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Volume 14

Fall 1996

Number 1

The Journal of

Symposium on Reconstruction
in Church and State


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

The Journal of Christian Reconstruction
is published as often as Chalcedon resources permit.
Volume 14 / Number 1

Symposium on Reconstruction in Church and State
Rousas John Rushdoony, President
Andrew Sandlin, Editor
Walter Lindsay, Assistant Editor
Andrea Schwartz, Managing Editor
ISSN 0360–1420
Electronic Version 1.0 / 2012
Copyright © 1996 Chalcedon Foundation. All rights reserved.

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somewhat from Chalcedon’s and from each other.

The Journal of Christian Reconstruction


The Journal of Christian
This Journal is dedicated to the fulfillment of the cultural mandate
of Genesis 1:28 and 9:1—to subdue the earth to the glory of God. It is
published by the Chalcedon Foundation, an independent Christian
educational organization (see inside back cover). The perspective
of the Journal is that of orthodox Christianity. It affirms the verbal,
plenary inspiration and infallibility of the Bible and the full divinity
and full humanity of Jesus Christ—two natures in union (but without
intermixture) in one person.
The editors are convinced that the Christian world is in need of a serious
publication that bridges the gap between the newsletter-magazine and
the scholarly academic journal. The editors are committed to Christian
scholarship, but the Journal is aimed at intelligent laymen, working
pastors, and others who are interested in the reconstruction of all
spheres of human existence in terms of the standards of the Old and
New Testaments. It is not intended to be another outlet for professors
to professors, but rather a forum for serious discussion within Christian
The Marxists have been absolutely correct in their claim that theory must
be united with practice, and for this reason they have been successful
in their attempt to erode the foundations of the non-communist world.
The editors agree with the Marxists on this point, but instead of seeing
in revolution the means of fusing theory and practice, we see the fusion
in personal regeneration through God’s grace in Jesus Christ and in the
extension of God’s kingdom. Good principles should be followed by good
practice; eliminate either, and the movement falters. In the long run, it is
the kingdom of God, not Marx’s “kingdom of freedom,” which shall reign
triumphant. Christianity will emerge victorious, for only in Christ and
his revelation can men find both the principles of conduct and the means
of subduing the earth: The principles of biblical law.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

Table Of Contents
Editor’s Introduction
Andrew Sandlin 1
The Reconstructive Task
Christian Reconstruction as a Movement
Rousas John Rushdoony 5

The Conservative Irony
Andrew Sandlin 39

Reconstruction in Church and State
John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State
Mark Kelan Harbour 45

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects and the
Duty of Subjects Towards Their Rulers
Theodore Beza 103

The Case for Curbing the Federal Courts
William D. Graves 165

The Legacy of the Legal Theory of John Calvin
G. Joseph Gatis 179

Reconstruction in Economics
Reform of Limited Liability Law
Stephen Perks 195

The Character of Inflation
Steven Alan Samson 215

Reconstruction in Theology
The Dispensational View of the Church Age and Its Effect on

Table Of Contents


Christian Political and Social Action
William Einwechter 223

Reconstruction in Philosophy
No Other Foundation: Christian Epistemology in the
Postmodern Age
Jospeh Braswell 253

Book Reviews
The True Origin of FreedomArchie P. Jones reviews The Theme is
Freedom: Religion, Politics, and the American Tradition (by M.
Stanton Evans)
The Myth of Political Polytheism
Archie P. Jones reviews Political Polytheism (by Gary North) 271


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

Editor’s Introduction
Crediting the recent resurgence of Christian political activity
merely to a reaction of the “religious right” to the liberals’
decades-long hegemony in the political sphere does not do justice
to the ideational, or, more correctly, theological factors propelling
Christian politics. While it would be simplistic to attribute the
surge of Christian politics to a single cause, it is safe to assume that
the revival of Reformed orthodoxy plays a crucial role.
H. Henry Meeter notes that,
[t]he Bible is the Calvinist’s rule of faith and practice in everything[;]
therefore it is also his rule in the realm of politics. This is easy
to comprehend. According to the Calvinist, God is Sovereign
everywhere. Therefore his Word is law also for the political world.
Since the Bible is, as God’s Word, his rule of faith and conduct, the
Calvinist consults it for guidelines in his political activities.1
This Calvinistic conviction undergirds R. J. Rushdoony’s
seminal Institutes of Biblical Law—the Bible is authoritative in
all spheres, including the political. Simply put, the re-emergence
of Christian political involvement is spurred by the recognition
not only that the Bible and Christian faith have something to say
about politics and the state, but that they are the only unmovable
anchor of politics and the state. This is nothing more nor less than
the recovery of a standard Reformed tenet.
Alternatively, it is a mistake often made by the uninformed
(and sometimes by the informed, who seemingly wish to slander)
to assert that Chalcedon and those of like mind devote their
main energies to overthrowing the present political order and
imposing a top-down political dictatorship. Even the director of
the principal Christian political organization in the United States
got into the misrepresentation act, writing lately: “[Christian]
reconstructionism is an authoritarian ideology that threatens
the most basic civil liberties of a free and democratic society.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. We affirm that man
and societies are changed mainly by regeneration, not revolution
1. The Basic Ideas of Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: 1960, fifth ed), 97.

Editor’s Introduction


(which, in any case, is evil). We believe the present secular order
is itself authoritarian and revolutionary, and that the adoption
of the Christian faith—including biblical law—in the political
sphere would erase the encumbering and despotic statism to
which we are now subject, and would return society to the sure
foundation of maximum individual freedom under the authority
of God’s inscripturated law. Political liberals (and others) routinely
hold {2} that social change is possible only by the manipulation
of the political order.2 They then make the illogical assumption
that because they see no possibility of social change apart from
political change, everybody who works for social change must
have designs on reshaping the state to effect that change. By
contrast, we at Chalcedon perceive political change as one effect
of regeneration, faith, and obedience in the individual, familial,
ecclesiastical, social, and, only finally, in the political sphere. By
the time the state is Christianized, the task of re-Christianization
of society will be nearly complete.
Chalcedon’s vision is not a political vision; it is a religious vision
with political implications.
Nevertheless, the state is a valid sphere of Christian activity. As
Meeter observed, if the Bible is our ultimate authority in all areas
of life, it must function authoritatively no less in the state than in
the individual life, the family, the church, and all other areas. This
recognition sets us Christian reconstructionists, that is, consistent
defenders of the application of the historically Reformed vision,
at odds not only with modern secularists, who rightly see our
goal as threatening to their grim dream of a humanist Utopia, but
also with many conservatives, who long only for the days of yore,
for a secular or “traditional” society marked by order, restraint,
and virtue. Our vision also sets us off from modern pluralistic
evangelicals (including some professed Calvinists, who should
know better) devoted to nothing more than “natural theology”
and “natural law” as the paradigm for the political order. For these
Christians who claim to believe the Bible “from cover to cover,”
when what is between the covers addresses civil society and civil
law, they quickly (and hypocritically) retreat.
Chalcedon sees man’s only hope in the message of salvation by
2. see, e.g., Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice (New York, 1983).


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

faith in Christ alone, which results consistently in godly obedience
in all areas of life, including the state. To that end we offer this
important symposium.
R. J. Rushdoony traces the roots and tenets of the “Christian
Reconstruction Movement” which he and Chalcedon have
spearheaded and will continue to lead, by God’s grace, well into
the next millennium.
This editor adduces the irony of modern political conservatism,
in its recent “progressive” role, which it unsuccessfully fulfills.
Mark Harbour’s dissertation scrutinizes seventeenth-century
Puritan John Owen’s view of church and state, and in particular
Owen’s answer to the perpetually vexing problem of religious
toleration. {3}
The reprint of Theodore Beza’s piece on the civil magistrate
highlights the typical sixteenth-century Reformed approach to
the question of the state and political change. It offers a refreshing
alternative to both the pluralistic and anarchic strains in modern
William D. Graves potently sets forth a case for reducing the
scope and power of the federal courts in the United States. His
essay presupposes a commitment to smaller federal government,
with greater political authority exercised on the local and state
Stephen Perks exhibits the relevance of biblical case law for
modern limited liability law, and Steve Samson sets out in simple
terms the religious nature of monetary inflation.
In recent times, perhaps no theological school has had
a more stultifying effect on Christian political action than
dispensationalism. William Einwechter methodically shows why
this is the case—and why it must always be the case.
Joseph Braswell’s essay reveals how postmodern epistemologists
and other philosophers are finally recognizing the myth of
objective reason and rationality, a cornerstone Enlightenment
Finally, Christian political scientist Archie Jones reviews Stan
Evans’s hard-hitting, iconoclastic historico-political work, The
Theme is Freedom, as well as Gary North’s Political Polytheism,
with whose main thesis Jones takes issue.
My deepest thanks to my assistant editor, Walter Lindsay, and

Editor’s Introduction


to Andrea Schwartz, my managing editor. Without their sedulous
and painstaking endeavor, this issue of the Journal would not have
been possible.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1


Christian Reconstruction as a Movement


Christian Reconstruction
as a Movement
Rousas John Rushdoony

The Beginning of Reconstruction
In February, 1991, it became necessary for me to get new and
slightly stronger glasses. As I stood waiting for service, the man
in front of me exploded with rage. He had just been told that, as
a result of new regulations issued in January, no Medicare patient
could receive two new pairs of glasses, but only one, and he would
no longer be able to choose the most expensive frames. (The Gulf
War with Iraq had seriously hurt the federal income, together with
a declining economy.) The man, who was both younger and better
dressed than I, raged against this denial as a medical-industrial
conspiracy, took up some time expressing his anger, walked out
without making a selection to complain to his congressman, then
drove off in a fairly new car, better than any I have ever owned. He
was one of our “good, successful Americans.”
We have drugs in our streets and schools. We have vicious racial
gangs in our cities, and crime on all sides. Abortion is legal, and
so too is homosexuality, and efforts are under way to legalize child
molestation and incest.
I submit, however, that the man demanding two pairs of
eyeglasses, with expensive frames for both sets, is as much a part
of our current evil as anyone else. He belongs to the entitlement
At the same time, in the religious field, we saw last January the
prayer breakfast held by the famous, celebrating God’s ostensibly
unconditional love for Israel. A few weeks later, on a major
fundamentalist program, God’s unconditional love for Christians
was proclaimed. But God’s love is covenantal or contractual, and


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

therefore never unconditional. The doctrine of unconditional
love goes hand in hand with antinomianism. This doctrine,
much promoted since World War II by R. B. Thieme, declares, in
Thieme’s words:
You can even become an atheist, but if you once accepted Christ
as your Savior, you can’t lose your salvation.... Do you know that
if you were a genius, you couldn’t figure out a way to go to hell? ...
You can blaspheme, you can deny the Lord, you can commit every
sin in the Bible, plus all the others, but there is just NO WAY!1
According to such thinking, if we once say “yes” to Jesus,
he is eternally bound to save us, whereas we are free to go our
sinning way because his promise and love are unconditional. Such
thinking gives a new definition to Pharisaism. {6}
As against this, Christian reconstruction is covenantal. God’s
covenant with us is entirely an act of sovereign grace. We are
bound now to faithfulness, to obedience. God’s sovereign grace
elects us, and our response is to be faithful to his sanctifying
covenant law. This means that our task is the reconstruction and
the regenerating of all things in terms of his grace and law.
The man demanding two sets of glasses with the most expensive
frames was very modern. Like many welfare recipients, he lived
in a sense of entitlements. The world owed him whatever he felt
he needed. As against entitlements, the true Christian lives with
a sense of responsibility: “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?”
(Acts. 9:6).
Isaiah tells us with respect to the Christ, that “the government
shall be upon his shoulders” (Isa. 9:6), and, because we are
members of his body, we therefore share in this responsibility. The
goal is, again in Isaiah’s words, “for the earth shall be full of the
knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9).
This means that Christians are saved to serve, to become dominion
men and to bring every area of life and thought into captivity to
Christ, beginning with themselves.
We begin by bringing our lives and our families under Christ’s
dominion and under obedience to God’s law, and, from there we
extend his way outward. The Christian witness is today limited to
words when in fact it must be the totality of our life and thought.
1. Arend J. ten Pas, The Lordship of Christ (Vallecito, CA, 1976), 19ff.

Christian Reconstruction as a Movement


For example, because of a false faith that the Lord will take care of
them, church members exceed the ungodly, it is said, in their per
capita and per family debt. Some churches see it as evidence of
faith to plunge into heavy debt on some ambitious venture. God’s
law limits debt to six years (Deut. 15:1–6, 12–18, etc.), and as a
general rule, to “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another”
(Rom. 13:8). To cite this law to some men is to incur their hate! It is,
however, very obviously the law of the Lord. Debt has become the
modern form of slavery. Proverbs 22:7 tells us that the “borrower
is servant [or, slave] to the lender.” Slavery is property rights in
the labor of another man, and the banks now have property rights
over most church members. {7}
We have another law now also much disregarded:
Thou shalt not remove thy neighbor’s landmark, which they of old
time have set in thine inheritance, which thou shalt inherit in the
land that the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it. (Deut. 19:14)
Cursed be he that removeth his neighbor’s landmark. And all the
people shall say, Amen. (Deut. 27:17)
Remove not the old landmark; and enter not into the fields of the
fatherless: For their redeemer is mighty; he shall plead their cause
with thee. (Prov. 23:10–11)

This is a two-edged law. First, it has reference to actual land
boundaries. It was a temptation to increase one’s land by shifting
a boundary marker when no man would be near to see it. Some
friends whose ranch has boundaries deep in forests thick with
brush are finding it difficult to determine their boundaries. Cleared
ranch land, when refenced, can be increased by some acres if the
fence line is moved six inches or a foot, something easy to do in
wet spring weather. Second, this law refers to the landmarks of
God’s law. Men want to moderate them, or alter them, to appeal to
modern man’s reasoning. This means removing God’s landmarks
and incurring his wrath. This our age is busy doing.
If we examine the landmark of God’s word, we find that we have
altered the landmarks greatly. The two centers of human action
are now church and state. In effect, the government is now upon
their shoulders. The state taxes us heavily in order to maintain an
expensive plan of social salvation. The church insists that it is the


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

proper recipient of the tithe, when the tithe is properly to the Lord.
The tithe (Lev. 27:30–32; 1 Cor. 9:12–14; Mal. 3:8–12; Prov. 3:9–10,
11:24f; Matt. 23:23; Heb. 7:1–8) was paid, if not administered by
the individual, to the Levite, who then tithed a tenth to the priests
for worship. The regular tithe is cited in Deut. 14:22; the poor
tithe is in Deut. 14:28, and Amos 4:4; and the rejoicing tithe in
Deut. 14:22–26. God places the basic tax and power in the hands
of the family. The sanctuary received a tenth of the tithe, so that
the church cannot be a superpower, and the civil government is
limited to half a shekel for each male from twenty years of age
and above (Ex. 30:11–16). This means a very limited state, given
to justice and national defense. The basic task of government is
thus reserved to the families, who must govern their own, care
for their own, and extend charity to the needy. Society is to be
organized into families, ten families with a captain or elder
over them, then another over fifty families, over hundreds, over
thousands, and so on up (Deut. 1:9–18). In the English-speaking
world, the hundred courts were once the basic governing body, {8}
well into the eighteenth century. The emphasis was thus on selfgovernment and local grass-roots responsibility. The restoration of
family government is thus basic.
Two major steps in this direction have been Christian schools
and home schools. Together with tithing, they are creating a very
different kind of family community.
There is another factor basic to reconstruction: restitution.
Immediately after the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus
20:1–17, we have in Exodus 21 and especially in Exodus 22 the law
of restitution. The penalty for crime is not prison but restitution,
up to fivefold, depending on the offense, and involuntary servitude
to make restitution if it is not at once forthcoming. Crime is thus
punished to require the restoration of godly order. Justice must
flow from the daily lives of the people; super imposition is not
Because justice must begin in the family, the requirement is that
the family take the lead in filing charges against an incorrigible
member (Deut. 21:18–21), because the family’s primary loyalty
must be to God’s order rather than to an evil blood member. The
priority of the family to the processes of justice is thus underscored.
From the biblical point of view, all modern forms of civil

Christian Reconstruction as a Movement


government are variations on monarchism, of rule from the top
down. For Scripture, the family is the central social government.
We have in Exodus 21:15–17 laws which seem strange to the
modern mind:
15. And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put
to death.
16. And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in
his hand, he shall surely be put to death.
17. And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put
to death.

This death penalty is for treason. In Scripture, treason is not an
offense against the state but against the family. Hence its great
seriousness. To curse or strike one’s parents is to strike at the
center of God’s government on earth. To kidnap a man to enslave
him is to shatter the basic order of life, the family. Very clearly,
the biblical worldview is markedly different from our own, and we
are the worse for it. The purpose of church and state should be to
strengthen the family, not to exploit it.
It is important to note that for Scripture the family is more a
faith-entity than a blood-fact. For this reason, prior to the birth of
Ishmael and Isaac, Abraham’s heir was not some blood relative,
and he did not lack them, but {9} a servant born in his house and
sharing his faith (Gen. 15:2–3). However much Abraham wanted
a blood heir, he gave priority to a man of faith. Our modern view
of the family gives priority to biology over faith, and hence its
Because of the priority of the family, headship is very important.
The man’s headship is primarily to be governed by his loyalty to
Jesus Christ, not by demanding submission from his wife. He is
to love his wife (and family) “as Christ also loved the church, and
gave himself for it” (Eph. 5:25). The husband is to be a channel
of God’s redemptive plan for man and history rather than an
The church is the sphere of biblical instruction and formal
worship; the state is the sphere of courts of justice and the work
of defense. The basic governmental task of health, education, and
welfare belong to the family. The godly wife is one who “stretcheth


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the
needy” (Prov. 31:20).
The family in Scripture controls welfare, property, education
(with help from the Levites), inheritance, children, cares for its
aged members, and is the basic social force and government.
Wherever the family is weakened, the social fabric decays.
Christian reconstruction is in essence a family movement. To
make it primarily a matter of reform in church and state is to miss
the point of the biblical mandate.
The Book of Proverbs is a commentary on the law. It is addressed
to young men, to “my son” (Prov. 1:10), because a superimposed
law can never accomplish what a law written in our being can do.
The prediction of Jer. 31:31–34 (restated in Ezek. 36:25–27) tells
31. Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new
covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah:
32. Not according to the covenant that I made with their
fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring
them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they
brake, although I was a husband unto them, saith the Lord:
33. But this shall be the covenant that I will make with
the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will
put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their
hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.
34. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and
every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all
know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith
the Lord: for I will forgive them their iniquity, and I will remember
their sin no more. (Jer. 31:31–34) {10}

The Bible and Christian Reconstruction
Protestants, especially in the Reformed churches, profess to be
firmly and radically grounded in Scripture. They affirm Calvin’s
fundamental faith, Soli Deo Gloria, the glory of God as their
sovereign purpose, and Sola Scriptura, to set forth their sole
reliance on God’s inerrant and infallible word as their foundation
for all authority, truth, knowledge and work.
A quick glance at the church scene makes clear that most
Reformed people, and most Bible-believing churches, are faithful

Christian Reconstruction as a Movement


neither to the glory of God nor to the Bible.
A few years ago, when one of the most strict of the Reformed
churches appointed a commission to study their possible stand
on homosexuality, my wife Dorothy observed that, whatever the
commission said, the report was already wrong because it was
planning to speak where God had already spoken.
Where God has spoken, we have but to believe and obey. Where
God has not spoken, our concerns are then simply idle and evil
curiosity. The Lord God tells us little about heaven; heretical
groups have often had much to say about it, because their concern
is to satisfy man, not to please God.
Fallen man is a rebel against Almighty God. He has declared his
independence of God and asserted that he, man, is the only true
god, law, authority and determiner of good and evil, as well as the
final judge of all things. Fallen man is a sinner; he is at war with
Almighty God, so that we know how great a fool and a madman
he is.
Van Til tells us,
Here then, are the marks of the natural man in his attitude toward
the interpretation of the facts (events) of the world:
1. He thinks of himself as the ultimate judge of what can or cannot
be. He will not allow any authority to stand above him revealing to
him what may or may not have happened in the past or what may
or may not happen in the future.
2. This assertion or assumption of autonomy on the part of man
makes a covert, if not an overt assertion about the nature of God.
God (it is assumed if not asserted) cannot be of such a nature as to
control any and all phenomena.
3. These two assertions or assumptions imply a third: that man’s
thought is, in the final analysis, absolutely original. Whatever his
ultimate environment may be, the area of interpretation that man
makes for himself will be true for him because his thought is in
effect legislative with respect to that environment. {11}
4. The facts of man’s environment are not created or controlled
by the providence of God. They are brute facts, uninterpreted
and ultimately irrational. The universe is a Chance controlled
universe. It is a wholly open universe. Yet, at the same time, it is


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

a closed universe. It is so in this sense: it cannot be what Christ
says it is, namely, created, governed, and redeemed by him. In this
one respect the cosmos is closed—there can be no such God as
the Bible reveals. This is the universal negative of the open-minded
men of philosophy and science.2

Now the Reformed churches and Christians are supposedly in
a radical antithesis to this. They should believe that God is the
supreme and ultimate Judge over all things, and therefore his
word should be our standard of judgment and action in all things.
Instead of asserting man’s autonomy, they should believe firmly in
God’s predestination and his total government for every sphere of
life and thought. Again, instead of seeing man’s thought as original
and prescriptive, they should see God’s word as the only true
word and as prescriptive for all of life. Finally, all should see God
governing all things and giving us his inscriptured word so that, in
every sphere, man can live by every word that proceeds out of the
mouth of God (Matt. 4:4; Deut. 8:3).
There is a vast difference, however, between what the Reformed
churches profess and practice. One historian observed to me that
for virtually all Reformed as well as evangelical churches, their faith
and theology ends at the church door. They do not apply it to the
world and its problems, to economics, politics, medicine, science,
or anything else. The name for this is Pietism. The sum total of
the Christian religion is supposedly the spiritual relationship of
the soul to God. Beyond saving souls, or teaching key doctrines in
abstraction from the world, there is little concern.
But as Van Til has made clear, the choice is between autonomy
and theonomy, between man’s law and God’s law.
Moreover, Van Til reminds us,
It is Christ who speaks to us in Scripture. In it he tells us who he is and
what we are. He tells us that he has come to save us from our sins. For
that purpose the Father sent him into the world. In order to bring
that work to completion in individual men the Holy Spirit takes the
things of Christ and gives them unto us (cf. John 16:14, 15). {12}
In saving us from sin, Christ saves us unto his service. Through
the salvation that is ours in Christ by the Spirit, we take up anew
the cultural mandate that was given man at the outset of history.
2. Cornelius Van Til, The Doctrine of Scripture (The den Dulk Foundation,
1967), 13.

Christian Reconstruction as a Movement


Whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, we want now to do
all to the glory of God. Moreover, we want our fellowmen with us
to do all things to the glory of God. We are bound, as we are eager,
to inform them of that which we have been told, namely, that we
shall continue to abide under the wrath of God and eventually be
cast out into utter darkness unless, by God’s grace, we seek to do
all things to the glory of God. Calling upon all men everywhere
to join with us in fulfilling the original cultural mandate given to
mankind—which we may now undertake because of the redeeming
work of Christ—is our joy each day.
The cultural mandate is to be fulfilled in our handling of the facts
or events of our environment. Men must subdue, to the service of
Christ, the earth and all that is therein. As the Christian constantly
does so, he is constantly conscious of the fact that he is working on
God’s estate. He is the bondservant of God through Christ. Therein
lies his freedom. Those who still think of themselves as owners of
themselves and think of the world as a grab bag Cannot properly
evaluate the situation as it really is. Unbeknown to them, they too
are working on God’s estate.3

We are saved to serve, and not simply within the sphere of the
family and church.
St. Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 15:24–27, that, before the end, when the
last enemy, death, shall be destroyed, all Christ’s enemies and all
things must be put under his feet, under his dominion.
According to Lucien Joseph Richard, John Calvin “envisioned
an integration of holiness and virtue into the political order.”4 He
saw “sanctification as world transformation,” in Richard’s words.
According to Richard,
Calvin’s epistemology demanded a reinterpretation of traditional
ecclesiological models. In the Roman tradition, the Church
recognizes the Spirit not as an immanent possession subject to
its direction but as a transcendent reality by which it is directed.
For Calvin the action of the Holy Spirit occurs principally in the
individual and not in the Church. The Spirit acts towards the
individual independent of the community. The Testimonium
Spiritus Sancti is individual. It gives the individual the certitude of
3. Ibid., 2.
4. Lucien Joseph Richard, The Spirituality of John Calvin (Atlanta, GA, 1974),


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

God’s promise.5 {13}

Again, in Richard’s words, for Calvin, “In a real sense the Christian
must become an agent of the restoration of order throughout
the world.”6 “For Calvin the ultimate end of history was not the
salvation of man, but the glory of God.”7 Moreover, “Every created
being must work for the glory of God.”8
When men reduce the goal of Christianity to the church, they
surrender the catholicity or universality of the faith. When they
surrender everything to one goal, the salvation of man’s soul, they
reduce the faith even more. Our regeneration is the starting-point,
not the end or goal, of Christianity.
Armando Valladares, in his prison memoirs, Against All Hope,
describes his twenty-two years in Fidel Castro’s prison and the
horrifying tortures he was subjected to during that time. His title
comes from Rom. 4:18. Inmates who agreed to join the Political
Rehabilitation program had their ill-treatment moderated; those
who refused to join, had their tortures increased. According to
Only by strong pressure from the high leadership of the Party were
they forced to obey the order not to beat up the men who came
into the Rehabilitation Program. They were made to understand
that the Soviet Union demanded the establishment of Political
Rehabilitation, and they were finally convinced that beatings
were not the only means of revenge against the antagonists of the
regime, that there existed other methods by which they could vent
their hatred and sadism. They were made to see that the ultimate
aim of Political Rehabilitation was the internal annihilation of the
prisoner, the destruction of all his principles. Turning a man into a
moral zero would be the supreme vengeance.9
“Turning a man into a moral zero” has been the purpose of Marxist
prisons and slave labor camps all over the world. It is an organized
and highly motivated plan to obliterate the image of God in man.

Ibid., 181.
Ibid., 177.
Ibid., 114.
Armando Valladares, Against All Hope (no loc.).

Christian Reconstruction as a Movement


Unhappily, it is not Marxists alone who are trying to gain this
goal of man as a moral zero. Statist education all over the world is
commonly deeply involved in the same mission.
But how much worse it is when the churches turn people into
moral zeroes! Not too long ago, a woman in a Southern state was
excommunicated for adultery. She never denied the charge, but
she denied the “right” of the church to act against her. She went to
court and won. {14}
At least this church acted. Most do not. Ninety percent of
Americans profess to believe in God; however, only thirteen
percent believe in all Ten Commandments, and forty percent
believe in five or fewer Commandments. (With antinomianism,
people feel free to obey only what suits them.) Eighty-two percent
believe in hell, but only four percent think they will go there.10
Patterson and Kim give an example of the common gap between
faith and practice. A white woman, with some college education,
with children, was once for two years a prostitute, although no one
in her family knows this. One of her daughters was conceived by
a man other than her husband, although neither the husband nor
the girl know this. She has a variety of serious problems, but, on a
ten-point scale, she rated herself highly as a nine. She is absolutely
certain of God’s existence, “a frequent church-goer,” and she
believes that she is teaching her children “proper values,” and she
cared for her parents in their old age.11
Is this unusual? I find from coast-to-coast experience with people
that it is not. Godly pastors have an uphill task, but this is because,
in our antinomian age, men want a cheap and easy “gospel.” We
now have, as Joseph R. McAuliffe has written, “designer churches.”
Instead of regenerating men and reconstructing the world in terms
of God’s law-word, we have churches reconstructing themselves to
please man, not God.
What these churches are doing is turning their members into
moral zeroes, moral blanks. Is it any wonder that the church is
powerless? To speak of powerful Christianity is a contradiction in
terms. Christians can be and are persecuted and killed, but this is
10. James Patterson and Peter Kim, The Day America Told the Truth (New
York: 1991), 199–204.
11. Ibid., 41.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

because they are a threat. The dead are not a threat.
Our Lord commands us,
18. ...All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.
19. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the
name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
20. Teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have
commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of
the world. (Matt. 28:18–20)

This is a command to conquer the world for Christ our King,
to bring all men and nations under his dominion. This is a
requirement to turn all men {15} and nations into moral forces for
the Triune God. It is not a license to reduce them to moral zeroes.
In twenty years, from 1969 to 1989, the number of Americans
eighteen years of age and older who professed to believe the Bible
and to be born-again Christians went from forty million to ninetyone million, a dramatic gain. However, in those twenty years,
the United States continued in its moral decline; abortion and
homosexuality gained legal status, and efforts are under way to
legalize euthanasia and more. Something is thus obviously wrong.
Our enemies are gaining more and more converts, whereas the
churches seem to be turning more and more people into moral
The Reformed churches were once known for the strong men
they produced, and their moral force; now they are better at
producing quarrelsome and petty wimps. The fundamentalists
used to be known as “the fighting fundies” for their zeal, but today
they are better described as “mush-heads.” We are surrounded by
churches and men who are moral zeroes.
Antinomianism must be abandoned for the whole law-word of
God. We must recognize that we were not redeemed simply to be
saved from hell but to serve God. If we read the Bible, we dare not
whine about life’s hardships; we are not here to enjoy ourselves
but to do God’s will. In a hostile, fallen world, this means bitter
hostility against us. We are, however, called to serve as Christ’s
soldiers, and we are called to victory, nothing less. Christian
reconstruction means a total confrontation of this fallen world
with God’s sovereign law-word. There is no victory without battle,

Christian Reconstruction as a Movement


“and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith”
(1 John 5:4).
When God created man, he created him in his own image
(Gen. 1:26–28). Today, too often church, state, school, psychology,
psychiatry, and the media seek to turn man into a moral zero.
God’s work cannot be undone by man, and the outcome will be
the Lord’s victory.

Biblical Law in Society
On October 25, 1991, the California Court of Appeals ruled in
the Soroka v. Dayton Corporation case that every employer will
be subject to potential criminal prosecution for discrimination
against homosexual employees or applicants. This ruling will, if it
stands, apply to churches, Christian schools and ministries, and all
groups without exception.
This is a decision which should not surprise us. All law is the
expression of the will of the sovereign, and, if man or the state
be sovereign or lord, then the every will of that overlord must be
enforced. If God the Lord is {16} alone sovereign, then only his
word constitutes valid law. The battle of our time is between two
rival religions: humanistic statism on the one hand, and biblical
faith on the other. Whomever we recognize as our lord, his law we
will follow.
The early church governed life in terms of the whole word of
God. Its conflict with Rome was over the issue of lordship and law.
We cannot restate too often the fact that Paul, in Phil. 2:9–11, set
forth the premise of Christian faith and resistance:
9. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him,
and given him a name which is above every name:
10. That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things
in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
11. And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord„
to the glory of God the Father.
The very present fact, Paul tells us, is that God has .already exalted
Jesus Christ unto authority as the cosmic lord and emperor. In
due time, one way or another, every knee shall bow to him, and
every tongue confess him. Paul summons us to work towards that
glorious fulfillment. The goal is the glorious proclamation,


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord,
and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever. (Rev. 11:15)

This is a necessary result of the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ “is
the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of
lords” (1 Tim. 6:15).
Thus, we have seen, first, that all law is the will of the sovereign
or lord. In the modern era, we have returned to the faith of ancient
paganism, a belief in the lordship of the state, or its ruler, or the
office. We therefore look to the state for law rather than to the
word of God. This is apostasy.
Second, all law expresses the nature of the lord or sovereign.
God’s law reveals his holiness, righteousness or justice, knowledge,
and dominion. These are God’s communicable attributes. The
Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us,
God created man male and female, after his own image, in
knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, with dominion over the
The texts for this are:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of
God created he him: male and female created he them...
and God said unto them... have dominion over the fish of
the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living
thing that moveth upon the earth. (Gen. 1:27–28) {17}
And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge
after the image of him that created him. (Col. 3:10)
And that he put on the new man, which after God is created in
righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:24)

Now this is a very important fact. The law of God represents the
nature of God. Because man is created in God’s image, with these
communicable attributes, everything in redeemed man’s being
responds to God’s law. The Spirit-filled psalmist could thus sing,
O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day. Thou through
thy commandments hast made me wiser than mine enemies: for
they are ever with me. I have more understanding than all my
teachers: for thy testimonies are my meditation. I understand more
than the ancients, because I keep thy precepts. I have refrained my
feet from every evil way, that I might keep thy word. I have not

Christian Reconstruction as a Movement


departed from thy judgments: for thou hast taught me. How sweet
are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through thy precepts I get understanding: therefore I hate every
false way. (Ps. 119:97–104)

The redeemed man delights in God’s law-word because his being,
re-created in Christ, is remade in God’s image and therefore
with a joy in the law that expresses God’s holiness and being.
For the ungodly, the law is a hateful burden. In fact, the Ten
Commandments could not get by our modern courts because they
discriminate against sinners.
Third, as the psalmist states clearly, God’s law gives him
knowledge: it enables man to grow to maturity in an important
aspect of God’s image in him. The law enables man to see and
to understand God’s way, and to walk in it. It is a grace-filled
knowledge that he gains, because God’s law is an aspect of his
grace to us, his covenant blessing. Humanistic knowledge is about
a multiplicity of meaningless facts, and man creates the world of
meaning by his own fiat word. Not so with the Christian. One of
the most magnificent statements in Scripture is 1 John 2:20:
But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things.
This does not mean that we know the details of all factuality but
that we know who created them and the glorious purpose towards
which all creation moves. For this reason the psalmist could
say that he had a wisdom greater than all his teachers, because
he began with the Lord and his law-word. {18} Faith without
knowledge is not faith. St. Anselm said, “I believe in order that I
may understand.” In the words of Hebrews 11:3,
Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the
word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things
which do appear.
Faith is the precondition of all true knowledge. In Solomon’s words,
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools
despise wisdom and instruction. (Prov. 1:7)
The premise of the humanistic culture of the Western world is
Abelard’s statement, “I understand in order that I may believe.” But,
without beginning with faith in the Triune God of Scripture, all
knowledge disappears into doubt, and all we have is autonomous


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

man in a world of brute or meaningless factuality. Without God
and his law-word, we soon end up in a surd, a realm empty of all
sense and meaning.
Fourth, because God is the Lord, the Sovereign, and he alone
reigns and ordains all things, his word alone defines righteousness
or justice. Just as nothing exists outside God, because “All things
were made by him; and without him was not anything made
that was made” John 1:3), so there can be and is no true law nor
justice apart from his law-word. Because God is the creator, he is
the definer of all things, and there can be no justice apart from
him and his word. It was the tempter’s plan in Eden for man to
be his own god, knowing or determining for himself what is good
and evil, morality and law, and truth and error. But there is no
independent realm outside God; there can be no law nor truth
apart from him, only hell. Because we are created and re-created
in the image of God, we can say with the psalmist, “O how I love
they law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97). Every word
of God is written in every atom of our being, as Paul tells us, and
the sinner holds or suppresses it in unrighteousness:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all
ungodliness and unrighteousness [or, injustice] of men, who hold
the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known
of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.
For the invisible things of him from the Creation of the world are
clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even
his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:
Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God,
neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and
their foolish heart was darkened. (Rom. 1:18–21) {19}
Man’s ignorance of God and his law is willful; this ignorance is a
product of man’s sin, because everything in man’s being and all
creation testifies to the truth of God and his law (Ps. 139:1–24).
Man’s problem is not ignorance but sin, and, in his sin, man wills
to pretend ignorance of God and his law.
Sixth, the knowledge of God as Lord and Savior, as Lawgiver
and Redeemer, leads to holiness. We are told that, without
holiness, “no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Again and
again in the law, we are told, “ye shall... be holy, for I am holy”
(Lev. 11:45, 19:2, etc.). In fact, the law can be called, as it has been,

Christian Reconstruction as a Movement


the holiness code. Holiness involves both separation from sin to
God and his law and also dedication to faithful service to him.
Holiness has to do with our everyday life. Leviticus, which most
stresses holiness, gives us laws concerning sexuality and marriage,
diet, debt, weights and measures, and much, much more. Too may
Protestants have a medieval view of holiness as a withdrawal from
the world into a convent or monastic establishment, and they have
turned churches into such places of retreat. God speaks of holiness
as he prepares his people to conquer the Canaanites of this world.
Holiness is not retreat but the application of God’s law-word to
every area of life and thought.
The words saintliness and holiness are different words for the
same thing. Believers in the New Testament are called saints, i.e.,
the holy ones, because their lives are now given to faithfulness to
the Lord, to walk by his Spirit in terms of his law-word. In Heb.
3:1, the term used is “holy brethren”; these are “partakers of the
heavenly Calling.” Our heavenly calling is very simply stated by
our Lord in answer to a lawyer’s question about inheriting eternal
life. He brought the lawyer to state it himself.
And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all
thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with
all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself. And he said unto him,
Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. (Lk. 10:27–
Holiness is a very wonderful and very practical thing: it is life in
faithfulness to God and his word.
Seventh, dominion is an aspect of God’s image in man. This
dominion is over the earth and its creatures. The Garden of Eden
was a pilot project whereby man was to learn how to subdue
the earth in the Lord, understand it by naming or classifying its
creatures, and serving God by doing his will on earth. Fallen man
has substituted domination for dominion, and selfwill for God’s
will. The results are well described by our Lord’s brother, James:

From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not
hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and
have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and
war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not,


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. Ye
adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the
world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend
of the world is the enemy of God. Do ye think that the scripture
saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy? But he
giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud,
but giveth grace unto the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to
God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw nigh to God,
and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and
purify your hearts, ye double minded. (Jam. 4:1–8)

This is a very important text because it tells us that our lawlessness
leads to our conflicts and wars. James speaks of our lusts and
desires which are ungodly; he cites our evil hostilities, and then
cites, or refers to Gen. 6:5 and 8:21 to sum up their meaning as
this: “The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy” (v. 5). Instead
of -dominion, fallen, sinful man resorts to envy. As against those
who exercise Godly dominion, he unleashes envy and seeks to pull
down all who are better than himself. Therefore we are summoned
to submit to the Lord, resist the devil, cleanse our being, and end
our double mindedness.
After 1660, Christendom began to wane, and, since the French
Revolution, the idea of Christendom, a common realm under God,
living in his grace and under his law, we have had the concept of
the West, of humanistic statism. The concept of the West is a dying
one, because it replaced God’s law with humanistic law, and God’s
sovereign law with man’s corrosive envy. The choice is clear: we
either return to God’s law and grace, or we continue the present
social disintegration into the world of humanistic statist law,
which, denying God, leads to totalitarianism, and which supplants
God’s grace with man’s envy.
We live now in an era where the conflict of interests is seen as
omnipresent because we have adopted the politics of envy. Most
legislation today enacts envy into law. The prophetic psalmist
raised the question,
Shall the throne of iniquity have fellowship with thee, which
frameth mischief by a law? (Ps. 94:20) {21}
The humanistic West is our modern throne of iniquity, framing
mischief by enacting laws. We must return to God’s law. We must

Christian Reconstruction as a Movement


work towards a true Christendom. Thy kingdom come, O Lord!

The Reconstruction Movement
There is always some kind of reconstruction movement
underway as men of one faith or another seek to re-order society
and the world in terms of their faith. All around us we see a
drive to create a one-world humanistic order based increasingly
on the worship of nature, of mother earth, Gaia. Ironically, this
movement is turning against man. As Robert Whelan has pointed
out, it works against human fertility; it is pro-abortion and proeuthanasia. According to Whelan,
...C. M. Cipiolla wrote, in the Economic History of the World
“A biologist ... said he had the impression of being in the presence
of the growth curve of a microbe population in a body suddenly
struck by some infectious disease. The ‘bacillus’ man is taking over
the world.”
The greens took this revolting view of humanity as a disease and
ran with it. According to The Gaia Atlas:
“Humanity is becoming a super-malignancy on the face of the
planet, spreading with insidious effect and fomenting ultimate
Green propaganda is full of the most negative images of human
beings. We are always the destroyers, the polluters, the exploiters.
The conclusion, sometimes implied and sometimes stated, is that
the world would be a better place if we got out of the way and left it
to the plants and animals.12

As Llewellyn H. Rockwell has pointed out, Earth First!, a
radical environmental group given to spiking trees to maim
loggers, vandalizing road building machinery, and wrecking rural
airstrips, has as one of its goals Curbing the world’s population by
90 percent and has welcomed AIDS as a help.13
12. Robert Whelan, Mounting Greenery, A Short View of the Green
Phenomenon (London, England, 1989), 53.
13. Llewellyn H. Rockwell, An Anti-Environmental Manifesto (Burlingame,
CA, 1990), 9, 11.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

Humanism has ended as the enemy of man and in pursuit of the
death of man. Its great premise in Genesis 3:5 is that every man
is his own god, {22} knowing or determining for himself what is
good and evil, right or wrong, law and morality. But separation
from God is death. As Solomon tells us:
For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the
Lord. But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all
they that hate me love death. (Prov. 8:35–36)
We live in a culture consumed by a love of death. It works to reorder all things in terms of its death wish. It refuses to execute
murderers but it kills unborn babies by the millions. We are in
the midst of a world-wide reconstruction movement which seeks
to re-order all things in terms of its will to death. Sigmund Freud
held, to put it in biblical terms, that we could say, that in fallen man,
the will to death is stronger than the will to live. As Christians, we
must stand against this death-bound world with the word of life,
Jesus Christ. We are plainly told:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that
whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting
life. … He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he
that believeth not in the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God
abideth on him. (John 3:16, 36)
Christian reconstruction begins with our regeneration, being
made a new creation by the renewed image of God in us.
At this point, we must call attention to an important fact. It
has often been observed that armies march and die because of
the ideas of long-dead men unknown to them. In the same way,
churches are often strongly under the influence of forgotten men.
One such person was Herman Friedrich Kohlbrugge (1803–1875),
whose church background was both Lutheran and Reformed.
More important, he was one of several thinkers who set forth
heretical views of sanctification in the nineteenth century. Some
held that, with conversion, there was instant and fully perfect
sanctification, so that no growth was necessary. We still have this
view in the holiness churches and beyond their boundaries. In
origin, this doctrine grew out of Arminianism.
Kohlbruggeianism grew out of Lutheran and Reformed circles.
Its doctrine was that, just as regeneration was an act, once and

Christian Reconstruction as a Movement


for all accomplished, so too was sanctification. The measure
of sanctification given to us at the moment of our conversion
was the limit of our holiness until death: It was a no-growth
doctrine. Whereas the holiness churches {23} claimed perfection
as they often wallowed in sin, the Kohlbruggeians wallowed in
complacency in their no-growth doctrine.
Ironically, both these false doctrines came out of seventeenth
century Pietism. The emphasis of Pietism was not on obedience
to the law of God as the means of sanctification but on spiritual
and devotional exercises. It was a return to the late medieval
Pietism, with its pilgrimages, devotional manuals, and various
groups given over to spiritual exercises. These continued after the
Reformation, and, even in our time, the cult of the Sacred Heart
of Jesus has been very prominent. The Moravian practices went far
beyond any Roman Catholic groups in their excesses of emotional
substitutes for simple faith and obedience.
What these movements have done is to leave the church with an
evil heritage, a neglect of both law and doctrine, of solid biblical
instruction and faith, in favor of pious gush and emotionalism.
Thus, while the churches have grown numerically in the United
States, and in a phenomenal way, from 1969 to 1989, with the
number of adults professing to be born again Christians rising
from 40 million to 91 million, the decline of Christian influence
on American life has been a very great one, really more like
a collapse. What we have seen, as a result, in one country after
another, is an ungodly and an evil reconstruction of society by the
enemies of Christ. We must say, to both the world and the church
in Isaiah’s words:
Wherefore hear the word of the Lord, ye scornful men, that rule
this people which is in Jerusalem. Because ye have said, We have
made a covenant with death, and with hell are we at agreement;
when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, it shall not come
unto us: for we have made lies our refuge, and under falsehood
have we hid ourselves: Therefore thus saith the Lord God, Behold,
I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious
cornerstone, a sure foundation: he that believeth shall not make
haste. Judgment also will I lay to the line, and righteousness to the
plummet: and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies, and the
waters shall overflow the hiding place. And your covenant with


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

death shall be disannulled, and your agreement with hell shall not
stand; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, then ye
shall be trodden down by it. (Isa. 28:14–18)

Neither shall modern man’s covenant with death and hell stand.
God has his own sovereign purpose for this earth and for mankind.
It is set forth in Jesus Christ, who is the firstfruit of the new
creation. He shall “put down all rule and all authority and power,
For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet” (1
Cor. 15:24–25). Only after Christ is fully in {24} power through
us over all the earth will he return, and then the last enemy, death,
shall by destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26).
We therefore have a calling, to put all things under Christ. This
is what Christian reconstruction means. Christ must reign, and
the means of rule in any society, whether a family, a church, an
association, a company, or a country, is law. Law provides the rules
for living. This is the first and basic aspect of law, that it sets forth
the required ways of conduct, the rules for living in community.
Law is therefore always a religious fact: it sets forth a group’s belief
in what is ultimately right and wrong. It is the standard whereby
men must live: Without law, a group can function only on the
most primitive level, struggling for the barest survival.
Then, second, there can be no community without law. If all men
are a law unto themselves, then we have anarchy, not community.
The basic ingredient of a community is a common faith and law.
As humanism has broken down Christian community, it has
seen a progressive rise of lawlessness and disorder because it
has not been able to provide an authoritative faith and law. The
humanistic state has had to substitute for Christian faith and
morality coercion and legalized violence. The more advanced the
humanism, as in Marxist states, the more intense and brutal the
coercion. The religious aspect of law means that there is a moral
law mutually agreed on by all members of society. That mutual
agreement means that only a small minority of dissidents are the
source of trouble. Humanism, however, makes every man his own
god, and, with most men saying, “My will be done,” lawlessness
prevails. Now that humanism is infecting every country and
continent, this means that an intense effort to stem the decay
by an enforced return to Islamic faith is under way; its coercion

Christian Reconstruction as a Movement


will prove in time as futile as that of Marxism. Community thus
requires a basic religious faith and its law. The world has never
seen community such as Christianity, with all the faults of the
churches, has produced. It has, among other things, led to the
great missionary movement in various centuries. A hymn of more
than a century ago sang:
Hark! ‘tis the Shepherd’s voice I hear.
Out in the desert dark and drear,
Calling the sheep who’ve gone astray
Far from the Shepherd’s fold away.
Bring them in, bring them in,
Bring them in from the fields of sin;
Bring them in, bring them in,
Bring the wandering ones to Jesus. {25}
Who’ll go and help this Shepherd kind,
Help him the wandering ones to find?
Who’ll bring the lost ones to the fold,
Where they’ll be sheltered from the cold?
Out in the desert hear their cry,
Out on the mountains wild and high;
Hark! ‘tis the Master speaks to thee,
“Go find my sheep where-e’r they be.”

The chorus, “Bring them in,” was and is sung after each verse. This
hymn has a long history of use for home and foreign missions.
It is a vivid expression of faith in the necessary communion and
community in Christ to which people out of all tribes, tongues,
and nations are called.
There is a third aspect of law. It not only provides the rules for
living, and the religious roots of community in one faith, but it also
provides rewards and punishments. These apply, in biblical faith,
to both this world and the world to come. God’s law provides for
various penalties in society for violations, up to the death penalty;
it provides for censure and excommunication from the church. In
the world to come, it tells us that there is a heaven, and there is a
hell. Early in his writings, Karl Marx recognized that the socialist


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

state must create a hell for those who disobeyed its will, and this
the Soviet slave labor camps, and other like punishments in other
states, have done.
The fact of law means blessings and curses, protection and
punishment, and heaven and hell, in some form in every society. As
God’s law has gone out of fashion in twentieth-century preaching,
so too has any preaching about hell. Not surprisingly, a recent poll
in the United States showed that almost everyone expects to go to
Emory Storrs observed a few generations ago, “When hell drops
out of religion, justice drops out of politics.”14 By abandoning
God’s law, we have cheapened heaven, made hell obsolete, and we
have forgotten about justice.
Then, fourth, the word law or torah in Hebrew has a reference to
our Lord. A century ago, Girdlestone wrote:
...In 2 Sam. 7, there is recorded, first, the promise of God to keep
an unfailing covenant with the seed of David, whose throne
should be established for ever; and secondly, David’s expression
of thankfulness on account of this promise. In the opening of his
song of praise (vv. 18–19) he says, “Who am I, O Lord God? and
what is my house, that thou hast brought me hitherto? And this
was yet a small thing in thy {26} sight, O Lord God; but thou hast
spoken also of thy servant’s house for a great while to come. And
is this the manner of man, O Lord God?” The parallel passage (1
Chron. 17:17) runs thus: “For thou hast also spoken of thy servant’s
house for a great while to come, and hast regarded me according
the estate of a man of high degree.” The word translated manner in
the one passage and estate in the other is torah which is generally
rendered “law.” The first passage might be rendered, “And this is the
law (or order) of the man,” and the second, “Thou hast regarded me
according to the law (or order) of the man from on high.”
Some versions have rendered these passages so as to bring out
more distinctly a reference to the Messiah. Thus in Luther’s version
of 2 Sam. 7:19, we read, “That is the way of a man, who is God
the Lord;” whilst his rendering of 1 Chron. 17:17, is, “Thou hast
looked upon me after the order (or from) of a man who is the Lord
on High.” The words are grammatically capable of this rendering;
14. Cited by Harry Bruis, The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment (Phillipsburg,
NJ, 1957), 122.

Christian Reconstruction as a Movement


but it is more in accordance with the context, and also with the
structure of the passage, to regard the name of the Lord God as in
the vocative case, in accordance with the rendering given by our

Briefly, this means that not only is the law the expression of Christ’s
being and nature, but the very word “law” or “torah” is used to refer
to the Messiah. To denigrate the law is thus to denigrate Jesus Christ,
God the Son.
Moreover, Girdlestone made clear that the words righteousness
and justice are equally valid translations of the Hebrew tsadak;
our English creates a distinction where none exists in the Bible.
Girdlestone added with respect to righteousness:
This quality indeed may be viewed, according to Scripture, in two
lights. In its relative aspect it implies conformity with the line or
rule of God’s law; in its absolute aspect it is the exhibition of love to
God and to one’s neighbor, because love is the fulfiling of the law;
but in neither of these senses does the word convey what we usually
mean by justice. No distinction between the claims of justice and
the claims of love is recognized in Scripture; to act in opposition to
the principles of love to God, and one’s neighbour is to commit an
injustice, because it is a departure from the course marked out by
God in His law.16
We are surrounded by the decaying culture of the humanistic
West. The purpose and meaning of Christian reconstruction is
very simply this: bringing back the King (2 Sam. 19:10, 12). {27}

Biblical Law and the Great Commission
And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, all power is given
unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all
nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the
Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things
whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway,
even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Matt. 28:18–20)

Very often, things through common usage lose their meaning.
15. Robert Baker Girdlestone, Synonyms of the Old Testament, Their Bearing
on Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI [1897], 1976), 47f.
16. Ibid., 101.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

We are all familiar with the words of Matt. 28:18–20, but we forget
why they are called the Great Commission. Great in reference
to what? If this were the only such order to the covenant people
of God, it would simply be called the Commission. Our Lord,
however, called out twelve disciples to create a new Israel of
God (Gal. 6:16). The Commission he gave to them was great in
comparison to the one given by God to an earlier Jesus or Joshua.
It is the same commission made great because it encompasses
not only the Promised Land, Canaan, but the whole earth. It thus
carries the same promises expanded:
Now after the death of Moses the servant of the Lord it came to
pass, that the Lord spake unto Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’
minister, saying, Moses my servant is dead; now therefore arise, go
over this Jordan, thou, and all this people, unto the land which I
do give to them, even to the children of Israel. Every place that the
sole of your foot shall tread upon, that have I given unto you, as I
said unto Moses. From the wilderness and this Lebanon even unto
the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and
unto the great sea toward the going down of the sun, shall be your
coast. There shall not any man be able to stand before thee all the
days of thy life: as I was with Moses, so I will be with thee: I will
not fail thee, nor forsake thee. Be strong and of a good courage:
for unto this people shalt thou divide for an inheritance the land,
which I sware unto their fathers to give them. Only be thou strong
and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to
all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not
from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest prosper
whithersoever thou goest. This book of the law shall not depart out
of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that
thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein:
for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt
have good success. {28} Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and
of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the
Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest. (Josh. 1:1–9)
It is not only an obvious fact that the Great Commission is an
abridged restatement of Joshua’s Commission, but also that the
words of the first are repeatedly restated by our Lord.
First, there are the parallels, beginning with the mandate to
conquer; in Joshua’s case, the Promised Land is Canaan; in our
Lord’s commission to us, the whole world is to be conquered for

Christian Reconstruction as a Movement


Second, the commandment in both cases is from the Lord, and,
in Matt. 28:18, the whole Trinity is specifically cited. Coming from
the same source, the two commissions are thus essentially related.
Third, it is assumed in the Great Commission that they shall
“teach all nations” and command them “to observe all things
whatsoever I have commanded you.” Joshua is commanded to
observe the law of God and to “turn not from it to the right hand
or to the left, that thou mayest prosper whithersoever thou goest.”
Fourth, the Lord promises to be with his faithful servants: “and,
lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.” Joshua
is told, “the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.”
This is the same promise in both cases.
Fifth, both commissions begin with an assurance that the
commanding Lord has total power:
Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that I have
given unto you, as I said unto Moses. (Josh. 1:3)
...all power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. (Matt. 28:18)

The problem thus is one of faith and obedience; with disobedience
comes defeat, then and now.
Sixth, in both commissions the mandate is not only to conquer
in one form or another, but the mandate is very emphatically from
the Lord. Joshua is told to arise and to enter into the land God was
giving them. Jesus Christ, after assuring them that all power has
been given to him, declares, “Go ye, therefore.”
Thus, the two commissions are closely related to God’s covenant
to Abraham, and his promise,
Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to
number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. {29} And
he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.
(Gen. 15:5–6)
In Isaiah 52:10, we are told,
The Lord hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
From Genesis through Malachi, we are pointed towards the Great
Commission. Our Lord speaks always in fulfillment of the law and


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

the prophets, fulfilling in the meaning of bringing and putting into
force, not ending, as our modern usage of fulfill implies. In Daniel
7:13–14, we are told:
I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man
came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days,
and they brought him near before him.
And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that
all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion
is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his
kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.

Moreover, even as God comforts and strengthens the distressed
Joshua, faced with an awesome task, so our Lord at the Last Supper
comforts his disciples:
These things have I spoken unto you, being yet present with you.
But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will
send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things
to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. Peace I
leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth,
give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be
afraid. (John 14:25–27)
God had told Joshua, “Be strong and of a good courage,” and again,
“Have I not commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage;
be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the LORD thy God is
with thee whithersoever thou goest.”
All this should not surprise us. The Bible of the apostles was
the Old Testament: it never occurred to them that it was invalid,
or that God’s law was now obsolete. Christ had paid the death
penalty for our transgressions of the law to free us from the law
as an indictment and death penalty against us in order to deliver
us into living in the Lord in faithfulness to his law-word. We are
saved, says Paul, “that the righteousness [or, justice] of the law
might be fulfilled [or, put into force] through us” (Rom. 8:4). In
James Moffatt’s rendering of Rom. 8:3–4, {30}
For God has done what the Law, weakened here by the flesh, could
not do; by sending his own Son in the guise of sinful flesh, to deal
with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order to secure the
fulfilment of the Law’s requirements in our lives, as we live and
move, not by the flesh but by the Spirit.

Christian Reconstruction as a Movement


Until the rise of the heretic Marcion, no distinction was made
between Old and New Testaments: The Bible was seen as a unity,
with one continuous revelation. Marcion saw the Old Testament
as the revelation of a Creator God who was unloving and whose
word was wrath and law, whereas Jesus Christ was the revelation
of a God of love. Much of the New Testament was also rejected by
Marcion as judaized. He was not only infected with gnosticism but
was also the father of dispensationalism. Although his extreme
view of two gods was rejected in time, the one God accepted was
seen as evolving his revelation through a series of dispensations
whereby he moved from law to grace and to love. Although, as we
have said, Marcion was rejected, his ideas infiltrated the church,
and we now have not only dispensationalism but a division of the
Bible into two sections. We falsely separate law and grace, whereas
the two are inseparable. God’s covenant with us is a treaty of law;
all covenants are legal documents; but for God to give us his law is
an act of grace.
The Great Commission thus commands that God’s covenant
of law and grace be extended unto all men and nations. There
is a requirement also of the covenant membership rite, baptism:
“baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and
of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 28:19). Baptism replaced circumcision,
which had been performed on the eighth day after a boy’s birth
(Lev. 12:1–3). Now a child of eight days cannot make a decision
for the Lord, nor can a baptized infant. The early church sought to
perform baptism on the eighth day.
What did this mean? No child can decide or choose Christ,
but neither can an adult, because we are all dead in our sins and
trespasses, born unto death in our forefather Adam. As our Lord
Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you,
that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should
remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he
may give it you. (John 15:16)
These words, spoken at the Last Supper, were a preparation for
the Great Commission. They are closely related to the fact that,
whereas the disciples expected one thing, our Lord had called
them to another. First, he tells them, “Ye have not chosen me, but I


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

have chosen you.” Our salvation and our calling is God’s choice, his
election or predestination. God is the Lord: {31} “Known unto God
are all his works from the beginning of the world” (Ac. 15:18). All
are his works, totally known and ordained by him. He has chosen
us and ordained us. Second, his purpose is this: “that ye should go
and bring forth fruit.” God orders our calling and its results. We
are redeemed by his sovereign grace to be productive. Third, not
only are we ordained to be productive, but “that your fruit should
remain.” All the results of our ordained work in the Lord endure
throughout all eternity. “Go ye therefore” in this confidence:
But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our
Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast,
unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch
as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord. (1 Cor.
We know that our labor is never in vain in the Lord because he
calls us and ordains us. Remember, St. Paul, who wrote these
words, had been persecuted, beaten, and imprisoned, but he knew
his labors were going to be fruitful long after his time because God
said so. The God who commissioned St. Paul and us had declared
through Isaiah,
For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and
returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring
forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the
eater: So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it
shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which
I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it. (Isa.
When we proclaim the whole word of God, all of it, it cannot
return unto him void, because he has ordained that it shall “bring
forth fruit,” and that fruit, that work, shall endure.
Fourth, we are promised, “whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father
in my name” he will give to us when we go forth in his name,
word, and Spirit, and when we ask in terms of his kingdom. We
are to teach men and nations to observe all things that the Lord
commands of them. Chapters 14–18 of John’s Gospel must be
seen as a preparation of the disciples by our Lord for his death,
resurrection, ascension, and their Great Commission.

Christian Reconstruction as a Movement


The commission is to us; the whole word of God speaks to us.
We have a calling; we are given marching orders, and the whole
world must be won for Christ. It is not merely souls that are to be
saved, and they must be, but every sphere of life and thought must
be brought into captivity to Christ. {32}
The prophets are full of many amazing statements that tell us
that, in the fullness of time, not only men and nations, but also
the natural world will be revolutionized. We are called to undo the
work and ruin of man’s fall. Isaiah 40:3–5 declares,
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way
of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be
made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough
places plain: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all
flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.
We are told that, as we push back and destroy the effects of the
fall, as we redeem men and nations and every sphere of life and
thought, the very life span of man shall be dramatically lengthened
(Isa. 65:17–24). We are told,
And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the
Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and
shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.
And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the
mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will
teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion
shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many
people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their
spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against
nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isa. 2:2–4)
We are that Jerusalem, and we are that people commissioned by
our Redeemer-King to accomplish these things. “Go ye therefore!”

The Law and the Age of Grace
One of the most evil ideas ever to infect the Christian church,
and coming from the heretic Marcion, is the notion that the era
before Christ was the age of law and works, and the time since
then the age of faith and grace. What this implied is that men at


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

some time in history were able to work for or earn their salvation.
Now if I work for someone and do what he requires, he is in my
debt and must pay me. To apply this notion to God is monstrous.
God who made all things needs nothing: He does not need our
works, our obedience, our faith, or anything from us.
Our Lord bluntly rebuked this doctrine in his disciples, saying,
But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will
say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and
sit {33} down to meat? And will not rather say unto him, Make
ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I
have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink?
Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were
commanded him? I trow not. So likewise ye, when ye shall have
done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are
unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.
(Lk. 17:7–10)
The word translated here as servant is the Greek doulos, which in
this context apparently means slave. Even then, the full force of our
Lord’s meaning pales, because there is nothing in our world that
provides a full analogy to what he tells us. The Lord God made us:
We are totally his creation; we are completely in his debt, and he
owes us nothing. The world and all the peoples thereof exist only
by his sovereign grace. There can be no covenant of works with
Covenants are treaties of law, and they are of two kinds. First, a
treaty or covenant between equals is a treaty of an agreed upon law
which both observe. Second, a treaty or covenant between total
unequals such as God and man is an act of grace by God, and
the law he gives us thus is an act of grace. Thus, there can be no
separation between law and grace: They come from God in his
mercy, his covenant mercy.
But we have broken that covenant law; in Adam, we all sinned,
and we all are partakers of Adam’s nature, the will to be as God, to
be our own lawgiver and lord (Gen. 3:5). We are told by St. Paul,
But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made
nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made
both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition
between us; Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law
of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself

Christian Reconstruction as a Movement


of twain one new man, so making peace; And that he might
reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the
enmity thereby: And came and preached peace to you which were
afar off, and to them that were nigh. For through him we both have
access by one Spirit unto the Father. (Eph. 2:13–18)

Jesus Christ has made peace with God for both Jews and Gentiles
and has abolished by his atoning death the enmity of the law. As
long as we are fallen men, the law is our enemy, a sentence of death
against us rather than our covenantal way of life. There is one Spirit
working now in both Jews {34} and Gentiles who are redeemed in
Christ, and they are on the same terms before God in the Holy
Spirit. All this is true because Jesus Christ “is our peace.”
The key word in this text is peace. This word has been much
abused and sentimentalized in our time. The biblical word has no
relation to the word used to indicate the end of war, nor to the
pacifistic use of the Hebrew shalom by hippies in the 1960s and
1970s. Girdlestone said of the biblical meaning,
We now come to one of the most notable words used to represent
the idea of perfection, namely, Shalom. It is used of a perfect heart
in fourteen passages. Its usual signification is peace, the name
Salem or Shalem being derived from it. Thus we read in Isa. 26.
3, “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace” (Shalom Shalom). The
root may have originally signified oneness or wholeness, and so
completeness. Not only does it represent the ideas of peace and
perfection, but also of compensation or recompense.
The following renderings have also been given to the verb in the A.
V.: to be ended, to be finished, to prosper, to make amends, to pay,
to perform, to recompense, to repay, to requite, to make restitution,
to restore, to reward.17

Now we can understand what Paul says, and what all of Scripture
means, when it speaks of peace. It commonly means, and very
plainly in Eph. 2:1318, where Paul speaks of our reconciliation to
God by means of our Lord’s atonement, restitution. Jesus Christ
makes restitution to the Father for our sins.
Now God’s law is about righteousness or justice, and at the
heart of the law is the fact of restitution. The sacrificial system
17. Girdlestone, op cit., 95.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

cannot be dismissed as merely ceremonial law: It tells us that the
law requires the restitution to God be made by an unblemished
substitute. In no other way can atonement be made than by the
vicarious sacrifice of restitution by a substitute, an unblemished
animal, a type of Christ.
Again, God’s law requires restitution in the offenses of men
against men, and this penalty culminates in the sentence of death.
In fact, after the Flood, God tells Noah,
And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of
every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand
of every man’s brother will I require the life of man. {35} Whoso
sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the
image of God made he man. (Gen. 9:5–6)
This is what the law is about: restitution, restoration, or peace. In
Exodus 22, we read that, depending on the nature of the offense,
the restitution can be fourfold and fivefold.
It is necessary to see the meaning of peace as restoration,
recompense, perfection, and restitution in order to understand
also our Lord’s words in John 14:27:
Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world
giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let
it be afraid.
These are his words at the Last Supper, shortly before his atoning
death. In our modern sense of the meaning of peace as “no
problems,” our Lord’s words would be senseless. They would soon
witness the arrest and horrifying crucifixion of the Messiah; they
would face persecution and death after his ascension, everything
except modern man’s idea of peace. Their peace would be the
forgiveness and remission of sins by the blood of Christ, his
atonement or restitution for us to the Father.
The law makes clear that peace with God comes through our
Lord’s atoning restitution for us; it also makes clear that the peace
between men comes by way of restitution, Paul tells us in Col.
And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your
flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you
all trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that
was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the

Christian Reconstruction as a Movement


way, nailing it to his cross; And having spoiled principalities and
powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in

When we were dead, that is, legally sentenced to death by the law
we had broken, “the handwriting of ordinances that was against
us,” Jesus Christ nailed that death penalty to the cross in his own
person to triumph over sin and death for us.
The essence of the law is the necessity for restitution and
restoration, for peace with God so that there might be peace
among men. The goal of the law is peace, and Christ is our peace.
Therefore we are no longer under condemnation but under grace.
We pass from enmity and continual warfare against God to peace
and grace. In Paul’s words, {36}
Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we
establish the law. (Rom. 3:31)
Any war against the law of God becomes thus a war against his
atonement, his restitution, his grace, his peace. It is an abandonment
of biblical faith for humanism, because the emphasis then becomes
a humanistic pietism. Meaningless spiritual exercises, pious gush,
and a retreat into the church as a refuge from the world replace
Christian power.
Harold J. Berman, in describing the Western legal tradition,
sees its origin in a number of Christian doctrines, most notably
the Last Judgment and the classical doctrine of the atonement as
formulated by St. Anselm, atonement as the satisfaction of God’s
law or justice. God cannot forgive man’s sins freely, as a matter
of lawless grace, because this would leave the fallen condition of
the universe undisturbed, uncorrected. There would then be no
justice, no peace. “Mercy,” said Anselm, “is the daughter of justice;
it is derived from justice and cannot work against justice.”1
Christendom rested on the foundation of biblical law. The
preamble to the city law of Schleswig began, “By law shall the land
be built.”2 By this was meant God’s law, biblical law, the only true
source of law and justice.
1. Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution, The Formation of the Western Legal
Tradition (Cambridge, MA), 79.
2. Ibid., 515.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

Since the Enlightenment, and especially the French Revolution,
Christendom has been replaced by Western civilization, and
God’s law by statist law. We are now in the last days of Western
civilization; its humanistic law has been more productive of
lawlessness than order. It is a dying world, and what is urgently
needed is a revived Christendom, the foundation of God’s law and
God’s peace.
Alexander J. Solzhenitsyn, in A World Split Apart, his
Commencement Address at Harvard University, June 8, 1978,
called attention to the decline of courage in all modern society.
While courageous individuals still existed, political and social life
was no longer determined by them. He cited George Kennan’s
statement, “We cannot apply moral criteria to politics,” and
observed that this made “space for the absolute triumph of
absolute evil in the world.”3 Our humanism, he said, is destroying
the world. Our problem is not a superficial one: Its source is in the
roots of our modern culture, beginning with the Renaissance and
finding greater expression with the Enlightenment. The doctrine
of autonomous man now prevails. Man is worshipped, and there
is no recognition of his evil. Man’s material {37} needs and their
satisfaction are given priority.4 Solzhenitsyn cited Karl Marx’s 1844
statement, “Communism is naturalized humanism.”5 Without a
return to biblical law, we can say that all humanistic states will go
the way of Karl Marx, as indeed they have been doing.
To live in God’s grace and law leads to one thing, and to live in
sin to another. In Paul’s words,
For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from
What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now
ashamed? for the end of those things is death.
But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye
have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.
For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life
3. Alexander J. Solzhenitsyn, A World Split Apart (New York, NY), 37, 39.
4. Ibid., 47.
5. Ibid., 53.

Christian Reconstruction as a Movement


through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom. 6:20–23)

Paul is here speaking of two ways and of two ends, a subject
common to all of Scripture. We see it in Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy
28, Psalm 1, The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7), and elsewhere.
It was basic to much preaching in the early church as preachers
confronted listeners with the two ways, the way of life, and the way
of death. The way of life is one of grace and law, whereas the way of
death is reprobation and lawlessness. We are saved by grace, and
we are sanctified by our growth in obedience to the law. Wherever
we find a contempt for God’s law, we find a society under God’s
Before the French Revolution, the world of the Marquis de
Sade was the world of the wealthy and the nobility. All kinds of
perversions prevailed: homosexuality, lesbianism, bestiality, child
molestation, and more. Sade’s problem was not what he said and
did as much as the fact that he gave public voice to these things.
The world of Louis XV was a world of systematic debauchery and
profanation. In every way possible, God was mocked. It was a
world given to pleasure, and it equated pleasure with sin.
The French Revolution overthrew that regime, not to replace
it with a better one but to democratize every kind of evil as the
right of all men. To a limited extent, Christendom still lingered
on in the levels of society below the aristocracy. Now the war
against God and his law became a policy of state and all of society.
Statist education was instituted to further the de-Christianization
of the common man. The theater, which with the Enlightenment
became the province of the elite, now became another instrument
to destroy the remains of Christendom. {38} The thinking of
the Marquis de Sade, and of the nobility of his era, including
prominent churchmen, was a will to death. That will to death,
however, through Romanticism, moved rapidly in the train of
Sade, as Mario Praz, in The Romantic Agony, demonstrated.
In April, 1791, according to Dr. Iwan Bloch,
...there existed in the Palais Royal a public theatre where a socalled savage and his mate, both nude, before the eyes of a crowded
audience of both sexes, went through the act of coition.6
6. Iwan Bloch, Marquis de Sade, His Life and Works (New York, NY, 1948), 34.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

Two centuries later, in the late decades of the twentieth century,
similar acts marked films and other aspects of the modern media.
Every evil of the old regime, of Enlightenment philosophy, became
now an aspect of popular entertainment. Sex placed the depravity
of the ancient regime on the level of all men. The will to death is
well advanced.
A return to Christendom, to God’s order of peace, of restitution,
grace, and law, is in order, and it has begun.

The Conservative Irony


The Conservative Irony
Andrew Sandlin

By its nature conservatism as a political force and even more
generally as a life outlook is backward-looking, perceiving the
accumulated wisdom of the centuries dispersed widely among
individuals over time as preferable to recent rationalistic and,
usually, utopian fads whose provenance is the recesses of a
few intelligent minds. Conservatism exercises in the words of
Russell Kirk, “Faith in prescription and distrust of ‘sophisters and
calculators.’  ”1 Conservatism attempts to “conserve,” to retain,
elements of the past—ideas, traditions, laws, classes, contracts,
and so forth—deemed necessary to the maintenance of a sound
social order.
By contrast, liberalism is present- and future-centered. “The
earth belongs to the living” is the refrain of the liberal, following
Thomas Jefferson.2 It is a professedly dynamic force, often
reinventing the most basic societal ideals—religion, democracy,
justice, equality—in every generation.3 The Enlightenment
denotation of liberalism as accent on freedom is rivaled only by
its demand of progressiveness, by which its devotees indicate
a constant evolutionary improvement. This progressivism
requires change, the attitude toward which divides liberals from
In an insightful essay disclosing the disposition of conservatism
and conservatives, Michael Oakeshott observes:

1. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana (Chicago,
IL, 1953), 8.
2. Staughton Lynd, Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism (Cambridge,
MA, 1982), 67–99.
3. e.g., Just a generation ago racial equality for liberals meant legally coerced
integration (forced busing); today it means legally guaranteed segregation (“Black
English,” “Afro-American Studies”).


