Love, Law, and Christian Liberty

A couple of weeks ago, I tracked down a remarkable document which has been almost entirely overlooked by scholars, a set of “Propositions or articles framed for the use of the Dutch Church in London” on the subject of Christian liberty and related doctrines.  These articles were occasioned by a dispute over the use of godparents in baptism in the Dutch Strangers’ Churches in London, which raised fundamental questions about Christian liberty, adiaphora, and ecclesiastical authority and led ultimately to a schism.  The Dutch ministers therefore drew up a set of articles, attempting to express the magisterial Reformed understanding of these doctrines, and submitted it to the review of the leaders of Reformed churches in Heidelberg, Bern, Lausanne, Zurich, and Geneva.  After incorporating many of the suggested revisions, which were primarily of a stylistic, not a substantive nature, the resulting document was published under the auspices of Edmund Grindal, the Bishop of London with jurisdiction over the Strangers’ Churches.  It thus can lay claim to comprising a kind of pan-Protestant, or at least pan-Reformed, consensus statement on these issues, and encapsulates teachings that we find in Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Vermigli, Bullinger, and others.  

The key points of the Dutch articles may be summarized as follows:

 1. That Christian liberty is spiritual, which means, among other things, that it consists in a free submission to  constraint, not a freedom from all constraint.  This constraint may be that of divine law, which the Christian must follow, though as a result of rather than a means to justification, or, may be imposed by men, in things left indifferent by divine law.

(Art. I: “CHRISTIAN liberty is not a wandering and unruly licence, by which we may do or leave undone whatsoever we list at our pleasure; but it is a free gift bestowed upon us by Christ our Lord; by the which, the children of God (that is, all the faithful), being delivered from the curse of the law, or eternal death, and from the heavy yoke of the ceremonial law, and being endowed with the Holy Ghost, begin willingly of their own accord to serve God in holiness and righteousness.”

Art. IV: “Conscience is the feeling of God’s judgment, whether that a man be assured out of the word of God of that judgment, or that he make it to himself rashly or superstitiously. But whereas it is the duty of Christians to observe the commandments of their Lord, that indeed is properly called a right and good conscience, which is governed by the word of God. Whereby it cometh to pass, that every faithful man by that revealed word doth examine and weigh with himself, both what he doth, and also what he letteth undone, that he may judge of them both, which is just, and which is unjust.”)

2. Things indifferent are not void of moral content, therefore, but take that content from variable circumstances, and by virtue of those circumstances, exert a moral claim on us.

(Art. V: “Indifferent things are called those, which by themselves, being simply considered in their own nature, are neither good nor bad, as meat and drink, and such like; in the which therefore, it is said, that the kingdom of God consisteth not; and that therefore a man may use them well or evil: wherefore it followeth, that they are marvellously deceived, which suppose they are called indifferent, as though without any exception we may omit them, or use them as often as we list, without any sin.”)

3. There are two main ways in which this claim comes about—(a) the law of charity, by which we are bound to use adiaphora to the edification of our neighbor, and (b) human law, by which we are bound to use adiaphora in accord with the commands of civil or ecclesiastical authority.

(Art. II: “Therefore, sith that he which is the Son of God is ruled by the Spirit of God, and that the same Spirit commandeth us, we should obey all ordinances of man (that is, all politic order, whereof the magistrate is the guardian), and all superiors, which watch for the health of our souls; yea, and that according to our vocation we should diligently procure the safeguard of our neighbour; it followeth, that that man abuseth the benefit of Christian liberty, or rather, is yet sold under sin, who doth not willingly obey either his magistrate or superior in the Lord, or doth not endeavour to edify the conscience of his brother.”

Art. VIII: “Generally, the use of these indifferent things is restrained by the law of charity, which is universal.”

Art. IX: “Specially, the use of these things is forbidden by ecclesiastical or civil decree.”)

4. By virtue of both of these, what is in itself free for the conscience becomes per accidens conscience-binding as an indirect command of God, since he commands us to love our neighbor and to obey the magistrate.

