Love and Law: A Protestant Conundrum

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. 😉

Justice Against the Oppressor–What to do with Imprecatory Psalms

Another gem of a passage from Bauckham’s The Bible in Politics, offering perhaps the most satisfactory discussion of the issue of imprecatory psalms and forgiving enemies that I have yet read:

“The oppressed Christian who discovers Jesus’ solidarity with him must take account of one respect in which Jesus in his suffering prayed differently from the way the psalmists prayed.  Jesus prayed for his enemies’ forgiveness (Luke 23:34), thus practising his own teaching (Matt. 5:44).  The psalmists never did this: their attitude to their enemies is consistently unforgiving.  They pray for God’s judgement on their enemies (Ps. 10:2b, 15), sometimes in the form of solemn and extensive curses (Ps. 69:22-8; 109:6-20).  But such prayers are not unknown in the New Testament (Rev. 6:10).  They need to be accorded a kind of provisional validity, which does not excuse any Christian from the duty of forgiving enemies, but does help us to understand what is really involved in forgiveness.  Jesus’ demand for forgiveness of enemies does not, we might say, simply revoke these prayers, but takes a step further beyond them.  We have to appreciate what is valid about them before we can rightly take, as followers of Jesus must take, that further step.  

First, these prayers spring directly from the psalmists’ demand for justice.  Like the widow in Jesus’ parable, whose demand was for the judge to vindicate her against her adversary (Luke 18:3), the psalmists’ primary concern is positive—justice for the oppressed—but they cannot envisage this without its negative corollary—justice against the oppressor.  Nor, in concrete situations of political injustice, is it often easy for us to do otherwise.  Our prayers in and about such situations are not superior but inferior to the psalms if they do not manifest the psalmists’ thirst for justice and anger at injustice.  As John Goldingay writes, ‘If we do not find ourselves wishing to call down a curse of divine magnitude on some perpetrators of evil, this may reflect our spiritual sensitivity, our good fortune in not being confronted by evil of such measure, or it may reflect our moral indifference.’  Love and forgiveness of enemies should not be invoked to sanction an easy and careless disregard for justice.  The force of Jesus’ command to love enemies is lost if we forget that it presupposes real enemies, and makes no attempt to pretend that they are not enemies.  Love and forgiveness of enemies are authentic only as the costly and difficult step beyond the psalmists’ valid demand for justice.  

Second, the psalmists’ prayer for justice serves in principle to protect their concern for justice from degenerating into vindictiveness, even if it does not always do this in practice.  The prayer is essentially for God to execute justice, and draws the psalmist, beyond feelings of personal vindictiveness, into a desire to see God’s justice prevail.  Admittedly, it is possible for talk of divine justice to be used in the interests of personal revenge.  But the believer who is genuinely open to God in prayer is subordinating his own judgement of the situation to the standard of God’s righteous judgement. . . . 

Third, the referring of the situation to God’s justice is the first step towards love and forgiveness of enemies.  In expressing to God their rage against their oppressors and their desire for vengeance the psalmists are at least submitting and yielding those wishes to God, even relinquishing them to God.  Personal vengeance can be renounced, because one’s cause has been entrusted to the just God who claims vengeance as his own concern (Deut. 32:35-6; Rom. 12:19). . . . In the course of repeating Jesus’ demand for love of enemies—blessing, not cursing them (12:14), not retaliating (v. 17)—he [Paul] forbids his readers to avenge themselves (v. 19a), but does not require them to renounce their concern for justice.  Rather this can be left in God’s hands (v. 19b). This then frees them to treat their enemies forgivingly and to welcome their repentance (v. 20).  Where those in the grip of personal vengeance msut be frustrated, like Jonah, when repentant enemies are spared judgment, those who have committed vengeance to God can promote and rejoice in the compassion by which he at once safeguards and surpasses justice.  They can pray for their enemies’ forgiveness.” (pp. 65-67)


The Debt of Love: Romans 13:1-7 in Context

Regular readers of this blog know that I have an annoying habit of dropping enigmatic hints about my research on Romans 13 (which I did initially more than two years ago and have been chipping away at again over the last year or so), implying that it contains the answer to this or that problem in ethics or political theology, but providing precious few details.  Well, I don’t think my reading of this passage gives all the answers, but it does, I think, provide a more helpful starting-point not only for understanding this section of Romans, but for hopefully for understanding many issues in political theology.  So, I will stop being enigmatic and share an excerpt from a paper I’ll be giving at the SBL Int’l Meeting next week containing a very concise version of one of the key lines of argument–the literary structure of the passage in context.  Bits of this appear in previous posts, but this is much more systematic, I hope.

