Wholesome Severity

The Case for the Law’s First Table

A few months ago, Jonathan Leeman debated Brad Littlejohn at Colorado Christian University on “Religious Liberty and the Common Good.” What the confrontation really amounted to was a question of the coercive power of civil authorities in religious matters. It is worth the watch. (The edited remarks from Leeman and Littlejohn were published here at American Reformer.)

In the course of the debate, Leeman fairly dubbed Littlejohn a “First Tabularian.” That is, a proponent of the magistrate’s duty to take note of and enforce the first table of the Decalogue, not merely the second. Littlejohn embraced and defended that decidedly traditional position ably. Leeman, self-professedly representing a Baptist position, nevertheless demurred.

This, it seems to me, is the fundamental divide within American Protestantism on this question. Will it be the Baptist position or the Magisterial one?

Per usual, someone else in our Protestant past has already addressed the question at hand. In this case, multiple persons, but we will take up just one: George Gillespie (1613-1648) who was unarguably conventional within the stream of historic Protestantism on the question at hand but, perhaps, best at expressing it.

The central focus of Gillespie’s Wholesome Severity (1645) was “Whether Christian Judges may lawfully punish Hereticks.” More directly, this introductory inquiry implied a more fundamental question:  

The plaine English of the question is this: whether the Christian Magistrate be keeper of both Tables: whether he ought to suppresse his own enemies, but not Gods enemies, and preserve his own ordinances, but not Christ’s Ordinances from violation. Whether the troublers of Israel may be troubled. Whether the wilde boars and beasts of the forest must have leave to break down the hedges of the lord’s vineyard; and whether ravening wolves in sheeps clothing must be permitted to converse freely in the flock of Christ.

Were heresy and schism really to be admitted to society “under the name of tender consciences” like a “pestilence or a Gangrene”? (Published in 1645, Gillespie’s Severity could not here have been referencing Thomas Edwards’ (1599-1647) infamous and massive Gangraena (1646), but the terminological overlap is worth noting— Gillespie was decidedly more gracious in his presentation than Edwards.)

Gillespie’s entire purpose is to “vindicate the lawfull, yea necessary use of the coercive power of the Christian Magistrate in suppressing and punishing hereticks and sectaries.” 

Gillespie was self-consciously responding to Baptists, viz., Christopher Blackwood (1604-1670), a Baptist in Ireland, and his Storming of Antichrist in his two Last and Strongest Garrisons (1644), which railed against infant baptism on conscientious grounds; and Roger Williams’ (1603-1683) The Bloody Tenent of Persecution (1644), which needs no introduction; and also, William Walwyn’s (1600-1681) The compassionate Samaritane (1644). (A compatriot of John Lilburne and other undesirables, Walwyn appears to have been as much a rabble rouser as Williams.)

To this end, Gillespie distinguished himself from two alternative views.

First, the opinion of “the Papists.” Their position was that all heretics who, following notice and instruction, “persist in their error, are to be without mercy put to death.” The second view was that of Baptists, viz., that no heretics or sectarians should endure any punishment but should be granted “liberty and toleration.” Gillespie finds both extremes wanting.

The third way, if you will, was Gillespie’s. The magistrate possesses and ought to exercise coercive power in suppressing heresy and schismatics with a level of discrepancy, discrimination, and prudence. That is, according to “the nature and degree of the error, schism, obstinacy, and danger of seducing others” presented by the heresy or blasphemy in view. Gentility in the execution of this duty cannot be neglected. Its application is not wanton or indiscriminate. The goal is not the “building of Zion with bloud.” For “the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men.” Gillespie insisted that it was his “soul’s desire that the secular coercive power may be put forth upon those only who can by no other means be reclaimed, & who can be no longer spared without a visible rupture in the Church, and the manifest danger of seducing and misleading many souls.” Neither should adiaphora be coercively chastised. The grave duty of the magistrate was not to be taken lightly nor administered flippantly, nor was executed with exaggerated eschatological expectancy. Prudence and patience should guide the magistrate here, for the good of the church and commonwealth, not personal prejudice or private gain. Taking “care of God’s glory” and the preservation of religion and civil peace is the point. And this by removing “the external impediments of divine Worship or of Ecclesiasticall Peace,” which includes erroneous propagation and false worship. 

