A Political Primer on Reformed Confessions

A Political Primer on Reformed Confessions

Scots Confession, 1560, article 24. Its production was overseen by John Knox by order of the Scottish Parliament. It was ratified in 1560 but did not gain approval until after the overthrowal of Bloody Mary in 1567. Consider here the very conventional appeal to the great reformist kings of the ancient Israel, a common model promoted to Christian magistrates by Reformed theologians to illustrate their religious duties. “We confess and acknowledge that empires, kingdoms, dominions, and cities are appointed and ordained by God; the powers and authorities in them, emperors in empires, kings in their realms, dukes and princes in their dominions, and magistrates in cities, are ordained by God’s holy ordinance for the manifestation of His own glory and for the good and well being of all men. We hold that any men who conspire to rebel or overturn the civil powers, as duly established, are not merely enemies to humanity but rebels against God’s will.”

Last year, I compiled a list of religion clauses in early state constitutions. Some brief explanatory commentary was included. Otherwise, I let the documents speak for themselves.

Given that most American evangelicals are, apparently, de facto anabaptist in their political thought, meaning, that they artificially construct conflict between historic Reformed doctrine and Reformed political convictions, I thought a similar exercise with Reformed Protestant confessions—basically drawn from Philip Schaff’s list—might be useful. You could, obviously, look all these things up for yourself, but the consolidated testimony of the confessions below read in one fell swoop has a certain effect. Not all such confessions addressed the subjects of interest here (e.g., Ten Conclusions of Berne (1528) or Zwingli’s Sixty-seven Articles (1523)), but most did.


American Reformed evangelicals all want to claim the doctrines of grace now. They are increasingly interested in, say, classical theology proper, sacramentology, soteriology (of course), and the like. But they curiously depart markedly, openly, and intentionally from the political assumptions of the same authors and ecclesial bodies that conveyed the aforementioned doctrinal formulations to them. Typically, the response from the evangelicals in view is that the magisterial Reformers and their seventeenth century progeny were relatively thoughtless on matters of politics, especially church-state arrangements. And, the de fault evangelical continues, considerations of political authority and adjacent issues are not central to Reformed doctrine. It’s a negligible element to them.  

But as someone recently asked in a different context, what if it’s not that way? What if that hermeneutical-historical assumption about the Reformers—i.e., that they unwittingly perpetuated the Constantinian vision because they were men of their time—is a product of liberal modernity, flippant history, and Jesuit tricks? What if the whiggish semper reformanda approach is bunk? If you are going to say you are a confessional Protestant, rooted in tradition, you had better have a good reason for repudiating aspects of said tradition, whatever your theories about why those aspects were maintained and, well, preached with overwhelming consistency. You better have a good reason for defying the evident consensus. “Confessional Protestantism” cannot be the antidote to the very assumptions and convictions contained therein, regardless of whether Christian nationalism scares or amuses you. It is curious, indeed, that the loudest champions of confessional Protestantism—at least online—seem to believe that twentieth century liberalism achieved a political nirvana providentially consistent with everything imbedded—but not yet revealed—in Reformed doctrine in a sort of seed to tree redemptive-historical fashion. Perhaps, they, paradoxically, hold their confessionalism too tightly such that it encroaches upon divine writ, even if they won’t admit this to themselves or anyone else.

All that said, some readers may simply be unfamiliar with the Protestant Reformed confessional consensus just invoked. A review of magisterial authors could demonstrate this agreement, but it is always best to start with collective consensus documents officially promulgated for popular consumption and ecclesial doctrinal guidance. I will simply say, at this juncture, that the idea that the magisterials uncritically and passively—because their arms were being twisted or something—adopted a “medieval” conception of church and state is completely and demonstrably false. There’s no other way to put it. Gallons of ink were spilled on those and related questions. You do not have to like their conclusions, but you cannot say they neglected this area of doctrine. Moreover, an argument can be made that the formulation of political thought found in the magisterials and the post-reformation Reformed was central, not peripheral, to the Reformation itself. Many commentators much more proximate to the events in question said so. For now, simply note the frequency with which Reformed confessions saw fit to include articles directly pertaining to church-state questions. It is not clear to me why exceptions should be allowed on these matters—church and state, the religious role of the magistrate, the application of both tables of the Decalogue to political life, and so on—but not on others for purposes of ordination and communion.

A few things to notice below.

Most confessions consider questions of temporal or civil or political authority after articulating beliefs about the true church, church order, elders, and the sacraments. There is a reason for this. It is with these matters of ecclesiology that the internal life of the church begins to clearly touch externals, the political (circa sacra), and thereby the duties and privileges of God’s gods on earth, by way of the source and purpose of their authority. This is especially true of things indifferent (adiaphora), but no less true of things pertaining to the proper governance of the church. It was common for Reformed theologians to note that just as the magistrate has purview over other professions in a certain way, he has purview over ministers and elders. He cannot usurp their roles, but he can make sure they are functioning properly, i.e., not committing malpractice. There is a reason why both Francis Turretin and Benedict Pictet organize their treatment of civil authority under ecclesiology and refer to it as the “political governance” of the church.

Again, this compilation is meant to enable the reader to compare and contrast, to trace the confines of consensus, and then evaluate the predominant assumptions of our own day over and against the Reformed inheritance. Debate over modern modifications, and their suspect causes, to some of our confessions (e.g., Westminster and Belgic) will be reserved for another time. But you should, as you peruse, ask yourself why such changes would be proposed. Is it truly the case that the overwhelming agreement of our forebears became so outdated, that a new political nirvana was reached in the late modern era? Why should not the rest of the confessional testimony be similarly questioned and adjusted to suit contemporary proclivities?

