Part 1 of the series
In this series, we are examining the sixteenth-century Huguenot book Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants), a Christian treatise on the civil magistrate. The treatise is written in the form of answering four questions, and in part one of this series we went through the first half of question one: whether subjects are obligated to obey rulers who issue commands contrary to the law of God. We will continue in this part with the second half of the answer. As before, I will post in full a section of the book, followed by my summary of the section.
Continue to keep in mind that though the civil magistrate is referred to as “king” or “prince,” the principles laid out in Vindiciae are just as applicable to presidents, prime ministers, judges, congressmen, senators, governors, or whatever other form or title the civil magistrate takes.
THE FIRST QUESTION, part 2 of 2: The Covenant Between God and Kings.
When King Joash was crowned, we read that a covenant was contracted between God, the king, and the people, (2 Ki. 11:17) or, as it is said in another place, between Jehoiada the high priest, all the people, and the king, that God should be their Lord. In like manner we read that Josiah and all the people entered into covenants with the Lord. We may gather from these testimonies, that in making these covenants the high priest did explicitly covenant in the name of God, that the king and the people should undertake to insure that God might be served purely, and according to His will, throughout the whole kingdom of Judah, that the king should so reign that the people were permitted to serve God, and held in obedience to his law. Thus the people should so obey the king, as their obedience should have principal relation to God. It appears by this that the king and the people are jointly bound by promise, and did oblige themselves by solemn oath to serve God before all things. And indeed presently after they had sworn the covenant, Josiah and Jehoida ruined the idolatry of Baal and re-established the pure service of God. The principal points of the covenants were chiefly these:
That the king himself, and all the people should be careful to honor and serve God according to His will revealed in His word, which, if they performed, God would assist and preserve their estates. If not, He would abandon and exterminate them, which plainly appears by the comparing of various passages of Holy Writ. Moses, somewhat before his death, proclaims these conditions of covenant to all the people, and at the same time commands that the law, which are those precepts given by the Lord, should be kept in the ark of the covenant. After the death of Moses, Joshua was established captain and conductor of the people of God, and as the Lord himself admonished, if he would have happy success in his affairs, he should not in any way estrange himself from the law. Joshua also, for his part, desiring to make the Israelites understand upon what condition God had given them the country of Canaan, as soon as they entered into it, after due sacrifices were performed, he read the law in the presence of all the people, promising them in the Lord’s name all good things if they persisted in obedience and threatening all evil if they willfully disobeyed. Summarily, he assures them all prosperity, if they observe the law. As otherwise, he declared outright that in doing the contrary they should be utterly ruined. Also at all such times as they left the service of God, they were delivered into the hands of the Canaanites and reduced into slavery under their tyranny. Now this covenant between God and the people in the times of the judges, had vigor also in the times of the kings, and was treated with them. After that Saul had been anointed, chosen, and wholly established as king, Samuel speaks unto the people in these terms: “Behold the king whom you have demanded and chosen; God has established him king over you; obey you therefore and serve the Lord, as well as your king which is established over you, otherwise you and your king shall perish.” (1 Sam. 12:13) As if he should say, you would have a king, and God has given you this here, notwithstanding, think not that God will permit any encroachment upon His right, but know that the king is as well bound to observe the law as you, and if he fails in this duty, his delinquency shall be punished as severely as yours. In short, according to your desires Saul is given you for your king, to lead you in the wars, but with this condition attached, that he himself follow the law of God. After that Saul was rejected, because he did not keep his promise; David was established king on the same condition, so also was his son Solomon, for the Lord said, “If you keep my law, I will confirm with you the covenant which I contracted with David.” Now concerning this covenant, it is inserted into the second book of the Chronicles, as follows. “There shall not fail thee a man in my sight, to sit upon the throne of Israel yet so that thy children take heed to their way to walk in my law as thou hast walked before me. But if they serve idols, I will drive them from the land to which I have given them possession.” And therefore it was that the book of the law was called the book of the covenant of the Lord (who commanded the priests to give it the king), according to which Samuel put it into the hands of Saul, and according to its terms, Josiah submitted as regent and vassal of the Lord. Also the law which is kept in the ark is called the covenant of the Lord with the children of Israel. Finally, the people delivered from the captivity of Babylon renewed the covenant with God, and do acknowledge throughout the chapter, that they worthily deserved all those punishments for their breaking their promise to God. It appears, then, that the kings swear as vassals to observe the law of God whom they confess to be Sovereign Lord over all.