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown,
to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the
possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant,
the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect,
present laughter to utopian bliss.4

The conservative is resistant, though not impervious, to change.
In the conservative scenario, change must unfold gradually, in a
context of prescription and order, and often without intention,
rather than, as in the {40} liberal vision,5 in a context of reason
and abstraction, and often by design. Change, in large part, is the
friend of liberalism and the enemy of conservatism.
The present socio-political climate in the United States,
more hospitable to political conservatism than in decades,
affords an almost unprecedented historical lesson in the flaws
of both traditional conservatism and traditional (!) liberalism.
It is highlighted in the conservatives’ talk of abandoning the
outworn and failed interventionist policies of entrenched
liberalism in favor of a more “progressive” free-market, small
government approach: Ironically, the liberal mindset featuring
a fundamental progressivism has become the solid status quo.
Liberal change has become the fortified, unchanging standard.
As a result, the conservatives find themselves in the almost
unprecedented position of successfully opposing a deeply
entrenched tradition and supporting a “revolutionary” change, a
change which, by former conservative sentiment, opposes change.
This “progressive” posture naturally troubles some modern
conservatives. Gertrude Himmelfarb, for instance, is ambivalent
about the “conservative revolution,” noting, “Surely, conservatives
are meant to conserve, not to revolt—to conserve by a series of
prudent, gradual incremental accommodations to reality, not
by any radical precipitous change,”6 that is, precisely the sort of
change modern conservatives are zealously pressing. The problem
modern conservatives face, as Himmelfarb correctly notes, is “an
4. Michael Oakeshote, “On Being Conservative,” Rationalism in Politics and
Other Essays (Indianapolis, IN, 1991 ed.), 408.
5. Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions (New York, NY, 1987).
6. Gertrude Himmelfarb, “Is ‘Conservative Revolution’ an Oxymoron?”,
Weekly Standard, December 18, 1995, 33.

The Conservative Irony


entrenched revolution that cannot be significantly affected by the
small incremental changes a conservative would prefer.”7
To be sure, the reinstallation of a conservative regime after
a “liberal” respite is not itself historically unprecedented. One
has only to think of the restoration of Charles II after the illfated Cromwellian interregnum and the legal overturning of the
Weimer Republic by militaristic National Socialism in Germany.
Yet neither of these “conservative revolutions” was arrayed against
a deeply entrenched, ideologically driven civil government and
society. “It is permissible to speak of counter-revolution,” notes
Aron, “when the old regime has been restored, when the men
of the past return to power, when the ideas or institutions which
the revolutionaries of today bring with them are those which the
revolutionaries of yesterday had {41} abolished.”8 By contrast,
today’s “conservative revolution” looks eagerly forward. Its
revolutionaries do not perceive as their blueprint pre-World War
I America, a more localized, decentralized, capitalized society.
Rather, they are employing revolutionary rhetoric—i.e., “We stand
on the threshold of a new era, the Information Age,” “What we
need is change to meet the pressing needs of the future, which will
be vastly different from the past.”
It is dubious whether conservative ideology can sustain such
revolutionary rhetoric. Conservatives may find it necessary to
abandon their conservatism in order to reinstall “conservatism.”
As Rudolf Vierhaus observes:
Since the late nineteenth century conservatism has in different
ways moved away from being defensive as a result of the influence
of industrialization and capitalism, of growing social mobility, of
advances in scientific and technological thought, the liberalization
of state and economy, and the secularization of thought and public
life. Even then it has been easier for conservatives to determine
what it is they are opposing than to design clear and realistic

7. Ibid., 34.
8. Raymond Aron, The Opium of the Intellectuals, trans. Terence Kilmartin
(New York, NY, 1962), 38.
9. Rudolf Vierhaus, ‘Conservatism,” in ed., Philip P. Weiner, Dictionary of the
History of Ideas (New York, NY [1968], 1973), 1:483.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

The very nature of conservatism is past-bound. Modern
conservatives oppose big government, increased taxation, and the
welfare state, social phenomena of relatively recent emergence.
It is not clear, however, how small government, less taxation,
and private welfare relate to an impending revolutionary era.
Liberalism is an ideology; conservatism boasts as an asset that it is
not an ideology (although some may argue that this non-ideological
character itself becomes an ideology). Today’s conservatives fancy
themselves as agents of change, but principled change requires
a viable connection between philosophy and action, ideas and
practice—in short, an “ideology.” Stressing limited government,
free markets, and individual responsibility is not an ideology.
What will be the views of the government that is limited? What
morality will undergird the market that will be free? What ethics
will shape the responsibility of the individual? To assert these are
questions beyond the scope of the conservative agenda is to say
that conservatism is interested merely in proceduralism, social
This conservative proceduralism is the jar in which the content,
the positive “ideology” of conservatism, is ordinarily carried. But
what is that ideology? There is none. This is the irony of today’s
conservatism. It breaks {42} with its past (!) by opposing an
entrenched change featuring an ideological agenda with its own
entrenched change lacking any ideology except the conviction not
to have one. It wants not reaction, but change; yet change requires
an ideology, and conservatism by its nature is non-ideological.
Conservatives wish to defeat liberal ideology by dismantling the
mechanism, the proceduralism of liberalism—big government,
high taxation, and centralized planning. But big government,
high taxation, and centralized planning are no more an ideology
of liberalism than small government, low taxation, and localism
are of conservatism—all are vehicles for transmitting or at least
containing an ideology.
The answer to this dilemma is to offer a positive response, an
ideology, if you will. We Christian reconstructionists call that
a theocracy, society based on and governed by biblical law.10
10. Rousas John Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (The Craig Press,

The Conservative Irony


While such a society would value maximum individual freedom
under law, it would see freedom “instrumentally” (unlike today’s
conservatives and libertarians), as a mechanism for maintaining a
godly society. Its politicians (“civil magistrates”) would be severely
limited in their authority and jurisdiction, enforcing penalties
for the violation of civil law, though impotent to guarantee an
economically “equitable” society, to oversee the distribution of
charity, or to inculcate “values.” The state would be the umpire,
enforcing the civil rules found in the Bible. The family and
church, along with various voluntary associations, would furnish
education, charity, medical and old-age care—in short, what the
liberal state is furnishing—or wishes to furnish—today. But this
society envisioned by Christian reconstructionists would not
be left free floating to its own devices as to the regulation of its
government and the source of its instruction: It would hold the
Bible, the infallible word of God, as the guide and standard of all of
life, interpreted within the bounds of historic Christian orthodoxy.
This biblical vision, unlike conservatism, is not past-looking but
future-looking. It is possible, of course, to employ the past (if one
has an accurate knowledge of the past, a quality greatly lacking in
contemporary life) as a criterion by which to judge the present.11
If the ultimate criterion is the word of God, however, it must
“relativize” the past no less than the present (and future) in terms
of its unalterable authority.12 {43} This answer to the problem of
the lack of conservative ideology in the modern conservative
revolution rush is not the one conservatives, by large, wish to hear.
They worship the past and eternal permanence no less than liberals
worship the present and eternal change. Both are idolatrous. It is
only as we worship the triune God revealed infallibly in the Holy
Scriptures that we can overturn the defective liberal ideology and
transcend the inept conservative proceduralism.

11. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition (New Haven, CT, 1984), 19
and passim.
12. Rousas John Rushdoony, Salvation and Godly Rule (Vallecito, CA, 1983),
144, 145.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1


John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


John Owen’s Doctrine of
Church and State
Mark Kelan Harbour

John Owen (1618–1683) graduated from Oxford at the age of
sixteen in 1632. Three years later he distinguished himself as a
Nonconformist when he withdrew from doctoral studies there in
protest to Roman Catholic forms being forced on the students by
Chancellor William Laud. At that time, and since Henry VIII, the
Anglican or Episcopal church was the official church of England,
under the control of the monarch. When Charles I appointed
William Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633, battle lines
were drawn more clearly between the Nonconformists of the day
and the monarchy’s state church. In this climate, and throughout
his life, John Owen championed the cause of religious liberty
based on liberty of conscience and worked for the establishment
of Christian magistracy to fulfill God’s purposes.
In the absence of a Christian state anywhere on earth today and
in light of the increasingly intolerant positions taken by secularhumanist states toward biblical Christianity (moreover, considering
their increasing toleration and protection of gross immorality,
blasphemy, witchcraft, etc.), John Owen’s views challenge
Christendom today to work toward establishing a biblicallybased society. It is, therefore, the purpose of this extended essay
to discover Owen’s understanding of the conscience as a basis for
liberty; to see how Owen struggled to define religious toleration,
and how he applied his views under Cromwell; to examine how
his views on ecclesiology and eschatology helped him to formulate
a role for the civil magistrate; and, finally, to consider the merits of
Owen’s views to modern society.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

By the time of Archbishop Laud’s harsh reforms, there were
several major religious and political factions that had developed
in England. The Royalists were predominately Episcopalian and
prelatical, while the parliament was mixed Episcopalian and
Presbyterian. There were several other groups classed as separatists,
Independents, Romanists, Baptists, and Congregationalists. Laud’s
reforms were meant to unite all groups under one structural
and ecclesiastical umbrella. According to George Gillespie, a
contemporary of Owen, the church’s hierarchical prelates claimed
all power of ordination, the right to convene and moderate
assembles, and {46} spiritual oversight over entire dioceses; they
“did not acknowledge congregational elderships, nor any power
of discipline in particular congregations”; they forced pastors
on a congregation against their consent, gave synodical suffrage
to clergy only, and refused to be accountable to local chapters
or national synods. Further, the “prelate’s power was not merely
ecclesiastical, they were lords of parliament, they held civil places
in the state.... [They] were not chosen by the church” (Gillespie
1985, 83). Among other dictates handed down by the archbishop
and enforced by the king was strict conformity to the Book of
Common Prayer, including partaking of communion in prescribed
vestments and the reading of prayers.
Laud’s impositions, rather than creating uniformity, seemed
to lead directly to the opposite—Civil War. It is no wonder, for
so great was the pressure to conform, that harsh forms of torture
became the discipline for those who failed to comply. For example,
Alexander Leighton was fined, pilloried, lashed, had his ears
cut off, nose slit and cheeks branded. Similar were the fates of
William Prynne, Henry Burton, and John Bastwick. Eventually, in
1637, Scotland, where Presbyterianism was more developed and
uniform, created the Solemn League and Covenant, which linked
all signatories together under a national Presbyterian state. This set
the stage for an increasingly Presbyterian-dominated parliament
to challenge the king and the whole Episcopal hierarchy. In 1643,
Parliament ordered a reformation of the government of the
Church of England. As a result, the Westminster Assembly met to
reform the Thirty-nine Articles. Rather than reform the statement,
the Assembly framed a confession of faith of their own. Thereafter,
Parliament agreed with Scotland’s Covenant, leading to the

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


abolition of an episcopacy and the establishment of a Presbyterian
state church to replace the Anglican state church.
With the rise of a Presbyterian-dominated parliament, William
Laud was tried and executed. There was, however, hardly a
significant increase in religious liberty. John Milton’s famous
dictum, “the new presbyter is but old priest writ large,” had more
than a little truth to it. According to Owen’s biographer, William
The worst feature of Presbytery, at this time, was the principles
of intolerance adopted by them as a body. Their most celebrated
preachers, as Calamy and Burgess, in their discourses before
Parliament, represented toleration as the hydra of sophism and
heresy, and the flood-gate to all manner of iniquity; which the civil
authority ought to exert itself to put down. Their most distinguished
writers wrote against religious liberty, among whom we are {47}
constrained to mention such truly excellent and learned men as
Principal Baillie, of Glasgow, and Samuel Rutherford, Professor of
Divinity; the first of whom wrote a “Dissuasive” against toleration,
and the latter a quarto volume of four hundred pages against what
he called, “pretended liberty of conscience”.... [Their opinions]
were the prevailing sentiments of the age. (Orme 1981, 27)
As S. R. Gardiner put it, “As the intolerance of Laud made
Owen a Puritan, the intolerance of Presbyterianism made Owen
an ‘Independent”‘ (Gardiner 1903, 2:95–96). In this environment,
Owen pleaded for religious toleration based on liberty of
conscience. Whereas from the time he left Oxford in 1637,
Owen more closely identified with the Presbyterians, by 1646 he
became an Independent. His reading of John Cotton’s The Keyes
of the Kingdom of Heaven changed his understanding of the form
of church government to congregational. As an Independent or
Congregationalist, Owen was to have significant influence in the
Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, whose views on church
and state were quite similar to Owen’s.
Independents had a more keen sense of the need for religious
liberty, and eventually the Independent members of Parliament
formed their own army under Oliver Cromwell in 1642. The New
Model Army under Cromwell engaged the Royalist and Anglican
forces, leading to the ascendancy of Cromwell, the Army, and the
Independents. Conversely, with the rise of Cromwell came the


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

purge of most Presbyterians from Parliament (leaving the “Rump”
of pro-Cromwellians). By 1648, the Royalist forces collapsed.
Charles was captured and swiftly tried. He was executed on
January 30, 1649.
John Owen’s involvement in political affairs began at least
by 1646 when he was asked to preach in Parliament. He was a
marked man for the Independent cause by the time he was asked
to preach in Parliament the day after the king’s execution. This led
to Owen’s serving as chaplain to Cromwell, “whose ruling passion
was religious liberty” (Merle d’Aubigne 1983, 85). Likewise, Owen
spent his life promoting religious toleration and wrote much
concerning church and state. He was appointed Dean of Christ
Church, Oxford, in 1651 and Vice-Chancellor of Oxford in 1652,
where he served throughout the period of the Protectorate, until
1660. Following the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660,
and for the rest of his life, Owen was characterized as a prominent
Nonconformist minister and Puritan theologian. {48}

The Doctrine of Conscience
Although he did not write extensively about conscience, Owen’s
understanding of conscience is basic to his arguments for liberty
and toleration, for biblical unity and pluralism, and for nonconformity. Conscience provided the basis for limiting toleration,
limiting civil authority, and limiting ecclesiastical authority. In
short, conscience was a basis for both liberty and dissent.
Definition of Conscience
Conscience was variously described by Owen as 1) selfjudgment, 2) the authority which man has directly from God, 3)
the authority in man which is immediately subject to Jesus Christ,
4) the work of the law, 5) Christian liberty, and 6) the territory of
God in man.
Conscience as it is popularly known, said Owen: the practical judgment that men make of themselves and of
their actions, or what they are to do and what they are not to do,
what they have done or what they have omitted, with reference
unto the judgment of God, at present declared in their hearts and
in his word, and to be fully executed at the last day:... (Owen 1967e,

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


Again, “Conscience is the judgment that a man maketh of himself
and his actions, with reference to the future judgment of God”
(Owen 1967e, 527). This conscience is given man at creation, a
law of nature in his very being, the law of the Creator written upon
his heart. This law constitutes God’s authority in every man and
every violation thereof brings guilt. This natural guilt is both from
a natural conscience and the Mosaic law, and is to be distinguished
from the work of the Spirit. As Owen elaborated:
A natural conscience, awakened and excited by afflictions or other
providential visitations, will discover itself in unfeigned and severe
reflections of guilt upon the soul; but until the Spirit doth convince
of sin, all things are in such disorder and confusion in the mind
that no man knows how to make his address unto God about it in a
due manner.... [so that] neither the light of a natural conscience nor
the law will convince anyone of the guilt of unbelief with respect
unto Jesus Christ, nor instruct [him] in the nature of faith in him.
(Owen 1967a, 274, 277)
Owen did most of his thinking about conscience in the period
after the disenfranchisement of Nonconformist ministers, from
about 1661 to his death in 1683. In that time he fought persistently
for the right to dissent. In this context he wrote of conscience as
that which is directly under the {49} authority of Jesus Christ.1
He did not say that only believers’ consciences are under
Christ’s authority; rather Christ clearly has authority over every
conscience, for men will stand in the Judgment Day immediately
before Christ.
Owen further described conscience as God’s sovereign domain:
Conscience is the territory or dominion of God in man, which
he hath so reserved for himself that no human power can
possibly enter into it or dispose of it in any wise.... Where it gives
disquietment, all the world cannot give it peace; and where it
speaks peace, there none can give it trouble.... When once it begins
this work (of conviction of sin), conscience immediately owns a
new rule, a new law, a new government, in order to the judgment
of God upon it and all its actions.... No power under heaven can
cause conscience to think, act, or judge otherwise than it doth by
its immediate respect unto God;... Wherefore, to force an act of
1. See for example, “A Discourse Concerning Liturgies” (1662), Owen, 1965i,
43–45; and “Indulgence and Toleration Considered” (1667), Owen, 1967e, 527.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

conscience implies a contradiction. (Owen 1967a, 96)

Because conscience is God’s domain, Owen further contended that
it is not the prerogative of any man to surrender his conscience: It
belongs to God.
Whatever is ours, whatever is in our power, whatever God hath
entrusted us with the disposal of, we willingly resign and give up
to the will and commands of our superiors; but as to our minds
and consciences in the things of his worship and service, he hath
reserved the sovereignty of them unto himself. (Owen 1967e, 574)
Nor is it possible that any power on earth can invade conscience.
Quoting Theophilus, Owen said, “The poorest wretch that is may
be supreme governor of his own heart; princes rule the public and
external actions of their countries, but not the consciences of men”
(Owen 1967e, 492–93).

Conscience and Worship
Owen aimed to demonstrate that liberty of worship was
based on a conscience subject to none but Christ, and thus
beyond the authority of the state and, in particular, beyond the
authority of a non-local church prelate whose Commands were
enforced by the state. On these very grounds did he engage in
a lengthy diatribe against Samuel Parker, an apostate Puritan
who seemingly moved up the ranks of the Church of England
by attacking Nonconformists. Parker, in his tract, “Discourse of
Ecclesiastical Polity, and the Power of the Magistrate in Matters
of Religion” (1669), contended for the Church of England against
all Puritan dissent, holding that the {50} monarch was head of the
national church and was obligated to enforce uniformity of belief,
even to the instructing of the consciences of men (Owen 1965a,
LXXXVIII; Owen 1967e, 344; and Toon 1971a, 136–138). Owen’s
response in 1669 was a large tract entitled, “Truth and Innocence
Vindicated” (Owen 1967e, 343–506). According to Owen, the
dominion of God in man has a special bearing on how man
worships. Since conscience is man’s self-judgment “with reference
to the future judgment of God,” it thereby brings all of life into
the orbit of religion. So all the judgments of man’s conscience are
religious in nature. Conscience presupposes religion, said Owen,

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


or else it is an “empty name” (Owen 1967e, 454).
The conscience, which is man’s by nature, attests to the
presence of God’s authority in his life by his sense of obligation
to religious duty. Only, however, when it is informed by the word
of God, especially by the Spirit applying the gospel to it, does the
conscience become “free” in respect to religious duty. This work is
essentially the teaching and dying of Christ. As Owen elaborated:
In his death was the procurement of the liberty of his disciples
completely finished, as unto conscience; the supposed obligation
of man’s traditions, and the real obligation of Mosaical institutions,
being by him (the first as a prophet in his teaching, the last as a
priest in his offering) dissolved and taken away. From that day all
the disciples of Christ were taken under his immediate lordship,
and made free to the end of the world from all obligations in
conscience unto anything in the worship of God but what is of his
own institution and command. (Owen 1965i, 4–5)
This freedom is called Christian liberty, which Owen
distinguished from liberty of conscience: “Liberty of conscience is
of natural right, Christian liberty is a gospel privilege, though both
may be pleaded in unwarrantable impositions on conscience”
(Owen 1967e, 443). Owen, however, generally used the term
of “liberty of conscience” and not “Christian liberty” to refer to
consciences made free by Christ.
Since both the state and church possess authority directly from
God, Owen distinguished between civil obedience and religious
obedience. The problem for the Puritans was how to respond when
the state or the state church required acts of religious obedience,
particularly as it pertained to the manner of religious worship.
In 1662, Owen wrote a fifty page treatise entitled, “A Discourse
Concerning Liturgies,” in which he labored to distinguish civil
from religious obedience:
The worship of God is of that nature that whatever is performed in
it is an act of religious obedience. That anything may be esteemed
such, {51} it is necessary that the conscience be in it subject to
the immediate authority of God. His authority alone renders any
act of obedience religious. All authority is originally in God,...
obedience in general unto magistrates is part of our moral and
religious obedience unto God, as it respects his [the magistrate’s]
command,... But the performance of particular actions, wherein by


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

their determination our obedience exerts itself, being resolved into
that authority which is vested in them [magistrates], is not religious
but civil obedience,... [It is not] an act of religious obedience unto
God in itself, because it relates not immediately to his divine
authority requiring that act. (Owen 1965i, 43)

Owen pointedly asserted that while a man may obey the magistrate
in matters concerning the order of worship, his obedience is civil,
and not religious. Likewise, his compliance with the magistrate’s
commands is strictly civil obedience and not genuine worship.
Owen insisted that the state has no authority over man’s conscience.
He forcefully argued that no law has the authority to dictate genuine
worship because genuine worship proceeds directly from the
conscience’s response to God and his word. A man may, however,
for the sake of conscience, obey the magistrate’s command in so far
as his conscience is under God’s authority.
The kind of authority which addresses man’s conscience to
religious obedience is none else than God and his word:
God doth exert his authority immediately, and that either directly
from heaven, as in the giving of the law, or by the inspiration
of others to declare his will; unto both which his word written
answereth. Now whatever is done in obedience to the authority of
God thus exerting itself is a part of that religious duty which we
owe to God... [so that] the duty performed is religious obedience,
relating directly to the will and command of God.... for though it
be acknowledged that those who do command have their authority
from God, yet unless the thing commanded be also in particular
appointed by God, the obedience that is yielded is purely civil, and
not religious. (Owen 1965i, 43–44)
Always anxious to preserve the sanctity and majesty of the office
of the civil magistrate, Owen exhorted believers to obey all civil
commands including the laws concerning worship to a limited
extent; but he always sought to expose the ludicrousness of prelates
who exercised ecclesiastical rule under the sanction of civil power.
Thus he wrote about the imposition of liturgies:
The truth is, the church in this sense is the king, or the king and
parliament, by whose advice he exerts his legislative power. By their
authority was the liturgy composed,... In this sense we acknowledge
the power ordaining and imposing this liturgy to be of God, to be
{52} good and lawful, to be obeyed unto the utmost extent of that

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


obedience which to man can be due, and that upon the institution
and command of God himself; but yet, supposing the liturgy to fall
within the precincts and limits of that obedience, the observance
and use of it, being not commanded by God, is purely an act of
civil obedience, and not religious, wherein the conscience lies in no
immediate subjection to Jesus Christ.... and this seems inconsistent
with the nature of the worship of God. (Owen 1965i, 44)

Christ set an example of making the proper distinction between
civil and religious obedience:
Yea, and whereas he [Christ] would do civil things in their own
nature indifferent, whereunto he was by no righteous law obliged,
to avoid the offence of any which he saw might follow, Matt.
xvii. 27, yet would he not practise or give countenance unto,
nay, nor abstain from condemning of, any of their ecclesiastical
self-invented observances, though he saw them offended and
scandalized at him, and was by others informed no less, chap. xv.
12–14;... (Owen 1965i, 4)
Fragility of Conscience
Being the territory of God in man, subject to his immediate
authority, conscience is indispensable to religion and worship.
Yet, apart from the word and Spirit, conscience is fragile and
subject to deception, manipulation, and suppression. In his tract,
“Vindication of Nonconformists” (1680), written against Edward
Stillingfleet, Owen wrote:
For as, it may be, few wise men,—who know the nature of
conscience, how delicate and tender it is, what care is required in
all men to keep it as a precious jewel, whose preservation from
defilements and affronts God hath committed unto us, under the
pain of his eternal displeasure; how unable honest men are to
contravene the light of their own minds, in things of the smallest
importance, for any outward advantages whatever; how great care,
diligence, and accuracy ought to be used in all things relating unto
the worship of God, about which he so frequently declares his
jealousy, and displeasure against those who in anything corrupt or
debase it,... (Owen 1967e, 319–320)
And again in “The Nature and Causes of Apostasy” (1676),
Owen said:
Sin and conscience are stubborn in their conflict whilst immediately


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

opposed [engaged in temptation], conscience pleading that there
should be no sin, and sin contending that there be no conscience;
but, as nature is corrupted, they will both comply with an {53}
accommodation. Wherefore a device to satisfy sin and to deceive
conscience will not fail of a ready entertainment;... (Owen 1965e,

John Owen believed that unless instructed by the word,
conscience can be entirely deluded:
I know conscience may be prepossessed with prejudices, and, by
education, with the insinuation of traditions, take on itself the
power of false, corrupt, superstitious principles and errors, as
means of conveying unto it a sense of divine authority; so is it with
the Mohammendans and other false worshippers in the world.
(Owen 1967a, 96)

Strength of Conscience
The “precious jewel” of conscience must be guarded and kept
pure by adherence to the word of God. Conscience in conformity
with the word of God, far from being weak, has all the strength
that the authority of God can have in a man, because it is God’s
authority in man. As such, it cannot be a source of unbelief or
error. In his “Vindication of Nonconformists,”
Owen wrote that there is no such thing as an erroneous
...we seek for no shelter nor countenance from what is pleaded by
any concerning the obliging power of an “erroneous conscience,”...;
for we acknowledge no rule of conscience in those things which
concern churches, their state, power, order, and worship, but divine
revelation only,—that is, the Scripture, the written word of God,—
and sure enough we are not deceived in the choice of our rule, so
as that we desire no greater assurance in any concerns of religion....
Wherefore, we seek no relief in, we plead no excuse from, the
obligation of an erroneous conscience, but do abide by it that our
consciences are rightly informed in these things; and then it is
confessed on all hands what is their power, and what their force to
oblige us, with respect unto all human commands. (Owen 1967e,
For Owen, the voice of conscience spoke only what was right,
either “accusing or excusing” all of man’s thoughts in terms of the

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


standard of the truth of the word. No evil actions, no evil beliefs
could plead conscience. Justifying evil practices by pleading liberty
of conscience “is an aggravation of the crime” (Owen 1967c, 395).
“What is evil in itself and against the light of nature, there is no
direction unto it, no approbation if it, in the least from conscience”
(Owen 1967e, 528). In answer to the fear that liberty of conscience
may lead to abominable beliefs and practices, Owen responded:
I have wondered also that any man that hath a conscience of his
own, or knows what conscience is, should give entertainment to
so fond an imagination. I would ask any man whether ever he
found any {54} direction in his own conscience, or any inclination
that way? Nay, if he have not constantly found a severe interdiction
given in by his conscience against all such things? And how can he,
then, conceive it possible that the conscience of any man should be
of such a make and constitution, seeing naturally it is absolutely the
same in all? (Owen 1967e, 527)
Basis of Christian Liberty
Owen contended that conscience is not simply a guide or judge
of beliefs, but certainly compels men to be or act accordingly:
“Conscience does not judge of men and their actions [except] with
respect unto what, in the name of God, it requires them to be or to
do” (Owen 1967e, 527). It “obligeth men to act or forbear” and “is
attended with a right unto a liberty to be practised” (Owen 1967e,
442, 443).
Owen’s view of conscience thus established a firm basis
for Christian liberty. Liberty of conscience is a fundamental
component of good civil government. Cromwell expressed Owen’s
view well when he addressed Parliament on September 12, 1654:
In every government there must be somewhat fundamental,
somewhat like a Magna Charta, which should be standing,
be unalterable.... That Parliament should not make themselves
perpetual is a Fundamental.... Liberty of conscience in religion
(equally removed from profaneness and persecution) is a
Fundamental. (Merle d’Aubigné 1983, 161)
Conclusions and Implications
Owen’s view concerning conscience may be summarized as


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

1. Conscience is directly under God alone.
2. The conscience has an authority distinct from the state and
3. Liberty of conscience is not autonomous, but rather answerable
to God.
4. Conscience is the same in all men.
5. Christ’s offering frees the conscience from Mosaic unbelief and
obligations and all man-made religion.
6. Conscience can be deceived and needs to be guarded and
instructed by the word.
7. Conscience can never be the source of evil or unbelief. {55}
8. Conscience is obligated to express itself in thought, word, and
deed in obedience to God; therefore, expression based on
conscience is an inalienable right.
From these conclusions, some significant implications may be
1. There is a separation of civil and spiritual authority of church
and state.
2. There is always a higher appeal than civil authority and state
church hierarchy.
3. Because conscience is the same in all, unity in society is possible.
4. Because each conscience is subject to God alone, a biblical
pluralism is possible, that is, a diversity of belief and practice.
5. This pluralism is the liberty of conscience that men have as an
inalienable right, a creation ordinance.
Orme said of John Owen, “[He] was not the first person who
pleaded for liberty of conscience; but he was the first who openly
inculcated this doctrine while his party had the ascendancy”
(Owen 1981, 45). Therefore, Owen’s views were truly influential in
the English Commonwealth.

Religious Liberty and Toleration
Owen based religious liberty firmly on the inherent and
inalienable right of the consCience to its free expression. Related to

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


this but much more difficult to answer is the question of religious
toleration: Who decides what is tolerable and intolerable, and by
what standard? How are intolerable beliefs to be punished?
Difficulty of Defining Toleration
Owen experienced difficulty in searching for a satisfactory
definition of toleration. In all of his study of the history of
toleration and persecution, he found no one who could “clearly
and distinctly define what they mean by toleration, or what is the
direct purpose, signification, and tendence of non-toleration”
(Owen 1967c, 55). The questions what then? “Shall every one be
suffered to do what he pleaseth?” “Must all sorts of men and their
opinions be tolerated?” he attempted to answer in “A Country
Essay” (1646). He described toleration as “the alms of authority,”
explaining that those who beg for it consider it their due (Owen
1967c, 55). That is, as distinct from Christian liberty, toleration is
the humble posture required in order to secure the compassion
(alms, right of worship) of the magistrate. {56}
Owen sketched four views of toleration which he then critiqued.
First, the classic libertarian idea of complete unbounded liberty he
flatly and repeatedly reproved:
...if by toleration you mean... a universal concession of unbounded
liberty, or rather, bold unbridled licentiousness, for every one to
vent what he pleaseth, and to take what course seems good in his
own eyes, in things concerning religion and the worship of God, I
cannot give my vote for it;... (Owen 1967c, 57–58)
The second position was the opposite of the libertarian,
characterized by absolute intolerance, or the enforced conformity
to a single religious viewpoint. This meant persecution for
dissenters. A third position was tolerance or mutual forbearance
within communion. This referred to the right of dissenters to stay
within the communion of the Established Church—the Church of
England. A fourth position was toleration outside of communion,
which meant the Established Church would tolerate and sanction
dissenters from the Established Church who could not hold
communion in good conscience.
Owen carefully avoided labeling the Church of England a
false church. He argued endlessly that dissent from the Anglican
Church was not schism or schismatic. In 1667, for instance, amidst


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

heavy persecution of dissent, he could still plead, “We have no new
faith to declare, no new doctrine to no private opinions to divulge,
no point or truth do we confess, no not one, which had not been
declared, taught, divulged, and esteemed as the common doctrine
of the Church of England, ever since the Reformation” (Owen
1967e, 552). What he argued at that time was that the Church of
England was bigger than the institutional Established Church. It
included all Protestants, and since the current Established Church
excluded dissenters, Owen hoped for the establishment of a less
official and more inclusive church in its place.2
History of Persecution and Toleration
Owen’s study of the history of persecution gave him a deep sense
of the value of genuine religious freedom, and yielded valuable
models to be imitated. After the execution of Charles I, and
before the establishment of the Protectorate, Owen printed a most
remarkable tract, “Of Toleration; and the Duty of the Magistrate
About Religion” (1649). Owen sought to remove the unbiblical
and unworkable basis of non-toleration before establishing a
biblical basis for toleration. {57}
In this tract, Owen examined the history of arbitrary persecution.
Primarily, he said, the whole history of man is the history of an
established false religion and its accompanying intolerance. Owen
quoted Tertullian’s reference to the Twelve Tables of Roman Law:
“Let none have gods to himself, neither let any privately worship
new or strange deities, unless they be publicly owned and enrolled.”
Rome forbade religious worship without the “consent, decree and
establishment of the senate” (Owen 1967c, 174). Owen wrote that
from ancient Baal worship to the Romanism of his time:
No false religion yet in the world did enthrone itself in the minds of
men enjoying an evil sovereignty over the persons of others, but it
therewith commanded them, under pain of neglect and contempt
of itself, to crush any underlying worship that would perk up in
inferior consciences. (Owen 1965c, 173)
Such persecution has been for the most part “pernicious, fatal, and
dreadful to the profession and professors of the gospel,—little or
2. See prefatory note by Goold to “Union Among Protestants,” Owen, 1965h,

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


not at all serviceable to the truth” (Owen 1965c, 178).
While history is primarily the history of absolute intolerance,
Owen noted some outstanding models of tolerance. Concerning
the position taken by Old Testament Judaism with respect to
gentiles, Owen wrote:
All that they required of such persons was but the observation of
the seven Noaehical precepts, containing the principles of the light
of nature as to the worship of one God and moral honesty amongst
men. Whoever would live amongst them of the Gentiles, and took
upon themselves the observation of these fundamentals, although
they subjected themselves to no institutional ordinances, they
called them “proselytes of the gate,” and gave them all liberty and
peace. And in those who submitted to the law of Moses, who knows
what different sects, and opinions, and modes of worship, there
were amongst them, which they never once supposed that they had
any rule to proceed against by external force and coercion? (Owen
1967e, 525)
In the New Testament, there were Jewish and Gentile churches,
side by side. In Ac. 15 and in the apostolic churches, gentiles
were not demanding the Jews to cease worshipping according to
Mosaic law; they only sought to be free from the impositions of
the Judaizers’ understanding of Moses (Owen 1967e, 320–326).
So, too, Owen argued, Puritans were but pleading for their rights
of conscience, not demanding Anglicans to abolish their prayer
book or ritual preferences, and certainly not their articles of faith.
{58} The pagan emperors of the Roman Empire were at times
blessed of God, while they acted charitably toward Christianity,
until they assumed God’s power to themselves:
Thus we have known princes (such as Trajan, Adrian, Julian of old),
whilst they kept themselves to their proper sphere, ordering and
disposing the affairs of this world and all things belonging to public
peace, tranquillity, and welfare, to have been renowned for their
righteousness, moderation, and clemency, and thereby made dear
to mankind, who, when they have fallen into the excess of assuming
divine power over the consciences of man and the worship of God,
have left behind them such footsteps and remembrances of rage,
cruelty, and blood in the world, as make them justly abhorred to all
generations. (Owen 1967e, 498)
Early church fathers were, said Owen, generally characterized


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

by a charitable spirit toward differences in worship among
Christians. Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origin, Lactantius,
Arnobius, and Socrates the historian all advocated a liberty unto
differences in Christian worship. “The synod of Alexandria, in
the case of Athanasius, condemns all external force in religion,
and reproached the Arians as the first inventors and promoters
of it” (Owen 1967e, 563). Hilary said, “God is God of the whole
world: he needs no compelled obedience, nor requires any such
confession of him. He is not to be deceived, but to be well pleased”
(Owen 1967e, 563). Similar views were held by Valentinianus,
Marcellinus, and Gratian. Tertullian pleaded for toleration on
much the same grounds as the Puritans. Owen delighted to quote
Videte ne et hoc ad irreligiositatis elogium concurrat, adimere
libertatem religionis, et interdicere optionem divinitatis, ut non
liceat mihi colere quen velim, sed cogar colere quem nolim. Nemo
se ab ivito coli vellet, ne homo quidem. (Owen 1967c, 184)
To Scapula, the governor of Carthage, Tertullian wrote:
Tamen humani juris at naturalis potestatis est unicuique quod
putaverit colere, ned alii obest, aut prodest alterius religio; sed nec
religionis est cogere religionem, quae sponte suscipi debeat, non
vi; cum et hostiae ab animo libenti expostulentur: ita et se nos
compuleritis ad sacrificandum, nihil praestabitis diis vestris, ab
invitis enim sacrificia non desiderabunt.
...Quasi non totum quod in nos potestis, nostrum sit arbitrium.
Certe si velim, Christianus sum, tunc ergo me damnibis, si
damnari velim. Cum vero quod in me potes, nisi velim, non potos,
jam meae voluntatis est quod potes, non tuae potestatis. (Owen
1967c, 184) {59}
Far and above the best example of religious toleration in history
is that of the early years of Constantine the Great. Owen quoted
That liberty of worship is not to be denied; and therefore the
Christians, as others, should have liberty to keep the faith of
their religion and heresy,... That this is most certain, that this is
conducing to the peace of the empire, that free option and choice
of religion be left to all. (Owen 1967c, 185)
Following the adoption of Christianity by the Roman emperors,

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


Christianity ceased to rely on disciplining itself from within; the
successive influences of Arianism and especially the rise of the
papacy diluted its power and purity. Those who maintained purity
were subject to persecution. Owen said that Arian magistrates
were more cruel to the orthodox, than their pagan predecessors
(Owen 1967c, 179).
From about 850 to 1550, as the papacy rose in power, the
...whole power of punishing for religion became subservient to the
dictates of the pope, the kings of the earth giving their power to
the beast;... from thence... until the death of Servetus in Geneva,
the pursuit of Gentilis, Blandrata, and some other madmen in
Helvetia, for the space of well-nigh seven hundred years,—the
chiefest season of the reign of Satan and Antichrist,—all punishing
for religion was managed by the authority of Rome, and against
the poor witnesses of Jesus, prophesying in sackcloth in several
regions of the west. And what streams of blood were poured out,
what millions of martyrs slain in the space, is known to all. (Owen
1967c, 180)
Yet Owen reserved his heaviest condemnation for the hypocrisy
of Christian prelates of his time, especially after 1662, for wholesale
excommunication of saints who refused to attend their services;
plus imprisonments, corporal punishments, fines and executions
for similar infractions (Owen 1967e, 523). He bemoaned the lack
of toleration within the presumed greatest Christian nation on
earth at the time!
Toleration of Heresy
A most difficult issue grappled with by the Puritans was how
to maintain religious liberty while curbing toleration of error or
heresy. Equally difficult was the issue of intolerable errors, and
how to deal with them. Owen defined heresy as, “an error, or
errors in or about the fundamentals of religion, maintained with
stubbornness and pertinency after conviction” (Owen 1967c,
165). To assume that no standard existed or should exist was
unthinkable; “neutrality” had catastrophic implications. On the
one hand, Owen stated, “error hath as much right to a forcible
defense as truth” {60} (Owen 1967c, 181). Elsewhere he said,
“Heresies and errors ought not to be tolerated” (Owen 1967c, 58).
Citing the advice of the philosopher Themistius to the emperor


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

Valens, “that he should let all sects alone, because it was for the
glory of God to be honored with diversities of opinions and ways
of worship,” Owen said such advice was “most abhorrent.” Still
he conceded that in the absence of any toleration for believers,
Themistius’ advice “was well conducing at that time to the peace of
the churches” (Owen 1967c, 186)!
Holy Scripture, especially Old Testament law, is clearly the
standard for determination of sin and error. Speaking absolutely,
all error is intolerable. But not all error is equally intolerable. Owen
believed that some errors, though intolerable in the church, may
be tolerated by the state. In general, those errors which threaten
the peace of society are not to be tolerated by the state. Owen’s
general prescription for toleration of error is found in his tract,
“Of Toleration”:
Errors, though never so impious, are yet distinguished from peacedisturbing enormities. If opinions in their own nature tend to the
disturbance of the public peace, either that public tranquility is not
of God, or God alloweth a penal restraint of those opinions. It is a
mistake, to affirm that those who plead for toleration do allow for
punishment of offences against the second table,—not against the
first. The case is the same both in respect of the one and the other.
What offences against the second table are punishable? Doubtless
not all, but only such as, by a disorderly eruption, pervert the
course of public quiet and society; yea, none but such fall under
human cognizance. The warrant of exercising vindictive power
amongst men is from the reference of offences to their common
tranquility.... If any of them [offences against the first table] in their
own nature (not some men’s apprehensions) are disturbances of
public peace, they also are punishable. (Owen 1967c, 164)
Here as elsewhere,1 Owen affirmed the Ten Commandments to
be perpetually binding on all men. However, he noted that Scripture
does not require penal sanctions against all error. Although some
kind of sanctions are prescribed for many kinds of errors and sins,
the Scriptures do not enjoin either civil or ecclesiastical authorities
to make sin-chasing or heresy-sniffing the primary purpose of
their respective institutions. For example, Owen demonstrated
that the Old Testament penalty for blasphemy, rebellion, and
1. See for example, Owen’s “Greater Catechism,” Chapter 7, Questions 7 and
2 (Owen 1965a, 476).

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


seduCing to idolatry is very difficult to apply, then or in any age. A
heretic, like the seducer in Deut. 13, “exempts his spirit from any
{61} regular trial” (Owen 1967c, 168). If the strict letter of the law
be applied, there is no room for repentance, mercy, or an audience
with one’s clergy. If all such sanctions are to be literally applied,
“Let parents, then, pass sentence, condemn, and execute their
children, when they turn seducers;...” (Owen 1967c, 167). As it is,
argued Owen, “the penal sanctions of the laws of God are not in
England esteemed of moral equity, and perpetually indispensable;
for if so, why do adulterers unmolested behold the violent death
of stealers?” (Owen 1967c, 167). So although the law remains the
standard of toleration, strictly speaking, and specifies punishment
“to fit the crime,” rigid justice is not the only purpose for the
institution of authority.
Persecution of Heresy Fruitless
Owen found little warrant in the gospel for rulers to punish
heretics: “The gospel is exceedingly sparing, if not altogether
silent” concerning the punishment of heretics (Owen 1967c, 172).
And historically, persecution or punishment for heresy has not
succeeded in rooting it out: “The attempt to suppress any opinions
whatsoever by forCe hath been for the most part fruitless” (Owen
1967c, 180). In fact, just the opposite has been the case.
For three hundred years the church had no assistance from any
magistrate against heretics; and yet in all that space there was not
one long-lived or far-spreading heresy, in comparison of those that
followed. (Owen 1967c, 183)
Of the early Fathers’ writings against heretics “for corporeal
punishment to be inflicted on them, in their writings [is] not a
syllable” (Owen 1967c, 183). Rather, it was after the establishment
of Christianity that heresies began to flourish:
It is true, in the first three centuries many fond, foolish corrupt
opinions were broached by sundry brain-sick men; but they laid
little hold of the churches, kept themselves in the breast of some
few disorderly wanderers, and did very little promote the mystery
of iniquity: but afterward, when the Roman emperors, and the
great men of the earth, under and with them, began to interpose
in the things of religion, and were mutually wooed, instigated,
and provoked by the parties at variance (as indeed it is a shame


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

to consider, upon all meetings, assemblies, disputes, councils, what
running, what flattering, what insinuation at court, were used on
all hands), what root did divers heresies take! how far they were
propagated! Witness Arianism, which had almost invaded the
whole world. (Owen 1967c, 184) {62}

Therefore, Owen believed that external force could neither
compel obedience nor root out heresy:
Some Protestants are of that judgment that external force ought
to have no place at all in matters of faith, however laws may be
constituted with penalties for the preservation of public outward
order in a nation; most of them, that “haereticidium,” or putting
men to death for their misapprehensions in the things of God, is
absolutely unlawful; and all of them, that faith is the gift of God, for
the communication whereof unto men he hath appointed certain
means, whereof external force is none;... (Owen 1965h, 253 –254)
Elsewhere, Owen said:
...nor shall [I] ever give my vote to the burning, hanging, or killing
of a man, otherwise upright, honest, and peaceable in the state,
merely because he misbelieveth any point of Christian faith.... I
should be very unwilling to pronounce the sentence of blood in the
case of heresy. (Owen 1967e, 63–64)
No church or civil council since the Jerusalem Council of Ac. 15
had been entirely free from fault when judging heresy; therefore,
Owen was very pessimistic that heresy could be demolished
without also threatening truth. In fact, it would be better “to spare
five hundred [heretics] for the saving of one guiltless person”
(Owen 1967c, 65). A noose prepared to catch heresy could catch
truth as well!
How to Deal with Intolerable Errors
Although Owen made gratuitous statements about tolerating
heresy, they must be reconciled with other statements to the
contrary. All heresies and errors fall into two large classes, 1) those
that threaten the peace of the state, and 2) those that do not. Those
threatening the civil or social order come under the penal restraint
of the civil sword. All others should come under the discipline of
the church. Simple distinctives between Protestants ought to be
accorded full liberty. All other heresies, though enjoying immunity

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


from the civil sword, nevertheless ought not to be protected by
the state. In 1652, Owen preached a sermon before Parliament
entitled, “Christ’s Kingdom and the Magistrate’s Power,” in which
he maintained:
Know that error and falsehood have no right or title, either from
God or man, unto any privilege, protection, advantage, liberty, or
any good thing you [reference to the civil magistrate] are entrusted
withal.... All the tenderness and forbearance unto such persons as
are infected with such abominations is solely upon a civil account,
and {63} that plea which they have for tranquility whilst neither
directly nor morally they are a disturbance unto others. (Owen
1967c, 394–395)
“Peaceful” errors were not protected by the state, yet neither
were they to be prosecuted. In what sense then were they not to be
tolerated? Owen taught that, in addition to not being protected by
the state, they were to be fought against with spiritual weapons. For
instance (as compared with blasphemy, a civil offence), “...heresy is
a canker, but a spiritual one, let it be prevented by spiritual means.
Cutting off men’s heads is no proper remedy for it” (Owen 1967c,
64). “The spiritual sword of discipline may be lawfully sheathed
in the blood of heresies” (Owen 1967c, 170). Concerning the
effectiveness of spiritual weapons against heresy, Owen continued: gospel conviction no means? Hath the sword of discipline
no edge?... Are the hammer of the word and the sword of the
Spirit, which in days of old broke the stubbornest mountains, and
overcame the proudest nations, now quite useless? God forbid!
(Owen 1967c, 171)
For the major errors which Owen called “peace-disturbing
enormities,” against either table of the law, the civil power had
a responsibility to prosecute, with the sword if necessary. These
crimes included blasphemy, idolatry, immorality, and profaning
authority, whether civil or ecclesiastical (Owen 1967c, 58–59, 64;
Owen 1967e, 569).
Peculiar Problem of Romanism
In seventeenth-century England, the issue of toleration for
Roman Catholics was a peculiarly troublesome one. Puritans (and
most Anglicans and other groups) perceived the papacy as some
over-arching ominous threat to all nations and to Christian liberty


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

Popish religion, warming in its very bowels a fatal engine against
all magistracy amongst us, cannot upon our concession plead for
forbearance; it being a known and received maxim, that the gospel
of Christ clashes against no righteous ordinance of men. (Owen
1967c, 165)
Then, when Rome’s errors were brought secretly into the Church
of England, Owen attacked these as if the Church of England were
the Church of Rome:
Heedless and headless errors may breed disturbance enough, in
scattered individuals, unto the people of God, but such as tend
to a peace and association “cum ecclesia malignantium,” tending
to a total subversion of the sacred state, are far more dangerous.
Now, such {64} were the innovations of the late hierarchists. In
worship, their paintings, crossings, crucifixes, bowings, cringings,
altars, tapers, wafers, organs, anthems, litany, rails, images, copes,
vestments,—what were they but Roman varnish, an Italian dress for
our devotion, to draw on conformity with that enemy of the Lord
Jesus? In doctrine, the divinity of Episcopacy, auricular confession,
free-will, predestination on faith, yea, works foreseen, “limbus
patrem,” justification by works, falling from grace, authority of
a church, which none knew what it was, canonical obedience,
holiness of churches, and the like innumerable, what were they but
helps to Santa Clara, to make all our articles of religion speak good
Roman Catholic? (Owen 1967c, 28)
Curiously, Owen proffered the possibility of toleration for
Rome based on mutual recognition. Such a “gospel moderation,”
proceeding “from the principles of reason, with ingenuity
and goodness of nature,” could overcome much of the mutual
intolerance felt by both Protestants and Romanists (Owen 1965h,
254–55). In the absence of such overtures, Owen felt constrained
to write much against the Roman church. Yet he lamented that all
of the hundreds of volumes written and all of the legal restraints
against Rome since the Reformation had done very little to curb
Rome’s influence:
To this end some implore the aid of authority for the enacting of
severe laws for the prohibition of it.... Some write books in the
confutation of the errors of it, and that to very good purpose. But
in the meantime, if there be anything of truth in reports, the work

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


is effectually progressive as if no opposition had been made unto
it; and we may assure ourselves that these and such like means as
these, if they are alone, will never keep Popery out of England,...
nor prevent the entrance of any other false way in religion. (Owen
1965e, 88–89)

The only satisfactory solution to this “intolerable” problem was
“no other but the effectual communication of the knowledge of it
[Protestant religion] unto the minds, and the implantation of the
power of it on the hearts of the people” (Owen 1965e, 89). Only
the powerful preaching of the gospel to the consciences of the
masses could restrain the influence of Rome.
Application of Owen’s Views under Cromwell
During the period of the Commonwealth (ca. 1650–1660),
Owen was able to exercise his views of toleration from his various
positions. He served as chaplain and advisor to Cromwell, ViceChancellor of the University, and occasional speaker in Parliament.
In the succession of the “Rump” {65} Parliament, the Barebone’s
Assembly, the Protectorate of Oliver (and then Richard) Cromwell,
and the Savoy Conference, many serious efforts were made toward
settlement of religion, a number of which involved Owen.
In the absence of either Episcopal or Presbyterian national
church government, and with the proliferation of fanatical sects,
it became important to find a basis of agreement for unifying and
purifying the clergy. These efforts at agreement provide a clearer
picture of what beliefs Owen believed should be protected by the
Two such documents involving Owen were the “Humble
Proposals” and the Sixteen Fundamentals.2 The “Humble
Proposals,” written in February 1652, petitioned Parliament to
provide for Triers and Ejectors to evaluate and discipline clergy. As
Toon notes, this document was amended in December 1652, with
specific doctrinal articles. Though never passed by Parliament,
these Proposals, as amended, show more clearly what kinds
of belief were to be promoted (and thus protected) by the state.
2. The Sixteen Fundamentals, properly, “The Principles of Faith presented by
Mr. Tho. Goodwin, Mr. Nye, Mr. Sydrach Sympson and other Ministers” (1654),
was essentially the same as the “Humble Proposals,” and was more pareicularly
ehe work of Owen, according to Richard Baxter (Toon 197da, 95).


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

Article 15 stated, “God is to be worshipped according to his own
will and whosoever shall forsake and despise all the duties of his
worship cannot be saved” (Toon 1971a, 86). Toon summarized the
Proposals with the following evaluation:
They affirmed the supreme authority of Holy Scripture, the Nicene
doctrine of the Trinity, the centrality of Christ’s atonement,
resurrection, and ascension, the Chalcedonian Christology, the
necessity of regeneration and saving faith in sinful mortals who
would obtain eternal salvation, and the worship of God according
to His revealed will. If this statement effectively removed Socinians
and Unitarians from a legal part in the religious life of England, it
also prohibited both Roman Catholic and Anglican worship which
was based on either an erroneous or a dead liturgy. (Toon 1971a,
It is significant that Owen, to the extent that the “Humble
Proposals” reflected his views, was concerned for the biblical faith
of publicly supported ministers; he did not hold that the beliefs of
all citizens should come within the scope of the Proposals. Indeed,
the Proposals allowed for conscientious dissent:
[Article 11:] That a Law may be provided, that all persons
whatsoever within this Nation be required to attend the publike
Preaching of the Gospel every Lord’s Day, in places commonly
called Churches, except {66} such Persons as through scruple of
Conscience do abstain from those assemblies. (Toon 1973, 66;
emphasis mine)
Merle d’Aubigne noted that “the ejected ministers were only
excluded from the privileges of the national ministry; they were
not deprived of religious liberty” (Merle d’Aubigné 1983, 174).
Such ministers might not be deprived of their liberty, but, as the
“Humble Proposals” stated, neither would they be “suffered to
preach or promulgate anything in opposition unto such Principles”
of the Christian Religion (Toon 1973, 66). Anglicans, too, were
forbidden to have “a frequent use of the Book of Common Prayer
in public” (Toon 1973, 174).
Though the Proposals allowed for some small measure of
conscientious dissent, still they were more restrictive and less
tolerant than Owen’s writings on toleration. Owen’s biographer,
John Asty, attributed the difference to the fanatical excesses to
which the Puritan revolution had led:

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


As the Rump period advanced, Owen became ever more alarmed
by a “perverse spirit” of “giddiness” in “the broaching of many
opinions.” At the beginning of the Rump period he scorned as
unnecessarily repressive the notion that the state should impose
“fundamentals” in religion: by 1652 he was seeking to impose them
himself. In October 1652, distressed by the shrill cry of soldiers
and sects, who were “almost taking upon” themselves “to prescribe
to the Almighty,” Owen could only present the Rump with
evidence of his own confusion. By this time he almost seemed to
sympathize with the House’s inaction on reform issues. For Owen,
as for so many others, the religious radicalism of the early 1650s
seemed directly to contradict the premises on which the Puritan
Revolution had been conducted. (Lamont 1969, 139–140)

In 1655, Owen sat on a committee to advise the Lord Protector
on how to respond to a petition from Rabbi Mennasseh ben Israel,
requesting permission for Jews to immigrate to Britain. Owen is
believed to have favored lifting the ban on Jews living in England,
dating back to 1290. When his advisors could not give him a clear
approval, Cromwell decried their prejudice (Toon 1971a, 97).
If Jews were not considered a political threat, Socinians were,
as were Turks (Muslims), Quakers, and Fifth Monarchists. In
1652, Owen and his friends succeeded in getting Parliament to
burn and ban the Racovian Catechism, an anti-trinitarian creed
of Socinians.
As Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, Owen had to deal with a certain
revolutionary and anti-education mentality that infected certain
sects, such as Quakers and Fifth Monarchists. For instance, two
Quaker girls once {67} visited Oxford. Claiming immediate
revelation, they interrupted a Sunday service by suddenly
screaming that the judgment of God was imminent. They were
arrested, and Owen ordered them to be whipped and expelled
from town. “They were punished not for being Quakers, but
because their behavior incited civil disorder, being aimed at the
downfall of the University” (Toon 1971a, 40, 76). On the other
hand, Owen allowed the Anglicans to congregate on campus to
hold communion according to their liturgy, even though the Book
of Common Prayer had been proscribed (Toon 1971a, 76).
The Fifth Monarchy was a Protestant sect which believed in the
imminent return of Christ to inaugurate his kingdom on earth,


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

replacing the four kingdoms of Daniel 2. Theirs was a good example
of a belief that might be considered a minor Protestant distinctive,
but which was considered a threat to the social order, and thus
ought to be proscribed by the state. They claimed that magistrates
were enemies of Jesus Christ. Addressing the Congregational
churches in New England in 1654, Owen wrote to them not to
tolerate Fifth Monarchists, for this sect laid “an immediate claim
to the government of the whole world” (Toon 1970, 67). Yet when
they caused him trouble at Oxford, Owen’s treatment of them
was quite mild. According to Toon, Owen met with their leaders
periodically for over a year to attempt to persuade them of their
wrong, waiting patiently for God to deal with them (Toon 1970,

Summary of Views on Toleration
Owen wrestled much with religious liberty and toleration.
Religious liberty was to be enjoyed by all peaceful citizens. In
addition, Protestant Christian beliefs were to be protected or
favored by the state. Protestant distinctives that were disturbing
to the social order were, however, to be treated by the state as
intolerable. On the other hand, heretics, Jews, and those of other
non-Christian beliefs were not to be persecuted if not a civil
threat. Blasphemers, Muslims, Socinians, Roman Catholics, and
such were considered a social and political threat, and could
not tolerated. Orthodoxy was not to be enjoined by force but by
spiritual means. If these views seem extreme today, they were
considered quite liberal in the seventeenth century. Indeed one
scholar has commented that Owen sought “for great religious
diversity... he advocated as much pluralism as he thought possible”
(Williams 1981, xvii).
The standard for determining which beliefs are tolerable is the
word of God. However, the standard for determining which beliefs
are to be {68} protected involved the Puritans in great difficulty,
for it was hard to escape the charge that the most powerful party
always promoted its own distinctive as the standard. Owen and
Cromwell worked hard to escape such a charge. They hoped for
a nation that could be both Christian and tolerant. That certain
beliefs are to be protected and promoted by the state is connected

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


to the position held by Owen that the basis of civil government
is Scriptural Christianity. As Christianity affirms freedom of
conscience, so it requires the life of believers and their societies,
their governments, and establishes the boundaries of unbelievers.

The Church As It Relates To the State
As conscience has its origin and authority immediately from
Jesus Christ, with an inalienable right to express itself, so too
does the church. As the conscience informed by the word of God
enables each man to worship God individually, so the church
informed by the word of God enables men to worship God
corporately. Further, the church is the corporate conscience in the
world, especially as it testifies to the presence of the truth of God.
Based on the immediate authority of Jesus Christ, Owen argued
that the church is separate from the state.
Definition of the Church
The church is essentially God’s people in the world, from
creation to the present:
Men associating themselves together, or uniting in such societies
for the worship of God, which he requires of them, as may enable
them unto an orderly performance of it, are a church. (Owen 1965i,
The first church was of nature, in Eden:
So, first he appointed a church-state for man in innocency, and
completed its order by the sacramental addition of the two trees,—
the one of life, the other of the knowledge of good and evil. (Owen
1965i, 229)
Except for this passage, Owen did not refer to the church in Eden;
it is not clear that he distinguished it from the Judaical church, for
he affirmed that the law given to Adam, which regulates worship,
was the same law renewed to Moses (Owen 1967b, 165; 1965e, 54).
He believed the Old Testament church, which he referred to as
the Judaical church-state, was still functioning through the time
of the writing of Acts and Hebrews, until the abolishment of its
outward form with the {69} destruction of the temple (Owen 1960,
12). On the other hand, he held to the essential unity of the people


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

of God in all ages. In comparing the New Testament church to
previous states of the church, Owen said the church, as instituted
according to the light of nature,
...may receive new enforcements by revelation, but changed, or
altered, or abolished, it cannot be. Wherefore, there is no need of
any new express institution of what is required by that light and law
in all churches and societies for the worship of God, but only an
application of it unto present occasions and the present state of the
church, which hath been various. (Owen 1965i, 231)
In contrast, the New Testament church, or the “especial original of
the evangelical church-state,” is not of nature or law, but directly
from Jesus Christ.3 As such (Owen 1965i, 231), its glory and honor
is so superior that “it must have a peculiar divine institution of its
own, to evidence that it is from heaven, and not from men.”
Most of what Owen taught about the church in relation to the
state was in the context of the New Testament or gospel church.
Though Owen affirmed the permanent validity of both tables of
the law (Owen 1967c, 164; 1965a, 476), with the gospel Owen
believed many Mosaic laws were no longer of “moral equity”4;
therefore, blasphemy, seduction and similar crimes became
difficult to prosecute in gospel times (Owen 1967c, 165–170).
There is a three-fold sense of the church: 1) The catholic,
invisible church, consisting of all those united to Christ by his
Spirit; 2) The visible (but non-congregating) manifestation of
professing believers; 3) The particular or local church, consisting
of professing believers in a voluntary association with a local
assembly, with administrators and sacraments (Owen 1965i, 233).
Owen’s concerns about church and state were primarily related
to the third sense, that is, how the church as congregated should
relate to the state.

3. Owen often referred to the church as a church-state. According to Owen,
this could be a national church, though in a very restricted sense; in general
the term church-state was equivalent to the church, or the instituted church as
opposed to the invisible church.
4. Owen’s words were: “The penal sanctions of the laws of God are not in
England esteemed of moral equity, and perpetually indispensable;...” Whether a
case could be argued that he was distinguishing England from other countries or
circumstances is doubtful.

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


The Argument Over Church Authority and Government
In 1646, early in his Career, Owen wrote (Owen 1967c, 46) that
the greatest danger threatening the kingdom then was “from the
contest about {70} church government.” For him, the danger lay not
in church polity as such (whether congregational, presbyterian,
or episcopal), but rather in the church’s relationship to the state.
He was writing against the background of an essentially Erastian
eccle-statology,5 which held to a union of church and state. In
that setting, to speak against prelacy was to speak against the civil
authority behind prelacy. From the Puritan perspective, however,
to speak against the prelacy was to speak against the unlawful
union between church and state. Owen posed two basic questions:
1) What is the source of church authority? 2) How is that authority
distributed? Or, practically speaking, who is the head of the
church, and how does he rule?
That Jesus is sole author and head of the church seems
undebatable to most. But Owen wisely based all his arguments
against prelacy squarely on this doctrine, and none else. Christ
alone has right and title to his church, because of:
1. The donation of the Father (Heb. 1:2,3; John 17:2,6);
2. The purchase of his blood (Ac. 20:28; 1 Cor. 7:23; Rom. 14:9,
10); and
3. His conquest of their [the church’s] enemies by his power and
of themselves [church members] by his word, Spirit, and grace
(Owen 1965i, 235–236).
Owen contended, therefore, that Christ’s immediate authority
over the church renders the church self-sufficient and independent
from civil authority:
...the Lord Christ has ordained no power or order in his church,
no office or duty, that should stand in need of the civil authority,
sanction, or force to preserve it, or make it effectual unto its proper
ends. It is sufficient to discharge any thing of a pretence to be an
appointment of Christ in his church, if it be not sufficient unto
its own proper end, without the help of the civil magistrate. That
church-state which is either constituted by human authority, or
cannot consist without it, is not from him.... He will not borrow the
5. Eccle-statology is my own term for the doctrine of church and state.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

assistance of civil authority to rule in and over the consciences of
men,... (Owen 1965i, 310)
It is necessary, from this institution of particular churches, that
they have their subsistence, continuation, order, and the efficacy
of all that they act and do as churches, from Christ himself; for
whereas all that they are and do is heavenly, spiritual, and not of
this world, so that it reacheth nothing of all those things which
are under the power of the magistrate (that is, the lives and bodies
of men, and all civil interests appertaining to them), and affects
nothing but what no power of all {71} the magistrates under heaven
can reach unto (that is, the souls and consciences of men),—no
trouble can hence arise unto any rulers of the world, no contest
about what they ought and what they ought not to confirm; which
have caused great disorders among many. (Owen 1965i, 311)

It was this understanding of the self-sufficiency of the church,
which Owen acquired from John Cotton’s work, Of the Keyes of the
Kingdom of Heaven (1644), as well as from Apologeticall Narration
(1643), that led Owen from Presbyterianism to Independency or
Congregationalism. This shift was perhaps more a clarification
than a radical change in his thinking (Toon 1971a, 18–19; Orme
1981, 29); he did not become anti-Presbyterian, but this served to
strengthen his conviction that the authority of the church was in
no sense derived from the state.
The implication of Christ’s immediate authority established the
basis for Nonconformists to congregate outside the Church of
It will, it may, be demanded by what warrant or authority we do
assemble ourselves in church societies, for the administration of
gospel ordinances? and who gave us this authority? His command
in his word, his promise of the acceptance of them, and of his
presence among them in all the acts of their holy obedience,
the assistance and guidance of his Holy Spirit, which he affords
graciously unto them, are a sufficient warranty and authority for
what they do in express compliance with his commands;... Where
the Spirit and word of Christ are, there is his authority;... (Owen
1965i, 181)
Local congregations under Christ’s authority were in subjection to
no superior spiritual authority beyond their membership. Christ’s
power was

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


not delegated to them from bishops beyond their church.
Neither could a church deprive itself of its rights and powers,
except to the neglect of its duties:
And if it be neither taken from them by any law, rule or constitution
of Christ, nor can be renounced or forgone by themselves, what
other power under heaven can justly deprive them of it or hinder
them in its execution? (Owen 1965i, 316)
The rule of the church belongeth unto the ministers of it. God hath
established rule in the church, Rom. xii:8; 1 Cor. xii:28; 1 Tim.
v:17; 1 Thess. v:12; Heb. xiii;7, 17... This rule is spiritual, and hath
nothing in common with the administration of the powers of the
world. (Owen 1967a, 514)

Owen did not like the idea of a national church, yet he
acknowledged the validity of a national church in a limited sense.
In describing the church
(Owen 1967e, 188), he denied the validity of a prelatical
hierarchical {72} church. He stopped short of denying episcopacy,
but denied the validity of an Episcopal church whose power was
derived from the crown and distributed to prelates. He was even
willing to use the term, “King is head of the church,” but not in a
spiritual sense. Thus he responded in 1663 to “Fiat Lux,” a tract by
John Vincent Cane, a Franciscan friar:
It is true, in opposition unto your papal claim of authority and
jurisdiction over the subjects of this kingdom, Protestants do
assert the king to be so head of the church within his own realms
and dominions, as that he is, by God’s appointment, the sole
fountain and spring amongst men of all authority and power to
be exercised over the persons of his subjects in matters of external
cognizance and order: being no way obnoxious to the direction,
supervisorship, and superintendency of any other, in particular,
not of the pope. He is not the “only striker,” as you phrase it, in his
kingdom; but the only protector under God of all his subjects, and
the only distributer of justice, in rewards and punishments, unto
them, not depending in the administration of the one or other on
the determinations or orders of your pope or church. Not that any
of them do use absolutely that expression of “Head of the church;”
but that they ascribe unto him all authority that ought or can be
exercised in his dominions over any of his subjects, whether in
things civil or ecclesiastical, that are not merely spiritual, and to


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

be ministerially ordered in obedience unto Christ Jesus. (Owen
1965h, 381)

While Owen ascribed authority to the king in things not strictly
spiritual, he decried the prelatical episcopacy under the power
of the monarchy as nothing less than a usurpation of Christ’s
authority. In his sermon on “The Advantage of the Kingdom of
Christ” (1651), Owen referred to Charles I and his predecessor,
James I, when he wrote:
The late king had learned a saying from his predecessor [James I],
“No bishop, no king.” Hence he supposes his main interest to he
in holding fast Prelacy:... And what is this Prelacy? A mere antichristian encroachment upon the inheritance of Christ. (Owen
1967e, 323)
In distinguishing and separating the church from the state,
Owen challenged not only Anglicans, but also the Erastian and
semi-Erastian views held by many Presbyterians. For instance, the
Confession of Faith of the King of Scotland, the National Covenant
of 1640, saw the two powers joined together:
Seeing the cause of God’s true religion and his Highness’s authority
are so joined, as the hurt of the one is common to both; that none
shall be reputed as loyal and faithful subjects to our sovereign Lord,
or his authority, but be punishable as rebellers and gainstanders of
the same, {73} who shall not give their confession, and make their
profession of the said true religion.... (The Confession of Faith,
1985, 350–351)
Likewise, the great Presbyterian, Richard Baxter, ascribed to
the magistrate greater authority over church affairs, such as
determining the place and forms of worship, deciding who was
orthodox, and who heretical or idolatrous; though he held that the
civil magistrate could not overrule a church’s discipline (Nuckols
1968, 196).
Even George Gillespie, Scottish Commissioner at the
Westminster Assembly, who yielded no authority to the magistrate
in the church, allowed for:
...extraordinary cases, when church government doth degenerate
into tyranny, ambition and avarice,... the Christian magistrate may
and ought to do diverse things in and for religion, and interpose
his authority diverse ways, for extraordinary diseases must have

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


extraordinary remedies. (Gillespie 1985, 85)

A contemporary of Owen, Gillespie wrote an articulate defense
for the separation of church and civil government, in Aaron’s Rod
Blossoming, published in 1646. His defense provides a helpful
contrast with Owen’s views. Gillespie tied the New Testament
church much more closely to the Old Testament than did Owen.
Therefore, he established a firmer biblical basis for distinction of
ecclesiastical and civil powers, arguing cogently that the priestly
functions were always separate from magistrates’ and judges’
functions (Gillespie 1985, 4). In addition to the Old Testament,
Gillespie marshaled evidence from Plato, Aristotle, Philo and
Augustine to demonstrate a historic recognition, even among
pagans, of the division of authority between the civil rulers and
the priesthood. Gillespie believed that Christ rules over both the
civil nations and his church spiritual, but in different capacities.
He emphasized the union of all authority in Christ, so that there
is but one authority in the world. As Son of God, Christ rules
all nations, from eternity; as mediator, Christ rules the church
(Gillespie 1985, 86–97). Owen did not make such distinctions.
Gillespie taught that magistrates and kings receive their power
directly from God, and rule as “gods.” Christ as mediator rules
as king over his church through church officers; church officers’
power is given as a stewardship, directly from Christ as mediator,
for the work of the ministry. Magistrates, on the other hand, do
not rule in Christ’s stead as mediators, and therefore have no
authority in things ecclesiastical. {74}
Problems When Spiritual and Civil Authorities Mixed
Owen was a keen student of the historical conflict between
church and state. Failure to keep the church’s authority pure and
unmixed began in Constantine’s latter years, when the church
desired to have the state enforce ecclesiastical judgments:
The way of requiring the sanction of civil authority unto
ecclesiastical orders and determinations began with the use of
general councils in the days of Constantine; and when once it was
engaged in and approved, so far as that what was determined in
the synods, either as to doctrine or as unto the rule of the church,
should be confirmed by the imperial authority, with penalties on
all that should gainsay such determinations, it is deplorable to


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

consider what mutual havoc was made among Christians upon the
various sentiments of synods and emperors. Yet this way pleased
the rulers of the church so well, and, as they thought, eased them
of so much trouble, that it was so far improved amongst them, that
at last they left no power in or about religion or religious persons
unto the civil magistrate, but what was to be exercised in the
execution of the decrees and determinations of the church. (Owen
1965i, 310)

In other words, spiritual discipline by the churches was deemed
insufficient without civil enforcement (penalties); civil sanctions
made the role of church leaders easier, thus leading to an increase
of civil authority to support the church, resulting in a papacy made
powerful by civil authorities, and civil authorities were increasingly
influenced by the church authorities. Thus, witness the powerful
enforcement of decrees of the general councils.
The worst result with this mixture of powers was the dilution
of spiritual purity in the church as people were coerced into
submission by the power of the civil sword. Rather than having
a sanctifying or purifying influence on the state, it resulted in a
secularizing of the church. As Owen said in his preface to “An
Inquiry Concerning Evangehcal Churches” in 1681: the accession of the nations in general unto the profession of
the gospel, church-order was suited and framed unto their secular
state, when they ought to have been brought into the spiritual state
and order of the church, leaving their political state entire unto
themselves. Herein, I say, did the guides of the church certainly
miss their rule and depart from it, in the days of Constantine the
emperor, and afterward under other Christian emperors, when
whole towns, cities, yea, and nations, offered at once to join
themselves unto it. (Owen 1965i, 199) {75}
Mass conversions brought mass numbers of infidels into the
church (Owen 1965i, 199), “being the most of them unfit to be
ruled by the power and influence of the commands of Christ.”
Few, if any, church fathers could possibly see the effects their
inviting state support would have upon the church. Augustine, as
Gillespie pointed out (Gillespie 1985, 118), did see this as a danger
when he reproved the Donatists for appealing from ecclesiastical
assemblies to the emperors and civil courts.
Owen, in short, believed that unless the ecclesiastical and civil

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


powers be kept separate, the whole kingdom would suffer. Indeed,
because of this problem, the whole kingdom was tottering, as
his sermon “The Shaking of Heaven and Earth” (1649) indicated
(Owen 1967e, 243–279).
As to what the exact boundaries were between the two powers,
there were almost as many viewpoints as there were people.
Puritans, including Owen, did not deny the right of ministers to
receive their finances from the state, nor deny the state the power
to collect tithes. Owen’s biographer, William Orme, noted the
How the Independents reconciled it to their principles to receive,
without scruple, the revenues of the church which they had
overthrown, does not clearly appear: the fact, however, is that all
classes of dissenters accepted places and offices which had been
established in connection with the Episcopal church of England.
(Orme 1981, 60)
John Milton perhaps saw more clearly the inconsistency in the
Puritan position, as Orme also noted:
...he hated that Independents should take that name, as they
justly may from their freedom of Christian doctrine and church
discipline, subject to no superior judge but God only—and seek to
be dependents on the magistrates for their maintenance; which two
things, independence and state hire in religion, can never consist
long or certainly together. For magistrates at one time or other
will pay none but such whom by their committees of examination
they find to be comformable to their interest and opinions. And
hirelings will soon frame themselves to that interest and those
opinions which they see best pleasing to their paymasters; and
to seem right themselves, will force others as to the truth. (Orme
1981, 61)
Westminster and Savoy Compared
That Puritans held widely different, or rapidly changing,
views on the relation of church and state can be seen in a
comparison of the Westminster {76} Confession of Faith and
the Savoy Declaration. The Westminster Assembly (1643–
1648) was a gathering of mostly Presbyterians (though with
significant Independent representation), under the authority and
sponsorship of Parliament. The much less known Savoy Assembly


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

(1658) was a conference of Congregational ministers and elders
which met, apart from any political authority, just after Oliver
Cromwell’s death. Produced in less than three weeks time, The
Declaration of Faith and Order was largely an adaptation of the
Westminster Confession along Congregational lines. According
to A. G. Matthews (Matthews 1959, 22), they did not gather to
formulate doctrine, but “to bear witness what were the beliefs
and practices of their respective churches.” Owen, who did not
attend the Westminster Assembly, was perhaps the leading divine
at Savoy; the Declaration undoubtedly expressed Owen’s views
(Toon 1971a, 103–107). The two confessions differ significantly on
the role of the magistrate in religion. Both recognize an essential
separation of power, yet to a different degree. The Westminster
Confession (Schaff 1919, 720) acknowledges the civil magistrate to
have authority to take order or to preserve the truth in the church,
to reform worship, to call synods, or to pass judgment on synods.6
The Savoy does not acknowledge any such authority.
Clearly, Owen and many Puritans had come to see the church
more and more independent of the state. On the other hand,
Owen reserved to the civil magistrate a large and significant
role in promoting true religion and advancing the church. This
positive responsibility of magistracy Owen developed from his
understanding of eschatological promises.

