Whether Idols Ought to be Destroyed by Magistrates

The following is a passage I translated from Peter Martyr Vermigli’s massive Commentary on 1 & 2 Kings, published in 1571. Only it is not, it turns out, written by Vermigli, but by his colleague in Zurich, Johannes Wolff, who completed the Commentary after Vermigli died, since it was left unfinished after the first few chapters of 2 Kings. The substance, however, is very similar to what Vermigli wrote elsewhere. It is a fascinating example of how the Reformers argued for the magistrate’s cura religionis—responsibility for overseeing the good order and right teaching of the church in his realm—within the terms of their two-kingdoms distinction between the realm of faith and that of practice. Moreover, although Wolff is convinced that the Old Testament laws provide a rule to direct magistrates in this work, we can see also the idea, one particularly prominent in Vermigli’s work, that the care for religion is a natural duty, since there is a natural knowledge of God to which commonwealths are accountable.

This is from the section on 2 Kings 18:1-4, discussing Hezekiah’s destruction of idols:

Moreover, since they are the spiritual masters and custodians both of all divine laws and of the whole of human society, it is the first interest of magistrates to be zealous for the removal of these religious impediments. For since in the laws of the First Table, false doctrine, false worships, errors, blasphemies, and whatever else is of the same kind, are plainly prohibited, certainly the magistrate, if indeed he, guarding these laws, ought as much as possible to be employed in this care and service, he should wish to, and he should take all these things out of their midst, and remove them. And since it is the especial end of human society to propagate through the souls of all men the knowledge of God, and the knowledge of God is obscured above all by superstitious worship, blasphemies, and idols; then, that human society may be led to the end set before it, the magistrate should remove these impediments. Nor does it hinder, what some object, that faith is a habit of the mind; for although the magistrate cannot change the mind, it is equally true that the hand may abstain from mental errors. For the magistrate does not, when he destroys heresies and blasphemies and false doctrine, take notice of errors of the mind; but rather to the external profession flowing from the error of the mind, by which the order committed to the magistrate is thrown into confusion, and by which the simple souls of the ignorant multitude are either confused or utterly seduced.

Thus the magistrate, if indeed he wishes for the men who have been entrusted with his faith to be protected, will think little of this objection. Much less does it hinder, what some suppose, that the magistrate ought to judge concerning those things concerning which he has laws handed down to him, and that, since he has received laws concerning civil matters, but not also concerning divine causes and duties, he ought not to offer any opinion on religious controversies. For we most constantly deny that proposition completely, by which it is stated that no laws concerning religious affairs have been handed down to the magistrate, but we say, that the laws of either table were committed to the care and custody of the magistrates. For they themselves are commanded to break down the statues of demons, in Exodus 23, and to overturn their altars, in Deuteronomy 7, and also to destroy their titles, that is, the monuments of superstition, in Numbers 23, because the people are to be holy and the land is to be cleansed from their strongholds. And if what the Blessed Paul, writing in Romans chapter 13, indicates, the magistrate is created by God for this, so that he may approve and uphold that which is good in human society, and avert that which is evil; since true religion is from goods, and indeed, from the highest goods, and depraved and false religious is from the worst evils; then who does not see that it is the concern of pious magistrates, that they take away false religion, and defend and propagate the true? For which cause, Ahab, Jeroboam, Ahaz, Manasseh, Antiochus, Nero, Julian, and whatever others, having done away with the true religion, have propagated a false one, they have all been reprehended most gravely, and afflicted by God most severely with punishments.

Those who, on the contrary, do their utmost in guarding divine laws, they receive great praises from men, and most generous rewards from the highest and best God.

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