Does Romans 13 Require Us to Obey "Shelter-in-Place" Laws?

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States central government issues guidelines for states to follow in an effort to avoid a surge in demand on healthcare in the country that would outstrip supply. Various states have taken those guidelines and turned them into strict laws that require everyone to “shelter-in-place” – that is, no one may leave their home (except to obtain food and other essentials – but not including work to pay for that food).

Responses to these laws have varied, with many questioning both their prudence and their constitutional authority. This post is not intended to comment upon either of those questions. It may or may not be prudent. Various states may or may not have authority according to their state constitutions to do so. And those constitutions themselves may or may not be legitimate sources of authority. I am not addressing any of that here.

I wish to address one specific response: Christians must comply with these new laws because Romans 13:1-7 says that we must obey whatever our rulers say. Many claim it would be sinful to leave your house for any “non-essential” reason. I believe this interpretation of the text is incorrect.

A common interpretation of the text is that Romans 13 commands us to obey every single law in every jurisdiction unless that law requires us to sin because civil government is placed by God and receives its authority from him.

Another common interpretation of the text (held by the majority of reformed theologians) is that Romans 13 commands us to obey every single law in every jurisdiction unless that law exceeds the contractual agreement (constitution) established between the ruler and the people.

I believe both of these interpretations are incorrect. The first conflates God’s two distinct wills (decretive and preceptive). The second misunderstands Romans 13 as a reference to God’s preceptive will.


Which Will?

An essential component of properly interpreting Romans 13 is determining which will of God is referred to. There is God’s sovereign, decretive will: providence. All things in history happen according to God’s will. God’s second “will” is his preceptive will: His commands to men. Note that these are two distinct things that cannot logically be conflated.

God’s Preceptive Will

Which will does Paul have in mind when he says “established” (NIV), “instituted” (ESV), “ordained” (KJV), “appointed” (YLT)? If he is referring to God’s preceptive will, then the meaning is that God has commanded the establishment of the institution of civil government. He is not referring to any specific ruler, but merely to the institution. This necessarily entails that civil government, like any authority (such as husband or elder), has a specific, limited scope to its authority and need only be obeyed within the confines of that scope. If a ruler steps beyond those limits, they no longer possess authority and may be disobeyed and removed. This also necessarily entails that the ruler must possess legitimate authority. It cannot be usurped power. It cannot be the power of a conquering king. Since all men are equally created in the image of God, no man by birth possesses kingly authority over another. Thus this authority may only be established through the consent of the people (as argued by Beza, Rutherford, and the majority of the reformed tradition). If these people withdraw their consent because of the ruler’s violation of the terms of agreement (i.e. he becomes a terror to good works, not evil), then they are at liberty to replace him. This interpretation drove the 16th century Scottish revolution, the 17th century English revolution, and the 18th century American revolution (which was known in England as “The Presbyterian Revolt”). The logic here is airtight.

But this specifically does not fit the context of Romans 13 wherein Paul was warning Christians not to join with the Jewish zealots who sought to overthrow Rome’s unjust (conquering) occupation of Jerusalem through tax revolt. If Paul was referring to God’s establishment of an institution, then Rome had clearly stepped beyond the limit of that authority by their occupation of Jerusalem and thus they were owed no subjection. Yet Paul commands subjection.

God’s Decretive Will

If, however, Paul has in mind God’s decretive will, then the meaning is that God has providentially ordained and appointed specific men to have power (not authority) over other men. This, not the other interpretation, fits the Old Covenant background of Nebuchadnezzar that Paul clearly had in mind. God did not grant Nebuchadnezzar authority over Jerusalem. He granted him power over Jerusalem. How do we know this? Because God specifically says that Nebuchadnezzar would be punished for his unjust invasion and enslavement of Jerusalem – the very thing he gave him power to do.

Israel’s history was a history of rebelling against and overthrowing foreign occupation by the power and blessing of God. Subjection to all higher powers is not a creation ordinance. But in this instance, because Nebuchadnezzar was a curse against Judah for their violation of Mosaic law, God commanded the Jews not to rebel but to submit to his yoke instead – not because Nebuchadnezzar possessed legitimate authority, but because God had providentially ordained that he have power to destroy Jerusalem and take a remnant who submitted to him captive, so that God could later restore them from exile.