(Art. VI: “Things otherwise indifferent of themselves, after a sort change their nature, when by some commandment they are either commanded or forbidden. Because, neither they can be omitted contrary to the commandment, if they are once commanded, neither omitted contrary to prohibition, if they be prohibited; as appeareth in the ceremonial law.”

Art. IX: “For although that only God doth properly bind the conscience of man, yet in respect, that either the magistrate, who is God’s Minister, doth think it profitable for the commonwealth, that something, otherwise of itself lawful, be not done, or that the Church, having regard to order, comeliness, and also edifying, do make some laws concerning indifferent things, those laws are altogether to be observed of the godly, and do so far forth bind the conscience, that no man wittingly and willingly, with a stubborn mind, may, without sin, either do those things which are forbidden, or omit those things which are commanded.”)

5. However, to prevent tyranny, human authorities may not make laws in adiaphora arbitrarily, but only for purposes of edification, civil order, or ecclesiastical order.

(Art. XI: “They, which for any other cause either command or forbid at their pleasure the free use of indifferent things, than for one of these three, that is, neither for edifying, nor for policy, nor ecclesiastical order; and especially those which do rashly judge other men’s consciences in these matters; offend heinously against God and against their neighbor.“)

6. Conversely, because the conscience is bound only insofar as these purposes are at stake, the Christian remains at liberty if the circumstances giving rise to a law no longer pertain, and it can be disregarded without causing offence.

(Art. X: “And sith these things are not ordained simply for themselves, but in respect of certain circumstances, not as though the things themselves were of their own nature unlawful things (for it belongeth only to God to determine this) in case those circumstances do cease, and so be that offence be avoided as near as we can, and that there be no stubborn will of resisting; no man is to be reproved of sin, which shall do otherwise than those ordinances: as it is plain, by the example of David, in a case otherwise flatly forbidden, when he ate the shewbread.”)

This, however, is to make things rather neater than they appeared in fact.  For in point of fact, a great deal of tension attached to the connection between the two laws mentioned above in point (3)—the law of charity and the law of authority.  Is the latter merely valid so long as it remains a subset of the former, as points (5) and (6) imply?  Moreover, although the Dutch articles could speak of “either ecclesiastical or civil decree” in adiaphora as essentially parallel, it was far from clear just how these two were to be correlated.  Both   In fact, these two problems are closely related, as shall readily appear.

Luther and Melanchthon, as Bernard Verkamp has noted, were keen to deny to ecclesiastical ceremonies not only a necessity of means (intrinsically necessary to good standing with God) but also a necessity of precept (necessary to good standing with God merely by virtue of being commanded by church authorities).  Accordingly, Melanchthon will not use the rather clericalist language of the Dutch articles, by which we have an direct obligation before God to obey the commands of ministers, just as we do of magistrates.  To be sure, we can be bound outwardly in ecclesiastical adiaphora, but this obligation proceeds only from the principle of charity, from the demands of peace, order, and edification—while the concrete nature of these demands may happen to be determined by the command of authority, the connection is contingent, rather than necessary.  Therefore, in ecclesiastical matters, Melanchthon will endorse the reasoning of point (6) above—that should the demands of authority and the demands of charity cease to overlap, the latter may be dispensed with, so long as peace can be maintained.  Interestingly, however, he will not take this tack when it comes to civil affairs, for it would seem to disrupt the fabric of human society far too much if individuals were allowed to judge for themselves when laws were no longer binding.  Accordingly, to the principle of charity, he adds what we might call the principle of wrath, which he finds in Rom. 13:5—that to disobey civil authority is to disobey God and risk His wrath: “These are clear words, showing that obedience is necessary, that disobedience hurts the conscience, and that God condemns it.”  Indeed, he sees no need to qualify the conscience-binding character of these laws as indirect, but attacks “many dreamers [who] have written that worldly commandments do not bind us to eternal punishment, for man can punish no one eternally!”  At other points, however, he suggests that there are certain civil laws which are only contingently or circumstantially binding, or else that if civil laws can never be safely disobeyed, it is because to do so will always disrupt peace and cause offense. If so, this suggests that in fact, even in civil laws, it is only the principle of charity that necessarily binds us to their observance. 