Eschatology in Relation to Church and State
Owen’s understanding of Bible promises and prophecies
concerning “gospel times” helped shape his views of eccelstatology. His eschatology particularly provided the basis for
his beliefs concerning the role and duty of the civil magistrate,
and the state’s responsibility to the church, its ministers, and its
proclamation of the gospel.
Owen’s Eschatology
For Owen, as for most Puritans, eschatology was not reducible
to charts, maps, and schemes; there was, however, a Common
6. See appendix for a comparison of the exact wording of the Westminster and
Savoy statements. Walker notes (Walker 1893, 393) the important fact that “this
section has been more revised than any other in the Westminster Confession.”

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


acceptance of the historical interpretation of the book of
Revelation. Also, as Sinclair {77} Ferguson noted, Owen applied
a present-day interpretation to many Old Testament prophecies
(Ferguson 1987, 155). In general, the Puritans believed in the
progress of the kingdom of Christ, as summed up by Iain Murray
in The Puritan Hope:
[They believed] that the kingdom of Christ would spread and
triumph through the powerful operations of the Holy Spirit poured
out upon the Church in revivals. Such periods would come at the
commands of Christ, for new Pentecosts would show him still to be
“both Lord and Christ.” (Murray 1971, 51)
All of the basic tenets of Owen’s eschatology can be discovered
in three sermons he preached before Parliament between 1649–
1652.7 This was a time of great upheaval, following the king’s
execution and before the Protectorate, with Cromwell rising to the
crest of his popularity. With enormous optimism, many Puritans
spoke of the coming of Christ to England, not in person, but
in power and glory. Following the preaching of the gospel and
its rejection by the Jews, Owen believed the book of Revelation
described the shaking of heaven (gentile rulers) and earth (gentile
peoples), in particular, pagan Rome would be devastated by the
vials of Rev. 6 (Owen 1967e, 253, 256–257, 321). Thereafter,
“papal, antichristian Rome” (Owen 1967e, 256–257) would run as
a “mysterious thread through all the nations of the west.” But this
“antichristian tyranny” of papal Rome was coming to an end with
the renewed preaching of the gospel and continuing reformation
of the church (Owen 1967c, 260). The Reformation, begun in the
sixteenth century and continuing to his day, said Owen, was none
other than the “coming of the Lord Christ to recover his people
from antichristian idolatry and oppression” (Owen 1967e, 322).
The nature of the kingdom of Christ, preached by Owen, is both
internal (the rule of the Spirit in the hearts of saints) and external
(Christ appearing in “gospel administration”) (Owen 1967e, 258–
259, 370–373). Owen believed that this kingdom would increase
7. The sermons include: “The Shaking and Translating of Heaven and Earth”
(1649), (Owen 1967c, 243–279); “The Advantage of the Kingdom of Christ”
(1651), (Owen 1967c, 311–339); and “Christ’s Kingdom and the Magistrate’s
Power” (1652) (Owen 1967e, 365–395).


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

until the restoration of all things according to Ac. 3:21 (Owen
1967c, 259). This restoration would include the calling of the
Jews, as distinct from the nations, and the overthrow of Antichrist
(papal Rome) (Owen 1967c, 375–376). Finally, at the last day {78}
would be “the universal judgment” of all men by Christ (Owen
1967c, 373).8
Elect England
Convinced that England was in the mainstream of God’s plan
for the seventeenth century, Owen preached on the glorious
inevitable victory of Christ’s Kingdom in his day:
Nay, the reformation of England shall be more glorious than of any
nation in the world, being carried on neither by might, nor power,
but only by the Spirit of the Lord of hosts. (Owen 1967c, 27)
Yet he believed the people as a whole were “dark and profane”; they
needed godly rulers, without which even a good civil constitution
could not secure God’s continued favor (Owen 1967c, 445).
It was of God’s sovereign free grace that England prospered and
enjoyed the gospel:
How comes it that this island glories in a reformation, and Spain sits
in darkness? Is it because we were better than they, or less engaged
in antichristian delusions? Doubtless no. No nation drank deeper
of that cup of abomination. It was a proverbial speech amongst all,
“England was our good ass... for... the Pope.” Nothing but the good
pleasure of God and Christ, freely coming to refine us, Mal. iii. 1–4,
caused this distinction. (Owen 1967c, 24)
England was esteemed an “elect nation” by many. Peter Toon,
leading scholar on Owen studies, claimed that Owen shared the
view that England was an “elect nation”; thus, with other Puritans,
he was assured of military and political victories for Cromwell,
the Protectorate, and “the good old cause.” Thus Toon wrote
that Owen believed “the victories of the New Model Army were
inspired and even predestined by God” (Toon 1971a, 20). Toon
criticized Owen’s philosophy of history:
8. The literal “personal reign of Christ” was considered a novel view. Owen
considered it somewhat sensuous and libertarian because of its advocates’
behavior (Owen 1967c, 259, 373), and thus a threat to “all order and authority,
civil and spiritual.”

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


... perhaps the young divine went too far in his claim that one could
see in recent history a clear imprint or reflection of the eternal
counsel of God....
... he understood everything in terms of God’s judgement,
chastisement or deliverance of His saints on earth. He did not think
it important to consider what we may term “secondary causes”—
excessive taxation, {79} patriotism and fear of the future. For him
God was so vitally concerned with every aspect of English life that
he felt the need to explain any changes in that life in terms of God
and His providence only. (Toon 1971a, 21, 32)

While Owen alluded to present-day events as indications of
God’s promised favor or disfavor, statements regarding England’s
election and success were made in but a few of his sermons,
preached at very exciting times, and not typical of his tracts and
expositions. Even Toon acknowledged Owen’s general sobriety
(Toon 1971a, 21). In fact, more often than not, Owen’s reflections
upon England only expressed his severe rebuke and grieving for
England’s sins and shortcomings, the need for repentance and
giving more attention to the spread of the gospel. He believed
strongly that the gospel had a right to be preached, and that
England’s greatness lay only in spreading the gospel (Owen 1967c,
445). He warned England to “prepare to meet thy God,” lest the
nation fail to possess the promises conditioned upon obedience
(Owen 1967c, 333). If England was blessed, it was only for the sake
of Christ’s church that God blessed it, and would continue to bless
Say not... this or that suits the interest of England; but look what
suits the interest of Christ, and assure yourselves that the true
interest of any nation is wrapped up therein. (Owen 1967c, 278)
Here is the true definition of patriotism. It is only as nations serve
Christ and the church that they will continue as nations. Isaiah
60:12: “For the nation and kingdom that will not serve thee shall
So it was not Owen’s emphasis that England is an elect nation;
rather, it is God’s providential blessing and hardening that is
revealed in the lives of men and nations that Owen emphasized.
History, indeed, is primarily the hardening of men to fulfill God’s


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

The hardening of men to their destruction, being a close and
inward work, is one of the most eminent acts of the providence
of God in governing the world:—by this he accomplisheth most
of the judgments that he hath threatened.... God fulfilleth many
mighty works, that could not otherwise be brought about, by
hardening the hearts of men.... To accomplish this end, then, God
will so order the works of his providence, that men shall reason
themselves into unreasonable and brutish hardness and stupidity.
Thus God hath done in the days wherein we live. (Owen 1967c,
330–331) {80}

Owen cited “gospel times” prophecies that speak of kings of
nations submitting to the Lord’s Anointed and serving the people
of God. He was convinced from Scripture that God’s providence
over all things is fundamentally directed towards the well-being
and expansion of his church. Owen believed in the eschatological
necessity of a Christian state, or states. Two important passages to
which Owen referred were Ps. 2:10–12 and Rev. 11:15.
Be wise now, therefore, O ye kings; be instructed, ye judges of the
earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the
son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way. (Ps. 2:10–12)
And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in
heaven, saying, The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom
of our Lord, and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.
(Rev. 11:15)

That Messiah is to rule over all nations is clear, and that without a
“carnal sword”:
There is nothing more opposite to the spirit of the gospel, than to
suppose that Jesus Christ will take to himself a kingdom by the
carnal sword and bow of the sons of men. (Owen 1967c, 376)
This includes all civil powers in the world:
That the civil powers of the world, after fearful shakings and
desolations, shall be disposed of into a useful subserviency to the
interest, power, and kingdom of Jesus Christ.... Even judges and
rulers, as such, must kiss the Son, and own his sceptre, and advance
his ways. Some think, if you [members of Parliament] were well
settled, you ought not in anything, as rulers of the nations, to put
forth your power for the interest of Christ: the good Lord keep
your hearts from that apprehension! (Owen 1967c, 374)

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


Among the many promises made concerning magistrates
submitting to Messiah’s rule:
Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship,... (Isa. 49:7)
And kings shall be thy nursing-fathers, and their queens, thy
nursing-mothers;... (Isa. 49:23)
And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness
of thy rising. Therefore, thy gates shall be open continually; they
shall not be shut day nor night, that men may bring unto thee the
forces of the Gentiles, and that their kings may be brought. Thou
shall also suck the milk of the Gentiles, and shall suck the breast of
kings; and {81} thou shalt know that I, the Lord, am thy Saviour and
thy Redeemer, the mighty one of Jacob. (Isa. 60:3, 11, 16)

Owen commented:
You see here are glorious promises, in the literal expression, looking
directly to what we assert concerning the subserviency of rulers to
the gospel, and the duty of magistrates in supporting the interest of
the church. (Owen 1967c, 387)
All these and like promises, asserted Owen (Owen 1967c, 388),
“belong directly to us and our rulers, if, under any notion, we
belong to the Church of Christ.” All kings are to submit to Christ,
and in particular they are to serve his church.
In his Greater Catechism (1616), which Owen wrote for pastoral
purposes, Chapter 6, Question 3, reads:
Question: Wherein chiefly consists the outward providence of
God towards his church?
Answer: In three things;—first, in causing all things to work
together for their good; secondly, in ruling and disposing of
kingdoms, nations, and persons, for their benefit; thirdly, in
avenging them of their adversaries. (Owen 1965a, 475)
The providential ordaining of civil authorities, that is, all the
nations of the world, is inescapably related to God’s prior and
ultimate concern for His church’s prosperity.
Hence kingdoms are said to serve the church; that is, all kingdoms.
They must do so, or be broken in pieces, and cease to be kingdoms....
They must nurse the church, not with dry breasts, nor feed it with
stones and scorpions, but with the good things committed to them.
(Owen 1967c, 389)


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

“They must do so, or be broken in pieces.” Again, Owen was
certain of a fairly visible blessing or a fairly visible condemnation
of God upon all nations relative to their submission to Messiah
and support of Messiah’s gospel. Thus it was that John Owen,
“God’s statesman” in England, laid a firm Scriptural foundation
for his beliefs concerning the role of the civil magistrate.

The Role of the Civil Magistrate
As It Relates to the Church
As has been shown, Owen argued from Scripture promises
for the necessity of the establishment of a Christian state, or a
Christian {82} magistracy. Also anxious to preserve the distinction
of ecclesiastical and civil authority, and the right of conscience to
worship God freely, Owen held to a role for the magistrate that
assumed a harmony of interests between church and state. This
role is: to serve under the authority of God to promote the spread
of the gospel, to protect churches and believers, and to provide
places of worship and living for ministers where necessary.
Foundation of Civil Authority
The foundation of the authority of civil magistrates is not,
according to Owen, the doctrine of Divine Right, but is on the
basis of God’s ordination and the public acquiescence. In “A Plea
for Indulgence and Liberty of Conscience” (1967), civil authority
is asserted to be ordained of God:
Magistracy we own as the ordinance of God, and his majesty
as the person set over us by his providence in the chief royal
administration thereof. In submission unto him, we profess it our
duty to regulate our obedience by the laws and customs over which
he presides in the government of these nations;... (Owen 1967e,
All civil authority has its ordination in God, whether pagan or
Christian. This ordination is similar to, though distinct from, the
institution of civil rule under the Mosaic law.
...doubtless, there is something moral in those [Mosaic] institutions,
which, being unclothed of their Judaical form, is still binding to
all in the like kind, as to some analogy and proportion. Subduct
from those administrations what was proper to, and lies upon the

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


account of, the church and nation of the Jews, and what remains
upon the general notion of a church and nation must be everlasting
binding. And this amounts thus far, at least, that judges, rulers,
and magistrates, which are promised under the New Testament to
be given in mercy, and to be of singular usefulness, as the judges
were under the Old, are to take care that the gospel church may,
in its concernment as such, be supported and promoted, and the
truth propagated wherewith they are instructed; as the others took
care that it might be well with the Judaical church as such. (Owen
1967e, 394)

There is also a real sense in which the citizens, especially as they
express their will through their representatives, are a source of
magistrates’ authority. In his sermon before Parliament following
the execution of King Charles, “Righteous Zeal Encouraged by
Divine Protection” (1649), Owen declared how ancient Judah
shared culpability for the sins of Manasseh; there is a veiled
reference to Charles: {83}
The concurrence and influence of the people’s power into their
rule and government:—they that set him [the king] up may justly
be called to answer for his miscarriage. The Lord himself had
before made the sole bottom of that political administration to be
their own wills: “If thou wilt have a king, after the manner of the
nations,” Deut. xvii. 14; I Sam. viii. 7.... Now, they who place men
in authority to be God’s vicegerents, do undertake to God for their
deportment in that authority, and therefore may justly bear the sad
effects of their sinful miscarriages. (Owen 1967c, 136)
The authority of the civil magistrate is thus religious, in
that the magistrate is ordained of God, and human, in that it is
derived from the consent of the governed. The validity of any
civil authority is beyond the private judgment of any individual,
and not conditioned upon individual submission or consent.
The necessity of government is more important than its form or
morality. Even idolatrous or persecuting government is better
than anarchy. Owen insisted on the necessity of government: much better the worst government is and the most
depraved in its administration, than anarchy or confusion;... Let
the magistrate command what he will in religion [i.e., idolatrous
worship], yet, whilst he attends unto the ends of all civil government,
that government must needs be every way better than none, and is


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

by private Christians to be borne with and submitted unto, until
God in his providence shall provide relief. (Owen 1967e, 493)

Again, said Owen (Owen 1965a, 490), “Rule and authority are
as necessary for human society as fire and water for our lives.”
Magistrates are to rule on earth in the place of God, as vicegerents:
Indeed, sovereign princes and supreme magistrates are God’s
vicegerents, and are called gods on the earth, to represent his
power and authority unto men in government, within the bounds
prefixed by himself unto them, which are the most extensive that
the nature of things is capable of;... (Owen 1967e, 497)
This assumes that God is still supreme governor of the earth; his
rule is the pattern for rulers.
[God] is still the supreme governor of the world, and let magistrates
take heed how they despise [the] precedent and pattern of the
administration of justice in criminal cases which he hath given and
prescribed unto all mankind. (Owen 1967e, 579)
The Christian State
Though all magistracy is ordained of God, not all magistracy
is Christian; a Christian magistracy acknowledges its authority is
from God, and uses its {84} power to serve God and his church.
Owen worked to establish such a magistracy.
All non-Christian magistracies must ultimately give way to
Christian ones. Owen charged the members of Parliament (Owen
1967c, 385), “If once it comes to that, that you shall say you have
nothing to do with religion as rulers of the nation, God will quickly
manifest that he hath nothing to do with you as rulers of the
nation.” He continued:
The great promise of Christ is, that in these latter days of the world
he will lay the nations in a subserviency to him,—the kingdoms
of the world shall become his; that is, act as kingdoms and
governments no longer against him, but for him. (Owen 1967c,
...the Lord engageth that judges, rulers, magistrates, and such like,
shall put forth their power, and act clearly for the good, welfare,
and prosperity of the church.... Hence kingdoms are said to serve

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


the church; that is, all kingdoms. They must do so, or be broken in
pieces, and cease to be kingdoms. (Owen 389)

Though all civil magistrates have their authority in God’s
ordination, their continued rule is conditioned upon their
submission to God. Owen labored through his writing and
preaching to establish the kind of magistracy that could be assured
of the continuity of God’s blessing. In a sermon before the House
of Commons, “Human Power Defeated”9 (1649), Owen listed six
“significations” of the kind of authority that need not hear the
judgment of God, but would stand “as a brasen wall, or a rock in
the sea” (Owen 1965f, 210–212). Those characteristics denoting a
Christian government are here summarized:
1. If the state has been blessed in the past with honorable success
and the protection of God.
2. If magistrates act for God after receiving success.
3. If magistrates subject their power to the King of kings and
Lord of lords.
4. If magistrates are supported by the prayers of God’s elect for
the advancement of the gospel.
5. If magistrates administer righteous judgment. {85}
6. If magistrates are not guilty of “drinking the cup of
fornication” (false, idolatrous religion) or giving power to the
beast, or persecuting the saints.
Owen’s basis for the role of the civil magistrate to support
the Christian religion included the eschatological promises of
Scripture, but also much more. In “Two Questions Concerning
the Power of the Supreme Magistrate About Religion” (1659),
Owen listed ten reasons for such support (Owen 1967e, 509–513),
as summarized here:
1. From the light and law of nature—the light and knowledge
men have of God by nature and by His revelation of himself in
nature, namely, that there is a God on whom they are morally
dependent, makes it incumbent that men believe and worship him
and “defend and further that worship” (Heb. 11:6, Ex. 22:28).
9. The purpose of the sermon was to encourage the “Rump” Parliament that
their rule together with Cromwell’s rule was indeed a legitimate government, and
that the Army’s recent suppression of the Levellers’ revolt was entirely justified
(Toon 1971a, 37–38).


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

2. From the law of nations—based on Genesis 9:5–6, there
are certain “common natural notions and inbred principles unto
universal public good” that all nations share; though its source is
in God, this law is discovered only in the proper usage of these
principles by men in their political societies; based on this law,
magistrates are to promote the worship of God and “restrain that
which would ruin it”; this is confirmed by Ps. 2:10.
3. From God’s commands to rulers to promote, provide for,
and preserve true religion (Deut. 14:23,; 18:1–9; 21:17–20); his
commands are moral, not typical (typological), and nowhere
revoked in the Gospel, and thus still binding (Deut. 16:20).
4. From the example of all godly magistrates from the foundation
of the world (David, Hezekiah, Josiah, Nehemiah, and others).
5. From the promises of gospel times (Isa. 1:26; 49:22, 23; 60:3,
11–17; Rev. 11:15).10
6. From the equity of gospel rules; that is, what is morally right,
and not repealed in the gospel, must be incumbent (Phil. 4:8;
Rom. 13:1–7; 1 Tim. 2:2; Prov. 8:15, 16).
7. From the confession of all Protestant churches in the world.
8. From the confession of suffering Protestants [in particular
reference to the Savoy Declaration of the Independents].
9. From the spiritual sense of godly men in general, by a ratio of
a thousand to one: “Vox populi Dei est vox Dei.”
10. From the pernicious consequences of asserting that
magistracy should not support the Christian religion, namely: a)
The whole {86} Reformation, in all countries, to the extent that it
depended on the support of magistrates, was wrong or invalid; b)
Neutrality11 towards Christianity can only lead to apostasy.
Magistrates have a peculiar responsibility to promote the spread
of the gospel. In “Christ’s Kingdom and the Magistrate’s Power”
(1652), Owen gave his strongest defense for the involvement of
magistrates in religion (Owen 1967c, 390–394). He lists five
reasons, the first one being paramount:
10. See section in this paper “Eschatology in Relation to Church and State”
on 76.
11. Owen’s words were (Owen 1967e, 513): “Where nothing in a government
may be done for him [Christ], nothing against them who openly oppose
him [Christ], men can scarce be thought to act under him [Christ] and in
subordination to him.”

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


1st. That the gospel of Jesus Christ hath a right to be preached and
propagated in every nation, and to every creature under heaven.
Jesus Christ is the “Lord of lords and King of kings,” Rev. xvii. 14.
The nations are given to be his inheritance, and the utmost parts
of the earth to be his possession, Ps. ii. 8, 9. He is appointed the
“heir of all things,” Heb. i. 2. God hath set him over the works of his
hands, and put all things in subjection under his feet, Ps viii. 6. And
upon this account he gives commission to his messengers to preach
the gospel to all nations, Matt. xxviii. 19, or, to every creature under
heaven, Mark xvi. 15. The nations of the world being of the Father
given to him, he may deal with them as he pleaseth, and either
bruise them with a rod of iron, or break them in pieces as a potter’s
vessel, Ps. ii. 9,—he may fill the places of the earth with their dead
bodies, and strike in pieces the heads of the countries, Ps. cx. 6,—
or, he may make them his own, and bring them into subjection
unto himself;—which toward some of them he will effect, Rev. xi.
15. Now, the gospel being the rod of his power, and the sceptre of
his kingdom,—the grand instrument whereby he accomplisheth all
his designs in the world, whether they be for life or for death, 2
Cor. ii. 16,—he hath given that a right to take possession, in his
name and authority, of all that he will own in any nation under
heaven.... To have free passage into all nations is the undoubted
right of the gospel;...
2ndly. That wherever the gospel is by any nation owned, received,
embraced, it is the blessing benefit, prosperity and advantage of
that nation....
3rdly. The rejection of the gospel by any people or nation to whom
it is tendered, is always attended with the certain and inevitable
destruction of that people or nation; which, sooner or later, shall
without any help or deliverance be brought upon them by the
revenging hand of Christ....
4thly. That it is the duty of magistrates to seek the good, peace,
and prosperity of the people committed to their charge and to
prevent, obviate, remove, take away every thing that will bring
confusion, destruction, {87} desolation upon them: as Mordecai
procured good things for his people and prosperity for his kindred,
Esther x. 3.
5thly....Although the institutions and examples of the Old
Testament, of the duty of the magistrates in the things about the


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

worship of God are not in their whole latitude and extent, to be
drawn into rules that should be obligatory to all magistrates now,...
yet, doubtless, there is something moral in these institutions,
which,... is still binding to all....
Elsewhere, Owen affirmed that the right of the gospel to have
free course into every nation is antecedent and paramount to the
right of all earthly kings and princes whatever, who have no power
or authority to exclude the “gospel out of their dominions, and,
what they exercise of that kind is done at their peril” (Owen 1967e,
Because the gospel has a right to be preached, and to be preached
publicly to the whole nation, those who proclaim the gospel are
worthy of public support, specifically the support of tithes citizens
render to the state.12 Tithes came before the law of Moses and are
therefore still obligatory under the gospel. To deprive ministers
of the public maintenance is to bring “a fatal and irrecoverable
disadvantage to the gospel and interest of Christ,” charged Owen
(Owen 1967e, 515). Even worse, it is robbery! take away the public maintenance provided in the good
providence of God for the public dispensers of the gospel, upon
pretences of present inconvenience or promise of future provision,
is a contempt of the care and faithfulness of God towards his
church, and, in plain terms, downright robbery. (Owen 1967e,
Actually, of all the evidence Owen advanced for the gospel to
be promoted by the magistrate, he marshaled the same basic
arguments for requiring public support of ministers. In addition,
Owen offered this argument:
That the public preachers of the gospel ought to be maintained by
a participation in the temporal things of them to whom the word is
preached, is an appointment of the Lord Christ, and of the apostles
in his name and authority, 1 Cor. ix. 14; Gal. vi. 6. (Owen 1967e,
In other words, Christ has commanded all those who hear the
gospel to be supporters of its proclaimers. In order to tighten
12. The question of public support for ministers is the second question
in “Two Questions Concerning the Power of the Supreme Magistrate About
Religion” (Owen 1967e, 514–516).

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


Owen’s logic, it is necessary to conjecture that what Owen says
elsewhere is to be inferred here. Namely, that when the gospel is
commanded to be preached to all nations, this means to all people
generally as individuals, but to magistrates {88} in particular as
representatives. Magistrates who hear the gospel, then, hear it
as representatives of their nation, and are in turn to support the
gospel, not as individuals, but as representing their nation. Thus,
public support.
Duties of the Civil Magistrate
In numerous places, Owen enumerated duties incumbent on
magistrates with respect to the Christian Faith. “On Toleration”
(1649) contained his earliest and most complete list (Owen 1967c,
I. It belongs to the duty of the supreme magistrate, the governor or
shepherd of the people, in any nation, being acquainted with the
mind of God, to take care that the truth of the gospel be preached
to all the people of that nation, according to the way appointed,
either ordinary or extraordinary....
II. The gospel being preached and declared, as of right it ought to
be, it is the duty of the magistrate, by the power wherewith he is
intrusted, to protect and defend it against all or any persons that,
by force or violence, shall seek to hinder the progress or stop the
passage of it, under what pretence soever.…
III. The providing or granting of places requisite for the
performance of that worship which in the gospel is instituted, is the
duty of the Christian magistrate.
IV. Protection, as to peace and quietness in the use of the
ordinances of the Lord Jesus Christ, from violent disturbers, either
from without or within, is also incumbent on him.
V. Supportment and provision, as to earthly things, where regularly
failing, is of him required.

Moreover, Owen believed the magistrate had authority
to “prohibit the public exercise of worship idolatrous or
superstitious”; he may “remove and take away all instruments and
13. Other lists are found in: Owen 1965i, 311.312, 318; 1965h, 383–384;
1967c, 449, 467–468; 1967e, 381.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

monuments of idolatry” (Owen 1965i, 318). It will be remembered
that Owen grounded such sweeping power upon the perceived
political threat of papal Rome.
Limitations of State Power
As it has been demonstrated in the comparison of the
Westminster Confession and the Savoy Declaration, Owen and
the Independents were advocating a role for the magistrate that
was not more involved, but significantly less involved, in the life of
the church than had existed. This is {89} the more realized in light
of: (a) The severe limitations that Owen placed on the authority
of the magistrate, based on his understanding that the church’s
immediate authority is Jesus Christ; and, (b) His prohibition of
persecution against heresy. Owen thus summarized the limitations
of state power:
1. That no supreme magistrate hath power to deprive or abridge the
churches of Christ of any right, authority, or liberty granted unto
them by Jesus Christ.
2. Nor hath any power to coerce, punish, or kill any persons (being
civilly peaceable and morally honest), because they are otherwise
minded in things concerning gospel faith and worship than he is.
(Owen 1965i, 317)

That Owen exempted the worst ungodly belief from persecution,
otherwise peaceful, is clear: “ cannot be proved that any
magistrate is authorized from God to take away the life or lives
of any man or men for their disbelieving or denying any heads or
articles of the Christian religion,...” (Owen 1967e, 514).
In his argument with Samuel Parker, when Owen denied to the
magistrate authority over men’s consciences, he also denied to the
magistrate any authority to compel submission to religious belief.
The gospel has a right to enter all nations, he maintained (Owen
1967e, 402), but is to be forced on none; magistrates are nursing
mothers, but not begetting fathers.
What Believers Have Right to Plead For
Though Owen worked for a Christian magistracy, with both
liberty of conscience and the favored promotion of the Protestant
Christian Church, he spent most of his life as a dissenting,

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


Nonconformist Puritan, begging for the “alms of authority.” He
gave helpful advice to persecuted believers as to what they had a
right to plead for under their varying governments.
Under pagan authority, which would include all authorities
not acknowledging Jesus Christ, Owen denied that obedience to
Christ is ever sinful, even if it be in direct opposition to a king’s
command: is certain that men must obey God, and not contract the guilt
of such horrible sins as idolatry and superstition; but in so doing
they are neither rebels against their ruler nor do sin against him.
(Owen 1967e, 489)
Passive resistance is incumbent under such a government: {90}
...we are quietly and patiently to submit to the will of God in our
sufferings, without opposing or resisting by force, or stirring up
seditions or tumults, to the disturbance of public peace. (Owen
1967e, 490)
The right of the gospel to be preached, however, and the right to
preach the gospel, is from Christ and thus inalienable: forbid the whole work of preaching the gospel... is contrary
to the grant made by God the Father unto Jesus Christ, that “all
nations shall be his inheritance,” and the commission he gave
thereon unto his apostles, to “teach all nations,” and “to preach the
gospel to every creature”.... (Owen 1965i, 183–184)
Under a Romanist authority, where Roman Catholicism was
either the official or dominant religion, Owen believed that
Protestantism had every right to be tolerated:
Now truly, for my part, were I in Spain or Italy, a native of those
places, and God should be pleased there to reveal the truth of his
gospel unto me which he hath done in England, I believe those
states ought to tolerate me, though they were persuaded that I were
the most odious heretic under heaven;... (Owen 1967e, 54–55)
In fact, Owen at times thought some Romanist authorities were
more tolerant of Protestants than were Anglican authorities!
In England he appealed to the Anglican prelates to afford to all
Protestants the same treatment as their dissenting peers received
under Catholic countries in Europe; namely, they were
... freed from ecclesiastical courts, censures, and offices, and all


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

penalties for their dissent, with an allowance for the worship of
God in their own assemblies provided by themselves, and known
to the magistrates under whose jurisdiction they are. (Owen 1967e,

Under a Christian authority, where the official or dominant
religion was Protestant Christianity, Owen, of course, abhorred
the idea that an Episcopal Christian magistrate would not permit
the complete religious liberty of all Protestants. When Episcopacy
was the established church, and thus the favored and protected
position, Owen pled for “an equal liberty” for all other Protestants,
“though not equal outward advantages” (Owen 1967e, 337).
Application of Owen’s Views
The greatest opportunity in history for the achievement of the
kind of magistracy Owen advocated was bound up in the person,
place and time of {91} Oliver Cromwell. Not a king by inheritance,
nor a governor by suffrage, this man’s legitimacy to rule was based
on a document, the Instrument of Government, framed by General
John Lambert in 1653. The Instrument of Government parallels
Owen’s own views of Christian magistracy, as the following articles
XXXV. That the Christian religion, as contained in the Scriptures,
be held forth and recommended as the public profession of these
nations; and that, as soon as may be, a provision, less subject
to scruple and contention, and more certain that the present,
be made for the encouragement and maintenance of able and
painful teachers, for the instructing the people, and for discovery
and confutation of error, hereby, and whatever is contrary to
sound doctrine; and until such provision be made, the present
maintenance shall not be taken away.
XXXVI. That to the public profession held forth none shall
be compelled by penalties or otherwise, but that endeavors be
used to win them by sound doctrine and the example of a good
XXXVII. That such as profess faith in God by Christ Jesus (though
differing in judgment from the doctrine, worship or discipline
held forth) shall not be restrained from, but shall be protected in,
the profession of the faith and exercise of their religion; so as they
abuse not this liberty to the civil injury of others and to the actual

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


disturbance of the public peace on their parts: provided this liberty
be not extend to Popery, or Prelacy, nor to such as, under the
profession of Christ, hold forth and practice licentiousness. (Toon
1971b, 90)

The significance of Cromwell’s Protectorate in the historical
development of religious liberty is well known. Said Orme, “This
was a nearer approximation to religious liberty than had yet been
arrived at by any government.” R. S. Paul, likewise commented, “For
the first time in history there existed the state and an ecclesiastical
system in which more than one form of churchmanship was
recognized” (Paul 1955, 390). Merle d’Aubigné, Martin Lloyd Jones
and others have hailed Cromwell as “the father of religious liberty.”
To Owen (Toon 1971b, 45), Cromwell was “the greatest, wisest
and bravest man who ever lived.” Cromwell certainly epitomized
the kind of Christian magistracy, supportive of the church and the
spread of the gospel, which Owen believed to be God’s will for all
nations. {92}

Summary and Evaluation of Owen’s Views
John Owen sought to establish a thoroughly biblical
understanding of eccle-statology. He perceived certain truths to
be fundamental to the prosperity of the church and to the wellbeing of the state. Among these were:
1. The conscience is under the immediate authority of Christ.
2. The church is under the immediate authority of Christ.
3. The authority of the state has its ordination in God and its
legitimacy (in part) from the consent of the governed.
4. The gospel has a right to be preached.
5. The gospel age will see the shaking of all nations and their
submission to Christ and his church.
The conscience being the domain of God in every man, however
weak or deceived it may become, is still the only sufficient basis
for genuine religious liberty. The conscience is neither the spring
nor the offspring of an autonomous will, but is the inescapable
God-law in man, answerable to Christ in the Day of Judgment;
therefore, as it is instructed by the word of God, the conscience has


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

a right to express itself. This expression of conscience is religious
liberty—an inalienable right.
As such, conscience is a prerequisite for liberty; religious views
not based on conscience ultimately are not to be protected or
favored. At best, they may be tolerated. The toleration of religious
beliefs (whether true or false beliefs) is complicated by 1) the near
impossibility of defining toleration, and 2) the fact that Scripture
does not require every church and every state to enforce every
penalty for every sin. The state, moreover, is required, in effect, to
tolerate most sin and sinful errors, except those “peace-disturbing
enormities” that threaten the social and political order in society.
The church too, though it must proclaim God’s prohibitions against
all sin and God’s judgment for all unbelief, cannot discipline such
things as unbelief, or, hidden, unobserved immorality. History has
shown that persecution is fruitless; it cannot destroy truth, and it
has rarely curbed error.
What constitutes a “peace-disturbing enormity” is a very
difficult question to answer. Pagan governments very often find
active Christianity a threat to their social order. Owen assumed a
Christian magistracy alone could determine a proper standard of
toleration. Therefore, he worked for the establishment of Christian
government. {93}
A Christian government recognizes its authority is distinct
from the church’s authority. More clearly than many of his fellow
Puritans, Owen perceived that the fundamental problem with
Episcopacy was prelacy, that is, the Erastian eccle-statology, or
prior authority of the state over the church. He correctly saw the
necessity of the absolute sufficiency of Christ’s lordship over his
church, in terms of doctrine, rule and authority. For a nation to
be Christian did not mean a national church in any centralized or
official sense. The church under the gospel could never be a legal
or law-based institution in terms of societal law.
The real advantage of Owen’s argument that both conscience
and church are under the immediate authority of Christ, is that
this argument established the jurisdictional boundaries of the
church and state. Though not exclusively Owen’s contribution, the
argument of the church’s independence from the state marked a
fundamental shift in history. As George H. Sabine commented in
A History of Political Theory:

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


The rise of the Christian Church, as a distinct institution entitled to
govern the spiritual concerns of mankind in independence of the
state, may not unreasonably be described as the most revolutionary
event in the history of western Europe, in respect both to politics
and political philosophy. (Sabine 1961, 180)

Although Owen reserved a large role for the magistrate to promote
the interests of Christ in the church and in the world, he forever
kept the two authorities distinct. As Gardiner said (Gardiner 1903,
96), “Owen’s position towards heresy and erroneous opinion was
that the magistrate was the most unfit person in the world to
interfere in religious disputes.”
The importance of this shift can hardly be overestimated. It is at
this point, the immediate lordship of Christ over the conscience
and the church, that is the origin of all freedom, religious, and then
political. The right to dissent is thus based on a prior allegiance to
Christ; “if the Son shall set you free, ye shall be free indeed.” The
state then has a boundary established by Christ, which it cannot
violate without going to war against Christ. The issue is very clear:
Who is Lord of the church?
Owen’s understanding of eschatology pointed to the necessity
of a Christian state. The passages he based his views on seem
Clear enough (Ps. 2, Isa. 49, Rev. 11:15, etc.). The validity of his
eschatology rests not so much on the content of the verses, but
upon the time of their fulfillment. Evangelicals agree on Christ’s
Second Coming in power and glory; they agree Christ is or will
be King of kings and Lord of lords: they believe his is a kingdom
which shall never end; they divide over the nature and time
{94} of the fulfillment of these things. Owen seemed to base his
interpretative scheme on Ac. 3:21 (Owen 1967c, 259), “Whom
the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things,
which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets
since the world began.” Jesus is in heaven “until the restitution
of all things,” and “the restitution of all things” is the fulfillment
of all the prophecies about the “Gospel times.” Whether Owen, if
living in the twentieth century, would still consider Rev. 6 to refer
to papal Rome is, of course, unknowable, but probably doubtful.
Rome’s threat was its enormous political and religious influence
over many countries spanning many centuries.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

Whether one holds to Owen’s eschatological basis for a
Christian magistracy or not, Christians are being forced to look
for guidance on how to cope with the rise of pagan secularism
in Western governments, as well as ponder how to respond to
Muslim, communist, and Oriental religion-based governments
Owen’s arguments for a Christian magistracy are not based
only on his eschatology and ecclesiology. He had many wellreasoned arguments. The most important was that the gospel has
a right to be preached that supersedes all other concerns of civil
government, anywhere. If nations as nations, not as individuals,
receive the gospel, they are responsible as nations to support the
gospel. His idea of a Christian government was not one of a single
Christian viewpoint, certainly not of a national church, but rather
of a decentralized Protestantism, a nation with godly rulers who
acknowledged Christ as King. Owen said:
If ever God ceases to call saints... to places of chief authority in
this nation,... and when those called to power, cease to exert it
in a subserviency to the kingdom of Christ, for the true spiritual
advantage of his people,—there will be an end of England’s glory
and happiness. (Owen 1967c, 445)
Without godly men (Owen 1967c, 444), “though the [civil]
constitution may be absolutely good, yet the government will not
be blessed, and the nation will be ruined; for God and his glory
will depart, Mic. v. 5, 6.”
Owen did not believe Jesus commissioned his people into the
world to change their governments, but rather to submit to them:
...for our Lord Jesus Christ, sending his gospel to be preached
and published in all nations and kingdoms of the world, then and
at all times under various sorts of governments, all for the same
end of public tranquillity and prosperity, did propose nothing in
it but what a submission and obedience unto might be consistent
with the government itself, of what sort soever it were. He came,
as they used {95} to sing of old, “to give men a heavenly kingdom,
and not to deprive them or take from them their earthly temporal
dominions.” There is, therefore, nothing more certain than that
there is no principle of the religion taught by Jesus Christ which
either in itself, or in the practise of it, is inconsistent with any
righteous government on the earth. (Owen 1967e, 456)

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


Again, Owen said (Owen 1967e, 549), “We have no form of
government, civil or ecclesiastical, to impose on the nation.”
Changes Since the Seventeenth Century
In order to evaluate the merits of Owen’s eccle-statology to the
twenty-first century, it is necessary to note the enormous changes
that have taken place in the last three hundred years. In brief, as
compared with the context of Owen’s writings:
1. A marked decline in the political and cultural influence of
Roman Catholicism.
2. Rise of democratic governments.
3. Proliferation of non-Christian religions.
4. Increase in the sufficiency of local church tithes to support
ministers, churches, and missions.
5. Cessation of state tithes in most places.
6. Rise of the theoretically religiously-neutral basis for civil
7. Rise and decline of religious faith and liberty in most places.
8. Increase in condoned immorality.
9. Rise of Pietism and the retreat of Christianity from much of
Owen complained in 1651 that the majority of the civil
governments of the world were “utterly out of order for the
bringing in of the interest of Christ” (Owen 1967c, 321). One can
hardly wonder what Owen would say today!
In spite of great advancements in every branch of biblical,
theological, and historical studies since Owen’s day, it is to be
lamented that so little attention has been given to developing a
theology of the state. R. J. Rushdoony has called attention to this
The state as a religious establishment has progressively
disestablished Christianity as its foundation, and, while professing
neutrality, has in {96} fact established humanism as the religion of
the state. (Rushdoony 1986, 7)
In a state that was religiously neutral, Owen believed the people
could not be expected to obey Christ. He condemned religious
pluralism as more dangerous than popery (Owen 1967e, 400–
401), saying it would be far better to let the pope decide what is
our duty toward God and his worship than to submit such matters


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

“to the pleasure of every supreme magistrate, which may probably
establish as many different religions in the world as there are
different nations, kingdoms, or commonwealths.”
A Proposal
In light of the need for a biblical eccle-statology that is relevant
to the twenty-first century, Owen’s views need to be examined as to
their biblical validity, and means sought to make them practically
Subtracting Owen’s alarms about Romanism and his fears that
the local church could not finance its ministers, there is much that
seems eternally valid. Following Owen, the goal is not to change
the constitutions of ecclesiastical or civil governments, but to
proclaim Christ’s sovereignty over his church as well as all nations;
to exhort national leaders to avenge evil and promote justice; to
proclaim God’s anger against all ungodliness and unbelief; to
commission missionaries to proclaim the gospel to all nations and
their leaders, exhorting them to “Kiss the Son lest he be angry, and
they perish from the way.” “Blessed are all they who trust in him.”
The church needs to be prepared for a great shaking of nations
which persecute Christianity or hinder its free expression. Owen’s
challenge to Christian national leaders (and their constituencies)
is to be instruments in God’s hand to bring about the hardening
and ultimate submission of all pagan nations to the Lordship of
Gary North advises:
Any nation that refuses to accept missionaries from a Christian
nation should be regarded as having broken all treaties with
that nation. No binding covenants with such a nation should be
continued after the closing of its borders to the Christian nation’s
missionaries. (North 1987, 173)
Finally, Owen challenges the Christian Church and rulers today to
pray for Christ’s kingdom to come. For, said Owen, Christ will not
come to reign on a molehill (Owen 1967c, 376). {97}

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State


Westminster Confession
Chap. XXIII:—Of the Civil Magistrate
III. The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the
administration of the Word and Sacraments, or the power of the
keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he hath authority, and it is his
duty to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church,
that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies
and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship
and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God
duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting
thereof he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to
provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the
mind of God.

Savoy Declaration
Chap. XXIV.—Of the Civil Magistrate
III. Although the magistrate is bound to encourage, promote, and
protect the professors and profession of the gospel, and to manage
and order civil administrations in a due subserviency to the
interest of Christ in the world, and to that end to take care that men
of corrupt minds and conversations do not licentiously publish
and divulge blasphemy and errors, in their own nature subverting
the faith and inevitably destroying the souls of them that receive
them; yet in such differences about the doctrines of the gospel, or
ways of the worship of God, as may befall men exercising a good
conscience, manifesting it in their conversation, and holding the
foundation, not disturbing others in their ways or worship that
differ from them, there is no warrant for the magistrate under the
gospel to abridge them of their liberty.

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________. 1965g. The Works of John Owen, Vol. 11.
________. 1966. The Works of John Owen, Vol. 12.
________. 1977. Hebrews The Epistle of Warning. with a preface by Herbert
Lockyer. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications.
________. 1977. Hebrews The Epistle of Warning. with a preface by
Herbert Lockyer. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.
Packer, J. I. Introductory Essay to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of
Christ. Dallas, Texas: By Ben K. Howard, M. D.
Pauck, Wilhelm. 1928. “Martin Bucer’s Conception of a Christian State,” The
Princeton Theological Review, XXVI.
Pauck, Wilhelm, ed. 1969. “De Regno Christi,” in Melancthon and Bucer.
Philadelphia: The Westminster Presse
Paul, Robert S., ed. 1963. An Apologetical Narration. Philadelphia: The United
Church Press.
Rushdoony, Rousas J. 1983. Salvation and Godly Rule. Vallecito, CA: Ross House
Rutherford, Samuel. 1982. Lex Rex or The Law and the Prince. 1644; reprint,
Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.
Schaeffer, Francis A. 1981. A Christian Manifesto. Westchester, IL: Crossway
Schaeffer, Franky. 1982. A Time For Anger: The Myth of Neutrality. Westchester,
IL: Crossway Books.
Schaff, Philip. 1888. Church and State in the United States. New York: Scribner.
Schlatter, Richard. 1952. Richard Baxter and Puritan Politics. New Brunswick,


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NJ: Rutgers Press.
Scott, Otto. 1986. James I: The Fool as King. Mason/Charter, 1976; reprint,
Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books.
Tertullian. 1876. The Select Works of Tertullian. edited by F. A. March. New York:
Harper and Brothers.
Trevor-Roper, H. R. 1967. “The Fast Sermons.” In Religion, the Reformation, and
Social Change.
Van Till, John T. 1972. Liberty of Conscience: The History of a Puritan Idea. n.p.:
The Craig Press.
Westminster Confession of Faith. 1985. 133 Woodlands Road, Glasgow G3 6LE:
Free Presbyterian Publications.
Whitehead, John W. 1982a. The Second American Revolution. Elgin, IL: David C.
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________. The New Tyranny. privately printed by the Coral Ridge Ministries of
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Williams, Lloyd G. 1938. “The Problem of the Presbyterian Independents,” in
American Historical Review XLIV.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


Concerning the Rights of
Rulers Over Their Subjects
And the Duty of Subjects
Towards Their Rulers
A brief and clear treatise particularly
indispensable to either class
in these troubled times

By Theodore Beza

Translation by Henry-Louis Gonin,
Edited by Patrick S. Poole

To Kings and Princes the Counsel of David: Ps. 2: Serve the Lord
with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son lest he be angry,
and you perish in the way, for His wrath will soon be kindled.
To the Subjects: 1 Pet. 2:13: Be subject to every ordinance of
man for the Lord’s sake.

Question 1. Must Magistrates
Always Be Obeyed As Unconditionally As God?
Inasmuch as only the will of almighty God is the eternal
and immutable Rule of all Justice, we declare that it must be
unconditionally obeyed. As regards however the obedience due to
Princes, they too would doubtless have to be obeyed always and
unconditionally if they ruled constantly in accordance with the
utterance of God. Since however theirs is often the contrary case,
such obedience must be made subject to the following condition,


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

namely that they command nothing impious, nothing unjust.
Impious or sinful I call those which God forbids in the First Table
of His Law, or which forbid those which God there commands.
Unjust behests, however, I call those by which the performance of
that, which every man in accordance with his calling either public
or private is in charity bound to render to his neighbor, is either
prevented or forbidden.1
To prove this with rational arguments as well as clear examples
will not be difficult. The Lord says by the prophet Isaiah,2 “I will not
give my glory unto another.” Although the Lord has not spoken so
clearly, yet in fact it admits of no doubt that commands emanating
from purely human authority cannot without sin be regarded as
of equal weight with those which God Himself has given. But
the authority of God and men would be equal and alike if it were
required that men should always be {104} unconditionally obeyed
in like manner with God. I add further that whenever the behests
of God are neglected in favor of the commands of men, [those]
men are being exalted above the throne of God.
Let us now treat our examples.
Pharaoh’s command3 to slay all the male offspring of the Jews
was unjust and the midwives rightly refused to obey him, whose
houses or families God therefore blessed. But Nebuchadnezzar’s
edict that the statue of gold be worshipped, was clearly impious
and sinful. And therefore the companions of Daniel4 refusing to
obey him found that God approved of their piety and steadfastness,
which was an unmistakable miracle. The command of Jezebel,
however, to slay the prophets of God was both impious and unjust;
therefore Obadiah who not only refrained from slaying them
but concealed them alive and nourished them, acted piously.5
Further when Antiochus commanded that sacrifices be offered
to the Images, that hallowed ceremonies be desecrated and the
inspired writings of the Prophets and the Law be consumed by
fire, the faithful who remained acted justly in that they at length

Second Table of the Law.
Isa. 48:11; also Isa. 42:8.
Ex. 1:21.
Dan. 3.
1 Kin. 18:4, 13.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


under the leadership of Mathathias set themselves against his
madness.6 Also when the leaders of the priests and the supreme
council of the scribes would by their threats prevent the preaching
of the Gospel,7 so far from giving heed to them, Christ did often
against their will publicly address the multitude in the temple and
after him the Apostles openly answered that they would rather
obey God than men.8 Their example, the holy Martyrs afterwards
followed most steadfastly. Therefore again I infer that the authority
of all magistrates (with however great power and sovereignty they
be vested) is as it were hedged in by these two limits set by God
himself, namely Piety and Charity.9 And if they themselves should
chance to transgress these, it will be well to call to mind that saying
of the Apostles: “It is better to obey God than men”10 lest we be of
the band of those whom the Lord cursed by the mouth of Micah 11
because they obeyed the impious commands of their King, or lest
we follow the perverse examples of those who worshipped even
the most cruel tyrants as if they were gods, ascribing to them the
titles {105} and acts of God. Particularly concerning Domitian the
notorious foulmouthed poet Martial 12 affirms this when he had
the audacity to write, “The Command of our lord and god.” Would
that in this our time men were not found who are not far removed
from flattery of that kind.

Question 2. Is A Magistrate Held Responsible To Render
Account Of All His Laws To His Subjects? And How Far
Are They To Presume Such Laws To Be Just?
After this foundation has been laid we would also inquire into
certain other questions which would appear to be germane to this
discourse that the consciences of many may be satisfied. First the
question is raised whether the magistrate is held to render account
6. 1 Maccabees 2:15–28.
7. John 9:12.
8. Ac. 5:29.
9. These are exemplified in the First and Second Tables of the Law, respectively.
10. Ac. 5:29.
11. Mic. 6:16.
12. Mareial, Epigrammes, lib. V, 8, 1.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

of all his laws to any man soever so as to offer proof that they be
fair and in accordance with the precepts of religion. I answer that
he is not so held; nay more, that it is fair that all virtuous subjects
should regard their lords in the light of virtue and should not
presume of suspect anything unjust concerning them; nay, that
it is not becoming that men in private station should inquire
over curiously even concerning doubtful matters beyond their
comprehension or station in life. If, however, the conscience
of some be at a loss, they can and are even under an obligation
to examine (albeit discreetly and in a peaceful manner) what
elements of reason and justice are to be found in the command by
which they are bidden or forbidden to do something; for the word
of the Apostle abides:13 “whatsoever is not of faith [that is while
the conscience is in doubt whether that is being done justly or not]
is sin.” But if what is commanded is openly sinful or unjust, then
indeed that which has been said above applies.

Question 3. How Far Must Obedience Be Rendered Or
Refused To Unjust Or Impious Commands?
A further question is raised as to what limits this notion of
disregarding sinful or unjust commands of Rulers should be
extended. Here I reply: Each man must consider what his station
and calling demands, be it general and public or private. Does
the Ruler command what God forbids (as Pharaoh14 did to the
midwives of Egypt and Herod’s 15 to his accomplices when bidding
them to slay all that were two years old)? Then you will {106} rightly
perform your duty if you do not carry out a command of that
kind, as we read concerning the illustrious jurisconsult Papinian
who, though he was not a Christian, yet would rather be slain by
the tyrant Caracalla than either to approve of the fratricide which
he had committed, or justify it by his advocacy.16 But if the tyrant
forbids what God commands, you should not at all judge that you
have performed your duty if you have merely refused to obey the
13. Rom. 14:23; Ex. 1:16.
14. Ex. 1:16.
15. Matt. 2:17.
16. A reference to Aemilius Papianianus (212 A.D.). See Historia Augustae,
Caracalla, VIII, 5–6.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


tyrant, unless at the same time you obey the command of God
as we declared that Obadiah did, who not merely refrained from
slaying the prophets of God, but even protected and nourished
them in defiance of the command of Ahab and Jezebel,17 since the
Lord bids us, each as far as his calling permits, to bring succor
to his brethren in peril. Thus also the Apostles, as we have said
above, not merely did not desist from preaching the Gospel 18 that
they might heed the priests, but on the contrary they steadfastly
preached everywhere since they had expressly received this
command19 from the Lord: “Go ye and preach the Gospel to
every creature,” etc. Therefore when today we see many Rulers
so bewitched by the Roman Antichrist that they by the sternest
commands compel their subjects to attend the execrable sacrifice
of Mass, the duty of all pious men requires not merely that they
should not carry out that command, but further that they should
in accordance with the example of Elijah and Elisha, even of the
entire pure and true Church of old, join in pious gatherings, there
hear the word of God and have communion of the sacraments as
Christ ordained that it should be done in the Church. The same
principle must also be observed in the duties which men owe to
their fellowmen both by the law of God and by the law of nature,
for example children to their parents, a wife to her husband, the
shepherd to his flock, and in fine one neighbor to another. For it
is not fitting that we should be deterred or led astray from those
duties by means of any commands or threats or even by the most
unjust punishment; only let obedience (which we owe above all to
God who is greater than all these) be not at all excluded from the
performances of duties of this kind which we carry out. {107}

Question 4. How Can One Who Has Suffered Wrong At
The Hands Of A Ruler Defend Himself Against Him?
Thereupon the further question is commonly asked: What
is a virtuous man with a good conscience bound and able to do
when the Ruler does not indeed make him the instrument of his
17. 1 Kin. 18:4, 13.
18. Ac. 5:42.
19. Matt. 28:19; Mk. 16:15.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

injustice but is unjust towards him? Since this question consists of
several parts we must distinguish. If therefore the Ruler who has
wronged the subject is subordinate to a superior, the sufferer of
wrong will in accordance with the laws be entitled to have recourse
to the supreme Ruler, as we read St. Paul did when he appealed20
to Caesar from Festus the governor of Judea that he might ward
off the injustice of the latter. But let those subjects whose station is
private here observe two principles above all: firstly, let them not
make any trial of strength except by way of the courts of justice.
Secondly, let them have regard not merely to what is permissible
but especially to what is expedient. For when that very St. Paul had
at Philippi21 through the folly of the magistrate been beaten with
rods shamefully and unheard in violation of the right of Roman
citizens, he judged that he would rather by patience enhance the
glory of God and did not further assert his right but contented
himself with rebuking the magistrate for the injustice committed
in violation of the laws.
But if it were to happen (as happens only too frequently in our
times) that one lower magistrate should undertake some act of
violence against another against the express will of their superior,
then I should assuredly say that the magistrate who had been
wronged is, when he has first exhausted all legitimate and peaceful
means, entitled to equip himself with the armor of the laws and
to oppose unjust violence with a just defense as was done by
Nehemiah against Sanballat and his associates.22
What must however be done if it is the supreme Ruler from
whom the injustice comes? The Lord Jesus and after Him all the
Martyrs have by their example clearly shown that injustices should
be patiently borne; and this is the highest glory of Christians,
namely, to endure injury from all but to cause it to none. What
then, will someone say, is there no remedy remaining against the
supreme Ruler who abuses his authority and power in violation of
all the precepts of divine and human rights? Nay, there doubtless
is a remedy remaining derived from human institutions. But
when I say this, let no one be of opinion that I wish to favor the
20. Ac. 25:10.
21. Ac. 16:22.
22. Neh. 4.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


fanatical {108} Anabaptists or other factious and mutinous men
whom I should rather esteem most worthy of the hatred of all
their fellowmen, and even of the severest punishments. To be sure
I must speak the truth because the matter rests on this argument:
It must not be supposed that those who show in what ways evident
tyranny may be opposed without violation to one’s conscience are
depriving good and legitimate rulers of that authority which God
has granted them, or that they are paving the way for seditious
risings. Nay rather, it is certain that neither can the authority of
Rulers be rendered secure nor can the public peace be maintained
(and yet this is the chief goal of all well-established politics) unless
careful precautions be taken that tyranny may not steal in or if it
has already stolen in that it be either abolished or expelled. The
question, therefore, is whether subjects can by some just means
without offence to God check, or if need be even expel by armed
force, the evident tyranny of the supreme Ruler.

Question 5. Whether Manifest Tyrants Can Lawfully Be
Checked By Armed Force.
To give a clearer answer to this question I must first lay down
certain principles constituting as it were the foundations of the
whole question. Assuredly [it is clear] that peoples did not in the
first instance originate from rulers, but whatever peoples desired
to be ruled by a single monarch or by chief men elected by them
were anterior to their rulers. Hence it follows that peoples were not
created for the sake of rulers, but on the contrary the rulers for the
sake of the people, even as the guardian is appointed for the ward,
not the ward for the guardian, and the shepherd on account of the
flock, not the flock on account of the shepherd. This proposition is
not merely obvious in itself but may be corroborated by the history
of nearly all nations, So much so that God Himself, although he
had elected Saul to substitute him for Samuel in accordance with
the desires of the people, yet willed23 that he should be chosen
and accepted as King by the suffrages of the people. Thus David,24
although he had first been chosen as king by God Himself, yet
23. 1 Sam. 10 & 11.
24. 2 Sam. 2:7; 5:1–3.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

would not undertake the administration of the Kingdom except he
had first been confirmed by the suffrages and unfettered concord
of the tribes of Israel.
On similar grounds it happened even afterwards that though
the kingship had by the will of God been granted to the family
of David, yet in the last resort that one from the descendants of
David should rule whom {109} the people had approved and none
other (unless perchance something irregular befell to prevent
it as when now the Egyptian and then the Syrian kings ruled as
tyrants over the people of God). So much so that this kingship
was hereditary as far as the family was concerned, but elective as
regards the individual incumbent, i.e., dependent upon the election
of the people. This may be seen from the histories of Solomon,25
Rehoboam,26 Joash,27 Ocias and Jehoahaz.28 For this reason also
Absalom29 grasped the occasion of usurping his father’s throne.
For thus Hushai the friend of David answered him:30 “Nay, but
whom the Lord, and this people, and all the men of Israel have
chosen, his will I be, and with him will I abide.”
In short, if we would investigate the histories of ancient times
recorded by profane writers also, it will be established—as indeed
Nature herself seems to proclaim with a loud voice—that rulers by
whose authority their inferiors might be guided were elected for
this reason that either the whole human race must needs perish
or some intermediate class must be instituted so that by it one or
more [rulers] might be able to command the others, [and] protect
good men but restrain the wicked by means of punishments.
And this is what not only Plato, Aristotle and the other natural
philosophers—furnished with the light of human reason alone—
have taught and proved, but God Himself by the utterance of
St. Paul writing to the Romans,31 the rulers of almost the entire
world, confirmed this with clear words. There the origin of all

1 Chron. 29:22.
1 Kin. 12:1.
2 Kin. 11:12.
2 Chron. 26:1; 36:1.
2 Sam. 15:1–13.
2 Sam. 16:18.
Rom. 13:I–5.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


States and Powers is with the best of reasoning derived from God
the author of all good. Thus Homer also recognized and freely
testified when he called kings “the fosterlings of Zeus” and “the
shepherds of the lost.”32 And therefore, since we are beginning a
discussion concerning the power of Rulers, what shall prevent us
from passing over to that prime origin from which they derived
and from considering to what end they were instituted? For it is
obvious that every discussion of things just or unjust must begin
and end with the end [for which it exists]. For we must judge that
something has been rightly and duly done when it had attained
that end for which it was designed. When {110} therefore the duty
of the rulers is inquired into, all will admit that it is assuredly
right to remind them of their duty and also to admonish them
roundly whenever they stray from it. But when a case occurs of
either restraining tyrants who are such beyond a trace of doubt or
of punishing them in accordance with their deserts, the majority
commend patience and prayers to God so earnestly that they
consider and condemn as mutineers and pseudo-Christians
all those who refuse to bow their necks to torture. Here we are
doubtless on dangerous ground; I would therefore once again
beseech my readers to bear in mind my remarks immediately
preceding lest they draw inadmissible conclusions from what
must be said in the sequel. I admit that I most strongly approve
of Christian patience as laudable beyond all the other virtues
and never sufficiently commended; I admit that men should
be zealously exhorted to it because it contributes largely to the
attainment of eternal bliss: rebellions and all disorder I detest as
awful abominations; in affliction especially I am of opinion that we
should depend upon God alone; prayer accompanied by a serious
recognition of our error I recognize as the true and necessary
remedies for the overthrow of tyranny since this evil is rightly
counted among the scourges sent by God for the chastisement of
the people. But I deny that all these considerations deprive nations
crushed by manifest tyranny of their right to safeguard themselves
against it by means of prayers and repentance as well as other just
32. For “Fosterlings of Zeus” see Homer passim, e.g. Iliad, XVII, 652; XXIV,
803, and Odyssey, IV, 391; XV, 155, 167. For “Shepherds of the lost” see Ibid., e.g.
Iliad, II, 85, 105; V, 566; XX, 110, and Odyssey, IV, 24, 532; XX, 106; XXIV, 368,


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

remedies; and this I corroborate whilst I reply on the following
powerful arguments.
Since these principles which were demonstrated above
concerning the origin of kings and other rulers have been
established, it follows that they are not legitimate rulers who by
force or deceit usurp that authority which by no right belongs to
them. Of such tyrants there are two kinds: for some, in violation of
the laws laid down and received, usurp tyranny over their fellowcitizens, as Julius Caesar under the feigned title of perpetual
dictator took possession of the Roman commonwealth; and many
other tyrants, particularly in Greece, crushed the liberty of their
country. Others however, not Content with that absolute power
which they rightfully acquire over their own people, extend their
dominions at the cost of their neighbors’ liberty and increase
them by means of fortified boundary-lines; for this reason have
monarchies ever since the origin of the world achieved such
wide dominions; of this the sacred writings offers us an example
in Nimrod,33 as we also see that in this way the Israelites were
generally oppressed by the neighboring peoples. Hence since
those tyrants had no {111} lawful right over the people of God, I
maintain that the Israelites were free not merely to disobey the
sinful commands of these peoples but even to set a just defense
against their unjust violence, and that therefore the leaders of the
tribes [of Israel] did a grievous wrong whenever they omitted
to oppose the foreign foe with united courage and strength in
defense of the liberty of their country, provided that the occasion
for opposing him presented itself; for it admits of no doubt that
even private individuals are bound by the law of both God and
men to succor with all their power their country when oppressed
and in distress, especially however when its religion and liberty
are simultaneously endangered. For it was a true remark which
the captive pirate dared to utter when he was dragged before
Alexander; he declared that he differed in no way from [the king]
but that the latter plundered the world with a multitude of ships
whereas he did so with but a single vessel.34
Objection. These remarks are not countered by objection which
33. Gen. 10:8–18.
34. Augustine, De civ. dei, IV, 4, 25. Cf Cicero, De repub., 3, 14, 24.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


certain people are wont to make, namely that it is God by whom
kingdoms and empires are transferred and exchanged and that
therefore tyrants frequently gain the victory with the approval of
Answer. Far be it for me that I should on that account either
support the view of Lucan35 who dared thus to write that “license
had been granted to crime,” or that I should condemn as unjust
the cause of Demosthenes because he was overcome [compelled]
to yield while defending the liberty of his country against the
violence of Philip of Macedon whereas Philip came off victorious.36
These examples I use not that the consciences of pious men may
rest upon them as upon rules, but because they are famous and
very well known to most people, and for the further reason that
though these events occurred among heathen nations, yet they are
not so far removed from the standard of justice that it may not
justifiably be said that justice was on one side and injustice on the
other. For I would not hold that we must judge by the favorable or
adverse result alone whether an undertaking was just or unjust—
as indeed Demosthenes answered his opponent Aeschines what
was reproaching him with the unfortunate result of the battle of
Charoneia. For, to speak as Christians rather, God is generally
wont thus to punish the sins of men or so far make trial of his
people that he assigns to their undertakings, however good and
just in themselves, an outcome far other than they had themselves
expected, as may best be seen in the war which the remaining
tribes of Israel waged {112} against the children of Benjamin.37
But for all that God remains no less just, by whatever means
He enforces His judgments; nor must it be held that the nations
had a less lawful cause against their hostile tyrants because they
were cast down by some just judgment of God and fell to ruin.
Hence I could never approve of the view of those who without any
distinction or exception at once and indiscriminately condemn
all tyrannicides on whom the Greeks formerly bestowed such

35. Lucan, De bello civili, d, 2: “Iusque datum sceleri canimus.” Cf. the Latin
text of Beza: “ius sceleri datum” (Ed. Sturm, 36.).
36. Demosthenes, De corona, 180.
37. Jud. 20.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

exceptional rewards.38 As little does the view of those commend
itself to whom the majority of liberations recorded in the Book
of Judges39 seen so foreign and strange that they are of opinion
that these can in no way be adduced as examples. For however
true it may be that those Judges of the people of Israel were moved
and stirred to the performance of those famous deeds by some
divine and exceptional instinct, yet it does not immediately follow
that the Israelites themselves, whether holding office or even as
private citizens, could not in accordance with their ordinary right
have expelled the tyranny of strangers who had been neither
elected nor approved by the people. But that those liberations
were effected by means of those men alone whom God summoned
forth in a special way, does not go to disprove my contention, but
rather demonstrates that the spirit of the Israelites had for their
transgressions been stunned and broken by the just judgment
of God. Therefore to follow those examples rightly and lawfully,
I am of opinion that the following true means should be held
fast, namely: if anyone strives to seize or has already usurped an
unjust tyranny over others, whether he be a stranger or whether
as a viper he leaps from the womb of his country that by his birth
he may cause her death, then shall private citizens before all else
approach their legitimate magistrates in order that it may be the
public enemy be cast forth by the public authority and common
consent of all. But if the magistrate connives [at the attempt] or in
some way refuses to perform his duty, then let each private citizen
bestir himself with all his power to defend the lawful constitution
of his country, to whom after God he owes his entire existence,
against him who cannot be deemed a lawful magistrate since he
either has already usurped that rank in violation of the public laws
or is endeavoring to usurp it.
Next it should here be noted that a defect which originally
adhered to an usurpation may afterwards be rectified, so much
so that he who originally was a tyrant may become a lawful
and inviolable ruler, that is of course if {113} afterwards the free
and lawful consent is gained of those who have the power to
elect and appoint a true and lawful ruler. For example: The war
38. Aristotle, Politic5, V, VIII, 7 and also 9.
39. Jud. 3:15–25.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


undertaken against Caesar under the leadership of Pompey was
just, though Caesar emerged victorious in it; but if it was true
that Caesar afterwards by the free and voluntary assent of the
Roman people obtained the supreme power under the pretense of
a perpetual dictatorship, it would no longer be necessary to raise
the question whether the conspiracy against him was just and
lawful, unless it were shown forthwith that he had clearly abused
those very dictatorial powers. I venture to declare most positively
that those leading citizens of Rome could have, and even should
have, defended the Commonwealth against the Triumvirate; but
I should not venture to maintain that Cinna and his associates
could lawfully have conspired against the life of Augustus after the
“Royal Law”40 as they call it had been promulgated and passed.
But here too we must distinguish. It will, I think, readily be
conceded to me that an agreement whether freely manifested by
or extorted by means of violence or intimidation from the whole
people or a majority of them should rather be annulled than
observed if it were established beyond doubt that such agreement
was clearly incompatible with fairness and honor. For who would
persuade himself that some nation would freely, wittingly and
unconstrained wish to subject itself to some ruler to this end,
that it might subsequently be murdered and utterly destroyed by
him? But surely here again two [considerations] should be heeded,
whenever those undertakings have to be annulled or set right to
which agreement has been granted without due consideration:
first nothing shall be attempted or done recklessly and, secondly,
nothing by way of insurrection, but in due order and in a
disciplined fashion as far as shall be possible. The present condition
of the Christian Commonwealth furnishes us with two examples
of this, both assuredly of the greatest importance. The first is that
of the unjust and sinful submissiveness with which kings and
nations have bound themselves by oath to the Roman Antichrist;
I maintain that they are no more bound by that oath than if they
had expressly and openly sworn to Satan that they would subvert
all rights of God as well as men. The other example is that of the
40. An allusion to lex regia. See Corpus Juris Civilis, Inst., I, 2, 6: “quod
principi placuit, legis habet vigorem, cum lege regia, quae de imperio eius lata
est, populus ei et in eum omne suum imperium et potestaeem comcessit.” Cf.
Dig., I, 4, 1.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

so-called temporal jurisdiction to which the ecclesiastic prelates
have laid claim. Because this is diametrically opposed to the
command of Christ as well as to the clearest examples of Him and
of all Apostles—as {114} particularly Saint Bernard has shown41—
it assuredly follows that of itself it is void since neither could the
rulers divest and deprive themselves of that [jurisdiction], nor
could the ecclesiastics receive it from kings or nations or acquire
it at a price, much less should they have usurped it by force and
cunning tricks as it is certain that they did in far the greater part
of the world.
Let these remarks be made against tyrants who have unjustly
grasped authority over their fellow-citizens or over foreign nations.

Question 6. What is the duty of subjects towards their
superiors who have fallen into tyranny?
It now remains for us to treat of the other question which has
not without reason been debated by numerous people in these
present times; that is, what may subjects of good conscience
do whenever their supreme rulers, who are legitimate in other
respects, degenerate into manifest tyrants? Must the authority
of the supreme rulers who have become undisguised tyrants
remain so sacred and inviolate that the subjects are obliged in
all circumstances to endure it so that they can in no way offer
resistance to it? Or if indeed resistance is in some way allowable,
may they go so far as to seize arms?
Three kinds of subjects
I answer that there are three kinds of subjects in all, or that
subjects are characterized by a threefold differentia. For some
are private citizens performing no duty of public administration;
others do indeed hold a magistracy, but these are subject to the
supreme rulers (such as we call subaltern or inferior magistrates),
the third class, though they do not indeed hold the highest
authority nor yet wield supreme and regular power, yet are placed
in such a station that they are as it were the bridles and reins to
keep the supreme ruler to his duty. As however these kinds are
41. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, De Eugenium tertium, book
1, cap. 6. (Migne, P.L., 182, 735–36).