Can we explain Paul’s admonitions in 13:1-7 within the same logic of love that dominates the surrounding context?  

Paul strongly invites us to do so, I would suggest, through the word-play that interlinks 13:7 with 13:8: the stem opheil, which appears as tas opheilas (“what is owed”) in 13:7, and as meden opheilete (“owe nothing”) in v. 8.  While most commentators have either completely ignored this intriguing repetition, or else dismissed it as merely a rhetorical ornament, this seems odd when a substantive explanation seems so ready-to-hand.  After all, as a few interpreters have noted, 13:7 poses a bit of a riddle.  It says to render to all what is owed them, but it does not solve the problem which has plagued citizens from Paul’s time to our own–what is owed them?  I know plenty of American Christians today who look at Romans 13:7 and say, “Aha!  Render to the government what is their due!  Well, the taxes being demanded are much more than is their rightful due, and so we need not pay.”  13:8 offers the obvious answer–what is owed is not determined by principles of political justice, but by the demands of love.  13:8, on this reading, can be taken to sum up all that goes before, saying, “Every duty which you carry out toward anyone must be conceived as a demand of the duty to love one another.  Of all other obligations you are free, but love’s demands remain.”  Certainly 13:9-10 seem to strongly support this understanding of 8, explicitly subsuming all other duties under that of neighbor-love.  This explanation has been forcefully asserted by John Calvin and Emil Brunner, to name two of the most prominent, but has almost never been picked up on by modern commentators.  

If this reading is correct, then the idea of 13:1-7 as an “independent block,” a self-contained pericope, has been cast into question.  Let us look closer for more clues of its relationship to the context.


A few hints of word-play suggest more tie-ins between our pericope and its context than merely the repetiton of ekdikos and orge in 12:19 and 13:4.  For instance, we may note the pervasive repetition of the pair agathos and kakos in these verses.  We meet kakos first in v. 17: “Repay no one evil for evil”–in the context, it suggests in particular violence–we are to show peace in the face of violence.  Then in v. 21 we meet kakos again, opposed now to agathos: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  The sense again seems to be that in the face of violent force, seizure of their possessions, or other persecution, Christians ought to give freely and overflowingly, in the spirit of Jesus’s admonition: “if anyone seeks to take your tunic, give him your cloak also.”  It is this self-sacrificial peacemaking through giving that constitutes the “good” that overcomes “evil.” 

In light of this, we have a helpful framework for understanding the role of agathos and kakos in 13:3-4.  The ruler should not be source of fear to the one who does good–the Christian who is not solicitous for his own good, but gives freely even in the face of injustice–but to the evil–the one who uses force to further his own interests.   The “good”–those who peaceable and not defensive of their own interests, will generally receive favor from rulers who are above all interested in domestic tranquillity and intolerant of any unrest.  However, if you do resort to the “evil” that characterizes your persecutors–then you should fear the wrath–of the ruler and of God–that is falling on them.  

An additional connective appears in the word apodote, usually translated “render” in 13:7.  However, this is same word that appears in 12:17 as a participial imperative–apodidontes— “Do not be repaying evil for evil.”  If the sense of 12:17 can be sustained in 13:7, then we have the sense that our rendering of tax, tribute, honour, etc. to the authorities is meant to be a response to something we have received from them–we are repaying their actions with these gifts.  The concept of giving is present also in 12:20, where we are to give our enemies whatever it is that they ask for–for thus will our love overcome their evil. 

Finally, the word allelous–“one another”–appears in both 12:16 (“Live in harmony with one another”) and in 13:8 (“Love one another”), suggesting an inclusio.  When we line all of the foregoing connections up, this inclusio blossoms into a very interesting chiasm.