Nonetheless, Melanchthon did not satisfactorily resolve this ambiguity, and because of his heavy stress on the intrinsically conscience-binding nature of civil laws, maintained a discontinuity of sorts between ecclesiastical and civil laws, which he otherwise treated as essentially the same, as adiaphorous ordinances of the “civil kingdom.”  In this scheme, it remained ambiguous what was to be done with civil authorities made laws regarding ecclesiastical ceremonies, as in the Adiaphora Controvery and the Vestiarian controversies.  The republication of Melanchthon’s scholia on “Whether it be a mortal sin to transgress civil laws” as part of conformist propaganda in the Second Vestiarian Controversy, then, hardly resolved the fundamental question.


In his Institutes, John Calvin had tackled the problem more directly and clearly, denying that there was any fundamental difference in the way that ecclesiastical and civil ordinances related to the conscience, but some ambiguity remains.  Both, as Calvin makes clear in Book III, chap. 19, “On Christian Liberty,” are to be understood as matters of the civil kingdom or “external forum,” wholly different from spiritual matters that occupy the “forum of conscience.”  Calvin’s discussion of ecclesiastical laws in IV.10 shows him to be far from VanDrunen and other advocates of the “regulative principle,” who make the “forum of conscience” co-extensive with the institutional church and rule out man-made laws and ceremonies within it.  On the contrary, such ordinances are absolutely necessary, since any human society requires a “form of organization . . . to foster the common peace and maintain concord.”  The particular form, however, is widely variable depending on circumstances, and accordingly our obligation to obey such laws is not necessary, but contingent.  Calvin’s treatment of this issue is close to that given in the Dutch articles, which are almost certainly drawing on the Institutes here.  In their decree regarding meat sacrificed to idols in Acts 15:20, says Calvin, the Apostles do not lay down a new law binding on the conscience before God, but rather “the divine and eternal command of God not to violate love.”  This command is being specified into a particular requirement in present circumstances, and in those circumstances, the Christian is bound to obey; but the circumstances being changed, so that charity no longer concretely demanded these actions, the law could be disobeyed without sin.  

Unlike Melanchthon, Calvin makes the same distinction of contingency and necessity with regard to civil laws, recognizing that Romans 13:5, if read the way Melanchthon and others appeared to, would threaten the principle of Christian liberty in ecclesiastical laws as well, seeing as both shared the nature of human law: “Moreover, the difficulty [of defining conscience] is increased by the fact that Paul enjoins obedience toward the magistrate, not only for fear of punishment, but for conscience’ sake.  From this it follows that consciences are bound by civil laws.  But if this were so, all that we said a little while ago and are now going to say about spiritual government would fall.”  Therefore, the same restrictions must reply to both: “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.”  This “general purpose,” however, is not spelled out by reference to the law of love, but by reference to “God’s general command, which commends to us the authority of magistrate,” although like Melanchthon, Calvin would probably equate the two, arguing that love of neighbor requires subjection to the magistrate, who advances the common good.


While all parties acknowledged the value of a certain division of labor between ecclesiastical and civil authorities, given that ministers would be best placed to identify what edification and order demanded in matters pertaining to worship and church government, and magistrates better suited to judge in matters pertaining to more strictly civil affairs, the asymmetry we have just seen posed a problem.  For if the demands of charity, edification, and order in these two spheres clashed, the civil magistrate held the trump card: the divine testimony that to disobey the ruler (within his legitimate sphere) was ipso facto to violate the demands of charity.  Accordingly, we find an increasing tendency to suggest that even in adiaphorous matters, ecclesiastical authorities have an autonomous, divinely-given jurisdiction over church ceremonies and polity.  We see this in the second of the Dutch articles, where God’s command to obey “all superiors which watch for the health of our souls” is put on the same par as His command to obey “all politic order, whereof the magistrate is the guardian.”  Later on, in article 23, they state explicitly that “It belongeth only to the Consistory, to be occupied in making new laws of discipline.”  Indeed, in article 20, the Dutch ministers imply a juridical authority for the clergy in their sphere that is equal to and separate from that of magistrates in their sphere: “In the Church of Christ, that is to say, in the house or city of the living God, the Consistory, or fellowship of governors, consisting of the Ministers of the word, and of Seniors lawfully called, sustaineth the person of the universal Church in ecclesiastical government, even as every magistrate in his commonwealth.”   