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


different so must a different reply be given concerning each.
Private citizens may not offer resistance to their lawful ruler who is
a tyrant
Whether therefore those who are of private station have freely
and openly agreed to the rule of an unjust usurper (as the Roman
people of their {115} own free will submitted to Augustus42 and his
successors) or whether he who was their lawful ruler has become
a manifest tyrant (as was Abimelech among the Israelites,43
the Thirty at Athens44 and the Decemvirs at Rome,45 and others
elsewhere), I then maintain that (apart from a special injunction
from God which I do not here discuss) no private citizen is entitled
on his own private authority to oppose the tyrant with violence
against violence, but that it in every way behooves him either to
depart from the realm of that [ruler] and change his domicile or to
bear the yoke of the tyrant patiently by taking refuge with God in
prayer, provided only (as we have remarked from the beginning)
he be not constrained to become the instrument of that very
tyranny against someone or to refrain from performing any of
those acts which are due to God or to his neighbor.
Objection. But against this reply given me an objection may
be urged, namely the proposition which we established above
concerning that twofold class of tyrants to whom we declared that
even private citizens could and (indeed) should offer resistance
with all their power. For whether a private citizen usurps power or
whether someone not satisfied with his lawful supremacy exercises
tyrannical rule, would at first sight appear to fall within the same
category; hence it might seem to follow the same decision would
apply in either case.
Answer. But as we look closely into these matters, it becomes
clear that these two classes are entirely different though they seem
very similar. For he who launches an attack upon those who are
in no way subject to him, though his desire be to rule fairly and
42. Another allusion to lex regia, established by the Emperor Ausustus. See
Question 5, note 18.
43. Jud. 9.
44. The thirty tyrants of Athens, 404–403 B.C.
45. The decemviri, governors of Rome, 451–449 B.C.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

in accordance with goodness and justice (as we read concerning
Peisistratos and Demetrios of Phaleron among the Athenians46),
yet he may lawfully be prevented even by force of arms and by any
[citizens] soever, even of the humblest station, to whom he desired
to do violence, since they are by no obligation bound to him.
But he who has once been approved and accepted by his people,
though he abuse his right, yet retains the basis of his authority as
against his own private subjects, since an obligation entered upon
publicly and by mutual consent cannot be dissolved and broken
by the will of any private citizen. For were this otherwise, endless
disorders, worse even than tyranny itself, would ensue, and in
the place of a single tyrant whom it might be our {116} intention
to cast down, a thousand would succeed. Furthermore, a single
reason derived from the authority of the Word of God should here
be of greater weight than anything else that could be adduced to
the contrary. St. Paul in prescribing their duty to men in private
station not merely forbids them to resist their rulers (supreme
rulers as well as subordinate) but enjoins us to obey them also for
conscience sake.47 St. Peter48 also bids us to honor the king, being
mindful probably of that reproof which he had heard from the
Master when he had as a private citizen drawn the sword against
the power of the state (even though that power was abusing its
authority against the Lord).49 But everyone knows of what nature
the Caesars then were, Tiberius, Nero and the other rulers over
provinces. This example the holy Martyrs afterwards followed
while the inhuman tyrants persecuted them most cruelly, not
only under the emperors who raged against the Christians in
accordance with the laws of the Romans, but also under those who
treacherously violated the edicts issued in favor of the Christians,
as happened under the emperor Julian the Apostate.
In short, to conclude at length this part of the inquiry, I
maintain that no one in private station is allowed to set himself
in open violence against a tyrant to whose domination the people
46. Peisistratos was a ruler of Athens, 560–527 B.C.; Demetrios of Phaleron
governed the state from 317–307 B.C.
47. Rom. 13:5.
48. 1 Pet. 2:17.
49. Matt. 26:51–54; John 18:10–11.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


of its own free will previously consented; for if we must so far
abide by private contracts, pacts, agreements and undertakings
that we suffer damage rather than break our word, how much
more should private citizens be on their guard lest they in any
way refuse to honor an obligation entered upon by a solemn and
public agreement?
Concerning subordinate magistrates
I now come to the lower magistrates who are as it were
intermediaries, and as the common people call them, subalterns,
between the supreme magistrate and the people. Under this title
I do not understand the domestic officers of the King personally
(that is those who perform some duty within the royal palace and
serve his person rather than the kingdom) but rather those who
perform public duties, that is duties pertaining to the condition
of the kingdom either as regards its courts of justice or matters
of war, and who therefore even in monarchies are styled servants
not of the King but of the Crown or Kingdom (for between these
there is a highly important difference). Of this kind used to be
in Rome, the consuls, the {117} praetors, the city prefect, and the
governors of provinces (whose [election] used to be entrusted
now to the people itself, and now, in the time of the Emperors,
even to the Senate) and similar officials of the Republic or the
Empire, who for that reason were called magistrates of the Roman
people even under the last Emperors. Such also were among the
Israelites the leaders of the several tribes, the leaders of thousands,
of hundreds, of fifties, of tens, and the elders of the people. These
political functions, first regulated by Moses, were in no way
afterwards abolished when that aristocratic constitution was
transformed into that of a monarchy, nay more, under Solomon
they were carefully established and observed. Even today various
classes of magistrates of the kind are to be found in most Christian
kingdoms, and among them should be counted those who are
styled dukes, marquises, counts, viscounts, barons and squires
as having formerly been chosen in due order and lawfully to
certain public duties and tasks that they might perform them. And
though these subsequently became hereditary titles of honor, yet
they have in no way lost their original right and authority. Among
this class should further be included those who are elected with a


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

view to a variety of duties in civic communities such as those who
are generally called majors, vicars, consuls, capitolini (municipal
judges), syndics, scabini (aldermen) and the like.
Subordinate magistrates are dependent not upon the person of the
supreme magistrate but upon the supreme magistracy as such
Further, although these are all subject to the supreme magistrate,
receive their commands from him and are instituted and approved
by him, yet they do not properly speaking depend upon him but so
to speak upon the supremacy as such, that is, upon that supreme
power and authority of the empire or kingdom; hence upon the
death of him who wielded the supreme power they each remain
in their own station as before, just as the supreme power remains
the same. As for the fact that he who succeeds to the place of him
who has died confirms such subordinate magistrates as he also
confirms the privileges of cities—Suetonius records in [his Life of
Vespasian]50 that Tiberius Caesar first introduced this custom in
the Roman Empire; and in earlier times it was not in use in Gaul51
except perchance when the kingship passed not from fathers to
sons but to strangers—this confirmation I declare, does not bring
about that the {118} supreme magistrate should be regarded as their
originator, that is, as the prime source of their being from whom
they derive their origin, since the supreme magistrate himself also
before he can be placed in possession of his highest administrative
power, in turn takes the oath to the supreme power in accordance
with the conditions expressed in the formula of the oath; just as
he himself afterwards receives the oath from the officials severally
also; so much so that such a confirmation bestows no new right—
as little as the investiture of a new vassal does so or that performed
by a new lord—but it is merely a fresh recognition of an old right
by reason of a change of person.
The obligation subsisting between supreme and subordinate
magistrates is mutual
It hence appears that the obligation between the king and
the officials of the kingdom is mutual and that not the entire
50. It was not initiated by Vespasian, but by his son, Titus Flavius Vespasinus.
See Seutonius, De vita Caesarum, book VIII, Divus Titus, 8, 1.
51. France.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


administration of the kingdom is entrusted to the king alone but
only the highest rank, and that the subordinate officials severally
hold part of it each in accordance with his own rank, and that on
fixed conditions on either side. If those conditions are not kept
by the subordinate magistrates the supreme magistrate is entitled
to discharge them or to correct them, yet only after their case has
been heard in accordance with the regular procedure which the
laws of the kingdom prescribe, unless he himself also desires to
break the oath by which he promised to rule in accordance with
the laws.
In the contrary case, however, if he who has received the royal
dignity either by being elected thereto or by hereditary right openly
departs from those conditions under which he was expressly
recognized and approved as king, who would be inclined to doubt
that the subordinate magistrates of the kingdom and further the
very provinces also and the cities whose administration has been
entrusted to them are automatically (ipso iure) free from their
oath, in so far at all events that they have right to set themselves
against the undisguised oppression of that kingdom whose defense
and protection they undertook by oath each in accordance with
his own office. “What then?” will someone say, “shall he who but
lately was regarded as the supreme ruler (whose authority should
be inviolable)—shall he by the arbitrary will of every subordinate
now be deemed as mere private citizen so that it shall be lawful to
assail him as a public enemy?”
Not at all, I answer, for this were to offer a loophole, as the
saying is, to every kind of sinful sedition and conspiracy. But we
are discussing open and manifest tyranny and tyrants of that type
who cannot admit or endure {119} any admonishments whatever.
Furthermore, we are not treating the tyrant who must be utterly
thrust and cast down from his throne, but we are inquiring whether
no one can and should in accordance with his rank set himself
against his open violence, since it was shown before that it was
not right that any one should arbitrarily dishonor an obligation
publicly contracted whoever he might be and however just cause
of complaint he might have concerning the tyrant.
The duty of subordinate magistrates
But since on the other hand those subordinate instruments of


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

the kingdom have received this office from the supreme power
as such that they may be on their guard for the observance and
protection of the laws among those who have been entrusted
to their care, and since they have bound themselves by oath to
perform that duty in all faith—an oath from which they cannot be
absolved by any fault of him who from a king has become a tyrant
and quite openly violates those conditions upon which he was
appointed king and the observance of which he undertook upon
oath—would it not be just according to all law, divine and human,
that by reason of the oath taken by them to ensure the observance
of the laws, somewhat greater (liberty of action) should be granted
to these subordinate magistrates than to those [citizens] who
are of entirely private station and without any public office? I
therefore maintain that, if they are reduced to such unavoidable
compulsion, they are certainly bound, even by means of armed
force if they can, to protect against manifest tyranny the safety of
those who have been entrusted to their care and honor, as long
as their public interests have been better consulted and fittingly
provided for in accordance with the collective counsel of the
States-General or the Nomophylakes, that is, of those with whom
all the legislative authority of the kingdom or empire in question
rests. This moreover is not to be factious or a traitor towards your
supreme ruler, but rather to be a most faithful keeper of your
oath towards those whose direction you have undertaken, against
perjury and against the oppressor of a kingdom whose protector
he should have been.
At Rome, Brutus and Lucretius lawfully exercised this right
against Tarquin the Proud who was openly practicing tyranny—
although this cause was theirs for private reasons also—when the
latter as prefect of the city and the former as tribune of the knights
summoned together the Roman people that by their authority the
tyrant might be expelled from the kingdom and his possessions
confiscated. And there can be no doubt {120} but that had they
been able to seize him, they would also have condemned him
in accordance with the laws which he had violated (whereas he
should have been their upholder); for it is an entirely false maxim
of a detestable flatterer rather than of a subject loyal to his ruler

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


that a supreme magistrate is subject to no laws,52 since on the
contrary there is not a single law in violation of which the man
who has promised upon oath to be the defender and champion of
all laws should administer his rule. Hence he should rather hold
fast the splendid saying of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. It is a
worthy maxim that an emperor should profess himself subject to
the laws.53 And Trajan, that mightiest of emperors who has never
received praise according to his merits, also approved of it by his
action, for when he was appointing Sura as military tribune and
handing him the customary unsheathed dagger, he remarked:54
“Take this weapon which you shall draw on my behalf only if I have
given a just command; but if you should learn that anything wrong
is being done by me, I would have you use it for my destruction.”
But let us know turn to sacred history which will supply us with
many true and irrefutable examples by which the consciences of
the pious may be strengthened. When David was being sought
for execution by Saul, a most cruel and treacherous tyrant,
he had no one from among the captains of the tribes or of the
thousand or hundred or of the elders of the people to champion
his cause against tyranny so unbridled and inclining towards
the destruction not only of David himself but also of the entire
kingdom (especially after the fearful slaughter of the high priests);
he therefore wandered to and fro as a fugitive to balk the fury of
the tyrant; but since he was no longer a private citizen (nay, he was
one of the ministers of the kingdom, being a commander of the
armies of Israel) and since furthermore the right of succession to
the throne had been promised him by God (a fact not unknown55
to Saul), he safeguarded himself with arms and soldiers56 after
52. The flatterer of whom Beza speaks evidently cites the Corpus Iuris Civilus,
Digeste, I, 3, 31: “Princeps legibus solutus est.”
53. Cf. the test of Theodosius and Valentianus in Corpus Iuris Civilis, Codex,
I, 14, 4: “Digna vox maiestate regnantis legibus se principem profiteri.” The
combination of the two Roman principles of lex regia and lex cligna are frequently
found in the political treatises of the previous age and the modern age. See on
the subject, Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: a study in mediaeval
political theology (Princeton University Press, 1957), 104–107; also 95 and 135.
54. Dion Cassius, The Life of Trajan, book LXVIII, 16, 1.
55. 1 Sam. 24:21.
56. 1 Sam. 22:2.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

first trying all other means; yet meanwhile he confined himself to
his own territory and so far from contriving anything against the
person of the {121} king he even allowed him to depart alive and
unharmed when he had captured him; and so far from invading57
the kingdom itself, even after the death of Saul 58 whose successor
he knew for certain he did now even stir a foot to seize the royal
palace except in so far as God Himself caused him to advance and
he was called by the unanimous consent of the people.
Yet it is quite certain59 that he had taken the resolve to defend
himself by means of arms for the reasons mentioned above. For
what else was the purpose of those military forces by which he
had attended? That he so anxiously consulted God as to whether
the citizens of Keilah would give him and his men into the hands
of Saul clearly shows that he had quite decided if he learned that
he would be safe there to resist Saul if he laid siege to the walls of
that town. And this conduct cannot be condemned, unless David
is to be charged with sedition and high treason—any yet of that
we may not even suspect him—and the prudent Abigail60 is to be
judged guilty of lying who declared openly that David was waging
the wars of the Lord when he was availing himself of a just defense
against an unjust persecutor. We have another very clear example61
concerning the town of Libnah which was the dwelling place of
the priests. For it revolted from Jehoram the sixth successor of
David that it might no longer be subject to him; the reason for
that revolt is given in the context of the history, namely that King
Jehoram had forsaken the Lord God of his fathers. But since this
town itself belonged to the priests, it is evident that this conduct of
the people of Libnah was far different from the revolt of the people
of Edom which occurred under the same king and at the same
time. For it is not probable that the people of Edom withdrew
themselves from their subjection to the Israelites to cleave to the
true God whom they had never served in sincerity, but they did
so only from hatred of the Israelites and a desire to regain their

1 Sam. 24:7.
2 Sam. 2:1–4.
1 Sam. 23:9–13.
1 Sam. 25:28.
2 Chron. 21:8–10.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


liberty. But the priests, or those at least—if we are to think that
they first revolted—who after God held sway in Libnah, furnished
remarkable proof of their piety when being unable simultaneously
to obey God and the tyrant, they shook off the yoke of the latter
that they might continue in devotion and obedience to God.
These two examples, apart from the considerations quoted
above, are so reliable and authentic that in my judgment they
alone should be adequate to strengthen the consciences of
subordinate magistrates, as often as {122} unavoidable necessity
constrains them, after all those remedies have been put to the test,
to have recourse to arms that they may protect their people against
manifest tyranny and preserve them, not for the sake of stirring
up rebellion but rather to avoid it, as in the time of our ancestors
the tyranny of those who were oppressing the Swiss offered to the
municipal magistrates the occasion of asserting that independence
which they at present enjoy.

The Orders or Estates, established to curb the supreme magistrates,
can and should in every way offer resistance to them when they
degenerate into tyrants
It still remains for us to speak of the third class of subjects who
though they truly in one particular respect are subject to obedience
to the supreme rulers, yet in another, especially in straightened
and extreme circumstances, have been appointed as the defenders
and champions of the rights of the supreme power as such, so that
they must keep the supreme rulers to their duty and must if needs
be constrain and punish them.
Here however we must keep in mind the remarks made above,
namely that the people existed before there was any magistrate
and that the magistrates were made for the sake of the people
and not vice versa, the people for the sake of the magistrates.
For however much some people seem to derive their origin from
their kings—as the Roman people is said to have been created by
Romulus, because there had not been an original people before
but a multitude scraped together from a variety of nations and
peoples—yet this can in no way be applied to others so that
a general rule may be established from it. Furthermore, even


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

Romulus did not hold sway over this congress of people except by
their consent. Hence it follows that the authority of all magistrates,
however supreme and powerful they are, is dependent upon the
public authority of those who have raised them to this degree of
dignity, and not contrariwise. And let no one use the objection
that such was indeed the first beginning of magistracies but that
subsequently the people completely subjected themselves to the
power and arbitrary will of those whom they had received as their
supreme magistrates and that they gave up their liberty to them
wholly and without any reserve whatever. In the first place I deny
that there is any certain proof of this complete renunciation; nay
on the contrary I maintain that as long {123} as right and justice
have prevailed no nation has either elected or approved kings
without laying down specific conditions.
And if those kings violate these the result is that those who had
the power to confer this authority upon them have retained no less
power again to divest them of that authority. That this may appear
the more clearly, let us inquire whether this cannot be proved
by the uninterrupted usage among the most famous and better
known people throughout the ages.
I. Examples of the Romans in the time of kings
Let us begin with the kingdom and subsequently with the empire
of the Romans though they were not more ancient [than other
peoples]. Titus Livius62 in describing the origins of the Roman
kingship records that since the hundred so-called [interreges] who
were set over the people in turn after the death of Romulus (this
first ancestor of the people) did not find favor with the commons,
it was decided by general consent that henceforth kings should be
elected by the votes of the people and confirmed by the authority
of the Senate.63
The same [author] when speaking of Tarquin the Proud, the
last Roman king, remarks: “For he had no other claim to royal
power apart from force since he ruled neither at the command
of the people nor with the authority of the Senators.”64 And he
62. see inter alia, Titus Livius, Ab urbe condita, book I, xv, 6–8.
63. Ibid., book I, xvii.
64. Ibid., book I, xlix, 3.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


subsequently relates many deeds which were committed by him
contrary to the customs of former generations. For according
to tradition, he remarks, he was the first of the kings who broke
the custom [handed down] by his predecessors of consulting the
Senate about all [things], who administered the commonwealth
according to his private counsels and who on his own made and
broke off war, peace, treaties and alliances with whomsoever he
willed without orders from the people and the Senate.65 From
these words it is quite evident that the kings of the Romans were
not appointed except on express conditions: and if they failed to
fulfill these, the people summoned by way of the different classes
of citizens had no less authority to dismiss them than to appoint
them; and this they clearly proved by their conduct towards that
very tyrant.
But apart from what Seneca noted from the books of Cicero
“Concerning the Commonwealth” namely that an appeal lay from
the king {124} to the people66—which was acted upon in the capital
case of the slayer of his sister, Horatius, who was condemned by
the judges appointed by King Tullus Hostilius67 and afterwards
acquitted by the people—apart from that, I say, Dionysius also
testifies that while Romulus was taking counsel with his [friends]
about establishing a constitution, he declared that the king was
indeed the guardian of the laws, but that meanwhile the authority
to elect magistrates, to pass laws and declare war has been left in
the hands of the people.68 This probably served as Archetype to
the architects of the French Monarchy, as we shall point out below.
Furthermore, from the history of Collatinus, who was the first
consul as colleague of Brutus, it is evident that the people—and
under that name must be understood not only that plebeian class
which today we call the third estate, but all three classes which
simultaneously existed in Rome, that is, patrician, equestrian and
plebeian—had the same authority as against the consuls69 too,
65. Ibid., book I, xlix, 7.
66. Seneca, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales, epist. CVIII, 31; Cicero, De repub.
book II, xviii.
67. Titus Livius, Ab orbe condita, book I, XXVI, 3 and also 8.
68. Dionysius Halicarnesensis, Antiquitatum Romanorum, book II, 14.
69. Titus Livius, op. cit., book II, II.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

although the latter wielded the supreme power in the republic
whenever there was no dictator in office. For this Livy also testifies
in these words: “The consul fearing that afterwards these same
misfortunes with the loss of his possessions might befall him as a
private citizen and with further disgrace added thereto, laid down
the consulship.”70 Yet Collatinus was charged with no crime, but the
mere name of the Tarquinii to whose family the consul Collatinus
belonged, was suspect with the people. It is therefore easy to infer
from this that the people would all the more have taken advantage
of this right if any consul had been proved guilty of any crime,
although according to the proviso of the laws there would have to
be a delay so that, because they were holding a temporary office,
they might complete the prescribed period before they could be
I admit indeed that afterwards decemvirs were appointed from
whom no appeal lay to another magistrate; but since they wielded
authority alternately, it was allowable to appeal from the verdict
of one to the other, so little did boundless and unlimited power of
anyone ever commend itself to the Roman people; nay it at length
even compelled the very decemvirs to lay down their office.71 {125}
As regards the authority of a dictator, it is true indeed that it was
not allowed to appeal from him to another; but this high office
was not in use except when the Commonwealth was afflicted and
all but overwhelmed by some extreme and unavoidable evil, and
that indeed for a very brief period, namely six months. But if ever
an appeal was laid from the supreme authority to the people—and
this is of even greater importance—he agreed to it of his own free
will, as may be seen from what occurred in Rome between the
dictator Lucius Papirius and Quintus Fabius72 in the 42nd year
after the founding of the city.
In the time of Emperors
What if we should decide to proceed further and to come down
to [the time of] the Emperors? Although Julius Caesar seized the
Commonwealth by force rather than by the voluntary assent of the
70. Ibid., book II, II, 10.
71. Ibid., book III, XXXIII, XXXVI, LIV.
72. Ibid., book VIII, XXX-XXXVII.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


people, yet he wished to be regarded as having obtained from the
people in accordance with the ancient usage all the eminent offices
and charges which he held, and by many people he is deemed to
have been censured—and at length rightly murdered too—only
because he accumulated too many high offices. His successor
Augustus was indeed adopted by him, but was not left as heir to
the Empire; he therefore strove to convince [men] that he had duly
received from the people that which he had seized by violence.
And Tiberius succeeded to him on no other ground. And after
him Caligula was called Emperor by the unanimous consent of
the Senate as well as the people. Claudius was indeed the first to
secure the imperial power by means of military favor which he
had bought, yet did not exercise it except with the consent of
the people who then of its own free will rushed headlong into
wretched slavery. Nero, however, succeeding to him when he had
removed him by poison, seized the imperial power by undisguised
violence. But his death furnishes us with a striking example of the
authority which the Senate even then retained. For making use of
its right, which had long lain hid as if lulled asleep, the Senate is
said to have expressly condemned Nero to death after he had first
been judged an enemy of the Roman people. Whence it appears
that even the very Emperors who had become tyrants could be
restrained and condemned by the organs of the law, and that
although their authority, [derived] from the royal law, which was
passed for Augustus and confirmed for Vespasian,73 extended very
widely, yet it was circumscribed within definite limits and was not
approved without any {126} restriction as long as there was room
for law and justice. For what else is tyranny but authority setting
itself against the laws? About its wide extent and propagation
we do not propose to speak—for what limit can there be to the
unbridled cupidity and spite of tyrants?—but only about kings’
and other rulers’ legitimate authority, limited by the laws; and so
much concerning the Romans.
II. Examples from the Athenian Republic
When the Athenians abolished their democracy and changed
it into an aristocracy they first appointed thirty men and
73. Again, another allusion to the lex regia. See Question 5, note 40.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

subsequently only ten for the government of the commonwealth
as their historical writings record: but when these abused their
authority they successively removed them from office and even
visited them with well deserved punishment clearly availing
themselves of the same right by which they had in the first instance
elected them.
III. Examples taken from the Spartans
It is well known, too that the Spartans were accustomed to
elect their kings by a free vote from the family of the Heraclidae.
Plutarch74 relates that Lysander wished to alter this, but without
avail. But after the king had been elected upon definite conditions,
they appointed the ephors to restrain the kings in their office and
as it were to curb them with reins. These moreover now expelled
some kings and then again inflicted capital punishment upon
others until at length upon the treachery of Cleomenes the tyrants
all were killed; thereupon Sparta lost her liberty at the same time
as her absolute sway.75 Here I am reminded of that most beautiful
passage in Xenophon where he treats of the Commonwealth of the
Spartans and records that the king and the ephors were wont to
bind themselves by a mutual oath every month, they in the name
of all the citizens, and he in his own name. In this oath the king
promised that he would rule in accordance with the terms of the
laws laid down, but the ephors promised that they would guard
the state for him if he carried out his oath.76 {127}
IV. Examples from the Monarchy of the Israelites
Let us now proceed to the polity of Israel, the most perfect of all
that ever were, if only the Israelites had been satisfied with it. The
fact that the eternal God was from the beginning its sole monarch
exalted that polity as it were beyond the stars, not merely because
He Himself held supreme authority over all things, but [also]
because He did so in a unique way; for through Moses He visibly
drew up their laws for the Israelites; through Joshua as it were with
arms thrust out He brought His people into the promised land;
74. Plutarch, Lysander, XXIV.
75. Ibid., Cleomenes, passim, VIII and XXXIX.
76. Xenophon, Lakedaimonion Politeia, XV, 7.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


and finally He commanded and governed them, that it is in the
person of those men whom He Himself had directly appointed to
the government of that [polity and] who were called Judges.77
At that time therefore the Jewish polity was truly monarchical
(although God employed the service of certain men in accordance
with His will), and if all kingdoms had this Monarch, or at least
if all monarchs always allowed themselves to be directed by
this supreme Lord of the universe, this present inquiry would
be no less redundant than it is now [universally] recognized to
be indispensable. For that blessed state of this commonwealth
(which never befell any other people but this) was changed in an
amazing and unusual way. For the monarchical constitutions of
other nations have degenerated into tyrannies by the fault of the
monarchs themselves; but the Israelites,78 not recognizing such a
great boon, as it were against His will compelled that true Monarch
of theirs, who could never have become a tyrant, to appoint them
a human king as for other people also. The Lord therefore at
length granted their wishes but in anger and indignation, not that
He desired by that act to disapprove of a monarchical constitution
as such, but because this change had proceeded from a hot-headed
and stubborn people. Meanwhile the fact neither can nor should
be disguised that since the origin of the world there has never
been a king—even if you were to select the very best—who did
not in some measure abuse his authority so that it must be indeed
conceded, as the philosophers enlightened by natural reason
alone have recognized also, that monarchical rule brings ruin and
destruction upon the people rather than protection and welfare
unless it is curbed by certain reins, so that by them it may come
about that the greatest boon which can derive from it may be
secured, and that the great evil which otherwise must of necessity
result from it may be avoided and impeded. {128}
I am giving this introduction while entering upon my discussion
of the origins of the Israelite kingship since clear examples of all
these things are to be found there; it would be worth the effort if
both kings and nations paid careful attention to these that the one
class might not so often come to be oppressed by the other but that
77. Jud. 2:16.
78. 1 Sam. 8:5–22.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

rather the glory of God, from whom alone all tranquillity comes,
might be such an object of care to both, that rulers and subjects
alike might be content to maintain themselves peacefully. But to
return to the point from where I digressed, the Lord being rightly
incensed against His people, that He might clearly make known
to them what they were to expect from that reckless disposition
by which they were being disturbed, prophesied to them through
Samuel in wondrous words indeed what that right would be which
history calls the royal prerogative, namely, in short, that the king
would arbitrarily seize the persons and possessions of his subjects
and convert them to his own uses, [conduct] which is doubtless
tyrannical rather than royal. For who would dare to doubt seriously
that God alone is competent to thrust His arbitrary will in the
place of reason since nothing can be called just but what God has
first willed? For the will of God alone is the true and certain rule of
all justice, as was maintained from the beginning. But the contrary
happens in the case of men whose reason too should be subject
to and guided by just and inviolable laws, particularly in the case
of those who are placed in authority over others; so that they are
entirely mistaken who interpret Samuel’s words as if he desired to
be the authority over kings for the commission of any daring deed,
or approved of whatever they did in blind willfulness; equally
accursed is the saying of the notorious incestuous woman “Si liber,
licet”79 a standpoint which, alas, is excessively bandied about and
acted upon in this present century. Nay rather the works of Samuel
must be interpreted as if he spoke them to rebuke Israel: “it suffices
not for you to have God Himself as your monarch as it has thus far
been by some extraordinary favor; but you are demanding another
and such as the other nations have; therefore shall such an one fall
to your lot. But again listen what right he shall claim over you and
with what fairness and justice he shall hold sway over you.” That
this was the purport of Samuel’s words the subsequent course of
history itself has shown.
The Kings of Judah elected by the people
I therefore maintain that though God had expressly elected

79. “What I want, I may,” Historia Augustae, Caracalla, X, 2.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


David, yet he had to be elected80 by the people also and that they
in electing him rightly, {129} as they should, followed the will
of God. The same thing occurred in the case of Solomon81 also
who after being first elected by God, was in the second instance
made king by the people. And in general: although the royal
crown in accordance with the command of God by hereditary
right belonged to the House of David, yet as we have shown above
the people ever elected from among the children of the late king
that one whom it preferred to hold sway. And with this [election]
went a twofold obligation, as appears from the history of Joash.82
For both the king and the people first promised God under
solemn oath to observe His laws both ecclesiastical and political.
Afterwards another mutual oath too was taken between the king
himself and the people. “But,” someone will say, “did the people,
that is the Estates of the people, for that reason have the right
to punish their elected candidate when he failed to perform his
duty?” They certainly had that right as can be particularly proved
by four examples.
For if David might defend himself against the tyranny of
Saul, as appeared a while ago, and if the people of Libnah, who
however were but subordinate magistrates, might revolt from
their allegiance to Jehoram, shall I not rightly thence infer that the
royal Estates per se (ipso iure) had many more rights? Relevant
to this point is also the deed that was done by those very Estates
upon the wise counsel of Jehoiada the priest against Athaliah, who
had been appointed queen and had reigned over the kingdom for
six whole years.83 Lastly the example of Amaziah84 is much clearer
still; him the people of Jerusalem pursued even till they slew him.
But if anyone were to think that this was done seditiously and
not lawfully, I would have him attend carefully to the following
arguments. It is nowhere declared that Amaziah was slain by the
slaves of his household,85 as we read happened to his father Joash

2 Sam. 5:1–4.
1 Chron. 29:22
2 Kin. 11:4, 17.
2 Kin. 11.
2 Kin. 14:19–21; 2 Chron. 25:27–28; 26:d.
2 Chron. 24:25.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

and to Amon the son of Manasseh,86 but rather by some common
agreement of the people of Jerusalem; and this happened not
secretly and as it were by was of ambush, as the end of tyrants
has mostly been, but by undisguised violence and as it were upon
the authority of the people; not yet as the result of some sudden
uprising but after he had betaken himself in flight to the city of
Lachish from where it is recorded that his body was returned and
buried in the sepulcher of his fathers. In short, neither before
nor after the death of {130} Amaziah is anything to be found here
offering any indication of revolt, but all the circumstances rather
prove clearly that everything was attempted and carried into
effect87 in accordance with the resolution and studied deliberation
of the people of Jerusalem, and also by the tacit treaty of those
joined [in the undertaking], presumably a majority of the tribes
although this befell in an exceptional and perfunctory, as it were,
way; [it was] certainly [done] not from any private feeling of
animosity, but as a result of his wickedness by which he had in
great part violated his oath. For that reason we nowhere read that
after his death any complaint of inquiry [occurred] or that in short
any punishment was secured or meted out against the perpetrators
of the murder either by the people or by his children as happened
after the deaths of Amon88 and Joash,89 for the conspirators who
slew them though they were from their household, were visited
with just punishments albeit that they had both been wicked.
But on the other hand we read that the corpse of the latter was
from reverence for both the royal dignity and his family carried
back to Jerusalem on horseback, and that his son Azariah was by
the entire people of Judah set as king in his stead. And this again
clearly shows that what had been done by the stronger part of
the Estates, that is, by the people of Jerusalem, was subsequently
confirmed by general consent as concerning a just cause and as
having been carried into effect by those who were competent to
do so. Hence I conclude that the Orders or Estates of the people
of Israel had authority to choose for themselves from the family

2 Kin. 21:23.
2 Chron. 25:27.
2 Kin. 21:24.
2 Kin. 14:5.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


of David whom they wished, and afterwards, when he had been
elected, either to drive him out or even to execute sentence of
death upon him as the occasion demanded.
V. An Example from the Kingdom of the Danes
Thus within our memory the Danes not merely divested
Christiernus, a most cruel tyrant, of his royal dignity but
imprisoned him until his death and transferred the royal power to
his uncle, a most wise and just king, the grandfather of the present
ruler.90 {131}
VI. Swedish Examples
As regards the Swedes too, all men know how in our time
Gustavus liberated himself and his people from their subjection
to the Danes;91 and even today the Swedes keep their king captive
for not having wisely ruled over the kingdom which had been
transferred to his brother; may the Lord bless him.92
VII. Scottish Examples
The Scots also in former times removed their queen from office
and condemned her to lifelong imprisonment because she was
accused of a great number of foul adulteries and even of the most
cruel murder of her husband,93 and I make bold to declare that
if that accusation was justly proved, they would have acted more
properly had they inflicted the deserved punishment upon her.
VIII. Examples from the Kingdom of England
As regards the kingdom of England, the most blessed of all, as
many as may be seen today in the whole world—would that it may
long continue in that blessedness—even if according to the right
of succession it devolves upon him who is the nearer related in
90. Christian II, ruler of Denmark in 1523, was replaced by his uncle Frederick
the I, and the successor of that time was Frederick II, grandson of Frederick I,
who ruled from 1559.
91. Gustavus I severed the union with Denmark and became the King of
Sweden in 1523.
92. Eric XIV, became King of Sweden in 1560, and was replaced by his brother
John III in 1568.
93. Mary Stuare, Queen of Scots, was accused of complicity in the murder of
her second husband, Lord Darnley, in 1567.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

royal blood, yet it is apparent both from numerous noteworthy
narratives and from the testimony of Polidorus in his Life of
Henry, King of the English94 and first of that name, that nearly
all authority of government is dependent upon the consent of
Parliament as it is called. And certainly, if we wish to compare that
blessed tranquility which they have been enjoying for many years
now under the kindest and most peaceful reign of her most serene
Majesty Elizabeth with the wretched and unhappy condition of
so many other parts, we shall learn from experience as such how
beneficial and blessed that moderation of royal power is, if only it
be rightly employed and if the very kings, God-fearing men and
lovers of their people, allowed themselves, not to be swayed by
it as [if they were] wards [in need of guardians]—as flatterers at
court who stuff themselves with bread kneaded with the tears of
the {132} wretched commons are wont to say—but to be directed
and advised by it, yet with that respect and obedience which befits
their majesty and is due to it.
IX. Examples taken from Polish Institutions
Furthermore, if anyone yet found himself in doubt about the
people of Poland whether they, in electing a king upon certain
conditions, reserved for themselves the right to break their oath if
he did not abide by his promises, (such an one) shall have a clear
understanding of it from that last election, by which they chose
as their King Henry, the brother of the king of France. And in
that matter I am in entire agreement with Bishop Valentine,95 the
representative of his king in this election, who in an address to
the people of Poland which has been issued in print,96 particularly
commends them for having limited the authority of their kings by
the wisest laws and for having as it were confined it within bounds.
X. Examples taken from the Republic of Venice
Upon the same principle the Venetians, whose Republic,
judging from events, is, in the light of human wisdom, regarded
94. Polydore Vergile, Anglica Historia, book XI (Henricus primus).
95. John of Monluc, Bishop of Valentine during 1553, ambassador of the
Crown of France after the Diet of Poland in 1573.
96. Oratio... ad ordines... Poloniae... in electione novi Regis... 1573, d. 10 apr.,
Krakow [1573].

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


as the most happily and wisely constituted leader (Doge) not as
some idol or image—as certain writers too little versed in politics
have made bold to say—but as their leader and monarch that they
may derive from him all the advantages of monarchy without any
danger or tyranny.97 For assuredly just as the so-called General
Council has complete authority to elect the Doge, but with due
observance of the ceremonies which have been introduced and
have become customary with them for this purpose, in the same
way that very Council has reserved for itself that power without
which all else might easily come to naught, namely the power to
depose the Doge himself and to punish him if he should attempt
or have committed any act of tyranny, as has often been proved
by examples and in fact. Let therefore the remaining peoples of
Italy, who have been wont to speak and reason so nicely of human
affairs and who have also published numerous treatises of {133}
civil government,98 here consider whether they have all in this
matter conducted themselves as wisely as the citizens of Venice.
XI. Examples from the Spanish Kings
But what shall we remark about the Spaniards? The condition
of this kingdom was certainly for a long time greatly disturbed
and extremely unsettled, for numerous barbarous nations both
from the North and from Africa overflowed thither as it were in
a deluge, a fact testified to by most reliable historical accounts
and also by their very language. But it must readily be conceded
that that nation has always been shrewd and cautious beyond all
others. And though that remark of Aristotle is true that barbarians
are by nature slaves rather than subjects,99 yet the Spaniards have
thus far, whatever barbarism may have invaded their country, in
their method of establishing their polity given numerous peoples
occasion to blush and have deservedly put them to shame. To prove
97. For the debate over the role of the Doge in the Venetian government, see
William J. Bouwsma, Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty (University of
California Press, 1968), 62–63, and the case he cites.
98. An allusion to the Florentine historians, especially Machivelli and
Guichardin. It is curious to note that the latin edition of The Right of Magistrates,
with the Vindiciae contra tyrannos, was printed along with The Prince of
Machivelli. See Sturm, 21–23, for the list of those editions.
99. Aristotle, Politics, III, IX, 3100


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

this I shall quote two pieces of evidence which are remarkable
beyond all others and which deserve to be engraved in letters of
gold on public tables that kings might be taught from them to rule
justly and peoples in their turn to obey rightly.
The first of these is taken from the 74th chapter of the Fourth
Council of Toledo which was held in A.D. 1544 according to the
reckoning of Sigebert.100 The words of the Synod consisting of both
ecclesiastics and the other orders of the kingdom are as follows:
Let no one among us in presumption seize the royal power, let no
one stir up seditious risings of the citizens one against another, let
no one devise a rule of destruction but after the ruler has died in
peace, let the foremost men of the whole nation with the priests by
a common resolution of the kingdom appoint a successor to the
Kingship so that while the harmony of unity is held fast by us he
may attempt no disruption of the country and the people by means
of violence and bribery. But if this admonition does not reform our
spirits and in no way leads our hearts to the common welfare, hear
then our decision. Whosoever then of us, even from the peoples
of all Spain, shall by any conspiracy or support violate his oath of
allegiance, which he swore in defense of the constitution of his
country and the nation of the Goths or for the preservation of the
king’s safety, or shall have committed murder against the king or
have deprived him of his royal {134} power or shall with the highhandedness of a tyrant have usurped the supreme dignity of kingly
power, let him be accursed in the sight of God the Father and the
angels; and let him be made an outcast from the Catholic Church
which he has outraged by his perjury and a stranger to every
gathering of Christian men along with all the accomplices of his
impiety because it is fitting that one and the same penalty should
apply to the guilty who have been found associated in the same
error.... And this we repeat again a second time declaring: Whoever
shall from the manner etc. And therefore if it finds favor with all of
you who are here present, ratify by the unanimity of your utterance
the decision here for the third time repeated. By the entire clergy
or people it was declared: Those who shall presume against this our
definition, let them be anathema, maranatha, that is perdition in
the coming of the Lord, and may they have their portion with Judas
Iscariot, and their associates also. Amen.

100. Chron. D. Sigeberti, in M.G.H., Scriptores, VI, 324, 1 and 25.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


And therefore we ourselves and all priests admonish the Holy
Church of Christ and the people that this fearful and so often
repeated decision may condemn no one of us by a temporal and
eternal verdict, but that by keeping our promised word towards
our most glorious Lord, King Sisenandus,101 and by serving him
in sincere devotion, we may not only appeal to the mercy of God’s
fatherly love in our behalf, but may even deserve to gain the favor
of the ruler aforementioned. You also the present king and the
future rulers of subsequent ages we beseech with due humility that
you may prove moderate and gentle towards your subjects, may
rule with justice and goodness over the peoples entrusted to you by
God and by reigning in humility of heart with a zeal for doing good
may repay to Christ the giver the good interchange (of power) by
which He has appointed you over us. And let no one of you as sole
(judges) in a cause visit a captive or an accused with a sentence,
but let the fault of wrongdoers be manifest by the agreement of
the people with the leaders in accordance with a clear verdict. Let
clemency be observed by you in the case of crimes that you may
prevail in them not be severity rather than by indulgence, so that
while with the authority of God all these things are observed by
you with dutiful government, the kings may rejoice in their peoples
and the people in their kings and God in both. Indeed about
future kings we make known this verdict that if any one of them
shall without respect for the laws in arrogant despotism and royal
pride practice among the nations a most cruel tyranny in deeds of
shame and in crime or covetousness, let him be condemned with
a sentence of anathema by Christ the Lord and may he be divided
from God and receive judgment for that he presumed to do wrong
and to bring the kingdom to ruin. But concerning Simithilanis 102
who, fearing (the consequences of) his misdeeds, deprived himself
of royal power and {135} laid aside the scythes of sovereignty, we
have decided in consultation with the nation that for the evils
which they have committed we shall never associate either him
or his wife or their sons with our union, nor shall we at anytime
advance them to those offices of honor from which they have been
cast down for their iniquity.103
101. Sisenand, King of the Visigoths in Spain, 631–636.
102. Suintila, King from 621–631.
103. For the text of the decree, see Mansi, X, 638C–640D, can. 75 (and not
74). See the commentary of the Council, held in 633 (and not in 644), in HefeleLeclercq, Histoire des conciles (Paris, 1909), III/1:266–277.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

This is indeed a remarkable example: I shall add to it another
decree of the Sixth Synod of Toledo;104 in it the following words
are added after the expulsion of the Jews from the kingdom was
decided upon: “In vain is the good striven after unless provision
be made for perseverance therein.” “Therefore after he has duly
promised and has taken over the reins of government, if he
himself shall be revealed as the violator of this promise, let him be
anathema, maranatha in the sight of God eternal and may he be
made to feed the fire everlasting and may with him be destroyed
by a like condemnation whatever priest or whatever Christian
shall have been associated with his error.”105 From this it may easily
be inferred what authority the Estates of Spain possess against
their kings if they commit any breach of their oath, since in
accordance with feudal law (which is applicable also to kingdoms
and empires) the vassal owes no service to a lord who has been
excommunicated, and indeed is freed from his oath of allegiance
(as is stated in Book 2 of the Feudal Law tit. 28 par. 1).106
The second testimony which I promised to adduce is the striking
formula which the people of Aragon (unless it was altered quite
recently) even today not only employ in the investiture of their
kings but also repeat at those triennial gatherings at which the
king is wont to present himself before his estates both to dispense
justice to them and to receive justice at their hands. There, when
many ceremonies have been performed between the man who is
titled the “Justice of Aragon” (who represents the supreme power
and to whom the kings are compelled to bind themselves by oath)
and the king himself (whether he has [yet] to be, or has already
been, elected) the following formula is publicly proclaimed in so
many words,
MAS {136} QUE VOS”, that is: “We who are of like worth with
you and who are stronger than you, elect you king on such and
104. Chapter 5.
105. Mansi, X, 664B, can. 3, “De custodia fidei Judaeorum.” Cf. HefeleLeclercq, Histoire des conciles, III/ 1: 279.
106. Corpus Iuris Civilis, Consuetudines Feudorum, II, 28, 1. Cf. Francois
Hotman, De feudis commentatio tripertita (Lyon, 1573), 258–262.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


such conditions; between you and us (there is) One with greater
authority than you”.107

Behold how far the Spaniards have held their kings in honor as
they were in duty bound.
XII. Examples from the Holy (Roman) Empire
Why [add] any further [examples]? Everyone knows what the
authority of that most famous gathering of princes in the whole
world (that is of the empire of the seven electors) is in regards
to the election of an emperor as well as his discharge whenever
necessary, as was experienced by the emperors Adolphus in the
year 1296 and Wenceslaus in the year 1400.108 The oath by which
the kings or German emperors then bound themselves was such
as is described in the treatise entitled Speculum Saxonicum.109 For
when a king is elected, he is compelled by means of a public oath
to vouch for fidelity and hominium (or homage as the common
people call it) to the empire, and to promise that he will promote
the administration of justice by all in his power, furthermore that
he will ward off all kinds of injustice and in short that he will with
all zeal and exertion protect the rights of the empire.
XIII. Examples of the Kings of Gaul both before and after their
Union with the Franks
I now come to the Franks. Julius Caesar 110 is our witness that
with them before their arrival in Gaul the kings were responsible
to the Estates of the people; in recounting the words of Ambiorix,
the chieftain of the Eburones (or the people of Liege as their
modern name is) in some speech, he says that his authority is of
such a nature that the multitude (that is the lawfully assembled
multitude) possesses no less rights as against him than he as
against it.111 The same is proved from the words of Vercingetorix,
107. See Ralph E. Giesey, If Not, Not: the oath of theAragonese and the
legendary laws of Sobrarbe (Princeton University Press, 1968).
108. The emperor Adolphus was deposed in the year 1298, not 1296; the
emperor Wenceslaus in 1400.
109. Sachsenspiegel, Landrecht, book III, 54, 2.
110. Julius Caesar, De bello gallico, book V, 8.
111. Ibid., book V, 27: “ut non minus habaret iuris in se multitudo, quam ipse
in multitudinem.”


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

the king {137} of the Averni pleading his cause in a gathering of the
people as it is reproduced by the same Caesar.112
But afterwards the Gauls and the Franks united under the style
of the Francogalli. And although their kingdom has by striking
favor of God been continued and preserved for a very long time
[yet] at the present time at least, wherever the blame might
attach, it seems so to totter that its most certain and immediate
destruction has to be feared; and yet that can hardly happen
without a mighty revolution in the remaining parts of the world.
But the remarks which I now have to make on that score will, I
strongly suspect, be pleasing and acceptable to some, but to others
most disagreeable and ill-omened. Yet if I maintain nothing that is
not the truth, I hope that God will grant me His favor against all
Hence, although the Franco-Gauls elected their kings first from
the house of the Nerobingians, then from the descendants of
Charlemagne, and finally from the successors of Hugh Capet, yet I
maintain that from the beginning they established their monarchy
in such a way that their kings ruled, not by the sole right of
succession,113 but were elected at the same time by the agreement of
the Estates of the Kingdom. After being thus elected Pharamundus
was raised to the royal throne in the year of our Lord 419;114 so
(also) Pippin in the year 751 and his sons Charles and Carloman
in the year 768. And at length in 771 Charles upon the authority
of the Estates succeeded to his brother’s portion. Following this
authority he himself afterwards, that is in 812, appointed his son
Louis heir to the empire and in his will he expressly provided, as
Nauclerus who has recorded it testifies,115 that the people, that
is the Estates themselves, should elect as his successor to the
kingship whomsoever of his children they preferred and he also
112. Ibid., book VII, 4.
113. The mention of the right of succession is fureher developed in Chapter
VI of Francois Hotman’s, Francogallia. A useful analysis on this point can be
found in Ralph E. Giesey, “The Juristic Basis of Dynastic Right to the French
Throne”, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n.s., 51/5 (1961),
114. Aimoin De Fleuri, Hist. Francorum, book I, cap. 4 (Migne, Patrol. Lat.,
139, cap. (Mg. 640B).
115. Johannes Nauclerus, Chronica...res memorabliles, vol. II, generatio 28.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


charged his uncles who might survive him to agree to such an
election; this occurrence is indeed most remarkable and most fit
for the solution of this entire question.116 And such was the oath
of the Franco-Gallic kings upon the testimony of Aymoinus who
represents the said Charles the Bald as saying: “because, even as
those {138} venerable Bishops have by the voice of one of them
declared and by trustworthy sign indicated in accordance with our
unanimous decision, you [also] have [likewise] acclaimed that I
have the choice of God come [to] this [office] for your salvation
and profit and guidance and government, know ye that, the Lord
helping me to preserve them, it is my will, in accordance with
my knowledge and power, to honor and protect and to keep in
honorable protection the dignity and cult of God and the holy
churches and [so to protect] each of you in accordance with the
dignity of his rank and his person, and to keep safe for each in
his rank law and justice in accordance with both ecclesiastical and
temporal [rights] due to him. In this may royal honor and power
and due obedience and assistance for the preservation and defense
of the kingdom granted me by God be shown to me by each one of
you according to his rank and dignity and ability, and even as your
predecessors showed [these] to my predecessors, justly, faithfully
and reasonably.”117 This he [records] verbally.
Moreover, that those very Estates had the power of dismissing
the kings whom they had elected if they committed any wrong
is proved by countless examples. For his disgraceful crimes and
deeds of lust Childeric was by public resolution in 361 thrust
from the kingship and expelled and Gilo who was not of the
Nerovingian dynasty was placed in his stead. And Chilperic was
[dethroned] in 578 and Theodoric in 657. Nay more, in 890 the
Estates passed over Charles, the son of Louis the Stutterer, and
chose Eudes of Odones as king.118 We also read that Hugh Capet
deprived Charles, the brother of Lothar, of his kingdom since
Charles was conducting the matter in a too negligent and as it were
116. A precise and documented account can be found in Hotman,
Francogallia, chapter VI, 48 of the Geneva, 1573 ed.
117. Aimoin De Fleuri, Hut. Francorum, book V, cap. 21, 640 of the Paris,
1567 ed.
118. Again the text is detailed and documented in Hotman, Francogallia,
chapter VI, 54–58 of the Geneva, 1573 ed.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

dilatory fashion and was bringing it before the Council, obviously
hoping that the Estates of the Kingdom would according to the
established custom settle their quarrel.119 And in short, if the
Francogallic kingship was not bestowed by way of election, we
should have to say that neither Pippin nor Capet possessed any
right in it, since there was no lack of successors in the male line of
Nerovingian heirs when Pippin grasped the royal power, nor any
lack of heirs from the sons of Charlemagne when Capet claimed
the royal diadem for himself.
Furthermore, as regards the power of those same Estates by
which they either conferred the principal positions of dignity and
high office in the Kingdom and took them away or at least carefully
noted how the kings {139} behaved both in conferring or taking
them away and in exacting taxes or in the other principal tasks
of kingship in time of peace and war—for that power, I declare,
there is evidence and to spare in the most ancient and entirely
reliable records; these clearly prove the impudence of those
flatterers who today do not cease by means of right and wrong
to add to their power from the ruins of such a great kingdom so
wisely established. And indeed that in our times the man who is
the greatest in blood succeeds to the kingdom of France without
summoning the Estates and introduces a new shape of things to
suit the desire of those who have courted the favor and support
of such a successor; that the meeting of the people is no longer
convened at the appointed time, but only when that seems
expedient to certain individuals who therein strive after personal
advantages and safeguards from danger; that furthermore as often
as the Estates are summoned, this happens not so much to the end
that a serious decision concerning public affairs may be arrived
at, but for the sake of talking, that is in order that after the fashion
of the rhetoricians (or rather of the sophists) time and all action
may be made vain by means of tedious and affected arguments;
that those men there take their seats as judges against whom all
the accusation and complaints are chiefly directed, and finally,
that both wars and [questions of] peace or truce are decided
upon, taxes and tribute imposed, laws upon public and private
matters made and unmade, dignities and commands and likewise
119. Cf. Ibid., chapter XVI.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


all public offices bestowed upon chosen men or taken from them
according to the arbitrary will of a certain limited group of men
or women, noble or baseborn, honest or abandoned, who enjoy
greater authority or influence with the rulers of the state (since
through their ears and eyes alone the latter hear and see)—all
these circumstances, I declare, are completely at variance with
the just customs and policy of our ancestors and clearly in direct
opposition to the chief laws upon which the foundations of the
French monarchy rest.
But I now leave it to all lawyers who possess a good conscience
together with knowledge of the law to discuss the question whether
any prescription of however long a period of time can or should
in accordance with any law divine or human find application here.
For the fact that even to this day kings are anointed in solemn
ritual and swear their oath—would that its words were publicly
printed so that they might become known to all—and that they
are further wont, after they have secured the kingship, to confirm
their privileges to the communities severally and also their public
charges to the officials of the kingdom (albeit many abuses occur
here which are in no wise to be commended), and lastly the fact
that if the kings are minors the orders and Estates of the kingdom
decide by common resolution to {140} whom its administration
shall be entrusted, all these I say are the present survivals of that
erstwhile authority which the Estates enjoyed and which is now
gradually disappearing. Yet two centuries have not passed since
the will of Charles V, nicknamed the Wise, was annulled by the
Estates themselves, that is in 1380.120 What more? When in 1567
Louis XI, who tried his utmost to transform the French monarchy
into a tyranny (a procedure which the parasites of the palace call
the emancipation of the sovereign of his release from slavery), was
deservedly accused of the worst misgovernment of the kingdom,
thirty (or thirty-six) men were given to him as guardians by the
Estate gathered at Tours that he might allow himself to be directed
and guided by them.121 It is true indeed that he afterwards easily
120. Here Beza is reciting the many details and documentation found in
Hotman, Francogallia, chapter XVII, 137.38 of the Geneva, 1573 ed.
121. For Louis XI and the Estates General of 1468 (not 1467), see the study
by J. Russell Major, Representative Institutions in Renaissance France, 1421–1559.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

rid himself of them since, under pretext of the idol of Clery 122
which he worshipped with the greatest superstition, all his oaths
and promises were but sport and jest to him; yet [he did this] with
so much harm to himself and such an unhappy result that apart
from the disgrace with which he is branded even today, he could
enjoy no rest or peace during his lifetime and even at death’s door
experienced what it meant to be feared rather than loved by his
And since mention has been made of the violation of an oath,
we would add another most remarkable example. While Charles
VII was yet Dauphin, he had John, the last Duke of Burgundy
descended from the royal stock of France, miserably slain in his
presence in violation of his word of honor and the peace and
friendship but recently confirmed by oath near Melun.123 Although
that Duke fully deserved such a great ordeal, this perjury was
in the end expiated by many thousands of souls in France and
with the ruin of almost the entire kingdom. And King Charles
himself was reduced to such misery, that he was first disinherited
by his father, afterwards saw his deadly enemy invested with the
royal power in Paris and was subsequently himself styled King
of Aquitaine rather than of France. At length however he was
constrained with great dishonor to himself to purchase peace as
appears from the treaty drawn up at Arras. Although the king
himself negotiated with Duke Philip, the son of the murdered
John, {141} as with his subject, yet in that treaty this express clause
is contained, “to which,” it says, “the king himself shall agree
and which he shall approve by his letter of authority. But if this
agreement shall happen to be violated by him, his clients, vassals
and subject, present and future, shall thereafter not be bound
either to obey or to serve him, but shall show every obedience
against him to the Duke of Burgundy rather and his successors; in
short all those very clients, beneficiaries and subjects shall in this
case be regarded as free, disengaged and entirely released from
(University of Wisconsin Press, 1960), chapter III. Cf. Hotman, Francogallia,
Chapter XVIII (140–140 of the Geneva 1573 ed.).
122. Allusion to Notre Dame of Clery, which was the favorite chapel of Louis
XI. See Pierre Champion, Louis XI (Paris, 1927), II, 211–213.
123. The peace was concluded in Pouilli, close to Melun, July 11, 1419.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


every engagement, oath and allegiance and from their promises,
obligations and whatever duties by which they previously were
bound to King Charles, so that in the sequel none of these may be
counted to their detriment or burden or may any [compensation
for] remissness be exacted from them. Nay more, let King Charles
very soon bid them do this very thing and let him declare them
freed and disengaged from all their oaths and obligations if any
such thing should happen.”124 This to be sure was the end of a
breach of royal faith committed with evil design. But because
these covenants were faithfully kept in after time, the greatest
peace and calm befell the kingdom. Further if it seemed fair then
that his clause should be inserted into this fortuitous promise
which strictly speaking did not bear upon the administration of
the kingdom, shall then that promise or condition be deemed less
fair or lawful which the people stipulates from the king either at
his election or at his investiture since it is supported both by the
greatest fairness and by common reasonableness, namely that the
king shall direct his entire administration in accordance with the
provisions of the laws, of which he himself is or should be the
supreme guardian and defender?
Epilogue and Conclusion about the Authority of the Estates
The purpose therefore of all that has been said above is as
follows, namely that the highest authority rests with kings or other
supreme rulers with this proviso that if they violate the noblest
laws and sworn conditions and degenerate into unabashed tyranny
nor give heed to sound counsels, it shall be lawful and permitted
to the subordinate magistrates to take precautions for themselves
and for those over whom they exercise guardianship, and to offer
resistance to the tyrant of the people. But the Estates or Orders of
the realm upon whom this authority has been conferred by the
laws, can and must so far oppose the tyrant and even, if need be,
inflict just and deserved punishment upon him until matters have
been restored to their former {142} condition. And if they do so,
so far from deriving to be regarded as guilty of sedition of high
treason, they should on the contrary only then be deemed to have
124. Article 29 of the Treaty of Arras, September 21, 1435. Cf. Isambert, et al.,
Recueil general des anciennes lois francaises, VIII, 826–827.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

carried out conscientiously their duty and their oath by which they
were bound towards God and their country. And though by means
of the clearest examples of kingdoms and empires both ancient
and modern we have already above demonstrated the practice in
these matters, yet to answer the objection that (the matter) should
be judged by legal arguments rather than by examples, I shall add
as many other grounds as possible to lend greater support to our
point of view.
Argument from natural law and equity
For to begin with I maintain that there are two propositions
which justice as such or that law of nature upon which alone the
maintenance of all human society depends, does not allow to be
called in question; the first of these is that in all compacts and
covenants which are contracted by mutual and sole agreement
between the parties, those by whom the obligations were entered
into, can of themselves cancel and annul it, whenever reason so
demands. Accordingly those who possess authority to elect a king,
will also have the right to dethrone him. The second [proposition]
is that if there is any just occasion for the annulment of a compact
or covenant by reason of which the obligation would of itself
disappear and be held as naught, it never arises but when the
essential conditions, for which particularly the obligation was
entered upon, are manifestly violated.
Therefore let those who so far exalt the authority of kings and
supreme rulers as to dare maintain that they have no other Judge
but God alone to whom they are held bound to render account of
their deeds, furnish proof that there has been any nation anywhere
which has consciously and without intimidation or compulsion of
some kind subjected itself to the arbitrary rule of some supreme
ruler without the express or tacit addition of the proviso that it be
justly and fairly ruled and guided by him.
But if someone were to furnish an example of peoples who
upon being defeated in war surrendered at discretion and swore
to the conditions dictated by the victors, it would not be enough
for me to answer with the lawyers that [undertakings] extorted by
violence or intimidation which is the rule of consciences does not

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


easily permit oaths of that kind to be heedlessly violated).125 But
I shall further add that even if any people has {143} consciously
and of its free will granted assent to an undertaking which is
as such evidently sinful and opposed to the law of nature, such
obligation is null and void; so little ground is there for reasonable
doubt whether that obligation which was contracted as a result
of violence or intimidation or of open deceit and malpractice
should be regarded as valid and binding. For this general rule of
law and justice sustained by the common principles of nature,
which still linger in man after the Fall however corrupt [he may
be] is so firmly established and so lasting, that nothing which is
openly opposed and repugnant to them should be regarded as
just and valid between men. This moreover must be understood
about matters utterly unjust and manifestly sinful which everyone
not entirely destitute of human insight realizes cannot be exacted
or performed by anyone with a good conscience. Such was the
compact which as the story goes came about in the earliest times
between Minos, King of the island of Crete, and the Athenians,
namely that they should deliver to him every year seven youths and
seven maidens that they might be devoured by the Minotaur,126 as
the tales record it, or that they might serve his lust and tyranny, as
seems more credible.
Of that kind was the condition offered by the Ammonites127 to
the inhabitants of Jabesh, namely that they would spare them and
receive them into their custody, provided only they each put out an
eye. Yet more intolerable was the condition offered to the citizens
of Jerusalem by the detestable tyrant Antiochus128 and accepted
by the majority of them, namely that they should abjure the true
faith for the sake of saving their lives. But if a condition offered by
the victor and accepted by the vanquished is merely burdensome
and distressing and comprises disadvantages of this [physical]
life alone, in that case I grant that regard should be had to the
125. Ulpien in Corpus Iuris Civilis, Digeste, 4, 2, 1: “Ait praetor, ‘Quod metus
causa gestum erit, ratum non habebo.’ ohm ita edicebatur ‘quod vi metusve
126. see, inter alia, Plutarch, Thesus, 15, 1.
127. 1 Sam. 11:2.
128. 1 Maccabees 1:43–55.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

oath rather than to any advantages or disadvantages. Therefore
God most sternly rebuked and punished Zedekiah129 the last king
from the house of David, because he had revolted from the king
of the Chaldaeans in violation of his sworn oath. Assuredly the
inhabitants of Gibeon, though they were reduced to the most
distressing slavery by Joshua, yet nowhere complain about him.130
But particularly when it concerns religion the greatest care should
be exercised that no one covet permission to abandon heedlessly
the promises which he has made under {144} oath to God. And
yet in this matter too a limit of the following kind will have to
be observed namely that just as in religion no one ought lightly
to change anything, even so (since we cannot be misled therein
without the gravest loss) no one may obstinately enforce those
promises of which it is clear that they were wickedly and unlawfully
made to God under the pretext of religion. And because this has
not till now been sufficiently carefully noted, many serious and
dangerous revolutions have occurred in the world.
But let us grant that there was some nation which either from
lack of foresight or as a result of blandishments or lastly because
it once chanced upon a good ruler from a certain family and with
excessive credulity assumed that all his descendants also would be
like him always, submitted itself without any express condition to
some [ruler]; shall we on that account declare that all things that
he may wish will be permissible to that ruler? Will not rather those
things which by their nature are just and lawful have to be regarded
as if they had been expressed? For what shall otherwise be the end
of the matter? Or of what kind shall the life of men finally be, if
a ruler of this description wantonly proceeds to such a pitch of
license that he savagely slays the parents of his subjects, ravishes
their wives and daughters, pillages their houses and possessions
and finally murders them individually as the fancy takes him;
because the people reposing their trust in his worth have from the
outset admitted him as their ruler without any conditions?
Arguments from Analogy
Furthermore it would be most unfair to refuse to an entire
129. Ez. 17:16.
130. Jos. 9:22–27.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


nation and people that which justice itself freely grants to private
persons, such as minors, women, people of an unsound mind
and those who complain that they have been defrauded beyond
half the fair value (laesio enormis) particularly if there be proof
of the bad faith of those towards whom such persons have bound
themselves.131 But can anyone be found of worse faith than that
tyrant who is so shameless that he wishes people to believe that
he may do everything, lawful and unlawful, because he either
so covenanted with the people or received such power from his
ancestors? Meanwhile I for my part admit, as has been abundantly
shown above, that in that case the authority of the Estates or
Orders should be invoked and interposed that private citizens may
not be free to undertake and attempt {145} anything against the
public order and that subordinate magistrates may not go beyond
the limits of their calling.
But I put the further question whether the obligation of subjects
towards their kings is greater than that of children towards parents,
of slaves towards their master or of freedmen towards their patron
who set them free. Let us listen particularly what Cicero, guided
by justice and reason, writes concerning the duty of a (dependent)
son whose father strives by violence to seize control of his country:
“If a father,” he says “by open violence attempts to grasp tyrannical
power or to betray his country, shall a son remain silent? No, not at
all; but he shall as suppliant beseech his father not to do so; but if
by his entreaties he does not avail at all, he shall reproach him and
frighten him with threats; but if the matter has already gone so far
that there is reason to apprehend that this country may at length
be overwhelmed, he shall set greater store by the preservation of
his country than by the life of his father.”132 Listen what was the
opinion of that man, not merely in agreement with reason but also
carrying the greatest authority.
As regards servants or slaves, there was a proviso in Roman
law that a slave whom his master did not tend in illness should

131. See Corpus Iuris Civilis, Codex, 4, 44, 2 and 8.
132. Cicero, De officiis, III, 90: “‘Quid? si tyrannidem occupare, si patriam
prodere conabitur pater, silebitne filius?’ ‘Immo vero obsecrabit patrem, ne id
faciae. Si nihil proficiet, accusabit, minabitur etiam, ad extremum, si ad perniciem
patriae res spectabit, patriae salutem anteponet saluti patris.’ ”


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

be regarded as free.133 And what is even more important, a slave
is by a provision of the written law free to accuse his master of
high treason.134 But who is more liable to this accusation than the
tyrant who openly subverts all rights divine as well as human? But,
you will rejoin, before whom shall he be accused? I answer, either
before those who since they possessed the authority to elect him,
also possess the authority to judge him, or before those who are
the chief defenders of the supreme power and from whom there
is no appeal.
Thus although freedmen owe every respect to their patrons, so
much so that in ordinary law they can institute only civil actions
against them, yet for special reasons, that is if they have suffered
some terrible injustice at the hands of their patron or have caught
him in adultery with their wives, they can in virtue of the civil
law lay a capital charge against him.135 My purpose with these
arguments is not to tighten the conscience [of men] by means of
{146} the civil laws or the pronouncements of philosophers as if
by most reliable rules, but only to show as clearly as may be how
unjust is the opinion of those who would leave men no means at all
by which they may avail to break the onset of imminent or openly
aggressive tyranny, however cruel and unjust the matter might be.
Various Objections Answered
a) Assuredly the usual objection that the king is not bound by the
laws cannot and should not be accepted as a general proposition as
the flatterers of kings and destroyers of kingdoms inauspiciously
proclaim;136 for not to mention the example of so many, nay nearly
all, nations which were adduced above, what is the purpose of so
many weighty maxims of the jurists of old, derived from the law
of nature? Such maxims are: the legislators are beholden to the
laws; that each must observe the same right which he has decreed
against another; that nothing is more profitable to imperial power
than that the king should act according to the laws; and that it
133. Corpus l’unis Civilis, Codex, VII, 6, 3; Digeste, 40, 8, 2.
134. Ibid., Digeste, 48, 4, 7.
135. Ibid., 48, 5, 39: “...Liberto paeroni famam lacesser non facile conceditur:
sed si jure mariti velit adulterii accucare, permittendum est, quomodo si atrocem
injuriam passus esset....”
136. Ibid Digeste, I, 3, 31: “Princeps legibus solutus est.”

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


is a fitting saying that the ruler professes himself the subject of
the laws.137 Hence the proposition which would appear to be
made elsewhere by the jurists that the ruler is above the laws or
that the ruler is legibus solutus (not bound by the laws), must be
understood only of the civil laws and about the individual right of
the private citizens e.g. about wills, or about the deduction of the
Trebellianic 138 or Falcidian fourth,139 but not of public law and the
so-called constitutional law; much less of natural or divine law, for
since men collectively and individually are subjected to it in so far
as they are born men, it clearly follows that either kings are not
men or that they are bound by this law.
b) If again someone were to raise the objection that public law
referring to the constitution of the people or nation (for that is
the kind we are discussing) differs widely from the law of nature
common to all nations, I shall concede that this is true indeed in
certain matters, but with this limitation that the entire distinction
is connected with circumstances which cannot prevent general
fairness and equity from so far remaining steadfast and invariable
that every polity acting in violation of it—as for example if
undisguised impieties, robberies and similar crimes both against
{147} God and against the law of nations and good morals were to
meet with approval—should be utterly condemned and cast off.
c) The further exception might be raised that the supreme
ruler does indeed stand arraigned if he rules contrary to his
undertaking, but that he has no other judge but God himself, and
this might be proved by the example of David, for though he was
an adulterer and a wicked slayer of men, yet he was judged by no
mortal man. But I answer first that it is apparent from what has
been said above that the nations themselves and the Estates of the
people generally reserved for themselves the right to curb their
rulers and that no antiquity or prescription can be urged against
this right; further that there is a great difference between him who
has on one occasion or even repeatedly committed some crime
and the man who openly professes himself abandoned to every
kind of crime, as also between the ruler of a dissolute way of
137. Ibid., Codex, I, 14, 4, the lex digna.
138. Ibid., Digeste, 36, 1.
139. Ibid., Digeste, 35, 2.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

life and the other who subverts every just method of rule in his
kingdom; for I should not be inclined to think that the supreme
ruler ought to be corrected in the same way as his subjects for
private delicts which are personal in the strict sense of the word,
but yet [I do think] that he can become so abandoned that he can
and should deservedly be visited with penalties and punishments.
How much more fair would it therefore be when the order of the
state is at stake that those upon whom this duty rests should be
free to take precautions and to strive lest the commonwealth suffer
any harm? And if they neglect to do so, let them be regarded as
traitors towards God and their country, to [both of] whom they
have bound themselves by oath. When these distinctions are duly
weighed and brought into relation with the general character of
David as also with the public amends by which he did penance
for his public crimes, no one will be surprised that nothing more
severe was decreed or attempted against him. Moreover it is
in principle an illogical conclusion of the argument to craw the
inference that no punishment should have been inflicted for some
wrong because none in fact was inflicted.
d) But perhaps there will not be wanting those who will furnish
the [example of] the authority of the Turkish emperor over his
subjects. I should wish these to have their answer in a single word:
an empire of that description does not deserve to be called either
kingly or human, but wholly barbarous, tyrannical, uncivilized
and detestable, especially because whereas the other monarchies
and empires, to however many faults they may have been subject,
were still instruments suitable for the preservation of human
society, it is obvious that on the contrary this Turkish tyranny is
an awful scourge of God by means of which God in accordance
with his just judgment threatens this world with its final ruin and
overthrow. {148} Therefore, if there are men to be found today who
are counselors to kings so that these may fashion an example and
an image of their rule from that source, I proclaim with a clear and
loud voice that those Turks should be deemed the public enemies
of humankind and should be cast out in banishment.
e) But to pursue the analogies concerning the right of one
private citizen towards another upon which I set out above: will
any obligation which is more stricti iuris than that of marriage arise

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


between human beings?140 For in it God Himself intervenes as if
He were the chief guarantor of this contract, and by it those who
were two become one flesh. But even in marriage also, if one party
deserts the other, the Apostle proclaims the deserted party relieved
of every obligation,141 because the deserter violates the principal
condition of marriage. But let us imagine that someone declares
himself willing to keep his wife with him and that he attempts to
do so, yet if it becomes known that this man desires to have his wife
in order to kill her or to remove her in some other way, will he not
have to be regarded in the light of a manifest deserter [of his wife]?
But assuredly the design of tyrants does not differ from this since
they do not strive to have subjects in their power for any other
reason but to persecute and crush them to their destruction while
they indulge their own lusts; why therefore should the wielders of
judicial authority not pronounce the same judgment over both?
But if not even the canons of the Church consider that a wife who
cannot safely live with her husband, should be compelled to live
with him,142 why shall a subordinate magistrate not be allowed to
take precautions on behalf of himself and his people and to have
recourse to the Estates against a manifest tyrant?
f) Furthermore, since kingdoms and empires themselves are
deemed to be feudal authority, owing fealty or subordination or
even servitude to the supreme power of man, let us inquire what
the nature of the feudal law is. From Book 2 tit. 26 parag. Domino
and tit. 47 then it appears that the lord can commit the crime of
treachery against the vassal or client no less than the vassal against
the lord; in that case the feudal estate of the lord does not indeed
devolve upon the vassal, but reverts to the immediate lord of the
estate from whom in the first instance it derives, or to the agnatic
descendants of the lord. Yet this remains fixed and certain that the
lord {149} upon being convicted of treachery forfeits every right
he might have against the vassal. And the reason for this is to be
found in that the lord is in duty bound in all respects to requite a
140. Matt. 19:5.
141. 1 Cor. 7:15.
142. Corpus Iuris Canonici, Decretal., Greg. IX, IV, tit. 19 (“De Divortiis”),
cap. 1: “Homicidium necessarium non spe conjugit, sed machinatio in mortem
conjugis sic.”


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

faithful vassal, otherwise he is deservedly deemed an evildoer, as it
is stated in tit. 6 de forma fidelitatis, ad fin.143
In the question under discussion I therefore declare that a king
or even an emperor, whose rule is dependent upon the supreme
power, if he is guilty of that crime of treachery towards his vassals,
that is his subjects—would that it never happened!—forfeits his
feudal estate, in the sense not that it is judicially awarded to his
vassals, but that those who recover that supreme power may dispose
of it. But that the strength of this argument may be recognized
it should be noted that such mediate (or as they are commonly
called, subaltern) lords swear no oath to their vassals then they
make their grant to them, so that the rule which we mentioned as
applying to those who commit treachery, is supported by no other
consideration but that of natural justice, and although it has not
been expressed yet it must always of itself be understood. What
therefore, that the comparison may proceed from the lesser to the
greater, will have to be decided about him who has committed that
crime against his subjects towards whom he has bound himself by
express oath? Furthermore, even if we were to concede the point
that the lord can never incur the charge of treachery against his
vassal so as to forfeit his feudal right, yet no one doubts but what
the vassal, if guilty of this crime against his lord, is deservedly
deprived of his right. Therefore, since the emperor himself, as
has been pointed out above, owes obedience (or homage as the
people say) to the imperial power as being himself its first and
most exalted subject—and a fortiori or at least with equal reason
kings in their kingdoms must be regarded as being in the same
position—who would doubt but what emperors or kings forfeit
their feudal power if they recklessly go to such lengths of treachery
as to degenerate into undisguised and regrettable tyranny? For we
have proved that that was everywhere approved of.
g) Lastly, since it has upon reliable grounds and as the result
of countless examples long since been the firm conviction of
all men of sober judgment, even of those who call themselves
Roman Catholics, that the Ecumenical or General Council is the
superior of the Pope and possesses authority to depose him, for
143. Corpus Iuris Civilis, Consueudines feudorum, 2, 26, art. 24. Cf. Hotman,
De Jeudis commentatio tripertita (Lyon, 1573), 246 and 300.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


the crime of heresy at all events, it assuredly follows either that
kings possess greater authority than pontiffs and that the crime
of heresy is of less consequence than that of tyranny, or that the
people {150} possess as much power at all events against kings who
have become tyrants as the Council possesses against an heretical
This then is our opinion about this inquiry into the problem as
to the right possessed by subjects, whatever their rank, against the
supreme ruler who has become an undisguised tyrant.

