wilson.

Since Wilson has written the most on this issue and he is (rightly) a center of focus because of his tremendous influence on Apologia Church (even though he was not at ReformCon), I will address his beliefs. I hope that I do so accurately. It is not an easy task because Wilson is often given to rhetorical flair that is unhelpful in determining precise theological matters. Furthermore, his book Reformed is Not Enough helped spark the Federal Vision controversy when it was written in 2002, but since that time one has to dig through his blog to find any changes, clarifications, or developments in his thought in response to critics. He has made all of his relevant blog posts available in a volume titled The Auburn Avenue Chronicles. It totals 950 pages and contains no organization other than sequential ordering of posts by date originally posted on his blog. It is hardly congenial to properly understanding his beliefs. I hope I have grasped his position and I am open to correction on anything I have misunderstood.

Federal Vision No Mas?

In 2017, Wilson decided to stop calling himself a Federal Vision proponent. Thankfully, he acknowledges “there were also a number of critics of the federal vision who were truly insightful and saw the implications and trajectories of certain ideas better than I did at the time.” The article addresses the fact that he wishes to distance himself from some other FV men whose trajectories he disagrees with. However, it is very important to note that “This statement represents a change in what I will call what I believe. It does not represent any substantial shift or sea change in the content of what I believe.”

Law/Gospel Distinction

Wilson follows Shepherd in rejecting the law(CoW)/gospel(CoG) distinction (two ways of obtaining eternal life). It can be confusing because most of Wilson’s comments specifically on the law/gospel distinction are directed against a slightly different law/gospel distinction (i.e. a division between promise and command, etc), though he rejects both ideas. Playing off of the 3 uses of the moral law, Wilson argues (like Shepherd) that the difference between law and gospel is in the human heart, not anything objective.

The Scripture is what it is, and contains both promises and imperatives… For the believer, even the Ten Commandments can be understood as gracious… For the unbeliever, even the message of the cross is foolishness, an intolerable demand. So that, in a nutshell, is what I think is going on with law and gospel… There is a vast difference between a law/gospel hermeneutic, which I reject heartily and with enthusiasm, and a law/gospel application or use, which is pastoral, prudent and wise.

The Law/Gospel Study Bible, Coming Soon

This was expressed in the Joint Federal Vision Statement (which Wilson helped author, signed, and still affirms).

Law and Gospel

We affirm that those in rebellion against God are condemned both by His law, which they disobey, and His gospel, which they also disobey. When they have been brought to the point of repentance by the Holy Spirit, we affirm that the gracious nature of all God’s words becomes evident to them. At the same time, we affirm that it is appropriate to speak of law and gospel as having a redemptive and historical thrust, with the time of the law being the old covenant era and the time of the gospel being the time when we enter our maturity as God’s people. We further affirm that those who are first coming to faith in Christ frequently experience the law as an adversary and the gospel as deliverance from that adversary, meaning that traditional evangelistic applications of law and gospel are certainly scriptural and appropriate.

We deny that law and gospel should be considered as hermeneutics, or treated as such. We believe that any passage, whether indicative or imperative, can be heard by the faithful as good news, and that any passage, whether containing gospel promises or not, will be heard by the rebellious as intolerable demand. The fundamental division is not in the text, but rather in the human heart.

Joint Federal Vision Statement

I see that all Scripture can only be interpreted in one of two ways—either in faith or in unbelief. The division is therefore in the human heart, and never in the divine heart.

CREC Examination, Page 10

Based on this, Wilson (like Shepherd) makes a distinction between works of the law and obedience to the law.

We distinguish between obedience and works because Paul does. In the Pauline vocabulary, deeds without faith is works. Deeds done in faith is obedience.

Obedience and Life (This quote is missing from Doug’s post as it currently appears on his blog, but it was part of the post when it first appeared. See here for a slight revision of his statement.)

In the New Testament, obedience is a good word. Also in the New Testament, works is not

Like a Gelatinous Pudding

When Paul talks about grace and works driving one another out, he is talking about grace on the one hand and autonomous works on the other.

Obedience and Works

“Works of the law” are “autonomous works.” They are the result of a sinful perversion of the law. “Works of the law” are a sinful attempt to justify oneself through obedience without faith, unaided by God’s grace. (Thus “we are justified by faith apart from works of the law” means “we are justified by faith apart from an incorrect effort to obey without faith.”)

Covenant of Works

It is important to understand how this relates to the Covenant of Works. Wilson has a page on his blog called the Controversy Library. Section 4 contains resources addressing the question of justification by faith alone. Wilson points readers to his CREC “exam” as the best resource for understanding his position.

I believe the covenant of works mentioned in Chapter VII is badly named. I would prefer something like the covenant of life (WLC 20), or the covenant of creation. I believe that this covenant obligated Adam to whole-hearted obedience to the requirement of God. The one stipulation I would add is that, had Adam stood, he would have been required to thank God for His gracious protection and provision. And had Adam stood, he would have done so by believing the Word of God. In other words, it would all have been by grace through faith… [T]he “covenant of works” was not meritorious and we deny that any covenant can be kept without faith.

CREC Examination, Pages 1-2, 4

The “covenant of works” used here [WCF 19.1] is fine if the terms are defined, but the phrase itself is an unhappy one. It leads people to think it carries its own definition on its face, and hence folks think of some sort of salvation by works. This leads people to assume two different ways of salvation—grace and works.