This, says Gillespie, was the consensus Protestant opinion expressed by Theodore Beza and John Calvin, Wolfgang Musculus and Heinrich Bullinger, Martin Bucer and Johannes Brenz, and the Helvetic, French, Saxon, and Belgic Confessions. Of course, Gillespie refers to Scripture as well for support, Exodus and Deuteronomy, in particular.

But is the New Testament magistrate bound by the same standard as that of the Old regarding heretics, violators of the first table? Indeed, they are, and Gillespie marshals Johannes Piscator’s commentary on Exodus to demonstrate that the Christian magistrate is “obliged to those things in the Judiciall law which are unchangeable, & common to all Nations: but not to those things which are mutable, or proper to the Jewish Republike,” for these are “laws concerning Morall trespasses.” These are perennial things which include blasphemy and heresy against the very source of the governing power, God himself.

From Scripture, we know that God intended the perpetuation of the moral law imbedded in and undergirding the law of Moses by the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) which vindicated the judicial and moral law against the false traditions of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

If God would have the Morall law transmitted from the Jewish people to the Christian people; then he would also have the Judiciall law transmitted from the Jewish Magistrate to the Christian Magistrate: There being the same reason of immutability in the punishments, which is in the offences; Idolatry and Adultery displeaseth God now as much as then; and Theft displeaseth God now no more then before.

And whereas

we have clear and full scriptures in the New Testament for abolishing the Ceremoniall law yet we no where reade in all the new Testament of the abolishing of the Judicial law, so far as it did concern the punishing of sins against the Morall law, of which Heresy and seducing of souls is one, and a great one. Once God did reveal his will for punishing those sins by such and such punishments. He who will hold that the Christian Magistrate is not bound to inflict such punishments for such sins, is bound to prove that those former lawes of God are abolished, and to shew some scripture for it.

Those of Leeman’s persuasion demand a positive New Testament authorization for the Christian magistrate to act as his Old Testament counterpart did, but Gillespie insists, for good reason, that it is the other way round. This is not an argument from “autonomous reason” but one from Scripture. The example of Moses, Josiah, and the rest are not to be shunned as irrelevant or outdated unless the latter testament indicates as much—no such indication can be found. Neither does the New Testament suggest a “typical” (i.e., typological) or figurative character to the reforms of Asa, Jehu, or Josiah.

Further, the scope of “evil” to be punished by the Christian magistrate in Romans 13:4 is not limited by Paul in a way exclusive of the evils punished in Kings and Chronicles. Heresies and schisms were (and are), in fact, the “greatest scandalls: yea more than corruption of manners,” a manifestation of “depraved politicks.” Or what of “all godlinesse and honesty” in 1 Timothy 2:2? Or of the names provided for heretics and sectarians in Matthew 7:15, John 10:8, 2 Timothy 2:17, and Galatians 5:9-12? “Shall the troublers of the State be punished, and the troublers of Israel go free?” asks Gillespie.

Shal Physitians cut off the member that hath a Gangrene in it, because it indangereth the whole body, and shall the great State physitians suffer the Gangrene to spread in the Church? Shall mens bodies, goods, and purses, be so farre cared for, that theeves and robbers must not be suffered, but justice done upon them; and shall those have immunity who steale away soules from Christ, and rob us of the pearle of truth?

This is a question of priorities for the polity. Shall the body be prioritized over the soul?

The magistrate’s duty to enforce the first table does not conflate civil and ecclesiastical government—nor usurp the latter—as Gillespie took pains to prove in  CXI Propositions Concerning the Ministrie and Government of the Church (1647) and Aaron’s Rod Blossoming (1646) contra the Erastians. Rather, it pertains to the civil power proper to do justice to God according to his law, support the church, and promote true religion in this way.

Even so, none of this is irrelevant to civil policy.

the experience of former times may make us so wise as to foresee that heresie and schisme tendeth to the breach of the civill peace, and to a rupture in the State as well as in the Church. What commotions did the Arrians make in all the Easterne parts? the Macedonians in Greece? the Donatists in Africke? How did the Anabaptists raise and foment the bloudy warre of the Boores in Germany, wherein were killed above 100000 men?

