“Nursing Fathers”: The Magistrate and the Moral Law

by E. J. Hutchinson

“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” —Romans 13:1-4

Not many passages in the New Testament speak directly to political order. The first part of the thirteenth chapter of Romans is perhaps the most famous.[1] I would like to focus in this essay on vv. 3-4, which may appear prima facie to be something of an interpretive crux. Are these verses descriptive or prescriptive? That is, are they simply declarative, or are they imperatival, telling us what magistrates ought to do?[2]

Portrait Bust of the Emperor Nero

It is, of course, true that the verbs pertinent to this question are all in the indicative mood (“they are,” v. 3;“you will have,” v. 4;“he is,” v. 4); but is this dispositive? After all, the verbs in the Ten Commandments are indicative as well, but semantically the Ten Words are, nevertheless, commands.

Admittedly, Paul writes with brevity; and, admittedly, the text seems syntactically straightforward. So let us assume, momentarily and for the sake of argument, that these verses are what they appear to be grammatically: declarations. What would this mean?  If these verses are read as “straight” indicatives, they teach that whatever the magistrate does is good by definition. A ruler executes wrath only on the evil. If you do what is good, you will have his praise. He is the minister of God. Period.

This leaves, as far as I can parse it, two options. First, it might be the case that magistrates always reward good and punish evil because all magistrates are perfectly just in terms of the moral law and therefore always do as God prescribes. Now that we are all done laughing, we can move on to the second possibility: the putative “justice” of magistratical action obtains because might makes right. The mere possession of power would make the actions of magistrates just, rather than power exercised in accordance with some other standard.

To many modern readers, this description of the politics of power perhaps smacks of something post-Nietzschean and post-Foucauldian, but this position is in fact very old. It is wonderfully illustrated by the character Thrasymachus in Book 1 of Plato’s Republic.

THRASYMACHUS: Listen, then. I say justice is nothing other than what is advantageous for the stronger….That, Socrates, is what I say justice is, the same in all cities: what is advantageous for the established rule. Since the established rule is surely stronger, anyone who does the rational calculation correctly will conclude that the just is the same everywhere–what is advantageous for the stronger.[3]

Nero’s Torches by Henryk Siemiradzki

Is “might makes right” an acceptable gloss on the meaning of Romans 13:3-4? No; there are at least two major objections to it.

First, the natural human intuition that justice is objectively moral turns away from it in revulsion. This intuition, I assert without argument, is shared universally, contra Thrasymachus. That is, the law of nature opposes the idea that “justice” is the exercise of power merely—that it is whatever a ruler happens to do.

Second, there are numerous examples in Scripture of rulers who are clearly depicted as acting unjustly or ruling wickedly: Pharaoh in Exodus, David and Uriah the Hittite, Solomon’s introduction of pagan worship near the end of his life, Nebuchadnezzar, and so on, culminating in Christ’s crucifixion under the Sanhedrin and the Roman magistrate Pontius Pilate. In addition to these examples, consider the apostolic declarations in Acts 4:19 and 5:29. Clearly, Scripture does not teach that whatever magistrates do is right simply by virtue of their doing it. Rulers are not always a terror to evil works rather than to good ones.

If both general and special revelation oppose what we might call the Thrasymachean reading of Romans 13:3-4, what is the alternative?

The alternative is to read these verses in terms of two of the classical four causes, that is, as expressing the efficient cause of civil government (the agent who ordains that magistrates should rule and who is the source of their authority) as well as its telos or final cause, the end for which it is ordained. Vv. 1-2 state that God is the efficient cause of government (“[T]here is no authority except from God”); vv. 3-4 give its purpose (“[H]e is the minister of God to thee for good”).[4] This means that Paul in Romans 13 is not simply articulating what subjects must do. He is also expressing, with divine authority, what magistrates must do. Magistrates have inescapable moral obligations.

And this is precisely how Magisterial Protestantism has interpreted this passage.

“This means that Paul in Romans 13 is not simply articulating what subjects must do. He is also expressing, with divine authority, what magistrates must do. Magistrates have inescapable moral obligations.”