This is parallel to Paul’s instruction in Romans 13. While we wait for the return of our king, Christians are to be subject to (not rebel – note that the Greek word is not “obey”) the mighty men (the “state”), because God has a purpose and is providentially ordering these things for our good. We are not to avenge ourselves against the state (as Gen 9:6 gives image bearers authority to do; Rom 12:19) but we are instead to follow the example of Christ and turn the other cheek, suffering injustice until he returns. I believe this is the most logically coherent interpretation of the text and does the best justice to the immediate and intra-canonical context.

A Conflation of God’s Two Wills

It is important to note that the vast majority of interpreters conflate these two distinct interpretations. The Scottish Presbyterians were consistent enough to recognize it must be one or the other. Most today, like Kuyper (following Calvin), argue that the passage refers both to God’s establishment of an institution AND to his ordination of specific persons to that institution. That’s not a logical possibility but most people are completely unaware that they slip between these two concepts when interpreting the passage. Pointing out this inconsistency goes a long ways towards its proper interpretation.

Subordination

In an unpublished master’s thesis, Dr. Samuel Waldron notes

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

Conclusion

During these difficult times we must ask God for great wisdom. We must weigh the various risks and concerns and make prudent decisions. We must love our neighbors. But we should not fear that disobedience to the edicts of our governments on issues related to the pandemic is necessarily sinful. We must disobey if the government commands us to sin, but we may also disobey in other situations without incurring sin.

(If anyone is curious, I think this doctor’s recommendations for a communal response to the pandemic are wise; see last slide at 1:06:30)

For a more detailed examination, see the following posts:

Is John MacArthur Right About Revolution?

John MacArthur appeared last Sunday on Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire. I greatly appreciated MacArthur’s focus on the gospel in the interview – specifically his willingness to personally direct it to Shapiro and call him to repentance. That is very rare in situations like this. It far outweighs any other nit-picking I may have.

Towards the beginning of the interview, MacArthur said

I’m to be a citizen who submits to the powers that be I am NOT to be a revolutionary. We don’t start riots that’s not a Christian thing to do. We don’t even start revolutions, and you could argue about the American Revolution whether that was actually legitimately a Christian act or not. We don’t start revolutions. We submit to the powers that be and we work to change the culture from the inside one soul at a time.

Shapiro later asked him to elaborate.

Shapiro: Early on you mentioned that you weren’t sure that the American Revolution is in consonance with biblical values. I was wonder if you could expound on that a little bit. I think it’s an interesting idea.

MacArthur:  Well the scripture says submit to the powers that be, that they are ordained of God. That does not mean that every ruler represents God, clearly that is not the case, but that governmental authority is a god-given institution to repress evil and to reward good behavior, just as parents have that role, the conscience has that role we’ve talked about. So when I, when I talk about the government I’m not saying that the government is a divine authority or that the rulers are divine authorities but what I am saying is that they represent a god-given constraint to human behavior and that’s why they have to be upheld and not broken down. So Christians don’t attack the government. We don’t protest. We don’t riot. We don’t start shooting people who are in the government even if the government is King George from England and we don’t like him and even if we’re upset with taxation. We don’t start riots and we don’t start revolutions.

We live quiet according to the New Testament peaceable lives we pray for those that are over us we pray for rulers we pray for all those who are in authority and we pray that they might come to know God through the savior of the Lord Jesus Christ. So we pray regularly for our rulers we do not overthrow them and that is how a Christian a real biblical Christian would look at the at the American Revolution. I mean, I hate to say that because that’s not a popular idea, but it is nonetheless what the scripture says Christians are to do. Submit, pray, pray for the salvation of your leaders, live a quiet and peaceable life and let the the character of your life the godliness the virtue of your life affect that society one soul at a time.

Shapiro: So what does that mean for individual rights? Because obviously the American Revolution is based on the idea that we are individuals with certain rights that are inherent in us. I think that has history going all the way back to Genesis talking about us being made in God’s image with certain creative faculties and that comes along with the ability to think for ourselves the ability to worship God, the ability to build these families. The founding ideology is based around the idea that if the government itself was a threat to your fundamental rights including as a religious person then the government had lost its legitimacy. Is there a point in in your philosophy in theology where the government loses its legitimacy? It’s the Soviet Union, they’re cracking down on churches. It’s Nazi Germany, right? Is that, is there a point where a revolution would be justifiable or necessary?

