Surveying the Historic Role of the Protestant Magistrate
Given that most American evangelicals are, apparently, de facto anabaptist in their political thought, meaning, that they artificially construct conflict between historic Reformed doctrine and Reformed political convictions, I thought a similar exercise with Reformed Protestant confessions—basically drawn from Philip Schaff’s list—might be useful. You could, obviously, look all these things up for yourself, but the consolidated testimony of the confessions below read in one fell swoop has a certain effect. Not all such confessions addressed the subjects of interest here (e.g., Ten Conclusions of Berne (1528) or Zwingli’s Sixty-seven Articles (1523)), but most did.
American Reformed evangelicals all want to claim the doctrines of grace now. They are increasingly interested in, say, classical theology proper, sacramentology, soteriology (of course), and the like. But they curiously depart markedly, openly, and intentionally from the political assumptions of the same authors and ecclesial bodies that conveyed the aforementioned doctrinal formulations to them. Typically, the response from the evangelicals in view is that the magisterial Reformers and their seventeenth century progeny were relatively thoughtless on matters of politics, especially church-state arrangements. And, the de fault evangelical continues, considerations of political authority and adjacent issues are not central to Reformed doctrine. It’s a negligible element to them.
But as someone recently asked in a different context, what if it’s not that way? What if that hermeneutical-historical assumption about the Reformers—i.e., that they unwittingly perpetuated the Constantinian vision because they were men of their time—is a product of liberal modernity, flippant history, and Jesuit tricks? What if the whiggish semper reformanda approach is bunk? If you are going to say you are a confessional Protestant, rooted in tradition, you had better have a good reason for repudiating aspects of said tradition, whatever your theories about why those aspects were maintained and, well, preached with overwhelming consistency. You better have a good reason for defying the evident consensus. “Confessional Protestantism” cannot be the antidote to the very assumptions and convictions contained therein, regardless of whether Christian nationalism scares or amuses you. It is curious, indeed, that the loudest champions of confessional Protestantism—at least online—seem to believe that twentieth century liberalism achieved a political nirvana providentially consistent with everything imbedded—but not yet revealed—in Reformed doctrine in a sort of seed to tree redemptive-historical fashion. Perhaps, they, paradoxically, hold their confessionalism too tightly such that it encroaches upon divine writ, even if they won’t admit this to themselves or anyone else.
All that said, some readers may simply be unfamiliar with the Protestant Reformed confessional consensus just invoked. A review of magisterial authors could demonstrate this agreement, but it is always best to start with collective consensus documents officially promulgated for popular consumption and ecclesial doctrinal guidance. I will simply say, at this juncture, that the idea that the magisterials uncritically and passively—because their arms were being twisted or something—adopted a “medieval” conception of church and state is completely and demonstrably false. There’s no other way to put it. Gallons of ink were spilled on those and related questions. You do not have to like their conclusions, but you cannot say they neglected this area of doctrine. Moreover, an argument can be made that the formulation of political thought found in the magisterials and the post-reformation Reformed was central, not peripheral, to the Reformation itself. Many commentators much more proximate to the events in question said so. For now, simply note the frequency with which Reformed confessions saw fit to include articles directly pertaining to church-state questions. It is not clear to me why exceptions should be allowed on these matters—church and state, the religious role of the magistrate, the application of both tables of the Decalogue to political life, and so on—but not on others for purposes of ordination and communion.
A few things to notice below.
Most confessions consider questions of temporal or civil or political authority after articulating beliefs about the true church, church order, elders, and the sacraments. There is a reason for this. It is with these matters of ecclesiology that the internal life of the church begins to clearly touch externals, the political (circa sacra), and thereby the duties and privileges of God’s gods on earth, by way of the source and purpose of their authority. This is especially true of things indifferent (adiaphora), but no less true of things pertaining to the proper governance of the church. It was common for Reformed theologians to note that just as the magistrate has purview over other professions in a certain way, he has purview over ministers and elders. He cannot usurp their roles, but he can make sure they are functioning properly, i.e., not committing malpractice. There is a reason why both Francis Turretin and Benedict Pictet organize their treatment of civil authority under ecclesiology and refer to it as the “political governance” of the church.
