Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sola Scriptura and Civil Government: Part 1: The Regulative Principle of the State as Advocated in the Reformation

by Steve C. Halbrook
Special thanks to Vindiciae Legis for his assistance 


During the Protestant Reformation (along with the post-Reformation immediately after), we saw the greatest outbreak in doctrinal refinement in Christian history. One of the major emphases of this era was the sufficiency of Scripture—"Sola Scriptura." And this emphasis was not minimized to salvation or matters of the church; it was also applied to matters of the state.

For the Reformers, the biblical doctrine that God's word equips one for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17) was taken seriously. As such, the actions of civil rulers were to be regulated by Scripture; that is, rulers could neither add nor take away from Scripture by ignoring what Scripture requires of the state, or by enacting any laws that they pleased. In short, all civil laws required Scriptural warrant.

This view stands against other views of civil government in Christian circles in our own day which more or less deny the need for applying Scripture to civil government. It also stands against 
a doctrine I've heard some advocate as of late (perhaps best described as "the normative principle of the state"), which, while acknowledging the need for rulers to apply all civil laws in Scripture, also allows rulers to add any additional laws that they see fit (so long as no civil laws in Scripture are violated in the process). 

Clarifications about the Regulative Principle of the State

To avoid misunderstanding, when we speak of "the regulative principle of the state," and that rulers cannot add or take away from Scripture, we mean that the state is not only bound to what Scripture
explicitly requires of it, but what it implicitly requires of it as well.

We see the principle of good and necessary inference as it applies to God's law in general in a discussion of the "do not muzzle the ox" command in 1 Corinthians 9:8-12. As Paul points out in this text, the explicit law to feed a working ox implies the need to pay people for their labors. Civil laws therefore may not just be determined by explicit command, but by circumstances analogous to circumstances described in explicit commands. 

For example, the case law that requires restraining a goring ox (Exodus 21:28-32) implies the need to restrain anything that can harm others. Nations then may use this case law to require such things as the restraint of dangerous animals in general (e.g., a pit bull prone to attack people), or taking precautions to keep motorized vehicles from losing control (e.g., repairing faulty brakes). More can be said on laws implicitly taught in Scripture, but that would be beyond the scope of this introduction.

Also when we speak of the regulative principle of the state, we do not mean that all explicit civil laws in Scripture must be enforced—some given to Israel were clearly particular to Israel. Although they may be overlapped with principles that all nations should apply; for example, Cities of Refuge were just for Israel, but their application in dealing with accidental manslaughter (Joshua 20) may give some direction for dealing with manslaughter today.

Finally, we do not mean that Scripture never allows for rulers to apply discretion in enforcing certain laws. In some cases, discretion is permissible within certain parameters allowed by Scripture itself. For instance, when it comes to the punishment of flogging, it is within the discretion of the magistrate to apply between 1 and 40 stripes (Deuteronomy 25:1-3). Moreover, some believe that the punishment for some capital crimes can be mitigated due to repentance. 

The Reformers and the Regulative Principle of the State

With these clarifications in mind, we return to the Reformers. Through quotes given by a significant number of them (mostly theologians, but some rulers), we show here their reliance on Scripture in matters of civil government and a commitment to the regulative principle of the state. For them, both the Old and the New Testaments provide a comprehensive ethical blueprint for civil matters.

This, of course, doesn't mean that every Reformer who advocated the regulative principle of the state was always consistent; people are perfectly capable of making conflicting statements. However, what some may take to be conflicting statements by some of these Reformers may not actually be conflicting statements.

For instance, statements by the Reformers regarding the judicial laws of Moses and their applicability to all nations may be either positive or negative, depending on whether judicial laws particular to Israel are in view (laws of particular equity), or judicial laws that are applicable to all nations (laws of general equity). (Learn more about particular/general equity in this article about the Westminster Confession and the Judicial Laws of Moses by Vindiciae Legis.)

Moreover, statements by the Reformers favorably advocating a ruler's duties to enforce the judicial laws of Moses may differ from their statements opposing rebellion by citizens because such citizens do not deem the judicial laws to be sufficiently enforced; the former deals with the duty of rulers, while the latter deals with the duty of subjects.

People can also share in a commitment to the regulative principle of the state but differ in its application. The Bible is a big book and has a lot to say about civil government—not only explicitly, but implicitly. With so much to learn about civil government, advocates of the regulative principle of the state can easily disagree on a multitude of things (the state's role in economics, the flexibility of punishments, whether confession is sufficient for conviction, etc.).

With all that said, we now turn to our list of quotes/perspectives of Reformers advocating the regulative principle of the state. This list includes some of the most well-known Reformers (e.g, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, and Tyndale), and those from a wide spectrum of Protestant persuasions (e.g., Congregational, Presbyterian, Anglican, and Lutheran). We also include quotes from some statesmen and creeds/confessions. Our current list includes:

Edward VI 
Frederick III
Henry Balnaves

Zwingli’s Sixty-Seven Articles
The Second Helvetic Confession
The True Confession of 1596 

John Wycliffe
Ulrich Zwingli
Heinrich Bullinger
Martin Bucer
John Calvin
Theodore Beza
William Tyndale
Pierre Viret
John Knox
Thomas Cranmer
Thomas Becon
Hugh Latimer
Peter Martyr Vermigli
Henry Barrow
Johannes Brenz
Edward Dering
Thomas Cartwright

(Conspicuously absent from this list are Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon; but if they didn't advocate the regulative principle of the state, they nevertheless had a high regard for biblical civil law. Click here for more info.) 

Note that just because certain Reformation-era theologians and statesmen are absent from this list, it does not necessarily mean that they denied the regulative principle of the state (although some may have). We may just not have enough info about them on this matter at this point. 

And while we only include a small number of creeds/confessions, t
he authors of several other confessions may very well have assumed the regulative principle of the state without explicitly stating so in the confessions themselves. Here, however, we wanted to just include those that appear to explicitly confirm the regulative principle of the state.

To make future updates to this article easier, we have included footnotes at the end of each section instead of combining all of them at the end of the article. 

John Wycliffe (1320-1384), pre-Reformation reformer, "the Morning Star of the Reformation"

Scripture as the basis for all civil law

Wycliffe says the following about God's law:
[R]egalian rights of the king and all human laws of the king should be directed by the law of God.[1]
[I]t is clear that the king is to rule the men of his realm according to the divine law.[2]
The Law of Christ, when perfectly executed, teaches most rightfully how every injustice must be extirpated from the commonwealth, and how those offending against the law should be chastised.[3]
Note that Wycliffe requires all civil laws to conform to God's law—everything from the prohibitions to the actual punishments. It seems hard to make the case that Wycliffe refers to natural law instead of Scripture, as natural law is not nearly perspicuous enough for one to discern a detailed ethical blueprint for civil government regarding prohibitions and punishments. And so Bernard Capp writes: 
Wyclif attacked the profiteering lawyers and argued that men were not bound to obey laws not based on scripture. He condemned the view that 'sinful men's laws, full of error, be more needful than the gospel.'[4] 
(There are some who use the term "gospel" both narrowly and broadly, with the former having to do with salvation in Christ, and the latter—as Wycliffe here uses it—to mean all of Scripture.)


[1] William Farr, John Wyclif as Legal Reformer (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1974), 76.
[2] Johannes Wyclif, Tractatus de Civili Domino, eds. Reginald Lane Poole and Johann Loserth (4 vols; London: 1885-1904), 188. Cited in Ibid., 76.
[3] Wyclif, Tractatus de Civili Domino, I, 432. Cited in Howard Kaminsky, History of the Hussite Revolution (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1967), 33.
[4] Bernard Capp, The Fifth Monarchy Men: A Study in Seventeenth-Century English Millenarianism (Faber & Faber, 2012) (no page number given, being part of a Google Books preview). The followers of Wycliffe known as the Lollards shared Wycliffe's high view of biblical civil law. In regards to advocating the Mosaic civil code, "The Lollards had held a number of views similar to the Fifth Monarchists. ... The chronicler, Henry of Knighton, claimed that the cry 'Legem dei, Goddis lawe', was the watchword of the Lollard movement." Ibid.

Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), Founder of Swiss Protestantism, "the First Reformed Theologian"

Scripture to Regulate all of Life, including Civil Government

For Zwingli, the word of God was to regulate all of life—not just matters of the church. In a letter "To an honourable Council, and to the whole community of his native county of Toggenburg," written "just at the moment in which they were to decide whether they should receive the newly proclaimed evangelical truth or remain by the old papistical doctrine,"[1] he writes:
For He will that His Word alone be obeyed, and that the life be regulated by it alone.[2]
Regulate your whole lives according to the divine Word, and set your consolation and trust alone in the Almighty.[3]
In short, Zwingli advocates regulating all of life according to God's word—which naturally entails civil government. Interestingly, his letter was to a political entity: "an honourable Council," along with "the whole community."

And so for Zwingli, God's word is to reform all of life, as it is the only valid source of law:
The distinctive feature of Zwingli's practical Christianity was its radical Biblicism and theocentricity. More than Luther, Zwingli made what he saw as the living Word of God in Scripture the measure of all things and the only valid source of law. ... 
From the outset, Zwingli espoused a commitment to the fundamental reform of social and political life fired by optimism about what it might be possible to achieve.[4]

Zwingli Affirms the Judicial Law

As an advocate of the regulative principle of the state, we would expect Zwingli to affirm the abiding validity of the judicial law of Moses. This he does in discussing Christ's teachings (perhaps regarding Matthew 5:17 and up):
Zwingli states his concept of Christ's relationship to the judicial laws of Moses when he writes: "Christ brought nothing new into the law of the fathers, but He made fresh the old commandments, and did away with human traditions."[5]
Thus Zwingli accepts the state's use of the judicial law, but not human traditions.

In affirming the judicial law, Zwingli "was able to invoke the Mosaic penalties for adultery, witchcraft and offences against property."[6] He also supported the Mosaic law's death penalty for striking a parent.[7]

Just as in Israel, in Zwingli's Zurich rulers were to punish such criminals as blasphemers, Sabbath-breakers, murderers, thieves, and adulterers.[8] And just as in Israel false worship was to be restrained, so in Zwingli's Zurich, the idolatrous Mass was restrained.[9] 

Zwingli also agreed with Israel's concern for the state to protect the foundations of religion. A year before his death, he said this to John Oecolampadius, who had complained about the dangerous Arian teachings of Servetus, [10] which denied that Christ is the eternal God: "This must not be endured in the church of God, therefore do what you can to prevent the blasphemy from getting abroad, to the injury of Christianity."[11]  

Zwingli's Zurich

In Zwingli's Zurich, the state's relationship with the church was to be restricted to God's Word, as Zwingli
delivered up the ecclesiastical into the hands of the civil power, but always on the understood condition, the latter were to take the Word of God as their sole directory in all their proceedings. That this might be done, Zwingli and his colleagues watched their conduct with a jealous fidelity, and denounced every attempt to exceed the prescribed limits, with the courage and energy which became them as guardians of a holy treasure, and as prophets of the truth. Excommunication in Zurich thus modified itself in accordance with these ideas.[12]

The use of "the Word of God as their sole directory" cannot be about church matters in isolation from political matters in general, since in Zurich church and state had a tight relationship.