Westminster Nineteen: Of the Law of God

Periodically, great Homer nods and I believe that is the case here. While there is no necessary problem with the doctrine, the Westminster divines have badly named this covenant. To call this covenant with Adam a covenant “of works” leads people to confuse it either with the Old Testament economy, or with pharisaical distortions of the law. This misunderstanding is evident in the scriptural reference given for this point [in Wilson’s view, the Scriptures cited refer to subjective Pharisaical misinterpretation of the law, not to any objective understanding of the law]. To call it works opposes it, in the scriptural terminology, to grace. But the covenant given to Adam prior to the Fall was in no way opposed to grace. It would be far better to call this pre-Fall covenant a covenant of creation. In this covenant, life was promised to Adam and his descendents as the fruit of perfect and personal obedience. But notice the word fruit—as a covenant of creation, grace is not opposed to it, and permeates the whole. If by “covenant of works” is meant raw merit, then we have to deny the covenant of works. But if this covenant made with Adam was inherently gracious (as many Reformed theologians have held), then the only problem is the terminological one. And, with regard to whether the covenant was gracious, a simple thought experiment will suffice. If Adam had withstood temptation successfully, would he have had any obligation to say “thank You” to God. If not, then it is not a gracious covenant. If so, then it was.

Westminster Seven: Of God”s Covenant With Man

The Reformed theologians Wilson refers to held that the establishment of the Covenant of Works was gracious (voluntary condescension).* Adam/man owed God obedience by nature without expecting any reward in return. However, God condescended to offer Adam a reward that could be earned by his obedience (This distinction is a point that Klineans like R. Scott Clark do not agree with, thus complicating the discussion. See here, here, and here. Wilson himself likewise does not see any distinction between nature and covenant, thus likely contributing to his converse error as well.). However, once that agreement was established, if Adam obeyed, God would owe him the reward as a matter of debt (this is true regardless of how much assistance Adam received from God to meet the obligation). The PCA Report on the Federal Vision notes

In the pivotal text of Romans 4:4, the idea of “what is due” need not invoke the idea that “what is due” has been earned by a work that is commensurate with the reward itself, but merely that there was a covenant which promised that reward if the work was performed. Thus, if Adam had obeyed in the probation, God would have owed him the reward of eternal life, because God had promised it to him on that condition.

REPORT OF AD INTERIM STUDY COMMITTEE ON FEDERAL VISION, NEW PERSPECTIVE, AND AUBURN AVENUE THEOLOGY, 2213

This is what Wilson rejects. It is not a terminological disagreement. It is a doctrinal disagreement.

The view we reject is that the covenant with Adam must be considered a covenant of works, based on Adam’s merit or demerit… A man cannot merit anything by grace through faith. But a man can obey by grace through faith.

Was Jesus Faithless?

*(Some reformed theologians have spoken of other nuanced ways in which God dealt graciously with Adam in the Adamic Covenant. However, none of these concepts negate the idea that Adam would have been owed eternal life as a debt upon successful probation.)

Justification by Faith Alone

How, then, does all of this relate to justification by faith alone? Wilson believes that if Adam had obeyed perfectly, he would have been justified by faith.

I believe that a man is justified by faith, through faith, to faith, under faith, and over faith. Furthermore, I believe that there has never been a time in the history of the world when this was not the case.

Semper Deformanda

Recall Shepherd, “the method of justification for Adam before the fall is exactly what it is for Paul after the fall.”

The Covenant of Life
We affirm that Adam was in a covenant of life with the triune God in the Garden of Eden, in which arrangement Adam was required to obey God completely, from the heart. We hold further that all such obedience, had it occurred, would have been rendered from a heart of faith alone, in a spirit of loving trust. Adam was created to progress from immature glory to mature glory, but that glorification too would have been a gift of grace, received by faith alone.
We deny that continuance in this covenant in the Garden was in any way a payment for work rendered. Adam could forfeit or demerit the gift of glorification by disobedience, but the gift or continued possession of that gift was not offered by God to Adam conditioned upon Adam’s moral exertions or achievements. In line with this, we affirm that until the expulsion from the Garden, Adam was free to eat from the tree of life. We deny that Adam had to earn or merit righteousness, life, glorification, or anything else. [bold emphasis added]

Joint Federal Vision Statement

The first covenant was called a covenant of works in the Westminster Confession (7.2). I would prefer to call it a covenant of creational grace. The condition of covenant-keeping in this first covenant was to believe God’s grace, command, warnings, and promise… The second covenant is a covenant of redemptive grace. The thing that the two covenants have in common is grace, not works. The condition for keeping this covenant is the same as the first, although the circumstances are different. The condition always is to believe God.

A Short Credo on Justification

Recall what I said above. If “the method of justification for Adam before the fall is exactly what it is for Paul after the fall” then justification by faith alone takes on an entirely different meaning. What is that different meaning?

If Adam had stood the test, it would have been through the instrumentality of faith-animated obedience, graciously given by God.

Obedience and Works

Infused righteousness is an instrument of justification.

[I]n the traditional Reformed ordo salutis, the pride of place actually goes to a type of infused righteousness (regeneration)… The new heart is not the ground of justification any more than faith was, which we have to understand as the instrument of justification. Instead of saying “faith is the instrument (not ground) of justification,” we may now say “the regenerate heart believing is the instrument (not ground) of justification.”

CREC Examination Q105

Compare the Joint FV Statement that Adam’s reward “would have been a gift of grace, received by faith alone” with Wilson’s statement that “If Adam had stood the test, it would have been through the instrumentality of faith-animated obedience.” The affirmation of faith alone does not mean faith apart from obedience.