Again, this compilation is meant to enable the reader to compare and contrast, to trace the confines of consensus, and then evaluate the predominant assumptions of our own day over and against the Reformed inheritance. Debate over modern modifications, and their suspect causes, to some of our confessions (e.g., Westminster and Belgic) will be reserved for another time. But you should, as you peruse, ask yourself why such changes would be proposed. Is it truly the case that the overwhelming agreement of our forebears became so outdated, that a new political nirvana was reached in the late modern era? Why should not the rest of the confessional testimony be similarly questioned and adjusted to suit contemporary proclivities?
Now, one acceptable answer to these questions refers to a hierarchy of doctrine. Of course, it is more important to get atonement correct than it is to get political models right. For one, the latter is less directly determined by scripture, though the general principles basically are. So, prudence is more in play but not solely in play when it comes to politics. Nevertheless, if our theological ancestors could be so radically mistaken—and their anabaptist opponents so radically right—in their codification of these things then we should be at least a little concerned about the rest of the corpus. All I am referring to (again) is the confused and confusing tension introduced by some modern theologians between Reformed theological doctrine and Reformed political doctrine.
The confessional documents do not present full articulation of these things. For that you must go to the voluminous corpus of magisterial texts, many of them not thoroughly mined in this regard. I will add, at the risk of repetition, that central to the Reformation were questions of authority, ones that had been in play at least since Constance. Universal and supreme papal jurisdiction and all that was wrapped up in that was a relatively recent innovation and unworthy of continuance. The recovery of a Constantinian vision was the Protestant response then, it seems to me, that it supplies a distinguishing mark of Protestantism, one that should not easily be discarded.
Let’s begin with the Gallican (or French) Confession, 1559, compiled by John Calvin (most likely) with help from Theodore Beza and Pierre Viret, and approved by the synod of Paris. Here’s article 39:
“We believe that God wishes to have the world governed by laws and magistrates, so that some restraint may be put upon its disordered appetites. And as he has established kingdoms, republics, and all sorts of principalities, either hereditary or otherwise, and all that belongs to a just government, and wishes to be considered as their Author, so he has put the sword into the hands of magistrates to suppress crimes against the first as well as against the second table of the Commandments of God. We must therefore, on his account, not only submit to them as superiors, but honor and hold them in all reverence as his lieutenants and officers, whom he has commissioned to exercise a legitimate and holy authority.”
As with many such documents, and Calvin’s own Institutes, the confession is addressed to the king (Henry IV). This is not window dressing. It expresses deeply Protestant assumptions about jurisdiction and ecclesiology which are expressed, in part, within the body of the article quoted above. In short, the Christian prince as religious reformer in the Old Testament vein is in play here. Of course, the French Confession pleads for toleration within an adverse jurisdiction, but the themes just mentioned are nevertheless present. Readers may notice that the Augsburg Confession is not included in this list, and that is because its article of “Civil Affairs” pertains only to Christians holding office, contra the Anabaptists. But remember also the scenario surrounding the Diet at which it was presented, viz., in answer to Emperor Charles’ demand that the German princes delineate the beliefs of their territories. The resultant confession was sanctioned by lesser magistrates and delivered to a supreme magistrate. It was a political document.
Moving on, the First Helvetic Confession, 1536, composed in Basel by Swiss-German luminaries like Heinrich Bullinger, Simon Grynaeus, and Friedrich Myconius to represent the convictions of the Swiss cantons. The Second Helvetic Confession, 1566, built upon the first edition, is much lengthier, and will follow immediately below.
