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Category: Brandon Adams

Is vigilantism forbidden in the Word of God?

After my post yesterday on Rothbard’s agreement with Scripture’s teaching on “private” vengeance, I read A Romans 13 Exposition on Church and State for Such a Time as This by Michael A. Milton, Ph.D. (President and Professor of Practical Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina). The exposition represents the typical gloss of the passage. One statement in particular jumped out, in light the above.

In Genesis, Noah receives a directive from God (Genesis 9.3-6), and this of course pre-dates the Mosaic Law:

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image (Gen 9.6).

Now of course this is interpreted with other Scriptures. When we take this into account with the principles of Leviticus and with this teaching in Romans 13; one sees the justification for the use of the sword against evil-doers who plot and commit murder, which is murder in the first degree. But vigilantism is forbidden in the Word of God. For a single man does not have the moral authority from God to carry the mantle of civil government, with its various laws, punishments and penalties. This is the role alone of human government, with its derived authority and its derived power.

Really? Scripture actually teaches precisely the opposite: a single man does have the moral authority from God to carry the mantle of civil government, with its various laws, punishments and penalties. That is precisely what the avenger of blood is: a single man executing punishment according to Genesis 9:5-6. Time to go back to the drawing board in interpreting Romans 13. Milton is correct that Romans 13 refers to the authority established in Genesis 9, but he is incorrect to think this authority is not equally given by God to all image bearers, but rather to a special class of humanity. The authority of Romans 13 is the authority given to all image bearers to execute justice. Precisely because this authority is given to all image bearers is why a pagan emperor can legitimately exercise it, even over Christians.

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Rothbard on the Death Penalty

In 1978, Rothbard wrote a brief piece in the Libertarian Review titled The Plumb Line: The Capital Punishment Question. “Libertarians can no longer afford to wait to come to grips with capital punishment. It has become too pressing a problem.” He concluded that it is just. His perspective is quite interesting in that he

  1. References mankind’s instinct
  2. Argues from proportionate retributive justice as the definition of justice (what one is due) and rights
  3. Argues for private administration of retributive justice by the victim’s legal representative

I believe that the instincts of the public are correct on this issue: namely, that the punishment should fit the crime; i.e., that punishment should be proportional to the crime involved. The theoretical justification for this is that an aggressor loses his rights to the extent that he has violated the rights of another human being. If A steals $10,000 from B, he should be forced, not only to return the $10,000 (the “restitutionist” position, with which most libertarians would agree), but he also loses his rights to his own $10,000; that is, he should be forced to pay the victim $10,000 for his aggression…

It is relatively easy to allot monetary penalties in the case of theft. But what about such a crime as murder? Here, in my view, the murderer loses precisely the right of which he has deprived another human being: the right to have one’s life preserved from the violence of another person. The murderer therefore deserves to be killed in return. Or, to put it more precisely, the victim — in this case his surrogate, in the form of his heir or the executor of his estate should have the right to kill the murderer in return…

But in any case, note that I did not couch my argument in utilitarian terms of deterrence of future crime; my argument was based on basic rights and the requirements of justice. The libertarian takes his stand for individual rights not merely on the basis of social consequences, but more emphatically on the justice that is due to every individual.

This is interesting because of how closely it aligns with Scripture (particularly the Old Testament).

  1. All image bearers have an innate sense of justice (Rom 1:32)
  2. Justice is defined as lex talionis (proportionate retributive; Ex. 21:22-25)
  3. The next of kin had the authority and duty to administer justice (Num 35:9-34)

Rothbard’s comments stand in stark contrast to many of the arguments heard from libertarians who oppose the death penalty. It is not unlikely that Rothbard’s firm commitment to this stance is related to his exposure to the Old Testament. Note not only his foundation of retributive justice, but also his understanding of restorative justice (___). I think it would be a mistake to assume that special revelation played no role in the development of his thought. This short essay stems from a longer 1977 essay “Punishment and Proportionality,” in Assessing the Criminal: Restitution, Retribution, and the Legal Process.

One aspect where Rothbard could be very slightly sharpened by Scripture, however, is his articulation of the interplay between the individual victim and society in the case of murder.

So far we have gone all the way with the proponents of the death penalty, ranging ourselves with the instincts of the general public and against the sophistries of the liberal intellectual elite. But there is an important difference. For I have been stressing throughout the right of the victim, not that of “society” or the state. In all cases, it should be the victim — not “society” or “its” district attorney — who should bring charges and decide on whether or not to exact punishment. “Society” has no right and therefore no say in the matter. The state now monopolizes the provision of defense, judicial, and punishment service. So long as it continues to do so, it should act as nothing more and nothing less than an agent for guarding and enforcing the rights of each person — in this case, of the victim.

If, then, a crime is committed, it should be up to the victim to press charges or to decide whether the restitution or punishment due him should be exacted by the state. The victim should be able to order the state not to press charges or not to punish the victim to the full extent that he has the right to do so.

While I think he is right that the murder victim’s legal representative has the primary duty and authority to administer justice, he does not have the exclusive authority. Genesis 9:5-6 was a command given to all mankind. We all have a responsibility to see that justice is done and the murderer is put to death. In the case that there is no legal heir or the legal heir is negligent, the community is obligated to act. In Mosaic law governing the execution of murderers, both the individual and the community play an important role. Neither has exclusive (monopolistic) authority. (Also, Mosaic law forbids levying a fine instead of execution in the case of murder).

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The Avenger of Blood in Modern Albania

In The Avenger of Blood I showed how Mosaic law (reflecting Genesis 9:5-6) authorized the next of kin of a murder victim to administer retributive justice – something not reserved for a special class called “rulers”. I noted that this was the common/default practice in ancient cultures. But the practice did not die out there. In fact, it has never died out. The pervasiveness of the role of the next of kin as an avenger of blood in cultures down through history is fascinating. It is found in ancient, medieval, and modern cultures everywhere that central power is weak. It’s almost as if the duty to enforce justice is an innate part of being an image bearer 🙂 (Gen 9:5-6, 4:14; Rom 1:32; Num 35:19).

It became commonplace throughout Europe in the Middle Ages following the collapse of the Roman Empire. In Albania “The norms were passed on from generation to generation by an oral tradition and were decreed by the council of elders. It is considered that the Code was rationalised by despot Lek III Dukagjin (1410 – 1481). This code was compiled throughout the centuries chiefly by adding new norms. It was studied by folklorist Shtjefën Gjecov and was published as late as 1933.” [1]  Following the collapse of communism in Albania, the customary law has been revived, largely due to the corruption and injustice of the standing government. “Blood feuds are not unique to Albania. They can be found in other isolated societies of the Mediterranean (such as Corsica) or in the Northern Caucuses. Carver tells us that this Albanian code most closely resembles the pukhtoonwali of Northwestern India.” [3]

There are several parallels between the Kanun and the relevant portions of Mosaic law (see Avenger post).

  • The next of kin is authorized to administer justice
  • Justice must be according to lex talionis (eye for an eye)
  • The manslayer (accidental killing) is innocent and is not to be killed
  • Only the murderer may be killed (not a member of his family)
  • There are sanctuaries (City of refuge vs asylum in a home)
  • Elders may become involved as a third party (originally to investigate/have a trial, now mostly to seek reconciliation) [3]

However, the text of the Kanuni is often contested and with many different interpretations which significantly evolved since 15th century. [2] At about 8:00 in the Aljazeera video an elder, acting as a mediator between two families, explains “The Kanun’s rules have been muddled with myths. You can’t trust anyone. Before, the Kanun was followed to the rule but as time changed so did its interpretation.” At around 2:00 the Journeyman Pictures video explains “The truth is that Kanun has accurate, concise, clear rules. An important rule is ‘the blood goes by the hand of the killer.’ It means only the killer could be killed. That’s how it was, so no other family member could be in danger. Later, the rule was changed and clarify that blood can be taken on family members.”

At first only other adult males in the family could be killed, instead of the killer. Then that was extended to include males of any age. More recently that has changed to include females as well (see the Aljazeera video). “The application of the ancient Kanun has been ousted by a distorted use of a modern Kanun in favour of personal revenge and settling old gangster scores. The range of vengeance killings now covers all members of Albanian society, including women and even children.” [1] The result has been disastrous. Entire families cannot leave their homes – not even to work – for fear of being killed.

Currently, we can notice a distinction between classic and modern vendetta respectively before and after the communist regime. The classic vendettas occur especially in the northern Albania and they follow the procedures of the Kanun more closely including the involvement of the elders of the village and the application of the period of liberty and security that the victim’s family grants to the murderer and his family. The modern type of vendetta reappeared after the end of the communist regime. The appearance of this new phenomenon can be
qualified as pseudo-traditionalism accomplishing a function that we can nominate semantic, since it permits to give a sense to the new political shapes. In this case, the manipulated tradition becomes the instrument to give a sense to new realities or to claim justice. The Kanun and its norms are not recognized anymore. Its application has been ousted by a distorted use of the Kanun in favour of personal revenge. The data-gathering shows how the Kanun applied in the nineties was illegitimate. [3]

Conciliators have emerged to try to help resolve modern problems resulting from this broken system. “What persons can become conciliators? D. Ch. recounted that in Krujë there was a special group consisting of men of senior age, well-familiar with the Kanun. The group’s members
should include influential figures – for example, members of Parliament, ministers, etc. Negotiators are elected among the inhabitants of the region once in 5 years. In the course of reconciliation, an agreement is signed between the two feuding sides, as well as by the warrant group, affirming that no one would break the arrangement.” [1] However, anyone may act as a mediator in individual cases.

At 20:45 in the “Prisoners of Kanun” video, a man involved in a blood feud since his grandfather was killed in the 1920’s says “If justice was applied correctly, both would work – the Kanun and government laws.”


This 2001 video from ABC Australia provides a helpful overview of the post-communist situation (16min).

This 2015 video from Journeyman Pictures provides a helpful synopsis of the role of Kanun and the current situation with blood feuds (7min).

Here is a longer, much more observational study of the people involved blood feuds (30min – same producer/footage as above, but more detailed).

Here is a 2017 Aljazeera piece (25min).

Here is a 2015 doc from VICE on the blood feuds (35min).

Finally, a 2012 Sundance Select feature film Forgiveness in the Blood tells the story of a blood feud in Albania.

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Red Sea Crossing as an American Seal

Daniel Dreisbach posted an image on twitter of a Seal of the United States proposed by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

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In the Jefferson Manuscripts in the Library of Congress are two notes of suggestion on the Great Seal. One in the writing of Franklin, and the other in that of Jefferson.

Franklin’s note reads: “Moses [in the Dress of High Priest] standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharoah who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, [expressing] to express that he acts by [the] Command of the Deity. “Motto, Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”

The note of Jefferson reads: “Pharoah sitting in an open chariot, a crown on his head and a sword in his hand passing thro’ the divided waters of the Red sea in pursuit of the Israelites: rays from a pillar of fire in the cloud, expressive of the divine presence, [reach] and command, reaching to Moses who stands on the shore and, extending his hand over the sea, causes it to over whelm Pharoah. “Motto. Rebellion to tyrants is obedce to god.” Words in brackets were stricken out by the pen. Jefferson merely noted a version of the Franklin suggestion. In the Writings of Jefferson (Ford), I, 420 is what purports to be a scheme of arms made in 1774, but the date assigned to it is doubtful.

In a letter from John Adams to his wife, written August 14, 1776, he said: “Doctor F. proposes a device for a seal. Moses lifting up his wand, and dividing the red sea, and Pharoah in his chariot over whelmed with the waters. This motto. ‘Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.’ “Mr. Jefferson proposed, The children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night–and on the other side, Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs, from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.

I don’t necessarily agree with the motto, without further nuance (see the paragraph here). However, the suggested seal (or one part of the suggested seal – which was intended to be more than just this) demonstrates the common understanding that the American Revolution stood on biblical grounds.

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George R. Knight on Romans 13

In “Exploring Romans: A Devotional Commentary,” George R. Knight mentions that Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-14 were Hitler’s favorite passages. “One of those two texts had to be preached every year in every church in the Third Reich.”

