On Magistrates and Ministers in Peter Martyr Vermigli’s Common Places
Certain (hyper online) evangelicals continue to at least feign shock and concern—they are so perpetually concerned that I wonder their brows are not permanently furrowed—at a resurgence of decidedly historical yet now intellectually foreign articulations of church-state relations. Albeit the impact of historical sources within the Protestant tradition seem to have exactly zero impact on the most obstinate and presentist of this crowd, that is no excuse to not perform our due diligence, recovering the diversity and continuity of the tradition on this front. Perhaps, one day, the cascade of sources demonstrably disagreeable to baptized post-war liberal assumptions held so tightly by mainstream evangelicals will envelop them, drowning out their ahistorical protestations.
To that end, Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562) and his Loci Communes (1576). The Loci was translated into English in 1583 as The Common Places, extending Vermigli’s posthumous influence. Along with Martin Bucer (1491-1551) (i.e., De Regno Christi), his impact on the long English Reformation was immense, including but not limited to political thought.
Vermigli’s clarity in expounding a model of relations between the ecclesiastical and civil powers—an historically representative model for Protestants—remains instructive for reconsideration of relevant liberal assumptions about the same found both within and without Protestant academe. What follows is commentary on and investigation and application of Vermigli’s model of what we would now call church-state relations. On offer from Vermigli is not merely mechanical and expedient, but metaphysical and nevertheless practical.
Deacons, Ministers, Pastors
To get right to it: there are two powers appointed by God, two offices set up as God’s representatives on earth. In a sense both act as fathers and pastors, indeed, as gods. (Notice that Vermigli does not employ “two kingdoms” terminology.) There are spiritual pastors and fathers, and temporal pastors and fathers, though as it happens both are temporally situated and both possess spiritual and temporal interests, sharing the same spiritual end if by diverse means. We are talking about civil magistrates and church ministers (or civil ministers and church magistrates, if you like, the terminology itself overlapping and interchangeable which semantically demonstrates the point). Henceforth we will stick to magistrate (civil) and minister (church) as our terms.
“Both of them nourish the godly, but diversly. The Magistrate advanceth them with honors, riches and dignities. The minister comforteth them with the promises of God & with the sacraments.” The magistrate works by outward means on the outward man, which does not itself disregard the inward man as such, nor is it agnostic toward inward means of the inward power of the ministers.
For “princes in the holy scriptures are not only called Deacons, or Ministers of God, but also Pastors.” Vermigli cites Ezekiel 34 and also Homer who referred to “Agamemnon the pastor of the people.”
Magistrates are also properly called fathers, “wherefore the Senators among the Romans were called Patres conscripti, that is, appointed Fathers.” He goes on,
“Neither was there a greater or more ancient honor in the Commonweal, than to be called, The father of the Country. Yea also a Magistrate by the law of God is comprehended under this commandment, Honor thy father and thy mother. Princes then owe unto their subjects a fatherly love, and they ought always to remember that they are not rulers over beasts, but over men, and that themselves also are men: who yet should be far better and more excellent, than those whom they govern, otherwise they are not fit to govern them. For we make not a sheep the chief ruler over sheep, but the Bellwether, and then the shepherd. And even as a shepherd excelleth the sheep, so ought they to whom the office of a Magistrate is committed, to excel the people.”
Magistrates can rightly be called pastors and fathers because they, ideally, exude excellence which confirms their distinction and authority. Both by example and just rule, they exercise a pastoral role insofar as they shepherd their people. Of course, even as men set apart for rule should distinguish themselves as truly excellent, such elevated status cannot be justified by a self-referential source of authority.
Natural and Appointed
When we say that magistrates are ordained by God, what do we mean?
Vermigli argues that even as human means of appointment are in operation, that conduit of election does not diminish the proper cause of magisterial authority, viz., God himself. But this does not itself imply some kind of mechanical dictation theory about how human means are employed by God inside of providence.
Vermigli attributes the divine authority of magistrates to a natural, embedded principle or impulse: “God kindled a certain light in the hearts of men, whereby they understand that they cannot live together without a guide: and from thence sprung the office of a Magistrate.”