A. Live in harmony with one another (allelous) (12:16)

 B. Do not pay back (apodidontes) evil for evil (12:17)

   C. Live at peace with all men as much as depends on you (12:18)

   D. Do not avenge (ekdikountes), but give place to wrath (orge) (12:19)

    E. Specific commands about doing good to your enemy (12:20)

     F. Do not be overcome by evil (kakos), but overcome evil with good (agathos) (12:21)

      G. Be subject to the governing authorities, for there is none but from God (13:1)

     F.’ Those who resist incur judgment, for the rulers are a not a terror to the doer of good (agathon), but to the doer of evil (kakon) (13:2-3a)

    E.’ Do what is good, if you wish to escape fear. (13:3b)

   D.’ The magistrate is the avenger (ekdikos) for wrath (orge) (13:4)

  C.’ Be in subjection and pay taxes for conscience’ sake (13:5-6)

 B.’ Pay back (apodote) to each what is owed him (13:7)

A.’ Owe no one anything, except to love each other (allelous) (13:8)


This chiasm suggests that the imperative in 13:1, far from constituting an entirely new train of thought, is simply a natural application of the line of imperatives that crescendoed through the final verses of 12.  Incredulous interpreters today ask, “How could Paul have spoken so positively of Roman authorities who were so unjust and such enemies to the Christian community?”  But that is precisely it.  Paul is assuming that, from his readers’ perspective, the admonitions to bless persecutors, live peaceably with all, and give food to their enemies will raise the question, “What about the Roman authorities?”  Scholars have particularly drawn attention to two facts that likely made for a very tense relationship between the Christians in Rome and their rulers.  First, we know that Jews (including Jewish Christians) had recently been expelled from Rome, had only recently been permitted to return, and had reason to fear another expulsion.  For another, we know that there was a great deal of unrest and rebellious murmuring in Rome at this time over the highly oppressive taxes.  

Paul, however, takes this as an opportunity to apply his teaching about the need not only to patiently bear with injustice, but to show overflowing generosity in response to it.  This means not merely abstaining from the retaliatory “evil” of violent rebellion, but overcoming the oppressor’s evil through the “good” of joyful service.  The taxes being demanded were unjust, to be sure, so what would it mean for Paul to tell the Christians to pay the Romans what was due to them?  In context, this means to respond to the unjust demands with the unselfishness that love demanded–to the enemy that was hungry, they were to give food, and to the government that was greedy, they were to pay taxes.  

Such a reading, I suggest, is attractive on two levels–both the textual and the ethical levels on which Kallas and others are concerned.  On the textual front, not only does this make 13:1-7 thoroughly at home within its context and offer us an unbroken progression of parenesis from 12:1 through 13:14, but it sheds light on many smaller questions as well–though there is no time to go into these here.


On the ethical front, this releases us from the false dilemma that appeared in its sharpest form in the Reformation, when Protestants were divided between reading the passage as a wholesale endorsement of governmental authority, with totalitarian results, or else concluding that the passage must only be speaking of an ideal government, and so the call to submission had no force in the face of injustice.  This reading suggests instead a posture of what John Howard Yoder has called “revolutionary subordination,” in which we are able to challenge injustice, but not in the way it expects–not by leaping to our own defence and refusing all obedience, but by patient and conscientious service motivated and qualified by love, and confident in God’s ultimate control.  What this means in terms of concrete political action will differ depending on concrete political circumstances, and it may be that the modern West affords the Christian more room to actively confront the powers that be than first-century Rome did.  All this requires much further thought.  But a contextually grounded reading of Romans 13, rooted in the virtue of charity, is our best starting-point for this inquiry.

Set Free for Service: Kasemann on Rom. 13

In his 1969 article “Principles on the Interpretation of Romans 13,” Ernst Kasemann offers what may be the best discussion of Romans 13 I have yet come across (and I’ve come across several dozen).  What is most remarkable about the article is that he succeeds in doing this despite resolutely refusing to take into account the context–the end of chapter 12 and 13:8-10–no, Romans 13:1-7 must be interpreted, he doggedly persists, as an independent unit.  Oddly, though, the resulting interpretation he offers is one that fits like a glove into this context, and which absolutely demands to be read in continuity with these flanking passages.  In other words, his conclusion would make much more sense and be much stronger as the result of an exegesis of 12:9-13:10, not merely 13:1-7.   

