Of Gods, Law, and Men

Commentary on Samuel Willard

As the paradigmatic New England election day sermon, Samuel Willard’s Character of a Good Ruler (1694) deserves special and extended attention, more than will be offered below. But space and time do permit highlighting several important themes or strands of thought to challenge contemporary assumptions with previously conventional ones.

Immediately, in the first sentence of Willard’s sermon, we encounter a remark remarkably relevant for present political discussions on the new Christian right.

“Whether the Ordination of Civil Government be an Article of the Law of Nature, and it should accordingly have been established upon the Multiplication of Mankind, although they had retained their Primitive integrity: Or whether it have only a Positive right, and was introduced upon man’s Apostasy; is a question about which all are not agreed.”

Just to be clear, Willard is saying that whether government would have been present in a prelapsarian environment is a legitimate question and one without consensus in the answer. If it is established by natural law, and natural law is perennial and not a product of the fall, then there is good reason to argue for its early existence. Some of the hullabaloo surrounding Stephen Wolfe’s book has fixated certain prelapsarian claims in his book. Here Willard provides some backup. The point is the notion isn’t ridiculous and is at least debatable. Let’s continue with the quote:

“The equity of it [i.e., civil government], to be sure, is founded in the Law natural, and is to be discovered by the light of Nature, being accordingly acknowledged by such as are strangers to Scripture Revelation; and by Christians it is reducible to the first Command in the Second Table of the Decalogue; which is supposed to be a transcript of the Law given to Adam at the first, and written upon the Tables of his Heart. For though, had man kept his first state, the Moral Image Concreated in him, consisting in, Knowledge, Righteousness, and True Holiness, would have maintained him in a perfect understanding of, and Spontaneous Obedience to the whole duty incumbent on him, without the need of civil Laws to direct him, or a civil Sword to lay compulsion on him; and it would have been the true Golden Age, which the Heathen Mythologists are so Fabulous about yet even then did the All-Wise God Ordain Orders of Superiority and Inferiority among men, and required an Honor to be paid accordingly.”

Meaning that the fall did not introduce the natural foundations of government imbedded in the light and law of nature, but rather compounded its necessity and expanded its function and purpose:

“But since the unhappy Fall hath Robbed man or that perfection, and filled his heart with perverse and rebellious principles, tending to the [Suspension] of all Order and the reducing of the World to a Chaos: necessity requires, and the Political happiness of a People is concerned in the establishment of Civil Government.”

Consider Richard Baxter on this front to help flesh the issue out. In his Holy Commonwealth (1659), he begins with anthropology, the sociable, religious and intellectual nature of man, noting that “God hath not bestowed these noble faculties on man in vain.” (Thesis 11). We can discern, from consideration of these qualities, that man is bound for eternity and bound for society—we will revisit his mode of governance too momentarily. He has duties to God and duties to man.

Briefly, Baxter’s explanation of man’s sociability is worth mentioning for its own sake. We are made sociable by both natural inclination and necessity—usually commentators mention only one of these. We are, generally speaking, born dependent, in need of others for both in daily living and the service of God. But we are also sociable “for the common good, and the propagation and preservation of mankind: and principally because that holy societies honour our Maker more than holy separate persons.” Per Baxter, God is glorified by societies in his service even more than individuals dedicated to the same.

Back to our main inquiry. We have established man’s religious and social nature, but of what import is his intellect. Baxter puts it best (Thesis 18):

“As bruits must be drawn by sensitive objects, so man must be drawn by intellectual objects suited to the nature of man. And these objects must be propounded, that they may be apprehended: And as sensitive objects are offered to beasts to work upon their sensitive appetite and fantasie, by way of necessity (because that is agreeable to their nature) so are the objects of the Rational soul propounded to our Intellect and free will, that they may be rationally and freely received, which is agreeable to humane nature. And as we have naturally a power of Volition and Nolition, chusing and refusing, and the Affections of Love, and Desire, and Joy, and Hope, and Fear, &c. so none of these are made in vaine; and therefore all must have their objects: and these must be the great things of the life to come which we are made for, with the matters of this life that help or hinder them; or else they cannot be the objects that are most suitable to our faculties, and for which it is that we are men. So that it is plaine from the nature of man, that he is a Creature to be governed by Laws.”

Whereas other creatures are properly, according to their nature, governed (or directed) by instinct and appetite, man as a rational creature is rightly governed by law, that is, an appeal to his intellect and will. This is how God made him. It is how God governs man and how man operates in communion with others of his species. In short, law is the means by which man reaches his proper ends. There is, therefore, nothing more human, nothing more reflective of the image of God in man that is his sentient faculties than the making and use of law. Maybe a controversial point is to insist that it is, in fact, a dictate or near implication of the natural law that men make human law, the application of secondary conclusions from the decidedly general first principles.