True faith and works of obedience are never in opposition

Testimony on the MARS Testimony

Justification by Faith Alone

We affirm we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone. Faith alone is the hand which is given to us by God so that we may receive the offered grace of God. Justification is God’s forensic declaration that we are counted as righteous, with our sins forgiven, for the sake of Jesus Christ alone.

We deny that the faith which is the sole instrument of justification can be understood as anything other than the only kind of faith which God gives, which is to say, a living, active, and personally loyal faith. Justifying faith encompasses the elements of assent, knowledge, and living trust in accordance with the age and maturity of the believer. We deny that faith is ever alone, even at the moment of the effectual call.

Joint Federal Vision Statement

Not only is “alone” defined differently, but so is “faith.” Note the inclusion of “living trust” and recall Shepherd “Faith for Adam was what true faith always is, a living and active faith.” By living trust, Federal Vision means faithfulness, covenant loyalty, obedience.

[L]ife and obedience are essential characteristics of the instrumentality of faith

Obedience Unto Justification

Works/obedience is what makes faith saving/living.

[I]t is indisputable that works is the animating principle of faith.

Faith, Dead or Alive?

I am treating obedient faith and living faith as synonymous… it is obedient in its life, and in that living condition it is the instrument of our justification.

Living Faith

[OPC Report on Justification:] “14. Including works (by use of ‘faithfulness,’ ‘obedience,’ etc.) in the very definition of faith [is out of accord with Scripture].”

No. To include faithfulness in the very nature of living faith is not to intrude works. Faithful faith justifies. Faithless faith does not.

The OPC Report on the Federal Vision

Does obedience (in the context of justifying faith) mean works, or does it mean life? If the former, then mixing it into justifying faith is death warmed over. If the latter, then leaving it out is death stone cold. [In context, Wilson is defending Shepherd here.]

Recapitulation Drives Out Grace

The OPC Report on Justification notes

Though not ordinarily challenging the terminology of “justification by faith alone,” they have changed the definition of faith and have therefore changed the meaning of “faith alone.”

OPC Report on Justification, 26

If “the method of justification for Adam before the fall is exactly what it is for Paul after the fall” (faith alone) then justification by faith alone takes on an entirely different meaning. If someone follows Shepherd’s paradigm, then their affirmation of justification by faith alone is not enough because they mean something different by that phrase.

The Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ

Though Wilson follows Shepherd’s rejection of the law/gospel distinction as well as his understanding of faith as faithfulness (thus changing the meaning of justification by faith alone), he does not follow Shepherd in rejecting the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. Shepherd argues that justification consists in the forgiveness of our sins and not the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.

The active obedience of Christ is not the meritorious ground of our salvation because, not because of any inadequacy in it or anything like that, but because there is no such thing in the bible as obtaining salvation by the merit of works. Salvation after the fall or the gift of eternal life before the fall was never granted on the basis of the merit of works but was always a free gift that is received by faith.

What’s All the Fuss, Lecture 2, @1:03:00

We do not need Christ’s active obedience because eternal life is not earned by righteousness! It is a free gift and has always been a free gift. Once we receive the forgiveness of our sins through faith in Christ, God also gives us the free gift of eternal life through that same faith. And because that living faith is faithfulness, the righteous shall live by faith (Rom 1:17) and the doers of the law shall be justified (Rom 2:13) at the last day. Adam’s probation was a test to see if he had that faith – the condition of the free gift of eternal life. He didn’t have that living, obedient faith, so he didn’t get the free gift!

Wilson, however, thinks we still need Christ’s active obedience, frequently quoting Machen’s deathbed statement that we have “no hope without it.”

Note that, in line with everything above, Wilson believes that Christ’s faith was his faithfulness was his obedience.

In an oral exam yesterday for one of our grad students, the phrase “faith of Jesus Christ” came up (Gal 2:16; 3:22), along with the question/debate of whether this refers to Jesus Christ’s faith or to our faith in Him. I have generally taken it as the former, but that is not my point here. The point here has to do with what comes along with that — what has to be part of that package, for those who read it that way.

First, there are multiple other passages that teach plainly that we are justified through faith in Jesus Christ. This is the instrument of sola fide, so that doctrine is not at stake in this discussion. But if we take it, in this instance, as “the faith of Jesus Christ,” another doctrine is at stake. This means that the apostle Paul is bluntly teaching us the doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.

This debate concerns whether our justification is secured by the Lord’s suffering on the cross and His resurrection alone (known as the passive obedience of Christ), or whether we also have imputed to us the sinless, faithful life of Christ (His active obedience), throughout the course of His life. Those who would echo the words of Machen on his death bed, when he spoke about the active obedience of Jesus (“no hope without it”), have available to them, on this reading, a knock down text. How so?

This is because there would be no basis in this text for partitioning off the “faith of Jesus” to that time frame when He was on the cross. This is an expansive phrase. This is the new Israel, finally obeying God, finally walking through all the events of their history, and doing so in faith. Christ at His baptism, Christ resisting temptation for 40 days in the wilderness, Christ invading Canaan, and so on. Contrasted with the faithlessness of the old Israel, this is the faith of Jesus Christ. All of that is the “faith of Jesus Christ,” and all of that is our obedience now, our justification now, because it has been reckoned to us. No hope without it.