Now, according to that which we have already seen, if kings violate their oath, and transgress the law, we say that they have lost their kingdom, as vassals forfeit their estates by committing crimes against the sovereignty of their lords. We have said that there was the same covenant between God and the kings of Judah, as before, between God and the people in the times of Joshua and the judges. But we see in many places, that when the people have despised the law, or made covenants with Baal, God has delivered them into the hands of Eglon, Jabin, and other kings of the Canaanites. And as it is one and the same covenant, so do those who break it receive like punishment. Saul is so audacious to sacrifice, infringing thereby the law of God, and presently after saves the life of Agag, king of the Amalekites, against the explicit commandment of God. For this reason he is called rebel by Samuel, and finally is chastised for his rebellion. “Thou hast sacrificed,” he said, “but you would have done better to obey God, for obedience is more worthy than sacrifice… You have neglected the Lord your God, He also has rejected you, that you reign no more over Israel.” (1 Sam. 15: 22-23,26) This has been so certainly observed by the Lord, that the very children of Saul were deprived of their paternal inheritance, for that he, having committed high treason, did thereby incur the punishment of tyrants, which affect a kingdom that no way applies to them. And not only the kings, but also their children and successors, have been deprived of the kingdom by reason of such rebellion. Solomon revolted from God to worship idols. Incontinently, the prophet Ahijah foretells that the kingdom shall be divided under his son Rehoboam. Finally, the word of the Lord is accomplished, and ten tribes, who made the greatest portion of the kingdom, do abandon Rehoboam, and adhere to Jereboam his servant.
Why is this? For so much (says the Lord) that they have left me to go after Ashteroth, the god of the Sidonians and Chamos, the god of the Thiosbites, etc. I will also break in pieces their kingdom. As if he should say, they have violated the covenant, and have not kept promise; I am no more then tied unto them. They will lessen My majesty, and I will lessen their kingdom. Although they be My servants, yet notwithstanding they will expel Me from My kingdom. But I will drive them out themselves by Jeroboam, who is their servant. Furthermore, for so much as this servant, fearing that the ten tribes, for the cause of religion should return to Jerusalem, set up idols in Bethel, and made Israel to sin, withdrawing by this means the people far from God, what was the punishment of so ungrateful a vassal and wicked traitor towards his Lord? First, his son died, and, in the end, all his race, even unto the last of the males was taken from the face of the earth by the sword of Bassa, according to the judgment which was pronounced against him by the prophet, because he revolted from the obedience of the Lord God. This, then, is cause sufficient, and oftentimes also propounded, for that which God takes from the king his fiefdom, when he opposes the law of God, and withdraws himself from Him to follow His enemies, that is, idols, and as like crimes deserve like punishments, we read in the holy histories that kings of Israel and of Judah who have so far forgotten themselves, have in the end miserably perished.
Now, although the form, both of the church and the Israelite kingdom be changed, for that which was before enclosed within the narrow bounds of Judaea is now dispersed throughout the whole world; notwithstanding the same things may be said of Christian kings, the gospel having succeeded the law, and Christian kings being in the place of those of Israel. There is the same covenant, the same conditions, the same punishments, and if they fail in the accomplishing, the same God Almighty, revenger of all perfidious disloyalty; and as the former were bound to keep the law, so the latter are obliged to adhere to the doctrine of the Gospel, for the advancement which these kings at their anointing and receiving, do promise to employ the utmost of their means.
