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New Horizons

The Reformation of Civil Government

David VanDrunen

Although Scripture does not provide any detailed public policy agenda for New Testament believers, it does teach a number of important things about civil government. Thus, Christian doctrine rightly includes teaching about governmental authority, as reflected in our Confession of Faith.

The doctrine of civil government was not at the forefront of Reformation controversies in the sixteenth century, unlike matters of salvation, the sacraments, and the church. Nevertheless, the Reformers had deep theological and practical interest in the nature and responsibilities of civil government, as did many later Reformed Christians.

Pre-Reformation Teaching

The apostolic church lived under civil magistrates who did not confess Christ and sometimes persecuted people who did. Yet New Testament texts such as Romans 13:1–7 and 1 Peter 2:13–17 taught that God had ordained civil magistrates and that believers ought to honor and submit to them.

Following the Roman emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the early fourth century, the status of Christians in society changed. The contemporary church historian Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History, described the Roman Empire under Constantine as the fulfillment of Old Testament texts prophesying that war would cease and the wicked would be cut off: Constantine was realizing Christ’s kingdom on earth. Shortly thereafter, Augustine (354–430) provided a much more modest view. In his City of God, Augustine described Christians as sojourners, on a pilgrimage in this world toward the heavenly city. He acknowledged that Christians should participate in their political communities, but he taught that all earthly rulers and empires are provisional, not to be confused with Christians’ eschatological hope.

In the fifth century, the “Christendom” model emerged. As described by Pope Gelasius I, there are “two powers” that exercise authority under God in this world: the emperor has authority over “temporal affairs” for the sake of “public order,” and the priest controls the sacraments and “spiritual activities,” toward the goal of “eternal life.” Priest and emperor should submit to one another in their proper spheres.

This model was helpful in important respects. It affirmed that civil governments are legitimate, ordained by God. It also taught that their jurisdiction is limited and subject to God’s authority.

This model also had problematic features. First, it essentially wed the church to the state in a confessionally unified Christian society. The New Testament, however, never suggests that Christians should expect or seek such a society. Second, the state was expected to enforce the church’s claims about doctrine and worship by punishing dissenters with the sword. This reality sat uncomfortably beside New Testament teaching that Christ’s gospel and kingdom do not advance by the weapons of this world. Many who sought to reform the church—such as John Hus in the fifteenth century—would meet untimely ends as victims of this church-state alliance.

Initial Reformed Thinking

Because the Christendom model still prevailed in the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformers were compelled to think about civil government theologically and practically. The best-known Reformers did not feel that they had to overturn all earlier medieval views on the subject, and they sometimes differed among themselves. But if we focus on Martin Luther and John Calvin, we can glean some important lessons.

First, they affirmed the common Christian view that civil governments are ordained by God and thus are legitimate. This could not be taken for granted, because some Anabaptist leaders of the time claimed that a thorough reformation of Christianity required the rejection of all sword-bearing civil authority. Luther and Calvin appealed to texts such as Romans 13 and strongly rejected such claims.

Second, they affirmed the independence of civil magistrates and the honorable nature of their work. Certain streams of medieval thought—represented prominently by Pope Boniface VIII—had modified Gelasius’s “two powers” idea to make the civil magistrate essentially a vassal of the pope. Through the help of doctrines such as the “two kingdoms” or “two governments,” Luther and Calvin distinguished the coercion-backed work of the state from the church’s peaceful proclamation of the gospel, and they did not make the state’s legitimacy depend upon the church’s approval. In addition, they both taught that serving in civil office was an honorable calling in which Christians could serve God. This was rooted in their broader notion that Christians should pursue a variety of occupations. People were not second-class Christians because they devoted full-time work to common (rather than ecclesiastical) vocations, contrary to much medieval thought and practice.

The Reformers’ convictions about civil government in these areas were important and helpful, and remain relatively uncontroversial among Reformed people today. Yet other aspects of their doctrine of civil government proved to be far from settled. Two of these issues, which later Reformed Christians would reconsider, deserve mention.

One issue concerned the reach of New Testament commands about submission to civil authority. Luther and Calvin took strict views against civil resistance. Luther notoriously called on German magistrates to slaughter insurrectionist peasants. Calvin rejected all attempts to overthrow tyrannical magistrates except by lesser government officials who happened to have authority for that very purpose.

The second issue concerned the Christendom model. Although the Reformers obviously rejected a confessionally unified Christian society that wed the state to the Roman Church, they continued to believe that civil authorities should punish heresy and blasphemy and suppress false churches—as judged by Reformed standards.

Later Reformed Thinking

These issues did not go away. Already in the mid to late sixteenth century, pressed especially by Roman Catholic persecution of Protestants in England and France, Reformed scholars developed theories of why, and under what conditions, resistance to unjust civil authority is justified. These theories went considerably beyond the narrow scope permitted by Calvin. This development had repercussions for years to come. In the seventeenth century, many English Reformed Christians supported the deposition and execution of King Charles I. In the eighteenth century, American Presbyterians widely supported the colonies’ rebellion against England.

It took longer for Reformed Christians to rethink the Christendom model, but they did. For example, when the Presbyterian Church in the USA was formed in 1788, it revised the Westminster Confession of Faith’s teaching about civil government, removing claims that the state should suppress heresy and blasphemy and denying that the state should favor one church over others. (The OPC’s version of the Confession reflects these changes.) In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many Reformed churches from the Continental tradition similarly revised Article 36 of the Belgic Confession.

Challenges Ahead

Reformed Christians can be grateful for the reformations of civil government already achieved. The sixteenth-century Reformers were biblically faithful in affirming the legitimacy and honorable character of civil authority, alongside its distinction and independence from ecclesiastical authority. The later reformations also moved Reformed teaching in good directions, in my judgment. While some of their conclusions about justifiable civil resistance are certainly debatable, it was good that Reformed writers were not satisfied with Calvin’s strict views on submission to tyranny and undertook further biblical and theological investigation of the subject. We should be especially grateful, I believe, that so many Reformed churches have modified their confessions’ original statements about government suppression of false religion. It was shameful that early Protestants joined Roman Catholics in advocating religious persecution, but it was encouraging that many Reformed churches embraced notions of religious liberty long before Roman Catholics did (at Vatican II).

Reformed Christians today, however, in the face of cultural changes in the West, will likely have to wrestle with issues of civil resistance and religious liberty in ways that our parents and grandparents did not. If indeed an increasing number of public policies and civil officials become overtly hostile to Christian conviction, Reformed believers will have to renew older moral-theological reflection on the degree to which they can participate in the work of their governments and what occasions may justify or even require disobedience.

Many voices have begun to question the modern Western emphasis upon religious freedom and suggest that various other (alleged) civil rights should trump claims to religious liberty. Yet many Christian appeals to religious liberty are sloppy and inconsistent. Reformed believers need to think carefully about what religious freedom really means and what claims of religious liberty they can heartily make and support.

Our Reformed predecessors did not settle every detail of the doctrine of civil government, but perhaps contemporary Reformed believers, faced with today’s challenges, will be able to refine their predecessors’ work and bring further reformation to this area of Christian doctrine.

The author, an OP minister, teaches at Westminster Seminary California. New Horizons, October 2017.

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