The Reformation’s Revolution of Romans 13

When the Reformers argued that Romans 13 established God as the direct efficient cause of civil magistracy, they put themselves into a bit of a pickle.  For of course, no one wants to make God the author of evil, and it was quite clear then as now that civil magistrates often do a heck of a lot of evil.  Of course, Calvinists are used to rebutting the charge that predestination makes God the author of evil; we distinguish between his direct providence and his indirect providence, or between what he actively ordains and what he passively permits, etc.  But this wouldn’t quite do for civil magistracy, because the Reformers were clear that Romans 13 wasn’t just about God’s providential control over rulers, but his very direct ruling in, with, and under them (if we may borrow sacramental language).  A solution (but one that was to prove treacherous) was to be found in their additional conviction that Romans 13 intended to provide a blueprint for the rationale and proper function of civil authority.  

Vermigli provides a great illustration when he faces up to the problem in his De Magistratu and in his commentary on Romans 13.  What if someone objects, “if every magistrate is divinely given, then each should always rule without fault”?  He counters that “this reason does not move us, nor should it.  The office must be distinguished from the individual.”  Evil individuals may occupy a divinely sanctioned office.  “The testimony of Daniel makes it plain that magistrates are divinely ordained, for God gives and transfers kingdoms at His own discretion.”  The office of magistrate, you see, proceeds from God in a very direct and unqualified sense.  But the particular person who occupies it does so only by the general providence of God, who oversees the rise and fall of men and kingdoms in the course of his governance over all creation–this is the point made in Daniel.  This would seem to undermine any argument for obedience, for how is any particular citizen under a particular ungodly king supposed to know that he’s supposed to submit to this particular providence, and not rather to be the providential means of the fall of this particular king?  If you want to discourage rebellion, it does little good to say that God has directly authorized the kingdom, but not necessarily the king.

So Vermigli does not mean that God merely permits tyrants to rule, rather, he directly raises them up, even if they are not acting according to the ordained function that is a proper manifestation of his will.  We see this when he turns to considers the objection from Hosea 8:4: “They have reigned but not by me”:

“They thus beastly behave themselves, have not a respect to the will of God, which is revealed unto us either by the law of nature, or in the holy scriptures.  For by that will of God their doings and endeavors are manifestly reproved.  And in this manner they are said not to reign by God, for that they apply not themselves to the written and revealed will of God.  Howbeit it cannot be denied but that God by his hidden and effectual will would have them to reign to that end which we have now declared.  For, that is not enough which some answer, that God doth not these things, but only permitteth them.  For the holy Scriptures manifestly testify, that he called the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and other nations, to vex and afflict the Israelites: and that against Solomon and other kings, he raised up enemies and adversaries, to keep them under and to chastise them.  And forasmuch as these men being thus raised up have no regard at all to the will of God, but only apply themselves to ambition, and to their own lust they grievously sin against God.  Howbeit God by them though they be never so unjust and wicked executeth his most just judgment: and therein committeth no offence.”

Vermigli can still preserve a very direct divine ordination of the wicked magistrate because, although such a magistrate does not necessarily any longer fulfill the original good office of magistracy that God has ordained (of which Rom. 13 is taken to be a blueprint), he fulfills another office–a chastisement for the sins of the people.  This is a theme that Vermigli and many of the other Reformers return to frequently–if a tyrant is in office, we must recognize it as chastisement for our sins.  In fact, this can be subsumed back under the Rom. 13 blueprint of civil authority, since one task of the magistrate there is to be a “terror to the evildoer.”  So Vermigli, despite having to separate the authorization of the office from that of the person, is able to find a way to argue that, whatever his faults, the person ends up fulfilling the authorization of the office one way or another, and hence must be accepted and obeyed.  Of course, one key caveat remains: if he commands contrary to God.  Since we are only to be subject to him as touching his function and office, “when he goes beyond, and commands any thing that is repugnant unto piety, and unto the law of God, we ought to obey God rather than men.”