Article 27 of the First Helvetic reads,
“Since every magistrate is from God, his duty (unless he prefers to exercise tyranny) is the chief thing, to defend and procure religion, to repress every blasphemy; In this respect, they must chiefly watch over him, that the pure Word of God may be preached to the people pure, sincerely, and truly to the people, and that the truth of the Gospel should not be precluded to any man. He will soon take steps to ensure that the entire youth is found and formed by the upright and diligent training and discipline of the citizens, so that there is just provision for the ministers of the church, and a careful care for the poor. Here they look for ecclesiastical feasibility.
Then to judge the people according to equal laws: to protect the peace, the republic, to promote the republic, to fine the guilty for the reason of the offense, with wealth, body, and life. When she does the duty, she pays homage to God.
To him (even if we are free in Christ) we know that we must be subjected to all our body and faculties, and to the true zeal of mind and faith (so long as the commands of this man do not openly fight with him, for whom we honor him), we know.”
Looking to the Second Helvetic Confession, which may contain the most beautiful and profound Reformed explanation of preaching, note first that in article 22, “Of Religious and Ecclesiastical Meetings,” the confession elevates collective worship and public assemblies and then adds,
“Meetings For Worship Not to Be Neglected. As many as spun such meetings and stay away from them, despise true religion, and are to be urged by the pastors and godly magistrates to abstain from stubbornly absenting themselves from sacred assemblies.”
Both pastors and magistrates should urge people to attend the gathering of the saints.
The last article of the confession (article 30) addresses the magistrate’s religious role more directly:
“The Magistracy is from God. Magistracy of every kind is instituted by God himself for the peace and tranquillity of the human race, and thus it should have the chief place in the world. If the magistrate is opposed to the Church, he can hinder and disturb it very much; but if he is a friend and even a member of the Church, he is a most useful and excellent member of it, who is able to benefit it greatly, and to assist it best of all.
The Duty of the Magistrate. The chief duty of the magistrate is to secured and preserve peace and public tranquility. Doubtless he will never do this more successfully than when he is truly God-fearing and religious; that is to say, when, according to the example of the most holy kings and princes of the people of the Lord, he promotes the preaching of the truth and sincere faith, roots out lies and all superstition, together with all impiety and idolatry, and defends the Church of God. We certainly teach that the care of religion belongs especially to the holy magistrate.
Let him, therefore, hold the Word of God in his hands, and take care lest anything contrary to it is taught. Likewise let him govern the people entrusted to him by God with good laws made according to the Word of God, and let him keep them in discipline, duty and obedience. Let him exercise judgment by judging uprightly. Let him not respect any man’s person or accept bribes. Let him protect widows, orphans and the afflicted. Let him punish and even banish criminals, impostors and barbarians. For he does not bear the sword in vain (Rom. 13:4).
Therefore, let him draw this sword of God against all malefactors, seditious persons, thieves, murderers, oppressors, blasphemers, perjured persons, and all those whom God has commanded him to punish and even to execute. Let him suppress stubborn heretics (who are truly heretics), who do not cease to blaspheme the majesty of God and to trouble, and even to destroy the Church of God.
War. And if it is necessary to preserve the safety of the people by war, let him wage war in the name of God; provided he has first sought peace by all means possible, and cannot save his people in any other way except by war. And when the magistrate does these things in faith, he serves God by those very works which are truly good, and receives a blessing from the Lord.
We condemn the Anabaptists, who when they deny that a Christian may hold the office of a magistrate, deny also that a man may be justly put to death by the magistrate, or that the magistrate may wage war, or that oaths are to be rendered to a magistrate, and such like things.
The Duty of Subjects. For as God wants to effect the safety of his people by the magistrate, whom he has given to the world to be, as it were, a father, so all subjects are commanded to acknowledge this favor of God in the magistrate. Therefore let them honor and reverence the magistrate as the minister of God; let them love him, favor him, and pray for him as their father; and let them obey all his just and fair commands. Finally, let them pay all customs and taxes, and all other such dues faithfully and willingly. And if the public safety of the country and justice require it, and the magistrate of necessity wages war, let them even lay down their life and pour out their blood for the public safety and that of the magistrate. And let them do this in the name of God willingly, bravely and cheerfully. For he who opposes the magistrate provokes the severe wrath of God against himself.