Question 7. What must be done when the Orders or Estates
cannot be summoned to impede or to check tyranny?
Yet there still remains a considerable difficulty in this discussion.
The question is what should be done when tyranny has attained
to such influence that the meeting of the Estates, (which we have
declared to be the lawful remedy against such tyranny) is in a word
so hampered by connivance, or intimidation or malice on the part
of the majority that it can in not way be assembled. I answer that
private citizens, unless they have authority from a subordinate
magistrate or the saner part of the Estates, concerning which more
is discussed shortly, here have no other just remedy but reflection
combined with patience and prayers which God will assuredly
not always reject and without which all other remedies however
legitimate will be subject to His curse. But there is no reason why
subjects in private station should not betake themselves to the
intermediate magistrates and take them to task concerning their
duty; and if all of them or the saner part of them are prepared to
make use of such help from private citizens, I have above shown
sufficiently what they are bound to render to God and their
It is assuredly the duty of the subordinate magistrates at once
unanimously to insist on an assembly of the Estates and meanwhile
as far as they can and may to defend and protect themselves
against undisguised tyranny; lastly, this duty rests upon the several
Estates also earnestly to secure a lawful and general assembly of all
the Estates, that the wicked may not check and obstruct the good,
nor the slothful the diligent, nor the vulgar herd the more sober
section. Nay more, in a crisis of that description all private citizens


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

are under an obligation to attach themselves to their subordinate
magistrates and perform the duty of subjects, and if the occasion
demands it, the saner section upon being oppressed will even have
the right to procure support from abroad especially from the allies
and friends of the kingdom.
In support of this opinion I shall quote some excellent examples.
a) Behold144 two whole tribes, those of Reuben and Gad and

half the tribe of Manasseh, when suspected of having fallen into
idolatry, were attacked with armed force by all the remaining tribes.
And yet no tribe had any right and authority against another since
all twelve constituted but one collective whole. Hence it appears
that the better part can reprove the other without awaiting the
unanimous agreement of all if all cannot simultaneously assemble.
b) The same may also145 be seen in the war most justly
undertaken by the eleven tribes against the tribe of Benjamin
when the latter defended a horrible crime committed in Gibeah.
What then if those two tribes with half the tribe of Manasseh or
if the tribe of Benjamin itself had tried to seize tyrannical power
against their brethren and kinsmen?
c) So the Romans too invoked the help of Constantine against
Maxentius when he ruled over the Empire of the West and
undisguisedly acted the most cruel tyrant. And this war was
waged not only with the favor of God who heard their prayers, but
it also receives testimony of approval from all the historians.146 Yet
Constantine did not wield supreme power over Maxentius since
the latter possessed the highest imperial authority in the East no
less than the other in the West.
d) But what right or by what title did Charlemagne obtain
the empire of the West? By what right but that as a result of the
cowardice of the emperors of the East who were taking cover in
Greece, he was summoned against the tyranny of the Lombards by
144. Jos. 22:10–12.
145. Jud. 20.
146. Eusebius, Hist. eccl., book IX, cap. 9, d; Socrates in Hist. eccl. trip., book
I, cap. 4.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


the more powerful part of Italy and particularly by the patricians
of Rome who had not yet then, nor for many years afterwards
even, passed into the power of the Pontiffs?
I therefore consider that my point of view has so far been
abundantly established and proved provided only that the
following three axioms steadily be kept in view in all these
definitions, namely:
1) That the tyranny must be undisguised and notorious;
2) That the recourse should not be had to arms before all other
remedies have been tried;
3) Nor yet before the question has been thoroughly examined, not
only as to what is permissible, but also as to what is expedient, lest
the remedies prove more hazardous than the very disease. {152}

Answers to certain objections
It remains for me, I think, by way of conclusion to this treatise,
to answer the chief arguments which are commonly adduced to
support the contrary point of view, except those upon which we
have already touched incidentally and as occasion arose.
a) Now the following argument especially is commonly
bandied about, namely that it is the characteristic of magistrates,
particularly supreme magistrates, to issue commands and to
exercise authority. I myself also agree with that, but I add [the
proviso] that this power is limited by laws both divine and human.
b) They add further: if kings degenerate into tyrants, nobody
ought indeed to be or to become the servant of their unjust
commands, but it is the part of subjects to suffer and patiently
to endure the vagaries of the supreme ruler, not be means of any
violence to offer resistance to them. I should not be inclined readily
to concede that point without applying the above distinctions. The
gist of these is that, unless they can defend themselves upon the
authority of some lawful subordinate magistrate or of the Estates
of that nation, private persons must assuredly either go away until
such time as a better light shall shine upon them, or bow their
necks to the yoke while urgently asking God in constant prayer
for patience and meantime proceeding under His chastisements.
But it is the part of the subordinate magistrates (to protect against


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

all) strenuously the good laws to whose defense they personally
have sworn, each in accordance with the station he has obtained
in the constitution of the community, and in general all should
strive to prevent the laws and conditions upon which that
constitution rests, from being undermined by any violence from
without or from within. Finally, emperors, kings or other supreme
rulers acquire the highest authority on the understanding that, if
it should meanwhile become notorious that they rather plunder
the territory of which they have undertaken the government, that
cunningly and without self-control they set themselves against law
and reason and wantonly break their sworn promises, they can
and should be forced, compelled and brought to their duty even by
armed force, if it cannot be otherwise, by those who upon special
conditions have raised them to this high office.
c) Further they seek support in the example of David, for
though the succession to the kingship had been promised to him
and held the office of chief commander in war, yet while147 he was
being tyrannically attacked {153} by Saul, he gave proof that the
Lord’s anointed bore so much authority with him, that when he
had caught him he refused to do him any harm or to have him
hurt by others, but immediately ordered148 the man to be executed
who boasted of his death at his hand, and finally both alive and
dead signally honored him, though a most unjust tyrant. All this
I recognize and I even readily grant that the faithfulness, patience
and goodness of David were incomparable and most commendable
qualities which it would be seemly for all Christians to imitate
as far as they may and to set before themselves as a pattern of
conduct; I even add that all without distinction whether superiors,
equals or men of lower station must requite evil with good. But
at the same time I deny that the patience and gentleness which
we require in Christians prevent a man from employing lawful
remedies to repel an injury which is being done to him.
It is certainly permissible to claim one’s property from an unjust
possessor in court, and to lodge complaints with the supreme
magistrate concerning the injustice of an inferior; why therefore
by the same reasoning should it not be permissible to go to laws
147. 1 Sam. 24:5–7; 26:9.
148. 2 Sam. 1:1–16.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


against a tyrant before the Estates? But if as a result of tyranny
there is no way leading to justice, the example of David, so far
from tending to refute our arguments, clearly even supports us.
For David did not yield to the madness of Saul without meanwhile
gathering about him not inconsiderable military forces; and he
would doubtless have employed them more freely to defend his
own life and those of his followers, if he had been reduced by God
to such dire necessity that he would not have been able to ward
off the violence offered him without joining battle. That he spared
the tyrant’s life when he had fallen into his power, was certainly
a just and dutiful act, for Saul still occupied the royal throne and
neither David nor anyone else had the right to deprive him of
his royal power or his life, but (that was the part) of God alone
or of the Estates, as has been pointed out above. But it is a very
different thing on the one hand to defend oneself against a tyrant
either in court or by force of arms and on the other avowedly to
engage in some conspiracy against the life of the tyrant or against
his authority.
d) Subsequently they declare that Zedekiah,149 the King of Judah,
was severely rebuked and punished because he had in violation
of his oath revolted from the King of the Chaldeans, and yet this
king was not 150 the lawful Lord of Judah but the most unabashed
usurper of the authority of {154} another. How then shall greater
license be allowed to subjects against a lawful king who has turned
tyrant? I answer that Zedekiah at the express command of God
and even by swearing an oath had subjected himself with his
people to the King of the Chaldeans who had offered him every
occasion to pay tribute. And these circumstances entirely convict
Zedekiah and the men of his nation both of revolt and of perjury.
Next I also admit that subjects are not free to break their oath, nor
do I approve of the sentiment expressed in the trite maxim, “Let
faith be broken with the breaker of faith,”151 for I, on the contrary,
hold that it is never permissible to break an oath justly sworn; but
149. 2 Chron. 36:13.
150. Ezek. 17:12–14, 41.
151. “Frangenti fidem, fides fangatur eideur.” See Hans Walther, ed., Carmina
Medii Aevi Posteriores Latina (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2 vol. in 6
tomes, 1959–1967), II/2, 182, for a list of authors who employ the proverb, both
ancient and medieval.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

I deny that an oath is broken or violated by subjects towards a
tyrant whenever individuals among them, confining themselves to
the limits each of his own vocation, attempt to check the course of
tyranny. For there is the general rule that an agreement concluded
subject to a condition either express or tacitly implied is canceled
by the party who acts in violation of the condition, but not by that
party, who since he had been bound only subject to the condition,
has been freed from his obligation, not by his own act (for [then]
he would be a perjurer) but by the act of that party himself who
first broke the tie of the obligation, that is, the condition added to
it. When therefore the supreme ruler has become a tyrant, he must
be deemed by his own perjury to have freed the people from their
oath, and not to the contrary, when the people justly assert their
rights against him.
e) Furthermore they use as a pretext the command of God
who expressly bids the Israelites 152 to utter prayers for the peace
and happy reign of Nebuchadnezzar, a most cruel tyrant: much
less [therefore] were the Jews allowed to steal away from his rule
and from obedience to him. This too I admit, but I answer, in the
first place, that the Jews were not merely subjects and in a private
station, but that the majority were slaves under the rule of the
Chaldeans. Now we have laid down above [the principle] that
citizens of private rank are not free to rise against their rulers or to
set themselves against them in open violence; much less are slaves
[free to rise] against their masters however harsh or unjust, since
the latter hold their bodies and their goods in their power. This
precept [of God] therefore in no way detracts from the principles
which were laid down by us above. Furthermore I repeat once
again that the Jews—and this should be most {155} carefully
noted in this entire account—had passed into the power of the
Chaldeans during the captivity, they could not even before have set
themselves against them with a good conscience or have defended
the city of Jerusalem against their attack since God had expressly
bidden them by the mouth of Jeremiah 153 to surrender their city
into the hands of the Chaldeans and to subject themselves to them
152. Jer. 29:7.
153. Jer. 38:17–18.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


f) Here some people also vainly rejoin that this same will of
God finds no application in every [case of] tyranny, since no
tyranny obtains either without or in spite of the will of God.
[Vainly, I say], for I could turn this very argument against the
tyrants: for it is no less dependent upon the will of God that the
tyrants are expelled by their subjects and fellow countrymen, as
has happened to many, than that tyrants frequently oppress their
peoples. But the following will be a truer reply, that is, if we say
that the will of God must be heeded to the extent that He Himself
has deigned to reveal it to us; otherwise there would be no crime
so heinous but what it could be imputed to the Divine will, since
not even those events which are regarded as in the highest degree
fortuitous occur by chance or accidentally. Hence it comes about
that the man who meets with highway robbers, by whom no one
is murdered without the consent of the will of God, has the power
in accordance with the authority of the laws to resist them in just
self-defense which incurs no blame because no one forsooth has
[received] a special command from God that he meekly allow
himself to be slain by robbers. Our conviction is entirely the same
about that regular defense against tyrants which we are discussing.
Yet this then at length ceases to find application when clear proof
emerges of the contrary will of God, as happened in the case of
that deed of Zedekiah about which we spoke but recently, and
before that also in the case of his predecessor Rehoboam;154 for he
would otherwise justly have attacked the other ten tribes revolting
from him had not God expressly forbidden this to be done. But
on the other hand Mattathias155 and his children are celebrated
as deserving of the highest praise because they so courageously
resisted the most cruel tyrant Antiochus when God did not by any
decree forbid it, although without His just judgment Antiochus
would not have attacked the people of God and even have been
acceptable to many and found favor with them. {156}
g) The further objection is raised that the revolt of the Israelites
from Rehoboam, even though he was an unjust oppressor,
deserves the strongest condemnation. I myself too answer that the
Israelites did double wrong by him. [They did so] firstly because
154. 2 Chron. 11:4.
155. 1 Maccabees 1 & 2.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

with summoning the Estates of the people of Israel with the
purpose of compelling Rehoboam to his duty either willingly or
unwillingly, they elected156 a new king and thereby rent asunder
that kingdom which God desired to be one; and secondly, because
in [their choice] they went beyond the House of David which they
knew had been set aside by God Himself for the kingship. But
these circumstances do not in the least invalidate our proposition.
Nor will it avail at all to use as argument the calling of Jeroboam
made known to him by the prophet Ahijah, since the entire
account clearly proves that the people had no regard to it when
they revolted from the House of David and slew Adoram who was
over the levy,158 but that the road which they took was manifest
revolt whereas they could and should rather have opposed tyranny
with the lawful and just use of arms. Thus often something is done
unjustly which yet nothing prevents from being just in itself.
h) Furthermore [our opponents] urge that it is an argument in
their favor that Saints Peterd159 and Paul 160 bid prayers to be openly
said for kings and other rulers who yet in their own times were
not merely heathen but the most cruel tyrants too. I grant that,
by all means; but apart from the fact that those exhortations are
directed to private citizens who, we have consistently maintained,
have no other remedy but prayers and patience left to them, it
should be borne in mind here too that when we declare that the
subordinate magistrates or Estates of some kingdom can, nay more
even should, offer resistance to tyranny, that does not in any way
detract from the duty of the faithful of Christ in private station by
which they are forbidden to requite evil with evil, but [are bidden]
to overcome evil in good and even to pray for their enemies; and
that such defense by the magistrates does not prevent them from
being suppliants before God for the conversion of that very tyrant
whom they are resisting and from manifesting towards him truly
and sincerely as much respect as possible while they resist him.
And yet it should be noted that a tyrant can sink to such depths

1 Kin. 12:18–20.
1 Kin. 11:31–39.
1 Kin. 12:18.
1 Pet. 2:17.
1 Tim. 2:1–2.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


of sinfulness and can perform such abominable acts of hostility
towards God that it may not only be allowable (but may on
occasion even {157} be worth the effort) expressly to formulate
public prayers and imprecations against him; the ancient and
primitive church once plainly proved this by its example when it
not merely publicly imprecated the emperor Julian surnamed the
Apostate but was heard [by God].161
i) Finally [my opponents] quote the example of Christ Himself
who paid tribute162 to Tiberius Caesar although he was the unjust
usurper of Judah and a monster rather than a man, whereas on
the other hand it admits of no doubt that however many [Jews]
offered resistance to the Roman emperors by means of revolt
perished miserably, those especially mentioned being the wellknown Judas Calonites,163 Theudas and other revolutionaries and
finally the whole Jewish nation, who revolted that they might not
be compelled to embrace the false religion of the heathens. To
these I answer that there is a great difference between the right of
kings and tyranny; therefore, although Jesus Christ was the Lord
of heaven and earth and the kingdom of the Jews belonged of right
to Him as the descendant of David rather than to the Romans
or Herod, yet because He had not come into the world to that
end that He might rule in human fashion, but that He might as
a private citizen in these parts, and with the renunciation of the
prerogative of the House of David, here pass His life, therefore by
that example164 of His He wished to prove that tributes and other
contributions are rightly owed and rendered to kings and other
rulers. For although the Roman emperors initially seized the
kingdom of the Jews unjustly, yet in the end they became its lawful
lords, partly by the just judgment of God, partly by the consent
and approval, if not of all, yet certainly of the more powerful
majority of Jews, as they indicated quite clearly, when they nearly
all acclaimed: We have no king but Caesar.165


See Rufinus, Hist. eccl. book I, cap. 35; Artemius, Comm. hist., cap. 56.
Matt. 17:27.
Ac. 5:36–37.
Rom. 13:7.
John 19:15.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

Question 8. What may be done against unjust oppressors?
But what, will someone say, if the ruler crushes the people
with excessive taxes? When he has been properly warned, those
who wield the chief and highest authority in accordance with the
laws of the kingdom assuredly can and even should consult the
common weal. But here it should also be noted that a ruler who
exceeds the due measure in such matters because he is wasteful
or avaricious or addicted to other vices, should not forthwith be
regarded as a tyrant; for the mark of tyranny and as it were its
peculiar {158} concomitant is a persistent malice which strives
with might and main to subvert the constitution and the laws upon
which the kingdom rests as upon foundations. I add the following
remark also that however just an occasion of offering resistance
to manifest tyranny may at one time or another present itself, yet
the excellent maxim expressed by a heathen should be continually
considered and followed if possible: It befits a wise man to make
trial of all things by deliberation before armed force.166 Therefore
when Petronius attempted to introduce the image of the emperor
into the Temple, the Jews did indeed seem to have just cause for
seizing arms, as the zeal of Mattathias urged [them to do], rather
than allow the Temple of God to be desecrated by means of an
idol; but they adopted a much more prudent counsel which also
received the blessing of God when they boldly gave Petronius
to understand that they had indeed no desire of fighting against
him, but that as long as there were any survivors they would
never allow that idol to be placed in the Temple.167 But though
the exaction of Albinus and Florus supplied them afresh with the
justest of cause for complaints168 and though religious matters also
were then in some degree concerned, yet all the acts of the Jews
clearly indicated that they were striving after nothing but rebellion
and revolt pure and simple, and these have nothing in common
with the lawful remedies which we have discussed.
166. Terence, Eunuchus, 789: “omnia prius experiri quam armis sapientem
decet.” (Loeb Classical Library ed., I, 316.)
167. An allusion to the Jewish resistance, although passive, to the order of
the governor Petronius introduced statues of the emperor Gaius in the Temple,
40–41 C. E. See Joshephus, The Jewish War, II.
168. For the Roman procurators in 62–64 and 64–66 C.E., see Ibid., II.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


Question 9. Whether subjects can contract
with their rulers?
An answer must now be given to those who are of opinion
that it is not proper for subjects to contract with their superiors.
I therefore begin by asking upon what foundations they rest. For
if we are to proceed by means of arguments, what sufficiently
convincing arguments, I ask, will they adduce it is characteristic
of subjects, they declare, to depend upon the authority and
commands of their rulers, not contrariwise. It follows therefore
that subjects can indeed lay their complaints before their rulers in
a modest and respectful way and frankly offer then their advice if
they are asked for it, but that they can in no way go beyond that.
I answer that subjects may not at all approach their magistrates
whether subordinate or supreme, except with the greatest respect,
and this not merely for fear of {159} their indignation, but also
for conscience sake, as the Apostle teaches,169 since this authority
has been instituted by God. But I refuse to admit that such a
conclusion may be drawn from that premise, namely that as
often as it concerns political affairs and, as the saying goes, affairs
touching the constitution of the kingdom, the subjects, when they
have discreetly and respectfully brought to the notice of the ruler
what they regard as just and fair and in accordance with the laws
under which he was elected and appointed, should forthwith of
necessity completely subject themselves to his will and should
utterly and without any reserve whatever obey what to him has
been subjected to limitations. May indeed, on the contrary, I
boldly maintain that he suffers no injustice if he is constrained to
his duty and if, when no further room is left for [an appeal to his]
reason, an even more drastic procedure against him is followed,
for since the administration [of the kingdom] has been entrusted
to him only upon specified condition, we should not in the least
judge that the new covenants are being concluded with him
whenever he is called upon either to ratify previous condition and
to observe them in the sequel or to leave room to another who
seems more likely to be concerned about their observance. And
if this must needs be established by means of example, I thank
169. Rom. 13:5.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

that a sufficient number has been adduced by me above by which
it has been abundantly established that the proposition of those
who dare maintain that the mere will as such of their king should
suffice for all subjects, cannot rest upon or be defended by means
of any rational argument, or any practice or any experience of a
well-ordered monarchy.

Question 10. Whether those who suffer persecution for the
sake of their religion can defend themselves against tyrants
without hurt to their consciences
It finally remains for me to solve a question of the greatest
moment, namely, whether it is allowable, in accordance with the
condition and distinctions laid down above, to offer resistance
by armed force to tyranny assailing the true religion and even
stamping it out as far as may be, and to contend against persecution.
The following may be the principal reasons for entertaining doubts
[on this score]: firstly, since religion touches the consciences [of
people] which can in no way be subjected to violence, it would
appear that it should not be rendered secure or be defended by
means of any armed force; for that reason we perceive that it has
thus far been propagated by the preaching of the Word of God,
by prayers and by {160} patience. There are besides many passages
to be found in the Scriptures from which the difference between
the kingdoms of this world and the spiritual kingdom of Christ
appears. To these may finally be added the example of the holy
Prophets and in the last instance that of Christ Himself, our Lord,
for although all authority, power and virtue dwelt in Him, yet He
Himself never adopted this method of defense, just as the Apostles
themselves and all the martyrs after them refrained from doing so;
so much so that not even entire legions of the faithful of Christ,
abundantly furnished with arms, declined to meet death rather
than defend themselves by drawing the sword and assailing the
very enemies of truth.170
I answer first that it is an absurd, nay even a false opinion that the
means by which the objects and affairs of this world are defended,
such as both courts of law and armed force, not merely differ from
170. A probable allusion to the legend of the massacre of the Thebian legion,
commanded by Saint Maurice.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


the means by which things spiritual can be defended, but are as it
were diametrically opposed to them and are so incompatible with
them that they neither can nor ought to find any application in
a matter of religion. But on the contrary I declare that it is the
principal duty of a most excellent and pious ruler that there should
apply whatever means, authority and power has been granted him
by God to this end entirely that God may truly be recognized
among his subjects and may, being recognized, be worshipped
and adored as the supreme king of all kings. Therefore the man
of that description will not merely put forth all the power of his
jurisdiction and the authority of the laws against the despisers or
disturbers of the true religion who have shown themselves not the
least amenable to ecclesiastical words of rebuke and admonition,
but will even punish with armed force those who cannot otherwise
be restrained from impiety.
In support of this view the Scriptures themselves furnish us
with innumerable reasons and examples. The reasons are of the
following kind:
a) Since the purpose of all well-ordered polities is not simply
peace and quiet in this life, as some heathen philosophers have
imagined, but the glory of God, towards which the whole present
life of men should be directed, it therefore follows that those who
are set over nations, ought to bring to bear all their zeal and all
the faculties they have received from God to this end that the
pure worship of God upon which His glory depends should in
the highest degree be maintained and increased among the people
over whom they hold sway. {161}
b) Finally, even if we were to concede that the ultimate purpose
of polities was the undisturbed preservation of this life, yet we
should have to admit that this was the sole reason for obtaining
and preserving it, [namely] if God, both the author and the
director of our life, be piously and rightly worshipped.
Proofs or example [of this] are quite innumerable in the
a) For it is particularly clear that those patriarchs of old were
simultaneously the highest priests and the supreme rulers among
their people; this is expressly recorded concerning Melchizedek171
171. Gen. 14:19.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

and Eli172 and although these two offices were afterward separated
by the Lord, this did not happen because they were incompatible
with each other but because one man could scarcely be equal to
the performance of both.
b) Furthermore, when the king is bidden to have with him a
book of law173 that he may practice himself in the reading of it day
and night, that is demanded of him not as of a private citizen but
as of a king and a public magistrate.
c) And among the laws of which the execution is entrusted to the
rulers, those174 are deemed the principal which condemn to death
the despisers of the true religion. The application of these laws we
remark in the case of David175 who by means of fixed laws rendered
inviolable the entire worship of God, and in the case of Solomon
who supplemented the decree of his father against transgressors;176
likewise in the edicts of the Kings Asa, Jehosaphat, Hezekiah, and
Josiah,177 nay even of Nebuchadnezzar and Darius178 when they
were persuaded by the prophet Daniel to worship God.
d) Lastly, when the Apostle179 declares that kings and princes
have been appointed by God to this end not merely that we may
pass life honorably, but also piously, that is, not merely that we
may live as it befits honest and respectable men, and in accordance
with piety towards God, it admits of no doubt but that he has
stated this whole question most succinctly. Hence we observe
that the earliest Councils against heretics were summoned not
{162} upon the authority of the Roman Pontiffs who had not yet
appeared in the character in which they came to light much later
but by the decree of the emperors, [in order that] by means of this
remedy they might hear the case in accordance with the persuasive
arguments of the pious bishops. There are also extant innumerable
constitutions (i.e., laws) and canons of the Church enacted by

1 Sam. 1:9; Cf. 1 Sam. 2:27–28.
Deut. 17:19.
Deut. 13.
1 Chron. 28.
2 Chron. 1:9.
2 Chron. 15:13; 20:21; 31:2; 34:31.
Dan. 3:28–29; 6:26.28.
1 Tim. 2:2.

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


the Emperor Justinian as well as by his successors and even by
Charlemagne and others approving of the same course. But to
what end are monarchs even today being so furiously incited by
that whore of Rome to persecute with fire and sword and to banish
those whom they themselves style heretics, unless it holds that this
duty falls within their province? And in this matter it does indeed
rest upon the best and surest foundation, but abuses it no less
than innumerable other testimonies of truth to support forsooth
and to defend its own impieties and blasphemies. But, you will
say, why such a long-winded digression? For the question is not
whether kings or rulers ought to defend and promote piety, but
whether subjects can defend themselves by force or arms against
persecutors. I therefore reply to the earlier of the two questions
proposed above: It is one thing now for the first time to introduce
religion into some part and another to preserve it when it has
already been received somewhere or to wish to restore it when it
has gone to ruin and has been buried as a result of the connivance
or ignorance or malice of men. For I grant that initially it should
be introduced and spread by the influence of the Spirit of God
alone, and that by the Word of God [which is] suited to teaching,
conviction and exhortation. For this is the particular task of the
Holy Spirit which employs spiritual instruments.
It will therefore be the part of a pious ruler who wishes to entice
his people away from idolatry and false superstitions to the true
religion, to see to it in the first instance that they are instructed
in piety by means of true and reliable argument, just as on the
other hand it is in the part of the subjects to give their assent to
truth and reason and readily to submit. Finally the ruler will be
fully occupied in rendering the true religion secure by means of
good and noble decrees against those who assail and resist it out
of pure obstinacy, as we have seen done in our times in England,
Denmark, Sweden, Scotland, and the greater part of Germany and
Switzerland against the Papists, the Anabaptists and other heretics.
If the other nations preferred following their example rather than
trusting and obeying that bloodstained whore of Rome, could
greater tranquility indeed by seen in the whole world in the sphere
of religion as well as of politics? {163}
What therefore will subjects have to do if on the other hand they
are compelled by their ruler to worship idols? Assuredly reason


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

does not permit them to force their ruler to a complete change in
their condition; nay rather, they will consider it needful patiently
to bear with him even to persecution, while they worship God
purely in the meantime, or altogether to go into exile and seek
new abodes. But if the free exercise of the true religion has once
been granted by means of decrees lawfully passed and settled
and confirmed by public authority, then I declare that the ruler
is so much the more bound to have them observed as a matter of
religion is of greater moment compared with all others, so much
so that he has no right to repeal them upon his own arbitrary
decision, and without having heard the case, but only with the
intervention of that same authority by which they were in the first
instance enacted. If he acts otherwise I declare that he is practicing
manifest tyranny; and with due allowance for the observations
made above, (his subjects) will be all the more free to oppose him
as we are bound to set greater store and value by the salvation of
our souls and the freedom of our conscience than by any other
matters however desirable. It should therefore now be no cause of
surprise to anyone that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Prophets and the
Apostles, too, or the other martyrs, since they were men in private
station, confined themselves within the limits of their calling.
And as regards those who held public office or those legions
which in the midst of battle suffered martyrdom with their
commanders without offering any resistance even though their
attackers were acting in violation of the decrees previously
passed in favor of Christians, as happened especially under the
Emperors Diocletian and Julian, there is, I say, a twofold answer.
First, although certain emperors before Diocletian had made the
persecution somewhat less severe, as it is certain that Hadrian,
Antonius and Alexander did, yet none of them had ever permitted
the public exercise of the Christian religion. Next, I also repeat the
well-known saying that whatever is lawful, is not always expedient
as well. For I should not be inclined to assert that a religion made
lawful by public decrees must needs always be defended and held
fast by means of arms against manifest tyranny, but that even so
that is the right and lawful course especially for those upon whom
this burden rests and to whom God has granted the opportunity,
as the example of the people of Libnah against Jehoram and of the
people of Jerusalem against Amaziah and the war of Constantine

Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects


against Maxentius undertaken at the request of the citizens of
Rome as described above abundantly prove. Hence I conclude that
among the martyrs should be Counted not only those who have
defeated the tyranny {164} of the enemies of the truth by no other
defense than patience, but those also who, duly supported by the
authority of laws or of those whose right it is to defend the laws,
devoted their strength to God in defense of the true religion.
And these arguments so far I decided to urge in reply to the
last objection that I might satisfy those who raise it so as not to
violate their consciences because they are genuinely afraid of
sinning against God if they attempt anything of that kind. But as
regards that class of men who confer no other benefit upon the
world but that they fill it with innocent blood while they abuse
the authority of rulers that from their ruin they may pursue and
advance their own interests and who meantime are characterized
by such shamelessness that they dare to attack and assail with these
objections those who do not spontaneously present themselves
to them for slaughter, thus of course cloaking their cruelty and
unbridled license under the false pretext of religion and zeal—this
class of men, I say, would merit no other reply than that which
would deservedly be given to robbers who summoned merchants
and other travelers before the court for not undertaking a journey
without girding on the sword for their defense, declaring that they
had no right to do so, though they themselves adopted every kind
of weapon to murder them.
Nay, they put me in mind of that abominable Roman Fimbria,
whose like of hired assassins may be seen in large numbers at the
present time; for so insolent was his daring, or rather so shameless
his effrontery that when at the time of the Sullan proscription
he had had a wound dealt to Scaevola, a man famous among the
citizens of Rome for his extraordinary virtue and honesty, and the
latter did not succumb to it as he was wishing, he was bold enough
to complain and to threaten Scaevola that he would have him
before court as if he had been most outrageously wronged because
the other had not unresistingly admitted the dagger to enter his
very heart.180 But because all discussion with men of that kind
would be otiose and to no purpose, they should all of them be
180. Cicero, Orationes, Pro Sex. Roscio Amerino Oratio, 12, art. 33.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

referred by me not so much to their own personal conscience (in
which the majority are entirely lacking) as to the tribunal of Him
whose supreme authority and judgment—as by unmistakable
evidence time and reality at length have proved—they themselves
have not been able to escape.

The Case for Curbing the Federal Courts


The Case for Curbing the
Federal Courts
William D. Graves

Is the Constitution Merely
Whatever the Judges Say?
In 1907, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes said, “The
Constitution is what the judges say it is.”1 Although Hughes
himself understood that power is not all, it now seems that U.S.
Supreme Court Justices regularly take Hughes’ statement all too
literally. As a result, the Supreme Court sits not just as interpreter
of the laws as intended by the Constitution’s framers, but as the
supreme lawgiver.
The Constitutional function of the Court was to exercise
only judicial power in cases and controversies. Nevertheless,
this limited function has gradually been enlarged, not by the
people as required under Art. V, but by the Court’s own fiat and
by the cowardly acquiescence of Congress and the people. As a
result, the Supreme Court operates de facto as virtually a sitting
constitutional convention and a super-legislature. It sees itself as a
“steward” or “overseer” as to the other branches of government—
and particularly the states.2
James Madison, the father of the Constitution, said if the
Framers’ intent be not the guide in interpreting the Constitution,
“there can be no security for a faithful exercise of its powers.”3
Its “legitimate meaning,” Madison said, “must be derived from

1. Speech at Elmira, New York (May 3, 1907).
2. Wolman v. Walter, 433 U.S. 229, 263 (1977); Justice Brennan dissenting in
Meek v. Pittenger, 421 U.S. 349, 373 (1975).
3. Raoul Berger, Government by Judiciary (Cambridge, MA, 1977), 364.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

the text itself.”4 Now, however, original meaning is no longer the
Court’s standard, but it looks to the so-called “evolving standards
of decency”5 which of course the Court itself defines by its own
In its new role, the Court ignored the Tenth Amendment and
turned federalism on its head by overruling in Gitlow v. New York
(1925) 50 years of its own precedents and “assuming,” without
argument, that First Amendment freedom of speech and press were
protected “from impairment by the States” through the Court’s
14th Amendment “incorporation”6 doctrine. Gitlow has been
called “the most far-reaching {166} and revolutionary decision”
ever made by the Court.7 Through it, numerous provisions of the
Bill of Rights, intended to restrict the federal government only,
have been held applicable to the states. Thus, the federal courts
and government have seized enormous power over matters never
meant to fall within their jurisdiction.
Moreover, with a Marxist-type perversion of history, the Court
has ignored the Constitutional text and its original meaning and
in effect rewritten much of the Bill of Rights. In doing so, its
decisions have been a prime force in the growth of big government
and in separating the nation from its Christian roots. The nation’s
rapid moral decline owes much to the Court’s rulings. In this
regard, George Washington said in his Farewell Address that no
man could claim the tribute of patriotism who labors “to subvert”
religion and morality which he said “were indispensable supports
to political prosperity.”

Court Rewrites Constitution
Specifically, even though the First Amendment’s establishment
clause was intended to prohibit only an official state church, the
Court held the following public school practices to be violations
of that clause: a) the widespread and long-established practice
of Bible study, b) prayer and Bible reading, c) posting of the Ten
4. The Works of James Madison, (Phila. 1867) III: 228, 552.
5. Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 100 (1958).
6. 268 U.S. 652, 666 (1925).
7. James McClellan, Joseph Story and the American Constitution (Norman,
OK, 1971), 149.

The Case for Curbing the Federal Courts


Commandments on classroom walls because it might induce the
children “to read, meditate upon, perhaps to venerate and obey”
them, and d) the teaching of creation when evolution is taught
because the former advances “the religious viewpoint that a
supernatural being created mankind.”8
The Court, in its concern for the “rights” of criminals, has
seriously undermined law enforcement by discovering numerous
new criminal rights not found in the Constitutional text or
history, such as, a) the exclusionary rule, b) the Miranda warnings,
and c) taxpayer-paid defense attorneys and psychiatrists.9 Federal
courts have seized control of state prisons and forced early release
of dangerous felons due to “overcrowding.” {167} Through federal
appeals of state cases, execution of death sentences are delayed for
years, or more than a decade.
Justices Brennan and Douglas contrived to invent a right of
privacy10 which the Court said was found in “penumbras, formed
by emanations” from Bill of Rights guarantees.11 In this, the Court
“discovered” a right for a woman to abort her innocent unborn
child even though neither the Constitution or its history even
hints at such a right.12 Just two years previous to that, the Court
had held it unconstitutional to execute a convicted murderer even
though the Constitution explicitly makes capital punishment
legislatively available.13 These abortion and capital punishment
rulings presented the classic case of which Isaiah (5:20) warned of
8. a) McCollum v. Bd. of Educ., 33 U.S. 203 (1948); b) Engel v. Vitale, 370
U.S. 421 (1962), Abington Sch. Dist. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963); c) Stone v.
Graham, 449 U.S. 39, 42 (1980); d) Edwards v. Aguillard, 492 U.S. 578, 592 (1987).
9. a) Weeks v. U.S., 232 U.S. 398 (1914), Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643, 657
(1961); b) Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966); c) Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S.
458 (1938), Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S.
68 (1985).
10. “The Secret Origins of the Right to Abortion,” All About Issues (Amer. Life
League, Stafford, VA, April, 1989), Vol. II, No. 4; Stephen L. Washby, He Shall
Not Pass This Way Again: The Legacy of Justice William O. Douglas, Pittsburgh,
(1990), 159, n. 22.
11. Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 484 (1965).
12. Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).
13. Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1971). Then, after 37 states re-enacted
death penalty laws, the Court held the death penalty constitutional in Gregg v.
Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976).


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

calling “evil good, and good evil.”
The Justices came within one vote of holding unconstitutional a
state law making the homosexual practice of consensual sodomy
unlawful and ignored the fundamental principle of “no taxation
without representation” while holding that a federal court could
override a state-tax limitation law and order local officials to raise
taxes to finance a school desegregation plan.14 The foregoing is
actually the tip of the iceberg.
The Court has usurped the rights of the states in the areas of
commerce, voting rights, pornography and many more. As Brent
Bozell said, the Court has reduced the Constitution “to a clutter of
sentiments, a menagerie of well-turned phrases to be trotted out
as needed to camouflage the exercise of naked power.” Professor
James McClellan said, “the Founding Fathers would call them
tyrants. We call them ‘Justices.’ ” They have, he said, brought “the
ultimate triumph of Jacobinism on our own shores.”15 {168}

Constitution Meant to Govern Courts
Judges were not meant to have such power. Chief Justice John
Marshall, the author of judicial review in Marbury v. Madison,
declared in that case that “[t]he framers of the Constitution
contemplated that instrument as a rule for the government of
courts as well as of the Legislature.”16 Courts were only to interpret
the law—not legislate. Nevertheless, the Court has expressly
claimed that its interpretations of the Constitution are “the
supreme law of the land,”17 even though that document expressly
provides (Art. VI) that only the Constitution itself and laws and
treaties made under its authority are the supreme law of the land.
Thus, our nation finds itself, as Thomas Jefferson warned, under
the despotism of a judicial oligarchy which operates “independent
14. Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986); Missouri v. Jenkins, 495 U.S. 33
15. The Judges’ War, (1987) Edit. by Patrick B. McGuigan and Jeffrey P.
O’Connell (Inst. for Gov. and Politics of the Free Congress Research and Educ.
Found., 1987), from “The Judicialization of the American Republic” by Jas.
McClellan, 92.
16. 5 U.S. 137, 179 (1803).
17. Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. I, 19 (1958).

The Case for Curbing the Federal Courts


of the nation” and contains the germ of its dissolution. “The
Constitution,” Jefferson said, “has erected no such single tribunal.”18
With each judicial abuse of the Constitution by the Court,
proposals are made to correct it through the cumbersome process
of Constitutional amendment which requires approval of twothirds of both houses of Congress and three fourths of the state
legislatures. Such proposals implicitly admit the Court was correct
and reveal ignorance of our federal Constitutional system with its
separation of powers and checks and balances. They also concede
that the Constitution is in effect whatever the judges say it is.
The claims by the Court itself and its apologists make no
distinction between the Court’s raw, naked power and its
legitimate authority. Yet, as Cicero said, “Power and the Law are
not synonymous. In truth, they are frequently in opposition and
irreconcilable.”19 Fortunately, the framers of the Constitution
understood the vital distinction between power and authority.

Congress’ “Exceptions” Power
Actually, the Constitution gives Congress express power to
eliminate judicial tyranny by simple majority vote with concurrence
of the President through Congress’ control over federal courts’
jurisdiction. Judicial power {169} comprises the functions exercised
by a court after it has obtained jurisdiction. Without jurisdiction,
a court is impotent and may not consider a case.
Under Art. III (I), Congress has absolute control, as the Supreme
Court has held on numerous occasions, over both the original
and appellate jurisdiction of the lower federal courts since all are
established by Congress. That which is conferred by Congress, the
high Court held in a 1922 case, may “be taken away in whole or
in part.”20 “The whole subject,” the Court held in an 1874 case, “is
remitted to the unfettered discretion of Congress.”21
By virtue of Art. III (2), the original jurisdiction of the U.S.
Supreme Court is limited solely to cases “affecting Ambassadors,
18. Saul Padover, Thomas Jefferson on Democracy (NY, 1939), 152; Jefferson,
Writings, Vol. XV, 330, 331–2, Letter, Aug. 13, 1821, to Charles Hammond.
19. Taylor Caldwell, A Pillar of Iron, (Doubleday, 1965), preface.
20. Kline v. Burke Construction Co., 260 US. 226 (1922).
21. Home Ins. Co. v. Dunn, 19 Wall. 214.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State
shall be a Party....” Art. III (2)(2), further provides: “The Supreme
Court shall have appellate jurisdiction, both as to law and fact,
with such exceptions and under such regulations as the Congress
shall make.” Evidence abounds that this Congressional power is

Hamilton, Ellsworth, Marshall, Taney
and the “Exceptions” Power
The witness of Founding Father and Federalist author Alexander
Hamilton demonstrates that it was specifically “judicial excess”
the Framers had in mind when they empowered Congress to limit
the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction. Hamilton, the first
prominent American advocate of judicial review, said if grants of
power to the judiciary resulted in “inconveniences... it ought to be
recollected that the national legislature will have ample authority
to make such exceptions and to prescribe such regulations as will
be calculated to obviate or remove these inconveniences.”22
Hamilton said the “exceptions” power would “enable the
government to modify it [the Court’s appellate jurisdiction] in
such manner as will best answer the ends of public justice and
security.”23 The Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction would be,
Hamilton asserted, subject to “any exceptions and regulations
which may be thought advisable.” {170}
All other Founding Fathers who spoke on the subject expressed
the same view as Hamilton to which there was no dissent. The
testimony of Oliver Ellsworth is particularly weighty since he
was a member of the Committee of Detail at the Constitutional
Convention which drafted the “exceptions” provision. As Chief
Justice, he wrote in Wiscart v. Dauchy in regard to the “exceptions”
power: “If Congress has provided no rule to regulate our
proceedings, we cannot exercise an appellate jurisdiction; and if
the rule is provided, we cannot depart from it.”24
John Marshall, the father of judicial review, concurred while
22. The Federalist, No. 80.
23. The Federalist, No. 81.
24. 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 321, 327 (1796).

The Case for Curbing the Federal Courts


addressing himself to the “exceptions” power in a speech to the
Virginia Legislature after the U.S. Constitutional Convention, but
before ratification by saying: “These exceptions certainly go as far
as the legislature [Congress] may think proper, for, the interest and
liberty of the people.”25
To decline jurisdiction when given, or to usurp that which is not
given, Marshall wrote in Cohens v. Virginia, “would be treason to
the Constitution.”26 Marshall said in Durousseau v. U.S., that under
the “exceptions” power that even if Congress has not expressly
declared that the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction shall not extend to
certain cases, but has affirmatively described its jurisdiction, the
latter implies “a negative on the exercise of such appellate power
as is not comprehended within” the affirmative description.27
Thus, he wrote: “It would be repugnant to every principle of sound
construction, to imply an exception against the intent.”
Chief Justice Roger Taney was as emphatic as Hamilton,
Ellsworth and Marshall in upholding Congress’ “exceptions”
power. In Barry v. Mercein, the Supreme Court, in an opinion by
Taney, declared that the Court “possessed no appellate power in
any case, unless conferred upon it by act of Congress, nor can it,
when conferred, be exercised in any other form, or by any other
mode of proceeding than that which the law prescribes.”28

The McCardle Precedent
The most famous landmark decision as to Congress’ “exceptions”
power is the 1868 McCardle decision.29 Still precedent law, the
case is of an {171} extraordinary nature for the reason that the
Supreme Court had already heard arguments in the case when
Congress enacted legislation withdrawing the Court’s jurisdiction
of the matter. William McCardle was arrested by authority of the
Reconstruction Acts on charges of publishing incendiary and
25. Joseph L. Lewinson, Limiting Judicial Review, (LA., 1937), 58.
26. 14 U.S. (6 Wheat.) 264, 404 (1821).
27. 18 U.S. (6 Cranch) 305, 307, 313–3–4 (1810); See also 7 U.S. (3 Cranch)
159, 173 (1805).
28. 46 U.S. (5 How.) 103, 119–120 (1847).
29. Ex Parte McCardle, 73 U.S. (7 Wall.) 506 (1869); Julius J. Marke, Vignettes
in Legal History (Rothman), 141–163.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

libelous articles, and held for trial by a military tribunal. A private
citizen, he sought release by writ of habeas corpus. The writ was
issued, but returned by the military commander who admitted
the restraint, but denied its illegality. On being denied relief in
the Circuit Court, McCardle ultimately appealed to the Supreme
Court via an 1867 law allowing appeal by writ of habeas corpus.
Critics of the Reconstruction Acts had long sought a ruling on
their constitutionality by the U.S. Supreme Court. After several
unsuccessful attempts, McCardle presented a golden opportunity.
McCardle’s lawyer argued that the Reconstruction legislation
was unconstitutional for the reason that his client, a civilian, was
entitled to a civilian trial by jury. Significantly, the Supreme Court
had already held in Ex Parte Milligan that it was unconstitutional
for a civilian to be tried by a military tribunal.30
As rumors spread that the Court would declare the
Reconstruction Acts unconstitutional in McCardle, Congress
enacted legislation repealing the portion of the 1867 act allowing
habeas corpus appeal to the Supreme Court. This legislation was
vetoed, but the veto was overridden by Congress and the Repealer
became law. Its jurisdiction seized, the Supreme Court dismissed
McCardle’s appeal in a unanimous decision. In affirming Marshall’s
Durousseau doctrine, the Court declared:
We are not at liberty to inquire into the motives of the Legislature.
We can only examine into its power under the Constitution; and
the power to make exceptions to the appellate jurisdiction of this
Court is given by express words.... What, then is the effect of the
repealing act upon the case before us? We cannot doubt as to this.
Without jurisdiction the Court cannot proceed at all in any cause.
Jurisdiction is power to declare the law, and when it ceases to exist,
the only function remaining to the Court is that of announcing the
fact and dismissing the cause.
The Supreme Court has also held that Congress may not only
limit the former’s appellate jurisdiction, but may limit the use of
the jurisdiction as well. In Duncan v. The Francis Wright,31 the
Court upheld, over claims of its invalidity, the constitutionality of
a law restricting the Court’s jurisdiction on appeals in admiralty
30. 4 Wall. 2 (1866).
31. 105 U.S. 38 (1882).

The Case for Curbing the Federal Courts


to questions of law even though the {172} constitution provides
the Court “shall have appellate jurisdiction, both as to Law and
Fact.”32 In upholding the limitation, the Court said:
Authority to limit the jurisdiction necessarily carries with it
authority to limit the use of the jurisdiction. Not only may whole
classes of cases be kept out of the jurisdiction altogether, but
particular classes of questions may be subjected to re-examination
and review, while others are not... the general power to regulate
implies the power to regulate in all things.

Frankfurter, Douglas and the “Exceptions” Power
Justice Felix Frankfurter acknowledged Congress’ total power
over all inferior federal court jurisdiction and said, “Congress
need not give this Court any appellate power; it may withdraw
appellate jurisdiction once conferred and it may do so even while
a case is sub-judice.”33 Even Justice William O. Douglas wrote
that “McCardle remains the law. The power of Congress over the
appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court is complete.”34

The Attack on McCardle
In an excellent pro-”exceptions” monograph, Ralph Rossum
points out35 that judicial supremacists nevertheless contend that
McCardle is so narrow it concedes nothing to Congress. They note,
that in McCardle, the Court declared that the 1868 Repealer Act
did not except from the Court’s appellate jurisdiction “any cases
but appeals from the Circuit Courts under the act of 1867. It does
not affect the jurisdiction which was previously exercised.” These
critics emphasize that this statement by the Court was reaffirmed
just a few months later in Ex Parte Yerger.36
In Yerger, a decision denying a petition for writ of habeas corpus
to a civilian awaiting trial by a military commission for violation
32. 105 U.S. 38 (1882).
33. National Mutual Ins. Co. v. Tidewater T. Co., 337 U.S. 582, 655.
34. William O. Douglas, We the Judges, (Doubleday, 1956), 72.
35. Ralph Rossum, Congressional Control of the Judiciary: The Article 111
Option, printed by the Center for Judicial Studies, (Washington, D.C., 1988)
36. 75 U.S. (8 Wall.) 85 (1869).


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

of the Reconstruction Acts was reviewed by the Supreme Court. It
sustained its appellate jurisdiction and held that the 1868 Repealer
Act, relied on in McCardle, did not affect its authority to issue
the writ under the Judiciary Act of 1789. Thus, it is argued that
McCardle does not sanction {173} Congressional impairment of
the Court’s jurisdiction. Yet, as Rossum states:
In McCardle, the Court declined to exercise jurisdiction that had
been positively excepted by the Repealer Act of 1868. In Yerger, it
firmly exercised that jurisdiction which the Judiciary Act of 1789
conferred and which the [1868] Repealer Act in no way limited.
These same McCardle critics also cite U.S. v. Klein37 where Klein
sued under an 1863 statute allowing recovery of land captured or
abandoned during the Civil War if the claimant could prove he
had not assisted in the rebellion. Klein prevailed on a previous
Supreme Court decision holding that a Presidential pardon
conclusively proved that its recipient had not aided in the rebellion.
Pending Supreme Court appeal, Congress enacted a law providing
that acceptance of a pardon for participation in the rebellion was
conclusive evidence that the claimant had aided the enemy and on
proof of the same the jurisdiction of the federal judiciary would
cease. The Supreme Court did not agree.
It held the pardon act unconstitutional because it subverted
the judicial process by prescribing “a rule for the decision of a
cause.” Secondly, as Rossum states, “the statute also infringed the
Constitutional power of the executive by impairing the effect of
a pardon,” and thereby violated the separation of powers. The
Supreme Court itself acknowledged in Klein that “if this Act
did nothing more... [than] simply deny the right of appeal in a
particular class of cases, there could be no doubt that it must be
regarded as an exercise of the power of Congress to make ‘such
exceptions from the appellate jurisdiction’ as should seem to
it expedient.” Thus, Professor Young concluded that “the Klein
opinion cannot be interpreted as holding unconstitutional a pure
withholding of appellate jurisdiction.”38
Rossum states that these efforts to construe McCardle narrowly
and to employ both Yerger and Klein to protect the spirit of judicial
37. 80 U.S. 519 (1871).
38. Rossum, op. cit., 19, n. 117.

The Case for Curbing the Federal Courts


review from the letter of Art. III, Sec. 2, are unsuccessful. “Neither
McCardle nor Yerger,” Rossum states, “in any way suggests that, if
the (1868) Repealer Act had excepted from the Supreme Court’s
appellate jurisdiction in cases arising under Section 14 of the
Judiciary Act of 1789, the Court would have been justified in
invalidating it.” {174}

The “Exceptions” Power vs. Judicial Review
Despite the foregoing, judicial supremacists argue that Congress’
express “exceptions” power is subordinate to any number of other
supposed, but Constitutionally unexpressed Court powers, the
most prominent of which is judicial review itself. Rossum notes
that Justice Brennan observed in U.S. Steelworkers v. Weber that
a power may be within a statute’s letter “and yet not within the
statute, because not within its spirit.”39 Using similar logic, it is
argued that the “exceptions” power, though express, is nevertheless
not constitutional because not compatible with the “spirit” of
judicial review. Such argument provoked Justice Rehnquist to
reply in Weber that Brennan’s reasoning was worthy “not of jurists
such as Hale, Holmes, and Hughes, but of escape artists such
as Houdini....” In fact, it could arguendo be asserted with more
compelling logic that judicial review is not within the spirit of the
Judge Learned Hand, one of America’s greatest jurists,
concluded it was doubtful that the delegates at the Constitutional
Convention would have given courts the power to invalidate
acts of Congress, had the issue been forced to a vote.40 In fact, a
form of judicial review was proposed at the 1787 Constitutional
Convention by which the Judiciary was to be joined with the
Executive in a Council of Revision. This Council was to have veto
power over legislative acts. However, this plan was rejected on
four different occasions by the Convention.41 Moreover, Madison
himself asserted at the Convention that the courts ought not to be
given the right of expounding cases not “of a Judiciary Nature.”
39. 443 U.S. 193, 201 (1979).
40. Learned Hand, The Bill of Rights, (1958), 28.
41. James Madison, Notes on the Constitutional Convention of 1787, June 4, 6,
July 21, Aug. 15, 1787.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

Professor Raoul Berger states that judicial review “is derived from
questionable implications and debatable history....”42
Thus proponents of absolute judicial review power must defend
an unexpressed, but strictly court-assumed power against the
“exceptions” power which is a part of the express supreme law of
the land! Moreover, these proponents must also contend again
with McCardle. The specific reason Congress curbed the Court’s
power in McCardle was to prevent the Supreme Court from ruling
on the constitutionality of the Reconstruction Acts! Constitutional
guarantees involving habeas corpus and trial by jury {175} were
being denied and Congress expressly acted to and did prevent the
exercise of judicial review.

The “Exceptions” Power and the 14th Amendment
It is also argued that the “exceptions” power is limited by the
Fourteenth Amendment, the Due Process Clause and the supposed
Equal Protection component43 of the Fifth Amendment, and the
Necessary and Proper Clause. As for the latter, Rossum points out
that that Clause was intended to authorize Congress to do what
is only implicit in the Constitution and not to prohibit Congress
from doing what is expressly delegated. The former argument
assumes that Due Process may be obtained only in federal courts.
However, due process may be and is regularly satisfied in state
courts as well. In fact, the Constitution’s Art. VI, containing the
Supremacy Clause, expressly states that “the Judges in every State”
are bound to uphold the supreme law of the land. Thus, only if a
litigant was totally denied a State forum could there be a denial
of procedural Due Process. Ironically, it was not until 1914 that
Congress even authorized the Supreme Court to review cases that
invalidated State conduct on federal grounds.44
As to the Equal Protection argument that the “exceptions” power
may not discriminate as between different subject matters of
42. Rossum, op. cit., 4, n. 28.
43. In Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497, 499 (1954), the Court said that even
though the Fifth Amendment contains no equal protection provision, it
nevertheless construed its Due Process Clause to impose such an obligation on
the federal government.
44. Rossum, op. cit. at 27, n. 173; See Act of Dec. 23, 1914, ch. 2, 38 Stat. 790.

The Case for Curbing the Federal Courts


litigation (i.e., race, religion, etc.), Rossum states, “A right itself has
no right to equal protection treatment vis a vis other rights.” Rights
don’t have rights—only people do. Considering the Fourteenth
Amendment argument, there is nothing in the text, framing,
debates and other events surrounding that Amendment to suggest
any intent to limit Congress’ “exceptions” power. No reference at
all is made to legislative control over the federal judiciary. In the
absence of an express repeal, a constitutional amendment does
not repeal a prior provision of the Constitution unless the two are
so clearly repugnant that they cannot stand together.45
Accordingly, the Supreme Court has in fact held, in addition
to the Francis Wright case, that limitations on the use of judicial
review do not violate the 14th Amendment. In Ohio ex rel. Bryant
v. Akron Metro. Park {176} Dist.,46 the Court upheld the validity
of a state constitution requiring the concurrence of all but one
of the Justices before the Ohio Supreme Court could hold a law
unconstitutional. This unusual curb on the judicial power was
held, in an opinion by Chief Justice Hughes, not violative of Due
Process under the 14th Amendment. Nor was it violative of Equal
Protection even though a statute might be held invalid in one case
and not so in another.

The “Living” Constitution Argument
Finally, it is argued that Congress’ “exceptions” power has
in effect now been repealed by the passage of time and by the
recognition that its use would be subversive of an independent
judiciary. Chief Justice Rehnquist calls this the “living Constitution
with a vengeance.”47 Its sophistry glosses over the fact that, as the
Court declared in South Carolina v. U.S., “The Constitution is a
written instrument. As such its meaning does not alter. That which
it meant when adopted it means now.”48 “[N]o lapse of time or
respectable array of opinion,” Justice Brandeis said, “should make
us hesitate to correct” unconstitutional assumptions of power by
45. 15 Corpus Juris Secundum, Const. Law, Sec. 40(b), 116.
46. 281 U.S. 74 (1930).
47. William Rehnquist, The Notion of a Living Constitution, 54 Tex. L. Rev.
693, 695 (1976).
48. 281 U.S. 74 (1930).


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

courts.49 As Justice Frankfurter said, “The ultimate touchstone of
constitutionality is the Constitution itself and not what we have
said about it.”50 “Our peculiar security,” Jefferson said, “is in the
possession of a written Constitution. Let us not make it a blank
paper by construction.”51
These and all other arguments against or for limiting
the Congressional “exceptions” power have one common
denominator: the Constitution means merely and whatever the
Court says it means. Such a system is inimical to Constitutional
government. Moreover, such arguments assume that somehow
the Supreme Court is infallible, or as Prof. Edward S. Corwin (a
defender of the “exceptions” power) said, that on account of “some
mystical connection between the Court and Deity, the Court is
able... to speak the authentic Constitution....”52 This, Corwin said,
furnished “grounds for skepticism.” In regard to overruled cases,
Corwin asked: {177}
which Court was it that enjoyed divine inspiration—the one that
did the overruling, or the one that was overruled? And why this
discrimination of divine favor? And when a decision disallowing
an act of Congress is a five-to-four decision, is the inspiration
enjoyed by all the majority judges, or only by the odd man?
Federal Courts decide constitutional questions not because they
are vested with authority to enforce the Constitution, establish
policy or police the states or other branches of government.
They do so only to decide cases and controversies within their
jurisdiction pursuant to the Constitution. When judges exercise
judicial review, Justice Gibson wrote, they “ought to be prepared to
maintain it on the principles of the Constitution.”53 To do otherwise
is usurpation which McClellan said characterizes the Supreme
Court’s history.54 Washington warned in his Farewell Address that
if change is needed let it be by amendment as the Constitution’s
49. Erie Ry. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 79 (1938).
50. Graves v. O’Keefe, 305 U.S. 466, 491–92 (1939).
51. Berger, op. cit., 364.
52. American Const. History: Essays by Edward S. Corwin, Ed. by Mason
(Harper & Row), 127.
53. Eakin v. Raub, 12 S. & R. 330 (Pa. 1825), dissenting opinion.
54. The Judges’ War, Id. 66.

The Case for Curbing the Federal Courts


Art. V provides, but “let there be no change by usurpation... it is
the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.”
The Constitution’s Framers assigned a much more limited
role to the Supreme Court, which Hamilton said was to be the
weakest or “least dangerous branch.” The judiciary, he said in
arguing for judicial review, was to exercise “neither FORCE nor
WILL but merely judgment.”55 If they exercise WILL instead of
JUDGMENT, Hamilton said, “the consequence would equally be
the substitution of their pleasure to that of the legislative body”
which Madison said “necessarily predominates” in a republic.56 It
“was never intended and can never be proper,” Madison said, for
the Judiciary to be “parallel” to the legislature.57
There can be no liberty, Madison said, quoting Montesquieu,
“if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative
and executive powers.”58 Judges are not, as Justice Frankfurter
said, authorized to pronounce policy or to sit in judgment on
the wisdom of what Congress and the Executive branch do. They
are, as Blackstone said, to interpret laws according to the true
intent of the lawmaker and may not “enlarge, diminish or alter
that sense.”59 Constitutional scholar Thomas Cooley said a statute
must never be held invalid unless it was so “beyond a reasonable
{178} doubt.”60 “A reasonable doubt,” he said, “must be resolved in
favor of the legislative, and the act be sustained” since Courts are
not “to revise” legislation, but “to enforce the legislative will.” “Self
restraint,” Frankfurter said, “is of the essence of the judicial oath.”61

The Constitution and Higher Law
Deuteronomy 19:17 states that when men stand before judges,
ministers of God, they “ stand before Jehovah.” Moreover, Sir
Edward Coke (whose ideas helped form the basis of American
55. The Federalist, No. 78.
56. The Federalist, No. 51.
57. The Writings of lames Madison, (Philadelphia, Pa., 1865), I: 194.
58. The Federalist, No. 47.
59. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Ed. by Gavit
(Washington, D.C., 1941), 731.
60. Thomas Cooley, I Constitutional Limitations, 8th ed. 333–334.
61. U.S. News & World Report, (June 20, 1966), 53.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

judicial review), Blackstone and John Locke, saw civil law as being
based on the Higher Law of Scripture.62 Thus, R. J. Rushdoony
states that “judicial review rests on the religious premise that no
one should obey an ungodly or unconstitutional act, and that
courts have the religious duty to pronounce such laws unlawful.”63
Regrettably, these historical rules of construction are often
ignored by federal courts. Thus, severe “inconveniences” have
arisen. When courts abuse judicial review by declaring as
constitutional rights such ungodly practices as abortion, it is
time for Congress to use its Art. III (a) power. Prudent use
of it by Congress is vital to restoration of federalism and lost
Constitutional liberties. For example, Congress could enact
legislation stripping all federal courts of jurisdiction to consider
state cases involving crime and punishment, abortion, and public
school prayer and Bible study. State Courts would then be free to
enforce the Constitution according to its text as well as the original
and correct understanding.
For Congress to continue its cowardly refrain from utilizing its
“exceptions” power is in effect to concede that the Constitution,
the permanent will of the People, means instead whatever the
Supreme Court says it means in ordinary litigation between
parties in personal actions, no matter how opposed to the written
text. The people then cease, as Abraham Lincoln said, “to be
their own rulers, having, to that extent, practically resigned their
government, into the hands of that eminent tribunal.“64

62. Ed. S. Corwin, Origins of Judicial Review: The Higher Law Background
of Amer. Const. Law, 42 Harvard Law Rev. (1928–29), 149, 365; Blackstone,
Commentaries, Jones ed., 1915, 142–43; John Eidsmoe, The Christian Legal
Advisor (Milford, MI, 1984), 40.
63. R. J. Rushdoony, This Independent Republic, (Fairfax, VA., 1978), 26, n. 6.
64. Basler, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (1953), 262, 268.

The Legacy of the Legal Theory of John Calvin


The Legacy of
the Legal Theory
of John Calvin
G. Joseph Gatis

John Calvin
We know of Calvin from his enemies as well as from his followers—
Pope Pius IV says of him, “The strength of that heretic consisted
in this, that money never had the slightest charm for him. If I had
such servants my dominion would extend from sea to sea.”1 John
Cotten, American, Puritan, and Calvin’s admirer: “I have read the
fathers and the school men, and Calvin too; but I find that he that
has Calvin has them all.”2 When Cotten was asked why he studied
into the small hours more than he had previously, he replied,
“Because I love to sweeten my mouth with a piece of Calvin before
I go to sleep.”3 Some detractors of Calvin regard such admiration
of Calvin’s works as idolatry, but these naysayers notwithstanding,
his works are impossible to ignore.4
We can learn much of Calvin from his opponents:
1. Otto Scott, “The Great Christian Revolution,” in The Great Christian
Revolution—The Myths of Paganism and Arminianism (Vallecito, CA, 1991), 130.
2. Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana (Hartford, CT: 1853), I:274.
3. Ibid.
4. One seminarian at a large conservative Protestant seminary heard a
Calvinistic student cite a section of Calvin’s Institutes. The seminarian remarked
in rebuke, alluding to the Apostle Paul at Mars Hill (Acts 17:Iff.)—”I came to the
shrine of the unknown god, whose name was Calvin.” The seminarian proposed
that all Calvinists were actually idolaters who deify the Swiss Reformer.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

Calvin has, I believe, caused untold millions of souls to be damned.5
If Calvin ever wrote anything in favor of religious liberty, it was a
typographical error.6
It was the fact that Calvin’s own character was compulsive-neurotic
which transformed the God of Love as experienced and taught by
Jesus, into a compulsive character, bearing absolutely diabolical
traits in his reprobatory practice.7 {180}
But we shall always find it hard to love the man who darkened the
human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of
God in all the long and honored history of nonsense.8

Historians tend to ignore, however, that Calvin was an ill man,
especially in his later life, with a collection of maladies. Duly
reported to physicians at Montpelier the year of his death include
acute symptoms such as kidney stones, pulmonary tuberculosis,
quartan fever, intestinal parasites, thrombosed hemorrhoids, and
a spastic colon.9
The biographer Susanne Selinger sees Calvin as neurotic, a
man whose neurosis emerges in remarks about the human body
in a bitter belligerence, and censuriousness directed at anti-social
behavior, especially of a sexual kind. Selinger sees Calvin as Jung’s
“the introverted thinker.” The type is awkward in expressing
emotion and ill-at-ease with public attention. Selinger contends
that Calvin was oedipally ambivalent, since the loss of his mother
while a youth was complicated by his father’s speedy remarriage.
Calvin felt, but suppressed a feeling of betrayal, Selinger adds, that
festered into a passionate hatred, a yearning for love, envy, anger,
and fear. These emotions, which could not find expression because
of Calvin’s religiously oppressive mental regimen, surfaced in his

5. As quoted by Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism (Grand Rapids,
MI: 1980), 26.
6. As quoted by Gordon H. Clark, Predestination (Phillipsburg, 1987), 144.
7. William G. T. Shedd, Calvinism: Pure and Mixed (Edinburgh, 1986), xviii.
8. As quoted by William G. T. Shedd, op. cit., 149.
9. W. Fred Graham, “Calvin and the Political Order: An Analysis of the Three
Explanatory Studies,” in R. V. Schnucker, ed., Calviana: Ideas and Influence of
Jean Calvin (Kirksvilles, MS, 1988), 57 n. 17.

The Legacy of the Legal Theory of John Calvin


written and spoken works.10 Bouwsma, another biographer, agrees
with Selinger that Calvin’s coldness and aloofness toward his father
resulted in the sober looking for parents among the community of
Geneva, particularly in the consistory.11
Those who have admired Calvin include Charles Haddon
Spurgeon, perhaps the most popular English preacher of
the nineteenth century, who remarked, “the longer I live the
clearer does it appear that John Calvin’s system is the nearest to
perfection,”12 adding that “there is no such thing as preaching
Christ and him crucified, unless you preach what now-a-days is
called Calvinism. I have my own ideas, and those I always state
boldly. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the
Gospel, and nothing else.”13 Even Calvin’s enemies would concede
his rhetorical superiority: “Calvin... was a master of equivocation.
His work possessed the great {181} political virtue of ambiguity. It
was subject not so much to a private process of internalization and
emotional recapitulation, as to a public process of development,
accretion, distortion, and use.”14 Had Calvin not been so gifted
rhetorically, he would have had fewer enemies because people
would have ignored him.
Some even compare Calvin to Paul and Augustine:
Next to Paul, John Calvin has done the most for the world. These
two extraordinarily gifted men tower like pyramids over the scene
of history.15
Calvin easily ranks as one of the outstanding systematic expounders
of the Christian system since Saint Paul.16
10. Susanne Selinger, Calvin Against Himself—An Inquiry in Intellectual
History (Hamden, CN, 1984), 62.
11. William J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait (New
York, 1988), 113.
12. Charles H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon’s Sovereign Grace Sermons (Edmonton,
1990), 18.
13. Ibid., 129; Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids,
MI: 1910), III:486.
14. Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origins of
Radical Politicals (Cambridge, MA, 1965), 23.
15. Charles H. Spurgeon, op. cit., 129.
16. Kenneth G. Talbot and W. Gary Crampton, Calvinism, Hyper-Calvinism,
and Arminianism (Edmonton, 1990), 78.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

Calvin brought to light forgotten doctrine of the Apostle Paul.17
Calvin and Augustine easily rank as the two outstanding systematic
expounders of the Christian system since Saint Paul.18
Augustine stands as a major link between Paul and Calvin.19 [They
are] the two most scientific theologians of Christendom.20
The main features of Calvin’s theology are found in the writings of
Saint Augustine.21
Augustine was so strongly Calvinistic that John Calvin referred to
himself as an Augustinian theologian.22
There is hardly a doctrine of Calvin that does not bear the marks of
Augustine’s influence.23
The system of doctrine taught by Calvin is just the Augustinianism
common to the whole body of the Reformers.24 {182}
Calvin got his Calvinism from Augustine.25
The reformation was essentially a revival of Augustinianism, as
Augustinianism was a recovery of Pauline theology.26

Later theologians would praise a “Calvinism” as the alternative
to “Arminianism.” In Reformed circles, since the Reformation,
the term Arminianism is the by-word for aberration, as the
common term for all theological evils. Arminianism says that
mankind, though fallen, has some moral good. This potential for
17. Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Phillipsburg,
1932), 352.
18. Alan Richardson and John S. Bowden, The Westminster Dictionary of
Christian Theology (Philadelphia, 1983), 58.
19. Arthur Custance, The Sovereignty of Grace (Phillipsburg, 1979), 20.
20. Roger Forster and Paul Marston, Reason and Faith (Eastbound, 1989),
272; see also Roger Forster and Paul Marston, God’s Strategy in Human History
(Crowborough, East Sussex, 1989).
21. Charles D. Provan, The Bible and Birth Control (Monongahela, 1989), 68.
22. Ibid., 97.
23. John Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: 1959), 19.
24. Provan, op. cit., 49.
25. Ibid.
26. Arthur Custance, op. cit., 27.

The Legacy of the Legal Theory of John Calvin


moral good ranges from the doctrine of free will to the doctrine
of the “spark of divinity.”27 Morton Smith calls Arminianism “a
crooked stick” through which God can still save.28 Sam Storms
defends Calvinism as the only worthwhile system of salvation
doctrine because the alternative, or Arminianism, is “by necessity
synergistic, in that it conceives of salvation as the joint or mutual
effort of both God and man.”29 “Calvinism stands today as the
great citadel of historic orthodoxy.”30 J. Gresham Machen, founder
of Westminster Theological Seminary, recommended Boetnner’s
work The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, a work generally
considered to define the parameters of Calvinism.31 Here R. C.
Sproul represents the opinion of Reformed theologians:
Those thinkers who are most widely recognized as the titans of
classical Christian scholarship fall heavily on the Reformed side. I
am persuaded, however, that this is a fact of history that dare not be
ignored. To be sure, it is possible that Augustine, Aquinas, Luther,
Calvin, and Edwards could all be wrong on this matter. Again, that
these agreed does not prove the case for predestination. They could
have been wrong. But it does get attention.32 {183} John Calvin—
The Religious / Political Scenario of His Day
A variety of forces shaped Calvin’s world (1509–1564)—
Renaissance humanism, the printing press, Lutheran reform, the
reform of the 1520s in France, as well as the more radical aftermath
a decade later. Calvin, who made his reputation as a Reformed
theologian, was first of all a humanist scholar. (The term connotes
27. Scholastic theologians distinguish moral good from metaphysical good.
According to them, there is metaphysical good even in Satan, although no moral
good. Scholastic theologians theorize that God created all things good (Gen.
1:24). Further, they see evil as the absence of good. Since Satan, one third of the
angels as well as Adam, and Eve, fell into moral evil yet still exist, they must have
some kind of “good.” The goodness retained by the fallen beings is metaphysical
good. Since each of these beings lacks moral good, he is evil. The Reformed
branch of Protestantism has argued since the Reformation that mankind is evi1
morally, but not metaphysically.
28. Morton H. Smith, Reformed Evangelism (Clinton MS, 1989), 29.
29. Samuel C. Storms, Chosen for Life (Grand Rapids, MI: 1987), 30.
30. Gregg Singer, John Calvin: His Root5 and Fruits (Atlanta, GA: 1989), 28.
31. J. Gresham Machen, The Christian View of Man (Grand Rapids, MI:
1931), 51.
32. R. C. Sproul, Chosen by God (Wheaton, IL: 1986), 15.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

the Renaissance rediscovery of the classical form of Greece and
Rome.) The humanist caption ad fontes or “ back to the original
sources” was taken up by the young Calvin; interestingly, his
first work was a commentary on Seneca. Not only did humanist
scholarship include Latin, Greek, and Hebrew documents, but
also the writings of the Church Fathers. Calvin’s interests led him
to Augustine. Moreover, humanist traditions revived the art of
rhetoric, the skillful use of language for persuasion, and this John
Calvin used to great advantage.33
The advent of the printing press magnified humanist scholarship,
taking it far and wide, to audiences hitherto unimagined. Literacy
was on the rise, stirred by the publications, the pamphlets and the
other printed works in the vernacular. Further, the publication of a
barrage of pamphlets in the language of the people actually stirred
interest in literacy. Scripture had emerged under Hus and Wyclif,
but under Luther and Calvin the rediscovery was broadcast to the
peoples of Europe and beyond. Indeed, the printing press was the
principal weapon of the Reformation. In some parts of Europe,
even the power of the Papacy could not overcome the power of
the press.34
Calvin, a man of his day, became integral to the reform
movements that dominated Western Europe. These included
both magisterial and radical elements (magisterial refers to
the position of reformers in regard to government). It was the
magisterial branches of the Reformation that advocated use of civil
governments, especially local governments, for the correction of
both church and society. The radical branches of the Reformation
included anabaptists and spiritualists, who viewed the state {184}
33. Cf. William G. Naphy, Calvin and the Consolidation of the Genevan
Reformation (Manchester, NY, 1994); Danie1 Buscarlet, International Monument
of Reformation: A Short Outline (Genieve, Editions l’Eau Vive, 196); Monument
International de la Reformation a Geneve (Geneve, Imprimerie Atar, 1909?);
Henri Naef, Les origines dal refomea Geneve, la cite des ‘ev’eques, I’humanimse,
les signes preecurseurs; publie par la Societe d’histoire et d’archeologie de geneve,
avec le concours de la Socieate auxiliarie des sceinces et des arts (Paris and Geneve,
1936); for a helpful bibliography, see Theophile Dufour, Notice Bibliographique
sur le Catechisme et la Confession de foi de Calvin (1537) et sur les autres livres
imprimes a Geneve et a Neuchatel dansles preimers temps de la Reforme (1533–
1540) (Geneve, Slatkine Reprints, 1970).
34. Cf. Alister E. McGrath, A Life of John Calvin (Oxford, 1990) and Ronald S.
Wallace, Calvin, Geneva, and the Reformation (Edinburgh, 1989).

