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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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