No Hope Without It

Note carefully that (in line with the rejection of any law/gospel distinction) Wilson believes Jesus’ faith (“the faith of Jesus”) is equivalent to Jesus’ active obedience to the law.

If it is undeniable that the New Testament shows Christ as the new Israel (and I believe it is), and if this is self-evidently because He is being the true Israel for us, so that we can be true Israelites in Him, it follows that we are participating in His obedient life. The perfect obedience that He rendered to God throughout the course of His life was a life lived before God, and He did it for us. This is nothing other than the doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Jesus Christ…

A shorthand form of the doctrine of active obedience is that Christ’s obedience throughout the course of His sinless life has been imputed by the grace of God to me. I believe this is true, but there is a fuller way to explain it, and this fuller way makes the doctrine not only true, but one of Scripture’s primary truths. Christ’s obedience as the true Israel has been imputed to us, to all of us who are the Israel of God, and therefore to me. The reason I can be an Israelite and not be destroyed is Israel is now obedient. And whose obedience was this? How did it happen? The active obedience of Christ began with His miraculous birth, and His exile in Egypt, and His restoration from Egypt. Out of Egypt God called His Son. And when God called His Son, we came too.

Active Obedience as Thematic Structuring Device

Shepherd would say the reason I can be an Israelite and not be destroyed is because my sins have been forgiven by a sinless Israelite who bore my curse (passive obedience). Wilson hasn’t quite connected Shepherd’s dots. He still thinks Jesus had to obtain something by his faith, rather than, as Shepherd explains simply receive a gift. Wilson still has some law/gospel baggage infecting his view of the IAOC. Wilson says “He did it for us.” Did what? Had faith? So I don’t have to have faith? “Well, no. He had perfect, sinless faith.” Well so do I now that my sins are forgiven. So what exactly did Jesus do for me beyond bearing my curse?

If there has only ever been one way of obtaining eternal life (by grace alone through faith alone) then Jesus obtained eternal life the same way that we do: by grace alone through faith alone. There is nothing for Jesus to “do for us.” The only possible way there can be something for Jesus to “do for us” is if there is more than one way of obtaining eternal life. The imputation of the active obedience of Christ necessarily requires the law/gospel distinction that Wilson rejects. He can only affirm the IAOC to the degree that he affirms an objective law/gospel distinction.


In light of all of the above, I cannot agree with Jeff Durbin that “Doug Wilson is one of the greatest blessings to the church in this modern era.” At best, Wilson is thoroughly confused on the gospel, having been deceived by Shepherd’s false teaching. At worst, he is a wolf “speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.”

Neonomianism and Culture

A driving passion of Apologia Church is to equip Christians to apply Scripture to every area of their lives. The theme of ReformCon 2019 was “Reformation and the Public Square.” I share their passion for developing and applying a Christian worldview. I get it. I was a Christian filmmaker (see here, here, and here) before becoming chronically ill and having to step away from that pursuit (I have written elsewhere on a Federal Vision influence in Christian film theory). I share Apologia’s rejection of VanDrunen’s dual ethic (natural law vs Scripture). I’ve been making similar criticism for a decade. I’m passionate about having a biblical understanding of justice and applying Scripture to politics and government. I’ve written extensively on issues related to it. I get it.

My concern, however, is in the details. My concern is that we properly guard the core of a Christian worldview: the Gospel. The ReformCon website says “With the guidance of some of the most influential Reformed thinkers of our day, we will spend two days soaking in pure and unadulterated Calvinistic delight while being equipped to take the good news of the Gospel into the public square.” I do not believe all of the speakers that Apologia Church chose to invite are Reformed and I do not believe they can equip anyone to take the good news of the Gospel into the public square as long as they believe another gospel. I do not think Apologia Church believes and teaches another gospel, but I do believe they are greatly influenced by those who do.

Joe Boot

As a case in point of how this teaching is influencing others, consider Joe Boot – another speaker at ReformCon. Rev. Dr. Joseph Boot (M.A., PhD) is a Christian thinker, cultural apologist/philosopher, founder of the Ezra Institute for Contemporary Christianity (EICC), and founding pastor of Westminster Chapel, Toronto. Boot’s passion is to equip Christians with worldview-thinking to apply Scripture to every area of their lives.

In a debate with Matthew Tuininga titled Two Kingdoms and Cultural Obedience, Boot argues

[T]he root of the theological error of two kingdoms theology, I think, is the idea that creation and man can be generalized as abstractions so God allegedly creates man in general. But I don’t think this is the case. Genesis 1-3 is part of the gospel and right in Genesis 1-3 you have the first seed promise of the gospel in Genesis 3:15…

Of course we know that Adam in the garden was a symbol of God’s power and judgment with the tree. It’s not that Adam was there to earn his salvation. He was actually made upright. There was nothing lacking in him. But he might forfeit it by disobedience. So we can, I suppose, talk of a Paradise Covenant between Adam and his Creator. God is the Lord. Adam is his creature. Any covenant between a greater and a lesser is already a covenant of grace. I put it to you there is no such thing ever as a covenant of works in Scripture whereby man is justifying himself – anywhere! He lived by God’s grace and favor. The good news of the evangelion is that God is Lord and King. That’s what it means. Now, Adam even believed that. He had to believe that and he walked in the favor of that. So God calls all men from Adam, through Noah, to the present to serve and obey him. He’s the same God. The covenant mandate was to develop and keep God’s creation in obedience to him and I don’t see any evidence in Scripture that that’s changed.