Herod, fearing Christ, whose reign he should rather have desired, sought to put Him to death, as if He had affected a kingdom in this world. He did himself miserably perish, and lost his kingdom. Julian the Apostate did cast off Christ Jesus to cleave unto the impiety and idolatry of the pagans but within a small time after, he fell to his confusion through the force of the arm of Christ, whom in mockery he called the Galilean. Ancient histories are replete with such examples, neither is there any want in those of these times. Lately, various kings, drunk with the liquor which the whore of Babylon has presented unto them, have taken arms, and for the love of the wolf, and of Antichrist, have made war against the Lamb of God, who is Christ Jesus; and yet this very day some among them continue in the same course. We have seen some of them ruined in the deed, and in the midst of their wickedness; others also carried from their triumphs to their graves. Those who survive and follow them in their courses have little reason to expect better results from their wicked practices. This sentence remains always most certain: “That though all the kings of the earth do conjure and conspire against Christ and endeavour to cut in pieces our Lamb, yet in the end they shall yield the place, and maugre their hearts, confess that this Lamb is the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.” But what shall we say of the heathen kings? Certainly although they be not anointed and sacred of God, yet be they His vassals and have received their power from Him whether they be chosen by lot or any other means. If they have been chosen by the voices of an assembly, we say that God governs the heart of man, and addresses the minds and intentions of all persons whither he pleases. If it be by lot, the lot is cast in the lap, says the wise man, “but the outcome is fixed by the Lord.” It is God only that in all ages establishes, and takes away, confirms, and overthrows kings according to His good pleasure. In which regard Isaiah calls Cyrus the anointed of the Lord, and Daniel says that Nebuchadnezzar and others have had their kingdoms committed unto them by God, as Saint Paul maintains that all magistrates have received their authority from Him. For, although that God has not commanded pagans in explicit terms to obey Him as He has done those who have knowledge of Him; yet, nevertheless, the pagans must also confess that it is by the sovereign God that they reign. So if they will not yield the tribute that they owe to God in regard of themselves, at the least let them not prevent nor hinder the Sovereign from gathering that which is due from those people who are in subjection to them; nor that they do not anticipate, nor appropriate to themselves divine jurisdiction over them, which is the crime of high treason and true tyranny, for which occasion the Lord has grievously punished even the pagan kings themselves. It then is good for those rulers who will free themselves from so enormous a mischief, carefully to distinguish their jurisdiction from that of God’s, even so much the more circumspectly for that God and the ruler have their right of authority over one and the same land, over one and the same man, over one and the same thing. Man is composed of body and soul, God has formed the body and infused the soul into him; to Him only then may be attributed and appropriated the commands both over the body and soul of man.
If out of His mere grace and favor He has permitted kings to employ both the bodies and goods of their subjects, yet still with the admonition that they preserve and defend their subjects, certainly kings ought to think that if the use of this authority is in such manner permitted, then the abuse of it is absolutely forbidden. First, those who confess that they hold their souls and lives as to God, as they ought to acknowledge, they have then no right to impose any tribute upon souls. The king levies tribute and taxes payable by the body, and of such things as are acquired or gained by the industry and travail of the body. God principally exacts His right from the soul, which also in part executes her functions by the body. The tribute of the king is understood to be the fruits of the earth, the contributions of money and other charges, both real and personal. The tribute of God is in prayers, sacraments, preaching of the pure Lord of God, and in short, all that which is called divine service, private as well as public. These two tributes are in so different and separate, that the one does not harm to the other.
The economy of God takes nothing from that of Caesar, but each of them have their right completely separate from each other. But to speak in a word, whoever confuses these things confuses heaven and earth together, and endeavours to reduce them into their first chaos, or latter confusion. David has excellently well distinguished these affairs, ordaining officers to look to the right of God, and others for that of the king. Josephat has followed the same course, establishing certain persons to judge the causes that belonged to the Almighty, and others to look to the justice of the king; the one to maintain the pure service of God, the other to preserve the rights of the king. But if a ruler usurp the right of God, and put himself forward, after the manner of the giants, to scale the heavens, he is no less guilty of high treason to his sovereign, and is a rebel in the same manner, as if one of his vassals should seize on the rights of his crown and put himself into evident danger of being stripped of his estates, and that so much the more justly, there being no proportion between God and an earthly king, between the Almighty and a mortal man; whereas yet between the lord and the vassal there is some relation of proportion.
