Fidei Defensor 

Vermigli on Christian Magistrates

Last week, we considered Peter Martyr Vermigli’s (1499-1562) formulation of relations between ministers and magistrates, what we would now generally refer to as “church and state.” But, for various historical reasons (mentioned elsewhere), Vermigli deemed it necessary to further articulate the nature of the Christian magistrate and, especially, his duty to the church and the Christian faith. His commentary on the matter situates him in continuity with his Reformed compatriots like Musculus, Bullinger, Bucer, Junius, and Hooker.

Against All, Enemies Foreign and Domestic

The character and mood of a worthy magistrate is by nature martial. His central function is war, protection of the nation. This includes enemies abroad and at home. For what is a great magistrate to do in times of peace, when all external threats have been quelled? Vermigli recalls that in times past, when there were no lands to conquer or enemies to repel, princes would occupy themselves with “sports and pleasures.” But this would typically yield their downfall, “so Alexander, when he had overcome Darius, was made feeble through riotousness.” King David serves as the counterexample. “For he thought it not enough to have conquered his enemy: but thought that the private evils and injuries at home belonged also to his office: since that a public weal is corrupted, even as is a humane body, not only by outward discommodities, but also by inward evils, as it were by certain noisome humors.” The magistrate’s charge always concerns both the internal and external health of the nation, but especially the former in times of peace.

By what means does the magistrate make domestic war and conquest?

Invoking Justinian’s Institutes, Vermigli answers: the law. “The Majesty of the Emperor (saith he) ought not only to be adorned with arms, but also armed by laws, that each time, as well of war as of peace may be rightly governed, and that the Romane prince may not only be conqueror of his enemies in battles, but also by right course expel the lewdness of malicious detractors.” Clear from Justinian is that domestic war is inherently and unavoidably moral, and further that, indeed, the emperor, prince, magistrate possesses a religious duty, not to crusade abroad on such basis, but to combat immorality at home. Domestic or internal welfare depends on it.

Of course, law is not reducible to the whim of a peacetime magistrate; it is not for his personal interest or amusement—what would definitionally be tyrannical. Law must follow an “everlasting precept proceeding from nature being the guide,” and, by extension, the “author of nature.” Nature and nature’s God, we might say. The epistemological equation here is a combination of ingrained natural light and “long experience of affairs, and government of commonweals.”

Law is not only the thing written (lex), nor the general precept (ius), but also iusicia (justice), the thing applied according to circumstance. This requires more than parchment and abstract deliberation; it requires just determination (i.e., the application) which, in turn, requires human authority, an adjudicator, a lawgiver that, in turn, reflects the highest lawgiver. In this sense, a “dead constitution” is no constitution at all. Law, insofar as it serves man, cannot be dead or stagnant, or mechanical, nor can it be outcome agnostic—not according to persons, yet according to justice, sensitive to the fact that drafters can err and that fact patterns are not exactly replicable. King David “did not pronounce all things out of the written law, but even much according to equity and reason,” and he did so “execute judgment sincerely and truly, without respect of persons,” but not without respect to the higher law and, as said, equity and reason, nor without respect to the good. For, “that discipline be established, that good laws do flourish, that good manners may be preserved. This virtue is most profitable, not only in peace but also in war. These things ought a Prince specially to do.”

All Law is Living

Alluded to already is that the magistrate is a “living and speaking law,” because the law in itself is a “dumb Magistrate,” meaning that the law must be animated insofar as it must be applied by some authority. The definition of law itself requires a promulgation by authority. Being a nation of laws and not men is, in this way, an oxymoron.

The magistrate, through the law, is to “praise which do well: and on the other side he beareth the sword against the wicked as a judge and revenger of God.” This is not to imply a constant reassessment and disruption of regime structure or customary expectations, et cetera. But it is to insist that a man endowed with God-given authority must animate the law, even the polity itself. There is no scenario in which, taken literally, men are governed by inanimate (i.e., person-less) laws or constitutions without authorities, indeed, a chief magistrate, to interpret and execute them. Men cannot be governed by algorithms or grammarians.

There are near-infinite government forms, regime types, delegations of authority that could be inserted here. Agnosticism governed by prudence on structural questions is the proper approach. The point is the necessity of government, real government, not some individualist “self-government,” a phrase which long ago passed from a general expression of localism on the one hand and a rejection of licentiousness on the other. Now it operates as an anarchical punchline in much of Conservatism, Inc., thereby shedding itself of all historical reference and meaning to the subversion of authority and, paradoxically, the levelling of society (i.e., egalitarianism)—even nature itself is now subjugated to individual “self-governance.”

In this way, Vermigli follows Ulpian in calling magistrates “Priests.” “For they be Priests and presidents of the laws. And laws be holy things.” Rightly so, for laws must reflect God, be orchestrated by those who are as gods, and govern those formed in the image of God for their good found only in virtue on earth and the divine in heaven. Holy business indeed.  

Even granting that law is a holy business and that magistrates animate the law and by extension the nation itself, what is the substantive scope of such laws? Is it limited to purely temporal controversies or is it cognizant of something deeper and higher?  