Let us begin with Martin Luther. In a letter of 13 July 1521, Luther responded to his associate Philip Melanchthon, who had argued that an explicit “commandment or…counsel of the Gospel”[5] was required to make the use of the sword permissible, and no such commandment or counsel existed. Luther argued that no such thing was necessary, and in the course of his reply noted the following about the duty of the magistrate as a gloss on the opening of Romans 13: “He who does wrong or imposes intolerable measures is not God’s servant but God’s enemy,” and adds shortly thereafter that “God does not give [authority] to be used for evil purposes.”[6] Luther affirms the same end of government when addressing magistrates themselves. Thus he exhorts the princes of Saxony in 1525, “Your Graces know very well that your power and earthly authority are given you by God in that you have been bidden to preserve the peace and to punish the wrongdoer, as Paul teaches.”[7] He affirms the same teaching yet again in Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved (1526): “[A] lord and prince is not a person to himself, but on behalf of others. It is his duty to serve them, that is, to protect and defend them.”[8]

Philip Melanchthon eventually came to share Luther’s general conclusions. In his commentary on Romans, Melanchthon claims that Romans 13:4 gives a definition of the magistrate, and asserts that it is in fact superior to Aristotle’s definition, because Paul adds that the efficient cause of government is God Himself: “For Paul has added the efficient cause, namely that [the magistrate] has been instituted by God.” But the apostle also gives us government’s purpose: “And in the matter of the final cause, he adds a noteworthy clause: ‘for you for good,’ in which he distinguishes the tyrant from the true magistrate.”[9]

Nearly the same sentiment is found in the Romans commentary of the German Reformed theologian Caspar Olevian, who also argues that Romans 13:1-2 gives both the efficient and final causes of government.[10] Commenting on v. 3, he notes that the finis or “end” of government is “(the) good” (bonum), that is, justice, supporting his position with texts such as 1 Timothy 2:1-2 and Psalm 82:6. [11]

David Pareus, another German Reformed theologian, notes four kinds of possible good: natural (e.g. the defense of life), moral (e.g. using the law to discourage vice and encourage virtue), civil (e.g. the preservation of property), and spiritual (e.g. the protection and defense of the church). According to Pareus, the magistrate’s duty extends to all four—a point to which we shall return below.[12]

Peter Martyr Vermigli, too, talks of the design of government in his own commentary on Romans, adding that he believes that, for the most part, magistrates actually do what is good:

But while we live here still in the world, and have our interactions here among evil men, the magistrate is both necessary, and we ought utterly to obey him in those things that are not repugnant to piety…But they complain that those who are magistrates are corrupt, cruel, and violent men: and that their whole task is to see to it that every man should have either nothing at all, or else very little. But these men ought to consider, that Paul here is treating the thing itself, and not its abuse, and speaks of what happens for the most part, and not of what happens seldom seldom. With respect to the first, what comes as an abuse of the thing may not to be imputed as a fault to it. It is as if a wicked man should perversely abuse the mind, or the eyes, or the ears, or the rest of the powers of the soul: it should not be concluded from that, that the purpose of all these things is not most excellent, unless perhaps we will say that God is the author of evil things. And with respect to power, it may be abused as well by those who exercise it as by those who ought to obey it.[13]

Vermigli echoes in some respects what Johannes Oecolampadius had said before.[14] The fact that power can be abused is evidence that it is not arbitrary and bears a relation to a higher law. Precisely because power has its source in God and the good as its goal, it is subject to God’s law.

John Calvin provides yet more evidence for the ubiquity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of the view that God is the source of government and the good is its end. In his remarks on 13:3, Calvin distinguishes between the design of government and what is often its reality: “But [Paul] speaks here of the true, and, as it were, of the native duty of the magistrate, from which however they who hold power often degenerate; yet the obedience due to princes ought to be rendered to them.”[15] He goes on in his comments on v. 4 to note the responsibilities the magistrate bears before God as God’s deputy. As God’s representative, he will owe God an account:

Magistrates…are deputed by God and do his business, they must give an account to him: and then the ministration which God has committed to them has a regard to the subjects, they are therefore debtors also to them.[16]  

International Monument to the Reformation

One could continue to amass evidence in the vein of what has been produced so far.[17] It is beyond dispute that what has been sketched above represents the mainstream Protestant tradition on the origins and purpose of government.