Knight clarifies that Paul’s comments only apply to “rulers [who] are not a terror to good behavior, but to evil.” “That ‘good,’ of course, must fit God’s perspective rather than that of Nebuchadnezzar, Caesar, Hitler, Stalin, or some modern ruler.”

Thus Paul in Romans 13 is not seeking to cover every situation involving every government. Rather than speaking to every possibility, he presents the case in which a legitimate authority makes an appropriate demand on its citizens. In healthy times the apostle is correct. The government rewards people for doing right and punishes those who do wrong (verse 3, 4). Thus the Christian to whom Paul is writing should obey the government in its legitimate demands. He is firm that every Christian has a definite responsibility to the government under which he or she lives. Obedience to the state for a Christian is not an option. As T. W. Manson puts it, “resistance to legitimate authority legitimately exercised is wrong” (in Morris, Romans, p. 462).

Does Paul elaborate on precisely what that legitimate authority is? No. We get that from reading all of Scripture. A rulers’ legitimate authority is to wield the sword in defense and in the execution of vengeance according to lex talionis, period. Romans 13 does not require us to obey any demand beyond that narrow scope. But within that narrow scope, a ruler (even if a pagan who claimed to be god) is a servant of God and must be obeyed (which is Paul’s point).

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Riddlebarger on the Old Covenant Context of Romans 13

I am quite convinced that understanding the difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant is foundational to properly exegeting Romans 13:1-7. I call this the “legitimacy interpretation.” I believe Paul is applying Jesus’ words in John 18:36 to the situation in Rome. I touched on this a bit in a previous post and I will do so more in the future. Here are some worthwhile comments from Kim Riddlebarger.

Another reason debate arises about this section of Romans is due to the Old Testament background as to how the people of Israel were to relate to the pagan kings around them. Jews viewed all Gentile nations in light of Israel’s divinely appointed mission–Israel was God’s chosen nation and the object of God’s care and affection…

as God’s chosen covenant community, the nation of Israel was not to submit to any pagan king. In Deuteronomy 17:15, we read “be sure to appoint over you the king the LORD your God chooses. He must be from among your own brothers. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not a brother Israelite.” Israel’s king must be a Jew. Thus it would be very difficult for Jewish converts to Christianity to adopt a Christian view of state…

As the covenant community, Israel was not to take for itself a Gentile king (much like its people were forbidden from inter-marrying with Gentiles), even though pagan kings were raised up by God according to his providential purposes. Jews could not but help think of their history and the Egyptian Pharaoh, from whose hand God had rescued Israel. It is because of Israel’s unfaithfulness that the nation came under the covenant sanctions, was conquered by the Babylonians and hauled off into captivity, and forced to submit to a Gentile king…

At the time Paul writes his letter to the church in Rome in the mid-fifties of the first century, the Roman empire was largely indifferent to Christianity. Throughout the Book of Acts, we read that Paul, a Roman citizen, is able to appeal to Roman authorities to protect him from those Jews who threatened to kill him. But there is also some indication that things were beginning to change. In Acts 18:2, we read that Paul “met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome.” This is a reference to the famous “edict of Claudius” which was promulgated in AD 50. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, rioting broke out in Rome among the Jews, instigated by a certain “Chrestus.” Most scholars believe this to be a reference to Christian preaching about Jesus Christ in the synagogues. This produced a violent reaction from the Jews, which, in turn, lead to rioting. To keep the peace, emperor Claudius ordered all Jews expelled from the city of Rome. But his edict was eased when the rioting ceased and there were many Jews and Christians back in Rome soon thereafter. The Jews in the Roman church would have likely considered Rome to be an evil Gentile nation and if, whenever the emperor felt like it, a persecutor of the Jewish people. Jews would have been very leery of being told to submit to such a government…

Now, as for the reason as to why Paul addresses this subject in the way in which he does in Romans, the issue is primarily a pastoral one. There are Jews in this church who have converted to Christianity. How can they now be expected to submit to a Gentile king? And a pagan king whom they feared and who has already ordered them out of the city. Gentile Christians faced an entirely different situation. If Rome viewed Christianity as a branch of Judaism, Christians would be offered the same toleration the Roman government gave to Jews. But if Christianity was regarded as a different religion entirely, then what legal protections would Christians now have? And how should Christians view a state which did not grant them official standing? This means that the issue here is not theoretical–“what is the ideal state?”–but practical, “how should Christians in Rome view this pagan empire?”…

We must also keep in mind the specific situation Paul is addressing with this congregation. Paul is not dealing with the question of what a Christian should do if/when the state (or its ruler) becomes a tyrant. The apostle is not writing a systematic treatise on civil government. Rather, Paul is affirming to Jewish and Gentile believers in the city of Rome that the Roman state is a servant of God [insofar as it legitimately exercises its legitimate authority]…

In context, then, Paul is telling Jewish and Gentile Christians in the Roman church that the Roman government is a legitimate civil authority [under the New Covenant – unlike under the Old Covenant], because such authority come from God. Christians should, therefore, submit to the government. But the question about what to do if and when the Roman government exceeds this God-given authority is not addressed here…

In verse 2, Paul goes on to say that there is no basis upon which to rebel against legitimate civil authority… Again, the question as to whether and when the state forfeits such authority is not answered here. As one writer puts it, what Paul does say is “resistance to legitimate authority legitimately exercised is wrong.”

Thus Rome has legitimately authority over Christians (insofar as it exercises a very narrow task), unlike pagan kings ruling over Israel.

Riddlebarger has other good things to say, but his treatment suffers one significant flaw. He believes “established by God” refers to God’s providence. I believe he is wrong and contradicts himself. If our submission stems from providence, then it is not limited. God establishes tyrants, just as he did against Israel in the Old Covenant. But Riddlebarger rightly notes that we are not required to submit to them. Thus, the simple fact that a ruler rules, according to God’s providence, is no reason that we must submit to them. Israel was not required to submit to foreign rulers who exercised dominion over Israelites at various times. Rather, God blessed their rebellion against foreign rulers to the extent that they obeyed Mosaic law (2 Kings 18:7, etc).

“Established” here, in my opinion, refers to the authority of sword given to all image bearers to defend and exercise vengeance according to lex talionis, as articulated in Genesis 9:6. Anyone who exercises that God-given authority, whether pagan or Christian, is exercising God-given authority and must be submitted to.

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Ecclesiastes 8:2

I heard a sermon yesterday on Ecclesiastes 8:1-9. Verse 2 says

I say, “Keep the command of the king because of the oath before God. (NASB)

The sermon observed that this passage was about seeing wisdom in the world and that one primary effect of having wisdom is submission to authority.

If you go to the New Testament, to Romans 13, the authorities that exist are appointed by… man? No, they’re appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God and those who resist bring judgment on themselves… Honor the king. The kings back in the New Testament, they were dirt bags. I don’t know how else to put it. They were killing Christians. They had no ethics whatsoever… Remember, those authorities placed over us are for our good… Wisdom respects authorities. It’s also a test of faith. Do you have faith or not?

The verse is not immediately clear. What is the “oath” referring to? Translations vary quite a bit. The ESV says “I say: Keep the king’s command, because of God’s oath to him.” This translation would seem to fit with the above exhortation and with the view of most Christians today. But the NASB seems to refer not to God’s oath to the ruler, but to some kind of oath of man before God. The sermon recognized this, but wasn’t entirely clear about its meaning.

What makes this verse so serious in regards to keeping the king’s commandment is that he says for the sake of your oath to God. He brings God into the mixture. If we were simply to obey those in authority over us because we were afraid we were to be guillotined, or electrocuted, well, that’s restraint, that’s good, but if there’s resentment in the heart, if there’s hatred towards those leaders that are over us, that could be a dangerous thing.

Now, granted, during the time that this sermon was preached, it was a theocracy. God was on the throne, so to speak. God spoke to the king. Kings were inspired at times and we had the Word of God given through kings. Hopefully they were not corrupt. A lot of them were. But it was a theocracy so the Jews there had a commitment to God. They made an oath to serve the king and therefore they were serving God. So Solomon is saying, “Just remember, you are to obey me, but not for the sake of me, but because of the fact that you made an oath. You made an oath that you would obey the king and therefore you would obey God.

Now, those of us that are born again – those of us that are Christians – we desire not to go the way of the broad path. We desire not to go the way that everyone else is going. Everyone else loves to slam the president… We are Christians now, we joined ourselves to the church. We joined ourselves to saints. And if you join this church, we make an oath, a vow to live a life worthy of a follower of Christ. It means we’re not going to be insurrectionists. We’re not going to be rebelling against the authorities…

Obey the king for the right reason, is what Solomon is saying here. It is because of your oath to God.

So the “oath” in question is interpreted as an oath to obey God. In the Old Covenant, this oath to obey God meant an oath to obey the king because the king spoke for God and it refers to a specific oath the Israelites took. In the New Covenant, this oath refers to the commitment of every Christian to obey God. Our obedience to God means we obey the commands of the president.

Again, this is a difficult verse, so I don’t mean to single out this sermon. I comment only to try to bring out some clarity. The above explanation does not seem to be consistent or clear. If the Israelite’s duty to obey the king was because the king was a prophet, then how can that apply to us today? Our oath to obey God would not translate into any requirement to obey our rulers, who are not prophets. The root of the confusion is a misunderstanding of what the “oath” in question refers to. It does not refer to an oath or vow to obey God. It does not refer to an oath to God, but an oath taken before God.

What, then, was the oath? First, note that for several generations God was the king of Israel. God was their earthly king who sat on his throne in the tabernacle making judgments and leading the Israelites in battle. But the Israelites lusted after the other nations and wanted a king like theirs (1 Sam 8:1-9; 19-22; 10:19). God knew this would happen, despite his warning not to (1 Sam 8:10-18), so in the Mosaic law, he provided direction for the establishment of a king.

When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. (Deut 17:14-5)

Note that it is the people who will be setting the king over themselves. God is said to choose the king, but the people set the king over themselves. God chose Saul by anointing him by the prophet Samuel (1 Sam. 10:1). God’s choice was revealed to the people through the drawing of lots (1 Sam. 10:20-24). Once this occurred, the people accepted Saul as their king (1 Sam. 10:24). Saul disobeyed God, so God rejected him as king an chose David instead (1 Sam 16:12). But Saul remained king over Israel until the people anointed David king (which was many years after God anointed David).

And Abner conferred with the elders of Israel, saying, “For some time past you have been seeking David as king over you. Now then bring it about, for the Lord has promised David, saying, ‘By the hand of my servant David I will save my people Israel from the hand of the Philistines, and from the hand of all their enemies.’”

And Abner said to David, “I will arise and go and will gather all Israel to my lord the king, that they may make a covenant with you, and that you may reign over all that your heart desires.”(2 Sam 3:17-18, 21)

So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel.” (2 Sam. 5:3)

Solomon was made king in the same manner.

And they made Solomon the son of David king a second time, and they anointed him as ruler for the Lord and Zadok as priest. Then Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord as king instead of David his father; and he prospered, and all Israel obeyed him. All the officials, the mighty men, and also all the sons of King David pledged allegiance to King Solomon. (1 Chron 29:23-24)

Commenting on these passages, as well as Ecclesiastes 8:2, Samuel Rutherford said “There is an oath betwixt the king and his people, laying on, by reciprocation of bands, mutual civil obligation upon the king to the people, and the people to the king (2 Sam 5:3; 1 Chron 11:3; 2 Chron 23:2, 3; 2 Kings 11:17; Eccl. 8:2)” (Lex, Rex). The NET translates the verse “Obey the king’s command, because you took an oath before God to be loyal to him.” Matthew Henry notes

We must be subject because of the oath of God, the oath of allegiance which we have taken to be faithful to the government, the covenant between the king and the people, 2 Chron. 23:16. David made a covenant, or contract, with the elders of Israel, though he was king by divine designation, 1 Chron. 11:3. “Keep the king’s commandments, for he has sworn to rule thee in the fear of God, and thou hast sworn, in that fear, to be faithful to him.” It is called the oath of God because he is a witness to it and will avenge the violation of it.