Law implies or requires “execution” or administration, says Baxter. This, in turn, requires authority, judgment, government, sovereignty. “There can be no effect without its cause: no Laws without a Law-giver, no Judgment without a Judge, Legislation, and judgment with the execution of the sentence, are the parts of Government and therefore are the Acts of a Governor.” (Thesis 19). This is a reflection of God and his own government over men, a fact not introduced by sin, for even in the Garden, promise and threat were introduced to govern man unto his proper end. To deny all of this is to deny God as the sovereign ruler of mankind, the kingdom of God itself and its administration. If men, even apart from sin, are to live according to their moral and intellectual nature it is through law that they are led—the means by which suitable objects are propounded to the rational soul.

The punishment attached to promise is on account of the free will of man, not sin as such—not the assumption of the violation of the promise or injunction. Indeed, the definition of law itself is belated here. A rule of action. That is, a directive. An ordinance of reason. These classical conceptions do not require sin for their intelligibility. Nor does the presence of a lawgiver, even a human lawgiver, a sovereign. Rational direction for action, especially collective action, is simultaneously the most human and divine thing, and would have marked man’s communal existence and activity even prior to the fall—or if the fall had never happened at all. And, therefore, government, as the natural corollary of law, would have likewise been present. Moreover, the purpose of government is both to punish what is evil and promote what is good—peace, tranquility, prosperity, and, above all, true religion. In the now hypothetical case of the total absence of good’s privation, is it reasonably suggested that the promotion of the good would be null?

We have obviously by now strayed far from Willard but by Baxter, perhaps, got closer to him. A few more themes from Willard’s sermon should be highlighted. We have barely moved passed the first paragraph of his oration, so we should now move more briskly.  

None of the above is to deny the purpose of government post-fall, as stated. And yet, important to note is that Willard maintains, per usual, the religious role of government in said post-fall state. The nourishment of religion, as a nursing father, is paramount.

Another theme to emphasize is easily drawn from the title of the sermon. The character of a ruler matters. We, as late modernity Americans, have generally been convinced of a near algorithmic nature of government, as if the occupants of the seats of power matter not so much as the preservation of a pristine liberal form. Perhaps, now, at a later stage of liberalism, we see that personnel is policy not only in the realpolitik sense but in a literal sense insofar as there is trickle down in the moral ethos from the ruler(s) to the ruled. “It is of highest Consequence, that Civil Rulers should be Just Men, and such as Rule in the Fear of God,” for this very reason. For “Civil Rulers are God’s Vicegerents here upon earth.”

Further, we have in Willard’s sermon an insight or principle on this front that harkens back to commentary above, viz., that the ruled, if subordinate to the ruled by Providence, are “of the same order of being with them that Govern.” Therefore, the management or rule of the former by the latter must accord with that shared nature. Good and proper government, of whatever form, must be a government of law, that is reasonable and not arbitrary. This is the central “republican” insight of John Adams’ Thoughts on Government (1776) insofar as the distinguishing factor between “republican” and arbitrary rule is not the form but the matter or the mood. To govern by law and not pure fiat is to govern men and not hogs, to borrow (out of context) a phrase from Richard Hooker (1554-1600). It is to govern men according to their faculties and as God himself governs them, with ordinances of reason and promise of commensurate punishment, a befitting model for gods on earth (Psalm 82:6). Hence, Willard: “[a good ruler] ought not to Exert his Power Illimitedly [sic], and Arbitrarily, but in Conformity to the Law of God, and the Light of Nature, for Gods Honor, and the promoting of the common benefit of those over whom he bears Authority.”

We will end, for now, with the historically basic insight that rulers are dedicated, by their office, to the common good. This is another way of saying that although it is natural, necessary, and proper for there to be a division between the ruler and ruled as a prerequisite for the constitution of government—and even if a natural correspondent hierarchy is affirmed here—the mandate of God’s vicegerent is the wellbeing of his purview, of the nation he rules, of the commonwealth he surveys. Willard argues that the happiness, the fulfillment, of both ruler and ruled is wrapped up in a proper ordering of this relation. “[T]he happiness of Rulers is bound up with theirs in it. Nor can any wise men in authority think themselves happy in the Misery of their Subjects, to whom they either are or should be as Children are to their Fathers.”

This end is more important than the means or form. Willard:

“Civil Government is seated in no particular Persons or Families by a Natural right, neither hath the Light of Nature, nor the Word of GOD determined in particular, what Form of Government shall be Established among men, whether Monarchical Aristocratical, or Democratical [sic]: much less, who are individually to be acknowledged in Authority, and accordingly submitted to. Nevertheless the Holy Providence of God presides in this matter; sometimes, by a more. Immediate, and Extraordinary pointing to the Persons and Families: when by Revelation he declares his pleasure in it.”

Providence and circumstance alone dictate the exact method or mode or means of execution, but the ends remain constant. Contemporary Protestants would do well to readopt this political posture. Again, even when John Adams in his Thoughts argued for the relevancy of “form,” he really was advocating for a certain mood, measure, and method of government. Means are not irrelevant or boundless, but are always subordinate to the ends. In any case, read all of Willard’s sermon rather than this commentary; you will be blessed more for it.

*Image Credit: A South East View of the Great Town of Boston in New England, John Carwitham, 1730-1760, Wikimedia Commons.

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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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