The Legacy of the Legal Theory of John Calvin


(national and local) as arms of Satan. (The Mennonites, Hutterites,
and Amish are its modern equivalents.)35
In terms of doctrinal influence, Martin Luther propelled Calvin
toward Reformation theology. Introspective, and in the thrall of a
single question: “How can sinful human beings be justified before
a God who is absolutely righteous?”, Luther rejected the responses
of the medieval theologians. Because of his own sense of sin in
light of God’s righteousness, Luther concluded (from the book of
Romans) that God imputed righteousness to unrighteous sinners
sola fide and sola gratia—by grace and by faith alone, and that the
only source of religious authority was Scripture. Sola fide, sola
gratia, and sola Scriptura were the inspiration for Calvin’s spiritual
journey, leading him from Luther to horizons of his own making.36
Just as Luther contributed to Calvin’s spiritual quest, so did
Zwingli, during the formative years. Preaching in Zurich, Zwingli
had come to his conclusions independent of Luther. Although
both maintained friendly relations until the 1520s, in 1525 they
hatched a bitter disagreement over an interpretation of the Lord’s
Supper, particularly the nature of Christ’s presence in the rite.
Despite this, Zwingli contributed to Calvin’s development. Calvin’s
reformist zeal had two birth places—Switzerland and Germany,
and not one.37
A reform movement swept also through France in the
early sixteenth century. A humanist scholar who explored
Scripture, Jacques Lefevre D’Etaples epitomized the principle
of sola Scriptura, a ministry that included the writing of biblical
commentaries and an attempt to reconstruct the apostolic church.
Among the disciples of Jacque Lefevre D’Etaples were John Calvin
and Guon Bisomet. Under the later ministry of Bisomet, William
Farel became a Protestant. Unlike Lefevre, who never advocated
a break from Rome, Farel concluded that a break from Rome
was imperative if one were to pursue reform to conclusion. Farel
fled to Geneva and spread the Reformation doctrine throughout
Switzerland, later joining Calvin in the work of reform.38



Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

Farel was dissatisfied with Lefevre’s reforms, producing the first
Protestant writings in the French language. Published in 1534,
Farel’s commentary on the Lord’s Prayer was the first systematic
exposition of {185} Protestant theology by a French theologian.
The publisher of Farel’s work, Pierre de Vingle, began to print
additional literature at Neufchatel, advocating more radical reform,
including the abrogation of Rome’s authority. This culminated in
the events of October 17, 1534, when anti-Catholic slogans were
placarded all over Paris, including the king’s bedchamber! Until
then France had been open to more moderate attempts at reform,
such as LeFevere’s. The reaction to the placard campaign, however,
was persecution of the more evangelically minded; these included
John Calvin. One year after the placard campaign, Calvin, who
had fled to Geneva, would publish his first edition of the Institutes
in 1535.39
From 1530 onward, in France and Geneva, in the Netherlands
and in Germany, the Reformation reached an epic dimension. In
France, for instance, the reaction included public burnings, among
these the martyrdom of Carolus de Koninck:
When the priests saw that they could do nothing with him he was
condemned as a heretic, and after that, on 22 April degraded from
the popish priesthood. Then the bishop delivered him into the
hands of the secular judges, just as Christ was given over to the
heathen by the priests and the scribes.40
In Geneva, the Reformation dismantled the bishopric. Of the
Genevan diocese (110 parishes under the Catholic bishop), sale
of church land between September 1536 and February 1537 raised
47,000 francs, or almost three times the annual revenues of the city.
Until then the temporal power of the Bishop had been extensive—
he received two thirds of the commercial tariffs on Geneva’s public
markets and all the revenues from the criminal justice system.41
Energized by this economic coup, Genevan society was
39. Ibid.
40. Alastair Duke, trans. and ed., “The Seed of the Church—Martyr’s
Testimonies,” Calvinism in Europe 1540–1610—A Collection of Documents
(Manchester, 1992), 138.
41. William G. Naphy, “The Renovation of the Ministry in Geneva,” in The
Reformation of the Parishes (Manchester, 1993), 114.

The Legacy of the Legal Theory of John Calvin


reorganized according to Calvin’s vision, derived from biblical
sources. Calvin’s creation of four offices within the church was to
be the organizational structure of society. Under this arrangement,
pastors, elders, deacons, and doctors divided responsibilities,
respectively, into preaching, discipline, money, and material
benevolence, as well as teaching.42 {186} Not only in France and
Geneva, but also in the Netherlands, the reformation surged ever
higher, to the extent that in 1578 the Synod of Dordrecht asked
whether civil government should confirm or enforce the articles
passed by Reformed synods. The Dordrecht Synod, composed of
ministers and at least one elder from each assembly, replied “that
the civil authority shall be asked to confirm with their authority
those articles, where the authority of the same is necessary for these
to be put into effect.” Thus, if creedal or confessional statements
implicated civil authority, the civil government’s responsibility
was to enforce the decrees of the Reformed synods.43
The Reformation ignited the Netherlands on August 10, 1566,
when over 400 cathedrals were vandalized in Flanders alone in
seventeen provinces. Well-organized mobs systematically looted,
smashed idols, and desecrated church buildings. Although Philip
II of Spain, under the Duke of Alva, sent 10,000 troops to suppress
“rebellion and heresy,” the incursion of foreign “idolatrous” troops
only served to inflame the trend.44
In Germany, an awareness of God according to Protestant
dictates found its way into the coin of the realm. This sense of the
superiority of Scripture was a hallmark. Frederick the Wise, host
of the Wittenberg “ecclesiastical experiments” (the Wittenberg
Movement) issued coins stamped with V[erbum] D[omini]
m[anet] i[n] e[ternum].45
Robert Kingdon’s works on Calvinism identify Geneva as a

42. Jeannine E. Olson, Calvin and Social Welfare—Deacons and the Bourse
Francaise (London and Toronto, 1989), 29.
43. Duke, op. cit., 182.
44. P. Mack Crew, Calvinist Preaching and Iconoclasm in the Netherland5
(Cambridge University Press, 1978); Carlos M. N. Eire, War Against the Idols—
The Reformation of Wor5hip from Era5mus to Calvin (Cambridge, 1986), 280.
45. Helga Robinson-Hammerstein, “Introduction: Luther and the Laity,” in
The Transmission in the Lutheran Reformation (Dublin, 1989), 29.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

center of the Reformation and concurrent political revolution.46
The preaching itself often led to social upheaval, of the most
iconoclastic kind. In 1560, the first French riots occurred in Rouen
and La Rochelle. A year later in 1561, the furor spread to a host
of other French cities, towns, and villages, including the province
of Languedoc, Paris, Touraine, Angers, Beauvais, LeMans, and
Pointoise. By the next year in 1562, riots irrupted in Orleans, Tours,
Caen, Lyons, Marseille, Abbeville, Bourges, Meaux, Sens, Bayeaux,
and {187} Auxerre.47 In France, unlike Switzerland and Germany,
the destruction of a community’s “idols” was a direct affront to
the King, whose political agenda was “one king, one law, and one
faith.”48 Over time France would prove to be the more than fallow
ground. The upheavals, however, were not at the instigation of the
Genevan consistory; on the contrary, Calvin condemned the riots
as sin and a crime.49

The legal and political scenario of Calvin’s day involved
upheavals deriving from the force of religion on law. Whole cities,
provinces, and states came under Reformation influence, ranging
from quiet individual conversions to Protestantism to the hysteria
of community iconoclasm. The transformation of these societies,
however, was not in moving away from a religious worldview;
rather, the transformation was a movement of one religion to
another. In Calvin’s day, secularism, pluralism, and religious
toleration were non-existent. Europe was not in the thrall of the
question “Should religion in public life be tolerated?” but rather
“Which religion should be enforced, to the banning of all others?”
Calvin was a driven man, but driving him was a valid question:
“What is the true religion?” And deriving from the central question
46. Robert Kingdon, Geneva and the Coming of the Wars of Religion in France,
1555–1563 (Geneva, 1956); Robert Kingdon, Geneva and the Constitution of the
French Protestant Movement 1564–1572 (Madison, 1967); cf. John T. NcNeill,
The History and Character of Calvinism (New York, 1967), 237–352; E. William
Monter, Calvin’s Geneva (New York, 1975), 165–236.
47. Carlos M. N. Eire, War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from
Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge, 1986), 279.
48. Ibid., 281.
49. Ibid., 280.

The Legacy of the Legal Theory of John Calvin


were corollaries: “What law is right law?” and “What government
is right government?” Calvin’s trek would lead him to answers.

Statement of Thesis
Calvin concluded that, substantively, a correct political and
legal system derives from the Bible, and procedurally, the system is
applied by democratically elected officials, checking and balancing
one another—and his views were within a Reformation consensus.

The Legal Theory of John Calvin
Law was a fundamental consideration for Reformers because
it exposed one’s need for salvation by grace through faith alone.
More specifically, the magisterial branch of the Reformation
viewed civil law as a means to reform society. Calvin agreed
with his Reformation colleagues that divine {188} law functions
as a spiritual teacher, restrainer of sin in society, and a guide to
sanctification, yet emphasized the law’s divine source, relation to
the gospel, and prosecutorial role.

Calvin’s View of the Uses of the Law
The Reformation achieved consensus regarding the functions of
the law of God, concluding that the first use of the law is tutelary.
Regarding this function Calvin cites Rom. 10:4, “For Christ is
the end of the law.”50 The law acts negatively to expose sin and
positively to expose the solution—in the person and finished
work of Christ. The second use of the law is its civil function,
which concerns sin as a general restraint. The law as written in
the human heart and confirmed by social convention serves to
restrain sin through civil and criminal codes. The third use of the
law regarded the sanctification of the believer, since it guides the
believer to obedience.
50. John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed.
John T. McNeill and tr. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics 20–21
(Philadelphia, 1960) (hereafter Institutes, Book.chapter.section) (1559 edition),
d.6.2, 2.6.4, 2.7.2, 3.2.6; Merwyn Johnson, “Calvin’s Handling of the of the Law,”
in R. V. Schnunker, Calviniana: Ideas and Influence of Jean Calvin (Kirksvilles,
MS, 1988), 44.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

In the Lutheran circles, the Formula of Concord in Article
VI, “Of the Third Use of the Law,” confirms the unity of God’s
law: “Both for penitent and impenitent, for regenerated and
unregenerate people the law is and remains one and the same law,
namely, the unchangeable will of God.”51 Lutheran dogma includes
a discussion of both the law and gospel:52 Melancthon, a member
of Luther’s circle, says “such can come about through the divine
word, through a consideration of the punishments on others, or
through our own punishment.” The needs of humanity, he claims,
include “a divine testimony of what is right and of what sin is; so
that through the punishment of sin in all men, the unconverted
may be converted, and the converted be strengthened in the fear of
God.”53 In the last edition of Loci Communnes in 1555, Melancthon
also affirmed the third {189} use of the law: “The law in this life is
necessary that saints may know and have a testimony of the works
which please God.”54
Calvin explains that in its third use the law has two functions.
According to his view, Christians are in a relationship with God
that depends on Christ’s accomplishments and not works of law.
The function of the law is to foster in Christians the urge to learn
“more thoroughly each day the nature of the Lord’s will to which
they aspire.”55 A Christian is the servant who is “already prepared
with all earnestness of heart to commend himself to his master,
must search out and observe his master’s ways more carefully in
order to conform and accommodate himself to them.”56 Johnson’s
work on Calvin says that to Calvin the law is “an indicator of the
51. Formula of Concord, Article VI, paragraph 6, quoted from The Book of
Concord, trans. and ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia, 1959), 481.
52. For a representative survey, see Philip Watson, Let God be God: An
Interpretation of the Theology of Martin Luther (London, 1947), 152ff.; Paul
Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia, 1966), Chap. 19; Eric
W. Gritsch and Robert W. Janson, Lutheranism: The Theological Movement
and Its Confessional Writings (Philadelphia, 1976), 42ff.; Helmut Thielicke, The
Evangelical Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: 1982), III: ch. 11.
53. Melancthon on “Christian Doctrine,” Loci Communes 1555, trans. and ed.
Clyde L. Manschrek (New York, 1965), 127.
54. Johnson, loc. cit.
55. Institutes, 2.7.12, I.33.
56. Institutes, 2.7.12.

The Legacy of the Legal Theory of John Calvin


character and activity of God.”57 The next function of the law (third
category) is exhortation, for as Calvin remarks, “the law is to the
flesh like a whip to an idle and balky ass, to arouse it to work,”58
ready to castigate those who continue to sin. He believed in using
the law in discouraging sin through warning of consequences and
encouraging righteousness with the promise of reward.59
Even if the law meets with suitable hosts, it can turn into an
occasion that condemns them as sinners.60 While Calvin and
Luther agreed on the three uses of the law, Calvin regarded the
third use of the law as a guide for believers as the “principal
use.”61 In Calvin’s view the civil magistrate had the authority to
enforce both tables of the Ten Commandments—that is pietas and

Calvin’s View of the Source of Law
Luther and Melancthon see God as the source of law. William
Maurer, in his excellent commentary on the Augsburg Confession,
concludes that “In no way did either Luther or Melancthon see
government as the source of property laws, nor could a Christian
rest easy in settling all questions about property by referring to
specific public laws.” In matters of buying and {190} selling, both
Luther and Melancthon believed that everyone ought to be able
to follow the dictates of conscience.63 Regarding civic regulation,
Luther argues for a decentralized government, allowing local
market conditions according to geography and experts authorized
to supervise and check transactions.64
57. Johnson, op. cit., 46.
58. Institutes (1536 edition):1.33, 1559:2.7.12.
59. Johnson, op. cit., 47.
60. Institutes, 2.7.7; Johnson, passim.
61. Institutes 2.7.12; I. John Hesselink, “Law and Gospel or Gospel and Law?”
in R. V. Schnucker, Calviniana: Ideas and Influence of Jean Calvin (Kirksvilles,
MS, 1988), 13.
62. Harro Hopfl, The Christian Polity of John Calvin (Cambridge, 1982), 172.
63. Wilhelm Maurer, trans. H. George Anderson, Historical Commentary
on the Augsburg Confession (Philadelphia, 1986), 156; compare Luther’s Works,
64. Martin Luther, D. Martin Luthers Werke: Krtische Gesamtausgabe,
(Gutersloh, 1951), vol. 16, 554:27–28; Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehman,


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

Calvin on the other hand, sees the politics of civic life as
morally derived from both biblical law and natural law. The
authority of fathers over their wives and children,65 monogamy,66
duty of paternal care for families,67 breast-feeding,68 obligation
of promises,69 the need for more than one witness in the case of
murder,70 the prohibition of incest, 71adultery,72 and slavery,73 and
respect for the old,74 derived from natural law as well as biblical
law in Calvin’s thinking.75
He sees capital punishment as sanctioned by both biblical and
natural law, and that adultery merited capital punishment:
The law of God commands adulterers to be stoned. Before this
punishment was set down in written law, the adulterous woman was,
by the consent of all, committed to the flames. It is established that
this was done by a divine instinct, under the direction and teaching
of nature, so that the sanctity of marriage might be defended as by
a strong guard. How much more vile and how much less excusable
is our negligence nowadays, which cherishes adulteries by allowing
them to go unpunished. Capital punishment, indeed, is considered
too severe for the measure of the offense. Why then do we punish
lighter faults with greater rigor? Truly the world was bewitched
by Satan {191} when it suffered a law implanted in all by nature to
become obsolete.76
(Calvin does not explain why he believes burning is a valid
eds., Luthers’ Works, 54 vols. (St. Louis, 1955), 49: 54; 45: 248–51.
65. John Calvin, Commentaries (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society,
1843–59), d Cor. 7:37; Eph. 5:31; d Tim. 2 and 5:8.
66. Commentaries, Gen. 26:10; 38:24 (hereafter Commentaries, reference).
67. Commentaries, 1 Tim. 5:8.
68. Commentaries, Gen. 21:8 (primogeniture with some qualifications);
Commentaries, Gen. 27:11.
69. Commentaries, 1 Cor. 9:1.
70. Idem., Harmony of Moses (Edinburgh, 1843–59), III: 45.
71. Commentaries (Edinburgh, 1843–59), Gen. 29:27; idem., Harmony of
Moses (Edinburgh, 1843–59), III: 20.
72. Commentaries, Gen. 26:10; Harmony of Moses, III: 77.
73. Harmony of Moses, idem., III: 18, 98.
74. Commentaries, Gen. 12:15; Eph. 6:1.
75. Hopfl, op. cit., 180.
76. Commentaries, Gen. 38:24.

The Legacy of the Legal Theory of John Calvin


substitute for biblical stoning.)
When Calvin was asked by the Genevan consistory to contribute
to the city’s codification efforts, to its new laws and edicts, he
turned to the Roman Corpus Juris Civilis for a model of contract
law, property law, and judicial procedure.77 His use of this source
signified his belief that natural law was a phenomenon discerned
by all nations, irrespective of pagan origins of the lawmakers.
(Calvin’s drafts are in G. Baum’s Joannis Calvini Opera Quae
Supersunt Omnia.78) In the humanist tradition of the day, Calvin
expanded his legal studies, as to include other literature, at the
suggestion of his friend Bude, who showed Calvin that a study
of law and bonare litterae (a humanist slogan for good literature)
could complement each other.79 Calvin’s sense of law, then, was
informed by an exposure to legal sources, good literature, and the

Calvin’s View of the Relation of Law and the Gospel
The Distinction Between Law and Grace
Readers of Calvin often have interpretive problems regarding his
use of the words “law” and “grace.” As I. John Hesselink observes:
“What is often overlooked by Lutheran scholars who write on this
subject and who compare Luther and Calvin is that they are not
always talking about the same thing when they use the expression
law and gospel.’ Neither of them uses the expression in a fixed way,
so that depending on the situation or context, ‘law and gospel’ can
mean any one of a number of things.”80 In the same vein, Hesselink
recommends that readers look at the context before deciding what
meaning attaches to the terms: “One Cannot make any judgments
at all about Calvin’s understanding of law and Gospel without
recognizing the various meanings each of those terms connotes
and the various qualifications made within those meanings.”81
77. Hopfl, op. cit., 6–7.
78. G. Baum, E. Cunitz, and E. Reuss, eds. Joannis Calvini Opera Quae
Supersunt Omnia (Brunswick and Berlin, 1863–1900), 10, I, 125–46.
79. Hopfl, op. cit., 7.
80. Hesselink, op. cit., 14.
81. Ibid., 32.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

{192} In their commentaries on Galatians, Calvin and Luther

display no significant differences on the nature and distinction
separating the law from the gospel.82 Not only does Calvin make a
distinction between the law as a means of salvation, and grace as
the means of salvation, but contends there is an antithesis between
the two forms.83 In his commentary on Exodus 19:1, Calvin
refers to nomos (from Gal. 3:19), meaning one is separated from
the promise of grace, and is considered in the light of the law’s
“peculiar office, power, and end.”84 In this context, Calvin refers to
the law as nudes lex or “bare law.”85
The Continuity of Law and Gospel
As scholars, Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer, Melanchthon, and Bullinger
agree that God’s covenant with Abraham was the same as the New
Covenant of gospels and epistles.86 The covenant with Abraham in
the Old Testament and believers in the New differ only in outward
form. To Calvin, the covenants of the Patriarchs were one with
that of the New Testament; they differ only in externals—the
modus administrationis.87
The nova docendi forma, or new mode of instruction, replaced
ancient ceremonies, but the doctrinae substantia, the substance of
doctrine, was unaltered.88 In the former, the doctrine was handed
down from the mountain top; in the latter, the Lord’s mountain
82. Ibid., 15; idem., “Luther and Calvin on Law and Gospel in Their Galatians
Commentaries,” Reformed Review 37/2 (Winter 1984); Andrew J. Bandstra, “Law
and Gospel in Calvin and Paul,” in Exploring the Heritage of John Calvin: Essays in
Honor of John Bratt, ed. David E. Holwerda (Grand Rapids, MI: 1976).
83. Institutes, 2.10.2.
84. John Calvin, Harmony of the Last Four Books of Moses (Grand Rapids, MI:
1948–50), 2:314.
85. Hesselink, op. cit., 17; Institutes 2.7.2.
86. Gottlob Schrenk, Gottesreich und Bund im alteren Protestantismus
(Darmstadt, 1967 [reprint 1923]).
87. Institutes, 2.10.2; 2.11.1; Consider Calvin’s argument, more forceful in
Latin: “Patrum omnium foedus adeo substantia et re ipsa nihim a nostro differt,
ut unum prorsus atque idem sit. Administratio tarnen variat.” And further, “Eas
omne sic esse dico, et ostensurum me profiteor, ut ad modum administrationis
potiuos quam ad substantiam pertineant. Hac ration nihil impedient quominus
eaedem maneant veteris ac novi testamenti promissiones, atque idem ipsorum
promissionum fundamentum, Christus,” Institutes, 2.10.2; 2.11.I.
88. Hesselink, op. cit., 18; Commentary, Isa. 2:3; contrast Ex. 19:1 with Isa. 2:3.

The Legacy of the Legal Theory of John Calvin


was heaven, the already triumphant church ascended in worship.89
Although the doctrine of God is the “same and always agrees with
itself ” (et sui perpetuo similem), the {193} doctrine itself came “out
of Zion” with new clothing (veste).90 Law and grace are derived
from God’s will (hoc ex Dei ordinatione pendet).91
Calvin sees Moses as holding two titles (munera). On the one
hand, he was steward of general doctrine (generalem doctrinam),
communicating God’s message everywhere, law and gospel both
(in universum); as steward of general doctrine, Moses preached
the Gospel (evangelic praeconem).92 On the other hand, Moses
had a mandate (mandatum) to lead the state of the Israelites,
since Yahweh had commissioned him to instill obedience to the
geopolitical (propria) civil and judicial code given at Sinai.93

Calvin’s View of the Prosecutorial Function of Law
Calvin’s thinking is a reminder of Augustine’s: “If the Spirit of
grace is absent, the law is present only to accuse and kill us.”94
Calvin called the Ten Commandments the “bare law,” on behalf
of which God demands his due (exigit quod sibi debetur). But this
law does not impart either the ability or desire to perform.95 The
Decalogue is “bare,” in the sense of explanation (cf Ex. 21–23),
motivation, and the believer’s desire and ability to conform.
Calvin distinguishes King David’s praises for the law from Paul’s
condemnation of those who attempt to earn salvation merely by
being law abiding. When David praises God’s law, as in Ps. 119,
he means the law as a whole, which includes the promises of
salvation.96 As Calvin concludes, “If Adam had remained upright
(si integer stetisset Adam),” (Rom. 7:19), “the law would not have

89. Compare Gal. 4:26.
90. Commentaries, Isa. 2:3; Hesselink, loc. cit., 18.
91. Commentaries, 2 Cor. 3:6.
92. Commentaries, Rom. 10:5; Commentaries, Ex. 19:I.
93. Commentaries, Ex. 19:d; Commentaries, Rom. 7:2.
94. Augustine, quoted in Calvin, Institutes, 2.7.7.
95. Commentaries, 2 Cor. 3:7.
96. Compare Commentaries, Ps. 19:7–8 with Commentaries, Ac. 7:38 and 2
Cor. 3:14–17.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

brought death upon us.”97 The nature of holy law is both “perpetual
and inseparable (perpetuum et inseparabel) from its nature. The
blessing which it offers to us is excluded by our depravity, so that
only the curse remains.”98 He further explains, “God exhibited a
remarkable proof of his goodness in promising life to all who kept
his law—and this will always remain inviolate (integrum).”99
Of course, Calvin sees the “bare law” as presenting an impossible
challenge to the unregenerate; Jesus Christ alone is able to keep
the law. {194} Accordingly, the “wickedness and condemnation of
us all are sealed by the testimony of the law. Yet this is not done
to cause us to fall down in despair, or completely discouraged,
to rush headlong over the brink—provided we duly profit by the
testimony of the law.”100 In Calvin’s opinion, the law’s accusatory
character should not depress but illumine.

Unlike our modern era, Reformation legal theory is monadic—a
universal God governs universally through a universal law. Modern
Western pluralism views law as a governing entity separate and
distinct from religious organizations. “Secular” law stops where
organized religion begins. With his Reformation colleagues,
Calvin did not view church and society as compartmentalized.
Rather, one truth, one church, one society, one government, and
one law derived from God through the Bible and nature. Calvin’s
wholistic worldview and the modern pluralistic one are galaxies

97. Institutes, 1.2.d.
98. Commentaries, Gal. 3:10.
99. Commentaries, Ez. 20:11.
100. Institutes, 2.7.8.

The Legacy of the Legal Theory of John Calvin




Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

Reform of Limited
Liability Law
Stephen C. Perks

Among those who have called for reform of the economy there are
those who have argued also for the abolition of the limited liability
status of joint-stock companies as a necessary concomitant of such
reforms. As we shall see, R. J. Rushdoony links the development
of limited liability and the growth of a fiat money economy and
in The Politics of Guilt and Pity he entitled the chapter on limited
liability “Limited Liability and Unlimited Money.”1 Likewise, Gary
North in An Introduction to Christian Economics wrote: “Monetary
inflation, multiple indebtedness, and limited liability are an unholy
economic trinity; they are eroding the very foundation of Western
culture.”2 These are strong words indeed against limited liability,
for while there are in the Bible specific and explicit laws prohibiting
the debasement of money and multiple indebtedness there are
none explicitly addressing the kind of limited liability granted to
joint-stock companies in modern Western law. The issue is much
more complex than that, and thus there are, rather than explicit
laws, general principles and case laws from which we can deduce
the limits of companies’ and individual shareholders’ liability. A
careful study of the biblical material relevant to this issue would,
I believe, yield neither the conclusion that shareholders of jointstock companies should be held liable beyond the nominal value
of their shareholding in all circumstances where the company’s
actions or failure to act have led to justifiable claims for damages
1. R. J. Rushdoony, The Politics of Guilt and Pity (Fairfax, VA: 1978), 254–
62. This is in my opinion one of the most important books available on the
application of the Christian religion to political and social issues and essential
reading for anyone with a vocation in this area.
2. Gary North, An Introduction to Christian Economics (The Craig Press,
1973), 18.

Reform of Limited Liability Law


nor that limited liability status should be accepted in its present
form, since both fail to apportion liability for damages in the way
that biblical law suggests that it should be apportioned.

The Meaning of Limited Liability
Limited liability law restricts the liability of a shareholder in a
joint-stock company to the nominal value of his shareholding.
Thus, in the event of a limited company’s being forced into
liquidation in order to pay off its debts, the shareholder may lose
the whole or part of his investment, since {196} the company’s
assets will be sold and the proceeds used to reimburse its creditors.
But that is the limit of his liability. In other words, if the sale of
the company’s assets does not raise sufficient funds to clear its
debts, the shareholder is not obligated to reimburse the company’s
creditors out of his own private estate, as would be the case if he
were a partner in a non-limited liability company that was forced
into liquidation. He would not run the risk of personal bankruptcy.

Kinds of Limited Liability
There are two kinds of limited company, the private company
and the public company. The private limited company is more
restricted in its ability to raise capital than the public limited
company since the maximum number of shareholders permitted
by law is fifty, its shares are not quoted on the Stock Exchange,
and transfers of shares have to be approved by the directors. In
addition, the controlling shareholders are often required by
banks to give personal guarantees for any debts incurred by the
company. This latter fact goes some way to mitigating the effects
of the limited liability status granted by law to private limited
companies. The public limited company, by comparison, can raise
capital by means of public subscription, its shares are traded on
the Stock Exchange, and their sale does not have to be approved
by the company’s directors. Shares in a public company are thus
more liquid.
The term limited liability can be used in a much broader and
looser sense than this, however. Because man is a finite being,
his liabilities are limited. Man’s knowledge is not exhaustive and
yet he has to live and work within the limits of his knowledge.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

The fact that man’s knowledge is limited means that his liabilities
are of necessity limited. In this broader sense man’s liabilities are
limited by many things. For example there are natural limits to
man’s liability: e.g. death limits man’s liabilities. There are also
manmade limits to his liabilities: For instance, contracts may limit
man’s liability. Insurance companies may write clauses into life
insurance policies limiting the liability of the insurance company
under certain circumstances. A common contractual limitation in
life insurance policies stipulates that if the insured commits suicide
within a certain number of years after taking out the policy, the
company is not liable to pay out. Such contracts bring us to the
realm of legal limitations on man’s liability. But man’s liability is
also limited by God’s law. There are thus divine limits {197} placed
on man’s liability.3 However, it is with reference to the restricted
and narrower use of the term that I am concerned here, i.e., in
the sense that the term is applied in law to joint-stock companies
whose shareholders’ liability is restricted to the nominal value
of their shareholding. My purpose is to establish from biblical
principles and criteria the extent of the validity or non-validity of
this modern idea of limited liability as it is applied to joint-stock
companies in law. It is important that we keep this restricted use of
the term in mind and do not get it confused with the more general
notion and alternative uses of the term.
3. I am concerned here with man’s liability to other men in economic matters.
What is said here, therefore, should not be taken as necessarily applicable in
strictly criminal matters. For example, limitations on man’s liabilities arising
from sabbath year release of debt and manumission would not necessarily be
applicable to someone making restitution for theft or fraud. Neither am I dealing
with man’s liability before God as a sinner under the sentence of God’s law. It
is a fundamental axiom of Christian theology that God holds man accountable
for his sin and that his liability to punishment for the transgression of God’s law
is unlimited precisely because man is finite and thus unable to make sufficient
amends for his sin, which of course has infinite consequences. Only in Christ is
man’s unlimited liability for sin before God removed since Christ, as the Godman, has made a propitiation that is sufficient to atone for man’s sin and thus able
to discharge the debt incurred by it. In this sense I agree with R. J. Rushdoony
when he writes: “The covenant-breaker, at war with God and unregenerate, has
an unlimited liability for the curse. Hell is the final statement of that unlimited
liability. The objections to hell, and the attempts to reduce it to a place of
probation or correction, are based on a rejection of unlimited liability” (R. J.
Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law [Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing
Company, 1973], 668).

Reform of Limited Liability Law


Arguments Against Limited Liability
It has been argued that limited liability is in the first place
unjust, since it shifts liability from those who are responsible for
a company’s actions to innocent parties. Second, limited liability
separates property from control and ownership from management,
resulting in the separation of management from responsibility.
Shareholders thus become interested not in ownership and
responsible management of the company but simply the drive for
more profits. Third, this leads to a greater tendency for companies
to assume debt, make risky investments, and undertake risky
business projects. Since the consequences of bankruptcy are borne
only partially by the company, creditors having to bear any loss
above the value of its assets, there is an incentive for companies
to assume debt that they cannot clear by the sale of their assets
in the event of failure. Shareholders without limited liability to
protect them, however, would likely be more concerned about the
kind of risk taking the company engages in, the amount of debt it
assumes, and more generally that it has a responsible management
team. {198} These concerns would be expressed at shareholders’
meetings by the dismissal of incompetent or irresponsible
directors and the appointment of a prudent and trustworthy
management, therefore protecting not only shareholders’
investments in the company but also their personal estates and
reputations. Limited liability, by protecting shareholders from
the more unpleasant and economically ruinous consequences
of risky and imprudent enterprises undertaken by the company,
encourages irresponsibility on the part of shareholders, many
of whom may not even turn up for shareholders’ meetings,
and greater risk taking and imprudent investment etc. by the
company’s management. With companies that are not granted
limited liability status, shareholders have to protect themselves
by ensuring that the company acts responsibly and, should it be
forced into liquidation, is able to clear any debts it has incurred by
the sale of its assets without calling on the personal estates of its
R. J. Rushdoony argues the case for abolition of the limited
liability status of joint-stock companies cogently. He makes the
point that along with limited liability status for companies today, the


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

individual, by comparison, is subject to almost unlimited liability
by the law: “Today, the law penalizes the individual with almost
unlimited liabilities, so that every kind of insurance is necessary
for the individual as homeowner, driver, and parent (in the event
that his child blackens a bully’s eye). On the other hand, corporate
irresponsibility is fostered by limited liability laws which, over a
period of time, separate property from control, ownership from
management, and management from responsibility.”4 Rushdoony
goes on to state the problems with limited liability very clearly:
Liability is inescapable; by limiting the liability of the company
which contracts a debt, or permits a fraud, the liability is then
passed on to innocent parties. Limited liability thus shifts
responsibility away from the responsible to society at large. A
partner or shareholder in a company will exercise cautious and
conscientious control over his company, if his liability for the debts
and frauds of that company are not limited to the extent of his
investment. The result is sound, moral, and careful management
of a company by the actual owners. But, with limited liability, a
premium is placed on profit irrespective of responsibility. The
shareholder is less concerned with buying responsible ownership
and more concerned with buying a share in profits. And then, as
the state further protects the shareholder against liabilities in his
irresponsible pursuit of profits, the shareholder {199} becomes less
and less concerned with the responsible and moral management of
his company.5
Furthermore, “The limited liability company has an advantage
over the company without such protection. Having limited
responsibility for its debts, it is free to take chances which a fully
responsible company will not take: the limited liability [company]
has state protection in its risk taking which the other companies
do not have.”6
Likewise, E. L. Hebden Taylor in Economics, Money and Banking,
argues that limited liability “must be abolished so that all investors
are forced to assume full responsibility for the companies in which
they own shares. Such a drastic step would make all shareholders
4. Idem., The Politics of Guilt and Pity, 252.
5. Ibid., 256f.
6. Ibid., 258.

Reform of Limited Liability Law


attend the annual meetings of the companies in which they now
hold shares and keep track of what the managements of such
companies are doing.”7
The effects of limited liability, argues Rushdoony, are twofold:
The first effect of limited liability was the progressive separation
of ownership from responsibility, of management from property.
Burnham called it the “managerial revolution,” without
analyzing its origins in limited liability. Berle has also described
it as a revolution, one in which a group of executives control a
corporation whose owners have retained little power over their
property: “the historic field of responsibility—a group of financially
interested stockholders to which each corporate management must
account—is progressively being eliminated.”... There is a divorce of
individuals from economic initiative; there is now “power without
property,” i.e., without responsible individual ownership; persons
and organizations other than owners control or manage property.
The stockholders, technically owners, “have the right to receive”
only. The condition of their being is that they do not interfere in
The second harmful effect of limited liability is that it has
“assured a greater readiness by corporations to assume debt. After
all, the homes and incomes of those involved are not at stake, but
only their limited investment.”9 Furthermore, Rushdoony points
out that the accumulation of corporate debt is geared to the
process of inflation. Limited liability and an inflationary economy
go hand in hand and feed on one another: “The effect of this
limited liability has been to replace a hard money economy {200}
with an inflationary credit economy.... It is interesting to note that
both paper money and limited liability became entrenched in the
United States after the Civil War.”10 Hence North’s insistence that
inflation, multiple indebtedness, and limited liability are an unholy
alliance that is threatening the foundation of Western culture.

7. E. L. Hebden Taylor, Economics, Money and Banking (Nutley, New Jersey,
1978), 92.
8. Rushdoony, op. cit., 258f. The quotations are from Adolf A. Berle, Jr., Power
Without Property (New York, 1959), 56 and 59.
9. Ibid., 260.
10. Ibid.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

Insulation From Consequences
A related problem here is that by providing shareholders with
a degree of immunity from the consequences of the irresponsible
actions of the company, limited liability also helps to impede the
efficient and permanent allocation of scarce resources within the
economy, since companies will take risks and engage in debtfinanced enterprises that would not otherwise have been possible
and that assume a level of economic prosperity within society
that is not in fact available. This factor is more prominent during
periods of economic boom when cheap loans and easy credit
are available in abundance. The resulting adjustments that have
to be made when recession hits the economy generally lead to
an increase of company bankruptcies. The shareholders thus
benefit during the boom from the expansionary and irresponsible
actions of the company and when the recession hits are able to
get away with the loss of their investment only, which by then
is worth much less than when originally invested anyway. In
other words, in an inflationary economy the short-term profits
that can be made as a result of irresponsible expansion and the
debt-financing of enterprises may well sufficiently exceed the
shareholder’s initial investment to compensate him more than
adequately for the limited loss involved should the company be
forced into liquidation when recession hits the economy. The
effects of such irresponsibility, however, do not simply disappear;
they are passed on to others in the form of bad debts and unpaid
bills for capital and services supplied to the company before it is
declared bankrupt. Limited liability thus contributes to the general
economic vandalism generated by the business cycle.
These are important arguments that demand our serious
consideration. The irresponsible use of wealth will ultimately
lead to economic decline and limited liability encourages such
irresponsibility, or at least helps to protect shareholders from
the more severe effects of such irresponsibility. The case against
limited liability must be considered seriously, therefore, and
weighed against the biblical material relevant to the issue. {201}

Reform of Limited Liability Law


Should Liability Be Limited?
More recently, however, Gary North has changed his mind on
this issue and no longer sees limited liability as part of an unholy
economic trinity that threatens Western culture. In his book
Tools of Dominion North argues that limited liability has good
precedent in God’s law. North writes: “Certain kinds of economic
transactions that limit the liability of either party, should one of
them go bankrupt, are valid.” For example: “a bank that makes a
loan to a church to construct a building cannot collect payment
from individual members should the church be unable to meet
its financial obligations.”11 He then claims that “The same sorts of
limited liability arrangements ought to be legally valid for other
kinds of associations, including profit-seeking corporations,
limited partnerships, or other private citizens who can get other
economic actors to agree voluntarily to some sort of limited
liability arrangement.”12 North claims that he has come to this
conclusion by a “careful” consideration of the legal implications of
the imposition of unlimited personal liability on church members
for the decisions of pastors and church officers.”13 He then poses the
question “Could the church function if every member were made
potentially liable to the limits of his capital for the illegal activity
of the church’s officers?” However, the case of an individual church
member is very different from that of a shareholder in a joint-stock
company. The two are certainly not analogous. A church member
does not own part of the church nor does he draw dividends from
it, and except in “democratic” churches, he is not responsible
11. Gary North, Tools of Dominion (Tyler, TX: 1990), 473.
12. Ibid., 474.
13. Ibid., note 37. North does not actually say that he has changed his mind
at this point, but rather states his disagreement with Rushdoony on the issue.
Neither does he rehearse the reasons that Rushdoony advances for abolishing
limited liability nor the fact that he formerly espoused Rushdoony’s position.
Furthermore, North not only disregards the weighty arguments advanced
against limited liability by Rushdoony, but also rides roughshod over the biblical
material with which he is dealing. The impression this creates is that North
is anything but “careful” from an exegetical point of view, which is surely not
an insignificant point in a commentary. His handling of the issue seems to be
attended by a cavalier attitude to the text and sloppy thinking all round. This is
indeed a pity since heretofore North’s skill in handling economic matters from a
biblical perspective has, in my opinion, been unparalleled.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

for the actions of the church leadership. Furthermore, North
demolishes his own case by arguing, correctly in my opinion, that
a wise banker would not loan money to the church and would
instead advise individual members to finance the church’s needs
by remortgaging their houses and then donating the borrowed
money to the church, thus placing the liability for the debt with
individual church {202} members on whom the bank can foreclose
if they default on repayment. North comments that this “makes
church members personally responsible for repayment.... Members
cannot escape their former financial promises by walking away
from the church.”14 The remortgaging scheme for making funds
available to the church, North continues, “keeps the church out
of debt as an institution, which is godly testimony concerning the
evil of debt (Rom. 13:8a).”15 Evidently then, for North individual
church members should bear the responsibility for securing any
debt in regard to a church project; it is the institution that should
be protected, not the individual member. But this contradicts
his former statement that individuals should not be held liable.
North’s argument here is confused and inconsistent. This simply
demonstrates, however, that the analogy between the church and
the joint-stock company does not hold. It is illogical, therefore,
to deduce the liabilities of shareholders in a company from the
individual personal liabilities involved in church membership.
North is part of the group of high churchmen who like to argue
that membership in the institutional church is not voluntary, but
rather the commandment of God. Given that perspective how then
can he argue that the same principles of personal legal liability
arising from membership of a church are applicable to a voluntary
association such as a joint-stock company? His argument breaks
down completely. But even leaving aside this argument, since not
all Christians would argue that membership of a church is not
voluntary,16 membership of a church, or indeed of a youth club,
14. Ibid., 473, note 36.
15. Ibid. This is quite the point: the church should not contract debt in any
case. If, however, it does contract debt that it is not subsequently able to repay
there is no reason morally why the creditors should not recover repayment from
those responsible for authorizing the debt.
16. Membership of the institutional church is not voluntary from the point
of view of man’s responsibility before God, but it is voluntary from the human

Reform of Limited Liability Law


social club or bingo club, is an entirely different matter than shareownership in a company. North’s argument for limited liability
revolves around faulty exegesis and faulty logic.
Unfortunately, North does not help his case by mixing arguments
regarding limited liability in the narrower sense as applied to jointstock companies whose shareholders’ liability is restricted to the
nominal value {203} of their shareholding with examples of other
kinds of limited liability such as an employer’s liability regarding
the risks knowingly taken by an employee doing a dangerous
job and the contractual limits placed on an insurance company’s
liability by an insurance policy. The latter two cases are of an
entirely different order than that of the former, and discussion of
these disparate kinds of restriction on a company’s liability in the
same sentence and paragraph only serves to confuse the issue of
whether limited liability as applied to shareholders of joint-stock
companies is morally valid and sanctioned by biblical law.
Furthermore, the question at issue between those who would
abolish limited liability and North, who wishes to keep it, is not
whether there should be limits or no limits to man’s liability, but
at what point man’s liability should be limited. North is correct
when he argues, “Man is a limited creature. His knowledge is
therefore limited. Because his knowledge is limited, God limits
man’s legal liability.”17 But this is a much more general notion of
limited liability than that denominated by the term as it is applied
to joint-stock companies, and it would have been helpful if North
had kept this stricter meaning of the term in mind when voicing
his disagreement with Rushdoony. Those who advocate abolition
of limited liability law as it applies to the shareholders of a
company are not doing so on the premise that man’s responsibility
is limited, but rather on the premise that the point at which his
liability should cease must be governed by biblical principles and
and social point of view, at least today—in former centuries when recusancy
laws were common it was a different matter of course. But membership of the
church of Christ is not coterminous with membership of a specific denomination
or institution, and though under normal circumstances Christians should seek
membership in a local institutional church there might be times and occasions
when membership of the body of Christ and obedience to God’s word might
necessitate their withdrawal from an institutional church.
17. North, op. cite, 471.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

priorities. Thus, without limited liability status as it is presently
granted by law, the maximum limit of the liability of individual
shareholders in a bankrupt company would be determined not by
the nominal value of their shareholding but by the extent of the
company’s debts and bankruptcy law—that is to say, a bankrupt
company that could not clear its debts by the sale of its assets
would be forced to call on the private estates of its shareholders,
who would have to make repayment, if necessary, up to the point
of having to declare themselves bankrupt. Thus the shareholders’
liability is limited ultimately by bankruptcy law, not limited
liability law as it now exists.

Liability and Biblical Law
Rushdoony argues that this is a reflection of biblical law, which
required that at the end of every seventh year all debts should be
cancelled (Deut. 15:1–2). He cites H. B. Clark: “Modern statutes of
limitation and bankruptcy acts fulfill the purpose of the ancient law
of sabbatical release {204} —the former by forbidding the bringing
of an action upon a debt after a certain number of years and the
latter enabling a debtor to turn over his property in satisfaction
of his debts.”18 Rushdoony adds the comment that, “The modern
statutes are thoroughly secular and profane in intention, however,
and, while derived from the biblical sabbath law of release, are
alien in spirit from it.”19 Rushdoony later restates the point that
bankruptcy laws reflect the biblical principle of sabbath release
from debt and makes an additional observation on the protection
they afford to the family: “Modern bankruptcy laws, despite their
abuses, reflect not only the biblical sabbatical release on debts,
but the preservation to the wife and family of the home from the
claim of creditors.”20 Thus, those who have, following Rushdoony,
argued for the abolition of limited liability laws are not arguing
that man’s liabilities are unlimited, but simply that the modern
practice of limiting a shareholder’s liability to the nominal value
of his shareholding should be abolished. A shareholder’s liabilities
18. H. B. Clark, Biblical Law (Portland, OR: 1943), 156 [268], cited in R. J.
Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, 145.
19. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, 145.
20. Ibid., 380.

Reform of Limited Liability Law


would, therefore, be limited by bankruptcy law, which reflects the
biblical principle of sabbatical debt release.
The difference between North and those who wish to abolish
limited liability is therefore not the difference between the case for
limited liability and the case for no limits to man’s liability, but a
difference over the point at which a shareholder’s liability should
be limited. North desires that shareholders’ liability be limited
to the nominal value of their investment. Rushdoony insists that
shareholders should exercise responsible ownership and that
limited liability discourages this and should be abolished. Instead
the shareholder’s liability would be limited by bankruptcy law.
This would force shareholders to exercise responsible ownership
over the company.
The biblical case laws relevant to the responsibilities and
liabilities of ownership of property are given in Exodus 21:28–
36 and 22:5–6. Neither these nor any other laws in the Bible
address the modern concept of share-ownership directly, but the
teachings involved are applicable to joint-stock companies by way
of extension. Indeed, these case laws set down the only principles
from which we can determine from a biblical perspective what the
liabilities of share-ownership should be.
And if an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall surely
be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox
shall go unpunished. (Ex. 21:28) {205}
If, however, an ox was previously in the habit of goring, and its
owner has been warned, yet he does not confine it, and it kills a
man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner shall be put
to death. If a ransom is demanded of him, then he shall give for the
redemption of his life whatever is demanded of him. Whether it
gores a son or a daughter, it shall be done to him according to the
same rule. If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall
give his or her master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be
stoned. (Ex. 21:29–32)
And if a man opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it over,
and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make
restitution; he shall give money to its owner, and the dead animals
all become his. (Ex. 21:33–34)
And if one man’s ox hurts another’s so that it dies, then they shall


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

sell the live ox and divide its price equally; and also they shall
divide the dead ox. (Ex. 21:35)
Or if it is known that the ox was previously in the habit of goring,
yet its owner has not confined it, he shall surely pay ox for ox, and
the dead animal shall become his. (Ex. 21:36)
If a man lets a field or vineyard be grazed and lets his animal loose
so that it grazes in another man’s field, he shall make restitution
from the best of his own field and the best of his own vineyard. (Ex.
If a fire breaks out and spreads to thornbushes, so that the stacked
grain or the standing grain or the field is consumed, he who started
the fire shall surely make restitution. (Ex. 22:6)

It is clear from these laws that in the biblical perspective the
major criterion for determining an individual’s liability arising
from ownership of property is the extent of his knowledge of the
consequences of his actions or failure to take action. If a man’s
actions or failure to act have consequences that he cannot be
expected to foresee, his liability for damage inflicted on others’
property or lives is limited. In this case North’s observation is
correct: “Man is not to be judged by standards that could apply
justly only to an omniscient being.”21 If, on the other hand, a man
knows that his actions or failure to act are dangerous and likely to
result in damage to the property of others or injury then he is held
liable to compensate the victim fully for his loss, and in the case of
the death of a victim, the maximum penalty of death is available.
Quite clearly, therefore, biblical law establishes cases in which the
liabilities arising from ownership of property are limited to the
value or even less than the value of the property involved. It also
establishes cases in which liability is not limited {206} to the value
of one’s investment and in which restitution must be made in full.
We now look more closely at these cases, extend the principles
involved to other possible similar cases, and then consider how
they might be applied to modern joint-stock companies and their
Case A.—An ox that has no previous record gores a human
being to death. The owner had no prior warning of this since the
21. North, op. cit., 472.

Reform of Limited Liability Law


animal had previously been docile. The owner’s liability in this case
is very limited; in fact, the limit of his liability is the nominal value
of his investment since the ox is put to death and cannot be sold
for meat etc. Thus, the Bible clearly establishes a case of limited
liability to some extent analogous to the kind of liability imputed
to shareholders of a limited company. The difference, however—
and it is a significant difference—is that limited liability is not a
status applicable in all possible eventualities. The limit of the
owners’ liability, in other words, is not established by the granting
of a legal status but in terms of the particulars of an individual case
in which a claim might be made against the owner.
Case B.—An ox that has no previous record gores another ox to
death. The owner of the goring ox must sell it and split the price
between himself and the owner of the dead ox. They then divide
the dead ox between themselves. In this case the liability of the
owner of the goring ox is limited to less than the nominal value of
his investment since the costs incurred by the incident are borne
equally by the two parties involved, the victim as well as the owner
of the goring ox. The owner of the dead ox receives compensation
only to half the value of the live ox plus half the value of the dead
ox. Generally speaking, the market value of a goring ox will be
lower than that of a docile ox and thus the compensation received
by the victim may well be less than half the value of his loss. If the
ox that gored is a prize bull, however, he might possibly gain more
than this.
Case C.—Suppose, however, that a previously docile ox gores
two oxen to death. The Bible does not address this case specifically,
but the principles for determining the limits of the owner’s liability
and the just settlement of any claim arising from it are already
given in case B. The live ox is sold and the price split three ways,
one part going to each of the three parties involved, or in the
case that the two dead oxen are owned by the same person, two
parts go to the injured party, and the dead oxen are similarly split
three ways. In this case, the compensation received by each of the
parties involved from the sale of the live ox is less than in case B,
i.e., each party receives only a third of the proceeds from the sale
of the live ox {207} compared with half the proceeds in case B, but
each party receives a third of each of the two dead oxen. Were
each dead ox to be split equally between its owner and the owner


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

of the goring ox the latter would come off better than the injured
parties, since each party would receive a third of the value of the
live ox, but the owner of the goring ox would receive half of both
dead oxen, whereas the injured parties would receive only half a
dead ox each. In case B each party receives an equal share of the
proceeds of the sale of the live ox and an equal division of the dead
ox. Thus, in order for this proportionality to be maintained the
dead oxen must be split equally between all the parties involved.
The liability of the owner of this goring ox is in one sense greater
in that he receives less from the division of the price of the live
ox than in case B, but the compensation awarded to the injured
parties is correspondingly less than in case B also.
In these cases the liability of the owner is clearly limited and the
criterion for determining this limitation of liability is the extent
of the owner’s knowledge. Man is a finite creature; he cannot be
expected to predict the future and he is not to be judged as if
he could. His liability is therefore restricted by the limits of his
knowledge. The case is far different, however, where the owner
had prior knowledge that an ox was dangerous.
Case D.—An ox that is known to be dangerous and whose
owner has been warned and yet still he does not take sufficient
care to restrain it so that it gores a freeman, woman or child to
death is clearly a case of criminal negligence. The owner’s liability
is established by means of the biblical principle of justice: “life
for life” (Ex. 21:23). In this case provision is made for the death
sentence to be transmuted into compensation (a “ransom,” v. 30).
The citing of the death penalty, however, serves an important
purpose in establishing the ultimate limits of liability arising from
ownership of property. If in certain cases a man may be liable to
forfeit his life, then he is certainly liable to forfeit his property in
order to compensate his victim, and possibly even his freedom
since he may be forced to sell himself into servitude in order to
raise sufficient money to pay the ransom determined by the court
(Ex. 21:2; cf. Lev. 25:39–41; Deut. 15:12–14). Consequently, in
compensating a victim’s family for his death, the owner of the
goring ox with a reputation would be expected to pay in full

Reform of Limited Liability Law


whatever the court determined as an appropriate ransom.22 His
liability, therefore, is certainly not limited to the nominal value of
his investment. In the case of an ox with {208} a reputation goring
a slave to death the amount of compensation was fixed at thirty
shekels of silver and paid to the slave’s owner not to his blood
relatives.23 According to Keil and Delitzsch, thirty shekels of silver
was probably the price for the redemption of a slave, that of a free
man being fifty shekels of silver (Lev. 27:3).24
If the owner had attempted to restrain the animal securely,
however, and the rope broke or the ox escaped in some other way,
it would be up to the court to determine whether the owner had
taken reasonable precautions within the limits of his knowledge.25
If he were found to have acted responsibly and could not have
foreseen that the rope would break etc. the case would be resolved
as a case involving limited knowledge as in case A.
Case E.—An ox is known to be dangerous and whose owner
has been warned and yet still he does not take sufficient care to
restrain it so that it gores another ox to death. The owner of the
goring ox must pay full compensation for the value of the dead ox,
which then becomes his. Again, the owner’s liability is not limited.
If the dead ox is a prize bull, for instance, he must pay the full
Case F.—Someone opens or digs a pit and leaves it uncovered or
22. In determining the amount of compensation payable by a poor man, the
court would have to take into account the maximum sum he would be likely to
raise by selling himself into bondage and fix the ransom at a level that would not
exceed this plus the value of his property.
23. In a sense when a man became a slave he effectively became a covenant
member of his master’s family and thus the compensation was paid to the head
of the victim’s covenant family, which in this case was the slave’s owner. Still,
leaving aside this argument, the master has property in his slave and therefore
compensation is owed him (see John Murray, Principles of Conduct [London,
1957], 96–102).
24. C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament
(Grand Rapids, MI: n.d.) vol. II, The Pentateuch, 136. Cf. John Calvin,
Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses Arranged in the Form of a
Harmony (Grand Rapids, MI: n.d.), III:45.
25. Cf. G. North, Tools of Dominion, 472f. North does not consider in this case
whether the owner of the ox has taken reasonable precautions within the limits of
his knowledge as a criterion for determining liability and simply assumes that the
broken rope case is an argument for limited liability per se.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

without a fence around it and an ox or a donkey falls in and as a
result dies (cf. Deut. 22:8). This case is treated like those in which
the owner of an ox that is known to be dangerous does not restrain
it properly, since it is reasonable to expect the one who leaves the
pit uncovered to foresee the possible consequences of doing so.
It is within the limits of human understanding to calculate the
dangers posed to others by leaving a pit uncovered. The one who
leaves the pit uncovered is thus liable to pay full Compensation to
the owner of the dead animal, and keeps the dead animal himself.
Case G.—An ox that is known to be dangerous and whose
owner has been warned and yet still fails to take precautions to
restrain the animal so that it gores to death two oxen. This case,
as with case C, is not directly {209} addressed in the Bible, but the
principles for determining the owner’s liability are contained in
case E, and it is a simple matter to apply them in this case. The
owner of the goring ox must pay full compensation for both dead
oxen and gets to keep the dead animals, the sale of which may help
to defray the costs of compensating the victims.
Case H.—An ox with a reputation for goring and whose owner
has been warned and still does not take care to restrain the animal
properly so that it gores five oxen to death. This is an extension
of case G. The owner of the goring ox must pay compensation in
full to the victims. However, suppose he is poor and he has to sell
his possessions to raise enough to compensate his victim. He may
get something from the sale of the dead oxen, which would help,
but even then he is not able to make restitution. His only recourse
would be to sell himself into bondage to raise the money needed to
compensate his victims. Suppose, however, that even this does not
raise enough money to pay full compensation to the victims. He is
still in debt to his victims. The maximum period of bondage into
which a Hebrew could sell himself was seven years (Lev. 25:39–
43). The maximum period for which a Hebrew could be in debt
was also seven years (Deut. 15:1–2).26 Moreover, the actual period
26. The sabbath-year release of debts referred to charitable loans made to
those who were poor, not to commercial loans of the type contracted in the
modern business world. There were no commercial loans of the latter type in
ancient Israel. I agree here with Gary North that the provisions of Deut. 15
regarding the sabbath year release of debt do not apply to modern commercial

Reform of Limited Liability Law


of bondage or debt might be considerably less than this since
manumission and release of debt occurred every seventh year.
Thus, if a Hebrew obtained a loan or sold himself into bondage
three years after the last sabbatical year of release, the maximum
period he would serve or be in debt would be four years. The
implication of this for the matter under consideration is that if the
poor man could not raise the full amount of compensation due
by selling his property and then selling himself into bondage, the
victims would have to settle on the maximum that he could raise
in this way, for even if they were to hold the remainder against
him as a debt while he was in bondage it would automatically be
cancelled at the next sabbatical year, which would coincide with
his manumission. This is to some extent analogous with modern
bankruptcy law, the most significant difference being that modern
bankruptcy law does not provide for the bankrupt to sell himself
into bondage. Thus, the liability of the goring ox’s owner is not
limited to the nominal value of his investment, but it is ultimately
limited by the sabbatical year of release. {210}
Case I.—Someone allows his animals to graze another man’s field
or vineyard, or starts a fire that spreads to another man’s property.
These are laws relating to accidental damage to property caused
by one not exercising proper caution. The compensation payable
by the offending party to his victim is simple restitution. There is
limitation of liability for the one who caused the accident since the
consequences of allowing one’s animals to graze in another man’s
field or of lighting a fire without taking precautions to ensure
that it does not spread can be expected to be foreseen. This case
is analogous to case F since the outcome of such negligence is
Application of the principles of liability set forth in case I
to modern joint-stock companies is fairly straightforward.
Shareholders of companies that were required to pay compensation
as a result of such accidents would be responsible for ensuring that
the victim was fully compensated for his loss. If the company were
unable to pay such compensation, either some or all of its assets
would have to be sold in order to raise the funds necessary or the
shareholders would have to raise sufficient funds between them
from their own estates, and their liability would not be limited
except by bankruptcy law.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

It is clear from these cases that the Bible limits man’s liabilities
but not in the way that modern limited liability law restricts the
liabilities of shareholders of joint-stock companies. The most
important point thrown up by a consideration of these cases is
the criterion used to determine the extent of one’s liability arising
from the ownership of property, viz., the extent of the owner’s
knowledge. Limited knowledge brings limited liability. But cases
D, E, F and I demonstrate that this principle cannot be abused to
the extent that the owner of property need only be informed of the
consequences of his actions or failure to act in order to avoid the
responsibilities of ownership. Thus cases D and E, cases involving
an animal with a reputation for goring, case/ the case involving
an uncovered pit, and I, cases involving accidental damage to
another’s property by straying cattle or fire, place limits on the
application of the limited knowledge principle. That is to say, the
limited knowledge principle is not applicable where an owner
can be reasonably expected to foresee the possible dangerous
consequences of his actions or failure to act and the damage such
failure might cause to others’ property or lives, even though he
may not have fulfilled that expectation, i.e., even though he may
be ignorant of his responsibilities. In other words, biblical case
law establishes the possibility of negligence as a criterion for
determining the extent of liability as well as the criterion of extent
of knowledge. In fact the negligence principle establishes the limits
of the extent of knowledge principle. {211}

Implications for Business Liability
The issues involved in reform of limited liability company law
from a biblical perspective are, therefore, much more complex
than a simple choice between limited liability (using the term in
the strict sense as applied to joint-stock companies) and unlimited
liability. G. North’s more recent case for retaining limited liability
fails to do justice to the biblical material and glosses over the
issues involved. The cases in which a modern limited company
might be held to be genuinely in ignorance regarding the possible
consequences of its actions or failure to act in terms of biblical
criteria and thus in which its shareholders’ liability is limited are
far less numerous than those in which the shareholders would

Reform of Limited Liability Law


be held liable beyond the nominal value of their shareholding.
Furthermore, in those cases in which a company acted in
ignorance the liability of the shareholders in financial terms might
be considerably less than the nominal value of their shareholdings.
For example, a company that buried toxic waste, knowing the
dangers this posed to others’ property and lives, or at least in a
situation where it might reasonably be expected that the company’s
managers could calculate the risks involved, would be liable to
pay full damages in terms of biblical criteria and its shareholders
would be expected to contribute from their private estates if the
sale of the company’s assets failed to raise sufficient revenues to
compensate the victims. On the other hand, a drug company that
issued a drug that is genuinely believed to be beneficial and safe
within the limits of knowledge currently available, and that is
confirmed to be safe within the limits of the knowledge available
by independent sources, but is subsequently shown to have serious
side-effects might, according to biblical principles, have no liability
at all, i.e., in case of death (case A),27 or only limited liability,
which would in financial terms be less than the total value of the
company’s assets,—e.g., in the case of serious injury the company
would be forced to liquidate its assets and distribute the proceeds
between its victims and shareholders, the shareholders receiving
between them a one part share of the proceeds (case C). Neither
of these scenarios would conform to current practices of {212}
compensation by limited liability companies. Evidently, therefore,
there is need for reform of limited liability law as it exists today.

Modern Joint-Stock Companies
The question now arises as to how the biblical criteria for
determining the extent of liability arising from ownership of
27. In case A the goring ox is put to death. In the example used here of a
chemical company releasing a drug that caused death, there is no equivalent to
the death of the ox except withdrawal of the drug from the market. If it were
argued that the company should be put to death in the sense of being forced to
close down, the victim’s family would still receive nothing from the sale of its
assets. This is, however, a pure type, as is the following example using case C, and
in reality the situation would likely be more complex, involving elements of both
cases A and C. This would require liquidation of the company’s assets but only
the injured parties would receive compensation, not families of dead victims.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

property might be applied to modern joint-stock companies. It is
clear from a consideration of the biblical evidence that a blanket
limitation of the shareholder’s liability to the nominal value of
his investment, such as that granted in modern limited liability
law, in many cases is subversive of justice since it legally relieves
companies of their moral responsibility to make full compensation
to those adversely affected by their actions or failure to act where
biblical principles of liability and restitution demand that they
should. From the biblical perspective, therefore, the case for
abolition of the limited liability status of joint-stock companies, at
least as it presently exists, is strong. One the other hand, it would
be equally unsatisfactory from the biblical perspective to expose
shareholders to the same variety of liabilities that would arise in a
modern Western society if limited liability were simply abolished
entirely. Thus, along with the abolition of current limited liability
laws, it would be necessary to establish some way of limiting
the liabilities of shareholders where such limitations could be
justified on biblical grounds. Reform must be aimed at protecting
shareholders where their liability is genuinely limited in terms of
biblical criteria as well as forcing them to honor their obligation
to compensate their victims fully where such limitations are
not applicable. However, it would be very difficult, probably
impossible, to incorporate such limitations into the legal structure
of a company in the way that modern limited liability law does.
It would seem that the only way of applying biblical principles of
liability to joint-stock companies would be through the courts
on a case-by-case basis in which the extent of the company’s
liability is established on the merits of each individual claim or
group of claims arising from the same incident. Reform of limited
liability law, therefore, would need to entail both the abolition of
the limited liability status of companies as it presently exists in
law and the recognition in law of biblical principles governing
the limitation of liabilities arising from ownership of property.
This would protect individuals and companies from claims for
compensation that could not be justified on biblical grounds or
were in excess of the amounts that would be granted as a result of
the application of the biblical principle of limited knowledge. {213}

Reform of Limited Liability Law


Although there are no proof texts that directly address shareownership as practiced by joint-stock companies today, the
biblical principles relevant to the responsibilities and liabilities
of ownership of property generally support the conclusion of R.
J. Rushdoony and E. L. Hebden Taylor—and even G. North in
his earlier writings—that the limited liability status of modern
companies should be abolished. It would not be valid to conclude,
however, that shareholders in joint-stock companies should
therefore bear unlimited liability for the actions of the company
in all circumstances involving valid claims against the company
for compensation. The extent of a company’s liability arising
from any particular case would have to be determined on its own
merits by the courts in terms of the application of the biblical
principles of extent of knowledge and negligence. My own view is
that although limited liability law as it presently stands is contrary
to biblical principles of justice in many cases and thus in need
of reform, it is not as serious in its effects on the economy as the
problems arising from the debasement of currency and multiple
indebtedness. I doubt that it is undermining the foundations of
Western culture, though in many cases it does unjustly undermine
the moral requirements of responsible ownership and the biblical
requirement that compensation be made in full to those adversely
affected by a company’s irresponsible actions or failure to act
responsibly. Reform must lead to the recognition in law of the
biblical principles of limitation of liability arising from ownership
of property; it must also enable these principles to be applied
effectively in practice by the courts. This would mean that the
maximum liability of shareholders in a joint-stock company would
be limited by bankruptcy law and that where liability is restricted
as a result of limited knowledge, it would be fixed in financial terms
below, and possibly significantly below, the nominal value of their
shareholding. These reforms would engender responsible attitudes
to ownership on the part of shareholders while at the same time
protecting companies from the unfair and unscrupulous claims
for compensation that they may be likely to incur today without
limited liability status.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

The Character
of Inflation
Steven Alan Samson

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten
us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus
Christ from the dead, To an inheritance incorruptible, and
undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for
you, Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto
salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. Wherein ye
greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are
in heaviness through manifold temptations: That the trial
of your faith, being much more precious than gold that
perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto
praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ:
Whom not having seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye
see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable
and full of glory: Receiving the end of your faith, even the
salvation of your souls. (1 Pet. 1:3–9)

And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that
they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who
believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
(2 Thess. 2:11–12)

God sets the standard of justice and righteousness by which
individuals and nations alike are measured. Justice and injustice
are manifested, first, governmentally in the character of individuals
and nations; and, second, economically in the character of
exchange. And whether in reference to the character of individuals,
nations, or economic practices, the Bible frequently uses metallic
metaphors—for example, gold and silver—to describe the quality

The Character of Inflation


of character, and how it is tried and purified in the refiner’s fire.
“Character,” in the Greek, means “engraving” or “image.” Our
character is a mark or seal of our ownership, a sign of our kinship
or citizenship. In Gen. 1:26, God said: “Let us make man in our
image, after our likeness.” Furthermore, in Eph. 1:13–14, believers
are “sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of
our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession,
unto the praise of his glory.” The hallmark of God’s workmanship
will be evident on all whose character bears the stamp of God’s
royal signet ring.
But rebellious, unrighteous men have long tried to erase or
obliterate the image of God from their lives so that they might
worship graven images—idols—of their own invention. As Jesus
observed in Matt. 6:24: “No man can serve two masters.... Ye
cannot serve God and mammon.” Jesus made a similar point in
Matt. 22:15–21: {216}
Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might
entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples
with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true,
and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any
man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore,
What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?
But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me,
ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto
him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and
superscription? They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto
them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s;
and unto God the things that are God’s.
Few people seem to know the difference today.
The Apostle Paul in Rom. 1:21–23 may have been thinking of
such people when he wrote that “their foolish heart was darkened.
Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed
the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to
corruptible man....” It is a poor exchange, as Jesus says in Matt.
16:26: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world,
and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his
soul?” The great literature of the western cultural tradition, which
is based in part on biblical Christianity, has posed this question
again and again in so many ways.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

In Isa. 64:8, man is likened to clay: “But now, O Lord, thou art
our father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; and we all are
the work of thy hand.” In Pr. 7:2–3, man’s heart is likened to a
clay tablet: “Keep my commandments and live; and my law as the
apple of thine eye. Bind them upon thy fingers, write them upon
the table of thine heart.” The Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Cor. 3:3 that
the Christians in Corinth were the epistle, or message, of Christ,
written “not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.”
Jer. 2:22 notes how the iniquity of Israel was similarly “marked”
or engraved: “For though thou wash thee with nitre, and take thee
much soap, yet thine iniquity is marked before me, saith the Lord
God.” Thus for better and for worse, our character is stamped
on our hearts. Jer. 17:1 is even more explicit: “The sin of Judah
is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond: it
is graven on the table of the heart.” These words might as easily
describe the recording and playing of a phonograph disk.
Like an old Victrola, the life of a man articulates “his master’s
voice.” The quality of the performance reflects the quality of the
recording. Thus it is important for God’s people to be cleansed of
all unrighteousness and to be inscribed by the word of God alone.
As the Reformers put it: Sola Scriptura. And also: Soli Deo gloria.
The glory belongs to God alone. {217}
God is the master craftsman. His injunctions against graven
images in the Bible show that he hates forgeries and counterfeits.
We are the work of his hand. As our author, he holds the copyright.
Anything that suggests otherwise is an abomination.
Proverbs 4:23 says: “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of
it are the issues of life.” The issues of our heart are like a trademark.
They identify our true allegiance. Referring to the coming Messiah,
Mal. 3:2–3 says: “He is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap.
And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.” Concerning
backslidden Judah, God says in Jer. 9:7: “Behold, I will melt them,
and try them.” God in his holiness cannot abide impurity. The way
God shapes our lives and “tests our mettle” is repeatedly illustrated
through analogies with the smelting of gold and silver.
The word “gold” in the Old Testament is often preceded by
the word “pure.” Gold is not found in a state of purity. Instead, it
must be refined before it is fit, for example, to be fashioned into
the “vessel unto honour” mentioned in 2 Tim. 2:20. This vessel

The Character of Inflation


or tablet is made holy through the inscription of God’s word.
Minding what 2 Cor. 3:3 says about the “fleshly tables of the
heart,” we find similar imagery in 2 Cor. 4:6–7: “For God, who
commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our
hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the
face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels,
that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.”
Indeed, character is this treasure in earthen vessels. It is the
product of God’s refining fire. This may be seen in numerous Bible
stories concerning a wide range of matters: Israel, the church, the
lives of individuals, and creation itself. Isaiah 48:10 says that God
chose Israel “in the furnace of affliction.” In a New Testament
passage that speaks of the church, 1 Peter 4:12–17, the Apostle
Peter warns of a “fiery trial which is to try you.” The same is true
of individuals, as we may see in Proverbs 17:3: “The fining pot is
for silver, and the furnace for gold; but the Lord trieth the hearts.”
This process of refinement extends even to the melting of the
elements by fire under God’s judgment, as in 2 Peter 3:10: “But
the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which
the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements
shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are
therein shall be burned up.”
As with the character of individuals and nations, so too with the
character of economies. Let us consider how these lessons apply to
the practical everyday world of our own time, using the example of
inflation. God blesses the righteous with prosperity. As Moses said
to the people of {218} Israel in Deuteronomy 29:9: “Keep therefore
the words of this covenant, and do them, that ye may prosper in all
that ye do.” Proverbs 14:34 says: “Righteousness exalteth a nation:
but sin is a reproach to any people.” Economic injustice, like any
other sin, must be purged. Proverbs 25:4 says: “Take away the
dross from the silver, and there shall come forth a vessel for the
finer.” This imagery reminds us of the silly excuses we make for
yielding to temptation. As Aaron said in Exodus 32:24: “And I said
unto them, whoever hath any gold, let them break it off. So they
gave it me: then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.”
Fraud, in particular, strikes at the heart of society by destroying
the common faith or trust that makes unity possible. Noah
Webster defined fraud as “a stratagem intended to gain some


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

undue advantage.” It debases the common currency of social
exchange. Likewise inflation—a type of fraud—undermines faith
in the economy by tampering with the medium of exchange.
Inflation depreciates money by removing its standard of value—
that is, its backing in gold or silver coin (specie)—or by debasing
the metals themselves.
Inflation, then, is a reflection of the character of exchange
between men and nations. Like a phonograph disk, it accurately
renders the true qualities of the recorded performance. It resonates
from the depths of people’s hearts. Indeed, it is an epistle: a message
concerning their character and loyalties. This is why Jesus enjoins
us in Matthew 6:20–21 to lay up for ourselves “treasures in heaven:
For where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also.”
But a caution is in order. The same set of commandments that
forbids coveting and stealing also forbids idolatry. Jesus makes
the sequence of events clear in Luke 16:10 when he speaks of the
mammon of righteousness: “He that is faithful in that which is
least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is
unjust also in much.” The sinner ends by exalting his sin over God.
Again, no man can serve two masters.
Inflation, like sin, begins with a desire “to gain some undue
advantage.” The sins of coveting and stealing may be recognized in
such ancient practices as the clipping of coins and the abasing of
metals. Having guarded against the first by adding serrated edges,
we have instead chosen the second option by adding base metals
like copper and lead to our coins. But either practice may be called
inflationary. Furthermore, these early types of inflation have been
succeeded by fiat money inflation.
Fiat money is unbacked paper currency. When currency
lacks a fixed standard of value in gold or silver, it can easily be
inflated—that is, {219} depreciated or diminished in value—by
the issuing agency. In America, this agency is the Federal Reserve
Board, working in conjunction with the Treasury Department.
Noah Webster pointed out that “the issue of a super-abundance
of notes depreciates them, or depreciates their value.... A paper
currency will depreciate, unless it is convertible into specie.”
Such notes were once issued by private banks. Today it is the civil
government, backed by the power of the sword, that controls the
purse and enjoys a monopoly on the issuing of paper currency.