In such an arrangement, the church claimed spiritual jurisdiction over all the citizens in the realm,[13] while at the same time, excommunication—which for Zwingli was the job of the state in lands with Christian rulers[14]—was to be carried out in the form of civil punishment against everyone from unrepentant blasphemers and murderers to thieves and adulterers.[15]

An offense against the church, then, was an offense against the state—and vice versa. Crimes in Zurich then were a church matter, which automatically became—or could potentially become—subject to state proceedings that had to be regulated by "the Word of God as their sole directory."

Gordon sums up Zwingli's approach to Zurich:
Zwingli understood 'reformation' to mean the reform of the community or congregation. The agents of reform were the magistrates. Since human communities reformed by the Word of God were to reflect the divine law by which they were governed, there could be no distinction between the religious and political life of the community; to belong to the state was to belong to the church. Thus political authority was accorded a divine function as magistrates were charged with administering justice in accordance with Scriptural authority, and further, they were responsible for the spiritual welfare of their people.[16]
McCracken states that Zwingli wanted a Zurich where "religion and politics should both conform to the precepts of the Bible."[17] And according to Christoffel, "In Zurich, Zwingli's Reforming labours were specially directed, in the latter years of his life, to a transformation of social relations to a conformity with the demands of God's Word."[18]

Zwingli's reforms resulted in the following decree by the magistrate in regards to the Sabbath—note the emphasis on the word of God as the kingdom's "only sure guide and directory":
The celebration of the Sabbath was regulated according to these principles laid down by the Reformer [Zwingli - S.H.]. It was ordained by a mandate of the civil magistrate of 1530: "That seeing that, firstly, and above all things, we ought to seek the kingdom of God; and seeing that His Word is the only sure guide and directory to this kingdom and to our salvation, we order and ordain that every man, be he noble-born or a commoner, be he of high or low estate, man or woman, child or servant, shall attend the church-service every Sunday at least, at the set time of public worship, except he be prevented by sickness, or other sufficient cause."[19]
Zwingli's Sixty-Seven Articles (1523)

In 1523, Zwingli released Sixty-seven Articles (or Conclusions). On the background, Christian historian Philip Schaff writes: 
Zwingli’s views, in connection with the Lutheran Reformation in Germany, created a great commotion, not only in the city and canton of Zurich, but in all Switzerland. At his suggestion, the government—that is, the burgomaster and the small and large Council (called The Two Hundred)—ordered a public disputation which should settle the controversy on the sole basis of the Scriptures.
For this purpose Zwingli published Sixty-seven Articles or Conclusions (Schlussreden). They are the first public statement of the Reformed faith, but they never attained symbolical authority, and were superseded by maturer confessions. They resemble the Ninety-five Theses of Luther against indulgences, which six years before had opened the drama of the German Reformation; but they mark a great advance in Protestant sentiment, and cover a larger number of topics. They are full of Christ as the only Saviour and Mediator, and clearly teach the supremacy of the Word of God as the only rule of faith; they reject and attack the primacy of the Pope, the Mass, the invocation of saints, the meritoriousness of human works, the fasts, pilgrimages, celibacy, purgatory, etc., as unscriptural commandments of men.[20]
In the section "About Magistry," some of the things that Zwingli affirms are: 1) that Christians owe obedience to rulers unless they violate God's law; 2) rulers that disobey God's law may be deposed; and 3) only public offences that offend God warrant the death penalty:
XXXVII. To them, furthermore, all Christians owe obedience without exception. 
XXXVIII. In so far as they do not command that which is contrary to God. ...
XL. They alone may put to death justly, also, only those who give public offence (if God is not offended let another thing be commanded). ... 
XLII. But if they are unfaithful and transgress the laws of Christ they may be deposed in the name of God.[21]
Also in this section, Zwingli affirms that all civil laws must be harmonious with God's will, and not with man's will:
XXXIX. Therefore all their laws shall be in harmony with the divine will, so that they protect the oppressed, even if he does not complain. ...
XLIII. In short, the realm of him is best and most stable who rules in the name of God alone, and his is worst and most unstable who rules in accordance with his own will.[22] 


[1] Raget Christoffel, Zwingli; Or, The Rise of the Reformation in Switzerland. A Life of the Reformer, with Some Notices of His Time and Contemporaries, trans. John Cochran (Philadelphia, PA: Smith, English, & Co., 1858), 175.
[2] Ibid., 176.
[3] Ibid., 177.
[4] Joachim Whaley, Germany and the Holy Roman Empire: Volume I: Maximilian I to the Peace of Westphalia, 1493-1648 (NY: Oxford University Press, 2012), 194.
[5] V. Norskov Olsen, The New Testament Logia on Divorce, 65. 
[6] P. D. L. Avis, "Moses and the Magistrate: A Study in the Rise of Protestant Legalism," Journal of Ecclesiastical History, vol. 26, no. 2 (April 1975): 13. Retrieved June 13, 2014 from
[7] Ibid.
[8] For Sabbath breakers, see Christoffel, Zwingli; Or, The Rise of the Reformation in Switzerland. A Life of the Reformer, with Some Notices of His Time and Contemporaries,158, 159. For the other prohibitions, see Christoffel, Zwingli; Or, The Rise of the Reformation in Switzerland,160.
[9] William Denison McCraken, The Rise of the Swiss Republic: A History (Geneve: Georg & Cie, Libraires-Editeurs, 1901), 263.
[10] Paul Henry, The Life and Times of John Calvin, the Great Reformer: Volume II, trans. Henry Stebbing (London: Whittaker and Co., 1849), 170, 171.
[11] Cited in Ibid., 171.
[12] Christoffel, Zwingli; Or, The Rise of the Reformation in Switzerland,160.
[13] "The example of Zurich was followed by the other cantons in which the Reformation triumphed. Each has its own ecclesiastical establishment, which claims spiritual jurisdiction over all the citizens of its territory." Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume VIII: Modern Christianity, the Swiss Reformation (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1892), 67.

"This combination of the ecclesiastical and civil powers in one body had already a historical foundation in Switzerland; for in the most illustrious period of its annals the civil power had effectively maintained its right to decide upon the temporalities of the church, as also in questions of discipline and morals, with the inclusion of the clergy, high and low, within the jurisdiction. Zwingli, as a patriotic Reformer, wished to revive this fine old time with its simplicity of manners, its vigour of character, and honesty of purpose." Christoffel, Zwingli; Or, The Rise of the Reformation in Switzerland, 160, 161.

[14] Christoffel, Zwingli; Or, The Rise of the Reformation in Switzerland, 161.
[15] Ibid., 160.
[16] Andrew Pettegree, ed., The Early Reformation in Europe (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 76.
[17] McCraken, The Rise of the Swiss Republic, 263.
[18] Christoffel, Zwingli; Or, The Rise of the Reformation in Switzerland, 435.
[19] Ibid., 158, 159.
[20] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume VII: Modern Christianity, The Swiss Reformation (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907), 51, 52.
[21] Huldrych Zwingli, Selected Works of Huldrich Zwingli, (1484-1531) The Reformer of German Switzerland, translated for the First Time from the Originals, ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 1901). Retrieved November 8, 2014 from
[22] Ibid.

Photo credit:
Stained glass of Ulrich Zwingli in Strasbourg
© Ralph Hammann / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0) (license)
Retrieved October 9, 2014 from

Heinrich Bullinger (1504 - 1575), Swiss Reformer, Zwingli's Successor

Bullinger and Old Testament Civil Law

In Bullinger's writings we see an appeal to the judicial laws of Moses as the basis for civil law. In the third of his influential "Decades," Bullinger, after mentioning a ruler's requirement to rule by the substance of the judicial laws of Moses, discusses judicial laws pertaining to such things as electing rulers, the office of judges, the treatment of the poor, sexual immorality, divorce, economics, slavery, theft, damages, disease control, and rules of war; as well as punishments for criminals, such as witches, false prophets, apostates, blasphemers, Sabbath-breakers, slanderers, murderers, and incorrigible sons.[1] 

In his second Decade, Bullinger writes:
[I]t is the duty of a christian magistrate, or at leastwise of a good householder, to compel to amendment the breakers and contemners of God’s sabbath and worship. The peers of Israel, and all the people of God, did stone to death (as the Lord commanded them) the man that disobediently did gather sticks on the sabbath-day. Why then should it not be lawful for a christian magistrate to punish by bodily imprisonment, by loss of goods, or by death, the despisers of religion, of the true and lawful worship done to God, and of the sabbath-day? Verily, though the foolish and indiscreet magistrate in this corrupted age do slackly look to his office and duty ... [2]
We see Bullinger's commitment to biblical civil law in action regarding the execution of the vile blasphemer Servetus. In defense of a work of Calvin on punishing heretics, he writes to Calvin,
I know that many have wished that you had not defended this principle; but many also thank you, and among others our church. Urbanus Regius has long ago proved, in a work of his own, and all the ministers of Luneberg agree with him, that heretics, when they are blasphemers, ought to be punished. There are also many other pious men who think the same, and consider that such offenders ought not only to be silenced, but to be put to death. Do not repent therefore of what you have done: the Lord will uphold your righteous efforts. I know that your disposition is not cruel, and that you will favour no barbarity. Who knows not, that a boundary must be set to things of this kind? But how it could be possible to spare such a man as Servetus, that serpent of all heresies, that most obdurate of men, I see not.[3]

The Sin of Neglecting Biblical Capital Punishments

For Bullinger, it is sinful for rulers to neglect to apply biblical capital punishments:
[Magistrates] God commandeth to use authority and to kill, threatening to punish him most sharply, if he neglect to kill the men whom God commandeth to be killed. ... [T]he magistrate killeth at God's commandment, when he putteth to death those which are by law condemned for their offences, or when in defence of his people he doth justly and necessarily arm himself to the battle. And yet the magistrates may offend in those two points two sundry ways. For either they do by law, that is, under the coloured pretence of law, slay the guiltless, to satisfy their own lust, hatred, or covetousness; as we read, that Jezebel slew the just man Naboth, with the Lord's prophets: or else by peevish pity and foolish clemency do let them escape scot-free, whom the Lord commanded them to kill; as Saul and Achab are reported to have sinned in letting go the bloody kings whom God commanded to be slain. And Salomon, in the seventeenth of his Proverbs, doth testify, that the Lord doth as greatly hate the magistrate that acquitteth a wicked person, as him that condemneth an innocent man.[4] 