It wasn’t long, though, before many Reformers were finding a reading such as this an uncomfortable constraint when faced with actual, rather than merely theoretical “tyrants”–or at least monarchs unfriendly to the Reformation.  One popular way of getting around the problem was to emphasize, as the Huguenot monarchomachs did, that the lesser magistrates were powers ordained by God too, who were also entrusted with the task of guarding the commonwealth, punishing evildoers, etc.  And this meant that in fulfillment of their tasks, they might have to restrain the chief ruler.  Another route, though, and one with even more revolutionary implications, was to press hard the distinction of office and person.  


Unsurprisingly, this was the route taken by John Knox, not one prone to half-measures.  In his famous debate with Lethington at the 1564 General Assembly, Knox was taken to task for his recent sermon on Romans 13.  Lethington summarized, “Ye made difference betwixt the ordinance of God and persons that were placed in authority, and ye affirmed that men might refuse the persons and yet not to offend against God’s ordinance.”  Knox replied that Lethington had heard him aright, and proceeded to expound further:

“First, the Apostle affirms that the powers are ordained of God [for the preservation of quiet and peaceable men, and for the punishment of malefactors; whereof it is plain that the ordinance of God] and the power given unto man is one thing, and the person clad with the power or with the authority is another; for God’s ordinance is the conservation of mankind, the punishment of vice, the maintaining of virtue, which is in itself holy, just, constant, stable, and perpetual.  But men clad with the authority are commonly profane and unjust; yea, they are mutable and transitory, and subject to corruption, as God threateneth them by His Prophet David, saying: ‘I have said ye are gods, and every one of you the sons of the Most Highest; but ye shall die as men, and the princes shall fall like others.’  Here I am assured that persons, the soul and body of wicked princes, are threatened with death.  I think that so ye will not affirm is the authority, the ordinance and the power, wherewith God endued such persons; for as I have said, as it is holy, so it is the permanent will of God.  And now, my Lord, that the prince may be resisted and yet the ordinance of God not violated, it is evident; for the people resisted Saul when he had sworn by the living God that Jonathan should die….

“And now, my Lord, to answer to the place of the Apostle who affirms ‘that such as resists the power, resists the ordinance of God,’ I say that the power in that place is not to be understood of the unjust commandment of men, but of the just power wherewith God has armed His magistrates and lieutenants to punish sin and maintain virtue.  As if any man should enterprise to take fromt he hands of a lawful judge a murderer, an adulterer or any malefactor that by God’s law deserved death, this same man resisted God’s ordinance, and procured to himself vengeance and damnation because that he stayed God’s sword to strike.  But so it is not if that men in the fear of God oppone themselves to the fury and blind rage of princes; for so they resist not God, but the devil, who abuses the sword and authority of God.”

Office and person have now become completely separable.  Sure, God ordains the office of magistrate, but he ordains it for a particular good purpose, described in Rom. 13.  If any particular magistrate fails to fulfill this ordained purpose, then he is no lieutenant of God, but of the devil, and is to unwaveringly opposed as such.  Romans 13, then, is suddenly transformed from a text chiefly calculated to instill obedience to a text authorizing and providing a litmus test for armed rebellion.


This line of argument is taken up and taken further in Knox’s ally, the opportunistic Scottish humanist George Buchanan, who in his deeply subversive dialogue, De Iure Regni Apud Scotos, despite seeking to argue from classical authorities and reason rather than Scripture, feels the need to confront Romans 13 head-on.   He too quickly succeeds in knocking out of the hands of his opponents and using it as a weapon against them.

The key again lies in reading it as a definition of the proper task of magistracy: “In his Epistle to the Romans [Paul] defines a king with almost dialectical precision: he says that the king is an officer to whom the sword has been given by God to punish the evil and to encourage and sustain the good.”  He then, citing the same passage from Chrysostom that Vermigli cites at one point in his commentary, says that these things are not written about a tyrant, “but of a true and lawful magistrate, who is the earthly representatie of the true God.”