Such authority for ministers in making church laws, would seem to run flat contrary to the original anti-clerical impetus of the doctrine of Christian liberty, and could only be reconciled to it by emphasizing that this authority was not arbitrary, but closely bounded by Scripture.  Accordingly, we find the articles repeatedly emphasising that in making such constitutions, “judgment [must] be taken out of the word of God, what may or ought to be done, or not done” (Art. 8).  Of course, to emphasise this, as we have already seen, was to call into question their status as adiaphora in the first place.  Moreover, since all adiaphorists had admitted that divine positive law could in principle render a matter that otherwise would be indifferent (for instance, some aspect of church polity) to be in fact necessary, and therefore out of the discretion of the magistrate, it was possible to argue that divine law in fact required such an autonomous, Scripturally-regulated clerical jurisdiction.  In the wake of their failures in the Vestiarian controversy, it was just this that some of the English dissenters would begin to contend.


(This post is in lieu of a thorough analysis of and commentary on the articles which I have been planning to post on The Calvinist International, but which I have been prevented from finding time to write.  The above exposition will likely be part of chapter 2 of my thesis.)

A Harvest Prayer

Composed for St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church, Harvest Sunday (Sept. 23rd), 2012

Lord of all Creation, we give you thanks and praise for the beauty and bounty of this earth, which we reflect on in this season of harvest.  As the Psalmist said,

You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills;
they give drink to every beast of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst.  
Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell; they sing among the branches.  
From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen man’s heart.

Great gift-giving God, for most of us today in the West, this celebration is perfunctory, a reminder of a quaint and long-ago time when we depended on the rhythm of the seasons, depended on the bounty of summer and autumn to sustain us through the dearth of winter.  Today (even in Scotland) we live in a perpetual summer of bounty, well-fed, supplied with wine and oil in abundance.  We heartily thank you for these blessings, and ask that you would help make us more grateful day by day, but we pray also for deliverance from the blindness and callousness that such easy prosperity can cause.  Help us remember today the billions of our brothers and sisters who do not share in this bounty, many of whom still depend each year on a good harvest to keep any food on their table.

Lord of life, autumn is not only a time of bounty, a time to celebrate the vibrancy and richness of creation, but also a reminder of its fragility, of mortality.  The sun retreats, the warmth and light ebbs, the trees grow brown and wither; even as the fruits fall from laden branches and the fields yield their grain, the plants that give us life shrivel and die, until the cycle of new life begins in Spring.  For us today, Lord, who have been greedily harvesting from nature’s bounty without pause for generations, who have reaped where we have not sown, this reminder of fragility and mortality carries an extra uneasiness, a sense of urgency.  All around us are signs that the cycles of summer and winter, springtime and harvest as we have known them may not last much longer, that after our long harvest of the earth’s resources, creation as a whole withers under the weight of our demands—as Gerald Manley Hopkins lamented,

“all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil; 
and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil 
is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.”

Gracious God, forgive us our heedless ways, and give us the courage and conviction to change them.  Teach us how to care for this rich earth rightly, that it may yield its plenteous fruits for future generations, and above all for those in other parts of the world who suffer now in want—want that is magnified by the changing climate, as streams dry up that once were full, grain withers in unprecedented heat, and storms wreak havoc on homes and harvests. 