The oath is a contract. It neither implies divine authority for the ruler, nor obligates the people beyond the terms of the contract. Solomon says you should obey the king for the same reason you should obey your boss: because you agreed to. Unlike your boss, the king might kill you if you don’t. The rest of the passage is Solomon’s wise reflection on how to act before an almighty king who can kill any who disagree (note v9). Henry says “In short, it is dangerous contending with sovereignty.”

Thus this passage does not obligate us to obey every command of a ruler from the heart as part of our obedience to God.

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Romans 13 – Where is the Exception?

The following is from Douglas Moo’s NIV Application Commentary on Romans.

Where is the exception?

As we noted above, the key question most of us ask when we come to Romans 13 is not “What does it mean?” but “Where is the exception?” Since it is taught so consistently in Scripture, we do not have much difficulty coming to grips with the idea that God has ordained all governing authorities and that we must recognize that we stand under them. But we do have difficulty with the apparent demand of Romans 13 that we always do whatever any governmental authority tells us to do. We know there are exceptions in Scripture itself, and we believe deeply that it was contrary to God’s will for Germans to obey their rulers and help the Nazis kill millions of Jews, Poles, Russians, and so on. But how can we justify any exceptions in Romans 13? On what basis can we allow exceptions without doing violence to these verses? Seven possibilities deserve to be mentioned – listed here in order of least probable to most probable.

[…]

(6) In our interpretation of verses 3-4, we suggested Paul admits only of the possibility that states will reward good and punish evil because he is implicitly thinking of the ideal state – the state when it operates as God intends it to. Paul may, therefore, be calling on Christians to submit to governing authorities only as long as they are fulfilling their mission, under God, to restrain evil and encourage good. When a state ceases to do so, Christian are free to disobey its mandates.

The problem with this view is that Paul does not explicitly qualify his command with any such restriction. Yet this idea has merit, for it is difficult otherwise to explain why Paul ignores the possibility that the state may punish good and reward evil. He is describing how the state is supposed to function under God and is calling believers to submit to states that function in that way. Perhaps there is room in what he says to allow believers to turn against the state when it turns against God – as it does, for example, in Revelation.

[Compare with Hodge “It was his object to lay down the simple principle, that magistrates are to be obeyed. The extent of this obedience is to be determined from the nature of the case. They are to be obeyed as magistrates, in the exercise of their lawful authority. When Paul commands wives to obey their husbands, they are required to obey them as husbands, not as masters, nor as kings; children are to obey their parents as parents, not as sovereigns; and so in every other case.”]

(7) In demanding “submission” to the state, Paul is not necessarily demanding obedience to every mandate of the state. Key to this restriction is the recognition that the word “submit” (hypotasso) in Paul is not a simple equivalent to “obey” (hypakouo). To be sure, they overlap, and in some contexts, perhaps, they cannot be distinguished (cf. 1 Peter 3:1, 6). Moreover, submission is usually expressed through obedience.

Nevertheless, submission is broader and more basic than obedience. To submit is to recognize one’s subordinate place in a hierarchy established by God. It is acknowledged that certain institutions or people have been placed over us and have the right to our respect and deference. In addition to rulers (see also Titus 3:1), Paul also calls on believers to submit to their spiritual leaders (1 Cor. 16:16) and even to one another (Eph. 5:21; i.e., in the ways Paul outlines in 5:22-6:9). Christian slaves are to submit to their masters (Titus 2:9), Christian prophets to other prophets (1 Cor. 14:32), and Christian wives to their husbands (1 Cor. 14:45 [?]; Eph. 5:24; Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5). In each case, one person is to recognize the rightful leadership role that another human being has in his or her life.

But implicit always in the idea of submission is the need to recognize that God is at the pinnacle of any hierarchy. While not always explicit, Paul assumes that one’s ultimate submission must be to God and that no human being can ever stand as the ultimate authority for a believer.

The parallel between a Christian’s submitting to government and a wife’s submitting to her husband is particularly helpful. The wife is to recognize that God has ordained her husband to be her “head,” that is, her leader and guide. Thus, she must follow his leadership. But Paul would never think that a wife must always do whatever her husband demanded.

I once counseled a Christian woman who took her need to submit to her husband so seriously that she felt obliged to obey him by engaging in sex with him and another woman at the same time. I urged her to recognize that her ultimate allegiance was to God, the authority standing over her husband. She needed to follow the higher authority in this case and disobey her husband. But this did not mean that she was simply to dismiss her husband or to renounce his general authority over her.

In a similar way, it seems to me, we can also, as believers, continue to submit to governing authorities even as, in certain specific instances, we find that we cannot obey them.

[In other words, Paul tells us not to overthrow the rulers, but to be subject to them. He does not tell us they have divine authority that must be obeyed in whatever they command.]

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VanDrunen’s Argument for Religious Liberty

Though I believe VanDrunen’s epistemology and understanding of natural law have significant problems, I believe his covenantal perspective as it relates to political philosophy is basically correct. At the end of Divine Covenants and Moral Order, he tries to apply his general framework to more practical conclusions, including the question of religious liberty.

[C]ivil government [is] the natural institution most prone to usurp authority and to exercise raw power… The promotion of justice… is the very basis for civil government’s legitimacy. Thus its authority is inherently limited by the obligation to do what is just. Any injustice is usurpation… [J]ustice grounded in the natural law should be proportionate, retributive, restorative, and forbearing (and therefore flexible in application)…

To defend this claim [of religious liberty] I turn again to Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his image.” Of the many significant things about this verse, perhaps most profound is the fact that God, the supreme governor and judge of the world, has delegated aspects of the administration of justice to human beings… Though dispensing retributive justice against fellow humans would have been unnecessary in an unfallen world, in a fallen world imposing just punishment upon wrongdoers becomes a necessary aspect of human rule. To rule a sinful world means, in part, ensuring that those who injure another human person receive appropriate and proportionate retribution.

What God delegates to human beings here is the administration of intrahuman justice. To put it another way, God ordains that human beings should impose punishments for injuries inflicted upon each other. God does not delegate authority to impose just punishment upon wrongs that a human being commits against God himself. From one perspective, of course, any injury inflicted upon a human being is a wrong against God whose image that person bears, so I will modify my claim in this way: God delegates to human beings the authority to impose punishments for wrongs insofar as they are injuries inflicted upon each other, but not for wrongs insofar as they are inflicted upon God.

Thus to return to the question at hand: Does the Noahic covenant shed any light on whether human society might prohibit or penalize the worship or instruction of a particular religion? Yes, and it indicates that human beings do not have such authority. According to the Noahic covenant, human beings have the authority to use force against one another in order to impose proportionate penalties for intrahuman wrongs. For intrahuman crimes such as murder or theft, there are concrete and definable injuries, and just legislators and judges can design penalties that match their severity. But acts of improper religious worship are offenses against God. In such cases human beings are inherently incapable of imposing a proportionate penalty. What sort of human punishment is proportionate to a wrong done against an infinite and eternal God? Even if one were to claim that a teacher of false religion is corrupting the religious sensibilities of the youth, for example, and thus is guilty of an intrahuman injury, it is difficult to perceive how any human court could objectively determine the character and extent of this injury so as to impose a proportionate penalty.

First, VanDrunen’s distinction between crimes against man and crimes against God (which he applies to the Mosaic Covenant) is precisely how I have explained lex talionis’ function in the Mosaic Covenant.

Second, VanDrunen is correct that religious persecution is a violation of lex talionis and is not an administration of retributive justice. Therefore no one may use force against anyone else for practicing a (non-violent) false religion. To do so is usurpation. This is the only non-contradictory way to argue for religious liberty. Every other attempt to justify religious liberty undermines itself by inconsistencies.

Third, if humans may only use force against other humans to administer retributive justice for physical harm done to humans (that is – if “public utility” is no justification for the use of force), then the vast, vast, vast, vast majority of what the United States and other nations currently do is usurpation not backed by any God-given authority.

In other words, the non-aggression principle is biblical and it is the only consistent defense of religious liberty.

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John Murray on the Church Rebuking the State

When it is maintained that the church is concerned with civic affairs, is under obligation to examine political measures in the light of the Word of God, and is required to declare its judgments accordingly, the distinction between this activity on the part of the church and political activity must be recognized. To put the matter bluntly, the church is not to engage in politics. Its members must do so, but only in their capacity as citizens of the state, not as members of the church. The church is not to create or foster political parties or blocs. The proclamation of the church may indeed induce the members of the church and others to affiliate themselves, in their capacity as citizens, with one party rather than with another or, perhaps, to form a political party for the promotion of good politics. If the proclamation of the church is sound, the church has no need to be ashamed of the influence its proclamation exerts in this direction, nor does it need to be troubled by the charge that may be levelled against it to the effect that it is engaged in politics. In such circumstances the church must be prepared to pay the price for its faithful witness to the political implications of the message committed to it (256).

The question remains: how is the church to proclaim the counsel of God as it bears upon civil affairs? It is obvious that there are two means, in particular, of proclaiming the Word of God, namely, the pulpit and the press. The church lives in the world and it lives within the domain of political entities. If it is to be faithful to its commission it must make its voice heard and felt in reference to public questions. The church may not supinely stand aside and ignore political corruption, for example, on the ground that to pronounce judgment on such issues is to intermeddle in politics. Political corruption is sin, it is public sin, and the church denies its vocation if it does not reprove it. When there is political revolution which contravenes the principles of God’s Word and is directed against the kingdom of God, the church may not be an idle spectator on the round that the powers that be are ordained of God. It must assess the revolution for what it is in the light of the Word of God and proclaim in pulpit and press what the judgment of the Word of God is. If political revolution is right; if it displaces usurpation and tyranny, and is in the interests of equity, the church may not refrain from expressing by like media the favourable judgment which the principles of the Word of God dictate (257).

– John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray 1: The Claims of Truth (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 256, 257.

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David Dykstra on Church & State (and Isaac Backus on Romans 13)

Reformed Baptist pastor David Dykstra’s series on Church & State is worth listening to, particularly the historic overviews of the reformation and American eras.

David Dykstra | Church & State – Part 1

Romans 13:1-7 

SUN 01/12/2003

580+ | 37 min

David Dykstra | Church & State – Part 2

Romans 13:1-7 

SUN 01/19/2003

1,020+ | 39 min

David Dykstra | Church & State – Part 3

Romans 13:1-7 

SUN 01/26/2003

480+ | 48 min

David Dykstra | Church & State – Part 4

Romans 13:1-7 

SUN 02/02/2003

320+ | 36 min

 

In Part 4, Dykstra explains that Romans 13 describes how Christians should relate to a government that is doing its job. It does not say how Christians should relate to a government that has become tyrannical. He quotes from Isaac Backus’ diary explaining how he preached in the time leading up to the American Revolution (April 23, 1775 – Backus was a prominent New England baptist pastor who testified before the Continental Congress and other political bodies lobbying for religious liberty. Scholars note he has a place beside Jefferson in the shaping of America).

“I noted that in Romans 13, the powers that be were required to submit to were ministers of God to the people for good.”

Backus would argue that Romans 13 could not be pressed into service by tyrants for use. He’s saying this passage only deals with a situation where a Christian is under a government that for the most part is doing a decent job of rewarding good and punishing evil. It does not give us specific directions as to what to do in those situations where a government, instead of rewarding good and punishing evil, rewards evil and punishes good. You see his point? He was saying that’s the kind of government the New Testament requires us to submit to, not to governments that are tyrannical!

But yet, over the centuries, tyrants made use of this passage of Scripture in Romans 13 to brow-beat people into submission. Tyrannical husbands have made use of Romans 13 to brow-beat wives into submission. Tyrannical parents have made use of Romans 13 to brow-beat children into submission. Tyrannical elders of churches have made use of Romans 13 to brow-beat their people into submission. But none of these passages deal with that specific problem as to what to do when you live under an authority is tyrannical. And the essence of a tyrannical authority is an authority who says “I am not subject to law.”