There were never two ways of obtaining eternal life. Only one. Before the Fall, Adam believed the Gospel! Where might Boot have learned such an idea? P. Andrew Sandlin works closely with Boot’s Ezra Institute, teaching at their Runner Academy. Sandlin notes “When I met Dr. Joseph Boot, leader of the Ezra Institute, I found a brother-in-arms. God knit our hearts together.”

It’s important to note that Boot is a baptist. He does not hold to the Federal Vision. But he is absolutely being influenced by Shepherdism’s neonomianism and it is directly impacting his view of how the Gospel relates to culture. Durbin says Boot is a spitting-image of him theologically and that every member of his church needs to read Boot’s “The Mission of God” because it is their manifesto. My intention is not to call for a boycott of Apologia. Far from it. If I lived in Phoenix, I would very likely be a member of Apologia (if they would have me). My desire is to offer some sharpening so that they may be more effective in their ministry and not be hindered by neonomianism influences in their systematic understanding of the Gospel and its relation to culture.

Theonomy

Apologia Church is very well known for their advocacy of theonomy. Wilson said that

this [FV controversy] was nothing more than a simple continuation of the theonomy fracas in the Reformed world a couple decades ago… During the original Shepherd controversy, he had strong support among the theonomists — Greg Bahnsen and Gary North, to mention two. North even devoted an entire book — Westminster’s Confession — defending Shepherd. Other supporters of Shepherd included such notables as Cornelius Van Til… In short, when you look at the scorecard, and take in the names of the players, you see a lot of the same names.

More to Being Reformed Than Believing in Jesus and Smoking Cigars

The link between theonomy and the Federal Vision is the rejection of the law/gospel distinction (CoW/CoG distinction). Rushdoony said

The Westminster Confession is one of the great documents of the Christian faith but at one point it has rightly been criticized over the years… This problem in the Westminster Confession is it’s concept of a covenant of works… Now it’s this idea of a covenant of works that is the problem in the confession and of course this doctrine has led to dispensationalism and a great many other problems. It is a deadly error to believe that any covenant that God makes with man can be anything other than a covenant of grace… So Paul is saying in Galatians 3:12 that when we walk in terms of covenant faithfulness we receive God’s blessing.

Lecture: Is There a Covenant of Works?

Steven Wedgeworth notes

Greg Bahnsen had died in 1995, well before the “Federal Vision” was its own project, but his own history shows a fairly strong pro-Shepherd but anti-Jordan disposition. Several of his friends and students went on to have some association with FV.

Bahnsen’s son David, while “combing through my late father’s files” found “evidence that Greg Bahnsen repudiated the notion that Norm Shepherd was a heretic, and in fact, embraced the core thesis of his work on justification, faith, and works (the heart of the controversy).” See his post for details.

Norm Shepherd was Bahnsen’s thesis advisor. Bahnsen initially had a strong law/gospel distinction – in fact his interpretation of Matt. 5:20 was far better than R. C. Sproul’s (lecture 309, I think). But as I show in this post, as time went on and Bahsen faced criticism of his thesis, he revised his law/gospel interpretation of key texts like Rom 10:4, coming to favor Shepherd and Daniel Fuller’s rejection of a law/gospel distinction (specifically telling people to read Fuller’s work for a full explanation; North notes the change in Bahnsen’s interpretation). Bahnsen also embraced Shepherd’s monocovenantalism as a crucial foundation to his theonomic thesis.

The perpetuity of God’s commandments follows from the eternality of His covenant of which they comprise an inalienable part… The law, both prior to and after the fall, is gracious… Continued blessing for Adam in paradise, Israel in the promised land, and the Christian in the kingdom has been seen to be dependent upon persevering obedience to God’s will as expressed in His law. There is complete covenantal unity with reference to the law of God as the standard of moral obligation throughout the diverse ages of human history.

Theonomy in Christian Ethics, p. 184, 235, 201-2

In the last couple of years, Joel McDurmon (former president of American Vision and Gary North’s son-in-law) has written two works critical of Bahnsen’s theonomy (Bounds of Love and Consuming Fire). Together they form a very good refutation while maintaining the same presuppositional view of justice, but they do so precisely because McDurmon is more cognizant of a law/gospel distinction. I highly encourage baptist theonomists to prayerfully consider his books and consider whether his view or Bahnsen’s is more consistent with a baptist understanding of covenant theology.

Spreading Among Baptists

Regretfully, Founders’ Ministries has lately been cooperating with CrossPolitic producer David Shannon (Chocolate Knox) in the production of a documentary on social justice called By What Standard? (Federal Visionist Marcus Pittman also directed parts of the documentary). Founders also invited Toby Sumpter to speak at and CrossPolitic to broadcast from a Founders’ conference on social justice. It appears to me that perhaps a large motivation for doing so was that these Federal Vision theonomists appear to have a solid, worked-out biblical standard of justice that baptists suddenly realize they are in need of. Personally, I believe their decision to work with these men was foolish. (in addition to the law/gospel problems under discussion, Federal Vision theonomists’ understanding of justice is actually unjust). I appreciate Founders and the stand they are taking against the social justice movement (see my 3-part series on social justice), but I personally think their choice of alliance was near-sighted. It seems to have already caused them significant problems and I believe it will continue to do so. (That said, I look forward to watching the documentary and I pray that it will bring much needed light to the social justice issue).