So often, therefore, as any ruler shall so much forget himself, as insolently to say in his heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation in the sides of the north, I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High, then on the contrary, will the Almighty say, I will rise up more high, I will set Myself against thee, I will erase out thy name and all thy posterity, thy counsels shall vanish into smoke, but that which I have once determined shall remain firm, and never be annihilated. The Lord said to Pharaoh, “let my people go, that they may serve Me, and offer sacrifice to Me,” and for that this proud man answered, that he knew not the God of the Hebrews. Shortly thereafter, he was miserably destroyed. Nebuchadnezzar commanded that his statue should be adored, and would be honored as God, but within a short time the true God did deservedly chastise his unbridled arrogance, and, desiring to be accounted as God, he became a brute beast, wandering through desert places like a wild ass, until (says the Prophet) that he acknowledged the God of Israel to be the sovereign Lord over all. His son Belshaser abused the holy vessels of the temple in Jerusalem, and used them to serve his excess and drunkenness. Therefore, because he did not give glory to Him who held in His hands both his soul and his counsels, he lost his kingdom, and was slain in that very night of feasting.
Alexander the Great took pleasure in the lies of his flatterers, who termed him the son of Jupiter, and not only approved, but procured his adoration, but a sudden death gave a sad period to those triumphs, being blinded through his excess of conquests he began with too much affection to delight in. Antiochus, under color of pacifying and uniting his subjects, commanded all men to forsake the laws of God, and to apply themselves in obedience to his. He profaned the temple of the Jews, and polluted their altars, but after various ruins, defeats, and loss of battles, despoiled and disgraced, he died in grief, confessing that he deservedly suffered those miseries, because he would have constrained the Jews to leave their religion. If we take into our consideration the death of Nero, that inhuman butcherer of Christians, whom he unjustly accused of the burning of Rome, being the abhorred act of his detested self; the end of Caligula, which made himself to be adored, of Domitian who would be called Lord and God, of Commodus, and various others who would take for themselves the honors due to God alone, we shall find that they have all and always according to their deceits miserably perished; when, on the contrary, Trajan, Adrian, Antonius the Courteous, and others, have finished their days in peace; for although they knew not the true God, yet have they permitted the Christians the exercise of their religion.
Briefly, even as those rebellious vassals who endeavour to possess themselves of the kingdom, they deserve forfeit of their estates according to the testimony of all laws, and deserve to be destroyed. In like manner, those who will not observe the divine law to which all men without exception owe their obedience, or who persecute those who desire to conform themselves to that law without hearing them in their just defences are just as guilty. Now because God invests kings with their kingdoms almost in the same manner that vassals are invested with their estates by their sovereign, we must conclude that kings are the vassals of God, and deserve to be deprived of the benefit they receive from their lord if they revolt, in the same fashion as rebellious vassals are forfeit of their estates. These premises being allowed, this question may be easily resolved; for if God hold the place of sovereign Lord, and the king as vassal, who dare deny but that we must obey the sovereign rather than the vassal? If God commands one thing, and the king commands the contrary, where is that proud man who would term him a rebel who refuses to obey the king, when else he must disobey God? But, on the contrary, he should rather be condemned, and considered truly rebellious, who omits to obey God, or who will obey the king, when he forbids him to yield obedience to God. So, if God calls us on the one side to take us into His service, and the king on the other, is any man so foolish that he will not say we must leave the king, and apply ourselves to God’s service? So far be it from us to believe that we are bound to obey a king commanding anything contrary to the law of God. On the contrary, in obeying him we become rebels to God, no more nor less than we would consider a countryman a rebel who, for the love he bears to some rich and ancient inferior lord, would bear arms against the sovereign ruler, or who had rather obey the writs of an inferior judge than of a superior, the commandments of a lieutenant of a province, than of the ruler; to be brief, the directions of an officer rather than the express ordinances of the king himself. In doing this we justly incur the malediction of the prophet Micah, who detests and curses, in the name of God, all those who obey the wicked and perverse ordinances of kings. By the law of God we understand the two tables given to Moses, and in them, the authority of all rulers ought to be as fixed as unremovable boundaries. The first table of the law contains that which we owe to God, the