As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, this was not eisegesis on the part of an American Revolutionary. It was the historic reformed interpretation of the passage. But if that’s not what Romans 13 is addressing, then what is it addressing?

Why was it necessary to say to the Christian people at the time, “Listen, be obedient citizens. Obey the laws of the state. Be exemplary in how you live.” Why did they have to write that way?

  1. Jewish leaders in Paul’s day rebelled against the very notion they were subject to Rome and that they were not free… John 8:31-33…
  2. Jewish leaders questioned Rome’s right to tax them. Matt 22:15-17…
  3. Some Jewish leaders had risen up in rebellion against Rome. Acts 5:34-37… Here were Jews that rose up in rebellion against Rome. Here were leaders that rebellion – official, organized rebellion against Rome. This is one of the reasons Paul had to write as he did to the Christians. You are not to live that way. You are to be God’s different people in your life in the world. Israel was a difficult province for Rome to rule. Armed conflict was a fact of life between Roman forces and the Jewish zealots, predictably. Remember how in Luke 13:1… Barabbas…

So there were reasons for Paul to write as he did, for Peter to write as he did, because these were difficult times. The danger posed to the church was this – and I think you can appreciate it with just a little bit of thought – that Rome might not be able to discern between Jews and Jewish Christians at this early date. And Paul and the other Apostles wanted Christians to be exemplary in their conduct in relation to Roman authority… Matthew 5:41

In other words, these words of Paul and Peter arose from the fact that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, unlike the earthly kingdom of Israel. God’s direct reign as the king over the kingdom of Israel, sitting on his thrown in the temple (see here) meant that any foreign ruler was a usurper who had no authority over Israel. That’s why the history of Israel is God raising up men to overthrow foreign rulers again and again and again. It was called “salvation” (1 Sam. 11:13; 1 Chron 16:35; 2 Chron 20:17). Not so with the kingdom of Christ, which was inward, spiritual, and not of this world. Paul’s point is that earthly, unbelieving rulers still have authority over Christians, insofar as they rule lawfully (as Paul explains).

Starting with John the Baptist and continuing throughout Jesus’ ministry, the Jews were warned of the coming end of the Old Covenant when God would pour out the full wrath of the covenant on those who had broken it. The only refuge was to flee to Jesus, as Jesus explained in John 15:1-6 (a passage about Old Covenant curse, not about church membership). This looming judgment was still imminent when Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans (56-57AD – note, this was before Nero began persecuting Christians, thus Paul is not addressing that. In Part 5, Dykstra notes “At the time, it was still good government. 30 years from the time he wrote this, no New Testament writer would have been able to write this way. In 30 years from when this letter was written, the good government that was Rome would be the evil beast rising from the earth and the sea of Revelation 13 and Revelation 13 becomes almost the mirror image of Romans 13.”). Paul wrote to Jewish and Gentile Christians living in the capital city. Things were heating up between Jews and Rome and Paul wrote to clarify how Christians in the New Covenant should relate to Roman authority.

The destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70AD -- a painting by David Roberts (1796-1849).
The destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70AD — a painting by David Roberts (1796-1849).

Luke 21:20-22 “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, know that the time of your judgment has come.” And what are you, as my people, supposed to do at that time when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies? You are to flee into the mountains. Do not become a part of this Jewish rebellion. Don’t get involved in this insurrection, this rebellion against Rome. Don’t go even back into the city. When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, don’t take part in that. You get out. And thankfully Christians did. And in the Jewish war of rebellion that began in 66AD and was utterly and finally squashed by Rome in 70AD, the Christians were spared because they listened to their Lord.

[I would not necessarily agree with Dykstra’s concluding applications in Part 4, nor the points in Parts 5-8.]

 

Dykstra also has a more recent two-part series on rebellion.

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Calvin’s Geneva

Calvin makes some curious comments on 1 Corinthians 5:10 that show how different his view of the church was from ours. I mention it here because it has significant ramifications for political philosophy. 1 Corinthians 5:9-10 says “I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.” Chrysostom gives the obvious explanation “[W]e must live among thorns so long as we sojourn on earth. This only do I [Paul] require, that you do not keep company with fornicators, who wish to be regarded as brethren.” But this requires a necessary distinction between the church and the rest of society. What if there is no distinction? What if an entire society is in the church? Calvin objects

Against this exposition a question might be proposed by way of objection: “As Paul said this at a time when Christians were as yet mingled with heathens, and dispersed among them, what ought to be done now, when all have given themselves to Christ in name? For even in the present day we must go out of the world, if we would avoid the society of the wicked; and there are none that are strangers, when all take upon themselves Christ’s name, and are consecrated to him by baptism… I prefer one [interpretation] that is different from all these, taking the word rendered to go out as meaning to be separated, and the term world as meaning the pollutions of the world  [Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs to be separated from the pollutions of the world.]… There is, then, a sort of intentional omission, when he says that he makes no mention of those that are without, inasmuch as the Corinthians ought to be already separated from them.

Thus Paul is saying (apparently) “of course you should avoid the sexually immoral in the church, because you should avoid all sexually immoral people everywhere.” Not quite.

In a very interesting essay titled European Calvinism: Church Discipline, Jordan Ballor and Bradford Littlejohn note

For all his emphasis on discipline, the ministerial office, and the distinctive institutional form of the church, Calvin never seems to have entertained the Anabaptist separation of church from commonwealth, viewing the whole populace of Geneva as part of the visible church, and never questioning the important role of Christian magistrates in defending and edifying this church… Prepared at the invitation of the Geneva city Councils, this text [Ordonnances ecclésiastiques] provided the blueprint for Calvin’s famous and remarkably successful disciplinary system, of which the chief distinctive was the Consistory. This body, consisting both of elders (twelve laymen chosen from among city Councils) and ministers, was responsible for hearing cases related to various forms of immorality and disorderly conduct, as well as superstition, doctrinal error, contempt of ministers, and more.

In Will the Real Geneva Please Stand Up, Litteljohn elaborates, noting that a common narrative about Calvin doesn’t seem to match the reality.

First, let’s ask what we should expect to find in Geneva on the conventional narrative:

We would find Calvin arriving in Geneva and gathering around him a band of like-minded pastors and laymen, with whom, having studied the Scriptures carefully, he drafted a church constitution.  This constitution would provide for individual congregations to elect elders for spiritual government and deacons for more temporal needs, and each group of elders would be presided over by a pastor.  Together, elders and pastor would oversee the spiritual and moral lives of their congregants, rebuking them and excommunicating them where necessary; deacons, meanwhile, would gather and manage the alms of the congregation for the needs of its members.  Elders and pastors from individual congregations would meet together regularly with all the others within the city of Geneva, and this synod would vote on decisions binding on all the individual congregations, and would hear appeals on disciplinary matters.  Calvin and his fellow pastors would have made this constitution without consulting the city council, though, in order to keep the peace, they would probably have sought the city council’s blessing, or at least their permission, to carry through this arrangement among such believers in Geneva who wished to participate in this scheme.  And here is the key point—they would not have sought to impose this system on the whole populace of Geneva, since the visible church is a gathered congregation of the truly faithful who willingly submit to discipline, not the whole body of merely outward professors of the faith.  Any Christians in Geneva who wished to participate in Calvin’s churches would have done so, and Calvin and his fellow pastors would have had no interest in imposing their discipline on those outside this church (though they certainly might have tried to evangelize them and to convince them to join).  Those excommunicated from these churches would lose their access to the sacraments and their membership in the spiritual kingdom, but would remain unimpaired citizens of Geneva and members of the society there.

Unfortunately, almost no piece of this picture corresponds to the reality.  What do we find instead?

Instead we find, in 1541, the city authorities of Geneva dismayed at the breakdown of morals and social order, and the chaotic administration of ecclesiastical matters.  Seeing the need for a revamped civic order, and recognizing that this could not be achieved without a well-ordered spiritual government, they invited Calvin back to draft the ordinances for them, recognizing his unique combination of theological, legal, and administrative expertise.  Calvin accordingly drafted proposals for the moral government and spiritual provision for the city of Geneva, as a cooperative enterprise between the clergy, the ordinary laity, and the magistrates.  This was solicited, proposed, and enacted as a piece of civil legislation, which the civil authorities in Geneva were ultimately responsible for putting into practice and maintaining.  While it is often assumed that at this early date, there were in fact sharp and irreconcilable differences between Calvin’s vision (an autonomous church) and the magistrates’ vision (a state church), this is considerably overstated.

Gillian Lewis, in her article, “Calvinism in Geneva in the Time of Calvin and Beza (1541-1605),” helps set the record straight.  First, she points out,

there was between Calvin and the Genevan authorities a good deal of common ground, about the functions of a clergy, about the suppression of religious dissent, and about the policing of public morals.  The broad measure of this consensus deserves more emphasis than it is usually afforded in accounts of the Geneva of Calvin: any amount of ingenuity and zeal on the Reformer’s part would, without it, have been fruitless.  It turned out that the Ordinances, in their assumptions and in the details of their provisions, secured from ruling councils and general public not only widespread acquiescence, but genuine support.

There was, for example, agreement about the duties allocated to each category of the new-fangled ministers of the Word, deacons, doctors, elders, and pastors.[7]

Let’s look at these offices, since these are the building blocks of Presbyterian ecclesiology.  Although one can read countless accounts by modern Reformed authors attacking government-run welfare on the basis that in the Calvinist tradition, welfare is handled by the church as a distinct institution, managed by deacons, and not by state functionaries, and although many of these accounts will even claim that this is how it was in Geneva,[8] this rests on a fundamentally anachronistic dichotomy.  In fact, as Lewis explains,

Deacons proved uncontroversial.  It is doubtful, in any case, whether they can reasonably be regarded as a “Calvinist” innovation, in principle or in fact.  Procureurs to oversee the finances and hospitaliers to take care of the day-to-day care of the sick and impotent poor had been established in 1535, when the city had amalgamated a crowd of ecclesiastical charities and private funds into the centrally-funded Hopital-General, established in a recently emptied convent.  All that the 1541 article did was to confer upon those officials the Scriptural cognomen “Deacon”, and the dignity of being regarded as part of the fourfold ministry.  From the outset, however, they were in no real sense ministers, but lay office-holders elected by the civil power.  Nor was there anything novel or unconventional in their duties to support the view that we have here an example of a new and specifically “Calvinist” attitude toward the poor.[9]
Deacons, in short, far from being an independently-elected office of an independent “church” were essentially civil functionaries serving the church in the united Christian community.

What about elders?  Surely these are the bedrock of Calvinism’s autonomous spiritual government?  Well, not really.  Again, Lewis:

Elders had to be “decent and respectable men, beyond reproach and of unblemished reputation, above all God-fearing and carrying spiritual weight.”  They were chosen from members of the city’s ruling councils.  They usually found themselves carrying the burden of the office for years on end.  This must surely have contributed to the development of a consistent style and tone in the Genevan church, and to some extent in Genevan public life.  As the Ordinances had intended, their co-operation with the pastors did produce some genuine dovetailing of the activities of the spiritual and the civil power.[10]

Indeed, most of the moral issues that the consistory oversaw were a matter of enforcing civil legislation that had been passed before the Reformation even came to Geneva:

Like that of other cities, the commune of Geneva—long before the Reformation—had regularly passed edicts against fraud in commerce, against usury, against excessive luxury in dress, against sexual offenses and prostitution, and against drunkenness and disorderly behavior in the street.  There was a spate of such legislation between 1536 and 1541, when the newly sovereign republic was asserting its authority in every sphere.  The edicts passed in Calvin’s day, indeed in the whole period from 1541 to the early 1570s, were a continuation of this process, and formed part of a wide program me of clarifying and tidying up some of the anomalies, gaps, and obscurities in the city’s rudimentary legal code.  The ordinances concerning public morals reveal the lineaments of what was, in the eyes of the magistrates, acceptable social behavior.  They were designed not so much to transform the community so that it became more godly as to protect traditional decencies and preserve the status quo. The Consistory contributed to this end. . . . Ready acceptance of most of the Consistory’s rulings by the community in general suggests that there was a high degree of overlap between the morality the pastors extracted from the Scriptures, and the everyday assumptions about decency and the proprieties and justice which prevailed. The Consistory was a part of this continuum of edification.[11]

Not, that is, that the Consistory exercised coercive jurisdiction in enforcing these laws.  Rather, it served as a sort of halfway house, filling the gap between preaching that demanded standards of righteousness, and civil courts that punished unrighteousness.  It was, as Lewis puts it, “a tribunal of first resort, sifting out those cases which should properly be passed on to the civil courts,” involved “in infra-judicial settlement of pastoral matters which had got out of hand.”[12] (Given the sheer scope of moral legislation that Geneva had enacted, which would otherwise have remained largely unenforceable, a body like consistory was almost demanded.[13])

This certainly helps provide a clearer picture of Calvin’s view of the civil magistrate and how all of society related to the church. This concept is the root of the idea among Protestants that the duty of the civil government is to make people more moral – to behave outwardly like Christians (see Local Pastor Longs For Good Old Days When America Pretended To Be A Christian Nation and Left Behind in America: Following Christ after Culture Wars). Thankfully most modern reformed churches have abandoned this model of the church in favor of congregationalism (yes, modern Presbyterianism is largely congregational). But regretfully, many of them still retain vestiges of it in their political philosophy.