I received an email from Founders today asking for support (which I gave). The email noted “Over the last four years Founders has given even more attention to three areas of importance for spiritually strong churches: 1) confessionalism; 2) law and gospel; 3) pastoral theology.” They have a conference this week in Florida on the topic of Law & Gospel. The website for the conference says “Founders Ministries has been teaching a confessionally reformed and biblical view of the law and the gospel since 1983, and by God’s grace, will continue to do so. The need in the churches of God is as great now as it has ever been.” Hopefully this post will make it clear just how great that need is and, by God’s grace, they will address the law and gospel error currently closest to them.

CrossPolitic is scheduled to be a part of the next G3 conference as well.

Conclusion

One may object “At the end of the day, what practical difference does it make? If these men have helpful things to say about our current culture, can’t we just overlook these differences about the gospel?” The answer is no. A Christian’s understanding of how the law and the gospel relate is as practical as you can get. In the face of our collapsing culture’s rejection of God’s norms and the rising threat to Christians, it is easy to see ourselves as more righteous as others because we are the ones correctly understanding and applying God’s norms. We are the “doers of the law” (Rom 2:13), according to the men above. Sandlin notes

This is what God is doing in the earth; He is restoring and enhancing creation, what man lost in the Garden of Eden. The consummate kingdom will come in its fullness when the New Jerusalem descends to the resurrected earth in which both God and man will live eternally (Rev. 21:1-4). This is the kingdom populated by the blood-bought, the present deputies of the cultural mandate, whom God intended all along to be His people overspreading the globe and cultivating it for His glory. They will be victorious in this task, and then the Lord returns and the eternal state (on earth) begins.

The Eschatological Arc of Christian Apologetics

and

God didn’t abandon His cultural plan for the earth; He re-issued it to a newly redeemed people. “Because of the atoning consequences of the cross,” writes Scott J. Hafemann, “God is finally fulfilling His mission of revealing His glory through (re)creating a people who will exercise dominion in His name by keeping His commandments. [Whereas humanity failed in the garden and Israel fell in the wilderness, the church, under the sovereignty of Christ, who is ‘the ruler of kings on earth,’ will fill the world with the glory of God as ‘a kingdom, priests to his God and Father’ (Rev. 1:5–6; cf. 1:9; 5:10; 12:10).]” This is our calling as God’s people, washed in the Lord’s blood. We are His dominion people, our Lord’s new humanity. This, to put it bluntly, is the goal of the Gospel.

Reclaiming Culture is Gospel Ministry (Note that Hafemann lists Daniel Fuller as an influence at the beginning of his essay)

We will do what Adam failed to do. We will be victorious because we are the doers of the law! This is the goal of the Gospel. This is how the glory of God’s kingdom is revealed: our faithful obedience!

Again, my goal is not to denounce Summer, Jeff, James, or any of the other baptists involved. My aim is for them and their followers to very carefully consider the ramifications of neonomianism on one’s worldview and one’s practical life.

Another White/Wilson Debate?

James White recently said, “Doug Wilson is a Christian with whom I have differences primarily upon issues relating to baptism and the Lord’s Supper.” Hopefully all of the above makes it clear that White and Wilson disagree on more than just baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In his response to Clark, White suggested that he and Wilson hold a debate in 2020 to end this discussion for good. Resolved: The ordinances Christ instituted for his church are for believers alone. While that would make a good debate, it would not address the concerns about Wilson. Instead, the following debate would be a great blessing to the church:

Resolved: Since creation there have been two different ways of obtaining eternal life: through obedience to the law or through faith alone apart from obedience to the law.

[Added Clarification: The main purpose of this post is not to tell others how to direct their affairs or to pronounce what actions are tolerable or intolerable. The purpose of this post is to show as clearly as possible what people believe. What one chooses to do with that information is up to them.]

Further Reading

Note: An earlier version of this post referenced a tweet from Summer Jaegar posting from Deuteronomy 30. I assumed she was posting it because she read it along the lines of Andrew Sandlin and theonomy in general. Summer has clarified on Twitter that she rejects theonomy. This was news to me in light of previous conversations I have had with her and Durbin on Facebook. It is not clear how Summer does interpret the passage, but I have asked her for forgiveness for misunderstanding and thus misrepresenting her. I have removed the reference.

Kline’s Abrahamic Covenant of Works 7: R. Scott Clark

R. Scott Clark has recently stated that Kline held to a baptist understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant.

In short, Abraham was not Moses. The Abrahamic covenant is not the Mosaic. The Abrahamic was in no sense a covenant of works. It was a covenant of grace.1

1. Here we must not follow my beloved professor and colleague Meredith Kline when he writes, “Though not the ground of the inheritance from heaven, Abraham’s obedience was the ground for Israel’s inheritance of Canaan.” Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006), 325. Here Kline did the very thing to which he rightly objected: taking a Baptist position. He has turned Abraham into Moses. Abraham was given the seed and land promises in Genesis 12 and 15 and gracious grants from a sovereign King, God the Lord. The Obedience that God required of Abraham in Genesis 12, 15, and 17 was a consequence of the grace received not a prior or antecedent condition in order to receive.

The ensuing Twitter discussion between R. Scott Clark & Chris Caughey is worth reading.