Sects and Seditions. We, therefore, condemn all who are contemptuous of the magistrate – rebels, enemies of the state, seditious villains, finally, all who openly or craftily refuse to perform whatever duties they owe.
We beseech God, our most merciful Father in heaven, that he will bless the rulers of the people, and us, and his whole people, through Jesus Christ, our only Lord and Savior; to whom be praise and glory and thanksgiving, for all ages. Amen.”
Moving north, the Belgic Confession, 1561. Guido de Brès, one of Cavlin’s guys, was the author. Franciscus Junius contributed to the final draft. Here’s article 36, later greatly contested and, eventually, modified to suit late nineteenth and early twentieth century needs in the Netherlands. You can read a summaries of proposed and accepted revisions past and (relatively) present here and here. Some denominations maintain the original language of article 36 but only for historic reference.
The confessional heritage of Belgic subscribers is basically a question between Brès (and Junius) and Kuyper. This is a good write up from James Wood on the efforts of Philippus Jacobus Hoedemaker to combat Kuyper’s proposed revisions not only to article 36 but the thought behind and around it. As with alterations to the Westminster Confession mentioned below, the contemporary reader should ask himself why this has happened and whether such revisions are necessary and justified. Anyway, here’s the original 1561 version that the originally anonymous Brès, who was later martyred, drafted:
“We believe that our gracious God, because of the depravity of mankind, hath appointed kings, princes, and magistrates [Exodus 18:20; Romans 13:1; Proverbs 8:15; Jeremiah 21:12; 22:2-3; Psalm 82:1-6; 101:2; Deuteronomy 1:15-16; 16:18; 17:15; Daniel 2:21, 37; 5:18], willing that the world should be governed by certain laws and policies; to the end that the dissoluteness of men might be restrained, and all things carried on among them with good order and decency. For this purpose He hath invested the magistracy with the sword, for the punishment of evil doers, and for the praise of them that do well. And their office is not only to have regard unto and watch for the welfare of the civil state, but also that they protect the sacred ministry, and thus may remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship [Isaiah 49:23-25; 1 Kings 15:12; 2 Kings 23:2-4]; that the kingdom of antichrist may be thus destroyed and the kingdom of Christ promoted. They must, therefore, countenance the preaching of the word of the gospel everywhere, that God may be honored and worshipped by every one, as He commands in His Word.
Moreover, it is the bounden duty of every one, of what state, quality, or condition soever he may be, to subject himself to the magistrates [Titus 3:1; Romans 13:1]; to pay tribute [Mark 12:17; Matthew 17:24], to show due honor and respect to them, and to obey them in all things which are not repugnant to the Word of God [Acts 4:17-19; 5:29; Hosea 5:11]; to supplicate for them in their prayers, that God may rule and guide them in all their ways, and that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty [Jeremiah 29:7; 1 Timothy 2:1-2].
Wherefore we detest the error of the Anabaptists and other seditious people, and in general all those who reject the higher powers and magistrates, and would subvert justice [2 Peter 2:10], introduce a community of goods, and confound that decency and good order which God hath established among men [Jude 8-10].”
Scots Confession, 1560, article 24. Its production was overseen by John Knox by order of the Scottish Parliament. It was ratified in 1560 but did not gain approval until after the overthrowal of Bloody Mary in 1567.
Consider here the very conventional appeal to the great reformist kings of the ancient Israel, a common model promoted to Christian magistrates by Reformed theologians to illustrate their religious duties.