second that which owe our neighbors. In short, they contain piety and justice conjoined with charity, from which the preaching of the gospel does not take away, but rather authorize and confirm. The first table is considered to be the principal, as well in order as in dignity. If the ruler commands to cut the throat of an innocent, to pillage and commit extortion, there is no man (provided he has some feeling of conscience) who would execute such a commandment. If the ruler has committed some crime, as adultery, parricide, or some other wickedness, behold among the heathen the learned lawyer Papinian who will reprove Caracalla to his face, and had rather die than obey, when his cruel ruler commands him to lie and conceal his offence. And although he threatened him with a terrible death, he still would not bear false witness. What shall we do then, if the ruler command us to be idolaters, if he would have us again crucify Christ Jesus, if he enjoins us to blaspheme and despise God, and to drive Him (if it were possible) out of heaven, is there not yet more reason to disobey him, than to yield obedience to such extravagant commands? And, not only should we not merely abstain from evil, but also, we must do good. Instead of worshipping idols, we must adore and serve the true God, according as he has commanded us, and instead of bending our knees before Baal, we must render to the Lord the honor and service which He requires of us. For we are bound to serve God for His own sake only, but we honor our ruler, and love our neighbour, because of and for the love of God.
Now if it be not good to offend our neighbour, and if it be a capital crime to rise against our ruler, what shall we say about those who rise in rebellion against the majesty of the sovereign Lord of all mankind? Briefly, as it is a thing much more grievous to offend the creator, than the creature, man, than the image he represents, and as in the terms of law, he that has wounded the proper person of a king is much more culpable than another who has only broken the statue erected in his memory, so there is no question but a much more terrible punishment is prepared for them who infringe the first table of the law, than for those who only sin against the second. Although the one depends on the other, it follows (to speak by comparison) that we must take more careful regard of the observation on the first than of the second. Furthermore, our progenitors’ examples may teach us the rule we must follow in this case. King Ahab, at the instigation of his wife Jezebel, killed all the prophets and servants of God that could be taken. Despite this, Obadiah, steward of Ahab’s house, did both hide and feed in a cave a hundred prophets; the excuse for this is readily apparent: in obligations, oblige they never so nearly, the Divine Majesty must always be excepted. The same Ahab enjoined all men to sacrifice to Baal. Elias, instead of cooling or relenting, did reprove more freely the king and all the people, convinced the priests of Baal of their impiety, and caused them to be executed. Then, in despite of that wicked and furious Jezebel, and the opposition of that uxorious king, he does redress and reform with a divine and powerful endeavour the service of the true God. When Ahab reproached him (as the rulers of our times do) that he troubled Israel, that he was rebellious, seditious, etc., (the usual unjust accusations such men are charged with), Elias answered, no, but it is thou thyself who, by thy apostasy has troubled Israel, who has left the Lord, the true God, to acquaint thyself with strange gods, His enemies. In the same manner and by the leading and direction of the same spirit did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to obey Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel, Darius, Eleazar, Antiochas, and infinite others. After the coming of Jesus Christ, when the apostles were forbidden to preach the gospel, they said, “Judge ye, whether it be reasonable as in the sight of God to obey men, rather than God.” (Acts 4:19) According to this, the apostles, paying no attention to either worldly designs or priorities, devoted themselves to do that which their master, Jesus Christ, had commanded them.
The Jews themselves would not permit the silver eagle, (the emblem of the Roman Empire) nor the statue of Caligula to be set up in the temple at Jerusalem. And what did Ambrose say when the Emperor Valentinian commanded him to give the temple at Milan to the Arians? “Thy counsellors and captains are come unto me,” he said, “to make me speedily deliver the temple, saying it was done by the authority and command of the emperor, and that all things are in his power. I answered to it, that if he demanded that which is mine, to wit, my inheritance, or my money, I would not in any way refuse it him (although all my goods belong properly to the poor). But divine matters are not in subjection to the power of the emperor.” What do we think that this holy man would have answered if it had been demanded of him that the living temple of the Lord should be enthralled to the slavery of idols? These examples, and the steadfast faith of a million martyrs, who were glorious in their deaths for not yielding obedience in this kind, according as the Ecclesiastical Histories, may sufficiently serve explicitly as law in this case.