 

Muller on the Reformed History of Gal 3:17 (Translation & Interpretation)

As explained in a previous post, I believe that Galatians 3:17 refers to the fact that the Abrahamic Covenant contained a promise that concerned or was in reference to Christ. The promise to Abraham that “in you all nations shall be blessed” was a promise concerning, about, in reference to Christ. The verse is often translated “the covenant before confirmed by God in Christ” and is thus used to argue that the Abrahamic Covenant was made with Christ as Mediator and is therefore the Covenant of Grace. εἰς Χριστὸν eis Christon is actually a textual variant and thus “in Christ” is not found in modern translations. Thus modern expositors like Kline do not comment on it (as best I can tell). Richard Muller has an interesting discussion of the translation and interpretation of this passage as it relates to the development of the doctrine of the Covenant of Redemption (pactum salutis).

Galatians 3:16-17 is another case of the creation of significant doctrinal associations by a revision and retranslation of the text. In the Vulgate the text read, “hoc autem dico, testamentum confirmatum a Deo, quae post quadringentos et triginta annos facta est lex, non irritam facit, ad evacuandam promissionem”—“now this I say, the testament con-firmed by God, the law which was made four hundred and thirty years afterward does not annul, render the promise void.” Following Erasmus, virtually all of the Reformers re-translated the Greek and added the phrase “erga Christum” or “respectu Christum” after the second clause of the verse, yielding, in Calvin’s version, “hoc autem dico, pactum ante comprobatum a Deo erga Christum, lex quae post annos quadringentos et triginta coepit, non facit irritum, ut abroget promissionem.”

The crucial phrase, “in Christ,” is a text that was not in the Vulgate and that was introduced by Protestants of the sixteenth century because it was found in what they viewed to be the best Greek codices, where, εἰς Χριστὸν [eis Christon] appears following the phrase ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ. In addition, the Greek diatheke, is now rendered not as testamentum but as pactum. Quite simply, the critical and philological re-casting of the text yielded a doctrinal connection that had not previously been present. The orthodox theologians regularly cite Galatians 3:17 as a basis for arguing the pactum salutis, given that the diatheke mentioned in the text is first said to have been given “to Abraham and his seed,” the “seed” being identified as in the singular and indicating Christ, and then is said to have been “confirmed before of God in Christ”—implying the priority, by inference, the eternity, of the confirmation in Christ.159

If we look, moreover, at the trajectory of Reformed exegesis, it is arguable that there was an increased emphasis placed on this text in the era of early orthodoxy. Thus, by way of example, Calvin’s exegesis was rather brief, noting that the “seed,” as a singular, indicates Christ and that, therefore, “Christ” is “the foundation of the agreement” between God and Abraham. Calvin also notes that Paul teaches “that a covenant had been made in Christ, or to Christ,” adding the phrase “erga Christum” to his text, following Erasmus. Calvin, however, points this covenantal act not back into eternity, as Cocceius and Witsius would do, but toward the historical gathering of all nations into the promise through Christ.160 It should be noted that, in this case, there is no startling shift in translation in the movement from the Reformation to early orthodoxy. Calvin already renders diatheke as pactum—a point of continuity both with Beza’s rendering and with later federal readings of the text.161 Similarly, in the so-called Geneva New Testament, namely the English translation begun in Geneva in 1560 and based in large part on Beza’s philology, the relevant portion of verse 17 reads, “And this I say, that the couenant that was confirmed afore of God in respect of Christ, the Law which was foure hundred and thirtie years after, can not disanull.”162

This reading reflects the sixteenth-century revisions of the New Testament from Erasmus onward, and specifically the Bezan collation of the Greek text that became the Textus Receptus: Beza, like Erasmus and Calvin, includes the phrase “in respect of Christ,” which has since been deleted from the text of various modern Bibles. Beza’s short annotation on the text indicates that it offers a comparative argument, “if an authentic human covenant (pactum) remains firm, so much more so a covenant (pactum) of God.” Given this solidity of divine covenants, it is clear that the Law was not given to abrogate the promise made to Abraham, for that covenant was made “with regard to Christ” and its execution depended on Christ.163

In his longer annotation on the verse, Beza indicates that he does not favor Erasmus’ (and, by implication, Calvin’s) rendering, erga Christum. Erga, “towards” or “in relation to” is, in Beza’s view a vague rendering. The Apostles’ point, Beza argues, is that the pactum graciously made by God with Abraham, had been uniquely founded in Christ, so that both Jews and Gentiles might be one in Christ as the seed of Abraham.164 Beza therefore preferred the closer connection implied by respectu Christi, with respect to Christ, or by respicientem in Christum, looking back upon or having a regard for Christ. The Tremellius-Junius Bible goes perhaps even further, rendering the text as “quòd pactionem quae antè confirmata fuit à Deo in Christo,” unfortunately without annotation.165