Now, one acceptable answer to these questions refers to a hierarchy of doctrine. Of course, it is more important to get atonement correct than it is to get political models right. For one, the latter is less directly determined by scripture, though the general principles basically are. So, prudence is more in play but not solely in play when it comes to politics. Nevertheless, if our theological ancestors could be so radically mistaken—and their anabaptist opponents so radically right—in their codification of these things then we should be at least a little concerned about the rest of the corpus. All I am referring to (again) is the confused and confusing tension introduced by some modern theologians between Reformed theological doctrine and Reformed political doctrine.

The confessional documents do not present full articulation of these things. For that you must go to the voluminous corpus of magisterial texts, many of them not thoroughly mined in this regard. I will add, at the risk of repetition, that central to the Reformation were questions of authority, ones that had been in play at least since Constance. Universal and supreme papal jurisdiction and all that was wrapped up in that was a relatively recent innovation and unworthy of continuance. The recovery of a Constantinian vision was the Protestant response then, it seems to me, that it supplies a distinguishing mark of Protestantism, one that should not easily be discarded.  

The Confessions

Let’s begin with the Gallican (or French) Confession, 1559, compiled by John Calvin (most likely) with help from Theodore Beza and Pierre Viret, and approved by the synod of Paris. Here’s article 39:  

We believe that God wishes to have the world governed by laws and magistrates, so that some restraint may be put upon its disordered appetites. And as he has established kingdoms, republics, and all sorts of principalities, either hereditary or otherwise, and all that belongs to a just government, and wishes to be considered as their Author, so he has put the sword into the hands of magistrates to suppress crimes against the first as well as against the second table of the Commandments of God. We must therefore, on his account, not only submit to them as superiors, but honor and hold them in all reverence as his lieutenants and officers, whom he has commissioned to exercise a legitimate and holy authority.

As with many such documents, and Calvin’s own Institutes, the confession is addressed to the king (Henry IV). This is not window dressing. It expresses deeply Protestant assumptions about jurisdiction and ecclesiology which are expressed, in part, within the body of the article quoted above. In short, the Christian prince as religious reformer in the Old Testament vein is in play here. Of course, the French Confession pleads for toleration within an adverse jurisdiction, but the themes just mentioned are nevertheless present. Readers may notice that the Augsburg Confession is not included in this list, and that is because its article of “Civil Affairs” pertains only to Christians holding office, contra the Anabaptists. But remember also the scenario surrounding the Diet at which it was presented, viz., in answer to Emperor Charles’ demand that the German princes delineate the beliefs of their territories. The resultant confession was sanctioned by lesser magistrates and delivered to a supreme magistrate. It was a political document.

Moving on, the First Helvetic Confession, 1536, composed in Basel by Swiss-German luminaries like Heinrich Bullinger, Simon Grynaeus, and Friedrich Myconius to represent the convictions of the Swiss cantons. The Second Helvetic Confession, 1566, built upon the first edition, is much lengthier, and will follow immediately below.

Article 27 of the First Helvetic reads,

Since every magistrate is from God, his duty (unless he prefers to exercise tyranny) is the chief thing, to defend and procure religion, to repress every blasphemy; In this respect, they must chiefly watch over him, that the pure Word of God may be preached to the people pure, sincerely, and truly to the people, and that the truth of the Gospel should not be precluded to any man. He will soon take steps to ensure that the entire youth is found and formed by the upright and diligent training and discipline of the citizens, so that there is just provision for the ministers of the church, and a careful care for the poor. Here they look for ecclesiastical feasibility.

Then to judge the people according to equal laws: to protect the peace, the republic, to promote the republic, to fine the guilty for the reason of the offense, with wealth, body, and life. When she does the duty, she pays homage to God.

To him (even if we are free in Christ) we know that we must be subjected to all our body and faculties, and to the true zeal of mind and faith (so long as the commands of this man do not openly fight with him, for whom we honor him), we know.

Looking to the Second Helvetic Confession, which may contain the most beautiful and profound Reformed explanation of preaching, note first that in article 22, “Of Religious and Ecclesiastical Meetings,” the confession elevates collective worship and public assemblies and then adds,

Meetings For Worship Not to Be Neglected. As many as spun such meetings and stay away from them, despise true religion, and are to be urged by the pastors and godly magistrates to abstain from stubbornly absenting themselves from sacred assemblies.”

Both pastors and magistrates should urge people to attend the gathering of the saints.

The last article of the confession (article 30) addresses the magistrate’s religious role more directly:

The Magistracy is from God. Magistracy of every kind is instituted by God himself for the peace and tranquillity of the human race, and thus it should have the chief place in the world. If the magistrate is opposed to the Church, he can hinder and disturb it very much; but if he is a friend and even a member of the Church, he is a most useful and excellent member of it, who is able to benefit it greatly, and to assist it best of all.

The Duty of the Magistrate. The chief duty of the magistrate is to secured and preserve peace and public tranquility. Doubtless he will never do this more successfully than when he is truly God-fearing and religious; that is to say, when, according to the example of the most holy kings and princes of the people of the Lord, he promotes the preaching of the truth and sincere faith, roots out lies and all superstition, together with all impiety and idolatry, and defends the Church of God. We certainly teach that the care of religion belongs especially to the holy magistrate.

Let him, therefore, hold the Word of God in his hands, and take care lest anything contrary to it is taught. Likewise let him govern the people entrusted to him by God with good laws made according to the Word of God, and let him keep them in discipline, duty and obedience.

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