MacArthur: Not, not in a biblical sense, no. I don’t think there’s ever a time when you would be justified in starting to kill the people that are in power. I don’t, I don’t see any justification for that. That is not what Christians do. We would rather suffer.

Personally, I have wrestled with MacArthur’s view for more than 10 years. My desire to take every thought captive to Christ makes me affirm MacArthur’s anti-revolution position, in light of Romans 13. But my logical, systematic bent (which is just another step in taking every thought captive to Christ) leads me to reject MacArthur’s position because it is self-contradictory. It took me a long time to push through the fog of this dissonance, but I think I have made progress and have more clarity now.

Person or Office?

How is MacArthur contradicting himself? By conflating the two wills of God – that is, conflating the person and the office. First he argues that the powers that are ordained of God does not mean particular rulers, but rather the general concept – the institution (preceptive will/command). “That does not mean that every ruler represents God, clearly that is not the case, but that governmental authority is a God-given institution to repress evil and to reward good behavior.” But then he argues that we must therefore never remove any particular ruler by force (because that particular ruler is ordained by God – decretive will/providence). “So we pray regularly for our rulers we do not overthrow them…I don’t think there’s ever a time when you would be justified in starting to kill the people that are in power.”

Which is it? Logically the verse must refer to one or the other. Is the institution ordained by God’s command or is the specific person ordained by God’s providence? Irenaues argued it was the person providentially ordained by God. Chrysostom argued it was the office preceptively ordained by God, not any particular ruler. In his commentary on Romans, John Murray puts it this way

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 bu 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)

Removing Persons

If the power that God has ordained is simply the institution – that is, the idea that society must have a means of constraining human behavior by punishing evil – then our submission is specifically due to that function: punishing evil. If a particular person with power is himself evil and is actually punishing good, then that has not been ordained by God and we need not submit to it, but may resist (Shapiro notes this). Thus Samuel Rutherford said “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.” This is the understanding behind the WCF and it led directly to the American Revolution, which was known in England as the Presbyterian Rebellion.

The logic is impeccable. If God has ordained/commanded that society must punish evil and reward the good, then society must replace a tyrant. Note that the American Revolution was not the rejection of society’s duty to punish evil and reward the good. Rather, it was simply a change in how that was to be done: through a constitutional republic rather than a monarchy. That’s not contrary to the divine institution of government unless you want to argue that God only ordained a specific type of government (monarchy, oligarchy, republic, democracy, etc). The American Revolution was not an overthrow of the institution of government. It was the overthrow of specific persons and their unjust laws (which were not ordained by God).

Ordaining Persons

While the logic is sound, the problem is this view makes no sense of Romans 13 in its original context. The Christians Paul was writing to were concerned with the injustice of Rome and were enticed by Jewish revolutionaries. Paul tells them to be subject to the powers that be. Note that Paul did not simply tell them to obey the rulers. He told them to be subject to them. The specific issue is not disobedience to laws, but rebellion against persons (see Waldron’s notes here). The ordination that Paul refers to in Romans 13 is the providential empowering of particular mighty men to rule over others, as Irenaeus observed. Nebuchadnezzar was the obvious background to Paul’s comments and Nebuchadnezzar was not ordained to an office. He was empowered to crush opposition – to rule. God has providentially ordained that non-theocratic rulers will have power over Christians until our King Jesus returns. Until then, we are to follow his example by patiently suffering injustice.

Conclusion

In conclusion, MacArthur is correct that Christians must not rebel. However, he is wrong as to why Christians are not to rebel. It is not because Romans 13 has ordained an institution that never loses its legitimacy. It is because God has commanded us to suffer patiently under the heavy hand of wicked men whom He has providentially empowered, while we wait for the return of our king (thus making us pilgrims).

Responding to injustice (tyranny) with force (rebelling) is just. In this sense, the American Revolution was just. They had a natural right to resist injustice. However, Romans 13, like Matt 5:39, commands Christians to suffer injustice by turning the other cheek and not taking up arms against “the powers that be.” Did Christ have every right to resist his unjust execution? Yes. Did he resist? No. We are to follow his example, which reaches beyond mere matters of justice.

The dissonance in MacArthur’s conflation of person and office in Romans 13 is very common. It leads to a great deal of confusion. I would encourage everyone to carefully consider and distinguish between person and office with regards to “the powers that be.”

For more detailed reading, see:

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.