When Rulers Submit to Christ they Must Rule by God's Word

In the third and fourth of his "Decades," Henry Bullinger includes a dedication to the godly King Edward VI, where he exhorts the young king to submit himself and his kingdom to Jesus Christ—which entails ruling by God's word: 
Having my warrant therefore out of the word of God, I dare boldly avow, that those kings shall flourish and be in happy case, which wholly give and submit themselves and their kingdoms to Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, being King of kings, and Lord of lords; acknowledging him to be the mightiest prince and monarch of all, and themselves his vassals, subjects, and servants: which, finally, do not follow in all their affairs their own mind and judgment, the laws of men that are contrary to God’s commandments, or the good intents of mortal men; but do both themselves follow the very laws of the mightiest king and monarch, and also cause them to be followed throughout all their kingdom, reforming both themselves and all theirs at and by the rule of God’s holy word.  For in so doing the kingdom shall flourish in peace and tranquillity, and the kings thereof shall be most wealthy, victorious, long-lived, and happy.  For thus speaketh the mouth of the Lord, which cannot possibly lie: “When the king sitteth upon the seat of his kingdom, he shall take the book of the law of God, that he may read in it all the days of his life, that he may do it, and not decline from it either to the right hand or to the left; but that he may prolong the days in his kingdom both of his own life and of his children.” And again, “Let not the book of this law depart out of thy mouth,” (Josue, or thou, whatsoever thou art that hast a kingdom), “but occupy thy mind therein day and night, that thou mayest observe and do according to all that is written therein: for then shalt thou make thy way prosperous, and then shalt thou be happy.”  It is assuredly true, therefore, confirmed by the testimony of the most true God, and in express words pronounced, that the prosperity of kings and kingdoms consisteth in true faith, diligent hearing, and faithful obeying the word or law of God: whereas their calamity and utter overthrow doth follow the contrary.[5]
Bullinger goes on to give examples of rulers who experienced either blessing for ruling by God's word, or calamity for neglecting to rule by God's word.[6] Rulers, then, must set about "reforming both themselves and all theirs" (their subjects)—which can make the difference between prosperity and calamity.

Basing all Matters of Justice on God's Word

In the same dedication to Edward VI, Bullinger says that all matters of justice must ordered according to the "perfect rule"—God's holy word:
But whereunto doth all this tend? That your royal Majesty, forsooth, may undoubtingly know, and be assuredly persuaded, that true felicity is gotten and retained by faithful study in the word of God: to wit, if you submit yourself altogether and your whole kingdom to Christ, the chief and highest prince; if, throughout your whole realm, you dispose and order religion, and all matters of justice, according to the rule of God's holy word; if you decline not one hair's breadth from that rule, but study to advance the kingdom of Christ, and go on (as hitherto you have happily begun) to subvert and tread under foot the usurped power of that tyrannical antichrist. Not that your Majesty needeth any whit at all mine admonitions or instructions: for you have undoubtedly that heavenly teacher in your mind (I mean, the Holy Ghost), which inspireth you with the very true doctrine of sincere and true religion. Your Majesty hath the sacred Bible, the holiest book of all books, wherein, as in a perfect rule, the whole matter of piety and our true salvation is absolutely contained and plainly set down.[7]
Elsewhere, Bullinger states the following regarding justice in terms of the regulation of civil punishments:
But let not the magistrate execute any man until he know first perfectly, whether he that is to be punished hath deserved that punishment that the judges determine; and whether God hath commanded to punish that offence, that is, whether by God's law that is condemned, which is to be punished.[8] 

The Judicial Law as Sufficient for Civil Government

 For Bullinger, the judicial law is authoritative and sufficient for civil government:
Now although these judicial laws are very few in number, and not to be compared in multitude with the huge volumes of the laws and decrees of emperors, kings, and wisest sages; yet do they in their short breviary contain the chief points of judgment and justice, and, in effect, as much almost as is contained in the books of the laws and constitutions of the emperors and civil lawyers. The good Lord would not by too long and burdensome a pack of laws be too burdenous and troublesome unto his people; neither was it needful over curiously to stick upon every several thought of ill-disposed persons: it is sufficient for all wise men, people, and nations, if every one have so much law as is sufficient for the conservation of peace, civil honesty, and public tranquillity; as all the holy scripture witnesseth that the people of Israel had.  
Now these judicial laws are the most ancient, and very fountains of all other good laws which are to be found almost in all the world. ... [T]he judicial laws of God are commended unto us, not so much for their antiquity, as for the authority which they have of God.[9]
The judicial law, therefore, is the basis for just judgment:
Now that we may plainly and distinctly discourse upon this matter, ye have to mark, that to judge is an action; and in this treatise is taken for an action done in the courts of judgment: for it signifieth to take up and determine of matters betwixt such as be at variance, or else upon the hearing of a cause to give sentence or judgment. Finally, to judge doth signify, to deliver them that be in danger, to relieve the oppressed, to defend the afflicted, and with punishment to keep under mischievous offenders. Judgment, therefore, is not the sitting or meeting of judges in assizes or sessions; but is rather the very diligent discussing of causes, the giving of sentence according to right and equity by the laws of God, and also the assertion and defence whereby the good are delivered, and the punishment that is executed upon the ill—disposed and wicked offenders. 
The judges are the overseers of judgment and justice; I mean, such as do justly according to the laws give sentence betwixt them that are at discord, which do defend and deliver the good, and punish and bridle the wicked. And so the judicial laws are those which inform the judges how to determine of controversies and questions, how to judge justly, how to punish the wicked, and how to defend the good, that peace, honesty, justice, and public tranquillity may be among all men; which is the end and mark alone whereto both the judge and all the judicial laws do tend and are directed. For God, our good Lord and lawgiver, would have it to go well with man, that we may live happily, civilly, and in tranquillity. And therefore we do not in this treatise exclude the care and defence of pure religion, but do make it one of the especial points which the judicial laws do look unto.[10] 
And so Bullinger's advice to Edward VI is to rule solely by the word and the judicial law of God:
Now I suppose that in this institution of a king all things are contained, which are most largely set out by other authors touching the discipline and education of a prince. And by the way this is especially to be noted; that kings are not set as lords and rulers over the word and laws of God; but are, as subjects, to be judged of God by the word, as they that ought to rule and govern all things according to the rule of his word and commandment.
And here I have to rehearse unto you some of the judicial laws; I mean, not all and every several one, but those alone which are the chief and choicest to be noted: by which ye may consider of the rest, and plainly perceive, that the people of Israel were not destitute of any law which was necessary and profitable for their good state and welfare.[11]

For more on Bullinger and the Regulative Principle of the State, see the section on the Second Helvetic Confession.


[1] Henry Bullinger, The Decades of Henry Bullinger: The Third Decade, ed. Thomas Harding, trans. H. I. (Cambridge: The University Press, 1850), 221, 222, 225, 227- 233, 235.
[2] Henry Bullinger, The Decades of Henry Bullinger: The First and Second Decades, ed. Thomas Harding, trans. H. I. (Cambridge: The University Press, 1849), 261, 262.
[3] Cited in Paul Henry, The Life and Times of John Calvin, the Great Reformer: Volume II, trans. Henry Stebbing (London: Whittaker and Co., 1849), 234.
[4] Bullinger, The Decades of Henry Bullinger: The First and Second Decades, 307, 308.
[5] Bullinger, The Decades of Henry Bullinger: The Third Decade, 4, 5.
[6] Ibid., 5-14. 
[7] Ibid., 14.
[8] Bullinger, The Decades of Henry Bullinger: The First and Second Decades, 355.
[9] Bullinger, The Decades of Henry Bullinger: The Third Decade, 218, 219.
[10] Ibid., 219, 220.
[11] Ibid., 223, 224.

Martin Bucer (1491 - 1551), "the Conciliatory Reformer" 

Bucer urges an overhaul of penalties according to God's law

In his famous work De Regno ChristiMartin Bucer urges the young King Edward VI to conduct a "serious and thorough modification of penalties" for crimes in his commonwealth. 

The modifications are to be based on the law of God in Scripture, which Bucer must see as superior to "the light of nature," since he sees nothing as more "more equitable and wholesome the commonwealth" than biblical law. As such, kings must become well acquainted in biblical civil punishments—some of which Bucer goes on to mention:
Lastly, the well-being of his people also demands of Your Majesty a serious and thorough modification of penalties, by which wrongdoing and crimes are kept in check in the commonwealth. But since no one can describe an approach more equitable and wholesome to the commonwealth than that which God describes in His law, it is certainly the duty of all kings and princes who recognize that God has put them over His people that they follow most studiously his own method of punishing evildoers. For inasmuch as we have been freed from the teaching of Moses through Christ the Lord, so that it is no longer necessary for us to observe the civil decrees of the law of Moses, namely, in terms of the way and the circumstances in which they are described, nevertheless, insofar as the substance and proper end of these commandments are concerned, and especially those which enjoin the discipline that is necessary for the whole commonwealth, whoever does not reckon that such commandments are to be conscientiously observed is certainly not attributing to God either supreme wisdom or a righteous care for our salvation.
Accordingly, in every state sanctified to God capital punishment must be ordered for all who have dared to injure religion, either by introducing a false and impious doctrine about the Worship of God or by calling people away from the true worship of God (Deut. 13:6-10 and 17:2-5); for all who blaspheme the name of God and his solemn services (Lev. 24:15-16); who violate the Sabbath (Ex. 31:14-15, and 35:2; Num. 15:32-36); who rebelliously despise authority of parents and live their own life wickedly (Dt. 21:18-21); who are unwilling to submit to the sentence of a supreme tribunal (Dt. 17:8-12); who have committed bloodshed (Ex. 21:12; Lev. 24:17; Deut. 19:11-13), adultery (Lev. 20:10), rape (Deut. 22:20-25), kidnapping (Deut. 24:7); who have given false testimony in a capital case (Deut. 19:16-21).[1] ...
For thieves and robbers ... God has decreed only the penalty of restitution, either five times, four times, double, or simple repayment.[2]  

The Sufficiency of Scripture in Punishing Crimes

Keeping in mind Bucer's high view of God's word in things civil—and lower view of "the light of nature" in comparison—Bucer later holds that every single civil punishment (and by implication, every single prohibition) must conform to God's word. Biblical civil law suffices for burning away "all licentiousness and boldness in wrongdoing":
In this institution, modification, and enforcement of penalties Your majesty will prove his trust and zeal for governing the commonwealth in a holy way for Christ the Lord, our heavenly King, if for every single crime, misdeed, or offense he establishes and imposes those penalties which the Lord himself has sanctioned. By means of these, in addition to changing and arousing to true repentance those who have sinned, he will strike the others with fear and dread of sinning; thus he will seek to burn away, i.e., deeply excise and exterminate, not only all licentiousness and boldness in wrongdoing, but also all yearning and desire for it. This is the purpose of penalties and punishments which God purposes in his law.[3]


[1] Martin Bucer, De Regno Christi in Wilhelm Pauck, ed., Melanchthon and Bucer (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster John Knox Press, 1969), 378, 379.