See also Calvin’s Two-Fold Government.

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Rutherford on Romans 13 and the Distinction Between Person and Office

see also Rutherford on Romans 13 and the Logic of Resistance

Question XXIX. Whether, in the case of defensive war, the distinction of the person of the king, as a man, who can commit acts of hostile tyranny against his subjects, and of the office and royal power that he hath from God and the people, as a king, can have place.

Before I can proceed to other Scripture proofs for the lawfulness of resistance, this distinction, rejected by royalists, must be cleared. This is an evident and sensible distinction: — The king in concreto, the man who is king, and the king in abstracto, the royal office of the king. The ground of this distinction we desire to be considered from Rom. xiii. We affirm with Buchanan, that Paul here speaketh of the office and duty of good magistrates, and that the text speaketh nothing of an absolute king, nothing of a tyrant; and the royalists distinguish where the law distinguished not, against the law, (l. pret. 10, gl. Bart. de pub. in Rem.); and therefore we move the question here, Whether or no to resist the illegal and tyrannical will of the man who is king, be to resist the king and the ordinance of God; we say no. Nor do we deny the king, abusing his power in unjust acts, to remain king, and the minister of God, whose person for his royal office, and his royal office, are both to be honoured, reverenced, and obeyed. God forbid that we should do so as the sons of Belial, imputing to us the doctrine of anabaptists, and the doctrine falsely imputed to Wicliffe, — that dominion is founded upon supernatural grace, and that a magistrate being in the state of mortal sin, cannot be a lawful magistrate, — we teach no such thing. The P. Prelate showeth us his sympathy with papists, and that he buildeth the monuments and sepulchres of the slain and murdered prophets, when he, refusing to open his mouth in the gates for the righteous, professeth he will not purge the witnesses of Christ, the Waldenses, and Wiciiffe, and Huss, of these notes of disloyalty, but that these acts proceeding from this root of bitterness, the abused power of a king, should be acknowledged with obedience active or passive, in these unjust acts, we deny.

Assert. 1. — It is evident from Rom. xiii. that all subjection and obedience to higher powers commanded there, is subjection to the power and office of the magistrate in abstracto, or, which is all one, to the person using the power lawfully, and that no subjection is due by that text, or any word of God, to the abused and tyrannical power of the king, which I evince from the text, and from other Scriptures.

1. Because the text saith, “Let every soul be subject to the higher powers.” But no powers commanding things unlawful, and killing the innocent people of God, can be e0cousi/ai u9perexou/sai higher powers, but in that lower powers. He that commandeth not what God commandeth, and punisheth and killeth where God, if personally and immediately present, would neither command nor punish, is not in these acts to be subjected unto, and obeyed as a superior power, though in habit he may remain a superior power; for all habitual, all actual superiority is a formal participation of the power of the Most High. Arnisæus well saith, (c. 4, p. 96,) “That of Aristotle must be true, It is against nature, better and worthier men should be in subjection to unworthier and more wicked men;” but when magistrates command wickedness, and kill the innocent, the non-obeyers, in so far, are worthier than the commanders (whatever they be in habit and in office) actually, or in these wicked acts are unworthier and inferior, and the non-obeyers are in that worthier, as being zealous adherents to God’s command and not to man’s will. I desire not to be mistaken; if we speak of habitual excellency, godly and holy men, as the witnesses of Christ in things lawful, are to obey wicked and infidel kings and emperors, but in that these wicked kings have an excellency in respect of office above them; but when they command things unlawful, and kill the innocent, they do it not by virtue of any office, and so in that they are not higher powers, but lower and weak ones. Laertius doth explain Aristotle well, who defineth a tyrant by this, “That he commandeth his subjects by violence;” and Arnisæus condemneth Laertius for this, “Because one tyrannical action doth no more constitute a tyrant, than one “unjust action doth constitute an unjust man.” But he may condemn, as he doth indeed, (Covarruvias pract. quest. c. 1, and Vasquez Illustr. quest. l. 1, c. 47, n. 1, 12,) for this is essential to a tyrant, to command and rule by violence. If a lawful prince do one or more acts of a tyrant, he is not a tyrant for that, yet his action in that is tyrannical, and he doth not that as a king, but in that act as a sinful man, having something of tyranny in him.

2. The powers (Rom. xiii. 1) that be, are ordained of God, as their author and efficient; but kings commanding unjust things, and killing the innocent, in these acts, are but men, and sinful men; and the power by which they do these acts, a sinful and an usurped power, and so far they are not powers ordained of God, according to his revealed will, which must rule us. Now the authority and official power, in abstracto, is ordained of God, as the text saith, and other Scriptures do evidence. And this politicians do clear, while they distinguish betwixt jus personæ, and jus coronæ, the power of the person, and the power of the crown and royal office. They must then be two different things.

3. He that resisteth the power, that is, the official power, and the king, as king, and commanding in the Lord, resisteth the ordinance of God, and God’s lawful constitution. But he who resisteth the man, who is the king, commanding that which is against God, and killing the innocent, resisteth no ordinance of God, but an ordinance of sin and Satan; for a man commanding unjustly, and ruling tyrannically, hath, in that, no power from God.

4. They that resist the power and royal office of the king in things just and right, shall receive to themselves damnation, but they that resist, that is, refuse, for conscience, to obey the man who is the king, and choose to obey God rather than man, as all the martyrs did, shall receive to themselves salvation. And the eighty valiant men, the priests, who used bodily violence against king Uzziah’s person, “and thrust him out of the house of the Lord,” from offering incense to the Lord, which belonged to the priest only, received not damnation to themselves, but salvation in doing God’s will, and in resisting the king’s wicked will.

5. The lawful ruler, as a ruler, and in respect of his office, is not to be resisted, because he is not a terror to good works, but to evil; and no man who doth good is to be afraid of the office or the power, but to expect praise and a reward of the same. But the man who is a king may command an idolatrous and superstitious worship — send an army of cut-throats against them, because they refuse that worship, and may reward papists, prelates, and other corrupt men, and may advance them to places of state and honour because they kneel to a tree altar, — pray to the east, — adore the letters and sound of the word Jesus — teach and write Arminianism, and may imprison, deprive, confine, cut the ears, and slit the noses, and burn the faces of those who speak and preach and write the truth of God; and may send armies of cut-throats, Irish rebels, and other papists and malignant atheists, to destroy and murder the judges of the land, and innocent defenders of the reformed religion, &c., — the man, I say, in these acts is a terror to good works, — an encouragement to evil; and those that do good are to be afraid of the king, and to expect no praise, but punishment and vexation from him; therefore, this reason in the text will prove that the man who is the king, in so far as he doth those things that are against his office, may be resisted; and that in these we are not to be subject, but only we are to be subject to his power and royal authority, in abstracto, in so far as, according to his office, he is not a terror to good works, but to evil.

6. The lawful ruler is the minister of God, or the servant of God, for good to the commonwealth; and to resist the servant in that wherein he is a servant, and using the power that he hath from his master, is to resist the Lord his master. But the man who is the king, commanding unjust things, and killing the innocent, in these acts is not the minister of God for the good of the commonwealth; — he serveth himself and papists, and prelates, for the destruction of religion, laws, and commonwealth: therefore the man may be resisted; by this text, when the office and power cannot be resisted.

7. The ruler, as the ruler, and the nature and intrinsical end of the office is, that he bear God’s sword as an avenger to execute wrath on him that doth evil, — and so cannot be resisted without sin. But the man who is the ruler, and commandeth things unlawful, and killeth the innocent, carrieth the papist’s and prelate’s sword to execute, not the righteous judgment of the Lord upon the ill-doer, but his own private revenge upon him that doth well; therefore, the man may be resisted, the office may not be resisted; and they must be two different things.

8. We must needs be subject to the royal office for conscience, by reason of the fifth commandment; but we must not needs be subject to the man who is king, if he command things unlawful; for Dr Ferne warranteth us to resist, if the ruler invade us suddenly, without colour of law or reason, and unavoidably; and Winzetus, Barclay, and Grotius, as before I cited, give us leave to resist a king turning a cruel tyrant; but Paul (Rom. xiii.) forbiddeth us to resist the power, in abstracto; therefore, it must be the man, in concreto, that we must resist.

9. Those we may not resist to whom we owe tribute, as a reward of the onerous work on which they, as ministers of God, do attend continually. But we owe not tribute to the king as a man, — for then should we be indebted tribute to all men, — but as a king, to whom the wages of tribute is due, as to a princely workman, — a king as a king; — therefore, the man and the king are different.

10. We owe fear and honour as due to be rendered to the man who is king, because he is a king, not because he is a man; for it is the highest fear and honour duo to any mortal man, which is due to the king, as king.

11. The man and the inferior judge are different; and we cannot, by this text, resist the inferior judge, as a judge, but we resist the ordinance of God, as the text proveth. But cavaliers resist the inferior judges as men, and have killed divers members of both houses of parliament; but they will not say that they killed them as judges, but as rebels. If therefore, to be a rebel, as a wicked man, and to be a judge, are differenced thus, then, to be a man, and commit some acts of tyranny, and to be the supreme judge and king, are two different things.

12. The congregation, in a letter to the nobility, (Knox, Hist. of Scotland, l. 2.) say, “There is great difference betwixt the authority, which is God’s ordinance, and the persons of those who are placed in authority, The authority and God’s ordinance can never do wrong, for it commandeth that vice and wicked men be punished, and virtue, with virtuous men and just, be maintained; but the corrupt person placed in this authority may offend, and most commonly do contrary to this authority. And is then the corruption of man to be followed, by reason that it is clothed with the name of authority?” And they give instance in Pharaoh and Saul, who were lawful kings and yet corrupt men. And certainly the man and the divine authority differ, as the subject and the accident, — as that which is under a law and can offend God, and that which is neither capable of law nor sin.

13. The king, as king, is a just creature, and by office a living and breathing law. His will, as he is king, is nothing but a just law; but the king, as a sinful man, is not a just creature, but one who can sin and play the tyrant; and his will, as a private sinful man, is a private will, and may be resisted. So the law saith, “The king, as king, can do no wrong,” but the king, as a man, may do a wrong. While as, then, the parliaments of both kingdoms resist the king’s private will, as a man, and fight against his illegal cutthroats, sent out by him to destroy his native subjects, they fight for him as a king, and obey his public legal will, which is his royal will, de jure; and while he is absent from his parliaments as a man, he is legally and in his law-power present, and so the parliaments are as legal as if he were personally present with them.

