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.