[2] Ibid., 382.
[3] Ibid., 383.

John Calvin (1509 - 1564), "The Theologian of the Reformation"

Calvin Affirms the Judicial Laws of Moses

Throughout his writings, Calvin takes for granted the judicial law's abiding validity. 

For example, in his "Sermons on Deuteronomy," he affirms the permanency of the judicial laws prohibiting adultery,[1] a woman lying about her virginity prior to marriage,[2] rape of a virgin,[3] kidnapping,[4] and incorrigibly rebellious children.[5]

And in his commentaries, he affirms the permanency of the judicial laws prohibiting incest,[6] apostasy,[7] and seduction to idolatry.[8]

In his defense of the execution of Servetus—a vile blasphemer and promoter of soul-damning heresies—Calvin upholds the judicial law's prohibitions of blasphemy and seducing souls away from God:

Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his Church. It is not in vain that he banishes all those human affections which soften our hearts; that he commands paternal love and all the benevolent feelings between brothers, relations, and friends to cease; in a word, that he almost deprives men of their nature in order that nothing may hinder their holy zeal. Why is so implacable a severity exacted but that we may know that God is defrauded of his honor, unless the piety that is due to him be preferred to all human duties, and that when his glory is to be asserted, humanity must be almost obliterated from our memories?[9] 

Calvin and Geneva

While Calvin did not rule Geneva, he did have influence. Viggo Norskov Olsen, while discussing a perspective of Calvin on marriage, argues that Calvin sought a "bibliocratic" society in Geneva ruled by God's word:

Calvin sought to make the administration of Geneva "bibliocratic," which meant that the secular society ought to be governed by a "thus saith the Lord." His hermeneutical principle was that God is ever the same and does not contradict himself; accordingly, laws and regulations, including those governing discipline and punishment, which should guide the magistrate in matrimonial matters had to be in harmony with the teaching of Christ. Calvin and Beza contended that both the Old and New Testaments had made adultery the one exception to divorce only because the stoning had been neglected.[10]

The Insufficiency of the "light of nature" 

For Calvin, the "light of nature" is insufficient regarding the First Table of the Law—and almost as bad regarding the Second Table:
And if we want to measure our reason by God’s law, the pattern of perfect righteousness, we shall find in how many respects it is blind! Surely it does not at all comply with the principal points of the First Table; such as putting our faith in God, giving due praise for his excellence and righteousness, calling upon his name, and truly keeping the Sabbath [Exodus 20:3-17]…
Men have somewhat more understanding of the precepts of the Second Table [Exodus 20:12 ff.] because these are more closely concerned with the preservation of civil society among them. Yet even here one sometimes detects a failure to endure
But in all our keeping of the law we quite fail to take our concupiscence into account. For the natural man refuses to be led to recognize the diseases of his lusts. The light of nature is extinguished before he even enters upon this abyss … [11]  
Civil rulers, then, cannot rely on natural law, but on Scripture, which is sufficient. As he writes while commenting on Deuteronomy 4:8:
And for proof thereof, what is the cause that the heathen are so hardened in their own dotages [feebleness]? It is for that [because] they never knew God’s law, and therefore they never compared the truth with the untruth. But when God’s law cometh in place, then doth it appear that all the rest is but smoke: in so much that they which took themselves to be marvelous[ly] witty, are found to have been no better than besotted in their own beastliness. This is apparent. Wherefore let us mark well, that to discern that there is nothing but vanity in all worldly devises, we must know the Laws and ordinances of GodBut if we rest upon men’s laws, surely it is not possible for us to judge rightly. Then must we needs go first [need to go first] to God’s school, and that will show us that when we have once profited under him, it will be enough. This is all our perfection. And on the other side we may despise all that is ever invented by man, seeing there is nothing but fondness and uncertainty in them. And that is the cause why Moses termeth them rightful ordinances. As if he should say, it is true indeed that other people have store[s] of ceremonies, store[s] of rules, and store[s] of Laws: but there is no right at all in them, all is awry, all is crooked. True it is that they perceive it not: and what is the cause thereof, but for that it is not possible for them to discern good from evil, without God’s word which is the truth? Howsoever we fare, we cannot do the thing that is just or right, except we have first learned it at God’s hand. And if we have been so far overseen as to allow our own doings, let us not go on still, for God will disallow every whit of it, because we must take all our rightness at his truth. In this case it is not for every man to bring his own weights and his own balance [Calvin here is referring to justice]: but we must hold ourselves to that which God hath uttered and doth utter.[12]

Civil Government Cannot be Arbitrary, but Must Rule by God's Word

Calvin writes this about the necessity of civil government to rule not by man's opinions, but God's word:
And Moses said unto his father-in-law...   Moses replies ingenuously, as if on a very praiseworthy matter, like one unconscious of any fault; for he declared himself to be the minister of God, and the organ of His Spirit. Nor, indeed, could his faithfulness and integrity be called in question. He only erred in overwhelming himself with too much labor, and not considering himself privately, nor all the rest publicly. Yet a useful lesson may be gathered from his words. He says that disputants come “to inquire of God,” and that he makes them to know the statutes of God and His laws. Hence it follows that this is the object of political government, that God’s tribunal should be erected on earth, wherein He may exercise the judge’s office, to the end that judges and magistrates should not arrogate to themselves a power uncontrolled by any laws, nor allow themselves to decide anything arbitrarily or wantonly, nor, in a word, assume to themselves what belongs to God. Then, and then only, will magistrates acquit themselves properly: when they remember that they are the representatives (vicarios) of God. An obligation is here also imposed upon all private individuals, that they should not rashly appeal to the authority or assistance of judges, but should approach them with pure hearts, as if inquiring of God; for whosoever desires anything else except to learn from the mouth of the magistrate what is right and just, boldly and sacrilegiously violates the place which is dedicated to God.[13]
Here Calvin very overtly embraces the regulative principle of the state. He notes that in Old Testament Israel, "disputants come 'to inquire of God,' and that he makes them to know the statutes of God and His laws." For Calvin, "this is the object of political government," where civil government is based on God's laws ("God's tribunal")not on laws arbitrarily determined by man. 

Therefore, for Calvin, the Mosaic law has a complete system of justice; as he writes in his Treatises Against the Anabaptists and Against the Libertines:
Let us hold this position: that with regard to true spiritual justice, that is to say, with regard to a faithful man walking in good conscience and being whole before God in both his vocation and in all his works, there exists a plain and complete guideline for it in the law of Moses, to which we need simply cling if we want to follow the right path. Thus whoever adds to or takes away anything from it exceeds its limits. Therefore our position is sure and infallible.[14] 

The Sufficiency of Scripture for All of Life

For Calvin, those who are teachable find Scripture sufficient for all of life, including matters of state:
[L]et us learn to walk in his obedience, not doubting but we shall find sufficient instruction in his word, whereby to rule our whole life well, I say that all they which yield themselves teachable unto GOD, and are ready to fashion themselves after his will, shall find sufficient in his word wherewithal to guide themselves aright without any want at all; insomuch that whereas men are disordered in their dealings, and know not what to do: the cause thereof is, that they submit not themselves wholly to GOD, but take counsel by themselves, and run gadding here and there whereas all they that seek to be taught by Gods word, as well in matters of state as in private matters, and as well in time of war as in time of peace, shall find a perfect doctrine and such as is fit for them.[15] 
Calvin's Strong Words for Those Who Seek Counsel Beyond God's Word

Calvin found it vain for rulers to look for counsel beyond God's word, and had very strong words for those who would deny this. In his sermons on Deuteronomy he states:
We saw yesterday [Sermon 105] why God commanded kings to have a book of the law. For although they had been taught God's Word previously, yet when they ascended to power it behooved them to realize that they had more need than ever to rule themselves by God's Word, considering how hard a thing it is to govern a people. Moreover, God must be ready to work on their behalf, and men must acknowledge themselves far too weak for the task, so that they seek the help they need—namely, to be guided by God; and to get this help they must apply their study to His WordFor it is vain for us to hope that God will give us counsel, unless we seek it in His law. If a man says he is happy that God has given him His Spirit, and yet meanwhile despises all the appointed aids, such as the reading of Holy Scripture and the hearing of sermons,does he not mock God? And so you can see that it is good and necessary for kings to have a book of the law. ... Our true wisdom is to hearken to God when He speaks to us, and to obey His doctrine.[16]  
In even more pointed language, Calvin says this about denying the sufficiency of Scripture for civil government:  
He [God] does [want] us to understand, that we must not judge after our own imagination, whether the deed be worthy of death or no[t]. For it is a thing which beguiles many men and rulers than to strive against God and to blaspheme his law that they needs give sentence of themselves according to their own opinion. But contra wise our Lord brings us back here to his will.[17] 

[1] John Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth), 790. 
[2] Ibid., 788. 
[3] Ibid., 791.
[4] Ibid., 846.
[5] Ibid., 760.
[6] John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians: Volume One, 1 Corinthians 5:13. 
[7] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses: Volume Two, Deuteronomy 18:5.
[8] Ibid., Deuteronomy 13:6.
[9] Cited in "Calvin’s Defence of the Death Penalty for Heretics" in Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume VII: Modern Christianity, the Swiss Reformation, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907), 791.
[10] V. Norskov Olsen, John Foxe and the Elizabethan Church (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973), 208. 
[11] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2:2:24.
[12] John Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy: Facsimile of 1583 Edition (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), 123. Cited in Brian Schwertley, God's Law for Modern Man: Chapter 3: Natural Law vs. Biblical Law (Brian Schwertley, 2000), 6. Retrieved June 23, 2014 from
[13] John Calvin, Harmony of the Law: Volume 1, Exodus 18:15.
[14] John Calvin, Treatises Against the Anabaptists and Against the Libertines, trans. and ed. Benjamin Wirt Farley (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1982), 78. Cited in Gary North, Westminster's Confession: The Abandonment of Van Til's Legacy (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), 57.
[15] John Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy: Part 3: Sermons 92-143 (less 103-106, 123, 128, 129), 135. This edition of Calvin's sermons on Deuteronomy was retrieved from
[16] John Calvin, Sermon 106: Deuteronomy 17:16-20 (Nov. 21, 1555). Cited in "Calvin Speaks," ed. James B. Jordan (Tyler, TX: Geneva Divinity School, March 1981), Vol. 2, No. 3, 1. 
[17] Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy 634. 