I shan’t try to summarize the whole article here, but I’ll try to cover a couple key bases and then share some of the particularly fine quotes toward the ends.  Kasemann surveys the basic existing interpretive options for Romans 13 (those existing as of 1969, at least; several more have arisen since) and says that the basic problem with all of them is that they want to reverse the priority of Paul’s command and the grounding he gives that command; they want to shift the emphasis from the concrete ethical directives to the abstract metaphysical principles that they feel must underlie these directives.  The history of the interpretation, he says, “suffers from its conception of the real problem as lying not in the content of the exhortation as such but in the basis on which it is made.”  Although of course the latter is important, he says, “I believe it to be an error to make this the pivot of the whole thing….the tenor of the passage is not didactic as if the parenesis were a conclusion from a thesis.  The stresses must not be incorrectly interchanged; otherwise we shall almost inevitably find ourselves on a path which does not correspond to the emphasis of the passage.”

Kasemann then surveys Paul’s seemingly “conservative,” even “reactionary” teaching on social issues elsewhere in the New Testament to develop the case that in all these places, what is key for Paul is how he wants the Christian to act toward the social order they find themselves in, not so much the theoretical grounding for the existence of that social order, on which Paul is often quite ad hoc.  And how is it that Paul wants the Christian to act?  In a freedom that makes itself the servant of all.  Over and over he rebuts what seem to be reasonable deductions of a doctrine of Christian freedom, because he wants to understand that the Christian has been liberated not to do whatever he wishes, but for service: the Corinthian view “takes account of freedom exclusively as freedom from burdensome compulsion.  The apostle, on the other hand, is concerned here, as always, with the freedom which knows itself to be called to serve.”  And that means a service that is inescapably embedded in the existing social order:

“According to Paul, it is none other than the Spirit who imposes himself on the everyday life of the world as being the locus of our service of God; while emancipation, even when it appeals to the Spirit, prefers to retreat from this everyday life and the possibilities of service that are given with it, and is thus a perversion of Christian freedom….The traditional arguments are, to put it in a nutshell, Paul’s emergency aids to call the Christian to take his stand before the true God, the Lord of the earth, and thus to call him to the possibility of a genuine service in everyday life.  Anyone who prefers to live in isolation from the world and its powers is in practice taking away from the world its character as God’s creation and is thereby disqualified from serious service.  For Christian service must take place on earth and in earth’s everyday life; otherwise it becomes a fantasy….To acknowledge the given nature of this everyday life, which may possibly wear the colours of dictatorship or slavery–it is just this that is charismatic activity, the possibility of Christian freedom.”   

Subjection is not called for so much on the basis of what the powers are but where they are–namely, in the order where the Christian finds himself called to serve:

“Finally, it is not the given realities in themselves which move the apostle to argue that ‘We must be subject’ but the necessity to authenticate Christian existence and the Christian’s status in the eyes of the Lord, who stakes his claim to the world by facing it continually, in the person of his servants, with the eschatological token of his lordship, the quality of tapeinophrosune [lowly-mindedness].” 

Kasemann’s reading finds its crux at verse 5, where he reads, as I do, the “not only fear, but also conscience” more as a “not really fear, but instead conscience”:

“That he [the Christian] does so [fulfils his political duties] without question is seen as proof that he has in fact no reason to fear the bearers of political power.  Verse 5 does not therefore bring a double motivation to bear–obedience both out of fear and for conscience’ sake–but an alternative: others may have grounds to fear the powers that be, the Christian obeys them as one who knows himself to be confronted in their claim with the divine summons and who in his obedience is rendering service to God.  There can then, here or elswehare, be no question of interpreting Christian obedience in action as slavish passive obedience.  Christian obedience is never blind; and indeed, open-eyed obedience, directed by suneidysis, must even be critical.  For him, God does not dissolve into his own immanence to the extent of being identified with it; rather, he remains Lord of the world and as such calls the Christian into the freedom of sonship.  An obedience that does not breathe this freedom of sonship does not deserve the designation ‘Christian’.” 

After a fantastic discussion of whether revolution is ever justified, Kasemann concludes, “In this exercise [understanding Rom. 13] everything will depend on preserving the paradoxical connection of necessity and freedom at the point of their deepest unity–that free man’s service which is the good estate of Christian existence in the world.”

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.