God our Father, you have created not merely earth, sky, and water, plants and animals, but also the human race, and blessed it with innumerable gifts of wisdom and skill.  At this harvest time, we can thank you for the rich harvest of another sort, in which our church is reaping the fruits of the many human labors that have gone into building up its worship and ministries over many years.  We thank you especially for the harvest of the Connect Groups, years in planning, and finally launched this month.  We pray that you would bless them to become places of loving fellowship and empower them to be beacons of light shining in our communities.  We thank you also for the harvest of our School of Theology, another ministry long planned that has come to fruition this Fall.  We pray that through these classes, your Word would be opened up as never before to those attending, that their faith would be strengthened and enriched.  Strengthen Jeremy and Graham as they lead this ministry. 

As these two examples suggest, this time of year is not merely a time of endings, but of beginnings, as new seeds are sown to prepare a future harvest.  As students return to their studies, and some are beginning university or postgraduate studies for the first time, we pray that you would watch over them and be a light unto their path.  Keep the students of this church faithful in your ways, remembering that the study of your Word is of greater value than all other earthly knowledge.  Bring new students through the doors of this church, and help us to welcome them and provide a home and community for them here.  

Finally, Lord, we thank you for the wine that gladdens man’s heart and the bread that strengthens it, more than any earthly bread and wine—the Eucharistic feast we are about to share with you.  We thank you for taking the labor of human hands, the harvest of the old creation, and returning it to us as the firstfruits of the new creation, the eternal life of your Son.

In His all-powerful name we pray.  Amen.

Liberty, Libertarianism, and Christian Ethics

A curious feature of American Christianity, rarely shared by Christians in other nations and cultures, is its propensity toward libertarianism, a philosophy that, at first glance, would seem to be intrinsically inimical to Christian teaching.  Where libertarianism tends to put the individual, his preferences, and his interests first and foremost, Christianity has always insisted that man is social, man is meant for community, and ought to put the interests of others first.  Where libertarianism exalts the value of unrestricted free choice, on the basis of individual preferences and interests, Christianity is committed to a strong view of objective moral norms which condition our freedom, rendering many choices unacceptable on the basis that they are in fact harmful both to the community and the individual.  Clearly a Christian cannot coherently be libertarian in this extreme sense.

For many American Christians, then, their libertarianism is of a pragmatic sort.  The argument, they will say, is not that the individual should in fact be ultimate, or that any exercise of free choice is good and lawful—on the contrary, individualism is harmful, and many free choices are very bad ones, and deserve censure.  Rather, the argument is merely that the restriction of choice by the tool of government coercion will do more harm than good.  Government simply should not be trusted with the enforcement of these moral norms, because law is a blunt instrument that will suppress legitimate freedoms along with illegitimate ones, and power corrupts, so it is not safe to entrust this duty to fallen men.  Better to allow individuals to make free decisions that might sometimes be harmful than give police power to the state to repress such actions.  Such a pragmatic libertarian logic, as I mentioned recently, seems to have traditionally undergirded the right of free speech—people will say lots of harmful, offensive, and unwise things, but giving the government power to suppress such statements will be much worse than living with the collateral damage of this liberty.  Likewise, some Christians may argue that yes, stockpiling excessive wealth is a bad thing, and ought to be used for charity, but we can’t trust the government with deciding what constitutes “excessive wealth.”


Fair enough.  Of course, we might object that many American Christians apply this logic selectively, declaring themselves all in favor of government suppression of vice on abortion, marriage, or anything that falls under the heading “family values.”  Or we might point out that if the argument is going to be pragmatic, then we must be committed to a serious empirical investigation of whether the suppression of a given liberty (e.g., stockpiling excessive wealth) really does do more harm than judicious legal restriction would do.  (This, incidentally, would yield something like more classical conservatism, which is genuinely committed to limited government, but also to a firm rule of law in those areas where liberty proves harmful.)  But let’s leave those objections aside for now, and allow the basic logic.  Now, according to this logic, if certain exercises of freedom are in fact harmful or morally objectionable, but civil authority should not be brought to bear in restraining them, then it would seem to follow that all other, non-coercive means should be brought to bear as fully as possible in restraining them.  I alluded to this in my discussion of Limbaugh and free speech.  If we are agreed that seditious or slanderous speech is a bad thing, but that we shouldn’t give government the power to suppress it, then it should fall to us, as responsible citizens, moral people committed to truth, and good Christians, to oppose such speech to the fullest of our ability.  We should use our own freedom of speech to denounce it, we should withdraw our support from those engaged in such wicked speech, should seek to leave them socially and economically isolated.  The fact that nowadays the right to “freedom of speech” is invoked to give any kind of speech immunity from criticism, to imply that those denouncing it are virtually fascists, is clear evidence that in this realm, the pragmatic justification has given way to an ideological one, that the idea that strong moral norms still individual freedom is being jettisoned.  The seductive logic of full-blown libertarianism has subverted the attempted pragmatic compromise.   