But this brings us to a problem.[18] If the magistrate is the minister of God ordered to an end, and that end is equivalent to what is objectively good, what is the standard of that good? One might suggest that it is the law of nature. But the law of nature is equivalent to what theologians have long called the moral law, and the moral law is “summarily comprehended” (in the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism) in the Decalogue. But the Decalogue includes commandments about our relation to God as well as to our neighbor. The implications of this view are immense: if the magistrate is the “guardian of the law,”[19] and if the laws should be framed according to the moral law, and if the moral law is comprehended in the Decalogue, and if the Decalogue includes laws pertaining to religion, then the magistrate has public duties in the realm of religion.

“If the moral law is comprehended in the Decalogue, and if the Decalogue includes laws pertaining to religion, then the magistrate has public duties in the realm of religion.”

This was precisely the conclusion regularly drawn in the pre-1787 Protestant political tradition: the magistrate’s duties extended as far as the Decalogue did. The logic is clear: justice demands honor to whom honor is due; honor is due to God; therefore, sundering the Decalogue in half and attending only to the Second Table is not only arbitrary, but an active violation of the principle of justice.

According to the Protestant political tradition, the magistrate is more than a swineherd responsible only for filling his subjects’ bellies—he is to attend to their non-appetitive good as well. Richard Hooker, for example, thought it a “gross error” to believe that “God had ordained kings for no other end and purpose but only to fat up men like hogs.”[20] In saying this, he asserts nothing different from what Vermigli argued against his Roman Catholic opponents:

They pretend that there are two lights in the church; and that the pope with his bishops is the greater light, but the emperor, kings, and magistrates are the lesser light, and that it is right for the latter to care for (that is, to ruin) bodies, but the former to care for souls. Thus they want princes to be only herding shepherds, in order to fatten up bodies.[21]

Having supported his stance against Roman Catholic politics from the Bible, Vermigli goes on to support it from Aristotle as well: “For Aristotle says in the Politics that it is the duty of the magistrate to take care that the people live well and in accordance with virtue. But there is no greater virtue than religion.”

In harmony with Hooker and Vermigli, David Pareus argues that magistrates “bear the character of God as his envoys in judgment.”[22] Thus, they ought to protect and defend the church. In fact, “the magistrate ought to devote himself to this good as the first and highest good.” Taking Deuteronomy 17 as his text, he argues that “the care and guardianship of the true religion absolutely pertains to the duty of the magistrate.” He then goes on to distinguish the magistrate’s work in the religious sphere from that of pastors, who make use “not of laws nor of armed force, as magistrates do, but of the preaching of the Word of God, the administration of the divine sacraments, and the management of ecclesiastical discipline.” Nevertheless, their roles “come together in a shared goal (finis), because both ought to care for the salvation of their subjects.”[23]

Once again, examples from the tradition could be multiplied with little effort. Further, if these divines are right about how things stand between God and the magistrate, it is obviously absurd to think that the signing of a document in a colonial backwater in the late eighteenth century changes the state of play. From a Protestant perspective, the important and interesting question would become whether the framework for which men like Calvin, Vermigli, and Pareus argue is viable within the American constitutional order.

Yet there may still be grounds for pause. For what if the American constitutional order is also attempting to preserve a truth that is a matter of both natural and special revelation, that is, the truth that faith cannot be coerced? This is a principle that Christians tend, for self-evident reasons, to recall in contexts of persecution. Thus, in the early fourth century, in the wake of an era of severe persecution of Christians that was finally put to an end by Constantine, the Christian rhetor Lactantius enunciated the principle of non-coercion: “[R]eligion cannot be imposed by force; the matter must be carried on by words rather than by blows, that the will may be affected.”[24] In saying this, Lactantius was only echoing Tertullian:

[I]t is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion–to which free-will and not force should lead us…..[25]

It is understandable that the early Americans wished to preserve this principle, for it provided the justification for the arrival of many colonists–including some of my own ancestors–to emigrate in the first place.

How, then, can one hold such truths together? How can one maintain what is good in the “liberal”[26] order while also acknowledging truths seen better by our forebears?

