One way of characterizing an ongoing tension in early Protestant political theology, I will suggest, is as a tug-of-war between articulations of civil obedience in the key of Romans 13:1 and of Romans 13:8. Both can claim Luther as an heir; both are attempts to square the crucial doctrine of Christian liberty with an ongoing duty to obey the legitimate authority of the magistrate. On the one hand, liberty could be absolutely closeted away in the spiritual kingdom, and an uncompromising demand for obedience proclaimed in the civil kingdom. Certainly many have seen this as the legacy of Luther’s political theology—Quentin Skinner in particular. This strand of Protestant political thought rests exegetically on a peremptory invocation of Romans 13:1: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” To the question, “How can we be conscience-bound to obey civil law if by Christian liberty, we are bound only to God” this line of argument answered simple, “To obey the magistrate is to obey God. Therefore you are conscience-bound.”
On the other hand, another line of reflection could take its cue from Luther’s fascinating “free lord of all/dutiful servant of all” dialectic, in which the Christian’s outward subjection in this life was compatible with his inner freedom because the Christian was one who, by love, subjected himself to authority for the sake of others. As Luther puts it beautifully in The Freedom of a Christian:
“A man does not live for himself alone in this mortal body to work for it alone, but he lives also for all men on earth; ratherhe lives only for others and not for himself. To this end he brings his body into subjection that he may the more sincerely and freely serve others. . . . Man, however, needs none of these things for his righteousness and salvation. Therefore he should be guided in all his works by this thought and contemplate this one thing alone, that he may serve and benefit others in all that he does, considering nothing except the need and advantage of his neighbour. . . . This is a truly Christian life. Here faith is truly active through love, that it finds expression in works of the freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done, with which a man willingly serves another without hope of reward; and for himself he is satisfied with the fullness and wealth of his faith.”
This kind of political theology could be said to rest (although as a matter of fact, it very rarely did exegetically) on Romans 13:8: “Owe no one anything except to love one another.”
Moreover, one might characterize Romans 13:5 as the real crux in this tug-of-war: “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” It was possible to take “wrath” to mean “human wrath and punishment” and “conscience” correspondingly to mean “fear of divine wrath and punishment,” since, after all, to disobey the political authorities is simply to disobey God in them. This emphasis of course tends to have the effect of squelching the law-of-love approach, of rendering Christian liberty altogether irrelevant to the discussion. But on the other hand, it was possible to take this “but also” as really a “but instead” and to take conscience as meaning “for the sake of love”; since “perfect love casts out fear,” the Christian’s political obedience is to be one motivated by love—love of neighbour preeminently—not fear (you will recall this as a common theme of some of my own reflections on Romans 13). Martin Bucer was perhaps picking up on something like this in his exegesis of Romans 13:5: “But because it is necessary for us to be subjected to them from the soul and voluntarily, not coercively, it is then expressed: ‘Therefore, it is necessary to be subject not on account of wrath only, but also on account of conscience.'”
It is fascinating to observe this tug-of-war in two of the greatest early Protestant systematicians, Melanchthon and Calvin.
We find the latter emphasis in Melanchthon’s 1521 Loci (“if they command anything that is for the public good, we must obey them in accordance with Rom. 13:5: ‘Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath, but also for the sake of conscience.’ For love constrains us to fulfill all civil obligations.”), but it is gone by the 1555 edition, where the passage is now glossed as reminding us that human laws “can bind us to eternal punishment.” In the 1541 Epitome Moralis Philosophiae, this darker tone heavily predominates, with Melanchthon taking the first motive of 13:5 to refer to human wrath and the second motive, “conscience,” to refer to divine wrath: “And if we obey not, he saith that he will revenge it . . . with eternal torments after this life, except we do repent.” Nonetheless, in his treatment of ecclesiastical laws, Melanchthon still emphasizes that our obedience is dictated by the law of love, our recognition that laws of order are necessary for the peace and edification of the church, and that to violate them will likely cause offense and discord.
Calvin’s emphasis is much clearer, carefully developing throughout IV.10 an account of obedience to church laws that it is dependent on the law of charity, rather than making such laws binding in themselves. Moreover, unlike Melanchthon, he recognizes the need to apply the same standard to civil laws, which he discusses in explicit engagement with Romans 13:5, concluding, “human laws, whether made by magistrate or by church, even though they have to be observed (I speak of good and just laws), still do not of themselves bind the conscience. For all obligation to observe laws looks to the general purpose, but does not consist in the things enjoined.” The suggestion here is that insomuch as laws serve the common good, to obey them is to love the neighbor, and to disobey them, indeed, even to disobey otherwise unhelpful laws, will cause offence and disorder and hurt the common good; hence, the law of love calls us to free submission to the laws. Nonetheless, even Calvin proves uneasy about the implications of this, implying as it does that, if a subject judges that a law can be disobeyed without hurt to the neighbor, he is free to disobey. Accordingly, the explicit discussion of civil authority in IV.20 of the Institutes is developed largely within the key of 13:1, not 13:8.
And what about for the greatest 16th-century systematician of them all—Hooker? Ah, now that is an interesting question . . . and for the answer, you’ll have to wait for the thesis. 😉