Theodore Beza (1519-1605), Huguenot Theologian, Calvin's Successor

Beza Advocates the Judicial Law

For Theodore Beza, the judicial law binds all civil magistrates. As H. M. Baird summarizes, Beza held to
the precepts given by the Lord in the Old Testament to slay without pity the introducer of strange gods, the false prophet, the blasphemer, and the profaner of the Sabbath. Such commands, he said, have never been repealed. The Mosaic Law remains in force, with the exception of the ceremonial part. Of the other two divisions, the Decalogue or Moral Law, being an accurate transcript of the Natural Law, in which man’s conscience agrees with the unchanging will of God, cannot suffer destruction before nature itself perishes, but abides the certain rule of right and wrong for all nations and for all ages. The third division of the Mosaic Law, the judicial, is also of universal obligation, insofar as its precepts do not relate to one people alone, nor punish the violation of ceremonies now abolished by the Gospel, but embrace that code of general equity which should everywhere prevail.[1]
And so, Beza states:
In fine, I do not hesitate to affirm that those princes do their duty who adopt as examples for their own imitation these [judicial] laws of God, by establishing, if not the very same kind of penalty, yet certainly the very same measure of penalty, and who, as against factious apostates, enact some form of capital punishment for horrible blasphemy and crime. For the majesty of God should be held to be of such moment among all men, through the everlasting ages, that, whoever scoffs at it, because he scoffs at the very Author of life, most justly deserves to be put to death by violence. This I say, this I cry aloud, relying upon the truth of God and the testimony of conscience. Let my opponents shout until they are hoarse that we are savage, cruel, inhuman, bloodthirsty. Yet shall the truth conquer and show at length that those deserve these epithets who, in their preposterous or insincere zeal for clemency, suffer the wolves to fatten upon the life of the sheep rather than do their duty in vindicating the majesty of God.[2]
Magistrates Should not go Beyond the Law of Moses

Not only did Beza affirm the abiding validity of the judicial law, but, according to V. Norskov Olsen, magistrates were not authorized to go beyond it:
Having stated that the laws of divorce must be sought in the word of God alone, Beza asks two questions whose answers are implicit in his previous statements. First, "But I ask whether, if at the universal forum of conscience, there can by human laws be any excuse for straying one iota outside the word of God." Next, "Whether in fact it can be right for the magistrates in anything to go beyond the law of Moses?" Beza realizes that Bishops of old did not oppose the imperial laws, and that many during his own time favored these laws, but in the light of his exegesis his own opinion is: "It is not a question as to what was done, but what should be done."[3] 
See also our section on the Second Helvetic Confession.


[1] Henry Martyn Baird, Theodore Beza: The Counsellor of the French Reformation, 1519-1605 (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1899), 68.

[2] Cited in Ibid., 68, 69.
[3] V. Norskov Olsen, John Foxe and the Elizabethan Church (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973), 208.

The Second Helvetic Confession (1566)

The Confession's Background

The Second Helvetic Confession was written in 1566 by Heinrich Bullinger, Ulrich Zwingli's successor in Zurich, Switzerland. Another significant reformer to play a role in its publication was Theodore Beza—John Calvin's successor in Geneva, Switzerland—who visited Zurich to help Bullinger with some of the confession's details.

The Second Helvetic Confession came about after the Elector of the Palatinate, Frederick III, appealed to Bullinger to provide an exposition of the Reformed faith to answer charges of heresy by the Lutherans. 

Philip Schaff writes the following about the background of the confession:  

The pious Elector of the Palatinate, Frederick III., being threatened by the Lutherans with exclusion from the treaty of peace on account of his secession to the Reformed Church and publication of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), requested Bullinger in 1565 to prepare a clear and full exposition of the Reformed faith, that he might answer the charges of heresy and dissension so constantly brought against the same. Bullinger sent him a manuscript copy of his Confession. The Elector was so much pleased with it that he desired to have it translated and published in Latin and German before the meeting of the Imperial Diet, which was to assemble at Augsburg in 1566, to act on his alleged apostasy.
In the meantime the Swiss felt the need of such a Confession as a closer bond of union. The First Helvetic Confession was deemed too short, and the Zurich Consensus of 1549 and the Geneva Consensus of 1552 treated only two articles, namely, the Lord's Supper and predestination. Conferences were held, and Beza came in person to Zurich to take part in the work. Bullinger freely consented to a few changes, and prepared also the German version. GenevaBerne, Schaffhausen, Biel, the Grisons, St. Gall, and Muhlhausen expressed their agreement. Basel alone, which had its own Confession, declined for a long time, but ultimately acceded.
The new Confession was published at ZurichMarch 12, 1566, in both languages, at public expense, and was forwarded to the Elector of the Palatinate and to Philip of Hesse. A French translation appeared soon afterwards in Genevaunder the care of Beza. 
In the same year the Elector Frederick made such a manly and noble defence of his faith before the Diet at Augsburg, that even his Lutheran opponents were filled with admiration for his piety, and thought no longer of impeaching him for heresy.[1]
Frederick III

The Confession's Influence

Schaff writes the following about the confession's influence:
The Helvetic Confession is the most widely adopted, and hence the most authoritative of all the Continental Reformed symbols, with the exception of the Heidelberg Catechism. It was sanctioned in Zurich and the Palatinate (1566), Neuchatel (1568), by the Reformed Churches of France (at the Synod of La Rochelle, 1571), Hungary (at the Synod of Debreczin, 1567), and Poland (1571 and 1578). It was well received also in HollandEngland, and Scotland as a sound statement of the Reformed faith. It was translated not only into German, French, and English, but also into Dutch, Magyar, Polish, Italian, Arabic, and Turkish. In Austria and Bohemia the Reformed or Calvinists are officially called "the Church of the Helvetic Confession," the Lutherans, "the Church of the Augsburg Confession."[2]

Chapter XII: Of the Law of God

In its section on the law of God, the Second Helvetic Confession teaches that all spheres of life—which naturally includes civil government—are to be regulated by God's law:
THE LAW IS COMPLETE AND PERFECT. We believe that the whole will of God and all necessary precepts for every sphere of life are taught in this law. For otherwise the Lord would not have forbidden us to add or to take away anything from this law; neither would he have commanded us to walk in a straight path before this law, and not to turn aside from it by turning to the right or to the left (Deut. 4:2; 12:32).[3]

CHAPTER XXX: Of the Magistracy

Since according to Chapter XII we cannot add or take away from God's law, and since the law includes "all necessary precepts for every sphere of life," then we should not be surprised to find the section on the Magistracy requiring rulers to govern by God's word—including by looking to Scripture for laws and punishments:
THE DUTY OF THE MAGISTRATE. The chief duty of the magistrate is to secure and preserve peace and public tranquillity. Doubtless he will never do this more successfully than when he is truly God-fearing and religious; that is to say, when, according to the example of the most holy kings and princes of the people of the Lord, he promotes the preaching of the truth and sincere faith, roots out lies and all superstition, together with all impiety and idolatry, and defends the Church of God. We certainly teach that the care of religion belongs especially to the holy magistrate.
Let him, therefore, hold the Word of God in his hands, and take care lest anything contrary to it is taught. Likewise let him govern the people entrusted to him by God with good laws made according to the Word of God, and let him keep them in discipline, duty and obedience. Let him exercise judgment by judging uprightly. Let him not respect any man's person or accept bribes. Let him protect widows, orphans and the afflicted. Let him punish and even banish criminals, impostors and barbarians. For he does not bear the sword in vain (Rom. 13:4).
Therefore, let him draw this sword of God against all malefactors, seditious persons, thieves, murderers, oppressors, blasphemers, perjured persons, and all those whom God has commanded him to punish and even to execute. Let him suppress stubborn heretics (who are truly heretics), who do not cease to blaspheme the majesty of God and to trouble, and even to destroy the Church of God.[4]


[1] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume VII: Modern Christianity, The Swiss Reformation (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907), 221, 222.
[2] Ibid., 222.
[3] Cited at Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved September 15, 2014 from
[4] Ibid.

William Tyndale (1490?-1536), English Reformer, Martyr, Translator of the Bible in English 

The Abiding Validity of the Law of Moses

William Tyndale affirmed that "the law of Moses is the law of God."[1] Therefore, the law of Moses—minus those aspects that only applied to the Jews (e. g., the sacrificial system) — binds all men at all times. In arguing against those who would keep others from having access to the Old Testament, Tyndale write:
Moses saith, Deut vi. "Hear, Israel; let these words which I command thee this day stick fast in thine heart, and whet them on thy children, and talk of them as thou sittest in thine house, and as thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up; and bind them for a token to thine hand, and let them be a remembrance between thine eyes, and write them on the posts and gates of thine house." This was commanded generally unto all men. How cometh it that God's word pertaineth less unto us, than unto them? Yea, how cometh it, that our Moseses forbid us, and command us the contrary; and threaten us if we do, and will not that we once speak of God's word? How can we whet God's word (that is, to put it in practice, use and exercise) upon our children and household, when we are violently kept from it and know it not? How can we (as Peter commandeth) give a reason of our hope; when we wot not what it is that God hath promised, or what to hope?[2]

Tyndale on Civil Laws

For Tyndale, church officers should criminalize false teaching: 
[D]amnable is it for the spiritual officer, how high soever he be, to withdraw himself from the King's correction, if he teach false, or sin against any temporal law.[3]
When punishing others, rulers were to apply the "sharp law of vengeance," looking to the examples of the holy judges of the Old Testament; while remembering to also consider the Old Testament's requirement to judge with impartiality:
When a cause that requireth execution is brought before him, then only let him take the person of God on him. Then let him know no creature, but hear all indifferently; whether it be a stranger or one of his own realm, and the small as well as the great; and judge righteously, "for the judgment is the Lord's" [Deuteronomy 1]. In time of judgment he is no minister in the kingdom of Christ; he preacheth no gospel, but the sharp law of vengeance. Let him take the holy judges of the old Testament for an ensample, and namely Moses, which in executing the law was merciless; otherwise more than a mother unto them, never avenging his own wrongs, but suffering all things; bearing every man's weakness, teaching, warning, exhorting, and ever caring for them, and so tenderly loved them, that he desired God either to forgive them, or to damn him with them.[4]
Tyndale laments the negligence in some rulers in applying the requirement in the judicial law of Moses to punish rebellious sons:
If thou obey, (though it be but carnally, either for fear, for vain glory, or profit,) thy blessing shall be long life upon the earth. For he saith, Honour thy father and mother, that thou mayest live long upon the earth. (Exod. xx.) Contrariwise, if thou disobey them, thy life shall be shortened upon the earth. For it followeth, (Exod. xxi.) He that smiteth his father or mother shall be put to death for it. And he that curseth, (that is to say, raileth or dishonoureth his father or mother with opprobrious words,) shall be slain for it. And (Deut. xxi.) If any man have a son stubborn and disobedient, which heareth not the voice of his father and the voice of his mother, so that they have taught him nurture, and he regardeth them not, then let his father and mother take him, and bring him forth unto the seniors or elders of the city, and unto the gate of the same place. And let them say unto the seniors of that city, This our son is stubborn and disobedient: he will not hearken unto our voice: he is a rioter and a drunkard. Then let all the men of the city stone him with stones unto death: so shall ye put away wickedness from among you, and all Israel shall hear and shall fear.
And though that the temporal officers (to their own damnation,) be negligent in punishing such disobedience, (as the spiritual officers are to teach it,) and wink at it, or look on it through the fingers, yet shall they not escape unpunished. For the vengeance of God shall accompany them (as thou mayest see Deut. xxviii.) with all misfortune and evil luck, and shall not depart from them until they be murdered, drowned, or hanged; either until by one mischance or another they be utterly brought to nought. Yea, and the world oftentimes hangeth many a man for that they never deserved: but God hangeth them because they would not obey and hearken unto their elders, as the consciences of many will find when they come to the gallows. There can they preach and teach other that which they themselves would not learn in season.[5]
Tyndale also draws from the Old Testament in mentioning the duties of kings to not multipy wives, and to regularly read God's law:
And the kings warneth he, that they have not too many wives, lest their hearts turn away; and that they read alway[s] in the law of God, to learn to fear him, lest their hearts lift up above their brethren.[6]