The first thing to point out is that Protestants, going back to the sixteenth century, did not believe that faith could be coerced by punitive earthly sanction, owing to their doctrine of the Two Kingdoms and the distinction between what Calvin calls the “earthly forum and the forum of conscience.”[27] Neither princes nor popes may tyrannize over the conscience of man. Particular human decrees that touch on things not directly commanded by God do not touch the conscience. Contrast this with the traditional Roman Catholic teaching, namely, that the pope can make “obligatory laws” with “the intention of binding the faithful immediately and directly.”[28] So, for instance, Thomas Pink has recently argued that, even if the state could not coerce religion, the church most certainly could: “[A]ccording to traditional doctrine, the Church has the right and authority to enforce [its] jurisdiction coercively, with temporal or earthly penalties as well as spiritual ones.”[29] In light of Roman Catholic teaching, consider the position of Philip Melanchthon, who, while endorsing the magistrate’s duty to defend the church, limits this duty to “externals,”  denying the institutional church the right to use physical force because the church is the realm of the gospel and therefore of the Spirit.

[The magistrate] is the guardian of the law as far as external discipline is concerned, in order to preserve the distinction between the ministry of the gospel and the magistrate. The ministry of the gospel publicly proclaims the gospel, through which the Holy Spirit is efficacious in those who believe…Meanwhile, nevertheless, the magistrate has his own external duty; in order that scandals might not be put on public display, he prohibits external idolatry, just as he prohibits adultery or murder….[B]y external discipline the magistrate puts a restraint on shameful acts that conflict with the first and second table [of the Decalogue].[30]

Clearly, the United States of America’s constitutional order differs from Melanchthon’s. But, crucially, Melanchthon’s basic position includes positive endorsement for religion as a public good, and not only negative sanction against public blasphemy and idolatry. The question is whether the magistrate’s divine duty can be fulfilled by (1) attending only to the positive side of the ledger, including state support for the churches, or at least by (2) giving more emphasis to the positive side and keeping sanctions against blasphemy to a relative minimum while protecting conscience as inviolable. Many readers might suspect that the settled opinion of the American Founders tilted toward (1). It may come as a surprise that some early Americans favored (2).

United States Constitution

“What if the American constitutional order is also attempting to preserve a truth that is a matter of both natural and special revelation, that is, the truth that faith cannot be coerced?”

Consider the case of the Westminster Confession of Faith. It is well known that the Confession was revised in 1788 to adapt it to American principles of civil and religious liberty. Despite that fact, it is remarkable what the Confession affirms. For example, the revised version the Confession reads as follows in 23.2, “Of the Civil Magistrate”:

It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto: in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth; so, for that end, they may lawfully, now under the new testament, wage war, upon just and necessary occasion.

This section was kept unchanged from the original version of the Confession. This indicates that the revisers thought that this aspect of the Melanchthonian heritage was not in tension with American principles.

WCF 23.3, it is true, was heavily amended in order to eliminate the teaching that the magistrate should suppress blasphemy and heresy, should assist in the reform of worship, and has the right to call synods when necessary and to see that their decisions are carried out. But the revision not only eliminates; it also supplements. That is, it adds that “as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord,” albeit “without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest.” Clearly, the authors envision a kind of soft establishment, or a broadly Christian commonwealth without denominational preference and without harm done to anyone “either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity.”

The Presbyterian clergyman John Witherspoon, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, a teacher of James Madison, and one of the architects of the revised Confession, says more. In Lecture 14, “Of Jurisprudence,” in his Lectures on Moral Philosophy, Witherspoon gives his view on the controverted question of church and state.

He begins with a general and traditional constitutional principle that enunciates the duty of civil law to make men virtuous: “[A] constitution is excellent when the spirit of the civil laws is such as to have a tendency to prevent offences and make men good, as much as to punish them when they do evil.”[31]

John Witherspoon

Witherspoon then anticipates the following objection: “[W]hat can be done by law to make the people of any state virtuous?” He answers that “[i]f…virtue and piety are inseparably connected, then to promote true religion is the best and most effectual way of making a virtuous and regular people. Love to God, and love to man, is the substance of religion; when these prevail, civil laws will have little to do.”[32] But how can this be done given religious liberty? After all, Witherspoon says that he himself has “given it as one of the perfect rights in natural liberty…that every one should judge for himself in matters of religion.”[33] He enumerates three things that the magistrate nevertheless ought to do.