Defender of the Faith

Vermigli states the question plainly: “Is it lawful for Princes to determine of Religion?” By “determine,” Vermigli does not mean doctrinal dictation, mind you, but rather enforcement of doctrine mainly by defense of the church and the polity writ large from rabble-rousing false teaching and otherwise bad actors, and not to mention the punishment of demonstrable evil.

Was it not lawful for Saul to “abandon Witches and Soothsayers,” indeed, to command them to be “taken away”? (1 Sam. 28:3; Deut. 18:10-12). Yet, people, even in Vermigli’s day, protested that secular or “Prophane” magistrates would only threaten the safety of the church by mucking about in ecclesial affairs. Vermigli counters: if the concern of such interlocutors is the health and wellbeing of the church, then, pray tell who holds the church accountable? Who defends its purity from internal predation and corruption? “For what if a Pastor become a Wolf, who shall take him away but the Magistrate? Or if the Bishops as it happeneth govern not according to the dignity of the Church nor by the word of God, who shall punish them?”

This implies, of course, that the magistrate has some ability to discern when ministers have departed from their own true doctrine—but from whence did the magistrate gain such knowledge but by the self-declaration and proclamation of the church itself?

Ironically, the position Vermigli confronts, is held by the majority of American evangelicals today, but, in Vermigli’s day, was a papist one.

“Wherefore Princes (say they) ought not to intermeddle with these things. What shall they then do? They feign that in the Church there be two great lights, and that the Pope with the Bishops be the greater light: & that the Emperor and kings and Magistrates be the lesser light: These ought to take care, that is as much to say, as destroy their bodies, but the other the souls. So would they have Princes to be only certain herd men to pamper the body. But the very Philosophers do not so absurdly judge. For Aristotle in his Politicks saith, that the office of a Magistrate is, to provide that the people may live well and virtuously. And no greater than Religion.”


“And God commandeth in Deuteronomy that the prince should write out for himselfe the book of the law, not only for himself to keep, but also to compel others to keep it. And the law containeth not only civil government, but also Ceremonies and the worshiping of God.”

“And Augustine against the Donatists: It were a goodly matter indeed (saith he) if Magistrates should have power to punish adulteries, but might not punish the whoredomes of the soul. And he addeth that kings ought to serve God, not only that they themselves may live modestly and godly, but also that they may bring others unto godliness, and defend the worship of God.”

Here we find an important but, upon examination, simple argument from Vermigli. First, the magistrate is charged by God to keep the law, but the law also includes spiritual things. Second, the magistrate is duty bound to punish evil, but there is no apparent reason why such evil should be limited by a bodily or physical harm principle, if, in fact, the magistrate governs men (i.e., body and soul).

And third, the magistrate does not only punish evil but prevents harm. As Vermigli explains,

“In all Artes (as saith Aristotle) there is a certain respect unto the principal Art. For example, the Art of Riding commandeth the Sadlers craft. Also the Art of Navigation is above that Art which maketh Oars and sails, wherefore seeing the office of a Magistrate is the chief and principal science, he ought to rule all the parts of a Common weal. Indeed he himself exerciseth not those Arts, but yet ought he to see that none do corrupt and counterfeit them. If a Physician cure not according to the prescript of Galen or Hippocrates, or if an Apothecary sell naughty and corrupt drugs, the Magistrate ought to correct them both. And if he may do this in other Artes, I see no cause why he may not do it in Religion.”

Again, if the magistrate can protect his people from noxious substances or poor business practices threatening the body, why can he not do the same regarding threats to the soul? If, in fact, man possesses both a body and a soul the magistrate must care for both. Further, there is an evident civil interest in preventing corruption of morals and religion. The stability of the polity depends on it and so the magistrate cannot be indifferent to it.

The magistrate should not only protect the church from external threats and internal corruption but from schism. Vermigli points to David’s adjudication of controversy between “the two families of Ithamar and Eleazar [who] contended between themselves for the high Priesthood.”

Not suggested by Vermigli is that there are somehow two high priests of the church, one civil and one ecclesiastical, but only that the magistrate has authority to guarantee right governance of the church externally (in a direct way) and internally (in an indirect way), including the appointment of church officers. In other words, contrary to popular critiques of the magisterial Reformed position on church-state relations, Vermigli does not confuse the magistrate and the minister; he does not supplant the church’s unique authority and competency; nor does he improperly insert the civil authority into ecclesial affairs.

Rather, he maintains a mutual diaconal, reciprocal relation between the magistrate and minister. And yet, given then recent history and the polemics of his day, Vermigli highlights the religious role of the magistrate which is dedicated not only to the health and preservation of society generally but also to the church specifically. Far from threatening the church, a Christian magistrate, as God’s representative on earth and a priest of holy things (i.e., law) and indeed as a governor of the church circa sacra, offers accountability and support for the health of the church, protecting her from enemies both foreign and domestic as he does for the whole polity. The title “protector and defender of the faith” should not be merely or properly honorary. And before you clutch your pearls at this prospect, remember, as we’ve said before, abusus non tollit usum.

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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.

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