Rulers Must Rule by God's Law, not by Man's Imagination

Tyndale affirms that rulers must rule by God's word: 
[T]he king is ... under the spiritual officer, to hear out of God's word what he ought to believe, and how to live, and how to rule ... [7]
Rulers, then, are to rule by God's law as God's representatives (keep in mind his statement that we previously mentioned where he says that "the law of Moses is the law of God"): 
[T]he room that they [judges] are in, and the law that they execute, are God's; which, as he hath made all, and is God of all, ... even so is he judge over all, and will have all judged by his law indifferently … [8]
Similarly he writes:
God therefore hath given laws unto all nations, and in all lands hath put kings, governors, and rulers in his own stead, to rule the world through them; and hath commanded all causes to be brought before them, as thou readest Exod. xxii. "In all causes (saith he) of injury or wrong, whether it be ox, ass, sheep, or vesture, or any lost thing which another challengeth, let the cause of both parties be brought unto the gods; whom the gods condemn, the same shall pay double unto his neighbour." Mark, the judges are are called gods in the scriptures, because they are in God's room, and execute the commandments of God. And in another place of the said chapter Moses chargeth, saying: "See that thou rail not on the gods, neither speak evil of the ruler of thy people."[9]  
Since, then, rulers are God's representatives who must rule by His law, they cannot make up their own laws:
[T]he Law is God's, and not the king's. The king is but a servant, to execute the law of God, and not to rule after his own imagination.[10]
For Tyndale, man's wisdom is helpless without the aid of divine revelation, which he notes several times in "The Obedience of a Christian Man":
How can we whet God's word (that is, to put it in practice, use and exercise) upon our children and household, when we are violently kept from it and know it not?[11]
In so great diversity of spirits, how shall I know who lieth, and who sayeth truth? Whereby shall I try and judge them? Verily by God's word, which only is true. But how shall I that do, when thou wilt not let me see scripture?[12] 
Man's wisdom is plain idolatry: neither is there any other idolatry than to imagine of God after man's wisdom. God is not man's imagination; but that only which he saith of himself. ... Therefore saith the hundred and eighteenth psalm [119th psalm?], "Happy are they which search the testimonies of the Lord;" that is to say, that which God testifieth and witnesseth unto us.[13]


[1] William Tyndale, "The Obedience of a Christian Man," in William Tyndale, Doctrinal Treatises and Introductions to Different Portions of the Holy Scriptures, ed. Henry Walter (Cambridge: The University Press, 1848), 322.
[2] Ibid., 145.
[3] William Tyndale, "An Exposition Upon the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Chapters of Matthew," in Henry Walter, ed., Expositions and notes on sundry portions of the Holy Scriptures, together with the Practice of prelates: By William Tyndale, Martyr, 1536 (The University Press, n. d.), 67.
[4] Tyndale, "The Obedience of a Christian Man," in Tyndale, Doctrinal Treatises and Introductions to Different Portions of the Holy Scriptures, 203.
[5] William Tyndale, "The Obedience of a Christian Man, and how Christian Rulers Ought to Govern," in Thomas Russell, ed., The Works of the English Reformers: William Tyndale and John Frith: Volume 1 (London: Ebenezer Palmer, 1831), 203, 204.
[6] Tyndale, "The Obedience of a Christian Man," in Tyndale, Doctrinal Treatises and Introductions to Different Portions of the Holy Scriptures, 204.
[7] Tyndale, "An Exposition Upon the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Chapters of Matthew," in Walter, ed., Expositions and notes on sundry portions of the Holy Scriptures, together with the Practice of prelates: By William Tyndale, Martyr, 1536, 67.
[8] Tyndale, "The Obedience of a Christian Man," in Tyndale, Doctrinal Treatises and Introductions to Different Portions of the Holy Scriptures, 204.
[9] Ibid., 174, 175.
[10] Ibid., 334.
[11] Ibid., 145.
[12] Ibid., 153.
[13] Ibid., 160.

Pierre Viret (1511-1571), Swiss Reformer, "the Angel of the Reformation"

Courtesy of Zurich Publishing
God is the Source of Law and Justice

For Viret, God is the sole source of law by which rulers must govern:
For as it can only be God Himself who is able to give us such a perfect Law by which we are truly enabled to govern ourselves, likewise it is only He who can provide us with Princes and Magistrates, Pastors and Ministers gifted with the capacity of applying this Law.[1]  

Civil Law must be Based on God's Law in Scripture

Since God is the source of law, all just civil laws must conform to God's law: 
My aim in this volume [Instruction chretienne] has been to produce an exposition of the Law of God, Law which must be regarded as the rule for every other law through which men are to be directed and governed.[2]
There is not any law which could be considered just or holy, except in as far as it is conformed to the Law of God, and based on it. For it is the fountain from which all other laws must flow, like streams flowing from it as their source. Because God who gave it, is the Law himself, according to whose will is the only rule of justice.[3]
Indeed, the state must be regulated by God's law:
Consequently, in order that men do not undertake anything according to their own caprices, concerning such subjects, God himself has desired to give them a Law and standard, by which he has shown them, how they should regulate all their affections, and all their words, and all their works, in order to conform them to his will. For this same reason, he has declared to them in the Law, which things are right or wrong, and how they please or displease him, and how he can be honored or dishonored by them.[4] 
Naturally, then, we find Viret agreed with the Old Testament in prohibiting by law such sins as adultery, blasphemy, idolatry, and Sabbath-breaking.[5]

Robert T. Linder, summarizing Viret's position, holds that Viret considered those who did not legislate according to God's law as "wicked tyrants":

God’s plan for men included a peaceful and orderly existence and the state was the means whereby this kind of life was assured. The rulers of the secular state were to legislate in accordance with the Bible and fulfill the office outlined for them in the Scriptures. Viret had to make the civil authorities see that all justice and law emanated from the sovereign will of God and that they were the dispensers of God’s justice and law. If they did not do this, these secular authorities were considered “wicked tyrants” and in danger of the judgment of Almighty God.[6]
Viret, then, "differentiated a 'true kingdom' from a spurious one on the basis of whether or not the civil laws of the realm followed the written Law of God found in the Scriptures."[7] As such, he believed that all existing law codes must completely conform to Scripture: 
Viret stressed that in every instance the true Christian should subjugate the Justinian Code and all Roman Law to the Word of God.[8]


[1] Pierre Viret, Instruction chretienne en la doctrine de la Loy et de l'Evangile, Vol. 1 (Geneva, 1564), 249. Cited in Jean-Marc Berthoud, Pierre Viret: A Forgotten Giant of the Reformation, ed. R. A. Sheats (Tallahassee, FL: Zurich Publishing, 2010), 29.
[2] Viret, Instruction chretienne, 249. Cited in Ibid., 28.
[3] Viret, Instruction chretienne, 91. Cited in "Law of God," Pierre Viret Association (Tallahassee, FL). Retrieved July 28, 2014 from
[4] Viret, Instruction chretienne, 121. Cited in Ibid.
[5] Robert T. Linder, The Political Ideas of Pierre Viret (Droz, Geneva: 1964), 61. Cited in Berthoud, Pierre Viret: A Forgotten Giant of the Reformation, 33, 34.
[6] Linder, The Political Ideas of Pierre Viret, 56. Cited in Ibid., 31.
[7] Linder, The Political Ideas of Pierre Viret, 59. Cited in "Law of God," Pierre Viret Association.
[8] Linder, The Political Ideas of Pierre Viret, 61. Cited in Berthoud, Pierre Viret: A Forgotten Giant of the Reformation, 33.

John Knox (1514-1572), Scottish Reformer, Founder of Scottish Presbyterianism 

Knox on Perpetual Old Testament Civil Laws

John Knox held that all are bound to the same civil laws given to the Jews (at least those that were not particular to the Jewish nation). In his Appellation, he writes this in defending the Bible's prohibition of idolatry: 
But if any think, that after the Gentiles were called from their vain conversation, and by embracing Christ Jesus were received into the number of Abraham's children, and so made one people with the Jews believing: if any think, I say, that then they were not bound to the same obedience, which God required of his people Israel, what time he confirmed his league and covenant with them; the same man appeareth to make Christ inferior to Moses, and contrarious to the law of his heavenly Father. For if the contempt or transgression of Moses' law was worthy of death, what should we judge the contempt of Christ's ordinance to be?I mean after they be once received.And if Christ be not come to dissolve, but to fulfill the law of his heavenly Father; shall the liberty of his gospel be an occasion that the especial glory of his father be trodden under foot, and regarded of no man? God forbid.[1]
Therefore, Knox calls the death penalty for idolatry "perpetual."[2] He also argues that "the eternall God in his Parliament has pronounced death to be the punishment for adulterye and for blasphemye."[3] Regarding the latter, he says this in rebuke of those who opposed the execution of Servetus:
Ye will not easily admit that Servetus was convicted of blasphemy; for if so be, ye must be compelled to confess (except that ye will refuse God) that the sentence of death executed against him was not cruelty; neither yet that the judges who justly pronounced that sentence were murderers nor persecutors; but that this death was the execution of God's judgment, and they the true and faithful servants of God, who, when no other remedy was found, did take away iniquity from amongst them. That God hath appointed death by his law, without mercy, to be executed upon the blasphemers, is evident by that which is written, Leviticus 24.[4]  

Knox's "Rigorous Application of the 'Regulative Principle' of Scripture"

