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 [powers] is clearly consistent with the strictest subordination to their general authority [power]. 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 [power] 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:

“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.]

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.

Is John MacArthur Right About Revolution? – Reformed Libertarian

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.

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