…1. Not we only, but the Holy Ghost, in terminis, hath this distinction, Acts iv. 19; v. 29, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” Then rulers (for of rulers sitting in judgment is that speech uttered) commanding and tyrannising over the apostles, are men contradistinguished from God; and as they command and punish unjustly, they are but men, otherwise commanding for God, they are gods, and more than men…

…2. But let not the royalist infer that I am from these examples pleading for the killing of kings; for lawful resistance is one thing, and killing of kings is another, — the one defensive and lawful, the other offensive and unlawful, so long as he remaineth a king, and the Lord’s anointed…

However the abstract is put for the concrete, it is true, and it saith we are not to rail upon Nero; but to say Nero was a persecutor of Christians, and yet obey him commanding what is just, are very consistent.

But, again, by a person, we mean nothing less than the man Nero wasting Rome, burning, crucifying Paul, and torturing Christians; and that we owe subjection to Nero, and to his person in concreto, as to God’s ordinance, God’s minister, God’s sword-bearer, in that notion of a person, is that only that we deny. Nay, in that Nero, in concreto, to us is no power ordained of God, no minister of God, but a minister of the devil, and Satan’s armour-bearer, and therefore we owe not fear, honour, subjection, or tribute to the person of Nero.

…It is true, so long as kings remain kings, subjection is due to them because kings; but that is not the question. The question is, if subjection be due to them, when they use their power unlawfully and tyrannically. Whatever David did, though he was a king, he did it not as king; he deflowered not Bathsheba as king, and Bathsheba might with bodily resistance and violence lawfully have resisted king David, though kingly power remained in aim, while he should thus attempt to commit adultery; else David might have said to Bathsheba, “Because I am the Lord’s anointed, it is rebellion in thee, a subject, to oppose any bodily violence to my act of forcing of thee; it is unlawful to thee to cry for help, for if any shall offer violently to rescue thee from me, he resisteth the ordinance of God.” Subjection is due to Nero as an emperor, but not any subjection is due to him in the burning of Rome, and torturing of Christians, except you say that Nero’s power abused in these acts of cruelty was, 1. A power from God. 2. An ordidance of God. 3. That in these he was the minister of God for the good of the commonwealth. Because some believed Christians were free from the yoke of magistracy, and that the dignity itself was unlawful; and because (c. 12) he had set down the lawful church rulers, and in this and the following chapter; the duties of brotherly love of one toward another; so here (c. 13) he teacheth that all magistrates, suppose heathen, are to be obeyed and submitted unto in all things, so far as they are minion of God. Arnisæus objecteth to Buchanan If we are by this place to subject ourself to every power, in abstracto, then also to a power contrary to the truth, and to a power of a king exceeding the limits of a king; for such a power is a power, and we are not to distinguish where the law distinguisheth.

Ans. 1. — The law clearly distinguisheth we are to obey parents in the Lord, and if Nero command idolatry, this is an excessive power. Are we obliged to obey, because the law distinguished not? 2. The text saith we are to obey every power from God that is God’s ordinance, by which the man is a minister of God for good; but an unjust and excessive power is none of these three. 3. The text in words distinguisheth not obedience active in things wicked and lawful, yet we are to distinguish…

 

If, for conscience, I am to suffer unjustly, when Nero commandeth unjust punishment, because Nero commanding so, remaineth God’s minister, why, but when Nero commandeth me to worship an heathen god, I am upon the same ground to obey that unjust will in doing ill; for Nero, in commanding idolatry, remaineth the Lord’s minister, his person is sacred in the one commandment of doing ill, as in inflicting ill of punishment. And do I not resist his person in the one as in the other? His power and his person are as inseparably conjoined by God in the one as in the other.

2. In bodily thrusting out of Uzziah from the temple, these fourscore valiant men did resist the king’s person by bodily violence, as well as his power.

3. If the power of killing the martyrs in Nero was no power ordained of God, then the resisting of Nero, in his taking away the lives of the martyrs, was but the resisting of tyranny; and certainly, if that power in Nero was tetagme/nh a power ordained of God, and not to be resisted, as the place (Rom. xiii.) is alleged by royalists, then it must be a lawful power, and no tyranny; and if it cannot be resisted, because it was a power ordained and settled in him, it is either settled by God, and so not tyranny, (except God be the author of tyranny,) or then settled by the devil, and so may well be resisted. But the text speaketh of no power but of that which is of God.

4. We are not to be subject to all powers in concreto, by the text; for we are not to be subject to powers lawful, yet commanding active obedience to things unlawful. Now subjection includeth active obedience of honour, love, fear, paying tribute, and therefore of need force, some powers must be excepted.

5. Pilate’s power is merely a power by divine permission, not a power ordained of God, as are the powers spoken of, Rom. xiii. Gregorius (mor. l. 3, c. 11) expressly saith, — “This was Satan’s power given to Pilate against Christ. Manibus Satanæ pro nostra redemptione se tradidit.” Lyra, “A principibus Romanorum et ulterius permissum a deo, qui est potestas, superior.” Calvin, Beza and Diodatus, saith the same; and that he cannot mean of legal power from God’s regulating will is evident, 1. Because Christ is answering Pilate, (John xix. 10,) “Knowest though not that I have power to crucify thee?” This was an untruth. Pilate had a command to worship him, and believe in him; and whereas Ferne saith, (sect. 9, p. 59,) “Pilate had power to judge any accused before him;” it is true; but he being obliged to believe in Christ, he was obliged to believe in Christ’s innocency, and so neither to judge nor receive accusation against him; and the power he saith he had to crucify, was a law-power in Pilate’s meaning, but not in very deed any law power; because a law-power is from God’s regulating will in the fifth commandment, but no creature hath a lawful or a law-power to crucify Christ. 2. A law-power is for good. (Rom. xiii. 4,) a power to crucify Christ is for ill. 3. A law-power is a terror to ill works, and a praise to good; Pilate’s power to crucify Christ was the contrary. 4. A law-power is to execute wrath on ill-doing, a power to crucify Christ is no such. 5. A law-power conciliateth honour, fear, and veneration, to the person of the judge, a power to crucify Christ conciliateth no such thing, but a disgrace to Pilate. 6. The genuine acts of a lawful power are lawful acts; for such as is the fountain-power, such are the acts flowing therefrom. Good acts flow not from bad powers, neither hath God given a power to sin, except by way of permission.
[1] Arnisæus de potest. princip. c. 2, 11, 17.

[2] Grot. de jur. et pacis, l. 1, c. 4, n. 7.

[3] Winzetus Velitat. adver. Buchanan.

[4] Barcl. adv. Monarchom. lib. 3. c. 8.

______

[5] Not yet confirmed.


 

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The Benedict Option?

After listening to two interviews (here and here) with Rod Dreher about his new book The Benedict Option, and reading his FAQ, I really don’t think he has anything to offer Reformed Christians.

At first, he seemed to have a good thesis:

The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents.

Three cheers for that! Dreher seemed to be criticizing the idea of Christendom, where the church and the world are one. He notes

As lay Christians, we have to build some kind of walls to separate ourselves from the world so that we can continue to go out into the world and minister to people and be who Christ asked us to be. The culture itself is so toxic and so anti-Christian that we’re just not going to make it if we let anybody and anything come into our hearts and into our imaginations.” (Mohler @39:00)

Three cheers! Christ established his church to be in the world, but not of it. The church is a gathering of those called out of the world and it establishes the wall of membership to distinguish itself from the world and through the means of grace to put to death the love of the world. Christendom severely compromised this call by equating the world and the church. Living in Christendom, Calvin commented upon 1 Cor. 5:10-12 “Paul said this at a time when Christians were as yet mingled with heathens, and dispersed among them, what ought to be done now, when all have given themselves to Christ in name?… [T]here are none that are strangers, when all take upon themselves Christ’s name, and are consecrated to him by baptism.” In this sense, the fall of Christendom is to be cheered for Christendom has always been an enemy of the kingdom of Christ.

But that is not what Dreher has in mind. Rather, Dreher laments the downfall of Christendom and sees the Benedict Option as a backup plan to keep Christianity afloat (he calls it an ark) during the coming “dark age” until it can re-emerge when people are “ready to hear the gospel again” in order to re-establish Christendom (“establish your shelter, your monastery in a safe place so you can be there for the rebuilding”). Dreher’s focus throughout is this world, this life, the kingdom of this world. Ironically then, the Benedict Option is a very worldly call for Christians to separate from the world. Why? Because Christians are not of this world? No, because the world is no longer Christian.

As others have noted, when you listen to everything Dreher has to say, the Benedict Option is really nothing more than a call to be intentional about being a Christian. Be careful what you listen to and watch and read. Be intentional about community and education. Be intentional about raising your children. All basic stuff. Of course the question is, why do we have to start being intentional now? Well, because Christendom has fallen and Christianity is no longer the dominant worldview, therefore Christians need to be deliberate and intentional about their Christian life. Before you could just go to school and go to work like everyone else, watch the same stuff as everyone else and live like everyone else and still be a Christian, because we lived in a Christian nation. But now we don’t, so now you have to stop and think and be intentional about being a Christian, since most people aren’t anymore. So now, “to live in the world as faithful Christians [will] require some critical withdrawal from the mainstream.”

This worldly focus comes as little surprise when you find out Dreher “came to Christ through the Roman Catholic Church” and that he “read [his] way into the Roman Catholic Church from being an agnostic, atheist teenager… It was a very intellectual conversation. I was extremely prideful intellectually. I thought that if I had the syllogism in my head, my faith could withstand any trial.” But later he realized he needed more than a syllogism (proving the existence of God), he also needed ritual. So he became Eastern Orthodox, where he made his faith “incarnate.” There is little evidence Dreher is someone who has been convicted of his sinfulness and his need for a Savior, rather than simply someone who found atheism, and then the Roman Catholic Church, untenable. Consider how Dreher thinks Mormons relate to the Benedict Option.

One thing that’s really delighted me and surprised me in doing this research is to get to know more about what the LDS church does. Leaving theological concerns aside, as a social entity they do a terrific job of integrating faith with communal life and to looking out for each other. I think the rest of us from the older Christian traditions have a lot to learn from Mormons.

The Benedict Option is a thoroughly worldly vision of cultural transformation written by a cultural commentator (who admits he’s kind of making it up as he goes). He does not have anything to offer Reformed Christians about how to live our life as pilgrims in this world. Go listen to some expository preaching on Christian living instead. (That doesn’t mean everything he says is wrong, it just means there’s no reason to look to him for answers)

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Vern Poythress’ Critique of Prisons

From Vern Poythress’ The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (which is very worth reading, though I would disagree with and refine many points).

15 A Critique of Prisons

How do we evaluate the present systems of criminal justice in modern societies? Most modern societies use imprisonment as the primary form of punishment for crime. Some limited steps have been taken here and there to introduce alternative punishments, such as making thieves pay back for their theft. But such alternatives are the exception rather than the rule. For practical purposes we must focus attention on the value of imprisonment as a form of punishment.

First of all we should distinguish carefully between using prison for punishment and using it as a means of custody before trial. The use of some form of custody until the time of trial is attested in the Bible itself (Lev. 24:12; Acts 21:34; 23:35) and is widespread elsewhere. Sometimes no reasonable alternative is available. In such cases the temporary use of a prison is surely legitimate. To prevent this practice from becoming an unacknowledged or unintentional form of punishment, state authorities have an obligation to work for practices that promote speedy trial. In addition, the provision for bail works in favor of preventing unjust punishment in the form of confinement.

The deliberate use of prison for the purpose of punishing convicted offenders is quite another matter. In practice, it is a disaster. The statistics with regard to repeated offenders give a grim picture. Those who have been involved in prisons, either as state authorities or especially as prisoners, testify to their ineffectiveness, oppressiveness, and destructive tendencies.1

But I prefer to base my arguments on principle rather than on the actual results of the prison system. If I were to appeal only to actual results, I would leave open the possibility that prison reform could straighten out the system. I do not believe that any reform could be adequate, because the system is wrongheaded from the beginning.

To evaluate properly the principle of imprisonment, we must use biblical criteria. As we have seen, proper response to crime involves four aspects, namely restoration, punishment, deterrence, and rehabilitation. Restoration and punishment must be our primary concern. But deterrence and rehabilitation can be significant secondary indicators of whether a proposed solution makes contact with the reality of the human condition.

Does prison justly restore and punish?