The same thing, I suggest, has happened to American Christians, particularly on issues such as economic ethics.  A serious Christian, attentive to the teaching of the Bible and the Christian ethical tradition, would recognize that much of what we as individuals like to do with our money is morally vicious and socially harmful—we greedily stockpile far more than we need, and withhold excess resources from those who urgently need them, we covet material pleasures of every description, we deceive and rip people off in order to come out on top in our exchanges, we pay people the lowest wage we can get by with, pocketing all the extra profit, etc.  Logically, then, a Christian “pragmatic libertarian,” while convinced that employing government power to restrain such things would do more harm than good, ought to be committed to opposing them by every other means.  Ministers should denounce such sins from the pulpit, and individual Christians should oppose them whenever they saw them.  Christian ethicists should write and speak about the dangers of wealth and greed, and seek to establish, in the absence of legal guidelines, moral guidelines for discerning a just wage and a just price, for when too much is too much.  Christians should be committed to bring non-coercive social pressures to bear, for instance boycotts, protests, etc., to seek to restrain such vices.  Right?  And yet, in my experience, we find the opposite.  In fact, whenever such moral pressures and objections are brought to bear, the reaction is no less indignant than if legal force were being used.  Not only must Wal-Mart be legally permitted to pay its workers a minuscule wage, but Christians should not be so “Pharisaical” as to critique it on moral grounds.  Rather than welcoming moral guidance on issues of economic ethics, most Christians balk at it as an intolerable restriction on freedom, and woe betide the pastor who dares to address such questions.  Instead of reasoning, “sure, there’s a such thing as excessive wealth, but the government shouldn’t be trusted to draw the line,” we are told that any attempt to draw the line is oppressive.  “How dare you judge me?” instinctively says the Christian with five cars and three houses.  But of course, this confusion—of moral judgment with genuine tyranny—is the same that modern libertine secularism routinely makes, when it decries the moral claims of Christianity as fascistic, treating any statement of disapproval as tantamount to a restriction of freedom, and hence demanding an immunity from any statement of criticism.  The homosexual rights lobby has gone from asking for civil liberty to wanting to shut the mouths of pastors who apply biblical teaching to sexuality, and the Christian Right has gone from demanding immunity from redistributive taxation to wanting to shut the mouths of pastors who apply biblical teaching to wealth.  


My suspicion, of course, is that this is no coincidence, and that in fact the “pragmatic libertarian” position, as I have called it, is inherently unstable, logically incapable, by its starting point in individual rights, of sustaining genuine social norms.  But for those who don’t want to accept that conclusion, let’s at least see an attempt at consistency—if you don’t want the government dealing with vice and injustice, then at least step up to the plate and be willing to deal with it yourself.

Even if There Were No Hell…

Early in the Institutes, Calvin offers some eloquent and luminous insights on the relation of love and fear, and the difference between the righteous man’s fear of God and the unrighteous’s—passages pregnant with significance for political theology as well, as we consider the way that citizens relate to authorities, their earthly lords and “fathers”:

“For, to begin with, the pious mind does not dream up for itself any god it pleases, but contemplates the one and only true God.  And it does not attach to him whatever it pleases, but is content to hold him to be as he manifests himself; furthermore, the mind always exercises the utmost diligence and care not to wander astray, or rashly and boldly to go beyond his will.  It thus recognizes God because it knows that he governs all things; and trusts that he is its guide and protector, therefore giving itself over completely to trust in him.  Because it understands him to be the Author of every good, if anything oppresses, if anything is lacking, immediately it betakes itself to his protection, waiting for help from him.  Because it is persuaded that he is good and merciful, it reposes in him with perfect trust, and doubts not that in his loving-kindness a remedy will be provided for all its ills.  Because it acknowledges him as Lord and Father, the pious mind also deems it meet and right to observe his authority in all things, reverence his majesty, take care to advance his glory, and obey his commandments.  Because it sees him to be a righteous judge, armed with severity to punish wickedness, it ever holds his judgment seat before its gaze, and through fear of him restrains itself from provoking his anger. And yet it is not so terrified by the awareness of his judgment as to wish to withdraw, even if some way of escape were open.  But it embraces him no less as punisher of the wicked than as benefactor of the pious.  For the pious mind realizes that the punishment of the impious and wicked and the reward of life eternal for the righteous equally pertain to God’s glory.  Besides, this mind restrains itself from sinning, not out of dread of punishment alone; but because it loves and revers God as Father, it worships and adores him as Lord.  Even if there were no hell, it would still shudder at offending him alone.

Here indeed is pure and real religion: faith so joined with an earnest fear of God that this fear also embraces willing reverence, and carries with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed in the law….” (I.iii.2)

“A second sin arises, that they [hypocrites] never consider God at all unless compelled to; and they do not come nigh until they are dragged there despite their resistance.  And not even then are they impressed with the voluntary fear that arises out of reverence for the divine majesty, but merely with a slavish, forced fear, which God’s judgment extorts from them.  This, since they cannot escape it, they dread even to the point of loathing.  That saying of Statius’ that fear first made gods in the world corresponds well to this kind of irreligion, and to this alone.  Those who are of a mind alien to God’s righteousness know that his judgment seat stands ready to punish transgressions against him, yet they greatly desire its overthrow.  Feeling so, they wage war against the Lord, who cannot be without judgment.  But while they know that his inescapable power hangs over them because they can neither do away with it nor flee from it, they recoil from it in dread.  And so, lest they should everywhere seem to despise him whose majesty weighs upon them, they perform some semblance of religion.  Meanwhile they do not desist from polluting themselves with every sort of vice, and from joining wickedness to wickedness, until in every respect they violate the holy laws of the Lord and dissipate all his righteousness.  Or at least they are not so restrained by that pretended fear of God from wallowing blithely in their own sins and flattering themselves, and preferring to indulge their fleshly intemperance rather than restraining it by the bridle of the Holy Spirit.  

This, however, is but a vain and false shadow of religion, scarcely even worth being called a shadow.  From it one may easily grasp anew how much this confused knowledge of God differs from the piety from which religion takes its source, which is instilled in the breasts of believers only.  And yet hypocrites would tread these twisting paths so as to seem to approach the God from whom they flee.  For where they ought to have remained consistently obedient throughout life, they boldly rebel against him in almost all their deeds, and are zealous to placate him merely with a few paltry sacrifices.  Where they ought to serve him in sanctity of life and integrity of heart, they trump up frivolous trifles and worthless little observances with which to win his favor.  Nay, more, with greeter license they sluggishly lie in their own faith, because they are confident that they can perform their duty toward him by ridiculous acts of expiation.” (I.iv.4)

(italics mine)

No Mercy: Cartwright on the Death of Jesus and the Death Penalty

Among the most disturbing passages in Thomas Cartwright’s Second Replie to the Answer of the Admonition, which, it must be confessed, rarely makes for edifying reading, and still more rarely for pleasant reading, is the lengthy section in which he undertakes to argue that not only are the death penalties of the Mosaic law still legitimate, but they are in fact strictly required of the Christian magistrate.  He is particularly interested in showing this with regard to adulterers blasphemers, and idolaters (worrisome because of how many people Cartwright would class in the latter two categories), all groups that John Whitgift had argued that the New Covenant magistrate had liberty to spare from death.