First, he “ought to encourage piety by his own example, and by endeavoring to make it an object of public esteem.”[34] Second, he “ought to defend the rights of conscience, and tolerate all in their religious sentiments that are not injurious to their neighbors.”[35] Indeed, he believes that in his own context, “one of the most important duties of the magistracy is to protect the rights of conscience.”[36] This affirmation preserves the emphasis of Lactantius and Tertullian.

Third, however, he says this: “The magistrate may enact laws for the punishment of acts of profanity and impiety. The different sentiments of men in religion, ought not by any means to encourage or give a sanction to such acts as any of them count profane.”[37] Here we see the long, if modified, shadow of Melanchthon, Pareus, and others.

Finally, Witherspoon makes a suggestion that echoes what is found in the revised Confession:

Many are of opinion that besides all this, the magistrate ought to make public provision for the worship of God, in such manner as is agreeable to the great body of the society; though at the same time all who dissent from it, are fully tolerated. And indeed there seems to be a good deal of reason for it, that so instruction may be provided for the bulk of common people, who would, many of them, neither support nor employ teachers, unless they were obliged. The magistrate’s right, in this case, seems to be something like that of a parent; they have a right to instruct, but not to constrain.[38]

From his perspective, in other words, there is nothing out of accord with the American system in the magistrate’s advocating for public acknowledgment of and support for the Christian faith.[39]

“If…virtue and piety are inseparably connected, then to promote true religion is the best and most effectual way of making a virtuous and regular people. Love to God, and love to man, is the substance of religion; when these prevail, civil laws will have little to do. ”

John Witherspoon

Many present-day Protestants would disagree with Witherspoon, some because he goes too far and others because he does not go far enough. My interest at present is not in adjudicating any such dispute. My point is simply to demonstrate that there are alternatives to a fatuous and fictitious value-neutral “liberal proceduralism” even from within a “liberal” framework—one that can trace its emphases to the heritage of both the Protestant Reformation and patristic theology. In other words, one need not pick either secularism plus religious liberty or the Christian political tradition plus religious coercion. There are resources within that very same tradition, on the basis of complementary principles (the moral law as a standard of public justice and the non-coercion of faith; or, in other words, one iteration of the law/gospel distinction), to aid in the formulation of a coherent Christian political philosophy that not only takes freedom seriously, but takes the moral end of government, as the Apostle Paul sets it out in Romans 13, seriously as well.


[1] Also important for this topic, though not treated in this essay, are such texts as Matthew 22:21; John 18:36; Acts 5:29; and 1 Peter 2:13-17.

[2] A different version of parts of this essay previously appeared at The Calvinist International in 2014: https://calvinistinternational.com/2014/06/24/the-final-cause-of-civil-government-in-romans-133-4/.

[3] Plato, Republic 1.338c, 338e-339a, tr. C.D.C. Reeve in A Plato Reader: Eight Essential Dialogues (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2012), 283.

[4] The Aristotelian tradition distinguishes between four types of causality: material, formal, efficient, and final. Cf. Aristotle, Metaphysics 5.1013a; Andrea Falcon, “Aristotle on Causality,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-causality/.

[5] Cited in Divine Kingdom, Holy Order: The Political Writings of Martin Luther, ed. Jarrett A. Carty (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2012), 91. The words quoted are Luther’s summary of Melanchthon’s position.

[6] Divine Kingdom, Holy Order, 93-4.

[7] Carty, Divine Kingdom, 347.

[8] Carty, Divine Kingdom, 424.

[9] Philip Melanchthon, Commentarii in epistolam Pauli ad Romanos (1840), ed. Th. Nickel (Leipzig: Teubner, 1861), 216.The translations are my own.

[10] Thedore Beza, ed., In epistolam D. Pauli Apostoli ad Romanos notae ex Gasparis Oleviani concionibus excerptae et…editae (Geneva: Eustathius Vignon, 1579), 665-6. 

[11] Beza (Olevian), Ad Romanos, 669.

[12]  David Pareus, In divinam ad Romanos S. Pauli Apostoli epistolam commentarius (Frankfurt am Main: Jonas Rhodius, 1608), 1302. The translation is my own.