The Character of Inflation


Exchange has thus become deceptive and coercive, rather than
voluntary, in character. Furthermore, by requiring that paper
money be accepted for the payment of debts, legal tender laws
provide the essential element of coercion that upholds our current
inflationary—and occasional deflationary—policies.
But there is nothing new about inflation in our country’s history.
Concerning colonial American inflation, Simon L. Adler observed
that paper issued by Virginia in 1775 “soon began to depreciate
and it was found before long that a piece of eight worth about five
shillings, ten pence by proclamation would buy as much as six
shillings in paper. But the paper was the legal money of the colony
and the Legislature ordered that a piece of eight should pass legally
at six shillings.” This illustrates how the principle of legal tender
works. Its usual effect is to encourage hoarding. According to
Gresham’s Law: “Bad money drives out good.” By the way, this
rule applies just as much to personal character as suggested by the
traditional proverb: “Bad company corrupts good morals.”
Colonial policy was guided by a desire to keep gold and silver
coins of all kinds in the country because of their intrinsic value.
The object was to stay as economically independent of Britain as
possible. But the inflationary practices of the states during the War
for Independence virtually bankrupted the new country.
The word “inflation” itself is misleading unless it is understood
that inflation simply “puffs up” money, stretching it just as hot air
stretches the surface of a balloon. It simply redistributes wealth
without adding to it. Unfortunately, the wealth is generally lifted
from the pocket of the taxpayer and slipped into the pocket of the
civil government and its partners. It is a type of money laundering.
But it does not clean our filthy lucre. It just cleans us out.
Inflation may thus be regarded as a hidden tax as well as a wealth
transference scheme. It fits hand and glove with the “buy now, pay
later” philosophy that now pervades our nation. The problem is
larceny in our hearts. Our economy is built on compulsive debt.

One type of inflation—the addition or substitution of alloys
and mixtures—is expressly condemned in Scripture. Isaiah 1:22
records the following about Judah: “Thy silver is become dross,
thy wine mixed with water.” Such wine may be contrasted with
the new wine Jesus supplied to the wedding guests at Cana. The


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

debasing or depreciating of a commodity, such as money, has the
opposite result from the refining fire through which God tempers
the character. Sometimes the corruption becomes irreversible,
as in Jeremiah 6:29–30: “The bellows are burned, the lead is
consumed by the fire; the founder melteth in vain: for the wicked
are not plucked away. Reprobate silver shall men call them,
because the Lord hath rejected them.” And for what cause did God
judge Jerusalem? Jeremiah 6:6–7 mentions oppression, violence,
and spoilage: “She is wholly oppression in the midst of her. As a
fountain casteth out her waters, so she casteth out her wickedness:
violence and spoil is heard in her, before me continually is grief
and wounds.” The root problem, however, was covetousness, as
Jer. 6:13 makes clear: “For from the least of them even unto the
greatest of them every one is given to covetousness; and from the
prophet even unto the priest every one dealeth falsely.”
Ezekiel 22:13–31 contains references to virtually all the problems
and principles that have been examined up to this point. Jerusalem
is described as being punished for corrupt financial practices in v.
13: “Behold, therefore I have smitten mine hand at thy dishonest
gain which thou hast made, and at thy blood which hath been in
the midst of thee.” In verses 18–22 the prophet says:
Son of man, the house of Israel is to me become dross: all they
are brass, and tin, and iron, and lead, in the midst of the furnace;
they are even the dross of silver. Therefore thus saith the Lord God;
Because ye are all become dross, behold, therefore I will gather you
into the midst of Jerusalem. As they gather silver, and brass, and
iron, and lead, and tin, into the midst of the furnace, to blow the
fire upon it; so I will gather you in mine anger and in my fury, and
I will leave you there, and melt you. Yea, I will gather you, and blow
upon you in the fire of my wrath, and ye shall be melted in the
midst thereof. As silver is melted in the midst of the furnace, so
shall ye be melted in the midst thereof; and ye shall know that I the
Lord have poured out my fury upon you.
In verses 25–28 the prophets, priests, and princes are each
singled out for condemnation. Finally, in verses 29–30, so are all
the people: “The people of the land have used oppression, and
exercised robbery, and have vexed the poor and needy: yea, they
have oppressed the stranger wrongfully. And I sought for a man
among them, that should make up the hedge, and stand {221} in

The Character of Inflation


the gap before me for the land, that I should not destroy it: but I
found none.” This is a clear warning to slackers within the church.
Those who seek dishonest gain through inflationary practices
must likewise pay the inescapable consequences. One major effect
of inflation is the stifling of investment. Inflation and other forms
of economic injustice are defrauding the public and decapitalizing
our economy. Like Esau, we are despising our birthright—the
accumulated cultural capital of past generations—and selling
it for pottage. Our industries are becoming less and less capable
of competing on the world market because they are squeezed
between wages that are often unrealistically high and inflexible,
sliding interest rates, stringent regulations, a scarcity of money
for loans, and a general psychology of uneasiness, or malaise, that
fosters a strong desire for security at the cost of an unwillingness to
assume financial risks without a tax-subsidized safety net at hand.
Even when inflation is kept relatively low, as it seems to be now,
it is still one element—a very important one—of a paternalistic
mentality that concentrates power in the central government
as it erodes the foundations that support the system. The result
is a deliberate elevation—by citizens, politicians, and technical
experts—of short-run gain above godly wisdom and justice. As
Solomon observed in Proverbs 1:32, “the prosperity of fools shall
destroy them.”
To sum up: Our works are a reflection of our character and the
quality of our faith. Lawful gain is good. Prosperity is a blessing.
But we must keep our priorities straight. Psalm 19:9–10 says: “The
judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to
be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold.” We must
build on the tried and true foundation of godly discernment with
pure materials that can withstand the refiner’s fire. As Paul says in
1 Corinthians 3:11–15:
For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is
Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold,
silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man’s work shall
be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be
revealed by the fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work what
sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he
shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall
suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

As James 1:12 tells us: “Blessed is the man that endureth
temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life,
which the Lord hath promised to them that love him.” In Exodus
39:30 we see that the glorious crown of the high priest bore God’s
hallmark: “And they made the plate of {222} the holy crown of pure
gold, and wrote upon it a writing, like to the engravings of a signet,
HOLY TO THE LORD.” Perhaps our crown shall be inscribed
in the same way. But we should always keep in mind that, unlike
charity, which is not “puffed up,” the works of inflation—that
is, “the mammon of unrighteousness” (Lk. 16:9)—will not be
counted among our “treasures in heaven” (Matt. 6:20). In other
words, “You can’t take it with you.”

The Character of Inflation




Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

“The Failure of Christianity”
The Dispensational View of the Church Age
and Its Effect on Christian Political and Social

William O. Einwechter

This essay was presented to the Reconstruction/Theonomy
Symposium of Eastern Pennsylvania, March 6, 1993.

The title for this essay comes from a chart by Clarence Larkin on
the church age which depicts the growth of heathenism and the
“Failure of Christianity” to keep pace with that growth. Larkin
says this proves, that as a world-converting power, Christianity is
a failure. Further, he informs us that it is not God’s purpose during
the church age to cover the earth with righteousness, for that can
only happen in the future millennial age. All of this appears in
a book which Larken entitled Dispensational Truth.1 This is the
message of dispensationalism to the church. It is a message, which
in the name of truth, says to believers that it is not God’s purpose
to grant the church victory over the heathen. It teaches the church
not to expect the eventual conversion of the nations and the
increase of righteousness, but rather the continued power of Satan
over the nations, the increase of evil, and the eventual apostasy
of the church. It is, we believe, a pessimistic message that has had
a great impact on the church. In this essay we will document the
dispensational view of the church age, and then seek to show
1. Clarence Larkin, Dispensational Truth (Glenside, PA, 1920), 772.

“The Failure of Christianity”


the particular effect of this view on Christian political and social
action. But before moving on to the main body of the essay it is
necessary to clarify what we mean by the term dispensationalism.

Dispensationalism Defined
Dispensationalism is a form of premillennialism that was first
systematized in England by J. N. D. Darby in the early 1800s. It was
further developed and promoted in this country with the publication
of the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909. Dispensationalists believe
that God is working out his purpose in history through a series
of dispensations or distinguishable economies. Dispensationalism
differs from historic premillennialism in that it sees a clear
distinction between God’s program for Israel as a nation and God’s
program for the church; it seeks to apply a consistently “literal”
hermenutic; and it believes in the pretribulational {224} rapture
of the church.2 The leading proponents of dispensationalism in
this country have been C. I. Scofield, Lewis Sperry Chafer, John
F. Walvoord, J. Dwight Pentecost, and Charles C. Ryrie. The views
taught by these men and other like-minded dispensationalists
might be properly called traditional dispensationalism. It is this
brand of dispensationalism which is the dominant view of biblical
and prophetic interpretation among evangelical and fundamental
churches in the United States today. This essay will deal with the
views of this traditional dispensationalism.3
In addition, it should be noted that this writer was at one time
a confirmed dispensationalist. He was saved and discipled in
a dispensational church and graduated from a dispensational
college and seminary. Also, having spent seven years in the formal
study of the Bible from a dispensational perspective, he taught
and defended dispensationalism from the pulpit. Therefore,
he is fully aware of this system of theology and writes from a
2. For a fuller discussion concerning the distinctives of dispensational
theology see: Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago, 1965), 22–64;
Renald E. Showers, There Really Is A Difference! (Bellmawr, NJ, 1990), 27–53.
3. There have been some recent developments within dispensationalism, but
it is not believed that these developments will significantly alter the pessimism
of this theology concerning the church age. For a study of some of these
developments see Craige A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, ed., Dispensationalism,
Israel and the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: 1992).


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

firsthand knowledge of its views. This also means that he is
sympathetic to those in dispensationalism and knows that they
hold their views sincerely. However, he is now firmly convinced
that dispensationalism wrongly divides the word of truth,4 and he
has come to believe in a covenantal, postmillennial approach to
In line with the stated purpose of this essay the first section will
seek to document the dispensational view of the church age. The
second section will show the effects of this view upon Christian
political and social action. {225}

The Dispensational View of the Church Age
Here we will note five aspects of the dispensational view of
the church age. We cannot give an extensive presentation of
dispensational teaching in this regards, but must limit our study
to the main teachings of dispensationalism concerning the church
age as these relate to the theme of this essay.

The Dispensational View Can
Only Be Described as Pessimistic
No Bible-based eschatology is, in the ultimate sense, pessimistic.
All Christians believe that God’s kingdom will finally triumph
over Satan and all evil. Dispensationalists, as other conservative
Christians, are optimistic in terms of the ultimate triumph of God.
4. It is not within the scope of this essay to provide a comprehensive critique
and refutation of dispensationalism. The reader is directed to the following
works which fully provide this critique: Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy And The
Church (Phillipsburg, NJ, 1947); Greg L. Bahnsen and Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.,
House Divided (Tyler, TX, 1989); Curtis I. Crenshaw and Grover E. Gunn, III,
Dispensationalism Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow (Memphis, TN: 1989); Vern
S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists (Grand Rapids, MI: 1987); John
H. Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth (Brentwood, TN, 1991); Philip
Mauro, The Gospel Of The Kingdom (Bible Truth Depot, n.d.).
5. For a biblical defense of postmillennialism see the writer’s previous
essays presented at former symposia: “The Dominion of Christ: Psalm 2 and Its
Interpretation in the NT”; “The Victorious Reign of Christ: Psalm 110 and Its
Interpretation in the NT.” For a comprehensive presentation of postmillennialism
see Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., He Shall Have Dominion (Tyler, TX, 1992); and Iain H.
Murray, The Puritan Hope (Edinburgh, 1971).

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We do not even begin to question their optimism in this regard.
To do so would be wrong and unjust. But in regard to their view
on the course of this present age, which they call the dispensation
of grace, or the church age, we unhesitatingly charge them with
pessimism. The dispensational view of the church age holds forth
no promise of victory for the church over the world, of good over
evil, or even of Christ’s kingdom over Satan’s. All such victory, we
are told, must await the second coming of Christ and his future
millennial kingdom. Pentecost says, “There will be no peace, no
rest, no stability in government or society until Christ comes to
curb lawlessness by removing the lawless one. This is indeed a
dark picture for not one line in the Bible says that this process of
lawlessness will ever be reversed” until Christ returns.6 It is because
of this “dark picture” of the church age, which dispensationalists
are continually painting, that we say they are pessimistic.
Now, no group likes to be labeled as pessimistic, and the
dispensationalists are no different. They object to this label and
say, rather, that they are “realists.”7 For example, Ryrie says that
“He seeks to be a reahst concerning the course of this age and the
church’s program in the midst of increasing apostasy.”8 Walvoord
states, “Well, I personally object to the idea that premillennialism
is pessimistic. We are simply realistic in {226} believing that man
cannot change the world. Only God can.”9 And Pocock, after
rejecting the postmillennial view of the growth of truth and
righteousness in this age, says, “premillennialists are not even
expecting that these characteristics will ever mark the present age.
Premillennialists [i.e., dispensationalists] are realists.”10
In spite of these denials of pessimism, the dispensational view
6. J. Dwight Pentecost, Will Man Survive? (Chicago, 1972), 57.
7. A “realist” is “a person concerned with real things and practical matters
rather than those that are imaginary or visionary” (Webster’s New World
Dictionary). Dispensationalists say they are realists because they have rejected the
“imaginary or visionary” views of postmillennial optimism. In dispensationalism,
“realism has taken the place of optimism,” J. Dwight Pentecost, Things To Come
(Grand Rapids, MI: 1958), viii.
8. Ryrie, op. cit., 154.
9. John F. Walvoord, “Our Future Hope: Eschatology and Its Role in the
Church,” Christianity Today (Feb. 6, 1987), 11-I.
10. Michael Pocock, “The Destiny of the World and the Work of Missions,”
Bibliotheca Sacra 145 (October-December 1988), 445.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

of the church age is undeniably gloomy. The dispensational
view inspires no hope of victory for the church or of any visible
manifestation of Christ’s kingdom this side of the Second Coming.
Ryrie candidly admits this when he says, “In viewing the present
and future scene up to the time of his return, we are pessimistic.”11
The dispensationalist’s pessimism concerning this present
age is consistent with and the result of his overall theology
concerning the nature and course of each dispensation. Ryrie
teaches that each dispensation (he identifies seven) involves a test
of obedience, a failure on the part of man, and a judgment from
God for that failure.12 Showers declares that “each dispensation
demonstrates the failure of man to obey the particular rule of God
which characterizes that dispensation,” and, “each dispensation
involves divine judgment because of man’s failure.”13 Larken
argues that each dispensation ends in apostasy and catastrophe.14
Thus, the very nature of their theological system requires the
failure of Christianity. The extent of this failure and the depth of
their pessimism concerning the church age is well expressed by
Man fails the test of the sixth dispensation [the church age]. The
majority of unsaved Jews and Gentiles do not accept the gift of
righteousness. Organized Christendom does not fulfill the Great
Commission, maintain a pure membership, discipline unruly
members, prevent false teaching from existing within it, and
contend earnestly for the true faith. Individual believers do not
always live sensible, godly lives, associate with a local church,
evangelize and make disciples, and use spiritual gifts properly. By
the end of this {227} dispensation, the unsaved will stage a major
revolt against God’s rule (Ps. 2:1–3; Rev. 16:12–16; 19:17–21), and
organized Christendom will be very apostate (Rev. 17).15
It would be hard to paint a darker picture of the course of this
11. Charles C. Ryrie, What You Should Know About Social Responsibility
(Chicago, 1982), 112. The publishers say that “Understanding this book is a
must for those who desire to determine the extent of their involvement in today’s
world. It is informative and challenging.”
12. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, 38–39.
13. Showers, op. cit., 31.
14. Larkin, op. cit., 37.
15. Showers, op. cit., 46.

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present age, but this is standard ndispensationalism and such
pictures abound in its writings and preaching.

Dispensationalism Teaches That the Church Age Is an Evil
Dispensationalists uniformly teach that this present age, before
the return of Christ, is primarily evil. House and Ice flatly state that
“This is the age of darkness. The future age is the age of the light
of the kingdom.”16 There are two primary factors in dispensational
thinking which mark this present age as evil.
First, dispensationalists teach that the evil in the world will
increase as the age progresses. Ask any dispensationalist if things
will get better as the age continues or if things will get worse and
you will get the clear answer: Things will get worse! House and
Ice teach that “Common grace is on the decline, especially God’s
restraint of evil. This accounts for the rising apostasy and the
decline of Christianity.... It’s going to get bad before it gets worse.”17
Lindsey argues that there will be a “continuous increase of evil
until the Second Advent of Christ.”18 Walvoord says, “The world
becomes, in fact, increasingly wicked as the age progresses.”19
Pentecost adds, “In view of its close it is not surprising that this
age is called an ‘evil age’ in Scripture.”20 Evans simply says, “The
worst is yet to come.”21 It is the standard dispensational teaching
that the church age will witness the continual, powerful growth
of evil and that this age will culminate in the most wicked and
perilous days in human history.
Secondly, dispensationalists teach that Satan is the “god of this
age.” Because of this it should surprise no one that evil will increase.
16. H. Wayne House and Thomas D. Ice, Dominion Theology: Blessing or
Curse? (Portland, OR, 1988), 222. This recent defense of dispensationalism
and its strong rejection of theonomy and Christian reconstruction is heartily
endorsed on the back cover by Charles Colson, Norman Geisler, Dave Hunt,
John MacArthur, Jr., Hal Lindsey, and Charles Ryrie.
17. Ibid., 183.
18. Hal Lindsey, The Road To Holocaust (New York, 1989), 45.
19. John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: 1959), 134.
20. Pentecost, Things To Come, 155.
21. Mike Evans, The Return (Nashville, TN: 1986), 57.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

When they say that Satan is the god of this age, dispensationalists do
not simply mean {228} that Satan is worshipped by the unsaved, but
they mean that Satan has dominion over this world. Furthermore,
they teach that this dominion will continue until the Second
Coming when Christ will depose Satan from his current position
of power. The dispensational view of Satan’s authority during this
age is based largely on their view of the Messianic Kingdom. They
teach that Christ came and offered this kingdom to Israel, but
when Israel rejected the Messiah, his kingdom and his rule over
the earth was postponed until the Second Coming.22 This means
that they reject Christ’s lordship over the nations in the present
church age. Pentecost denies that Jesus Christ in now Lord and
King of the nations.23 He says that it will not be until the Second
Coming that Christ “will rule as king over the earth.”24 House
and Ice fully concur. They believe that the Messianic Kingdom is
“totally future,”25 and that until that time, Christ’s ministry as a
priest is primary. It will only be in the future that “his ministry
as King will become central” and that he will become “King of
the nations.”26 Therefore, the doctrine of the dispensationalist is
that Satan has dominion over the nations, and that he is thus the
dominant force in history during this age. Larken says:
The world refused to accept the rule of God when it crucified His
Son, and chose Barabbas instead of Christ, thus exalting Satan to
the position of the “GOD OF THIS AGE,” for Satan is not spoken
of as the God of any other age than this.27
Showers believes that the world is now under a “satanocracy” and
that it will continue as such until the return of Christ.28 House
22. For dispensational teaching on the postponement of the Kingdom see:
Pentecost, op. cit., 446–463; Ryrie, op. cit., 162–165; House and Ice, op. cit., 217–
23. Pentecost, Will Man Survive?, 95–98.
24. Ibid., 97.
25. House and Ice, Dominion Theology, 220. It seems as though they have
their own form of ‘Dominion Theology.” However, in their version it is Satan, not
Christ, who presently rules.
26. Ibid., 236.
27. Larkin, op. cit., 44.
28. Showers, op. cit., 165–167. A “satanocracy” would refer to a state or
nation that is ruled by Satan. Showers must therefore believe that every nation

“The Failure of Christianity”


and Ice teach that “the church age is a time in which Satan and
his rebellious court refuse to give up their rule.”29 They further
claim that Satan is now in control of this world’s institutions.30
Chafer describes Satan as the Christian’s {229} “World-Ruling
Foe.”31 And Lindsey concludes, “To sum up what the Bible teaches
on this subject, the world-system is organized under Satan’s
rulership and energized by his power.”32 To teach that Satan and
his “satanocracy” rule the world in this present age and that this
will not end until Christ’s Second Coming is pure pessimism. Yet,
this is the dispensational view.

Dispensationalism Teaches That the Church
Will Grow Increasingly Apostate
Not only will evil increase in the world during this age, but
the church itself will also grow apostate. This is in accord, as we
previously noted, with their view that every dispensation ends in
apostasy. The dispensationalists are unanimous in teaching that at
the end of the age the visible, professing church of Jesus Christ
will be infected with great worldliness and false teaching. They
believe that the church, as a divine institution, and like the nation
of Israel, will fail. All that will remain of Christ’s church will be
a small remnant (comparatively speaking) of faithful believers.
Hunt and McMahon say that a “great delusion” will sweep the
world in the “last days,” and that, “We are warned in Scripture that
many people who call themselves Christians will succumb to this
deception and that a great apostasy will occur before the return
of Christ; the delusion will sweep through the professing church
as well as secular society.”33 According to nearly all dispensational
interpreters, 2 Thess. 2:3 is a prophecy of this great end-time
on earth is under the direct rule of Satan. According to him, the United States is
a “satanocracy” and it must remain such until Christ comes!
29. House and Ice, op. cit., 235.
30. Ibid., 238.
31. Lewis Sperry Chafer, He That Is Spiritual (Grand Rapids, MI: 1918), 101.
32. Lindsey, op. cit., 271.
33. Dave Hunt and T. A. McMahon, The Seduction Of Christianity (Eugene,
OR: 1985), 7–8. They further say that this great apostasy will “influence the entire
church upon earth,” 65.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

apostasy. For example, Hiebert says that this text “has reference
to apostasy within the circle of the professed Christian Church,”
and that “by his use of the definite article, in ‘the falling away,’ Paul
clearly points to the well-known apostasy, ‘the great revolt’... which
will characterize Christendom in the end-time....”34 Walvoord
predicts that apostasy and open denial of the truth will be evident
in the church just prior to the Lord’s return.35 Ryrie fully agrees by
saying that there will be a “future great apostasy” in the church.36

Sometimes crucial to the dispensational view of the church
and its degeneration is its understanding of the significance
of the seven churches in Revelation chapters two and three.
Dispensationalists believe that these were historical churches, but
also that these churches are representative of the course of the
church from the first century until the “rapture.”37 Accordingly,
the church of Laodicea is representative of the church at the end
of this age. Therefore they teach that the church just prior to the
rapture will be characterized by “gross indifference,” “spiritual
poverty, and self-deception.”38 David Jeremiah concludes from
this that “the condition of the church at the time of Christ’s return
is Christless.”39
Therefore, according to dispensationalists the church will fail
and grow apostate. They believe that there will be a small and
faithful remnant, but the majority of those who profess the name
of Christ will be deceived, indifferent, worldly, and apostate.

34. D. Edmond Hiebert, The Thessalonian Epistles (Chicago, 1971), 306.
35. John F. Walvoord, Armageddon, Oil, And the Middle East Crisis (Grand
Rapids, MI: 1990), 220.
36. Ryrie, op. cit., 150–154.
37. See Pentecost, op. cit., 151–153; John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus
Christ (Chicago, 1966), 52–53; The New Scofield Reference Bible says that these
churches are prophetic of the spiritual history of the church until the end of the
church age, 1353.
38. Charles C. Ryrie, Revelation (Chicago, 1968), 31.
39. David Jeremiah, Escape The Coming Night (Dallas, TX: 1990), 63.

“The Failure of Christianity”


Dispensationalism Teaches That
the Church Will Not Disciple the Nations
The Great Commission is central to one’s understanding of
the church and its mission in the world. But what is the Great
Commission? According to dispensationalists Jesus’ command
to make disciples of all the nations (Matt. 28:19) does not refer
to a comprehensive task of bringing the nations under his
lordship through faithful preaching and teaching all that he has
commanded.40 Rather, they say, it means that the church is to preach
the gospel in every nation so that every one will have a chance to
hear the gospel. To the dispensationalist the Great Commission
is to preach the gospel to every creature, that is, give everyone an
opportunity to hear the good news. To see the Great Commission
as involving anything else seems like heresy to them.41 House and
Ice strongly reject the reconstructionist postmillennial view of
the Great Commission and say “it is not God’s will to bring both
personal and social salvation before Christ returns,” and, “that
God’s will is individual salvation now and social {231} salvation
at the coming of Christ.”42 Thus the full mission of the church is
“individual evangelism and teaching in order to build up believers
to live in faithfulness to our Lord during this dark age.”43 Geisler
presents this same view when he says that dispensationalists “do
not need to Christianize all nations, they need to evangelize all
people (Matt. 28:18–20). Their obligation is not to bring all men
to Christ, but to bring Christ to all men.”44 Lindsey concurs, “The
Lord did not send us out to conquer this present evil age, but to
rescue people out of it.”45
Therefore, dispensationalists are adamant in rejecting the
40. See Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., The Greatness Of The Great Commission (Tyler,
TX, 1990) for a “comprehensive biblical case for God’s comprehensive salvation
and restoration in history” through Christ and his church.
41. Ryrie, Social Responsibility, 19–24.
42. House and Ice, op. cit., 154.
43. Ibid., 154.
44. Norman L. Geisler, “A Premillennial View of Law and Government,”
Bibliotheca Sacra (July-September, 1985), 142:256.
45. Lindsey, loc. cit., 271. Lindsey warns us, however, not to expect much
success in this rescue: “Nowhere are we led to expect that a majority of mankind
will believe the Gospel in this age.” 274.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

postmillennial view which posits that the gospel will conquer
the nations and bring all peoples under the lordship of Christ.
For example, Larken boldly claims that, “After nearly 1900 years
of Gospel preaching the world is in a worse state, in proportion
to its light, than it was in the days of Christ.”46 Larken concludes,
“The Gospel as far converting the world is concerned is a failure.”47
So then, for the dispensationalist the fulfillment of the Great
Commission consists in “causing the whole world to HEAR the
Gospel presented in the power of the Holy Spirit, and discipling
those who believe it.”48 Walvoord shows how pessimistic he is
concerning the effect of the gospel when he writes:
The present age is one in which the gospel is preached to all the
world. Relatively few are saved. The world becomes, in fact,
increasingly wicked as the age progresses. The premillennial view
holds no prospects of a golden age before the second coming, and
presents no commands to improve society as a whole.49

Dispensationalism Teaches That the Church
Must Look to Another Age For the Victory of Christ
Dispensationalists, like all premillennialists, believe that after
Jesus Christ returns he will set up the kingdom of God on earth.
They teach that in this future millennium the glorious prophecies
of the Old Testament concerning the Messiah and his kingdom
will be fulfilled, but not before. {232} Accordingly, then, they do
not look for the victory of Christ over his enemies in this present
age. The fulfillment of the Father’s promise to the Messiah in
Ps. 110:1 to make all Christ’s enemies his footstool does not
take place in this age, we are told by Johnson, but only “When
Christ returns to earth to begin his messianic reign on David’s
throne....”50 Thus, in respect to Christ’s worldwide kingdom and
the visible manifestation of his glory among the nations, this
46. Larkin, op. cit., 44.
47. Ibid., 90.
48. Lindsey, op. cit., 43.
49. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, 134.
50. Elliott E. Johnson, “Hermenutical Principles and Psalm 110,” Bibliotheca
Sacra 149 (October-December 1992), 436.

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present age is an age of visible defeat. In history and prior to the
Second Coming, the church is taught by dispensationalism not to
expect any significant victory for Christ, except for the salvation of
a few souls (relatively speaking). This age belongs to Satan and his
“satanocracy.” It is only in the millennial kingdom that Christ and
his followers will triumph in the world.
Dispensationalists clearly teach that Christ’s kingdom and
victory are yet future. Showers claims that
God has determined to demonstrate His sovereignty by crushing
Satan and his rule of the world system, casting Satan and his
satanocracy out of the world, and by restoring His Theocratic
Kingdom rule to the earth with Jesus administering that rule over
the entire earth as the last Adam.... If the history of this present
earth ends without that restoration, God will be defeated by His
great enemy during this course of history.51
Further on, he says, “that the Theocratic Kingdom will not be
restored on earth until Jesus Christ returns in His glorious Second
Coming.”52 Therefore, according to Showers, thus far all history,
in terms of the establishment of God’s theocratic kingdom, has
witnessed the defeat of God by Satan! Furthermore, even though
Christ has already finished the work of salvation, Showers believes
that this defeat will continue throughout the church age! House
and Ice fully agree with this when they state that “...God has not
decreed victory during the church age.”53 To put it more bluntly,
they believe that God has decreed defeat for the church in terms of
the overthrow of Satan and his wicked kingdom. Lindsey leaves no
doubt concerning the time and place of victory by saying:
There is a time of victory and perfect environment coming within
history for the earth. But we must not confuse God’s time and
God’s agent for effecting this monumental change. The time is not
now, it is {233} the soon coming millennium. The agent who will
establish the Millennial Kingdom is not the Church, but the Lord
Jesus Christ.54
51. Showers, op. cit., 165–166.
52. Ibid., 167.
53. House and Ice, op. cit., 342.
54. Lindsey, op. cit., 278. He also says, “Whereas the Scripture predicts that
the Messiah will rule the earth with a rod of iron during the Kingdom age, Satan


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

The dispensationalists believe that the kingdoms of this world
belong to Satan and his demons, and that this will not change
until the future millennium. And not only has the church no hope
of ever reversing Satan’s current grip on the nations, but also the
church must realize that during this age it is “at the mercy of the
powers of this world.” Speaking concerning the presence of the
kingdom in the church age Saucy writes:
...the present kingdom power is fundamentally a power displayed
through outer weakness (cf. 2 Cor. 12:9–10). Far from giving
believers today the kingdom power that will someday crush all its
enemies, the church today, as Ladd has said, ‘is like other men, at
the mercy of the powers of this world.’55
Dispensationalism teaches the church that it must look to
another age for the victory of Christ’s kingdom. During this age,
we are told, the church will participate in the ongoing defeat of
God’s theocratic kingdom and thus be at the mercy of the powers
of this world. Is this realism? Or, is it pessimism?

Dispensationalism Teaches That the Church Age
Could End at Any Moment
From its beginning in the early 1830s dispensationalism has
taught the doctrine of the imminent “rapture” of the church. This
doctrine holds that Christ could come at any moment and rapture
his church away. The purpose of this rapture is to bring the church
age to a close and deliver the church from the “great tribulation”
which will befall Israel and the world. They believe that after this
tribulation of seven years Christ will return to earth and establish
his millennial kingdom.
The official line among dispensationalists has always been that
there are no prophetic signs which herald the rapture. This is why
they say the rapture is “imminent.” The church is not to look for
signs but for Christ. However, creative dispensational teachers
have reasoned that although the church has not been given any
sign to announce the rapture, Israel has been given many signs
is ‘the god of this present age,’ ” 270.
55. Robert L. Saucy, “The Presence of the Kingdom and the Life of the
Church,” Bibliotheca Sacra 145 (January-March 1988), 45.

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concerning the great tribulation and the Second Coming of
Christ. Therefore, as the church draws close to the rapture and
the end {234} of this age, the church should be able to recognize
this by world conditions which point to the beginning of the
tribulation. This combination of an imminent rapture and the
signs of the tribulation (“the signs of the times”), has constantly
led dispensationalists into that which DeMar has called “Last
Days Madness.”56 From its inception dispensationalism has been
declaring “Armageddon Now!”57
In a section of his book on the “Signs of the Times,” Larkin
declares “that we have reached the ‘time of the End’ and are living
in the closing days of the ‘Times of the Gentiles.’ ”58 LaHaye writes,
“There is no question that we are living in the last days,”59 and, “we
are the generation that will be on earth when our Lord comes....”60
Evans claims that “the world is about to experience history’s most
climactic event—The Return.”61 Walvoord states, “Our present
world is well prepared for the beginning of the prophetic drama
that will lead to Armageddon. Since the stage is set for this
dramatic climax of the age, it must mean that Christ’s coming for
his own is very near.”62 David Jeremiah urges us to consider that
Jesus and His prophets told us all the signs of His Second Coming.
In the early 1970s Hal Lindsey wrote The Late Great Planet Earth.
It chronicled the signs of the end times. Children have grown up
since that book was written, and many of those signs have increased
in such intensity that the warnings heard twenty years ago are now
sounding like high-decibel sirens.63
56. Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness (Brentwood, TN, 1991). In this book
DeMar exposes the folly of those who seek to predict the Lord’s return by the
signs of the times.
57. Dwight Wilson, Armageddon Now! (Tyler, TX, 1991). Here Wilson
documents the many failed predictions of premillennialists concerning the end
58. Larkin, op. cit., 173.
59. Tim LaHaye, The Beginning of the End (Wheaton, IL: 1972), 171.
60. Ibid., 172.
61. Evans, op. cit., 7.
62. Walvoord, Armageddon, Oil And The Middle East Crisis, 228.
63. Jeremiah, Escape The Coming Night, 78. The book is billed on the front
cover as “An electrifying tour of our world as it Races towards its final days.”


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

This constant declaration to the church that we are in the last days
has also tended to increase the pessimism in the church. It tells us
that we are at the end of the church age, that evil will soon grip the
world as the Antichrist takes power, and that there is nothing we
can do about it. Therefore it is futile for the church to even attempt
to turn back the tide of evil in the world. Dispensationalism not
only denies the church any long-term prospects of victory, but
also, through its doctrine of the imminent {235} rapture, it removes
hope for any immediate success as well. If one really believes that
the evil in the world is a sign that the rapture is near, what hope
can there be that the church can overcome evil?
In light of the previous documentation, none can seriously
reject the claim that dispensationalism is pessimistic concerning
the prospects of the church in this present age. To summarize,
dispensationalism teaches that evil will steadily increase as the
church age progresses and draws to a close; that Satan is the “god
of this age” and his “satanocracy” is the controlling force on earth
prior to the Second Coming; that the church itself will grow
increasingly apostate, and, except for a small remnant, the church
will be worldly, unfaithful, indifferent, and “Christless” by the time
of the rapture; that the church will fail to disciple the nations, and
that only relatively few will be saved through the preaching of the
gospel; that during this age the nations of this world are ruled by
Satan and his demons, and thus, the church is at “the mercy of
the powers of the world”; that the church will participate in the
ongoing defeat of God’s theocratic kingdom and therefore can have
no hope of the victory of Christ’s kingdom until the millennium;
and that the world is “now” in its final evil days, Antichrist is at the
door, so it is futile to expect any success in fighting this evil. With
such a view as this is it any wonder that Larkin entitled his chart
on the church age “The Failure of Christianity”?64
64. A dispensationalist might at this point object and say, yes this is in a sense
pessimistic, but is this not what the Bible teaches? We answer, “No! this is not
what the Bible teaches.” Note the following Scriptures which declare the victory
of Christ and his church in this dispensation: cf. Ps. 110:1–7 with Acts 2:29–36; 1
Cor. 15:20–28; Heb. 10:12–13; Eph. 1:10; Lk. 11:17–20; Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14; John
12:30–33; Matt. 16:18–19; 13:24–43; 28:18–20; 21:43; 2 Cor. 2:14; 10:3–5; 1 John
5:4; Rom. 8:37; 16:20. See the footnotes on pages 2 and 3 of this essay for further
study resources.

“The Failure of Christianity”


The Effect of the Dispensational View
on Christian Political and Social Action
The dispensational view of the church age has had far reaching
effects upon the church. Our purpose in this section of the essay is
to trace the particular effect of this view on Christian political and
social action. {236}

The Dispensational View Has Tended Greatly to Discourage
Christian Political and Social Action
There is no question that dispensationalism, because of its view
of the church age, has tended to greatly discourage Christians
from becoming meaningfully involved in the political and social
spheres of this world.65 Whether or not dispensationalists have
actually forbidden such involvement, or whether or not individual
dispensationalists have been involved, the overall effect of their
teaching has led Christians to abandon any significant political or
social reform or action. After speaking of how dispensationalism
replaced the Puritan postmillennial hope, Murray says:
Practically no area of life remained unaffected by this eclipse of the
old hope. Political and social endeavor, such as marked the lives
of prominent Christians in the Reformation and Puritan periods,
and in more recent times, in William Wilberforce and the Clapham
sect, was no longer regarded as legitimate evangelical activity. To
engage in such pursuits savored of the error that the world could
be made better and it involved participation in the ‘human order’
of things.66
Grenz believes that the underlying pessimism of dispensationalism
“has led many proponents to take a cautious stance toward social
and political involvement. Engagement, when it has occurred,
has generally been highly selective, focused on individualistic

65. Dispensationalists have been involved in such worthy social endeavors as
rescue missions. But note that even here, the attempt by the church is not to bring
a true Spirit-filled reconstruction of society, but rather to rescue people from it.
We need rescue missions. But we also need a rebuilding mission for every aspect
of our society (personal, family, church, and state) according to biblical truth.
66. Murray, The Puritan Hope, 203–204.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

moralistic and short-term goals.”67 Wilson comments that
“Premillennialists tend to be pessimistic, fatalistic, nonpolitical,
and nonactivist.”68 Barron asserts that dispensational “pessimism
regarding social progress has led them to be generally uninterested
in social and political action.”69 And it is hard to disagree with
Johnson when he says, “The premillennial tradition [which
includes dispensationahsm] tends to view the times as growing
progressively worse. Unfortunately, that teaching has made
premillennialists develop a tendency to pull back from active
participation in societal issues and {237} concerns.”70 That
dispensationalism leads to Christian withdrawal and retreat from
society is conceded by Schnittger, himself a dispensationalist:
North and other postmillennial Christian Reconstructionists label
those who hold the pretribulational rapture position pietists and
cultural retreatists. One reason these criticisms are so painful is
because I find them to be substantially true. Many in our camp
have an all-pervasive negativism regarding the course of society
and the impotence of God’s people to do anything about it. They
will heartily affirm that Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth,
and that this must be The Terminal Generation; therefore, any
attempt to influence society is ultimately hopeless. They adopt the
pietistic platitude: “You don’t polish brass on a sinking ship.” Many
pessimistic pretribbers cling to the humanists’ version of religious
freedom; namely Christian social and political impotence, selfimposed, as drowning men cling to a life preserver.71
Although it is readily apparent that the dispensational view
of the church age would tend greatly to discourage social and
political involvement by Christians, it is important that we take
67. Stanley J. Grenz, The Millennial Maze (Downers Grove, IL, 1992), 119.
68. Wilson, Armageddon Now!, 17.
69. Bruce Barron, Heaven On Earth? (Grand Rapids, MI: 1992), 216. Barron
says, “This escapist dispensational outlook flourished in late nineteenth-century
America largely because it provided an effective rationalization for defeated
evangelicals: having failed to transform society, they discovered that God had
never intended them to do so anyhow,” 113.
70. Alan Johnson, “Our Future Hope,” 11-I.
71. David Schnittger, Christian Reconstruction From A Pretribulational
Perspective (Oklahoma City, OK: 1986), 7. As cited by Gary North in “Publisher’s
Preface” to Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., The Beast Of Revelation (Tyler, TX, 1989),

“The Failure of Christianity”


a closer look at why this is so. In doing this we will gain direct
insight into dispensational views on Christian involvement in the
world. We will see how they apply their views on the church age to
the subject of Christian activism.

Why the Dispensational View Has Tended Greatly To
Discourage Christian Political and Social Action
Here we present six reasons why the dispensational view of the
church age has had the effect of discouraging Christians from
entering the arena of political and social action.
Dispensationalism Teaches That Such Action Is Doomed to Failure
It is hard to be motivated in some enterprise if one believes
that all his efforts will lead only to frustration and defeat. In
terms of political and social action, this is the situation for
dispensationalism, for they consistently teach that there is no
hope of bringing any lasting change for truth and righteousness
in society. In response to a question of whether it is worth our
efforts to improve the physical, social, political situation on earth,
Walvoord replies: “The answer is yes and no. We know that our
{238} efforts to make society Christianized is [sic] futile because
the Bible doesn’t teach it. On the other hand, the Bible certainly
doesn’t teach that we should be indifferent... [but] civilization as
a whole is hopeless and subject to God’s judgment.”72 Walvoord
agrees that we ought to protest abortion and seek to feed the
hungry but clearly rejects any broad-based societal reform along
Christian lines as “futile” and “hopeless.” In a similar way House
and Ice state:
We do not mean that Christians are to abandon responsibilities
towards individual and societal concerns such as helping the poor
or protesting abortion. We only question the permanent success
of our efforts or ability significantly to alter the social structures
of this world until Christ the King installs his government in the
Note how similar their view is to Walvoord’s. Both advocate
72. Walvoord, “Our Future Hope,” 5–6 I.
73. House and Ice, op. cit., 160.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

limited involvement but deny the possibility of any significant
success in changing. the evil social structures of the world. Protest
abortion, but don’t expect any significant change in the social
policy of the nation concerning abortion. The great problem is that
the message of dispensationalism can never rouse the church to
cleanse its society of evil and injustice. From one side of the mouth
a dispensational teacher may say we ought to do something (in a
limited way, of course) but out of the other side of his mouth he
says that such action is doomed to ultimate failure. The person in
the pew reasons: Why bother at all?
Dispensationalism holds that all Christian political and social
reform is futile because a just and righteous society can never
be realized until Christ returns and establishes his millennial
kingdom. Until Christ is physically present on the earth the
dispensationalist has no hope for peace and justice on earth. This
is a recurrent theme in their discussions on Christian involvement
in society. For example, Larkin has said, “The phrase ‘Christian
Civilization’ is an invention of the ‘God of this Age’. There can
be no such thing, for Christianity and Civilization have nothing
in common. There can be no Christian Civilization without
Christ....”,74 i.e., until Christ returns to earth. In the same vein,
Ryrie teaches:
In that kingdom, yet to be established, there will be spiritual and
material deliverance. People get sidetracked when they attempt to
impose kingdom ethics on the world today without the physical
presence of the King. The Christian is responsible to practice
church {239} ethics, not kingdom ethics. Church ethics focus on the
church; kingdom ethics focus on the world.75
According to Ryrie the church has no responsibility to practice
“kingdom ethics,” that is, the church has no responsibility to
apply the righteous standards of God’s law to the political and
social problems of their nation! Why? Because we cannot impose
such ethics without the physical presence of Christ!76 Pocock
74. Larkin, op. cit., 44.
75. Ryrie, Social Responsibility, 22.
76. Satan’s followers and representatives have no qualms about trying to apply
the ethics of Satan’s kingdom even though Satan is not physically present on

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expresses similar sentiments: “Evangelicals are indeed concerned
about the social disjunction around them.... But an evangelical,
and particularly a premillennial one, is a realist.... His realism
makes him patient. He knows whole societies will not be set
right until Christ returns.”77 In other words, Pocock is saying that
although there is much evil in the world, we must be “realists”
and understand that there can be no hope for any broad-based
Christian reconstruction of society. We must simply accept these
evils as part of this world’s system and await the physical presence
of Christ in the millennium for their eradication. Until then there
is little or nothing that we can do about it. Again, Walvoord:
Perhaps Christians are not as concerned about social, political,
and moral conditions in the world as they should be; but on the
other hand, it is not God’s purpose in our present age to have social
justice or to have all the ills and problems of life removed now....
The Scriptures state very plainly that it will not come in this age
of grace. Instead, things are going to get worse and worse. There
will be more oppression, more injustice, more persecution, more
immorality as the age wears on. Another reason why Jesus Christ
is coming back is that He will bring in the perfect social, political,
and spiritual situation.78
Because dispensationalism holds no hope of significant success, it
greatly discourages Christian political and social action.
Dispensationalism Teaches That Such Action Is Not the Calling of
the Church
Reformed amillennial and postmillennial theology has always
affirmed that Christ established his kingdom at his first coming
and that he is now reigning as king over all the earth. Reformed
theology has proclaimed the lordship of Christ over every area
of life. Therefore, in Reformed theology, {240} the mission of the
church is a comprehensive work of bringing every area of life
(including the social and political) under that lordship. The Great
Commission, therefore, must be seen as transcending individual
evangelism and the planting of local churches and be seen to
77. Pocock, op. cit., 449.
78. John F. Walvoord, “Why Must Christ Return?” in Prophecy and the
Seventies, ed. Charles L. Feinberg (Chicago, 1971), 43.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

encompass the work of transforming whole cultures so that all
nations will worship and serve Jesus Christ who is the king of kings.
The Great Commission is accomplished through the preaching
of the gospel, the baptizing of the converts, and the teaching of
the whole counsel of God to those converts (Matt. 28:18–20). The
goal of the Great Commission is to bring all nations to recognize
and submit to the lordship of Christ and to live by his commands.
Therefore, in Reformed theology, the task of political and social
action is seen as legitimate and important work for the church to
perform as part of its overall mission to disciple the nations.
However, as we have seen, dispensationalists take a much
different view of the Great Commission. In their view the mission
of the church in this age is limited to evangelism and individual
discipleship. They reject any idea that the mission of the church
goes beyond this or that it includes the transformation of society
through serious Christian efforts to apply the teachings of God’s
word to the social and political spheres. This limited view of the
Great Commission has caused dispensationalists to downplay or
even to reject the legitimacy of Christian social or political action.
To them any attempt to extend the kingdom of God over the social
and political realm is misguided because reform in that realm can
only take place in Christ’s millennial kingdom. The Church’s task
in this age is evangelism. Ryrie plainly sets forth this standard
dispensational teaching:
To be sure, God is a God of justice as well as redemption, as Stott
and others say, but it is not true to imply that God’s program today
is to effect worldwide justice as well as world-wide preaching of the
gospel. Justice will come to this world only when Christ comes, and
in the meantime, we are to evangelize and teach.79
Later in the same book Ryrie says that Christ gave the salvation
of souls and the spiritual needs of people top priority and that
“He led no attempt to reform the system or correct injustices.”80
Ryrie concludes that we are to follow Christ’s example. By this he
intends to teach Christians that we should not “attempt to reform
the system or correct injustices,” but only {241} deal with the
79. Ryrie, op. cit., 24.
80. Ibid., 76.

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personal spiritual needs of people.81 House and Ice also state the
dispensational position: “Worldwide evangelism is the calling of
the church in this age, not Cultural Christianization. Sadly when
the two are combined the result is not a bright and shining city
on a hill; rather it is Babylon the great, spoken of in Revelation
18....”82 Accordingly Pentecost criticizes Calvin and Augustine for
misunderstanding prophecy and God’s purpose for the church in
this age:
The theologian Augustine wrote a volume, The City of God, in
which he described the glory that would belong to the earth when
God’s law is recognized and God’s Son is crowned King on this
earth. Calvin, by establishing a theocracy in Geneva, hoped that he
would see in his day just such a kingdom established on the earth
as the prophets had predicted. Men have desired the fulfillment of
that which the prophets have predicted, but they have not sought
it in God’s way, nor have they based their hopes for a transformed
society in keeping with the revelation of Scripture.83
Calvin and Augustine should have known better and should not
have sought to build the City of God on earth for the glory of their
Lord, because—and this is what it seems like dispensationalists
are saying—all their efforts to do so contradicted God’s purpose
for this age and only contributed to the building of “Babylon the
Due to his dispensational view of the church’s mission in this
age, David Jeremiah is upset at “Christians who are bent on
changing society” through political activism. He says, “I do not
find any place in the Bible that says that this is the mission of the
church of Jesus Christ. The mission of the church is witnessing
to lost souls about the redemption provided by the Lord Jesus
Christ.”84 Of course, we do not deny the centrality of the gospel in
the mission of the church. What we question is the dispensational
view that the mission of the church is limited to evangelism and
81. We agree that the spiritual needs of people are to be given top priority.
However, we disagree that our duty to our neighbor ends there. If we love God
and our neighbor we will seek to reform an evil system that harms people and we
will seek to correct injustices that destroy lives and families.
82. House and Ice, op. cit., 160.
83. Pentecost, Will Man Survive?, 177–178.
84. Jeremiah, op. cit., 58.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

personal discipleship.
In an article on the kingdom of God and social justice, Kunst
discuses the meaning of salvation and concludes that it has
two aspects, the present and the future. According to Kunst the
present salvation for man is “liberation {242} from the penalty
and power of sin,” while the future salvation “is connected with
the second coming of Christ” when man’s body and the earth will
be delivered. From this distinction between present and future
salvation Kunst concludes that present salvation is spiritual and
“has nothing to do with economic, material, or social concerns,”
while future salvation deals with the socio-political element.85 He
then concludes that if we ignore this distinction of present spiritual
salvation and future socio-political salvation the church will be in
danger of neglecting its primary mission for this age and be led
into a false effort of trying to bring salvation to the socio-political
realm before Christ’s Second Coming.86 Walvoord makes a similar
distinction, saying that, “It is not God’s plan and purpose to bring
righteousness and peace to earth in this present age. We will never
attain the postmillennial dream of peace on earth through the
influence of the church. This is not what the word of God indicates
as the outcome of our present activity and it is not according to
the purpose of God.”87 God’s purpose in this age, says Walvoord,
is individual salvation; God’s purpose for the future age is political
and social salvation through the personal rule of Christ on earth.
Dispensationalism limits the Great Commission to evangelism
and personal discipleship. It teaches that Christ’s salvation applies
only to spiritual concerns in this age and that his salvation presently
“has nothing to do with economic, material, or social concerns.”
Therefore dispensationalists believe that any attempt to bring the
social and political realms under the lordship of Christ is futile
and a misreading of God’s purpose for the church in this age. Is it
not evident that such teaching would tend greatly to discourage
Christian political and social action? After all, who in the church
85. Theo J. W. Kunst, “The Kingdom of God and Social Justice,” Bibliotheca
Sacra (April-June 1983), 140:113.
86. Ibid., 113.
87. John F. Walvoord, “Why Are the Nations in Turmoil?” in Prophecy and the
Seventies, ed. Charles L. Feinberg (Chicago, 1971), 211.

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wants to contribute to the building of “Babylon the Great”?
Dispensationalism Leads To a Pietistic Withdrawal From the
Personal piety and devotion to Jesus Christ are goals that each
Christian ought to strive for. However, pietism is something
different. It is a view of {243} the Christian life that focuses on
the cultivation of one’s own spiritual life. It stresses the inner life
and one’s own experience of God through “certain inner religious
experiences and outward observances which contribute to
spiritual growth.”88 The pietism of which we speak also sees the
world’s influences as something to be avoided and retreated from,
because these are evil and injurious to the soul. To be safe we must
have as little contact with the world as possible. It is the mindset of
monasticism—withdraw from the world and work out your own
salvation through personal devotions and religious experiences.
Dispensationalism has encouraged this type of pietistic
withdrawal from the world. House and Ice freely admit this: “It
is unfortunate but true that pietism has infected many in the
dispensational camp.”89 This is “unfortunate” but in many ways it
is the logical result of dispensational theology and its views on the
nature of the church age and the mission of the church.
As we have noted, the dispensationalists teach that this is
an evil age and that the institutions of the world are under the
powers of darkness. Furthermore, they teach that the world will
remain under the power of Satan and evil until the coming of
Christ and the millennial age. This has led them into a dualistic
view of life. There is the sacred realm of life which pertains to the
spirit, to Christ, and to the church; and there is the secular realm
which belongs to the flesh, to the temporal, and to the world.
Dispensational theology leads to the belief that in this age Christ is
the Lord of the sacred, while Satan is lord of the secular. Therefore,
any involvement in the secular realm is dangerous to the soul, and
any attempt to reform the secular is futile.
It is easy to see the effect of this view on the involvement of
88. B. J. Leonard “Piety: Popular Protestant” in Dictionary of Christianity in
America, ed. Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL, 1990), 907.
89. House and Ice, op. cit., 241.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

Christians in the social and political realms. Politics is clearly
part of the secular realm of life in dispensational thinking. This
has led to the well-known phrase among Christians that “politics
is dirty business.” Why? Because politics and the institutions of
civil government are under Satan’s control and will remain so until
the Second Coming. House and Ice assure us Satan is in control
of the institutions of the world and, therefore, we must realize
that Christians cannot totally reform society.90 So, they tell us, we
must be careful that in seeking reform that we do “not participate
in evil,” implying {244} that political involvement is a dangerous
enterprise which might compromise our duty to God.91 To House
and Ice our Christian calling is not to reclaim the institutions
of civil government for Christ and his kingdom, but rather to
make sure that we do not put ourselves in a position where these
Satanically controlled institutions might cause us to be untrue
to God. Ice himself states in another place that reconstructionist
activism is dangerous because Christians might “become wrongly
involved in this world’s system in their zeal to make the kingdoms
of this world the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ.”92 Therefore, it
would seem that the best advice to Christians is to stay away from
active involvement in politics because it is simply too perilous to
the soul to venture into such a Satanic stronghold.
Another way in which dispensational teaching leads to a
pietistic withdrawal from social and political involvement is
its view that individual salvation and personal growth is God’s
purpose for this age; his purpose is not societal transformation
or the redemption of human culture from the grasp of the Devil.
Pocock believes that the church’s mission in this age must be
limited to personal salvation and the growth of the local church.
He emphatically states that the church must not focus on the
“redemption of societies” because, in the Bible, these are never the
objects of redemption.93 Pocock then approvingly quotes Fredrik
Franson: “It is not before the next age that we will see nations as
90. Ibid., 238.
91. Ibid.
92. Thomas D. Ice, “An Evaluation of Theonomic Neopostmillennialism,”
Bibliotheca Sacra (July-September 1988), 145:300.
93. Pocock, op. cit., 446.

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such be saved. Any attempt during this age to produce a Christian
nation is merely an attempt to go ahead of God.... The only option
open now is for individuals to become Christ’s people.”94 The idea
of a Christian nation is a myth to dispensationalists. The only
possibility is personal salvation and personal spiritual growth. Is it
hard to see how this leads to a pietistic withdrawal from the world?
In a pietistic fashion Saucy writes that “the primary thrust of
kingdom power [for today] relates to the inner person,” and that
the blessings of the kingdom for this dispensation focus on the
spiritual aspect of life and not the material.95 This means, for
Saucy, that the church has not been given the power to “crush
all its enemies” but presently is “at the mercy of the {245} powers
of the world.”96 The power for this victory “awaits the arrival of
the King,” but in the meantime the church is here to witness to
individuals about salvation; it is not here to “inaugurate kingdom
rule.”97 House and Ice show the same pietistic streak by saying,
“The church age is a time of development, but not the kind
Reconstructionists advocate. It is a time that stresses development
of the inner spiritual life,”98 but it is not a time for the church to
work for the coming of the kingdom.99
That dispensationalism leads to a pietistic withdrawal from
politics and social involvement is exhibited in Ryrie’s book
on a Christian’s social responsibility. Ryrie allows for limited
involvement by Christians but discourages any attempt of
meaningful Christian reconstruction. He concludes his book
with a chapter entitled “An Agenda.” There are four items in
this agenda. They are: 1) The cultivation of personal holiness;100
2) Vital concern and involvement in spreading the gospel; 3)
Involvement in building Christ’s church; 4) A generous life-style.101
94. Ibid.
95. Saucy, “The Presence of the Kingdom in the Life of the Church,” 44.
96. Ibid., 45.
97. Ibid., 46.
98. House and Ice, op. cit., 167.
99. Ibid., 168.
100. Ryrie says “If that sounds too individualistic, pietistic, or isolationist,
remember that is the biblical emphasis,” op. cit., 115.
101. Ryrie, op. cit., 114–117.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

Now, remember, this is the agenda in a book setting forth what a
Christian should know about social responsibility! If this agenda
sounds “too individualistic, pietistic, or isolationist,” remember,
this is dispensationalism.
Dispensationalism Leads to a Defensive Posture by the Church
No one can win a war by fighting from only a defensive posture.
If there is to be any true victory, sooner or later, one must go on
the offensive. No Christian will deny that we are in a war with the
humanistic culture of our day. It would seem logical that if the
church is to win this war it must aggressively attack the enemy to
break down the “strongholds” of humanism. But this is not the
goal of dispensationalism. Its strategy in this war is defense. Listen
to the most recent defenders of traditional dispensationalism:
When the New Testament speaks of the believer interacting with
this current evil world system, it is never a challenge to take it over.
Rather, it is defensive (separate from the darkness of evil, Romans
{246} 13:12; 2 Corinthians 6:14), as well as offensive (exposure of
that evil with the light, Ephesians 5:11). But it is not a conquering
of evil.102
House and Ice continue:
Reconstructionists are telling us to charge when God has told us
to take up a defensive posture against the enemy [Eph. 6:13–14].
The offensive weapon is absent since the commander’s orders are
given three times to stand and resist (6:13–14). The believer is
given the shield to protect against Satan’s offensive. The sword for
a counterattack in resisting the evil one’s attempt to overtake your
defensive position.... It is Satan who is on the prowl.103
This defensive strategy arises from the dispensational view that the
church age is the time of Satan’s power over the nations and that it
is a time which will witness the actual increase of evil. They have
no hope of victory in their battle with this world’s system, so it is
logical that they go on the defensive. Who wants to take part in a
suicide charge?
It is easy to see how this defensive posture discourages political
102. House and Ice, op. cit., 155.
103. Ibid., 156.

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and social involvement by Christians. Those areas of the world are
strongholds of the enemy and we have no command to take those
strongholds; we are commanded only to defend against the attacks
of the enemy. It is also plain to see that any political action on
the part of dispensationalists is usually calculated to defend some
existing right rather than to expand the kingdom of God.104 So, let
us circle the wagons and hope for the rapture!
Dispensationalism Leads to an Escapist Mentality
If you believe that you are on a sinking ship, your desire is to
be rescued. If you are under the power of an enemy, your hope is
to escape. This is the situation for the dispensationalists. They are
convinced that things will only get worse and worse, that civilization
is headed towards disaster and judgment, and that Satan is the god
of this age. Therefore, the hope of the dispensationalist is not a
mighty revival from God which will sweep countless souls into the
kingdom of God and bring whole nations under the lordship of
Christ. Nor is it a hope of the increasing dominion of Christ over
the nations through the faithfulness of the church to the Great
Commission. No, the hope of the dispensationalist is an escape
from this evil world via the rapture of the church. David Jeremiah
captured this {247} mentality when he entitled his book on biblical
prophecy and the end times as Escape the Coming Night. And
Ice, after rejecting the goals of Christian reconstruction and its
postmillennial eschatology of victory, declares, “My blessed hope,
however, continues to be that Christ will soon rapture his Bride,
the Church....”105
One of the results of this hope of being raptured out of the
present mess is that it has caused many Christians to believe that
they can escape all present responsibility to labor for political and
societal reform. Hear dispensationalist Norman Geisler:
Premillennialists believe that there will be no true theocracy or
theonomy until Christ returns to earth. Hence they are relieved of
the unnecessary and heavy burden postmillenarians have placed
on themselves to bring in the kingdom.... To bring in the kingdom
104. The dispensational strategy of defense is failing miserably in the present
context of our nation.
105. House and Ice, op. cit., 10.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

of God postmillennialists realize that they must Christianize the

Geisler continues by saying that premillennialists see the kingdom
coming when Christ returns, and that (thankfully?) “This relieves
premillennialists of any divine duty to Christianize the world.”107
He also says that his dispensationalism even relieves Christians of
being responsible “to set up a distinctly Christian government”
or to work for “distinctly Christian laws”; they only need to seek
“good” laws that the unregenerate can accept and keep!108 This
leading dispensational teacher claims that the church is under
no divine obligation to labor for a Christian government that
recognizes the lordship of Christ and submits to his laws as the
basis for their civil law. So then dispensationalists teach that it is
not only futile to seek a Christian reformation of politics and law,
but also, that the church is under no obligation from God even to
attempt it!
In his evaluation of this aspect of dispensational premillennialism
Grenz insightfully writes:
Suspicion of involvement with the task of seeking solutions to
the world’s problems and the expectation of being caught away
from the time of trial—these two attitudes so readily connected
with dispensationalism—fit well with the escapist mentality of
contemporary western society.109 {248}
He continues:
It is interesting to note that the type of dispensationalism that divines
a specific end-times scenario focusing on military confrontation in
the world and escape for believers is most popular in lands such as
the United States where the church faces no persecution but where
social problems appear to be spinning out of control. Could it be
that this eschatological system is actually a form of modernism,
caught in the escapism so prevalent in contemporary thinking?110
And DeMar, after surveying the collapsing secularism of our day

Geisler, “A Premillennial View of Law and Government,” 255.
Ibid., 256.
Grenz, op. cit., 120.
Ibid , 120–121.

“The Failure of Christianity”


and also the apocalyptic escapism so prevalent in Christianity,
concludes that this escapism comes from irresponsibility. He
continues, “Escapism is man’s way out of the unpleasantness of
life. The hope is that we will all be rescued before the end really
Dispensationalism not only says, “You don’t polish brass on a
sinking ship,” but also, “Where are the lifeboats?” Is it not obvious
that such a mindset will greatly discourage Christian social and
political action?
Dispensationalism Leads to a Very Short-Term View of the Future
In the light of the entrenchment of the enemies of Christ in
positions of power and influence in our society, it seems clear that
a long-term strategy is necessary if the church is to regain these
positions for Christ and his kingdom. Any significant attempt to
honor Christ by seeking to bring the political and social spheres
under his lordship must be prepared for a long campaign, not a
once-and-done battle. Unfortunately, dispensationalism, because
of its proneness to “last days madness,” has no real capacity for a
long-term strategy. If we believe that it is “11:59 and Counting!”112
or that there are “20 Reasons Why This Present Earth May Not
Last Another 20 Years” (and the counting for the 20 years began in
1973!),113 then we will not likely develop any long-term planning
for our future in any realm, let alone the realm of political and
social reform. Dispensationalists always seem to see the evil in the
world as a sign of the coming of the Lord for the church. To them,
the wickedness in society and politics is not a sign that the church
has failed to be salt and light, and that the church ought to repent
and begin to obey Christ and pull down the enemy’s strongholds.
Rather, the growing evil is a sign of the end of the age. This writer
has heard {249} dispensationalists respond to some particularly
distressing news concerning evil in the world by saying something
like, “Praise the Lord! His coming is drawing nigh!”
If you believe that evil will grow worse and worse, and that
111. DeMar, op. cit., 210.
112. Jack Van Impe, 11:59 And Counting! (Royal Oak, MI, 1983).
113. Salem Kirban, 20 Reasons Why This Present Earth May Not Last Another
20 Years (Huntingdon Valley, PA, 1973).


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

you are in the last evil days of this age, you will certainly have
no motivation to take on the daunting task of Christian political
and social reform. You may find some motivation to seek some
immediate goal of electing a particular person to office, or to seek
the passage of a particular law, or to protest abortion, but you will
not seek any comprehensive Christian reconstruction of your state
or nation. Why? There simply isn’t enough time, after all, its “11:59
and Counting!”
The effect of the dispensational view of the church age has
tended greatly to discourage meaningful, comprehensive
Christian political and social action. How could it be otherwise?
Dispensationalism teaches that such action is doomed to failure;
that such action is not the calling of the church in this age; that
such action is dangerous to the priority to develop one’s own
spiritual life; that such action is contrary to the defensive posture
of the church; that such action denies the true hope of the church,
which is escape from the world through the rapture; and that such
action makes no sense since we are in the final moments of the last

It has been our purpose in this essay to document the
traditional dispensational view of the church age. We believe that
this has shown that Larkin was simply setting forth consistent
dispensational teaching when he labeled his chart on the course
of the church age “The Failure of Christianity.” The dispensational
view on the church age is pessimistic, for it teaches that the church
can have no hope that Christ’s kingdom will triumph over Satan’s
kingdom, that truth will triumph over error, that righteousness
will triumph over unrighteousness, or that the church will triumph
over the heathen through obedience to the Great Commission.
In dispensational theology all such triumphs are future. The
millennial age is the age of victory. The church age is an age of
defeat because God has decreed that it be that way.
We have also sought to set forth the effect of the dispensational
view of the church age on Christian political and social action.
The effect is undeniable—it greatly discourages such action. A
dispensationalist who is consistent with his theology will see

“The Failure of Christianity”


such action as futile, and perhaps even foolish, because it is not
God’s program for the church in this age. We have {250} noted that
dispensationalism does not forbid all Christian political and social
action, but it does forbid any attempt by the church to bring about
any broad-based Christian reconstruction of a culture with a goal
of producing a Christian nation which is governed by biblical law.
This is why dispensationalists so strongly condemn theonomy,
postmillennialism, and Christian reconstruction. Their theology
forbids all three. At best, they advocate limited involvement to
produce “good” government or “good” laws, but they have no
vision (nor can they) of a Christian government or Christian laws.
At worst, they teach that Christian political and social action is
actually a violation of Christ’s will for his church. Dispensational
theology simply has no vision of victory, no plan of victory, and
no call to victory in terms of the triumph of Christ’s kingdom in
the political and social realms of life. Thus it has caused the church
to retreat from that arena and leave the kingdoms of this world to
the Devil while they wait for their own deliverance at the rapture.
But we must understand that all of this has not only had a
negative effect on the church; it has led also to tragic consequences
in our nation. The rise of secular humanism’s power has been in
proportion to the church’s retreat from active involvement in the
political and social institutions of our country. The church has
abandoned its biblical responsibility and the “sons of darkness”
have been more than willing to take their places. And the results
are fearful to behold! In the growing darkness the question being
asked is: Where is the church? The answer, to a large degree, is:
The church has retreated behind its own walls to keep itself “pure”
from the world while it earnestly listens to the latest prophecy
expert 114 explain how the latest Middle East crisis is the prelude
to Armageddon and how the rapture is imminent! In a sense
Larkin’s chart on “The Failure of Christianity” has become a selffulfilling prophecy. Dispensational teachers have taught the failure
of Christianity so often and so well that the church has come
to play its part in the failure. It is true, that in our country, the
church has failed to triumph over the heathen and the humanists
114. i.e., one who is an expert in “newspaper exegesis,” which is the uncanny
ability to read current events into biblical prophecy.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

are in power. But this failure is not due to divine decree. It is due
to disobedience to Christ’s commands to disciple the nation and
teach “them to observe all things that I have commanded you.”
The church has chosen escape over biblical responsibility.
There have been some hopeful signs, however, that the theology
of dispensationalism is losing favor in the church. This writer,
who at one {251} time was an ardent dispensationalist, is one of
many who have come to see the serious errors of that theology
concerning its teaching on the kingdom of Christ, the mission of
the church, and the course of this present age. Many are beginning
to reject dispensationalism and return to the true biblical theology
of the victory of Christ and his kingdom in this present age. Many
have come to agree with C. H. Spurgeon:
David was not a believer in the theory that the world will grow
worse and worse, and that the dispensation will wind up with
general darkness, and idolatry. Earth’s sun is to go down amid
tenfold night if some of our prophetic brethren are to be believed.
Not so do we expect, but we look for a day when the dwellers in
all lands shall learn righteousness, shall trust in the Saviour, shall
worship thee alone, O God, ‘and shall glorify thy name.’ The modern
notion has greatly damped the zeal of the church for missions, and
the sooner it is shown to be unscriptural the better for the cause of
God. It neither consorts with prophecy, honors God, nor inspires
the church with ardor. Far hence be it driven.115
It is also interesting to note that many who still hold to the basic
teachings of dispensationalism have begun to become active in
the political and social realms. But they must be shown that their
involvement is not because of their dispensationalism but in spite
of it. They have become involved because they are alarmed at the
rise of evil and the increasing loss of true God-given rights that is
taking place in our nation. They know instinctively that it is not
honoring to Christ to abandon this entire culture to the Devil and
the powers of darkness. They know, in spite of what their teachers
are telling them, that it is not loving our neighbor to turn him
over to the abuses of corrupt ideology and oppressive, unjust
humanistic law and to say to him, in effect, that we would like
115. From an exposition of Psalm 86:9, “All nations whom thou hast made
shall come and worship before thee, O Lord; and shall glorify thy name,” in The
Treasury of David, 1874. As cited by Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope, xiv.

“The Failure of Christianity”


to help but that it is not God’s program in this age for the church
to conquer such evil and seek to establish a just and righteous
government that rules according to biblical law.
It is our prayer that dispensationalists will come to see the
serious error of their pessimistic view of the church age. How
can any theology that surrenders this entire age to evil and the
powers of darkness (except for the salvation of a few souls) be
sound doctrine? One test of true doctrine is its fruit (Matt. 7:15–
20). If the fruit is bad the tree is bad and it needs to be cut down.
Is the fruit of dispensational theology concerning the church age
and the kingdom of Christ good or bad? Is a doctrine sound that
encourages Christian retreat from the very fabric of society, that
causes the church to {252} lose its salt and hide its light, and that
tells the church that its hope in the present crisis is not a revival
but escape through the rapture?
We call on the church to return to a truly biblical theology of the
church age: A theology that believes that Jesus Christ has already
bound the “strongman” (Matt. 12:27–30); That believes that the
“ruler of this world” has been cast out (John 12:31); That believes
that Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection marked his mighty
victory over all the powers of darkness (Col. 2:15); That believes
that Christ’s ascension marked his enthronement as king of kings
and the inauguration of his Messianic kingdom (Ps. 2:4–9; 110:1–
7; Dan. 7:13–14; Ac. 2:29–36; Col. 1:13; Rev. 1:5); That believes
that the increase of Christ’s kingdom shall have no end until all
the ends of the earth worship him (Isa. 9:6–7; Dan. 2:44; Mal. 2:14;
Matt. 13:31–33); That believes that the Great Commission is more
than evangelism and personal discipleship (Matt. 28:18–20); That
believes that the church through the Holy Scriptures and the gift
of the Holy Spirit has been given all necessary power to pull down
the strongholds of the enemy and fulfill the Great Commission
to disciple the nations (Ac. 1:8; 2 Cor. 10:3–5; Eph. 6:10–18);
That believes that Jesus Christ will not leave his place at the right
hand of the Father until all of his enemies are made his footstool
(Ps. 110:1; 1 Cor. 15:20–28; Heb. 10:12–13; Eph. 1:10); And that
believes that the church is the agent of Christ in this war that will
witness the defeat of Christ’s enemies (Ps. 110:3; Matt. 28:18–20;
Rev. 19:14).
History, according to Scripture, will not write over the church


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

age “The Failure of Christianity,” but rather, will write “The
Triumph of Christianity.” And by this we mean the triumph of
Jesus Christ who is the Head of the church. This is the biblical
view of the church age, and to believe this will greatly affect every
area of one’s life. Its effect on the church will lead to a revival of
hope and a new understanding of the comprehensive mission of
the church to advance the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. It
will cause the ungodly to retreat in shame and reproach as a Spiritfilled church demonstrates to the world the invincible power and
glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ: “Now to Him who
is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think,
according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the
church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end.
AMEN!” (Eph. 3:20–21).