In his Appellation, while discussing the role of the state in reforming religion and defending the oppressed, Knox seems to advocate the regulative principle of the state by appealing to Deuteronomy 12:32—which prohibits man from adding to or taking away from God's law—to inform rulers of their duty to suppress idolatry:
But the more ample discourse of this argument, I defer to better opportunity: only at this time, I thought expedient to admonish you, that before God it shall not excuse you to allege, we are no kings, and therefore neither can we reform religion, nor yet defend such as be persecuted. Consider, my lords, that ye are powers ordained by God, as before is declared, and therefore doth the reformation of religion, and the defence of such, as unjustly are oppressed, appertain to your charge and care, which thing shall the law of God, universally given to be kept of all men, most evidently declare; which is my last and most assured reason, why, I say, ye ought to remove from honours, and to punish with death such as God hath condemned by his own mouth. After that Moses had declared what was true religion: to wit, to honour God as he commanded, adding nothing to his word, neither yet diminishing any thing from it; and after also that vehemently he had exhorted the same law to be observed, he denounceth the punishment against the transgressors, in these words, "if thy brother, son, daughter, wife, or neighbour, whom thou lovest as thine own life, solicitate thee secretly, saying, let us go serve other gods, whom neither thou, nor thy fathers have known, consent not to him, hear him not, let not thine eye spare him, show him no indulgence or favour, hide him not, but utterly kill him, let thy hand be first upon him, that he may be slain, and after the hand of thy whole people." [somewhat of a paraphrase of Deut. 13]Of these words of Moses are two things, appertaining to our purpose, to be noted. Former, that such, as solicitate only to idolatry, ought to be punished to death, without favour or respect of persons. For he that will not suffer man to spare his son, his daughter, nor his wife, but straitly commandeth punishment to be taken upon the idolaters, have they never so nigh conjunction with us, will not wink at the idolatry of others, of what estate or condition so ever they be.[5]
Elsewhere, while mainly defending the regulative principle of worship, Knox holds that one cannot add or take away from God's law in any area of life—thus endorsing the regulative principle of the state in the process:
Disobedience to God's voice is not only when man do wickedly contrary to the precepts of God, but also when of good zeal, or good intent, as we commonly speak, man do any thing to the honor or service of God not commanded by the express Word of God ... And that is principal idolatry when [by] our own inventions we defend to be righteous in the sight of God, because we think them good, laudable, and pleasant. We may not think us so frie [free?] nor wise, that we may do unto God, and unto his honour, what we think expedient. No! the contrary is commanded by God, saying, "Unto my word shall ye add nothing; nothing shall ye diminish therefrom, that ye might observe the precepts of your Lord God:" Which words are not to be understand of the Decalogue and Law Moral only, but of statutes, rites, and ceremonies; for equal obedience of all his Law requireth God.[6] 
And so on this last sentence, P. D. L. Avis writes: "It followed from John Knox's rigorous application of the 'regulative principle' of Scripture that he accepted the validity of the judicial law."[7] 

The Criminality of Civil Rulers Deviating from God's Word

For Knox, rulers are not to deviate from God's word, and to do so is criminal:
[F]or Moses in the election of judges, and of a king, describeth not only what persons shall be chosen to that honour, but doth also give to him that is elected and chosen, the rule, by the which he shall try himself whether God reign in him or not; saying, "When he shall sit upon the throne of his kingdom, he shall write to himself an exemplar of this law in a book, by the priests the Levites: it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, and to keep all the words of this law, and these statutes, that he may do them; that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left." (Deut., xvii.) The same is repeated to Joshua, in his inauguration to the government of the people, by God himself, saying, "Let not the book of this law depart from thy mouth, but meditate in it day and night, that thou mayest keep and do all that which is written in it. For then shall thy way be prosperous, and thou shalt do prudently." (Josh., i.)
The First thing then that God craveth of him that is called to the honour of a king, is, the knowledge of His will revealed in his word: the Second, is an upright and willing mind to put in execution such things as God commandeth in his law, without declining either to the right hand or the left.
Kings then have not absolute power to do in their regiment what pleaseth them; but their power is limited by God’s Word. So that if they strike where God commandeth not, they are but murderers; and if they spare, where God commandeth to strike, they and their throne are criminal, and guilty of the wickedness that aboundeth upon the face of the earth for lack of punishment. Oh, if kings and princes would consider what account shall be craved of them, as well of their ignorance and misknowledge of God’s will, as for the neglecting of their office![8]


[1] "The Appellation of John Knox," in John Knox, The History of the Reformation of Religion in Scotland (Edinburgh: Blackie, Fullarton, & Co. and A. Fullarton and Co., 1831), 393. 

[2] David Laing, ed., Works of John Knox: Volume 2 (Edinburgh: 1864), 447. Cited in Martin A. Foulner, ed., Theonomy and the Westminster Confession: an annotated sourcebook (Edinburgh: Marpet Press, 1997), 47.
[3] Laing, Works of John Knox: Volume 2, 339, 340. Cited in Ibid., 46.
[4] John Knox, "The Execution of Servetus for Blasphemy, Heresy, & Obstinate Anabaptism, Defended," Retrieved July 2, 2014 from
[5] Knox, The History of the Reformation of Religion in Scotland, 390, 391.
[6] John Knox, "A Vindication of the Doctrine that the Sacrifice of the Mass is Idolatry," in David Laing, ed., The Works of John Knox: Volume Third (Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter), 37, 38. We have modernized the wording.
[7] P. D. L. Avis, "Moses and the Magistrate: A Study in the Rise of Protestant Legalism,"Journal of Ecclesiastical History, vol. 26, no. 2 (April 1975): 24. Retrieved August 4, 2014 from
[8] "Sermon on Isaiah, XXVI, 13-20," in John Knox, Selected Practical Writings of John Knox, Issued by the Committee of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland (Edinburgh: William Collins and Co., 1845), 270-272.   

Photo credit:
Statue of the religious reformer on the former John Knox Institute in his reputed birhtplace of Haddington, East Lothian
© Kim Traynor / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0) (license)
Retrieved November 22, 2014 from

Henry Balnaves (1512?-1579), Statesman, Diplomat, and a chief supporter of the Scottish Reformation

Scripture Provides Sufficient Wisdom to Govern

Henry Balnaves holds that Scripture provides sufficient wisdom on how God wants rulers to govern:
The right way to rule in thy office is to know God, of whom thou canst have no knowledge, but by his word and law, which teacheth thee what thou shouldest do, and leave undone, according to thy vocation.
And as to thy princely estate, and dignity, and office, thou art father to all thy kingdom, their head in the place of God, to rule, govern, and keep them; upon whom thou shouldest take no less care than the carnal father taketh upon his own best beloved son. For they are given by God to thee in government. Therefore thou shouldest begin to know the will of thy God, and take the book of his law in thy hand, to read upon it, which teacheth thee the will of God. It should never pass forth of thy heart, not depart from thy mouth, day and night having thy meditation thereinto, that thou mayest keep all which is written therein; then shalt thou direct thy way, and have knowledge and understanding of the same, Deut. xvi. Josh. i. 
This being done, thou shalt get the blessing, of which David speaks, saying, Blessed is the man which delighteth in the law of the Lord and hath his meditation thereinto day and night. Then ask of God wisdom and understanding, which is the knowledge of his godly will, and a heart that may receive teaching, that thou mayest judge thy people, and discern betwixt good and evil, as thou art taught by the example of Solomon, 1 Kings iii. ...
Therefore, humbly and lowly submit thyself in the hands of thy God, and take thought of him, being governed by his word. Begin at him, and set forth the true and perfect worshipping of God in thy kingdom. Restore the true, pure, and sincere christian religion; abolish, destroy, and put down all false worshippings and superstitions, contrary to the word of God, and not commanded therein; according to the example of the noble kings of Judah, Hezekiah and Josiah as thou mayest read, 2 Kings xviii. xxiii. This is thy vocation, in the which thou shouldest walk, and orderly proceed in guiding of thy people, as thou art taught by the word of God; and decline not therefrom, neither to the right hand nor to the left, but walk in the kingly way taught thee in the holy scriptures, Deut. xvii.[1]

Rulers Should only Seek Wisdom in God's Word

For Balnaves, the godly man in general—and the civil magistrate in particular—should only seek wisdom in God's word. To do otherwise is "nothing but foolishness before God":

To you, which are princes, judges, and superior powers upon earth, pertain wisdom, knowledge, understanding, and learning, that ye may justly and truly exercise the office and charge committed to your care by God. Therefore David exhorts you, saying, Understand and know, O ye kings; and be learned, O ye which judge the earth. And serve the Lord in fear and reverence, and rejoice in him with trembling, Psal. ii. This is your wisdom and understanding taught you in the law of God, Deut. iv. For the godly man needeth not to seek wisdom, but in the scriptures of God, where he shall find how he shall behave him both to God and man, in prosperity and adversity, in peace and war
Therefore, to seek wisdom any other way, it is nothing but foolishness before God, 1 Cor. i. Since ye are the ministers of God unto good, created and ordained by him, (as the apostle saith, Rom. xiii.) it becometh you of your office to guide and rule your subjects in all goodness and sweetness ... [2]

Wrath upon Rulers who Neglect God's Word

Rulers, writes Balnaves, risk facing God's wrath for neglecting God's word:
Your estate and office is great, and not to be contemned, but to be praised and commended of all men; of your subjects feared, reverenced, and also loved, because ye are as it were gods, and are so called in  the scriptures,  by reason of participation of the power of God, committed unto you, whose judgments ye exercise; and are called the sons of God; as David saith, I have said, Ye are gods, and sons of the Most Highest; that is, for the excellent dignity of your office, I have called you my sons. Nevertheless, know yourselves to be but men, and to suffer death as other men do, and in like manner as princes of earthly kingdoms, or tyrants, which have the ruling of commonwealths, as ye have. Therefore be just and righteous, exercising yourselves in all godliness, according to your vocation; being sure ye shall shortly die, and give account and reckoning of your administration. For ye are but flesh, and all flesh is but grass, and all the glory of the same, as it were the flower of the field; The grass is withered, and the flower falleth, but the word of God remaineth for ever, Isa. xl. 1 Peter i. James i. Therefore know Christ to be your king, ruler, guider, and governor, who shall rule you with an iron rod, and break you asunder, as it were a clay pot, or vessel of fragile earth. If ye will not understand the will and commandment of God, his ire and wrath shall rule above your head at all times. These sharp threatenings are shown you in the scriptures Isa. i. Jer. v. David in Psalms ii. lxxxii. and Zechariah vii. where ye are taught the chief points of your office, and works which ye are bound to do; for the neglecting of the which, being left undone, ye shall be accused before God.[3]


[1] M. Henry Balnaves, "The Confession of Faith," in Writings of Edward the Sixth, William Hugh, Queen Catherine Parr, Anne Askew, Lady Jane Grey, Hamilton, and Balnaves: Volume 3: of British reformers (London: Religious Tract Society, 1836), 99, 100.
[2] Ibid., 100.
[3] Ibid., 101, 102.