(Thomas Aquinas says much the same in De Regno.) This is corroborated by Scripture. For if “God ordained that he which shedded man’s blood, his blood also should be shed, not rashly or by every man (for that were very absurd),” then a civil, magisterial authority is implied “that he should punish manquellers [i.e., killers of men].” Hence, “all powers whatsoever they be, are ordained of God. And Christ answered unto Pilate, thou shouldest have no power against me, except it had bin given thee from above.”
Abusus Non Tollit Usum
Now, an important question is in order:
“If all Magistrates be of God, then must all things be rightly governed: But in governing of public wheels we see that many things are done naughtily and perversely. Doubtless, under Nero, Domitian, Commodus, Caracalla, and Heliogabalus, good laws were despised, good men killed, and discipline of the City was utterly corrupted. But if the Magistrate were of God, such things had never happened.”
In other words, Vermigli asks whether tyranny negates the legitimacy of the magistrate’s claim to be of God, for his power to be derived either mediately or immediately of God? There are those that say “The wicked acts of Tyrants are not of God, yet doe those things spread abroad into kingdoms and Empires: Therefore Empires and kingdoms are not of God.”
Even today, holders of this position wield it to legitimate so-called classical liberal ends in millenarian, progressivist fashion. That is, government and governance predicated on the limitation of power via its endless bifurcation, as the chief goal of politics. The effects of regimes are translated through liberal political assumptions—liberatory and egalitarian—to legitimate or illegitimate regimes. It is a fundamentally shortsighted and materialist analysis, overly moralistic and chained to an immanent frame.
Vermigli rejects this posture as a false syllogism insofar as it absolutizes the occasional and accidental. It would be equally valid, in this reasoning, to say that because some governments are not tyrannical and therefore legitimate, all governments are legitimate. Those suffering from tyraniphobia essentialize accidental occurrences. Just because the power of a magistrate is from God does not mean that everything in the magistrate is from God, or that the office cannot be separated from the occupant.
Vermigli’s position is simultaneously realist and providentialist. “[K]ingdoms and public wheels, may be called certain workhouses, or shoppes of the will of God. For that is done in them which GOD himself hath decreed to be done, although princes oftentimes understand it not.”
“[T]here are certain tyrants, which destroy public wheels. I grant it, but our wickedness & sins deserve it. For there be oftentimes so grievous sins, & so many that they cannot be corrected by the ordinary Magistrate, and by a gentle and quiet government of things. And therefore God doth then provide Tyrants to afflict the people.”
Vermigli identifies an ebb and flow to the rise and fall of good and bad governments. Whenever there is a bad one, it is a sign of judgment and correction. Whenever there is a good one, it is an indication of blessing. If all power is of God then no other explanation makes sense. Even Nebuchadnezzar was God’s servant. Historically, “for the most part [God] tempereth & qualifieth his punishment in placing among them good and godly princes.” In any case, as Vermigli later explains, stripping the magistrate of discretion and judgment proper and essential to his office via mechanistic, proceduralist, and positivist methods is no solution. In fact, arguably, such a limited regime invariably corrupts the magisterial office and degrades into managerialism, a certain form of inhuman technocratic tyranny wherein ius is detached from iusticia, or rather lex envelops both.
Up from Boniface
Returning to our main inquiry, to fail to subscribe to 1) the direct ordination and distribution of power by God to civil magistrates, and 2) to uphold the legitimacy of magistrates on this basis regardless of outcome, is to fall into late medieval papal confusion, argues Vermigli.
Pope Boniface’s Unam Sanctum is, for Vermigli, the source code of said error. Boniface located both swords or powers originally in the church which, in turn, delegated the temporal sword to civil authorities but thereby retained a certain purview and right of reverter over the temporal sword. The civil authority, then, was to, when necessary, be directed by the spiritual power. “The Church (saith [Boniface]) hath two swords, but it useth not them after one and the selfesame manner. For it exerciseth the spiritual sword, but the temporal sword ought to be drawn only at the becke & sufferance of the Church.”
Vermigli explains the import of this doctrine:
“The sword of the Emperor ought to be drawn only at the will and pleasure of the Pope: That when he commandeth, he must strike: and by sufferance, that is, he must go forward in striking, so long as he listeth and will suffer it. These things therefore must be in order: and the order is, that the temporal sword be reduced unto God by the spiritual.”