“The Failure of Christianity”

Reconstruction in



Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

No Other Foundation
Christian Epistemology in
the Postmodern Age
Joseph P. Braswell

All truth is relative. The way it is perceived and understood is a
matter of perspective, dependent upon one’s point of view and
thus involving a subjective aspect of apprehension. It is a matter
of interpretation, of the judgments that are made regarding the
facts (which are not things but, strictly speaking, observations—
statements). We cannot get outside of the linguistic-conceptual, in
all its inherent theory-ladenness and schematization. We cannot
get beyond such conditioning to some pure, raw, uninterpreted
(nonlinguistic) thing-in-itself “out there,” to which we can then
compare our assertions in order to gauge the accuracy of our
description against something lying beyond the values and
meanings that have been conventionally assigned within a social
reality (a community of persons) to rationalize the world (qua
construct) prior to our own act of description. It is those very
conventions which render our experience intelligible and our
description possible. We are really comparing our assertions with
other assertions in a correspondence of judgments to judgments.
Meaning and truth are attributes of propositions, not things.
To be is to be known; to be true is to be opined. There are not
propositions apart from persons who assert them, who believe
them; they are dependent upon minds and speech-acts, upon
language and linguistic communities. It is social reality that is
rational and meaningful.
With assertions about the social construction of a meaningful
reality and the relativity of truth to communities and their traditions
we are seemingly in the brave new world of postmodernism. We
have surely abandoned the world of the Enlightenment. Does

No Other Foundation


this mean that we are irrationalists, that we have sold our souls
to relativism? By no means! We have merely dispensed with
rationalism in order to be true presuppositionalists and think as
Christians ought to think.
Thomas Kuhn, Alasdair Maclntyre, Richard Rorty,1 and others
who have devastatingly critiqued modernism (the Enlightenment
rationalism) have done us a great service. We must give heed to
their emphasis upon the {254} sociology of knowledge and repudiate
every vestige of classical foundationalism in our epistemology
and apologetics. The critique of rationalistic evidentialism that
has undercut the Enlightenment modernism merely serves to
underscore with renewed emphasis the continuing relevance of the
thought of Cornelius Van Til and his presuppositional apologetic.2
What does Christianity have to say regarding contextualist
epistemology,3 and how does the Christian-theistic paradigm offer
1. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, 1970);
Alasdair Maclntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, 1988);
Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, NJ, 1979).
2. R. J. Rushdoony, By What Standard? An Analysis of the Philosophy
of Cornelius Van Til (Birmingham, AL [1958], 1974) remains an excellent
introduction to Van Til in all the breadth of his thought (including a bibliography
of Van Til’s writings). Critical discussions (and a Van Til bibliography) of his
thought can be found in the Van Til Festschrift, Jerusalem and Athens, ed. E. R.
Geehan (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971). A recent extension and application
of the Van Tillian apologetic is offered in John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of
God (Phillipsburg, NJ, 1994).
3. In contrast to the foundationalist quest for a foundation of absolutely basic
beliefs (axiomatic and self-evident, not requiring an inferential justification from
other beliefs), contextualism speaks only of contextually basic beliefs. What is
to be considered a basic belief (requiring no justifying argument), as well as
what constitutes sufficient evidence to justify nonbasic beliefs (those subject
to doubt), is relative to the specific and concrete issue-context that defines our
actual epistemic situation and determines the appropriate objector-group
(something like peer review). What is considered basic in one context may
require justification in another. See David B. Annis, “A Contextualist Theory
of Epistemic Justification,” in Empirical Knowledge: Readings in Contemporary
Epistemology, ed. Paul K. Moser (Totowa, NJ, 1986), 203–213.
Contextualism is coventionalist in nature. The term “conventionalism” merely
underscores the role of social conventions—the goals and constituant and
regulative rules (cf. e.g., Wittgenstein’s game analogy in speaking of languagegames: specific ways of linguistically behaving in a meaningful manner that are
correlative to, and derive their meaning from, distinct forms of social life)—that
establish the contexts. There is an institutional (sociological) determinant to
what counts as justification within a given community, which is shared goals,


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

an epistemically productive interpretation without falling into the
relativism of pluralistic truth and competing traditions? To answer
these questions we must first briefly sketch out the contours of
Christian theism.
God is triune: three equally ultimate, divine persons—Father,
Son, and Holy Spirit—in eternal communion who, in their personal
relations to and with each other, are one substance of essence, one
Godhead. With all the incomprehensible mystery involved in
confessing trinity-in-unity we must nevertheless confess the equal
ultimacy of the one and the many, that unity and diversity are both
fundamental to the very nature of God. As such, we confess a truly
personal God and thus a personalistic metaphysic {255} (an ultimate
context of absolute personalism). It is also because God is trinity
that he is self-contained (aseitous, autonomous, independent) and
therefore truly absolute, and it is this idea of the absolute and selfcontained being of God that makes creation a free act of the divine
will rather than a metaphysically necessary, effulgent emanation
of his own essence. This absolute and self-contained nature of the
infinite-personal Creator-God who freely and sovereignly brings
forth by his omnipotently creative fiat-word a creation ex nihilo
provides for that metaphysical dualism that we call the creator/
creature distinction, and the doctrine of creation that follows from
this establishes what Christian theism means by the transcendence
and immanence of God. This in a nutshell is the Christian theistic
philosophy of reality.
Because God in himself—the immanent or ontological Trinity—
is triune and exhaustively personal, we can speak of his being as
communion, of the equal ultimacy of being and relation. That is,
God is not something that first is and only afterwards relates; his
essential being is itself a relating of persons in communion with
each other. God is thus essentially social reality, his intratrinitarian
being is interpersonal or intersubjective (“I-thou”) being—beingin-community (koinonia). His creation, which is an image of his
being (analoging him on the creaturely level), expresses on its own
level the same relation of the one and the many under God. In the
values, research methods, research traditions, etc. Those conventions determine
when a given assertion is warranted sufficiently to count as knowledge within the

No Other Foundation


human realm this is the foundation of all social reality (institutions
such as family, church, and state)—a sociology that ontologically
analogs the being-as-communion of the Triune God. Indeed,
man as the image and likeness of God is essentially constituted
as a covenant being, related vertically upward to God (I-thou),
horizontally to his fellow man (I-thou), and vertically downward
to the rest of creation (I-it) over which he is covenantally given
the dominion-stewardship as God’s vicegerent. God’s economictrinitarian relation to his creation as a whole is an image-likeness
of his intratrinitarian communion, as God reveals himself to his
creation and reveals himself to himself in and through his creation.
While remaining transcendent (the creator/creature distinction),
there is this immanence of God as he is covenantally involved in
and present to his creation, manifesting his glory to and by means
of its glory-image-likeness in analogy of the immanent relations of
his tri-personal Godhead. Man, as the image and likeness of God
in a special and preeminent or epitomizing sense, is especially
called into covenantal communion with God (“to glorify God
{256} and enjoy him forever”—Westminster Shorter Catechism,
Q#1), into a participation with the transcendent God in his self
disclosing immanence (personal presence) that is a knowledge of
God (Geneva Catechism, Q#1) and a sharing of the divine life
on the analogical level befitting the creature (according to the
creator/creature distinction and through the covenant). Man as
imago Dei is bound unto God in a personal relationship that is the
ultimate context of all personalism, of all social relationships. Man
was called unto the City of God as social context, and he lives, and
moves, and has his being within that absolutely personal context,
exhaustively encompassed by the revelation of God (word)
as his ultimate environment of social reality and personalism
(communion in the community of Theopolis) establishes the
absolute rationality of the cosmos as a meaningful reality for those
who belong to the City and speak in terms of its word.
Accordingly, if we are to speak of contextualist epistemology,
or of conventionalism (games, forms of life) and the sociology of
knowledge, we cannot ignore the infinite-personal framework of
the covenant as this constitutes the ultimate and absolute context
of meaning. All other issue-contexts arise within this meta-context
of covenantal calling, of covenantal task and duty as defining the


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

ultimate issue. Our knowledge-claims are asserted, and must be
defended, in this absolute context in which God interrogates us as
the one who reviews and critiques our work. God is the ultimate
“objector” to whom we must respond with good reasons that he
considers sufficient to warrant our judgments; he is the one before
whom every word uttered must be justified. While epistemic
justification thus is person- or group-relative (within a context),
it remains always and ever relative to God as a response to him
that must satisfy his criteria. Given this situational context for
justifying our beliefs, every justification we offer in any other
issue-context must be formulated in light of this issue of ultimate
concern; whatever “I-thou” relation in which we are justifying
given knowledge claims, it occurs within the “I-thou” relation
to God and implicitly responds to his calling us to account vis
a vis our convenantal task of thinking God’s thoughts after him
(analogical knowledge). Knowing-activity is ethical activity, and
our epistemic goal of avoiding erroneous beliefs has to include
the goal of avoiding an assertion objectionable to God (one that
denies his judgment). Every epistemic justification in whatever
created context must presuppose its theistic {257} justification.4
There is no autonomy, no escape from this ultimate situational
context of epistemic justification, because the facts are, and can
only be, true—and meaningful—within this situational context of
God’s world, the construct of his word.
We cannot ignore the general-revelational word of God in
creation as it impacts the linguistic-conceptual nature of knowable
reality. Our epistemology is a revelational theory of knowledge; our
theory of truth involves a correspondence of our judgments with

4. Accordingly, any attempt at an autonomous justification—a nontheistic
justification—is illegitimate and cannot warrant a knowledge-claim. Any appeal
to facts as other than God-facts, as meaningful outside this theistic context,
cannot serve as evidence to warrant an assertion as true, since man is not
the ultimate and original interpreter. This is the point that must be especially
impressed upon our brethren who continue to adhere to classical apologetics.
We must not allow the rebel to delude himself into thinking he is justified in
his attempt to have autonomous knowledge, arrogating unto himself, as though
his own property; treasures stolen from our Father’s world and rationalizing that
theft by self-delusion.

No Other Foundation


the judgments of God5 where our interpretation is an analogical
thinking of God’s thoughts after him (a relative, reactive, recreative
reinterpretation of the normative, creative preinterpretation
of God, whose word defined all things into being, giving them
their meaning). Our knowing-activity must see the facts as Godfacts, facts whose meaning and significance are determined
by the coherence of all things in their service to God’s plan,6
fulfilling their roles and functions therein and calling man to his
covenantal task, to his covenant duty of imaging God reflectively,
of knowing God, of exercising dominion under God and to the
glory of God. Facts are thus known in context, in relation to the
whole system, not as isolated atoms; they (in imaging the divine
one-and-many—being-in-relation) do not exist except in relation,
teleologically cohering within the holistic context of the purpose
of God in which they reveal their place and function according to
God’s absolutely authoritative interpretation. There are no brute
The Enlightenment’s view of Reason was at bottom
impersonalistic, positing an absolute rationality of the universe
that was person-independent. Human concepts were supposed
to conform to the things-themselves; the object to be known
was itself the norm of truth in a correspondence of propositions
to objective states of affairs, of mind to {258} thing or subject to
object. This proved to be a dead end, as the postmodernists have
demonstrated. Correspondence is now seen to be a correspondence
of my judgments with the judgments of others within the social
context of accredited research communities (or other appropriate
groups of potential objectors and critics) who share my research
tradition (our paradigm) and sit in peer review of my assertions.
Kant had shown that things-in-themselves cannot be the
criteria for justifying knowledge, given the Cartesian starting
point in the knowing subject and the gap between subject and
object posited therein. The tradition of epistemological idealism
that Descartes’ egocentric starting point (the immediate objects
of direct knowledge are the contents of our own consciousness,
5. Van Til, “A Survey of Christian Epistemology,” In Defense of Biblical
Christianity (den Dulk, 1969),11:1–2.
6. Ibid., 2–3.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

our ideas) reached a critical impasse when, after the failure of the
Rationalist tradition to find more than relations, the Empiricist
tradition that began with Lockean representationalism gave way
to Humean skepticism, waking Kant from his dogmatic slumbers
in the attempt to epistemically justify Newtonian science.
Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” reversed the relation between
subject and object in epistemic justification and set forth the
transcendental conditions necessary to make experience possible
and thereby determine the form and structure of any possible
experience. In the process, he redefined the transcendentally
ideal as being synonymous with the empirically real, thereby
banishing, by his adoption of a “metaphysics without ontology,”
the inherently unknowable things-as-such that lie forever beyond
the outer limit of the manifold of sensibility, and thereby confining
knowing-activity to that realm where the objects presented to us
are phenomenal. Strictly speaking, to be is to be known (by man),
and to be known is to be apprehended within the limits set by
human reason in its task of conceptualizing percepts (conforming
the object to the subject’s a prioris).
Kant, however, sought after universal and necessary (a priori)
conditions of experience-as-such, transcendental structures
of experience valid for all men for all time. In our day those
conditioning factors that process and rationalize our experience
have come to be viewed as historico-culturally determined,
varying among different societies. Necessity is relative to a given
schema; the apriority in certain synthetic statements depends upon
the conceptual framework employed. Schemata change; ways of
perceiving are not absolute and timeless—universal and necessary.
Kant’s so-called synthetic a prioris were determined by the tradition
of modern Western—Enlightenment—thought, presupposing
Euclidean geometry, Aristotelian logic, and Newtonian physics as
the transcendentally ideal structures of the {259} empirically real.
In our time we employ non-Euclidean geometries, multivalent and
paraconsistent logics, and both Einstein’s relativity and quantum
physics. Thus, the idea of mirroring nature (giving an accurate
description that represents the way nature is or at least how it must
appear) rather than various ways of world-making has collapsed.
Nor does Thomas Reid’s direct realist alternative to Hume offer
any hope in the face of common sense’s exposure as being but

No Other Foundation


a modern-Western (i.e., a historicoculturally conditioned and
culturally relative) conception of rationality.7
Such is the fate of the Platonic-Aristotelian tradition of
rationalism that was impersonalistic in its ideal of truth.8 The
repudiation of Enlightenment {260} modernism is a repudiation of
the impersonalist ideal of absolute context, the recognition that no
human context—inherently finite in perspective—can be absolute,
giving exhaustive knowledge beyond all contextual limitation. It is
7. Common-sense realism, which is to be commended for rejecting the folly of
phenomenalism (the attempt to construct the world out of “a blooming, buzzing
confusion” of raw sense-data), nevertheless operated on the “borrowed capital”
of the Christian worldview that had reigned for so long in the West. It could not,
however, survive in a context in which its foundations were being repudiated
by those who sought autonomous knowledge. The stance of autonomy cannot
justify the essentially Christian assumptions embedded in Scottish Realism
and its assertion of the neutrality of natural reason. Other cultural traditions—
pagan societies that had not been similarly impacted by Christianity—did not
evince what was supposed to be a universal rationality, so the historicists could
dismiss Reid’s common-sense philosophy as merely culturally determined
phenomena that does not really answer to some universal human nature after
all (albeit, ignoring in their interpretation of the anthropological evidence the
noetic effects of the fall and the significance of this sublapsarian abnormality
of a totally depraved human nature). Reid, for his own part, certainly did not
take into account the darkening of the depraved intellect in its hindering/
suppressing of the truth of natural revelation (how can direct realism hope to
perceive the object itself while refusing to perceive it as it stands—and reveals
itself as—contextualized within a complex set of relations within the coherence
of the plan of God, having its meaning and significance according to its assigned
role and function therein?), nor did he properly credit the heritage of the
Christian-creationist worldview in the Western tradition as common grace to that
culture which provided for the “common-sense” rationality informing his realist
8. This impersonalism goes back to what we may call the Euthyphro-problem
as it expresses the Platonic ideal. Socrates, in Plato’s Euthyphro (12e–15a),
is not interested in any definition of piety that refers it to the judgments—the
opinions—of the gods. To be known, piety (or any concept) must be known as it
is in itself, independently of any personal judgment. No judgment can determine
the nature of piety-as-such; neither gods nor men can be our standard, else we do
not transcend the realm of opinion to find absolute truth. Thus, Socrates wishes
to know the nature of piety as it inherently is in itself, irrespective of what gods or
men say about it. He seeks an absolute context where piety can be apprehended in
its pristinely pure and uninterpreted essence that alone determines the piousness
of piety and thereby provides the basis of an intensional definition (the universal
and necessary intrinsicness), uneffected by the relativities and contextualizations
of extensive applications. All judgments, to be true, must agree with the
transcendent idea of abstract piety-as-such, and knowledge of piety (in contrast
to right opinion) requires justification by appeal to this ideal of truth.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

a recognition that there is no meaning (and thus, no truth) apart
from personal subjects and their interpreting/evaluation activity.
The relativism of contextualism leaves it ultimately resting on
the coherence of judgments in a web of belief, the justification of
which is ultimately a pragmatic warrant relative to the success of
certain beliefs in furthering the goals and projects of the City of
There are no foundations left. The choice now is between
personal reference-points, between God or autonomous man.
It is now up to us to press home the point that the personalistic
context formed by the fragmented and factionally divided City
of Man—a social situation set against the ultimate backdrop
of cosmic impersonalism—utterly destroys the prospect for
knowledge, as power struggles and propaganda wars fuel the
essentially anarchistic, multiculturalist, confessional pluralism
(and the dialectically correlative, contrapolar reaction of emergent
dogmatic despotism of institutionalized, monolithic political
correctness) that lead to pure relativism in the face of ultimate
meaninglessness. In the new tribalism, the conception of man as
the maker of meaning (ordering the original chaos according to his
own agenda and for his own ends) can no longer be universalized
as a common human project; there are only diverse groups, each
vying to assert its agenda (its “truth”) in the struggle for power and
control of the institutions of social order, the established media
that preach the official and accredited dogma of an age. In a world
in which “science is what scientists do,” we have surrendered to
the high priesthood of a cultural elite. Only the City of God forms
a sufficient context for knowing, wherein to be is to be known by
God. Indeed, his word is truth, and all truth is therefore relative
to God and a matter of his absolute perspective and evaluation.
It is the City of God which alone has foundations; every other
foundation—built as it is on a denial of the word of the Lord—is
sinking sand. Amid this Babel-like confusion of warring traditions,
when we are asked, “Whose justice? Which rationality?” let us be
very explicit in answering this question from a self-consciously
Christian stance that makes no pretense at objectivistic neutrality.
Let us boldly reply: “God’s—all else is lawlessness and foolishness.”
Truly the fear {261} of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
and those who do not retain him in their knowledge become fools.

No Other Foundation

May we be found wise and faithful.



Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

Book Reviews

The True Origin of Freedom


The True Origin of Freedom
A Review Article

Archie P. Jones

M. Stanton Evans, The Theme Is Freedom: Religion Politics, and
the American Tradition
Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1994; 323 pp., plus notes,
bibliographical essay, and index.

When James Burnham’s masterful analysis of liberalism, Suicide of
the West: The Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism, was published in
1964, William F. Buckley Jr., said that the book was worth more to
the West than the year’s gross national product, because it analyzed
the destructive nature of our civilization’s regnant liberalism. By
that standard, M. Stanton Evans’s The Theme Is Freedom is worth
more to the West—and to America—than the century’s gross
national product. For Burnham’s fine book failed to analyze the
true origin and nature of the freedom and other blessings that we
have enjoyed, and failed to tell us how to rebuild from the massive
destruction caused by liberalism. But in this invaluable volume,
Evans tells us the true origin and nature of Western and American
freedom; analyzes the ideas and institutions that have protected
freedom in the West and in America; uncovers and devastates
the strategy and tactics of those who have labored, wittingly or
unwittingly, to destroy our heritage of liberty; and outlines how,
God willing, we may recover and pass on that precious God-given
The Theme Is Freedom discusses the key perennial questions
of religion, philosophy, social theory, economics, and political
philosophy, as they relate to politics. It shows the relationship of


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

both true and false answers to these great issues, and does so in a
manner that is readily understandable, interesting, and telling. It
expounds the basic principles on which Western and American
liberty were founded—and on which freedom everywhere must
be established. It is brimming with valuable insights into world
history, Western history, English history, and American history
and politics, and it incisively applies these insights and principles
to the controversies of our day as well as to the key disputes of
earlier times.
Mr. Evans’s central thesis is one that is well supported by
an analysis of the various world and life views, religions, or
philosophies held by men, and by the record of the history which
he so masterfully surveys. His thesis is that it is the outworking
of biblical faith and doctrines in world history, Western history—
particularly during the medieval period—English history, and
American history which has produced the freedom and other
blessings which people in Western civilization, and particularly
in America, have enjoyed. The foundation of freedom is biblical
faith, {264} not man-centered ancient or modern religions or
worldviews. Christian faith and doctrines have political and
economic implications which have been worked out into political
ideas, institutions and life in the West and in these United States
of America, and these ideas, customs and institutions have, with
ups and downs and through trials and tribulations, become the
foundations of our freedom.

The True Origin and Foundation
of Our Freedom
Stated simply, freedom has been achieved in the West, in
England, and chiefly in our United States of America by imposing
limits on the power of civil government, the state (308). But these
limitations did not arise from false religions, pagan philosophies,
or happenstance. Instead, such limitations were created and
imposed on the state because of the influence of Christian faith.
Because it exalted the one true God and revealed Christ to be
the Savior, Christianity de-divinized the state, reducing the state’s
scope of authority so that civil government cannot rightly claim
authority over all areas of life. The Bible’s teaching about the fallen

The True Origin of Freedom


nature of man worked with such biblical truths to de-divinize
the king or ruler(s). The hard reality of original sin meant that
all men are sinners, which implies that limits must be placed on
the authority of all who rule—be they one man, a few men, or a
majority of men. The biblical idea of the revelation of God’s law
in his creation (“nature”) and in Scripture worked to place the
king (and all officials of civil government) under the authority of
God and of God’s law. These and other Christian doctrines, Evans
notes, produced the idea of freedom.
During the much-maligned medieval period, the outworking
of such Christian doctrines produced institutions in the West,
and particularly in England, which worked to check and balance
the power of monarchs, and so to preserve freedom. The church
developed as an institution which has spiritual authority over the
individual and which may resist or rebuke civil rulers for their sins.
The nobility claimed its feudal rights, and had the weapons and the
power to defend those rights against the lawless claims of kings.
Independent courts, such as the common law courts of England,
were another source of resistance to unjust claims by monarchs.
The diffusion of weapons and of wealth among nobles, the towns
and cities, and the people of the countryside made it necessary for
kings to bargain with their subjects in order to impose taxes and
other duties on the people. Representative government arose from
such ideas and from such practical limitations on the power of the
During the medieval period, Christian doctrines also influenced
law and political thought in other ways. Christianity, under the
influence of the church as well as of biblical teaching and example,
became basic to the law and had a tremendous (though not a
perfect) influence on the law of the West and of England. Long
before the {265} eighteenth century, medieval Christian thought
developed political and legal principles which long antedated John
Locke, Thomas Jefferson and other so-called “Enlightenment”
thinkers. Among these principles were the idea of the “social
contract,” that civil governments are formed upon the basis of a
covenant, under God, between the people and their rulers; the
idea that the officials of civil government derive their powers,
under God, from the consent of the governed; the idea that rulers
are duty-bound to keep their covenants with the people; the idea


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

that the people are not bound to obey the unjust commands or
laws of covenant-breaking rulers, and that the people may resist
or even overthrow covenant-breaking rulers who would be
tyrants. These ideas and principles were expressed not only in
legal commentaries but also in the writings of learned Christian
scholars and theologians.
But such principles were expressed in action as well as in speech
and writing. Nobles and citizens resisted the unjust claims of kings
and queens. Some judges’ resistance to the power and claims of the
crown in order to maintain the supremacy of the law, and of godly
principles of law, over the unjust designs of the king, gave rise to
the key doctrine of medieval political and legal thought: The king
is under God and under the law. Such a view was expressed in
written documents like the great Magna Carta of England, a key
document of modern constitutionalism.
Thus the influence of the Bible and of Christianity during the
medieval period established the basic limitations on the power
of the state which are the foundation of Western, English, and
American liberty.
Far from jettisoning this precious political heritage, the
Reformation renewed these principles against a revived pagan
theory of kingship which claimed that the monarch should be
accountable to no man, that he should rule without limits on his
power, and that he should be free to make the law whatever he
willed it to be. The religious discord in Europe stimulated Roman
Catholics as well as Protestants to develop or revive traditional
Christian ideas of resistance against tyranny. Still, the heritage
of limited, constitutional government was better preserved in
England than it was on the Continent.
America’s founders, the Pilgrims, the Puritans, and our other
first colonists, came to America at a time when this heritage of
constitutional government and resistance to covenant-breaking
tyrants was at its peak. Thus the people of English colonies
preserved the medieval and Reformation heritage of Christian law,
politics, and limitations on civil government better than did the
English themselves, for in 1688, in the Glorious Revolution, the
British adopted a modern pagan theory which placed Parliament
in the position of absolute power which had been unsuccessfully
claimed by various English kings.

The True Origin of Freedom


This notion of the unlimited power of Parliament led to the
conflict between the American patriots and the British Empire.
That conflict, far from being produced by Deism, rationalism {266}
or unbelief, as the “liberals” would have us believe, was founded
on Americans’ adherence to their heritage of Christian law,
politics, and freedom. The leaders of our independence movement
were Christians, not pagans. The documents which they produced
in defense of their rights and, eventually, of their independence,
were Christian, not pagan instruments. The states’ constitutions,
declarations or bills of rights and laws were similarly Christian
documents, and they were clearly based on the inherited medieval
Christian tradition. Moreover, our War for Independence was
certainly not a revolution in the modern sense: Rather, it was
a conservative movement to protect the colonists’ inherited,
traditional rights and freedom against a king and Parliament who
claimed the authority to rule arbitrarily.
The Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the First Amendment—
contrary to what Evans calls the “Liberal History Lesson”—were
also clearly based on this old Christian tradition. There was a
continuity between the leaders of the War for Independence
and the Framers and Ratifiers of our Constitution, Bill of Rights,
and First Amendment. There was a continuity of faith as well as
of personnel, for the great majority of the Framers and Ratifiers
were Christians, not unbelievers. There was also a continuity of
principle, for the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the First
Amendment (all now “liberally”-distorted) were all based on the
Christian political and legalheritage of the medieval period and
the Reformation.
The First Amendment was not intended to secularize America’s
civil government, law, or public life: not at the federal level,
and certainly not at the state and local level. Evans’s chapter
on this crucially important subject, like his chapters on the
foregoing subjects, makes this abundantly clear. A study of the
historical context of the First Amendment, of the framing of the
amendment, of Madison’s and others’ views on the amendment
and on the relationship between religion—Christianity—and civil
government, and of the actions of our early American statesmen,
shows the “liberal” Supreme Court’s deliberate misinterpretation
of the First Amendment to be a scandalously Orwellian rewriting


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

of the historical record.

...Vs. “The Liberal History Lesson” and
“Liberals” Strategies and Tactics
Evans’s concern is to refute what he has long spoken of as “The
Liberal History Lesson,” the notion that freedom developed from
Western man’s rejection of, and movement away from, “religion”
in general and Christianity in particular. Using “liberalism” (in the
twentieth century, the American form of democratic socialism) as
an umbrella term to include various brands of modern secularism
or man-centered thought, Evans points out repeatedly that
“liberals” have sought to give man-centered thinking the credit for
the {267} origin of freedom. Thus, “liberals” have consistently tried
to trace freedom in the ancient and modern worlds, and in these
United States of America, to man-centered secularist thought.
Unlike many commentators—and, unhappily, many
Christians—Evans is well aware that all bodies of thought,
including those that claim to be “neutral,” nonreligious, or
secularist, are religions. Religious presuppositions, assumptions
about the fundamental nature of reality, he notes, are necessarily
basic to, and determinative of, the politics of a people, because
such axiomatic assumptions determine people’s fundamental
attitudes about the world and about how they should deal with
other people. So secularist views are religions: They are not
neutral. Consequently, when a given religious outlook is rejected,
it is not replaced with nothing: It is replaced with precisely another
religious view, another religion. The many secularist bodies of
thought and “isms” of our time, including “liberalism,” are not
neutral modes of thought but rather religions cloaking themselves
in claims of neutrality or of science.
The “liberal” view of the origin of freedom, notes Evans, is
refuted by at least three bodies of data: an analysis of the nature of
non-biblical religions and philosophies, the political implications
of Christianity, and the facts of history. Evans presents his
arguments by analyzing the political implications of ancient and
modern pagan thought, by showing the practical outworking of
ancient and modern pagan notions of God, men, and things, and
by taking us to the historical record.

The True Origin of Freedom


Non-biblical religions and philosophies, by their very nature,
tend to produce the political consequences of either anarchic
lawlessness or absolutism. The main thrust of man-centered
political doctrines is toward absolute, arbitrary rule which gives
the state authority over all areas of life, denies authority to any
institutions which may stand between the power of the state and
the individual person, and destroys the freedom of the individual.
This follows from their denial of the existence or relevance of the
God who is revealed in the Holy Scriptures. Such a denial leads to
the claim that there is no law which is higher than that made by the
rulers of the state. Denial of God also yields intellectual and moral
relativism, the notion that there are no objective, universally valid
principles of ethics and law. Acceptance of such notions, far from
producing individual freedom, removes all objective standards of
right and wrong, justice and injustice, good and evil. This in turn
removes all limitations on the authority or power of those who are
in positions of political power. Thus, the state is in (false) principle
given absolute, unlimited authority and power, the individual is
reduced to nothing before the “almighty” state, and freedom is
destroyed. Relativist assumptions lead to authoritarianism.
The pantheism of ancient and modern pagan thought also
destroys freedom. Ancient pagan thought saw the universe as
essentially mysterious and saw the individual as being at the
{268} mercy of the forces of nature. It presented the state as an
intermediary between man and the irrational gods or forces
which ruled nature, proclaimed the ruler(s) of the state to be
intermediaries with special, secret knowledge about how to
manipulate the gods and nature. It denied the individual any higher
spiritual loyalty than the state, and claimed for the state authority
over all areas of thought and life. The individual person—be he or
she an unborn baby, an unwanted baby, a child or an adult, a slave
or a citizen—was nothing before either the mystery of the universe
or the claimed authority of the state and its rulers. Hence, ancient
pagan societies—including the vaunted examples of Greece and
Republican Rome which are common fixtures of the standard
“liberal” account—had neither respect for the individual person
nor individual freedom as we in the West and in America know it.
Modern man-centered thought manifests various kinds of
naturalistic, neo-pagan pantheism. Like ancient paganism, it


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

presents the universe as either mysterious or knowable only to an
elite; it sees the individual as being bound within, and manipulated
by, the forces of nature. It sees the forces of nature as things which
can and must be manipulated by the rulers of the state, to bring
about the “good” results which the rulers desire. Moreover, it
denies religious value in what Christians know as the realm of the
spirit, but makes a religion of the secular order and of politics,
giving dominion over every aspect of life to the state. Hence, it
claims authority over the individual’s faith and conscience as well
as over his life, person, and property, denies the validity of any
higher loyalties or standards, and so destroys individual freedom.
Ancient and modern pagan thought—secularist and otherwise—
lead directly to the devaluation of the individual person and so
also to the destruction of freedom. The fundamental division
over abortion, homosexuality, environmentalism, economic
development, technology, the involvement of Christians in politics,
and many other issues today, Evans notes, is a division between
pagan and Christian worldviews. Modern secularist pagans would
prohibit prayer and the teaching of creationism in the “public
schools,” but profess to see nothing wrong with using these civil
government institutions to indoctrinate Christians’ children
with evolutionism, environmentalism, “value-free” approaches
to sex, homosexualism, and other aspects of neo-paganism. So,
Evans comments, “Children may be taught the precepts of neopagan nature worship; they may not be taught the precepts of the
Bible” (129). An examination of the historical realities of ancient
and modern paganism, like a study of the consequences of pagan
thought, makes it clear that paganism, because it rejects the
precepts of the Bible, is hostile to individual freedom. A study of
the political implications of the precepts of the Bible, conversely,
shows that biblical faith leads to political and economic freedom.
Similarly, an investigation of the {269} outworking of biblical faith
in history indicates that freedom follows from this—and only
The “Liberal History Lesson” must conceal the true origin of
our liberty, for at least two reasons. First, it seeks to replace the
Christianity which has produced liberty with a pagan religion
which has not produced, and cannot produce, liberty: “liberalism”
itself. Second, in common with other forms of modern paganism,

The True Origin of Freedom


“liberalism” assumes as givens many things—such as compassion,
courtesy, charity, economic productivity, and civility—which
are by-products of the influence of Christian faith, and foolishly
supposes that these good things can be preserved in the absence
of Christian faith.
The “Liberal History Lesson” involves the propagation of a
multitude of untruths. It also involves the use of devious strategies
and tactics to “sell” these lies to people. Evans exposes and refutes
many of these strategies and tactics, while annihilating “liberal”
arguments. He does not literally call these lies and deceits, but he
makes great use of irony, allusion, and understatement to make
the truth about secularist “historians’,” judges’, and commentators’
deliberate distortions of history obvious to the reader.
The “Liberal History Lesson” is based on “liberals’ ” rejection of
biblical faith. It is used to justify the replacement of Christianity
by modern paganism or “liberalism.” The hostility to anyone who
presumes to speak up for biblical axioms, Evans explains, is based
on this fact:
These axioms are denied by neopagan secularism, and are to be
supplanted by the naturalist credo of the modern era. Any attempt
to propagate biblical religion within the civil order, to make it
the premise of our politics, amounts to an attempt at theological
counter-revolution. Should such attempts succeed, neopaganism
itself must be displaced. Using the term as it is employed in
popular discourse, there is always, and must be, an “establishment
of religion” in our society, or any other. The question being fought
out today is, quite simply, which religion shall be established. (129)

Must Reading
Evans’s principal intended audience for The Theme Is Freedom is
that disparate group of opponents of big government containing
Christians and conservative intellectuals, though he is also
concerned to speak to thoughtful “liberals” and to men of other
worldviews. He is particularly concerned to get the two main kinds
of conservative intellectuals, “traditionalists” and libertarians, to
see that in our Christian religious, social, political and economic
heritage—and only in that heritage—both the social order loved
by traditionalists and the freedom which hbertarians profess to


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

love (and some do love) is maintained in balance.
It is good that Evans has written this valuable book for such an
audience, and it is must reading for them. For most conservative
intellectuals are man-centered thinkers who are hostile to
biblical Christianity, and are ignorant of Christianity’s central,
{270} fundamental importance in creating and maintaining our
Western, and particularly our American, heritage of order and
freedom. Evans’s evidence and arguments should convince both
conservatives and liberals who are willing to read his most valuable
book and to consider the facts of our history.
But The Theme Is Freedom is must reading for Christians of all
varieties, too. It provides crucially important lessons for Christians
in general. It provides instruction for pastors, for Sunday school
teachers, for professors, for Christian school teachers, homeschool
teachers and students, and for all Christians who are attending, or
plan to attend college. Its lessons should be considered, pondered,
and acted on by the writers and publishers of Christian school
textbooks: For such lessons are distressingly absent from most
Christian school texts. Like most other Americans and people of
Civilization, Christians have been deceived by the “Liberal
History Lesson.”
Evans’s great work is an invaluable antidote to several generations
of “liberal” lies. The deceitful triumph of secularist thought
has given us an unconstitutional misgovernment, millions of
murdered babies, untold individual, familial, and social disasters,
and is still a grave threat to our liberty. The theme is freedom: The
freedom to choose and to live our lives in accordance with the
laws of God and the principles of the Bible. That is the kind of
freedom that our Christian forefathers intended to bequeath to us
with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. That is the kind of
freedom that we must preserve and protect for our children and
our children’s children. The Theme Is Freedom is an invaluable aid
to achieving this urgent goal.

The Myth of Political Polytheism


The Myth of Political
A Review Article

Archie P. Jones

Gary North,
Political Polytheism: The Myth of Pluralism
Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989;
773 + xxiv pages; $22.50

Gary North, one of the two main scholars in the Christian
Reconstructionist camp, is one of the most important and
productive Christian writers of our time. He has given
Christ’s church many important books, and has helped
many younger Christian writers (including this reviewer) to
find their way into print.
Political Polytheism is many things. It is an exercise in political
theology, a philosophy of history, a philosophy of American
history, and an interesting interweaving of these things with a
theory of the devolution of American constitutional law and
politics. It is also an attack on the idea of religious and ethical
“neutrality,” an attack on the theories of “natural law,” and a stout
rejection of the notion that there can or ought to be a pluralistic
standard of ethics, law and politics.
Political Polytheism is a volume of four parts. The first
is a discussion of biblical covenantalism’s ethical and legal
applications. The second is an attack on “halfway covenant”
ethics, social criticism, and historiography, which judicially divide
Old Covenant Israel from all New Covenant nations, in order to
persuade men that there are no sanctions in history for disobeying


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

God’s national covenantal laws. The third is an attack on the
United States Constitution as “apostate covenantalism,” mancentered covenantal political and legal theory which in principle
(and sooner or later in practice) removes God and Christianity in
the name of the false god of political pluralism. The final section
is devoted to how Christians should work to restore our national
The thesis of Political Polytheism is that American politics
has declined since the covenantal legal thinking and practice of
the Puritans; that the covenant-breaking, rationalistic spirit of
Newtonian “Enlightenment” thinking made the Declaration of
Independence a Deistic “halfway covenant” document and the
Articles of Confederation a practical outworking of this “halfway
covenant” thinking; and—most important of all—that a Masonic
conspiracy led by Washington and Madison self-consciously
made the United States Constitution a fully covenant-breaking,
secular humanist document (though one with a delayed effect) by
prohibiting a religious test for federal office.
The book is lively, and full of cleverly phrased comparisons and
insights. (What book by Gary North is not?)
The author’s perspective is Calvinistic, covenantal, theonomic,
{272} and conspiratorial. The themes of covenantal political
theology, the argument that the preference for a Christian ethical
theory of “natural law” over theonomy (the application of Old
Testament civil or judicial law to societies today) is a rejection
of Christian ethics, the predominance of “Enlightenment”
rationalism in early America, and above all, of a successful Masonic
conspiracy to make the Constitution a secularist document by
prohibiting a Christian test oath for national office, are repeatedly
But repetition, like wishing, does not make it so. Political
Polytheism, particularly in its crucial third part, is flawed by faulty
methodology, and ignores, or fails to confront, key evidence at
crucial points.

Faulty Methodology
Although North is to be commended for his zeal for the law of
God, his devotion to theonomy is accompanied by a spirit which

The Myth of Political Polytheism


unjustly condemns even Christian theories of “natural law” as
being ethically rebellious and un-Christian. Hence, he assumes
that Christians who believed in Christian theories of “natural
law” as the ethical standard for civil government and law were
apostates who did not seek to honor the triune God who reveals
himself in the Bible and in his Son Christ Jesus by applying godly
standards of law to society, and treats them as such in this volume.
But should theonomy be made a test of a man’s Christianity?
One can be a theonomist—indeed, one can know the problems
of “natural law” theory—without believing that non-theonomists
are not Christians or that they are motivated by a spirit of ethical
rebellion against Gode Christian theories of “natural law,” after
all, presupposed that the ethical content of “natural law” or “the
law of nature” is essentially the same as that of the Bible, and
that these legal and ethical standards, while apprehensible via
reasoning upon the basis of one’s conscience or via a study of the
legal principles embodied in the common law tradition, can be
seen most clearly in the Bible.
A major defect of Political Polytheism is that the book was
obviously a rush job. Despite the book’s length and the number of
citations of scholars, not enough time was spent on research or on
considering all (or enough of) the pertinent evidence, the facets
of the issues raised, the statements made, or the quotations cited.
The author places excessive reliance on the works of secularist,
theologically liberal or intellectually compromised, “halfway
covenant” Christian historians, to the exclusion of an examination
of the primary source documentary evidence. Similarly, he
uncritically accepts the allegations of Masonic historians about the
numbers and influence of Masons on the American Revolution
and the Constitutional Convention. (Might not a Masonic
historian—by North’s own evaluation the adherent of a religious
philosophy which is in rebellion against the triune God and his
law—have a self-interest in inflating the numbers and influence of
Masons in the American Revolution and the {273} formation of the
Constitution? Ought we not to have independent verification of
the claims of such historians?) These things are probably the causes
of the book’s many unsubstantiated statements, misinterpreted
documents, hasty generalizations, and unsupported conclusions.
From among the many examples that could be cited, a few will


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

have to suffice.
First, the author approvingly quotes historian Sidney Mead
to the effect that the struggles for religious freedom in the last
quarter of the eighteenth century united rationalists and sectarian
pietists in opposition to “‘right wing’ traditionalists,” then declares
that these struggles resulted in “the political triumph of Deism
and Unitarianism over Christianity” (400). But if one studies these
struggles for disestablishment of the various state churches, one
discovers that both the leadership and the popular support for
disestablishment—in every state—was overwhelmingly supplied
not by rationalists, Deists and Unitarians but by Bible-believing
Christians of various denominations. Moreover, one also finds
that in some states it was theological liberals’ and incipient
Unitarians’ control of the established church hierarchy, or court
decisions in favor of their control, which led the popular, Biblebelieving majority to work for disestablishment. Moreover, if one
studies the consequences of such struggles for religious liberty, it
becomes clear that neither “religious neutrality” nor secularism
were intended by those who achieved disestablishment.
Second, the Declaration of Independence is said to be a Deistic
document (406), framed by Deists and Masons, which announced
the creation of a new nation in 1776. But, as Willmoore Kendall
pointed out, the Declaration brought forth “a baker’s dozen” of
new nations, not one new nation. Moreover, the vast majority
of the fifty-six men of the Continental Congress who revised
Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration and approved its final version
were Christians, not Deists or incipient Unitarians. The views
of this great majority ought to carry more weight than those of
the incipient Unitarians, Jefferson and Franklin. Moreover, John
Adams was not a Unitarian at the time that the Declaration was
framed, and continued to be publicly favorable to Trinitarian
Christianity while President. Furthermore, the author has not
shown that the three men on the committee which framed the
initial draft of the Declaration who were Masons were indeed
influenced by non-Christian or anti-Christian thinking either
in their political and legal thought or in their intentions for the
meaning of the Declaration. Besides, the popular secularist notion
that the Declaration was a Deistic document is disproven by the
document itself, in which its authors appeal for the rectitude

The Myth of Political Polytheism


of their intentions and the victory of their cause to Divine
Providence—a concept incompatible with the “Watchmaker God”
of Deism, but quite compatible with the Christianity professed
and practiced by the great majority of those who approved the
{274} final draft of the Declaration.
North’s notion that the Declaration was intended to be and was
in fact a Deistic document could certainly have been corrected
by a study of the other actions of the Continental Congress. Even
secularist propagandist Leo Pfeffer noted that:
The proclamations and other state papers of the Continental
Congress were replete with references to religion, unabashedly
exhibiting a belief in Protestantism. Congress continually evoked,
as sanction for its acts, the name of “God,” “Almighty God,” “Nature’s
God,” “God of Armies,” “Lord of Hosts,” “His Goodness,” “God’s
Superintending Providence,” “Providence of God,” “Providence,”
“Supreme and Universal Providence,” “Overruling Providence
of God,” “Creator of All,” “Indulgent Creator,” “Great Governor
of the World,” “The Divinity,” “Supreme Disposer of All Events,”
“Holy Ghost,” “Jesus Christ,” “Christian Religion,” and “Free
Protestant Colonies” and other expressions of devout Christian
Moreover, Pfeffer notes that the Continental Congress
...did not hesitate to legislate on such subjects as morality,
sin, repentance, humiliation, divine service, fasting, prayer,
reformation, mourning, public worship, funerals, chaplains, true
religion, and Thanksgiving. The Sabbath was recognized to a
degree rarely exhibited in other countries; Congress was adjourned
and all official business was suspended, as it was on Good Friday.2
Pfeffer also notes that the Continental Congress (among other
things) adopted a day of national humiliation, fasting and prayer,
provided chaplains for the army, employed a minister to instruct
the Indians in the principles of Christianity, recommended to the
states that they encourage religion (Christianity) and suppress vice,
endorsed an American edition of the Bible and recommended it to
the people as an accurate work, and in 1783 proclaimed a peace
treaty with England “In the name of the Most Holy and Undivided
1. Church, State, and Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1953), 106–107.
2. Ibid., 107.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

Trinity.”3 Clearly, such things can hardly be squared with Deistic,
rationalistic, Unitarian or anti-Christian intentions. It requires an
irrational leap of faith—or an inexcusable ignorance of the relevant
evidence—to conclude that such a body would have adopted a
Deistic Declaration of Independence.
The fact is that the Declaration’s famous and misinterpreted
phrases were based on the Bible and on centuries of Christian
ethical and legal thinking, not on Deism, Unitarianism, or
“Enlightenment” rationalism. This has been demonstrated by
Gary T. Amos, whose Defending the Declaration; How the Bible
and Christianity Influenced the Writing of the Declaration of
Independence4 is based on systematic scholarly research and refutes
all the popularized secularist and rationalist misinterpretations
{275} of the historical background and text of the Declaration on
which North relied for his evaluation of that document.
Third, there is the whole matter of the distorted picture of James
Madison’s religious and political views which is presented by
North. Madison is presented as a “Unitarian theocrat” who hated
the churches and Christianity (695–96 and passim). The Madisons’
biographer Virginia Moore, however, maintains that Madison was
a Christian. Since North nowhere sets forth a systematic, scholarly
exposition and evaluation of Madison’s religious philosophy and
offers no scholarly support for his contentions, it is difficult to tell
on what basis he arrived at his so forcefully stated conclusions. He
has apparently been influenced by Madison’s opposition to state
established churches, but nowhere does he inform us of the fact—
well noted by Madison biographers—that Madison’s opposition
was in fact based on the religious persecution of Christians by such
church establishments.
Intimately related to these issues is Madison’s teaching on
factions. North portrays Madison as a disciple of Rousseau(!)
(450–53) who “self-consciously devised the Constitution to
create multiple factions that would cancel each other out” (695).
He contends that Madison assumed that all factions are surface
phenomena that disturb an underlying national unity which is a
manifestation of an inherent unity in man’s political affairs (450).
3. op. cit., 107–108.
4. Brentwood, TN, 1989.

The Myth of Political Polytheism


But a careful reading of Federalist No. 10, Madison’s most
systematic teaching on factions, makes it clear that none of North’s
assertions on this subject is true. Madison, like theonomists
and other Christian political thinkers, assumed that there is an
overarching justice, not an underlying national or human unity.
Far from devising the Constitution to create factions (much less
religious factions!), Madison made it clear that factions emerge
from the fallen nature of man: the fallibility of man’s reason, the
connection of man’s reason with his self-love, and the various
degrees and kinds of property (non-physical property in ideas,
opinions and knowledge, including religious ideas, opinions and
knowledge, as well as physical property) that men acquire via the
use of their mental capabilities. Rather than supposing that there
is an underlying national or human unity among men, Madison
teaches that there is an underlying diversity among men—
precisely because of the factions which are produced by the nature
of man. Far from seeking to create factions via the Constitution,
Madison sought merely to control the effects of naturally occurring
factions—violation of others’ rights and of the large and aggregate
interests of the community—via the design of the Constitution.
Rousseau was an intellectual and moral relativist; Madison was
not. Madison sought to preserve and protect justice and liberty,
not to establish an arbitrary, ultimately totalitarian government
like that conceived by Rousseau.
Fourth, North asserts—quite without proof—that the
Constitutional convention was led by men who were antitrinitarian {276} Unitarians (461). The researches of M. E.
Bradford—who has studied their lives—however, clearly indicate
that neither the leaders nor the vast majority of the delegates to
the Constitutional Convention were what would later be called
Unitarians. In fact only two or three—none of whom were the
Convention’s leaders—could be classified as Unitarians5.
Fifth, North grounds his case against the Constitution and its
Framers and Ratifiers on the document’s prohibition of a religious
test for federal office (Article VI). Throughout his book he attributes
the clause to a Masonic conspiracy or to a Deistic worldview. But
nowhere does he tell us that the clause was proposed and approved
5. See M. E. Bradford, A Worthy Company (Marlborough, NH), 1982.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

by Christian statesmen. And nowhere does he set forth all of the
arguments for the prohibition.
Sixth, there is the procrustean treatment accorded Washington’s
“Farewell Address.” North takes one part of this address—the
idea that the United States ought not to have any “entangling
alliances” with foreign nations—out of context and interprets
this as a rejection by Washington of “the older Puritan vision of
Trinitarian universalism, the kingdom of God on earth” (529). He
does not discuss Washington’s argument against those secularists
who would attack religion, nor his affirmation that “religion”—
Christianity, in the context of the place and time—is essential to
the preservation of liberty, nor Washington’s denial of the term
“patriot” to those who would attack “religion.” Far from being the
“Farewell to Christendom” which North would have us understand
it to be, Washington’s famous address was an affirmation of the
necessity of Christianity to liberty not only in the United States
but also in any and all nations.
A related, and fundamental defect in the book is the mode of
presentation of the argument. Rather than giving the reader a
systematic consideration of the relevant evidence, the approach
is that taken by most secularist theorists and propagandists who
write on the Constitution and the First Amendment: That of a kid
on a pogo stick, jumping from one point to another in virtually
any direction, instead of pursuing a thorough, chronological chain
of evidence and reasoning. To be sure, this makes for interesting
reading—especially when it can be spiced with repeated
unsubstantiated claims of a conspiracy at work. But it does not
help the reader to evaluate the author’s particular assertions
or his overall thesis. It is largely for this reason that so many
untutored readers of Political Polytheism uncritically accept its
undocumented claims as well as its overall thesis and assail those
who maintain that the United States was founded on a Christian
basis. North rightly seeks to stir Christians to act in opposition to
evil. However, it would have been better if he first had presented
his argument in a format that would have been more conducive to
a thoughtful understanding of the subject, and only then shifted
into the {277} exhortative mode of rhetoric.

The Myth of Political Polytheism


Regnant Newtonianism?
North argues from what amounts to an assumed “spirit of the
times”—a supposedly dominant “Newtonian” worldview, a Deistic
“Enlightenment” rationalism which, apart from occasional divine
interventions to adjust the workings of the cosmos, left man, law,
politics, and history autonomous—to the particular contentions
of his thesis. He reasons from this European view to the beliefs of
Americans (or at least of the American political elite) and to the
ethical, legal and political views of the Framers of the Constitution.
He assumes that this view was so dominant that it must have
affected the beliefs of the Framers in general as well as of those
who were Masons in particular.
But this is the old fallacy of begging the question. What he needs
to prove is (a) that such a world-view was in fact dominant in the
American colonies, states and nation, or at least among American
political leaders (if it was so, then why did the Continental
Congresses produce so many obviously Protestant acts and
resolutions, and why did the states produce manifestly Christian
constitutions?), and (b) that the Framers (and Ratifiers—including
the Masons among them) actually held to such a view. He needs
to do what John Eidsmoe (whose moderate, judicious work,
Christianity and the Constitution, North neglects to deal with
seriously) has done: to examine carefully the actual thought of the
men involved in the framing (and ratification) of the Constitution.
It will not do for North to base his argument about the supposed
dominance of the Newtonian worldview on the fact that the
Constitution (Article VI) prohibited a religious test for federal
office, since he has not adequately considered, or set forth for his
readers to consider either (a) who proposed the prohibition, or (b)
the arguments of those who supported the prohibition. Whether
or not one believes that a constitution for a Christian people
should contain a religious test oath (or oaths), the fact is that
those who supported the prohibition of a religious test oath had
some quite convincing arguments and that they presented these
arguments as being consistent with Christian purposes. Those
arguments at least should be considered before one jumps to the
conclusion that the prohibition was included in the Constitution
for conspiratorial, anti-Christian reasons.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

After presenting much interesting information about the secret
Newtonian worldview and its connection with the religious
philosophy of at least the higher-ranking Masons, North notes that
the numbers of Masons present in the Constitutional Convention
and the ratification process do not prove his thesis—because
Masons were in both the Federalist and Anti-Federalist camps
(431). This is good, because the most accurate of his sources of
information on this point says that only 13 of the 39 signers of the
Constitution were Masons. This means that probably only 13 of
the 55 Framers were Masons; that 26 of the 39 signers {278} were
not Masons; and that 42 of the 55 Framers were not Masons. Since
all these non-Masons had votes and voices in the Constitutional
Convention, these figures do not bode well for conspiratorial
theories of the Constitutional Convention. This is particularly the
case when one notes that the author has not indicated whether
the real or alleged members of the Masons who attended the
Philadelphia Convention actually held to a Masonic, non-Christian
view of ethics, law, and politics. How many of this minority
had risen high enough in the Masonic hierarchy by the time of
the Constitutional Convention to have abandoned the basically
Christian views which were taught to lower level members? How
many of them realized the inconsistencies between higher level
Masonic doctrines and biblical doctrine? Apparently no attempt
was made to answer these important questions.
Despite the paucity of the numbers of Masons present in the
Constitutional Convention—not enough to have so dominated the
Convention as to have openly voted in a prohibition of a religious
test for federal office on secularist, anti-Christian grounds, nor
enough to have had their secret purpose overrule the Christian
purposes of the other delegates—North continually refers to the
supposed Masonic conspiracy which he contends committed a
coup at the Convention. He thus places himself in the interesting
position of arguing conspiracy virtually everywhere except at the
crucial point which is necessary to establish his case: The number
of Masons in the Constitutional Convention. There, compelled
by the adverse statistics, he retreats to a vaguely defined Masonic
Since it is statistically impossible, even after all that he has
said about the Masons, to prove either that there was a Masonic

The Myth of Political Polytheism


conspiracy to secularize the Constitution or that the Masons
present did succeed in such an attempt, North seeks to base his
case ultimately on the worldview of the Constitution in comparison
with the worldview(s) of the Christian state constitutions, on
“the theological character of the Constitution itself ” (431). He
seeks to ground his thesis on the answer to the question: Was the
Constitution closer to the Masonic ideal than the existing state
constitutions were?
But this approach raises several problems which are not noted
by the author: The Constitution could be closer to the Masonic
ideal in some ways (or one way: the prohibition of a religious test
oath) but not in others. It could be closer to the Masonic ideal
without being Masonic in intent or content. It could be closer to
the Masonic ideal for other non-Masonic reasons. It could be
closer to the Masonic ideal than the state constitutions and still
not be Masonic. It could be closer to the Masonic ideal than the
state constitutions and still be Christian. And it is possible that it
could be farther from the Masonic ideal even though it has no
Trinitarian Christian test oath required for office. None of these
questions is considered.
The Constitution could also be adjudged to be closer to the
Masonic {279} ideal because the author neglects, or refuses to note
other evidences of the Constitution’s Christian nature.

“...the year of our Lord....”
Many scholars, Christian and non-Christian, have overlooked
the Constitution’s reference to God, in Article VII: “Done in
Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the
Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand
seven hundred and Eighty-seven and of the Independence of the
United States of America the Twelfth.” Unhappily, North brushes
this unmistakable reference to the lordship of Jesus Christ aside,
in a parenthetical sentence (404), commenting only that it is not
what he considers a persuasive argument for the Constitution’s
Christian character.
But what would he—or any Christian scholar, or, for that matter,
any discerning scholar—have done if the clause had read: “Done...
in the year of Baal (or Astarte or Buddha, or Reason, or any other


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

false god)...”? Any of these references would have been striking—
not to mention shocking—because it would have indicated clearly
the religious basis of the regime. Therefore, North would have
rightly treated us to an engaging commentary (perhaps a long one,
with interesting historical evidences and insights) on the nature
of the religion or religious philosophy signified by the clause, the
political implications of that religious philosophy, and so forth.
The clause obviously refers to none other than Jesus Christ. But
we are offered absolutely no analysis of this crucially important
The clause is undoubtedly in the Constitution. It is as much a
part of the Constitution as anything else in the document. Why
was it brushed aside so cavalierly? Was this because the clause
was added as an afterthought? That makes it no less official a part
of the Constitution and our fundamental law. An afterthought
is, after all, a thought, and a thought pertinent to the issue at
that. Was it because it was allegedly added by the Convention’s
secretary, Major Jackson? That still makes it no less official. Was it
because it was a traditional way of designating the year in Western
Civilization and in the United States of America? The fact that it
was traditional makes it no less real or believed. In fact, the fact
that it was traditional can be said to have made it all the more
powerful an indication of the Christian nature of the people, and
of the civilization for which the document, quite appropriately,
was framed. The fact that it was traditional does not negate its
presence in the Constitution, nor should this fact degrade its legal
status. Hence, there is no good reason why this clause should not
be given the same thoughtful consideration as any other clause in
the document.
This is particularly the case when we know (if we have read
the debates of the Constitutional Convention) that the entire
document—any and every part of it and as a whole—was subjected
to open debate after the final draft, including this clause, had been
completed. Here was the opportunity for any and all secularists,
Deists, {280} rationalists, or religious “neutralists” or “pluralists”
to remove what to them must have been so offensive a clause as
that declaring the lordship of Christ over our nation and its law.
Here, indeed, was a necessity for Masonic or any other secularist
conspirators to act—because of the implications of such a clause.

The Myth of Political Polytheism


Furthermore, it was an urgent, a crucial necessity: Because this
neglected, scorned clause, by its very nature and implications,
destroys any and every religious “pluralist,” “neutralist,” or
secularist interpretation, thesis, argument, design and plot
regarding our Constitution, law, and public life. The insertion of
this clause would have faced any secularist conspirators present in
the Convention with an urgent necessity of removing it from our
fundamental law in order to remove its implications from our law.
If it is legitimate to trace—or to underscore—the implications of
other clauses and provisions in the Constitution (and it certainly
is so), then it is legitimate to trace the implications of this clause.
Would that North had considered them in print for us!
What were these implications? Here are a few of them: The Bible
is true. Christ, God, is the Creator. Christ is the Savior. Christ is
indeed Lord. He is the sovereign Ruler of Heaven and Earth, the
Supreme Judge of the Universe, who sits at God the Father’s right
hand and providentially rules history, bringing his holy will to
pass in the lives of individuals and of nations. Since he is Lord,
all men—including his ministers, civil magistrates (Rom. 13)—
are ethically obliged to obey his law-word, his ethical precepts.
Since he is Lord, he can and will enforce his law via sanctions—
blessings for faithful obedience, curses for unfaithful or rebellious
disobedience—on individuals (be they rulers or ruled) and on
nations (Deut. 28; Matt. 5:17–19).
Moreover, since Christ’s lordship is recognized in the Constitution,
the American nation has a covenantal relationship to him. This
covenantal relationship recognizes his lordship, his providential
rule over history, his providential relationship to the American
civil government and people. Contrary to North’s thesis, this
is no “Newtonian Providentialism,” or Deism requiring only
occasional intervention in the cosmos by God to set things back
on their otherwise autonomous track (340–52). It is instead the
kind of minute intervention in history repeatedly noted by the
Christian general and statesman George Washington. Contrary to
North’s thesis, this indicates that the people in whose name the
Constitution was framed and ratified are not autonomous but
rather are under the authority and lordship of Christ; the covenant
of the Constitution is not man-centered but Christ-centered. The
people’s representatives’ laws ought to conform to his holy law.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

They face his righteous judgment or chastisement if they rebel
against his word and law, just as they are promised blessings for
obedience to his ethical precepts and law. {281}
These truths were recognized by virtually all eighteenth and
nineteenth century American Presidents—including Washington,
John Adams, Jefferson, and Madison—in a multitude of
inaugural addresses, annual messages to Congress, presidential
proclamations and other public papers. They were also recognized
by the Congresses which passed resolutions for national days
of humiliation, fasting and prayer in times of hardship, and
resolutions for national days of thanksgiving and prayer in times
of God’s blessing. (It is unfortunate that these things are not noted
by North.)
In addition, this means that the covenantal structure of the
Constitution is radically different from that set forth by North (308–
9; 374–75; 403–11):
1. Transcendence belongs to God, to Christ. The people may be
over the Constitution, but they are under the lordship of Christ.
2. Hierarchy and authority begin with Christ, with God. Christ
is over the people, who are over the Constitution and can amend
it, through their representatives; the Constitution is over the civil
magistrates, who are—within its limits—to rule over the people of
the Federal Republic.
3. Ethics and law are to conform to Christ’s standards. They are
to conform to that which is revealed in the Bible, or which man
can know via his God-given conscience. Constitutional law is to
conform to the principles of Christ’s law-word.

4. The oath to support the Constitution is an oath to support a
Christian fundamental law, to act in conformity with the lordship
of Christ. Since Christ is Lord, his blessings or curses will come
upon rulers (sooner or later, in time and/or in eternity) and on
the nation in time, via his divine providence, according to their
obedience or rebellion. (These things are recognized in the many
presidential addresses and proclamations.) There are also certain
sanctions which the civil magistrates, who are under Christ’s
lordship as well as under the people and the Constitution, may
bring upon rebellious men. And, via the system of separation of
powers and checks and balances, there are constitutional sanctions

The Myth of Political Polytheism


which the various civil magistrates (at the state as well as at the
central government level) may bring upon each other.
5. So far as succession, continuity and inheritance are concerned,
Christ continues—and will continue—to be Lord. On the human
level, the U.S. Constitution, under God, continues to be the
fundamental law of the land. The American people, who continue
to be under Christ but, via the amendment or constitutional
convention process, over the Constitution, continue to be under
the rule of constitutional law. This continuity can be broken, of
course, if the people become apostate. But this is true of any form
of civil government, under any constitution, regardless of any
oath(s) attached to it. It was true of Israel. It has been true since
the fall of man.

Even this cursory exposition makes it clear that if indeed
there were any plotting secularist Masons—or even “religious
neutrality” pluralists or ordinary secularist thinkers—in the {282}
Convention, this clause must have caused them grave concern.
If they had been plotting to secularize the Constitution by
prohibiting a religious test for national office, then they had to do
something to get this clause removed from the Constitution, for
its implications destroy any attempt to reduce Christianity to a
status of legal equality with all other religious philosophies, or to
secularize our civil government and law. In fact, one who takes an
oath to support the Constitution might not have to swear or affirm
that he is a Christian but nevertheless by swearing or affirming the
oath to support the Constitution thereby takes an oath to support
a Christian Constitution and fundamental law.
Despite these implications, no one did anything. Not the
supposedly deistic Mason, George Washington. Not the
supposedly Rousseauvian James Madison (446–52). Absolutely
no one in the Constitutional Convention said a word of complaint,
much less attempted to extirpate the lordship clause from the
Constitution. It remains in the Constitution, along with its
crucially important but neglected (or obscured) implications.
Those implications destroy all secularist or religious “pluralist”
theories about the Constitution, including that which has been set
forth so provocatively by North.


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

No Religious Test
Although North makes much of a supposed Masonic conspiracy
as the cause of the Constitution’s prohibition of a religious test
for federal office, there is no evidence of such a conspiracy in the
record of the debates of the Constitutional Convention. The ban
was proposed by Charles Pinckney III, an Episcopalian from South
Carolina. It was seconded by Gouverneur Morris, an Episcopalian
from Pennsylvania who deeply believed in the depravity of man,
saw religion—particularly Christianity—as the basis of good
morals and good morals as the only possible support of political
liberty. It was also seconded by Pinckney’s cousin, General Charles
Cotesworth Pinckney, a devout South Carolina Episcopalian who
for more than fifteen years before his death was unanimously
elected president of the Charleston Bible Society by Christians
of every denomination. None of these Christian statesmen
is mentioned in Political Polytheism. None was a Mason. It is
certainly difficult to believe that they were motivated by Masonic,
anti-Christian aims in moving and seconding the prohibition of a
religious test for federal office.
The motion was passed unanimously by the Framers, virtually
all of whom, as Bradford’s research for his biographical sketches of
the Framers, A Worthy Company and in Religion and the Framers:
The Biographical Evidence, indicates, were Christians. (Anyone
who has talked to Bradford about the Framers knows that the good
professor possessed far more evidence about the Framers’ religious
views than space and time limitations permitted him to include in
his book. That evidence is available via the bibliographies at the
end of the various biographical {283} sketches which compose
the volume.) Clearly, the motivation behind the prohibition of a
religious test for national office can hardly be said to have been
un-Christian, much less anti-Christian.
The issue of the prohibition of a religious test for federal
office was not discussed in all states. But where it was debated
the discussion was not conducted as one between Christians
and non-Christians, much less as one between Christians and
anti-Christian secularists. This hardly indicates a secularist or
pluralistically “neutral” approach to either religion or the issue of a
prohibition of a religious test for federal office.

The Myth of Political Polytheism


Moreover, in the few state conventions in which it was debated,
the prohibition’s defenders articulated some strong arguments
which are ignored by North. First, original sin is real and powerhungry men, hypocrites, and other wicked men will lie, will swear
false oaths, to obtain office. A religious test oath is therefore
no protection against covenant-breaking officeholders. (This
argument is noted but not adequately considered by the author.)
Second, the nation’s defense against evil men—and against
men of alien religions being elected to office in the absence of a
religious test oath—must rest on the vigilance and virtue of the
predominantly Christian people of these United States, rather
than on religious test oaths. If pagans and unbelievers do emigrate
to the United States, it is highly probable that their children will
become Christians. It is highly unlikely that the Christian people
of America would elect non-Christians to office. Third, the limited,
expressed powers nature of the Constitution would prevent
any future Congress or Senate, by way of a law or a treaty, from
changing the fundamental religion of the people of the nation, or
from passing laws persecuting Christians. Fourth, Christ never
wished for the support of Christianity by worldly authority. Fifth,
Christianity will flourish when left to the excellence of its own
doctrines; it has made much greater progress when it has not been
supported by the power of the state. Sixth, religious tests must be
avoided in order to avoid a union of civil and ecclesiastical power
which, history shows, leads to an intolerant, dictatorial spirit on
the part of those in power, to religious persecutions, cruelties, and
bloody, implacable religious wars; the rights of conscience (with
those of life, person, property and liberty) must be protected
against these phenomena.
A knowledge of the character of the debates on the prohibition
of a religious test for federal office, and particularly a knowledge of
the arguments that were set forth by defenders of the prohibition,
casts an entirely different light on the matter, a light which enables
us to see them whole. This light enables us to see that the evidence
indicates motives a good deal more wholesome, a good deal more
Christian, than the dark, conspiratorial thesis about the reasons
for the prohibition of a religious test which is presented by North.
The contention that the prohibition of a religious test for federal
office was {284} the result of anti-Christian, secularist purposes is


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

the heart and soul of North’s thesis that the Constitution was a
self-consciously anti-Christian, secularist document. Hence, his
failure to account for (and even to give his readers an account of)
(a) who proposed, seconded and approved the clause and (b) the
arguments of the Christian statesmen who supported the ban on
a religious test for national office, fatally weakens his thesis about
the Constitution.
On the other hand, a knowledge that the men who proposed
and approved the inclusion of the prohibition were Christians,
particularly when coupled with a knowledge that the prohibition
was supported by Christian arguments, makes it evident that the
real purpose behind the prohibition of a religious test was not
covenant-breaking secularism, nor a pluralistic myth of religious
neutrality, but rather the protection of Christian ethics, order, and
One may judge these arguments for the prohibition of a
religious test for federal office to be weaker than the arguments
for the inclusion of a religious test. But that does not mean that
either the arguments or the motivations of those who sought to
prohibit religious test oaths for federal office were anti-Christian.
Certainly, North could and should have been more charitable in
his evaluation of this key constitutional provision.

Why Amendment?
Why Reinterpretation?
Why Attack the Framers?
North’s reinterpretation of the Constitution creates some
interesting questions—each of which raises problems for his theory
of the intended meaning of the document. If the Constitution
was what North contends it was, then why have radicals from
the Radical Republicans through the “Progressives” to the “New
Dealers” and beyond sought to change its fundamental nature? If
it was intended to be secularist, centralist and unlimited in the
powers it conferred on the national government, then why have the
radicals worked so hard to amend it in order to bring about these
results? Why did they not simply teach us the Framers’ and Ratifiers’
supposed intention to give us a secularist, centralist, unlimited,
anti-Christian document? Similarly, why have radicals of various

The Myth of Political Polytheism


hues sought so assiduously to reinterpret the Constitution? Why
have they self-consciously seen their legal philosophies, political
rationalizations, and the like as radical departures from the
intentions of the men who gave us the Constitution and the Bill
of Rights? Why, when they have attempted to portray their radical
designs as being consistent with the intentions of the Framers,
have they had to resort to such obviously twisted versions of the
Framers’ intentions? Why have they had to go to such lengths—
particularly in Supreme Court decisions—to circumvent the
Framers’ intentions in regard to the First Amendment, well
established legal precedents of {285} constitutional law, and the
various provisions of the Constitution itself, if the Framers’
intention was to give us a secularist, centralist document which
confers unlimited power on the central government in the name
of the people? And why have secularist propagandists felt or
seen the need to attack the Framers’ and Ratifiers’ integrity, via
“muckraking” biographies and revisionist textbooks based on the
claims thereof if the Framers’ and Ratifiers’ intentions were really
fundamentally the same as the radicals’ intentions? Despite much
commentary on American constitutional development, North
does not adequately deal with these questions. In light of the
historical facts cited above (most of which are ignored by North),
the obvious answer is that the radicals knew and know (but do
not always admit) that the Constitution was intended to embody
a radically different view of the world and of life, a radically
different view of ethics, politics and law, from their own mancentered, secularist, leftist views of these things. The radicals have
had to attack the Framers and Ratifiers, amend the Constitution
and radically reinterpret the document in order to transform it
into a device which is nearly the perfect opposite of that which
was intended by the Christian statesmen who bequeathed it to us.

There is a myth of religious and political pluralism. That myth
maintains not only that such is possible and desirable but also that
such was intended to be basic to our Constitution and fundamental
law. That myth was effectively denied by the overwhelmingly
Christian composition of the Constitutional Convention and the


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

state ratification conventions, by the debates on the prohibition
of a religious test for national office, by the debates concerning
what became the First Amendment to the Constitution, by many
actions of various United States Congresses, by a multitude of
Presidential addresses, proclamations and papers, by Federal
Court and United States Supreme Court decisions, by the learned
constitutional commentaries of great legal scholars and pre–1940
law books, and even by the actions of such allegedly secularist or
“pluralist” theorist Presidents as Jefferson and Madison, when
they were in public office. While the conduct of our national
government has certainly never been perfectly biblical, neither the
conduct of our central government nor the interpretation of our
constitutional law by our pre–1930 representatives was religiously
pluralist, anti-Christian or secularist.
Unhappily, the myth of religious pluralism is (at least as to its
historicity) supported—and the great multitude of this evidence
is neglected—by North. One consequence of this is that although
the theory of pluralistic political polytheism is rightly assailed, the
myth of the United States as being founded on political polytheism
is not destroyed. Another consequence is that while Political
Polytheism informs Christians about what we ought to do to set
things right in these United {286} States, it leaves them woefully
misinformed about our constitutional and legal heritage, about
the intentions and character of the statesmen who gave us the
Constitution, and about the nature, depth and timing of American
clerical, intellectual and political leaders’ rebellion against both
the original intent of the Constitution and the One whose lordship
is (however imperfectly) recognized in the Constitution.
North has given the church many excellent, important and
useful books. While this volume is as interesting as any that he
has written and contains much that is useful, it falls far below
the standard set by his earlier works. This reviewer hopes that
the quality of Political Polytheism will not undermine the respect
that North’s more scholarly works have earned for themselves and
for him, and that North’s future efforts will return to the higher
standard of historical accuracy contained in his previous studies.

The Ministry of Chalcedon


The Ministry of Chalcedon
[Proverbs 29:18]
CHALCEDON (kal-SEE-don) is a Christian educational organization
devoted exclusively to research, publishing, and to cogent communication
of a distinctly Christian scholarship to the world at large. It makes available
a variety of services and programs, all geared to the needs of interested
layman who understand the propositions that Jesus Christ speaks to
the mind as well as the heart, and that His claims extend beyond the
narrow confines of the various institutional churches. We exist in order
to support the efforts of all orthodox denominations and Churches.
Chalcedon derives its name from the great ecclesiastical Council of
Chalcedon (A D. 451), which produced the crucial Christological
definition: “Therefore, following the holy Fathers, we all with one accord
teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God
and truly man....” This formula challenges directly every false claim of
divinity by any human institution: state, church, cult, school, or human
assembly. Christ alone is both God and man, the unique link between
heaven and earth. All human power is therefore derivative; Christ alone
can announced that “all power is given unto men in heaven and in earth”
(Matthew 28:18). Historically, the Chalcedonian creed is therefore the
foundation of Western liberty, for its sets limits on all authoritarian
human institutions by acknowledging the validity of the claims of the
One who is the source of true human freedom (Galatians 5:1).
Christians have generally given up two crucial features of theology that in
the past led to the creation of what we know as Western civilization. They
no longer have any red optimism concerning the possibility of an earthly
victory of Christian principles and Chris tian institutions, and they have
also abandoned the means of such a victory in external human affairs: a
distinctly biblical concept of law. The testimony of the Bible and Western
history should be clear: when God’s people have been confident about
the ultimate earthly success of their religion and committed socially to
God’s revealed system of external law, they have been victorious. When
either aspect of their faith has declined, they have lost ground. Without
optimism, they lose their zeal to exercise dominion over God’s creation
(Genesis 1:28); without revealed law, they are left without guidance and


Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1

drift along with the standards of their day.
Once Christians invented the university; now they retreat into little Bible
colleges or sports factories. Once they built hospitals throughout Europe
and America; now the civil governments have taken them over. Once
Christians were inspired by “Onward, Christian Soldiers”; now they see
themselves as “poor wayfaring strangers” with “joy, joy, joy down in their
hearts” only on Sundays and perhaps Wednesday evenings. They are, in
a word, pathetic. Unquestionably, they have become culturally impotent.
Chalcedon is committed to the idea of Christian reconstruction. It is
premised on the belief that ideas have consequences. It takes seriously
the words of Professor F. A. Hayek: “It may well be true that we as
scholars tend to overestimate the influence which we can exercise on
contemporary affairs. But I doubt whether it is possible to overestimate
the influence which ideas have in the long run.” If Christians are to reconquer lost ground in preparation for ultimate victory (Isaiah 2, 65, 66),
they must rediscover their intellectual heritage. They must come to grips
with the Bible’s warning and its promise: “Where there is no vision, the
people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he” (Proverbs 29:18).
Chalcedon’s resources are being used to remind Christians of this basic
truth: what men believe makes a difference. Therefore, men should not
believe lies, for it is the truth that sets them free (John 8:32).




Journal of Christian Reconstruction / Vol. 14.1