Does prison promote just restoration for crimes? Restoration means making things good to the victim of a crime. The victim’s situation must be restored as far as possible to its original condition before the crime. Or if such restoration is not possible, some other kind of restoration to normalcy is appropriate, as when the thief gives back a substitute for a destroyed object, or when the fornicator is forced to marry his partner.

Prison in itself obviously restores nothing. Moreover, in cases where restoration involves the use of money, prison works against restoration by destroying the offender’s capacity to work in order to obtain money to pay the victim.

Does prison promote just punishment? Just punishment, as we have argued, always fits the crime. It always matches the nature and the intensity of the crime according to the principle, “As you have done, it will be done to you.” The only crime for which imprisonment would be the fitting penalty would be the crime of imprisoning someone else! A kidnapper might of course imprison the victim, and so one might deduce the penalty of imprisonment in this special case. But as we have seen in chapter 11, kidnapping also constitutes a usurpation of the authority of the state and as such merits the death penalty. The punishment of imprisonment does not cope with the full guilt attaching to kidnapping.

On a very general level one might argue that all crimes are abuses of the offender’s social powers and his tacit agreements with society. Hence such abuses are met by depriving the offender of interaction with society. But such reasoning grossly misconstrues the nature of crime. It pretends that crime is an offense against the criminal’s social rights, that is, an offense against the criminal himself, and also an offense against society as a whole, that is, society in the abstract. Neither is true. Crime is an offense against the victim. It is a much more personal thing than this reasoning admits, and not seeing the personal character of crime is one of the criminal’s main problems.

Yet another difficulty arises with respect to imprisonment. No plausible means exists for determining a just quantity of punishment. If the punishment matches the crime, as in my proposals in chapters 10-12, its quantity is automatically determined at least in a rough way. A theft of a small amount is met by a penalty proportional to this amount. The theft of a large amount is met by a penalty of a corresponding amount. But what do we do if we must use only the penalty of imprisonment? How much time in prison corresponds to the amount of a theft? We cannot say, because time and money do not directly match. How much time corresponds to murder? How much time to bodily injury? How much time to rape? How much time to adultery? Amount of time does not quantify any crime in a reasonable way.

We might perhaps propose to quantify some things by converting between quantities of money and quantities of time. An amount of time in some circumstances can be reckoned as equivalent to the amount of money that a person could earn during the given amount of time (see Exod. 21:19). But can we use such a criterion to deal with imprisonment? If the time really is equivalent to the corresponding amount of money, we should be satisfied with a monetary payment and not imprisonment. But in fact we are not satisfied, which indicates that the two are not really equivalent. Moreover, the question arises as to whether people who can command a higher salary should therefore be confined for less time. Such a position would offend all our sense of justice. Clearly imprisonment is not merely loss of working time, but in its essence something else altogether. What is it? An extreme form of slavery in which the wardens of the prison have much more detailed control in comparison with most historical instances of slavery? A form of slavery chosen to deprive the criminal of the normal pleasures of slavery, such as meaningful work, access to larger society, some degree of privacy, and social intimacy with spouse and family? What is this monster that we have invented, and how can it ever be just punishment?

Does prison effectively deter and rehabilitate?

Does prison deter crime? As long as the criminal is in prison, he is prevented from preying on the larger society. If and when he is released from prison, there is no guarantee whatsoever that he will not repeat his crime. Because doing time does not effectively match the nature of the criminal’s crime, it does not effectively take away his motive for committing crime again.

An even more telling objection arises from the nature of the small subsociety or subculture within a prison. Prisoners are not totally prevented from preying on fellow prisoners. Murders, rapes, and thefts do take place within prisons. Such possibilities make a mockery of justice. The very thing that is supposed to be punishment becomes the scene of more crime. Prison does not thoroughly deter crime but simply transports crime to another location.

Moreover, the fact of crime within prisons suggests that the real desires of society may be less lofty than its altruistic rhetoric. The motives of a society as a whole are of course varied and confused. But a cynical analysis might suggest the following. The outside society is not really concerned with true deterrence but with its own comfort. By removing criminals from its midst it obtains the comfort of not having so much crime. Subsequently it cares very little for whether crime is deterred inside the prison, as long as this crime is concealed and does not cause guilt feelings. To confine the prisoners for a lifetime would of course produce the greatest freedom from crime for the outside society. But the larger society would feel guilty about such a severe penalty. So it releases criminals after a time for the sake of comforting its own guilt feelings. The amount of time spent in prison is not determined by justice but by the interplay between social desire for freedom from crime and social desire for absence of guilt feelings. In all this interplay society can act with perfect selfishness. At the same time it can pretend that prisons are intended to provide criminals with a rehabilitative environment, and hence it can congratulate itself for having motives of concern for the rehabilitation of criminals rather than their punishment. Such selfishness will naturally produce largely cynicism and not repentance on the part of criminals.

Does prison offer significant hope for rehabilitation? Criminals have the most hope for rehabilitation if they feel the justice of their punishment. As I have argued in the previous chapter, such results are far more likely under a system that takes care to think explicitly in terms of principles of reciprocity and justice. In addition, criminals have a greater chance to reform if they are in normal contact with normal society. They then have opportunity immediately to engage in just, socially profitable work and contributions to others. The abnormalities of prison life can never become a viable environment for training in righteousness. In fact, prison frequently produces results in the opposite direction because the morality of a subculture of criminals reverses the morality of normal society.

In addition to all these factors, prison presents dangerous temptations to injustice on the part of the wardens, guards, and supervisors of the prison. Let us grant that many who are charged with prison supervision act out of true good will and as a service to society. They often do so within circumstances that are personally very difficult for them and sometimes dangerous to their own safety. But there is another side that we seldom think about. Supervisors and guards are exposed to temptations that can easily bring out the worst in anyone. They supervise prisoners some of whom are unpleasant people, sometimes vindictive, spiteful, deceitful, or obnoxious. Petty offenses and back talk from prisoners tempt supervisors to return evil with evil. The substandard morality of many prisoners tempts them to treat all prisoners as subhuman and to prejudge prisoners even before the prisoners do something against them. The prisoners have little effective way of making an appeal against injustice, and unjust acts on the part of supervisors are concealed within the prison from the eyes of the larger society. Hence injustice can be practiced with impunity. Supervisors have virtually totalitarian control over prisoners, and such absolute power tends to corrupt the human beings who possess it.

In sum, I would argue that the cases of injustice and sometimes gross inhumanity on the part of supervisors or guards are no accident but a natural product of the unjust, unworkable character of the system. We should be surprised that the system does not turn out even worse than it is.

As a last resort, one might argue that at least prison represents a kind of shadow of hell. In this very vague sense it expresses a kind of justice shadowing the justice of God’s judgment in hell. In reply I agree that prison imitates hell in one way. Just as hell isolates the damned and prevents them from contaminating the holiness of God’s renewed world, so prison prevents its inmates from contaminating the larger society. So long as people are in prison they are deterred from preying upon the larger society. But this result is deterrence, not justice. In other respects the problems remain. (1) Whereas hell expresses the justice of God, prison does not. (2) In hell people may well be prevented from exercising their unrighteous desires against others, but in prison they are still capable of injuring fellow prisoners. (3) The troubles of supervisors and guards still show prison to be ineffective even as an image of hell. (4) If we think that prison is so bad as to be a shadow of hell, are we still willing to argue that it is less bad than my proposed alternatives?

Meanwhile, as long as the present prison system exists, Christians must do what they can on behalf of prisoners (Matt 25:36-40). Through Prison Fellowship and other Christian organizations many opportunities exist to bring to prisoners friendship, community support, and the gospel itself, which is the power of God for salvation. A convenient list of resources can be found in Van Ness, Crime and Its Victims, pp. 193-217.

Chapter 15 Footnotes

1 For an introductory discussion, see Charles Colson, “Towards an Understanding of Imprisonment and Rehabilitation,” in John Stott and Nicholas Miller, eds., Crime and the Responsible Community (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), pp. 152-180.

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A 19th Century Presbyterian on Taxation as Theft

In this 1803 selection, American Presbyterian Covenanter Rev. Samuel B. Wylie, A.M. calls taxation theft because a government without divine authority that he does not consent to its taking money from him by force. (Covenanters believed that nations must covenant with God to defend the true religion. Since the United States advocated religious pluralism, they had no divine authority at all – at least in Wylie’s view).


Obj. 6. “The saints addressed them for justice, Acts 25:10,12, and 26:32, where the apostle appeals unto Caesar.”

To this I answer. An appeal to their tribunals, no more involves in it an homologation of their lawful dominion, than an appeal from a murderer to a thief, who would be disposed to save one’s life, would be an homologation of his living habitually in the breach of the eighth commandment. Suppose, for example, that Allegheny mountains were infested with a banditti of robbers, whose captain retained still so much humanity as to establish a law, that no poor man should be robbed of more than ten dollars—you happen to be crossing the mountain—five of the gang approach you, and rob you of one hundred, which is nearly your all—you meet with the master of the fraternity—you know the law—and believe that he still has as much humanity remaining as will induce him to execute it. Will you appeal to him to cause your ninety dollars to be refunded, which are due to you by his own law? If you do, will this implicate you in the immorality of the banditti, or be saying Amen to their unlawful practice? Certainly not. If this hold in the greater, it will surely hold in the less. If an appeal may be made to the captain of a band of robbers, without implication in his criminality, much more to these institutions which, though wrong in some fundamentals, are yet aiming at the good of civil society.

Obj. 7. “Christ himself both paid tribute and commanded his disciples to pay it, and that even to Caesar. Matt. 17:27, and 22:21. Was not this an acknowledgment of his authority?”

Ans. Simple payment of tribute never was considered as any homologation of the authority imposing it. It may be given to the worse of tyrants, if not demanded as a tessera of loyalty.

We might ask here, do the people of the United States homologate the authority of the Dey of Algiers, or, for conscience’ sake, recognize him as their legitimate ruler, when they pay their annual tribute to the haughty Musselman? Do they think that the dey has any moral right to demand such a thing? Do they not rather go upon the principle that it is better to give a part to save the remainder, than, by withholding, lose all? Such a course of conduct may be prudent and innocent with any band of robbers…

The other allegation brought from Matt. 22:21, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” &c., is equally unfounded.

It is abundantly evident, from the passage, that the question was intended to ensnare the Lord Jesus Christ, answer as he would. It was proposed by the Herodians and Pharisees; those, votaries for Roman domination, and these, the sticklers for Jewish immunities.

Had he said, “Give it to Caesar,” the Pharisees, ever ready to accuse him, would have represented him to the people as an enemy to their ancient privileges. Had he said, “Do not give it,” the Herodians would have represented him to Herod as an enemy to the government of Caesar. In the fifteenth verse, we are expressly told, they came to him with a view to “entangle him in his talk.” But he, “knowing their craftiness,” split their dilemma, and left their question undecided. He, on several other occasions, thus baffled his adversaries; as in John 8:4,12, in the case of the “woman taken in adultery,” and in Luke 12:14, when application was made to him concerning the settlement of the earthly inheritance. It is objected here, by some, “that this explanation of our Saviour’s answer represents the Lord Christ as shunning to declare the whole counsel of GOD—giving no answer in a case respecting sin and duty.” The inference is false. They were not without information on this very subject. They had the law and the prophets. The Lord Jesus Christ had given specific directions concerning the character of lawful rulers, Deut. 17:15, to whom it was lawful to pay tribute, for conscience’ sake. But it was not information they wanted, but to ensnare him, let him answer as he would, as has already been shown. If silence or refusing to answer in every case, even in matters respecting sin and duty, let the design of the querist be what it will be accounted criminal, in what point of light will the objector view the Lord Jesus Christ, when he finds him actually refusing to answer a question respecting sin and duty, in the case of his own authority? Mark 11:27,33: “Neither do I tell you (says he) by what authority I do these things.” It would be well, if men would consider the awful consequences of some of their objections, before they make them.

But, supposing that CHRIST, in both the instances alluded to, had commanded tribute to be paid to Caesar, what does it prove? Unless he commanded it to be paid as a tessera of loyalty, it proves no more the morality of Caesar’s right, than a minister of the gospel’s advising one of his hearers to give the robber part of his property, to secure the remainder, would, that the minister considered the robber morally entitled to it.