Cartwright begins, arguing that Christ’s sacrifice was intended merely to deliver from spiritual death, not corporal death, and hence in no way affected the temporal penalties which should belong to evildoers:

“It remaineth to show that there are certain judicial laws which cannot be changed, as that a blasphemer, contemptuous and stubborn idolator, etc., ought to be put to death.  The doctrine which leaveth this at liberty, when they can allege no cause of this looseness but the coming of our Saviour Christ, and his passion, faulteth many ways.  And first, it is a childish error to think that our Saviour Christ came down to exempt men from corporal death, which the law casteth upon evildoers; whenas he came not to deliver from death, which is the parting of the body from the soul, but from that which is the separation both of body and soul, from the gracious presence of the Lord.  And if it were not that our Saviour Christ had born in his own body this civil punishment of public offenders, it must follow thereupon not (which the Doctor [Whitgift] fancieth) that ‘it is in the liberty of the magistrate to put them to death’ but that he must, will he, nill he (if they repent) kepe them alive.  For if our Saviour Christ hath answered that justice of God in his law, whereby he hath commanded that such malefactors should be put to death, it should be great injustice to require that again in the life of the offender.”

Whitgift’s argument, in other words, proves too much, for if the death of Christ should make any difference at all for these judicial laws, it should be one that requires that mercy be shown, rather than merely permitting it.  (Whatever one thinks of the logic of this argument here, it is a typical move for Cartwright, who can almost never think in terms of permission—God either requires, or forbids.)  Cartwright goes on to argue, further, that Whitgift’s argument would make Christ’s sacrifice into a foolish thing indeed, since by inviting temporal mercy toward sin, he would encourage more evildoing:

“Again, this opinion is injurious unto the death and whole appearing of the Son of God in flesh.  For where he appeared for this cause, that he might destroy sin, which is the work of the Devil, the Answerer [Whitgift] in his imagination of choice, which he leaveth to the Magistrate touching the putting of such horrible offenders to death, doth at unawares as much as in him lieth make our Saviour Christ build again that kingdom of sin which he hath destroyed.  For when both in common reason and by the manifest word of God before alleged, the Lord giveth this blessing unto the punishment of such grievous offenders by death, that others not only which see but also which hear of them have the bridle of fear put upon them, whereby they are withholden from the like crimes; it must needs follow that whosoever maketh our Saviour Christ author of this looseness in punishing such offenders, maketh him forthwith to lose the bridle whereby others are stayed from throwing themselves down the hill of wickedness which was before committed.  And what is this if this be not to make our Saviour Christ a troubler commonwealths?”

Cartwright concludes by insisting that God has put the sword into the hand of magistrates not to permit them to use it, but to require that they use it, whenever it is called for, without mercy:

“In that the Apostle putteth a sword in the hand of the Magistrates, and in the use of it maketh him a  Minister and servant of the vengeance and justice of the Lord against sin; he striketh through this opinion which imagineth that our Saviour Christ came to hang the sword of the Lord’s justice upon the pleasure and will of men.  For the magistrate being the Lord’s officer, as the Sheriff is the Magistrate’s, it is no more in his choice to withhold the sword, which the Lord hath put in his hand to draw, then in the power of the Sheriff to stay the execution of that judgment which the magistrate himself hath lawfully commanded.  Now seeing there is a sword in the Magistrate’s hand by the doctrine of the Apostles, and that also which the magistrate must of duty draw, I would gladly know of the Answerer where that necessity can be found if it be not in these crimes of blasphemy, etc., which I have set down?”

This last part is really the crucial bit, manifesting as it does Cartwright’s conviction that God never, if he can help it, leaves humans, particularly authorities, at liberty to do as reason and prudence might dictate, but meticulously defines their responsibilities in advance.  What kind of God would he be, Cartwright asks rhetorically, if he left us to our own devices?  


It is this conviction which leads Cartwright to a classic theonomist stance regarding the continuing validity of the Old Testament civil laws, one which departs radically from that of earlier Protestant reformers.  I hope to explore this issue, in particular Cartwright’s fascinating distortion of Calvin’s language about the “general equity” of the Mosaic laws, in a subsequent post next week.