“We confess and acknowledge that empires, kingdoms, dominions, and cities are appointed and ordained by God; the powers and authorities in them, emperors in empires, kings in their realms, dukes and princes in their dominions, and magistrates in cities, are ordained by God’s holy ordinance for the manifestation of His own glory and for the good and well being of all men. We hold that any men who conspire to rebel or overturn the civil powers, as duly established, are not merely enemies to humanity but rebels against God’s will. Further, we confess and acknowledge that such persons as are set in authority are to be loved, honored, feared, and held in the highest respect, because they are the lieutenants of God, and in their councils God Himself doth sit and judge. They are the judges and princes to whom God has given the sword for the praise and defense of good men and the punishment of all open evil doers. Moreover, we state that the preservation and purification of religion is particularly the duty of kings, princes, rulers, and magistrates. They are not only appointed for civil government but also to maintain true religion and to suppress all idolatry and superstition. This may be seen in David, Jehosaphat, Hezekiah, Josiah, and others highly commended for their zeal in that cause.
Therefore, we confess and avow that those who resist the supreme powers, so long as they are acting in their own spheres, are resisting God’s ordinance and cannot be held guiltless. We further state that so long as princes and rulers vigilantly fulfil their office, anyone who denies them aid, counsel, or service, denies it to God, who by His lieutenant craves it of them.”
Now to the Second Scots Confession, 1580 (parallel Latin available here). The first edition expressing the true religion had, by this point, been “confirmed by sundrie Actis of Parliaments, and now of a lang tyme hath been openlie professed by the Kings Majesty.” For, “the quyetness and stabilitie of our Religion and Kirk doth depend upon the safety and good behaviour of the Kings Majestie.” The Second Scots is, in large part, a repudiation of Papism. Notice that the usurpations of the Papacy were not, in the Scottish mind, limited to the church, but also of the civil magistrate, and that the violation of Christian liberty and conscience were owed to Roman mandates as to things indifferent.
“And theirfoir we abhorre and detest all contrare Religion and Doctrine; but chiefly all kynde of Papistrie in generall and particular headis, even as they ar now damned and confuted by the word of God and kirk of Scotland. But in special, we detest and refuse the usurped authoritie of that Romane Antichrist upon the scriptures of God, upon the Kirk, the civill Magistrate, and consciences of men: All his tyranous lawes made upon indifferent thingis againis our Christian libertie.”
Following an article on “the service of God,” and prior to addressing “our duty towards our Neighbors,” James Ussher included an article on “the Civil Magistrate” in his Irish Articles, 1615. Several propositions are presented. (Jurisdictional assertions vis a vis the Papacy versus national kingship are included; the question of Papal deposition of kings is especially addressed. Notice where Usher lodges supreme authority both ecclesiastical and temporal.)
“The King’s Majesty under God hath the Sovereign and chief power within his Realms and Dominions over all manner of persons of what estate, either Ecclesiastical or Civil, soever they be; so as no other foreign power hath or ought to have any superiority over them.
We do profess that the supreme government of all estates within the said Realms and Dominions in all causes, as well Ecclesiastical as Temporal, doth of right appertain to the King’s highness. Neither do we give unto him hereby the administration of the Word and Sacraments, or the power of the Keys: but that prerogative only which we see to have been always given unto all godly Princes in holy Scripture by God himself; that is, that he should contain all estates and degrees committed to his charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical of Civil, within their duty, and restrain the stubborn and evildoers with the power of the Civil sword.
The Pope neither of himself, nor by any authority of the Church or See of Rome, or by any other means with any other, hath any power or authority to depose the King, or dispose any of his Kingdoms or Dominions, or to authorize any other Prince to invade or annoy him or his Countries, or to discharge any of his subjects of their allegiance and obedience to his Majesty or to give license or leave to any of them to bear arms, raise tumult, or to offer any violence of hurt to his Royal person, state, or government, or to any of his subjects within his Majesty’s Dominions.
That Princes which be excommunicated or deprived by the Pope may be deposed or murdered by their subjects or any other whatsoever is impious doctrine.
The laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death for heinous and grievous offences.
It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to bear arms, and to serve in just wars.”