Obj. 8. “But you make use of the money which receives its currency from their sanction; and you support them by paying tribute, &c. Why not swear allegiance, hold offices?” &c.

Ans. We make use of the money, to be sure, but when we give an equivalent for it, by industry or otherwise, it is our own property; and another man’s stamping his name upon our coats is no reason why we should throw them away.

It must be granted, also, that we do support them, by paying tribute, &c. So do we the robber, unto whom we give a part to save the remainder. But will it therefore follow, that I may legally swear allegiance to him, or become one of his officers, in the business of robbery and plunder?…

Should a robber meet me on the highway, and upon finding that I had no money, put his bayonet to my breast; and should it appear evidently, that he intended to kill me, unless I would solemnly engage to take, or send him, a certain sum of money, in a given time, say fifty dollars, ought I not to comply? If I do, the oath is the result of mutual stipulation, which existing circumstances render eligible. It seems to me immaterial, whether the overture originates with him or with me. In either case, I consider it lawful to give fifty dollars to save my life.

TWO SONS OF OIL; Or THE FAITHFUL WITNESS For MAGISTRACY AND MINISTRY Upon A SCRIPTURAL BASIS.


Another American Presbyterian named William Findley, who served as part of Pennsylvania’s Constitutional Committee and served in the U.S. Congress for many years after that, responded to Wylie thus:

Another wonderful illustration, by which the American governments are designated robbers. Did ever the American government rob any man? No. The very insinuation of this is a seditious slander. The author knew that the sedition law was repealed before he wrote his book, but the same authority can renew it again. Robbers, if ever they are so generous as not to take all, give no equivalent for what they take. For what small tribute the author pays in this st ate, which goes wholly to making roads and bridges, or for court houses, courts, &c. the protection and accommodation of which the author and all aliens enjoy, as fully and freely as citizens do, is a full and ample equivalent, which they accept of, and enjoy. They pay no direct tax for the expense of the civil government of the state—this is paid out of another fund, which arose from the state doing more than her share during the distressing period of the war with Britain; of this, the hard earnings of the citizens, in other times, the author, &c. enjoy their proportion, without any equivalent, and they pay none to support the federal government. In England, from which we have copied much of our jurisprudence, allegiance is divided into two kinds, namely, the natural allegiance of natives, which they consider as perpetual, and the local and temporary allegiance, which is incidental to aliens. We have required hitherto only this last, for we have as yet made no law against expatriation, either of native or alien, but freely protect aliens without their giving allegiance. I have already shewn that all approved commentators on the Bible, or on civil and common law, and all moral and political writers, consider it a first principle or established moral maxim, that protection necessarily draws allegiance—that they are morally connected together—that they cannot be separated. This being the case, I recommend to the author to examine the questions over again, on more correct moral principles. In so doing, he will fi nd he has been mistaken; that the state has not robbed them; that it has received nothing but for an ample equivalent; that it did not seize their persons to bring them within their power, nor put them in fear, nor take from them, in this situation, money or goods. This is the legal technical definition of robbery. He will find also, from his own statement, that those whose cause he advocates, intruded themselves within our territory, enjoyed protection to their persons and property, and to their industry in acquiring property—And by his advice refuse allegiance, the only moral return for those very valuable benefits; but instead thereof spurn at the hand that received them when they were strangers, and fed and protected them without receiving the equivalent, which the law of nature, and nature’s God requires. If he does this impartially, he will certainly be convinced that he has cast the charge of robbery on the wrong side—that by the decision of the moral law, himself, and those whom he advocates, are the robbers, in receiving protection without an equivalent, and not the government, from whom they have experienced protection and forbearance, but no violence. (143-144)

For more on Findley see An American Presbyterian Argument Against Covenanters

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Cartel Land

This film is a must-watch. It really sets the stage well for discussing libertarianism, and specifically reformed libertarianism.

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Mohler’s 12 Theses on a Christian Understanding of Economics

Back in April, Albert Mohler posted 12 Theses on a Christian Understanding of Economics. It’s a very brief bullet point overview, so it doesn’t warrant any in depth analysis. But one important point should be mentioned. Mohler’s outlook is fairly collectivist in nature. He personifies “A Christian economic understanding” as if it is an entity that thinks and acts on its own. It “seeks” and “rewards.” What is missing from Mohler’s 12 theses is the individual. This is evident from his statement that “the family (biblically defined) is the most basic and essential unit of the economy.” No, the individual is the most basic and essential “unit.”

Mohler’s 12 theses all start with “A Christian economic understanding…” Using that personified entity he argues for the duty of “A Christian economic understanding” to “incentivize” “righteousness” through the tax code, noting that disagreements over taxation only amount to disagreement over how to “re-calibrate” the tax machine to produce the desired result in society (central planning). That’s not biblical (and thus not Christian).

Mohler also conflates economics, politics, and the Christian life. Economics is a descriptive study of human behavior. Politics is a prescriptive theory regarding the use of force. The Christian life encompasses everything a redeemed individual does in conformity to Scripture. They are all distinct.

I would suggest that Mohler’s confusion and errors could be ironed out, and important points could be retained, if he simply replaced “A Christian economic understanding…” with “A Christian…” For example, “10. A Christian economic understanding rewards generosity and proper stewardship” should be “10. A Christian should be generous and be a proper steward.” That way we avoid nebulous references to collective actions never taken by any individual and therefore provide a more accurate summary of what Scripture says on each point.

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A Single or Dual Rule of Morality?

The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics recently published an essay by Timothy D. Terrell about Frederick Nymeyer, a 20th century Dutch Calvinist (CRC) libertarian who promoted and published Austrian economics in Calvinist circles. I haven’t read enough of his work to comment on his theology. The bits I have read I would agree and disagree with various points.

He founded the Progressive Calvinism League to respond to the growing propagation of socialism in the CRC and other Calvinist churches. He published a journal called Progressive Calvinism. The first volume contains a manifesto listing 6 Declarations. Here is Declaration #4

DECLARATION NO.4
(a) Promote a single rule of morality; and (b) reject a dual rule, namely, one rule for individuals and a conflicting rule for groups.

Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the famous theologians in America today who influences the trend of theological thinking as much as any man in America, has indicated that it is moral for society to do what it is immoral for an individual to do (see his Moral Man and Immoral Society). This is a vicious principle. It establishes a double standard of morality – one for a man as an individual and another for a man as a member of a group, a union, a state, a race, a class, or mankind as a whole. It is wrong for a man to steal as an individual, but as a member of American society, which is deliberately inflationary, a man may engage in public stealing every day (by means of inflation)! This is only one of many examples we intend to cite and explain.

The “church” is almost universally silent on all this public iniquity. The “church” has retreated. Many churches have no discipline any more against individual sins. But in regard to public sins, is there one large denomination in all America which concerns itself about them and has a Biblical answer? Or do the answers of the great denominations allow more or less for a double standard of morality? Where there is no personal (private) discipline the church is dead. Where there is no testimony against public sins the church is worse than dead; it is a renegade.

And the outcome? As Solomon says about events in the social science field, the effects are  “no speedily executed” – it takes time, but they are as sure to come as effects in the physical sciences. And the effects of a dual standard of morality, the effect of the church (by inaction) blessing public sins will be what? The effect on the reputation of the church will be calamitous; the church will be cursed, as apostasy was cursed by the prophets of old – it will be a desolation, a hissing and an execration. Not for nothing is the church generally in disrepute among smart people.

C.Jay has previously quoted John W. Robbins making the same point (See here as well. I would be surprised if Robbins had not read the journal).

Nymeyer makes additional comments in a subsequent essay in the journal.

[W]e do not think highly of the Calvinism which props the Christian religion with the ideas of the Greek philosophers.

We can state it pretty simply. Our fourth Declaration reads:
( a ) Promote a single rule of morality; and ( b ) reject a dual rule, namely, one rule for individuals and a conflicting rule for groups.

Now what did Plato put in his dialogue called The Republic, Book III? This:

Then if anyone at all is to have the privilege of lying, the rulers of the State should be the persons; and they, in their dealings either with enemies or their own citizens, may be allowed to lie for the public good. But nobody else should meddle with anything of the kind. ..

Just as ordinary businessmen, we do not believe what Plato writes.

And what is the real “joker” in the statement. It is four words which we have italicized, the words “for the public good.” That dangerous phrase masks every public iniquity which people tolerate and accept. A great Netherlander, Groen van Prinsterer, called attention to the fact that every piece of evil perpetrated by the French Revolution was defended as being “for the public good.” Those words always betray self-deception or masked malignancy. The principal is: the end justifies the means, and there is always an assumption of a dual moral rule.

We ourselves hold to Declaration Four. We hold to one and the same standard of morality for both individuals and the State, Plato to the contrary notwithstanding.

Scripture is far more “simple” than Plato. Where in Scripture is lying justified! Scripture does not talk about ends or purposes. It talks about means. It has no hypocrisy about the ends justifying the means.

In short, we plan to stick to Scripture, and we have no inferiority complex about Calvinism or Christianity even though we do not prop them up with Greek philosophy.

We hope you will not miss Plato’s point nor our point. The “public good” is something different from “personal good.” Plato recommends a dual morality. We believe in a single morality. Read again our Declaration Four.

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Justice or Public Utility?

“[T]hough many things are copied from the law of Moses into the laws of the modern nations, yet so far as I know none of them have introduced the lex talionis in the case of injuries, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, &c. and yet perhaps there are many instances in which it would be very proper.” (Jurisprudence, John Witherspoon, Scottish-American Presbyterian minister and a Founding Father of the United States)

It’s worth reflecting on that a bit and asking yourself why. Is it because justice is not the true function of modern states? Lex talionis is a principle of retributive justice. Just one page earlier, Witherspoon himself argues:

Therefore the punishment in general must consist of two parts, (i) reparation to the sufferer. (2) the vindicta publica, which has sometimes two ends in view, to be an example to others, and to reclaim and reform the offenders, as in corporal punishment less than death. Sometimes but one, the good of others in the example, as in capital punishments, and banishment.

The kind of punishment and the degree, is left wholly to different lawgivers, and the spirit of different constitutions. Public utility is the rule. Punishment is not always proportioned to the atrociousness of the crime in point of morals, but to the frequency of it, and the danger of its prevailing.

Witherspoon continues the opening quote about lex talionis by noting “The equity of the punishment would be quite manifest, and probably it would be as effectual a restraint from the commission of injury as any that could be chosen.” He then closes his lecture by insisting “Let the laws be just and the magistrate inflexible.”

First, he already said that the magistrate is given entire flexibility as to “the kind of punishment and the degree.” Second, if “public utility is the rule” then justice is not.

Note Machen:

What then is the remedy for the threatened disruption of society and for the rapidly progressing decay of liberty?

There is really only one remedy. It is the rediscovery of the law of God.

If we want to restore respect for human laws, we shall have to get rid of this notion that judges and juries exist only for the utilitarian purpose of the protection of society, and shall have to restore the notion that they exist for the purposes of justice. They are only very imperfect exponents of justice, it is true. There are vast departments of life with which they should have nothing whatever to do. They are exceeding their God-given function when they seek to enforce inward purity or purity of the individual life, since theirs is the business only of enforcing – and that in necessarily imperfect fashion – that part of righteousness which concerns the relations between man and man. But they are instruments of righteousness all the same, and when that is not recognized, disaster follows for the state. Society will never be preserved by attaching savage penalties to trifling offences because the utilitarian interests of society demand it; it will never be preserved by the vicious practice (followed by some judges) of making ‘examples’ of people is spasmodic and unjust fashion because such examples are thought to have a salutary effect as a deterrent from future crime. No, we say, let justice never be lost from view – abstract, holy, transcendent justice – no matter what the immediate consequences may be thought to be. Only so will the ermine of the judge again be respected and the ravages of decadence be checked.

-The Christian View of Man p. 193

See also Punishment and Proportionality (Rothbard)

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