Gods, Fathers, and Pastors

Gods, Fathers, and Pastors

Even as magistrates are subject to the correction of ministers, ministers are subject to the governance of magistrates as to temporals (i.e., just laws and sanctions) as citizens. Contra the Papist position, ministers are not above or outside the law. But so too are ministers subject to magistrates as to their “function” per the religious interest of the magistrate. A magistrate cannot alter or dictate true doctrine, Scripture, or sacraments, but he may hold ministers accountable to their own standards, as it were, which implies a certain familiarity with and understanding of Scripture and church tradition and teaching by the magistrate.

Certain (hyper online) evangelicals continue to at least feign shock and concern­—they are so perpetually concerned that I wonder their brows are not permanently furrowed—at a resurgence of decidedly historical yet now intellectually foreign articulations of church-state relations. Albeit the impact of historical sources within the Protestant tradition seem to have exactly zero impact on the most obstinate and presentist of this crowd, that is no excuse to not perform our due diligence, recovering the diversity and continuity of the tradition on this front. Perhaps, one day, the cascade of sources demonstrably disagreeable to baptized post-war liberal assumptions held so tightly by mainstream evangelicals will envelop them, drowning out their ahistorical protestations.

To that end, Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562) and his Loci Communes (1576). The Loci was translated into English in 1583 as The Common Places, extending Vermigli’s posthumous influence. Along with Martin Bucer (1491-1551) (i.e., De Regno Christi), his impact on the long English Reformation was immense, including but not limited to political thought.

Vermigli’s clarity in expounding a model of relations between the ecclesiastical and civil powers—an historically representative model for Protestants—remains instructive for reconsideration of relevant liberal assumptions about the same found both within and without Protestant academe. What follows is commentary on and investigation and application of Vermigli’s model of what we would now call church-state relations. On offer from Vermigli is not merely mechanical and expedient, but metaphysical and nevertheless practical.   

Deacons, Ministers, Pastors

To get right to it: there are two powers appointed by God, two offices set up as God’s representatives on earth. In a sense both act as fathers and pastors, indeed, as gods. (Notice that Vermigli does not employ “two kingdoms” terminology.) There are spiritual pastors and fathers, and temporal pastors and fathers, though as it happens both are temporally situated and both possess spiritual and temporal interests, sharing the same spiritual end if by diverse means. We are talking about civil magistrates and church ministers (or civil ministers and church magistrates, if you like, the terminology itself overlapping and interchangeable which semantically demonstrates the point). Henceforth we will stick to magistrate (civil) and minister (church) as our terms. 

“Both of them nourish the godly, but diversly. The Magistrate advanceth them with honors, riches and dignities. The minister comforteth them with the promises of God & with the sacraments.” The magistrate works by outward means on the outward man, which does not itself disregard the inward man as such, nor is it agnostic toward inward means of the inward power of the ministers.

For “princes in the holy scriptures are not only called Deacons, or Ministers of God, but also Pastors.” Vermigli cites Ezekiel 34 and also Homer who referred to “Agamemnon the pastor of the people.”

Magistrates are also properly called fathers, “wherefore the Senators among the Romans were called Patres conscripti, that is, appointed Fathers.” He goes on,

“Neither was there a greater or more ancient honor in the Commonweal, than to be called, The father of the Country. Yea also a Magistrate by the law of God is comprehended under this commandment, Honor thy father and thy mother. Princes then owe unto their subjects a fatherly love, and they ought always to remember that they are not rulers over beasts, but over men, and that themselves also are men: who yet should be far better and more excellent, than those whom they govern, otherwise they are not fit to govern them. For we make not a sheep the chief ruler over sheep, but the Bellwether, and then the shepherd. And even as a shepherd excelleth the sheep, so ought they to whom the office of a Magistrate is committed, to excel the people.”

Magistrates can rightly be called pastors and fathers because they, ideally, exude excellence which confirms their distinction and authority. Both by example and just rule, they exercise a pastoral role insofar as they shepherd their people. Of course, even as men set apart for rule should distinguish themselves as truly excellent, such elevated status cannot be justified by a self-referential source of authority.

Natural and Appointed

When we say that magistrates are ordained by God, what do we mean?

Vermigli argues that even as human means of appointment are in operation, that conduit of election does not diminish the proper cause of magisterial authority, viz., God himself. But this does not itself imply some kind of mechanical dictation theory about how human means are employed by God inside of providence.

Vermigli attributes the divine authority of magistrates to a natural, embedded principle or impulse: “God kindled a certain light in the hearts of men, whereby they understand that they cannot live together without a guide: and from thence sprung the office of a Magistrate.”