But despite all this, we have many such directions from Scripture itself. For virtually every time the apostles admonish Christians to obey kings and magistrates, they first exhort and admonish every man to subject himself in like manner to God, and to obey Him first and foremost against anyone else. There is nowhere to be found in Holy Scripture the least justification for unlimited obedience to earthly kings which the flatterers of rulers do require from ignorant men. “Let every soul,” says Saint Paul, “be subject to the higher powers, for there is no power but of God.” In order to make it absolutely clear, by these various passages, that we must obey God rather than the king, he explicitly mentions every soul, to the end it may not be thought that he would exempt any from this subjection. For if we obey the king from a motive of love of God, certainly this obedience may not be a conspiracy against God. But the apostle will stop the gap to all ambiguity in adding that the ruler is the servant of God for our good. For in order for this command to obey the king to make sense, what we have already seen must necessarily be true, that is, that we must rather obey God than him who is His servant. This does not yet content Saint Paul, for he adds in the end, “Give tribute, honor, and fear to whom they are due,” (Rom. 13:7) as if he should say, that which was alleged by Christ, “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s.” To Caesar tribute, and honor; to God fear. Saint Peter says the same, “fear God, honor the king. Servants obey your masters, not only the good and kind, but also the rigorous.” (1 Pe. 2:17-18) We must practice these precepts, according to the order of importance, that is, that as servants are not bound to obey their masters if they command anything which is against the laws and ordinances of kings, subjects in like manner owe no obedience to kings which will make them to violate the law of God.
Certain evil companions may object that even in the things themselves that concern the conscience we must obey kings. They are so shameless that they support their wicked an opinion with the Apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul, concluding from hence, that we must yield obedience to all that the king shall ordain, though it be to embrace, without question, any superstition he shall please to establish. But no man is so foolish that he wouldn’t see the impiety of men who who would put forth such an argument. We reply that Saint Paul explicitly says we must be subject to rulers, not only for wrath, but also for the sake of conscience. In contrasting conscience to wrath, it is as if the apostle had said that the obedience of which he speaks ought not to proceed from fear of punishment, but from the love of God, and from the reverence which we owe the Lord. In the same sense Saint Paul commands servants in such manner to obey their masters, that it be not with any service for fear of punishment, but out of wholehearted devotion, fearing God, not simply to acquire the favour of men, whom they may delude, but to bear the burden laid on their shoulders by Him whom no man can deceive.
In brief there is an obvious difference between these two manners of speech, that is, to obey for conscience sake, and to obey in those things which concern the conscience. Otherwise those who would rather die a horrible death than obey rulers who command them things contrary to the will of God, would have taught us that which these seek to persuade us to. Neither do they express themselves less impudent in that which they are accustomed to object, to those who are not so well able to answer them. That obedience is better than sacrifice, for there is no text in Holy Writ that does more evidently confound them than this, which is contained in Samuel’s reprehension of King Saul, for his disobedience to the commandment of God, in sacrificing unfittingly. If then Saul, although he were a king, ought to obey God, it follows in all good consequence that subjects are not bound to obey their king by offending of God. Briefly those who (after the barbarous manner of the men of Calcut) seek to subsume the service of God with a necessary dependence on the will of a mutable man, and religion to the good pleasure of the king, as if he were some God on earth, they doubtless little value the testimony of Holy Writ. But let them (at the very least) learn from a heathen orator. “That ill every public state, there are certain degrees of duty, for those who converse and live in it, by which may appear wherein the one are obliged to the other. Insomuch that the first part of this duty belongs to the immortal God, the second concerns the country, which is their common mother, the third, those who are of our blood, the other parts leading us step by step to our other neighbours. Now, although the crime of high treason be very heinous, yet, according to the civilians, it always follows after sacrilege, an offence which properly pertains to the Lord God and His service insomuch that they do confidently affirm that the robbing of a church is, by their rules, esteemed a greater crime than to conspire against the life of a ruler.” This, then, is enough said concerning this first question, wherein we persuade ourselves, that any man may receive satisfaction, if he be not utterly void of the fear of God.