[13] I have modernized the 1568 translation of this passage by John Daye found in Robert M. Kingdon, ed., The Political Thought of Peter Martyr Vermigli (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1980), 10.

[14] See Johannes Oecolampadius, In epistolam Beati Pauli Apostoli ad Rhomanos adnotationes (Basil: Andreas Cratander, 1525), 96-7.

[15] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, trans. and ed. John Owen (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1849), 480.

[16] Calvin, Romans, 481.

[17] For example, the teleological view would be repeated again by Charles Hodge several centuries later. Commenting on Rom. 13.3, he writes that “Paul is speaking of the legitimate design of government, not the abuse of power by wicked men.” See Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Philadelphia: Alfred Martien, 1873), 641-2.

[18] A “problem,” at least, from the secularist point of view.

[19] The title is traditional. Cf. Niels Hemmingsen, On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method, trans. E.J. Hutchinson (Grand Rapids: CLP Academic, 2018), 4; Philip Melanchthon, Philosophiae moralis epitome (1546) 2.96, ed. Richard Nürnberger, in Melanchthons Werke. III. Band: Humanistische Schriften, 2nd ed. (Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1969), 233.The alternative is that the magistrate is exlex, or above the law.

[20] Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 8.3.2.

[21] Peter Martyr Vermigli, Regi, principi, magistratui, num liceat de religione statueret, appended to the Loci communes (Geneva: Pierre Aubert, 1624), 723. The translation is my own.

[22] Dei personam tanquam eius legati in iudiciis sustinent.

[23] Pareus, Ad Romanos, 1302-5.

[24] Lactantius, Divine Institutes 5.20, trans. William Fletcher: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/07015.htm.

[25] Tertullian, To Scapula 3, trans. S. Thelwall: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0305.htm. See also Apology 28. On these and related passages, cf. Jed Atkins, Roman Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 136-165; Robert Louis Wilken, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019).

[26] The term is in quotation marks because it is now regularly used as either a slur by the traditionalist Christian right or as a shibboleth by the progressive Christian left and Americanist Christian center. I mean by it neither of these things, which do not pertain to meaning but instead function as identitarian markers. I mean it in its etymological sense, i.e. that ordered liberty, including liberty of conscience, is a good in keeping with natural reason and divine revelation and ought to be preserved as such.

[27] See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.10.5, trans. Henry Beveridge: https://ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes/institutes.vi.xi.html#fna_vi.xi-p41.1.

[28] William Fanning, “Papal Constitutions,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 4 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908): http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04321a.htm.

[29] Thomas Pink, “Conscience and Coercion,” in First Things (August 2012):https://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/08/conscience-and-coercion. Because of these distinctions, it is absurd for George Weigel to insinuate, as he recently has, that totalitarianism is in large part a product of “political modernity” and to claim that “the Westphalian formula, cuius regio eius religio…can and should be considered the modern West’s first experiment in the totalitarian coercion of conscience by state power,” whereas “Dignitatis Humanae…was a retrieval and development of the Church’s own tradition.” See George Weigel, “The Catholic Journey to Religious Freedom,” National Review (December 20, 2017): https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/12/george-weigel-religious-freedom-institute-speech/. Simone Weil (in “The Romanesque Renaissance,” trans. Richard Rees, in Selected Essays, 1934-1943: Historical, Political, and Moral Writings [New York: Oxford University Press, 1962], 44-54) was much more discerning in tracing the roots of “totalitarian spirituality” (48) to the premodern period, namely, to the Gothic Middle Ages.

[30] Philip Melanchthon, Philosophiae moralis epitome 2.96. The translation is my own.

[31] John Witherspoon, Lectures on Moral Philosophy, ed. Varnum Lansing Collins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1912), 110.

[32] Witherspoon, Lectures, 110.

[33] Witherspoon, Lectures, 111.

[34] Witherspoon, Lectures, 111.

[35] Witherspoon, Lectures, 111.

[36] Witherspoon, Lectures, 112.

[37] Witherspoon, Lectures, 112-13.

[38] Witherspoon, Lectures, 113; punctuation modified.

[39] Similarly, the Princeton theologian A.A. Hodge referred to civil government as God’s “instrument in promoting the great ends of redemption in the upbuilding of his kingdom in the world.” A.A. Hodge, A Commentary on the Confession of Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, 1901), 399.


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