(Thomas Aquinas says much the same in De Regno.) This is corroborated by Scripture. For if “God ordained that he which shedded man’s blood, his blood also should be shed, not rashly or by every man (for that were very absurd),” then a civil, magisterial authority is implied “that he should punish manquellers [i.e., killers of men].” Hence, “all powers whatsoever they be, are ordained of God. And Christ answered unto Pilate, thou shouldest have no power against me, except it had bin given thee from above.”

Abusus Non Tollit Usum

Now, an important question is in order:

“If all Magistrates be of God, then must all things be rightly governed: But in governing of public wheels we see that many things are done naughtily and perversely. Doubtless, under Nero, Domitian, Commodus, Caracalla, and Heliogabalus, good laws were despised, good men killed, and discipline of the City was utterly corrupted. But if the Magistrate were of God, such things had never happened.”

In other words, Vermigli asks whether tyranny negates the legitimacy of the magistrate’s claim to be of God, for his power to be derived either mediately or immediately of God? There are those that say “The wicked acts of Tyrants are not of God, yet doe those things spread abroad into kingdoms and Empires: Therefore Empires and kingdoms are not of God.”

Even today, holders of this position wield it to legitimate so-called classical liberal ends in millenarian, progressivist fashion. That is, government and governance predicated on the limitation of power via its endless bifurcation, as the chief goal of politics. The effects of regimes are translated through liberal political assumptions—liberatory and egalitarian—to legitimate or illegitimate regimes. It is a fundamentally shortsighted and materialist analysis, overly moralistic and chained to an immanent frame.

Vermigli rejects this posture as a false syllogism insofar as it absolutizes the occasional and accidental. It would be equally valid, in this reasoning, to say that because some governments are not tyrannical and therefore legitimate, all governments are legitimate. Those suffering from tyraniphobia essentialize accidental occurrences. Just because the power of a magistrate is from God does not mean that everything in the magistrate is from God, or that the office cannot be separated from the occupant.

Vermigli’s position is simultaneously realist and providentialist. “[K]ingdoms and public wheels, may be called certain workhouses, or shoppes of the will of God. For that is done in them which GOD himself hath decreed to be done, although princes oftentimes understand it not.”

“[T]here are certain tyrants, which destroy public wheels. I grant it, but our wickedness & sins deserve it. For there be oftentimes so grievous sins, & so many that they cannot be corrected by the ordinary Magistrate, and by a gentle and quiet government of things. And therefore God doth then provide Tyrants to afflict the people.”

Vermigli identifies an ebb and flow to the rise and fall of good and bad governments. Whenever there is a bad one, it is a sign of judgment and correction. Whenever there is a good one, it is an indication of blessing. If all power is of God then no other explanation makes sense. Even Nebuchadnezzar was God’s servant. Historically, “for the most part [God] tempereth & qualifieth his punishment in placing among them good and godly princes.” In any case, as Vermigli later explains, stripping the magistrate of discretion and judgment proper and essential to his office via mechanistic, proceduralist, and positivist methods is no solution. In fact, arguably, such a limited regime invariably corrupts the magisterial office and degrades into managerialism, a certain form of inhuman technocratic tyranny wherein ius is detached from iusticia, or rather lex envelops both.

Up from Boniface

Returning to our main inquiry, to fail to subscribe to 1) the direct ordination and distribution of power by God to civil magistrates, and 2) to uphold the legitimacy of magistrates on this basis regardless of outcome, is to fall into late medieval papal confusion, argues Vermigli.

Pope Boniface’s Unam Sanctum is, for Vermigli, the source code of said error. Boniface located both swords or powers originally in the church which, in turn, delegated the temporal sword to civil authorities but thereby retained a certain purview and right of reverter over the temporal sword. The civil authority, then, was to, when necessary, be directed by the spiritual power. “The Church (saith [Boniface]) hath two swords, but it useth not them after one and the selfesame manner. For it exerciseth the spiritual sword, but the temporal sword ought to be drawn only at the becke & sufferance of the Church.”

Vermigli explains the import of this doctrine:

“The sword of the Emperor ought to be drawn only at the will and pleasure of the Pope: That when he commandeth, he must strike: and by sufferance, that is, he must go forward in striking, so long as he listeth and will suffer it. These things therefore must be in order: and the order is, that the temporal sword be reduced unto God by the spiritual.”

Through a winding digression, Vermigli shows how the Roman position yielded “all ecclesiastical persons are exempt from the civil Magistrate.” More basically, the problem was a confusion of the relation and interplay between the ecclesiastical and political powers, their jurisdiction and competency.

Interchangeable Arts: Shared Interests and Mutual Subjection

In a narrow sense, the ecclesiastical is to be more favored and stands above the civil or political. This is because “the word of GOD is a common rule, whereby all things ought to be directed and tempered.

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