 He strengthens this point by appealing to what he takes to be the original rhetorical context.  Here he is considerably ahead of his time, which was generally happy to apply the text first and ask questions about its original purpose later (if at all), and he pre-empts by four centuriesthe arguments of many recent interpreters of the passage–Paul was writing to combat libertines and enthusiasts: “But if you also consider what induced Paul to write these words, note that this passage may count strongly against you.  For Paul wrote it in order to censure the rashness of certain men who denied that the commands of magistrates were necessary for Christians.”  

Therefore, we are to understand that

“Paul, then, is not concerned here with those who act as magistrates but with magistracy itself, that is, with the function and duty of those who are set over others; and he is not concerned with any particular type of magistracy, but with the form of every lawful magistracy.  His argument is not with those who think that bad magistrates ought to be restrained, but with those who reject the authority of all magistrates….In order to refute their error Paul showed that magistracy is not only good but also sacred, the ordinance of God, indeed, expressly established to hold groups and communities of men together in such a way that the would recognise the blessings of God towards them and refrain from injuring one another.”

 So, by appealing to the rhetorical context, he manages to turn the passage into a discourse on civil authority in the abstract, rather than any kind of concrete command to submission.  Paul has no intention of authorizing tyrants, only magistracy in general: “You will find nothing in Paul to show why they [tyrants] should not be punished for violating the laws of God and of man.  For he discusses the power of magistrates as such, not how evil men evilly wield that power.  Indeed, if you measure tyrants of that kind against Paul’s rule, they will not be magistrates at all.”  He recognizes God’s  providential use of such rulers, but is not willing to give them any direct divine authorization, since that would make God the author of evil: “God sometimes appoints an evil man to punish evil men, but no one in his right mind will dare to assert that God is the author of human malice, just as everyone knows that He is responsible for punishing evildoers.”

So we may justly conclude that “the definition of a power laid down by Paul does not apply to tyrants at all, since they devote the strength of their authority to the fulfilment of their own desires, not to the benefit of the people.”  Romans 13, by defining the right use of authority, thus serves as a basis for identifying improper authorities, and by implication, absolving people from any duty to obey this.  

Buchanan, though, is a bit shrewder than Knox, for he realizes that he will have to do a bit more to get around a potential objection–after all, wasn’t Romans 13 written to people under Nero?  Weren’t rulers like Caligula and Nero precisely the sort of people that, on Buchanan’s reading, Paul should have been encouraging Christians to resist.  His next move serves to historically relativise the passage (a revolutionary move among his contemporaries)–it was a pragmatic command to Christians in a particular circumstance, but not one that should apply in all times and all places.  

“Paul wrote this in the very infancy of the church, when it was necessary not only to be above reproach, but also to avoid giving any opportunity for criticism to those looking even for unjust grounds for making accusations.  Next, he wrote to men brought together into a single community from different races and indeed from the whole body of the Roman Empire.”  

These were mostly lower class people, who had no powers in the government.  

“If such people had tried to take any part in government, they would inevitably have been thought not only foolish but quite out of their minds; still more so if they had come out of their hiding-places and made trouble for those who controlled the government.” 

In other words, these were people who simply weren’t in a position to rebel successfully.  Their only option was patient submission, and so that’s what Paul counselled.  No doubt he would say the same in the sixteenth century, Buchanan says, to Christians living under the Turks–as they are in a position of impotence, quietism is the only option. 

Needless to say, this last development is one that would’ve deeply unnerved Knox, who was determined to make every political declaration in Scripture a direct command to his own day; to suggest that certain key passages might have had force only in a particular situation, and our own situation is to be addressed, as Buchanan thought, simply by reason, flew completely in the face of Knox’s biblicist agenda.  However, the Scottish Reformation made very strange bedfellows, of whom Knox and Buchanan are perhaps two of the strangest.