Through a winding digression, Vermigli shows how the Roman position yielded “all ecclesiastical persons are exempt from the civil Magistrate.” More basically, the problem was a confusion of the relation and interplay between the ecclesiastical and political powers, their jurisdiction and competency.
Interchangeable Arts: Shared Interests and Mutual Subjection
In a narrow sense, the ecclesiastical is to be more favored and stands above the civil or political. This is because “the word of GOD is a common rule, whereby all things ought to be directed and tempered. For it teacheth in what manner the outward sword & public wealth ought to be governed: And generally, also it showeth how all things ought to be done of all men.” Albeit this does not negate a certain mutual subjection (and correction) between the two powers, nor deny their overlapping duties and interests, to which we will return. But it is a simple and preliminary fact that “whereas Princes are occupied only about earthly and civil matters… but that ministers are occupied, about things greater and more divine than magistrates are.”
The typical example, cited by Vermigli also, is Ambrose’s correction of Theodosius for his cruelty toward the Thessalonians.
“So, many Bishops oftentimes in things most weighty, used their authority, and many times either put away cruel wars, or else pacified them, and even while wars were in hand preached Sermons out of the word of God. So that the Ecclesiastical power after this manner comprehendeth all things, because out of the word of God it findeth how to give counsel in all things. For there is nothing in the whole world whereunto the word of God extendeth not itself. Wherefore they are far deceived, which use to cry, what hath a preacher to do with the public wheel?”
All Vermigli is saying thus far is that the prophetic witness of the ecclesiastical power extends to all things and is not limited to merely spiritual comment but must extend itself to all of human life, including the political. The minister does not possess the tools of the magistrate; he cannot correct sinners with the sword or purse, but only “after his own manner, that is, by the might and power of the word of God.” And yet, this limitation of means—if it be any limitation at all given the divine power he wields (Heb. 4:12)—does not limit the minister’s purview or competence.
Whereas the minister is, through the revelation of God (both natural and special), cognizant of all life—which is not to say charged with the governance of all life—the power of the magistrate “is extended to all things which pertain to political power.” In this sense too, insofar as we are temporally bounded in this life, the magistrate is cognizant of all of life as well.
“But after what manner” does the magistrate act? His means are that of the sword, not the word, his jurisdiction proper the political and not the spiritual. But this too does not limit his interests and purview.
“Shall civil power require good motions of the mind and inward repentance? It cannot cause these things: yet it must wish they were had, and use those means whereby they may be had. For it ought to have a care that Bishops, pastors, and teachers in the Church, doe teach purely, reprehend fatherly, and by the word of GOD administer the Sacraments. This indeed the Magistrate doth not by himself, but he ought to have a regard that those may be in a readiness which should doe them well.”
In other words, the magistrate possesses a religious interest not only as to outward behavior but to the real spiritual health of the populace. Yet, he lacks the means to attain the latter. And so, he must support the church. For Vermigli, the interests and comprehension of both powers completely overlap. What differs is their respective means or manner. “Wherefore either power extendeth most amply, and comprehendeth all things, but not after one and the self same manner. And the rule of either of them is to be taken out of the word of God, the which doth plainly appear to be in the Church.”
Again, the end of each power is shared even as their means and character are distinct:
“For straightway, as soon as men hear of their duty out of the word of God, and that either this thing or that is to be done, or this or that to be avoided, they give place, believe and obey, because they perceive that it is the word of God which is spoken. And these are the ends of either power.”
The minister and the magistrate both care for men qua men, bodies and souls:
“Ought Bishops to have a care only over souls, and not over bodies also? What if they give themselves unto Gluttony or drunkenness, or live licentiously touching outward behavior? Must they not reprove these things? Yes truly must they, neither must Princes have only a care over the bodies of men, and neglect their souls. For we doe not imagine that a Prince is a Neatherd [i.e. cowherd] or Swineherd, to whom is committed a care only of the flesh, belly, and skin of his subjects, yea rather he must provide that they may live virtuously and godly.”