Further into the text, Gillespie addresses “material objections” from Roger Williams and others against “the coercive power of the Magistrate in matters of Religion.” For example, Williams’ appeal to the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares in Matthew 13. Namely, that the magistrate must not punish heretics and schismatics until the day of the Lord. Gillespie counters that

if the Magistrate must spare those who are meant by tares in the Parable, then he must spare and let alone all scandalous offenders, murtherers, adulterers, drunkards, theeves, &c. when any such are discovered in the visible Church. But this cannot be the meaning of the tares in the Parable… when Christ saith, Let the tares alone, he should contradict other ordinances for the punishment of evill doers by the Magistrate.

In other words, if the Christian magistrate cannot punish idolaters, blasphemers, and heretics, then he can punish no evildoers. Brilliant as he was, Williams’ exegesis is defective in this regard. To wit, Revelation 13:10 and 17:16; and if we are to forbear ripping up the tares then there are no grounds for church discipline. In fact, the import of the parable is against those who aspire to the purity of the visible church, not the efforts of the Christian magistrate.

Read it all. And note that Gillespie was considered to be nigh irrefutable on these issues at the Westminster Assembly. Engage at your peril, my Baptist brethren.

In any case, the arguments above have not been answered by those who argue that a new authorization for the use of force against violators of the first table is required in the new covenant. What, at first, appears to be Scriptural fealty is demonstrated by Gillespie to be hermeneutical negligence—if you want to get Biblicist about it, that is.

As to the complaint lodged by many opponents of “cultural Christianity” that only nominalism or hypocrisy will result, Gillespie again insists that if coercive power regarding religion is out of bounds on this account, then so is the punishment of any crime. If genuine, uncoerced assent to the principles and beliefs standing behind laws is what dictates the legitimacy of their enforcement, then a window into men’s souls is most necessary, but unfortunately unattainable. Libertinism or licentiousness is the only result. Gillespie anticipated Williams’ counter: “If hee say his argument is only concerning matters of religion, I answer, Whatever his intention be in offering the argument, the very nature and force of the argument it selfe driveth universally against the compelling of a man to any thing whatsoever which is against his owne conscience.”

In the end, then, the question for the opponents of First Tabularianism is what distinguishes injunctions against murder of the body from murder of the soul, not the jurisdictional “authorization” question. Since Leeman and others in his camp so often appeal to a version of the harm principle, they should determine the scope of harm and inquire whether it is confined to purely material concerns.

To add another wrinkle to the equation, the argument of Gillespie’s Baptist interlocutors insisted that where man is brought to a conviction—a judgment according to the word of God—he is therefore bound by said conviction or judgment necessarily. Therefore, he should not be punished for it. Gillespie rightly resituates the inquiry. The question is not whether a man is punished for his conviction simpliciter. Such a thing cannot actually be done, as Richard Baxter concurred in the Holy Commonwealth (1659). Rather, the question is whether a man ought to be punished for resultant “professions or practices in religion, as are found to be pernicious, hurtfull, and destructive” to the peace of the church and state, of the polity. And the bottom line is that consciences can err; should misplaced convictions be granted unmitigated expression on the basis of some conscientious principle even when they are demonstrably destructive? In other words, the metric by which men are punished is action, not belief. And if our Baptist brethren insist that all action flowing from the Supreme Court dicta, sincerely held belief, is tantamount to belief itself, then truly no action could be punished whatsoever. Of course, Leeman and others might here, again, insert a John Mill harm principle ethic. But this only returns us to the scope and cognizance of harm in view. Is man mere flesh and blood, or is he body and soul? That is the central, indispensable question of this whole debate, viz., a recognition of both the matter and form of man. If man has a soul, then a modernist, materialist harm principle will not suffice. A related question pertains to the relative strength and authority of private judgment vis a vis public health and morality. That is, since man does not live alone, should his personal conviction be definitive? But that is for another day.

*Photo Credit: Unsplash

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.