In 2 Kings 11:17, there was a covenant established among God, the king, and the people. This covenant was not unique, but was the same one of which Moses and Joshua spoke: “promising them in the Lord’s name all good things if they persisted in obedience and threatening all evil if they willfully disobeyed.” When Samuel established Saul as king of Israel, the people were admonished to obey God and serve the king, or else suffer punishment. So God had given them a king, “but with this condition attached, that he himself follow the law of God.” Indeed, when Saul disobeyed God, the kingdom was taken from him and given to David. This covenant is seen again in 1 Kings 3:15 with Solomon, likewise offering a promise of blessing for obedience and a promise of punishment for disobedience. We saw in part 1 of this series that kings derive their authority from God and are his vassals; thus, when they rebel against God, they lose their right to rule. Saul’s sons lost the throne and Solomon’s son lost the northern ten tribes because they broke covenant during their reigns. God said, “They will lessen My majesty, and I will lessen their kingdom.” Since Christians are the new Israel, Christian magistrates are bound by “the same covenant, the same conditions, the same punishments . . . and as the former were bound to keep the law, so the latter are obliged to adhere to the doctrine of the Gospel.” Even pagan magistrates are granted their authority by God and are bound at least not to hinder God’s people. Pagan magistrates who warred against God’s people, such as Herod, Julian the Apostate, Antiochus, and Nero, came to miserable ends. But pagan magistrates who left God’s people unhindered, such as Trajan, Adrian, Antonius the Courteous, and others, lived out their days in peace. God created both man’s body and his soul, and while He grants the civil magistrate some power over his subjects’ bodies and goods, He reserves the soul and worship for Himself alone. Both David and Jehoshaphat set up “certain persons to judge the causes that belonged to the Almighty, and others to look to the justice of the king.” When Nebuchadnezzar set himself up as a god and attempted to be the ruler of both body and soul, he was struck down to live as a wild beast until he acknowledged God.
Thus the answer to the question of whether it is lawful to disobey a magistrate who commands that which is contrary to the law of God is clear. “For if God hold the place of sovereign Lord, and the king as vassal, who dare deny but that we must obey the sovereign rather than the vassal? If God commands one thing, and the king commands the contrary, where is that proud man who would term him a rebel who refuses to obey the king, when else he must disobey God? But, on the contrary, he should rather be condemned, and considered truly rebellious, who omits to obey God, or who will obey the king, when he forbids him to yield obedience to God.” For we do not owe magistrates honor in their own right as we do to God, just as we are not to love our neighbor solely for his own sake. We honor the magistrate and love our neighbor ultimately because of our love for God. Thus, when a magistrates commands that which is contrary to the law of God, to obey that command would be completely opposed to our entire motivation for honoring the magistrate. Therefore, Obadish did no wrong when he disobeyed Ahab and hid the righteous; and the prophet Elijah answered Ahab rightly when the king said that “he troubled Israel, that he was rebellious, seditious, etc., (the usual unjust accusations such men are charged with)” — replying that it was actually Ahab who troubled Israel with his rebellion against God. And even in the New Testament, when Christians are commanded to obey the civil magistrate, the Scriptures “first exhort and admonish every man to subject himself in like manner to God, and to obey Him first and foremost against anyone else. There is nowhere to be found in Holy Scripture the least justification for unlimited obedience to earthly kings which the flatterers of rulers do require from ignorant men. . . . For if we obey the king from a motive of love of God, certainly this obedience may not be a conspiracy against God.” This is what is meant by rendering unto Caesar.
This section ends with a conclusion: “this, then, is enough said concerning this first question, wherein we persuade ourselves, that any man may receive satisfaction, if he be not utterly void of the fear of God.” Amen.
Excerpts from Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos obtained from here.
Part 3 of the series
Part 4 of the series
Part 5 of the series
Part 6 of the series