Vermigli invokes the examples of Philip I, allegedly (per Eusebius) the first Christian emperor, and his submission to the bishops who required his public repentance and confession as a condition of admission to the church. Hence,
“[T]he civil power ought to be subject to the word of God which is preached by the Ministers. But in like manner the Ecclesiastical power is subject unto the civil, when the Ministers behave themselves ill, either in things humane, or things Ecclesiastical. For these powers are after a sort interchangeable, and sundry ways are occupied about the selfsame things, and mutually help one another, even as Aristotle unto Theodectes calleth Rhetoric and Logic interchangeable arts, because either of them are occupied in the selfsame things, after a sundry manner.”
“The Ecclesiastical power, is subject unto the Magistrate, not by a spiritual subjection but by a politick. For as touching the Sacraments and Sermons, it is not subject unto it, because the Magistrate may not alter the word of God, or the Sacraments which the Minister useth. Neither can he compel the Pastors and teachers of the Church to teach otherwise, or in any other sort to administer the Sacraments, than is prescribed by the word of God. Howbeit Ministers, in that they be men and Citizens, are without all doubt subject together with their lands, riches, and possessions unto the Magistrate.”
Mutual Subjection, Not Mutual Deposition
Even as magistrates are subject to the correction of ministers, ministers are subject to the governance of magistrates as to temporals (i.e., just laws and sanctions) as citizens. Contra the Papist position, ministers are not above or outside the law. But so too are ministers subject to magistrates as to their “function” per the religious interest of the magistrate. A magistrate cannot alter or dictate true doctrine, Scripture, or sacraments, but he may hold ministers accountable to their own standards, as it were, which implies a certain familiarity with and understanding of Scripture and church tradition and teaching by the magistrate.
“Because, if [ministers] teach not right, neither administer the Sacraments orderly, it is the office of the Magistrate to compel them to an order, and to see that they teach not corruptly, and that they mingle not fables, nor yet abuse the Sacraments, or deliver them otherwise than the Lord hath commanded.”
On this, Vermigli cites 1 Kings 2 where Solomon deposed Abiathar and “put Sadock in his place.” The key distinction on the basis of difference in means and manner:
“For the king ought to have with him the law of God written because he is ordained a keeper, not only of the first table, but also of the latter. So then he which offendeth in any of them both, ran in danger of his power. But although a king may remove an unprofitable and hurtful Bishop, yet cannot a Bishop (on the other side) depose a king if he have offended.”
This, again, on account of Biblical precedent:
“John in deed reproved Herod, but he displaced him not of his kingdom. Ambrose and Innocent excommunicated Emperors, but they proceeded no further. Yea and Christ called Herod a Wolf, but he took not away his kingdom from him, and he paid tribute unto Tiberius a most wicked prince.”
In their mutual subjection, but according to their differing functions, the magistracy and ministry must be considered both abstractly and personally.
The magistrate should be considered according to his office but also his person. As a Christian, he is subject to God’s word and the teaching of the church. But even if he is not personally a Christian, the magistrate is still subject to the same authority because he has received his own governing power from God and, therefore, is responsible to godly standards promulgated by the heralds and prophets of the Lord. And it is not a theonomic point to say that the possessor of such God-given authority cannot ignore God’s revelation regardless of its epistemological mechanism of delivery.
Likewise, the minister is subject to the magistrate both officially and personally. His office can be corrected if abused— “For if either he teach or administer the sacraments against the word of God, he must be reprehended by the Civil Magistrate”—and his person can be disciplined if unlawful in conduct.
To deny this mutual subjection and to assert ecclesial immunity from civil law is, paradoxically, to divide a polity in two wherein the laity is separate from the clergy.
“Doe they not see that they divide the public wheel into two bodies, which ought to be but one body only? For when they divide the kingdom of the Clergy from the kingdom of the Laity, they make in one kingdom two peoples, and set over either people his Magistrate.”
In Vermigli’s view, this setup is analogous to a Frenchman subjecting himself to a Spaniard, or a Spaniard subjecting himself to a German. Clerical immunity from the civil law of a kingdom amounts to the operation of a foreign jurisdiction within national borders, a parallel legal system. Recall too that even Christ Jesus subjected himself to temporal authorities: “Was not Christ spiritual? Who was more spiritual? … What say you to the Apostles, were not they spiritual? And yet never exempted themselves from the civil power.” Vermigli does not deny that certain concessions and exemptions—especially financial—can be made for ministers by the magistrate, only that the former is not exempt from the temporal authority of the latter absolutely. Polemically brilliant, Vermigli coupled the “Anabaptists and Libertines” with the “clergy of the Pope” in their resistance to civil authority contra the apostolic witness.