Naturally, the Thirty-nine Articles, 1571, should come next. Here’s article 37:
“The Queen’s Majesty hath the chief power in this realm of England and other her dominions, unto whom the chief government of all estates of this realm, whether they be ecclesiastical or civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not nor ought to be subject to any foreign jurisdiction.
Where we attribute to the Queen’s Majesty the chief government, by which titles we understand the minds of some slanderous folks to be offended, we give not to our princes the ministering either of God’s word or of sacraments, the which thing the Injunctions also lately set forth by Elizabeth our Queen doth most plainly testify: but only that prerogative which we see to have been given always to all godly princes in Holy Scriptures by God himself, that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evil-doers.
The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England.
The laws of the realm may punish Christian men with death for heinous and grievous offences.
It is lawful for Christian men at the commandment of the Magistrate to wear weapons and serve in the wars.”
Saving the best for last, the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1646, and her Congregationalist and Baptist counterparts, the Savoy Declaration, 1658 and Second London Baptist Confession, 1689, respectively. And I do mean, the WCF 1646. That is, prior to the late eighteenth century revisions (to articles 20, 22, and 23), the reasons for which are championed by many Radical Two Kingdoms proponents as being internally theologically consistent to the confession, but are not fully accounted for historically, in my view. In any case, that is a debate for another time. The original confession’s article on the magistrate (chapter 23, I-III) reads as follows (scriptural notes can be read here):
“God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, has ordained civil magistrates, to be, under Him, over the people, for His own glory, and the public good: and, to this end, has armed them with the power of the sword, for the defence and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evil doers.
It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto: in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth; so, for that end, they may lawfully, now under the New Testament, wage war, upon just and necessary occasion.
The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he has authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordainances of God duly settled, administrated, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he has power to call synods, to be present at them and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.”
Savoy is just as strong on these points. In the preface it recognizes that “it’s left to the Prudence of the Christian Magistrate, to compose or make a choice of such a Form as is most suitable and consistent with their Civil Government.” By “form” the Savoy means church polity and it urges the magistrate toward tolerance of various models thereof without denying his prerogative. Chapter 24 addresses the role of the civil magistrate directly. Like Westminster, the last paragraph of the chapter has been omitted here; it refers to the duty of subjects to pray for magistrates.
“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 the defence and encouragement of them that do good, and for the punishment of evil-doers.
It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto: in the management whereof, as they ought specially to maintain justice and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth; so for that end they may lawfully now under the New Testament wage war upon just and necessary occasion.
Although the magistrate is bound to encourage, promote, and protect the professors and profession of the gospel, and to manage and order civil administrations in a due subserviency to the interest of Christ in the world, and to that end to take care that men of corrupt minds and conversations do not licentiously publish and divulge blasphemy and errors, in their own nature subverting the faith and inevitably destroying the souls of them that receive them: yet in such differences about the doctrines of the gospel, or ways of the worship of God, as may befall men exercising a good conscience, manifesting it in their conversation, and holding the foundation, not disturbing others in their ways or worship that differ from them; there is no warrant for the magistrate under the gospel to abridge them of their liberty.”
The Second London Confession differs from its Presbyterian and Congregational cousins less than the reader might assume. I would encourage everyone to read John Gill on the civil magistrate.
“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.
It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate when called there unto; in the management whereof, as they ought especially to maintain justice and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each kingdom and commonwealth, so for that end they may lawfully now, under the New Testament wage war upon just and necessary occasions.
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.”
Again, the Baptists recognized the magistrate’s duty to promote good and punish evil. Some Baptists today question that interpretation of Romans 13, arguing that the “reward” of good does not amount to active promotion of good except after the fact, a curious, ahistorical participation in their own tradition. The only question that remains upon accepting the SLBC’s stance on this is what “good” means. Is it arbitrarily bounded by some kind of modern harm principle, or does it encompass the full good of subjects as pertains to their full nature, body and soul.
But as promised, we will postpone further commentary and let the confessions stand for themselves.