Perkins’ extended comment approaches the text with many of the same issues that Calvin and Beza had in mind. He notes, first, that the promise is given to Abraham and his seed, and that the “seed,” clearly, is Christ. He then elaborates, drawing into his discussion several other related texts, that the name “Christ,” like the singular “seed,” indicates “first and principally the Mediatour,” but also, like “seed,” identifies Christ as the seed not of the flesh but of the promise, the one who is the mediator is the head of the church. There is, therefore, for Perkins, perhaps reflecting Beza’s reading of the text, an extended corporate sense of “seed”: “the seed is first Christ Iesus, and then all that believe in Christ,” namely, those given to be children of Abraham “by the promise & Election of God.”166 Perkins then adds, in a formula that resonates with his Exposition of the Creed and Golden Chaine, that the “communion” here indicated between Christ and the elect is grounded in the fact that “Christ as Mediatour, is first of all elected, and wee in him: Christ is first iustified, that is acquit of our sinnes, and wee iustified in him: he is heire of the world, and we heires in him.”167 When he comes to verse 17, Perkins reiterates that the covenant was confirmed “to Abraham, as beeing Father of all the faithfull, and then to his seed, that is first to the Mediatour Christ, and consequently to euery beleeuer, whether Iewe, or Gentile.” This priority of Christ derives from the fact that “he is the scope and foundation of all the promises of God.”168 This mediatorship, moreover, is grounded in an eternal appointment: “The Sonne of God takes not to himselfe the office of a Mediatour, but he is called and sent forth of his Father: whereby two things are signified; one, that the office of a Mediatour was appointed of the Father; the other, that the Sonne was designed to this office in the eternall counsel of the blessed Trinitie.”169 The election or designation of the Son as mediator, a theme not referenced in Calvin’s or Beza’s comments on this text, is a major theme in Perkins’ thought. Its basic rationale is to press the issue of an appointment and anointing of Christ back into eternity inasmuch as it pertains to the divine as well as to the human nature of Christ—on the ground that he is mediator according to both natures. He cites Galatians 3:16, echoing his commentary, in his Exposition of the Creed as key to the transition between the doctrine of the church and the doctrine of predestination.170

Rollock’s commentary on Galatians follows the then fairly standard translation of the text, rendering diatheke as pactum. His commentary also emphasizes the identity of Christ as the seed of Abraham but, contrary to Perkins, does not allow the extended corporate sense of the seed as secondarily referring to Christ’s members: “this appears from the following verse, in which Christ’s name is properly presented, where it is said that the covenant (pactio) had been previously confirmed by God with respect to Christ.”171 Rollock then comments on the implication of Paul’s statement that the covenant is made with respect to Christ:

the promise is therefore both made by Christ and made in Christ as he is mediator, for unless he had interceded as mediator between God and man from the beginning, truly, that covenant of grace would never have been concluded with humanity. For … in him the promises of God are firm and invariable, undoubtedly, since he himself is the foundation upon which the promises are, as it were, set forth, on which they stand firmly in eternity, and receive his fulfillment.172

We do not have the term pactum salutis here—but we do have the covenant promise made with respect to Christ as mediator and its eternal foundation, grounded on his intercession a principio. As in the case of Perkins, the text has drawn on the theme of Christ’s mediation and has pressed the issue of covenant mediation into eternity, given the Reformed insistence that Christ is mediator according to both natures. Piscator, we note, does not press the exegetical argument for an eternal pactum at this point.173

This covenant exegesis in relation to Christ also appears strongly in the Dutch Annotations on Galatians 3:17, without the explicit eternal referent, albeit with the cross-referencing to the Epistle to the Hebrews where the concept of eternal testament does appear:

And this I say [That is, this I meane by the foregoing examples of humane covenants or testaments] the covenant [that is, then that much more the covenant of God remains firm without alteration] that was before now confirmed by God [namely, with an oath, Gen. 12:2 and 15:8 and 17:4 and 22:17; Heb. 6:14, 15 &c. And with other outward signs and seals] on Christ, [namely, forasmuch as it was to be confirmed by the death of Christ as Testator, Heb. 9:15….]174

In Diodati’s Annotations, however, the comment has not only focused on the phrase added from the Greek codices but also offers an adumbration of the eternal pactum: “In Christ] That is, of which covenant Christ already appointed and promised for a Mediatour, was the onely foundation, known and apprehended by the fathers.”175 In Dickson’s exegesis, moreover, pactum has become the preferred term for diatheke in Galatians 3:15-17—and Dickson adds both that this pactum between God and Abraham is understood to be “with respect to Christ” inasmuch as it has been confirmed “by a testamentary sacrifice” (per sacrificium testamentario), but also that its promise represents a pactum not subject to the mutation of the Law because it is the Dei absoluta promissio.176 Galatians 3:17 is a primary proof for Witsius [of the pactum salutis].177

The point I want to draw out here is that the translation of 3:17 as “with regard to Christ” rather than “in Christ” was clearly held by many reformed. They interpreted that as somehow meaning that Christ was the mediator of the Abrahamic Covenant, whereas I do not. But my preferred translation (also recommended by numerous commentaries quoted in the previous post) was a common reformed translation. I think John Brown puts it well

The only phrase which is obscure in this verse is the clause rendered “in Christ.” Some would render it to Christ; others till Christ, i.e. till Christ came, which is undoubtedly its meaning at chapter v. 24. I apprehend the true rendering of the particle is concerning or in reference to — a meaning which the term by no means uncommonly bears in the New Testament. I shall give a few examples, — Eph. v. 32 ; Acts ii. 25 ; Heb. vii. 14 ; Luke xii. 21 ; Bom. iv. 20 ; xvi. 19 ; 2 Cor. ii. 9. The covenant in reference to Christ is just the arrangement or settlement as to justification by faith to be extended to the Gentiles through the Messiah, which was made known in the Divine declaration to Abraham. This Divine arrangement was “confirmed of God,” ratified by God in the ordinance of circumcision which was given to Abraham as a person justified in uncircumcision, and made known as a fixed appointment in the Divine declaration so often referred to. It was “confirmed before.” That is, it was a finished, ratified deed, long previously to the law.
John Brown

Chrysostom more succinctly

Thus God made a covenant with Abraham, promising that in his seed the blessing should be bestowed on the heathen; and this blessing the Law cannot turn aside… It was promised Abraham that by his seed the heathen should be blessed; and his seed according to the flesh is Christ.