In But Not of The Church
Refuting Boniface, Vermigli admits, of course, that insofar as there are Christian magistrates the church can be said to have the temporal sword within her. But this is only accidental, not essential. Meaning that just as artisans, builders, and tradesmen are in the church they do not thereby constitute the essential nature of the church such that if such skills should be removed the church would cease to be. In the same way, the church, as a perfect society, does not require Christian magistrates. She cannot, therefore, be said to possess two swords essentially, but only accidentally. And the existence of this accident does not thereby indicate the source and reception of authority. Nor, on the other hand, does it negate the fact that a good Christian magistrate is dutybound to serve and protect the church, embracing her teaching according to Scripture and so too her prophetic correction— “Certainly such as the minister should teach, and that the civil power should hear & believe.” And, indeed, Vermigli adds, “I will easily grant, that the sword of the spirit which is the word of God, is the mean whereby the other sword, namely, the external ought to be tempered and directed unto God.”
Even if it is the minister who consecrates the magistrate at his coronation, it does not follow that the magistrate has received his power mediately through the minister, just as a popular election implies nothing other than that votes act as a conduit, not the source, of magisterial power. So too, says Vermigli, when Boniface was consecrated by Hostiensis (Henry of Segusio), it was not thought that the latter was the source of the power, or elevated above, the Pope. To boot, “What if I prove that the chief bishop was sometime consecrated by the civil Magistrate?” asks Vermigli. For “Undoubtedly Moses consecrated Aaron though nevertheless (as hath bin said) Moses was a civil prince.”
The bottom line: “It is not the bishops that give power unto kings.” Such consecration is not essential to the magisterial office, just as possession of the temporal sword is not essential to the church.
A point raised earlier, viz., in a sense, the minister stands above the magistrate, but without confusing offices, conflating means. Rather, given the shared ends (i.e., the glory of God), and considering the comprehension of the word of God as the minister’s means of pursuing said ends, “Let them set before kings and princes of the earth the threatenings [sic] of God, and let them in this manner be over nations and kingdoms.”
Yet, and this is Vermigli’s main point, ministers possess not the ability to overthrow kings and kingdoms via temporal means, even as they may profess, chastise, and discipline magistrates with spiritual means. Another way of putting it is that ministers may be the efficient cause of regime change but not the material or formal cause of the same (see Jeremiah 1:10). So, Vermigli says, “It is God therefore that pulleth down and overthroweth, planteth, and scattereth: neither disdaineth he sometimes to call us his fellow workers.”
Obedience and Resistance
What of a tyrannical magistrate? What about unjust laws? If magistrates are appointed as ministers of God for our good, what if they do evil? Vermigli encourages Christians to adopt a high view of Providence, a long-term historical outlook. He recalls that Flavius Constantius, the father of Constantine the Great, threatened to strip Christians of their honors and offices. But they did not waver. In short order, “this was turned to their good: for the Emperor embraced them. And those which had denied Christ to keep their dignities, he utterly removed from his person; saying that they also would not be faithful unto him, which were unfaithful to God.” And, of course, the legacy of the emperor’s son needs no visitation.
That said, Vermigli does not deny the right of resistance. “Yea and Achilles in Homer saith: I will obey princes, but yet so they command things honest and just. And these things not only belong to subjects but also to inferior Magistrates.” The difference between the subject and the inferior magistrate is that the latter possesses a measure of God-given power and responsibility and, therefore, must act accordingly in his resistance to unjust and ungodly commands.
This duty also includes the protection of churches and true doctrine from idolatry and heresy, to say nothing of the longevity of the commonwealth itself. For, “The Ethnic Emperors [i.e., Greek and Roman] also in those first times did for no other cause rage against the Christians, but because they thought that the state of Religion belonged unto their judgment seat.” (William Prynne makes the same point in more verbose fashion.) But that is a subject to be more fully explicated at a later date.