Edward VI (1537-1553), Protestant King of England and Ireland from 1547-1553, "The British Josiah" & "The Most godly King of England"

Edward VI and the First Table of the Law

In his "Royal Injunctions," Edward VI, king of England, mirrors the Old Testament theocracy in his enforcement of the First Table of the Lawincluding by advocating the advancement of God's honor and true religion, and by opposing idolatry and Sabbath-breaking.[1] To give one example, the Injunctions state:
[T]o the intent that all superstition and hypocrisy, crept into divers men's hearts, may vanish away, they [ecclesiastical persons] shall not set forth or extol any images, relics, or miracles, for any superstition or lucre, nor allure the people by any enticements to the pilgrimage of any saint or image: but reproving the same, they shall teach that all goodness, health and grace, ought to be both asked and looked for only of God, as of the very author and giver of the same, and of none other.[2]

True Ministers of God Rule by Scripture Alone

During his coronation, Edward VI, upon being brought three swords representing his three kingdoms, said that one sword was missing: the Bible.[3] He added,

That book is the sword of the Spirit, and to be preferred before these swords. That ought in all right to govern us, who use them for the people's safety by God's appointment. Without that sword we are nothing, we can do nothing, we have no power. From that we are what we are this day. From that we receive whatsoever it is that we at present do assume.
He that rules without it, is not to be called God's minister, or a king. Under that we ought to live, to fight, to govern the people, and to perform all our affairs.[4]

And so for Edward VI, Scripture, and Scripture alone, is the only legitimate source of law for governing the people, as rulers must use it "to perform all [of their] affairs."

[Note that Edward VI uses the term "we"—a term sometimes used by English kings in the place of "I."]


[1] The Royal Injunctions of Edward VI (Transc. Grafton's Edition, 1547). Cited in W. H. Frere and W. P. M. Kennedy, eds., Visitation Articles and Injunctions: Volume II: 1536-1557 (London: Longmans Green & Company, 1910), 114-116, 124-126. See more here.
[2] Ibid., 115.
[3] Unknown author, Writings of Edward the Sixth, William Hugh, Queen Catherine Parr, Anne Askew, Lady Jane Grey, Hamilton, and Balnaves: Volume 3: of British reformers (London: Religious Tract Society, 1831), 6.

[4] Cited in Ibid.

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), English Reformer & the First Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury

Cranmer and Old Testament Prohibitions

In the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum of 1552, which Cranmer contributed to, blasphemy, idolatry, witchcraft, and adultery—all of which the Old Testament requires the state to punishare considered crimes.[1] During Edward VI's coronation, Cranmer charges the young king to destroy idolatry as did the Israelite king Josiah, who "turned to the Lord with all his heart, according to all the law of Moses":
"Your majesty is God's vicegerent, and Christ's vicar within your own dominions, and to see, with your predecessor Josiah, God truly worshipped, and idolatry destroyed; the tyranny of the bishops of Rome banished from your subjects, and images removed. These acts are signs of a second Josiah, who reformed the church of God in his days. You are to reward virtue, to revenge sin, to justify the innocent, to relieve the poor, to procure peace, to repress violence, and to execute justice throughout your realms. For precedents on those kings who performed not these things, the old law shows how the Lord revenged his quarrel; and on those kings who fulfilled these things, he poured forth his blessings in abundance. For example, it is written of Josiah, in the book of the Kings, thus: '[And] Like unto him there was no king [before him], that turned to the Lord with all his heart, [and with all his soul, and with all his might,] according to all the law of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him.' This was to that prince a perpetual fame of dignity, to remain to the end of days.[2]

God's Wisdom versus Man's Inventions

During the reigns of King Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth I, "The Books of Homilies" were created as authorized sermons for the Anglican church. One particular homily on civil government, titled "An Exhortation concerning good Order, and obedience to Rulers and Magistrates," is part of the First Book of Homilies which Cranmer collected and edited,[3] and which he may also have written.[4] 

This homily emphasizes the need for rulers to have "godly proceedings, laws, statutes, proclamations, and injunctions, with all other godly orders"; they must "exercise GOD'S room in judgement," and punish "by good and godly laws."[5] Naturally, then, it is necessary for rulers to "give themselves to knowledge and wisdom" (which presumably is Scripture):
Let us learn also here by the infallible and undeceivable word of GOD, that kings and other supreme and higher officers, are ordained of GOD, who is most highest: and therefore they are here taught diligently to apply and give themselves to knowledge and wisdomnecessary for the ordering of GOD'S people to their governance committed, or whom to govern they are charged of GOD.[6]
The homily also sets God's wisdom and laws in contrast with man's device and invention, favoring the former:
Not Man's Device and Invention, but God's Wisdom, God's Order, Power, and Authority. Or as much as GOD hath created and disposed all things in a comely order, we have been taught in the first part of the Sermon, concerning good order and obedience, that we also ought in all common weales, to observe and keep a due order, and to be obedient to the powers, their ordinances, and laws, and that all rulers are appointed of GOD, for a goodly order to be kept in the world: and also how the Magistrates ought to learn how to rule and govern according to GOD'S Laws ... [7]

The Catechism of Thomas Becon

Also for consideration regarding Cranmer and sola scriptura applied to the state is "The Catechism of Thomas Becon," which very strongly advocates the regulative principle of the state. It was published while Becon served as chaplain to Cranmer, whom the catechism was dedicated to. 

In his catechism, Becon states: 

[T]he magistrate is commanded of God to be learned himself in the laws and ordinances of God, that he may do all things according to God's book, and not after his own fancy or will, nor yet after the crafty persuasions of the subtile hypocrites.[8]


[1] James C. Spalding, The Reformation of the Ecclesiastical Laws of England, 1552 (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1992), 82, 100, 130.
[2] Unknown author, Writings of Edward the Sixth, William Hugh, Queen Catherine Parr, Anne Askew, Lady Jane Grey, Hamilton, and Balnaves: Volume 3: of British reformers (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1836), 5, 6.
[3] "The Homilies," The Anglican Library. Retrieved September 18, 2014 from[4] Ross Harrison, Hobbes, Locke, and Confusion's Masterpiece: An Examination of Seventeenth-Century Political Philosophy (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 268.
[5] Short-Title Catalogue 13675. Renaissance Electronic Texts 1.1. copyright 1994 Ian Lancashire (ed.) University of Toronto. Cited in "Homily on Obedience," The Anglican Library. Retrieved September 20, 2014 from We have modernized the language.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Thomas Becon, The Catechism of Thomas Becon, With Other Pieces, ed. John Ayre (Cambridge: The University Press, 1844), 303.

Thomas Becon, English Reformer, Chaplain to Archbishop Cranmer

The Law of Moses and Punishing Offenses against the First Table of the Law

In "The Catechism of Thomas Becon," Becon argues that rulers should not only punish violations of the Second Table of the Law, but the First Table as well:
Father. But let me ask thee one question, my son: in punishing the wicked and ungodly, may the temporal rulers also punish the idolaters and false prophets or preachers of corrupt and wicked doctrine? SonThe magistrate hath the sword committed unto him, not only to punish the transgressors of the second table, but also such as offend and break the commandments of the first table. For if the temporal ruler ought not to suffer any person to escape unpunished that offendeth man, much less ought he to suffer any to escape unpunished that offendeth his Lord God, specially by idolatry and false doctrine.[1] 
Here Becon takes for granted the abiding validity of Old Testament civil law. He cites the capital punishment in Deuteronomy 13 for those who would seduce others away from God, after which he adds:
Again God saith: "The prophet which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that speaketh in the name of strange gods, the same prophet shall die" [Deuteronomy 18:20]. Also in another place: "Whosoever curseth his God shall bear his sin. And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, let him be slain; and all the multitude shall stone him to death: whether he be born in the land or a stranger, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, let him be slain" [Leviticus 24:15b, 16].
Can there be a greater cursing of God, than to fall from him which is the alone true God, and to turn unto creatures, and to crave all things of them, as of God? And can there be a more heinous blasphemy done or spoken against the most glorious name of the Lord our God, than to preach and set forth doctrine contrary to God's word; and by this means to bring the people into error, and to lead them from the way of truth unto falsehood, and so finally unto everlasting damnation? ...
But we have not only an expressed commandment to kill and put out of the way all idolaters and false prophets, I mean such as willfully and obstinately resist the truth, and will by no means be reformed; but we read also of divers kings and rulers which did put the same commandment in execution and practice; and God blessed them greatly for it.[2]

Rulers Must do All Things According to God's Book

For Becon, rulers must be guarded from the ignorance and blindness of ruling by man's ideas instead of solely by God's word in Scripture:
And for this purpose, because he should not be deceived of the wily and subtile hypocrites, which desire above all things to lead the higher powers in ignorance and blindness, that they may do what they list without check, the magistrate is commanded of God to be learned himself in the laws and ordinances of God, that he may do all things according to God's book, and not after his own fancy or will, nor yet after the crafty persuasions of the subtile hypocrites. "The king," saith God, "when he is set upon the seat of his kingdom, he shall write him out a copy of this law in a book. [ ... ] And it shall be with him, and he ought to read therein all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, and to keep all the words of this law," &c. [Deuteronomy 17:18, 19a] And to Josua God said likewise: "Let not the book of this law depart out of thy mouth; but record therein day and night, that thou mayest observe and do according to all that is written therein. For then shalt thou make thy way prosperous, and then shalt thou do wisely." [Joshua 1:8] The prophet David also exhorteth the kings and rulers of the earth to get them understanding, and to be learned in the law of the Lord, yea, and to "kiss the Son," that is to say, to embrace Christ the Son of God and his holy gospel; lest, if they do the contrary, God be angry with them, and so they perish from the right way. [Psalm 2] [3]


[1] Thomas Becon, The Catechism of Thomas Becon, With Other Pieces, ed. John Ayre (Cambridge: The University Press, 1844), 311. 
[2] Ibid., 311, 312.
[3] Ibid., 303.

Hugh Latimer (1485-1555), English Reformer, Iconoclast, Chaplain to Edward VI, Martyr

Latimer and Old Testament Civil Law 

When arguing for civil sanctions against lechery, Hugh Latimer, appealing to the law of Moses, states:
I would wish that Moses's law were restored for punishment of lechery, and that the offenders therein might be punished according to the prescription of Moses's law.[1] 
Latimer also appeals to the Old Testament for qualifications of civil rulers:
Holy scripture qualifieth the officers , and sheweth what manner of men they should be, and of what qualities, viros fortes, "strong men;" some translations have, viros sapientes, "wise men;" the English translation hath it very well, "men of activity;" that have stomachs to do their office, they must not be milksops, nor white-livered knights; they must be wise, hearty, hardy, men of a good stomach. Secondarily, he qualifieth them with the fear of God. He saith they must be timentis Deum, "fearing God." For if he fear God, he shall be no briber, no perverter of judgment, faithful. Thirdly, they must be chosen officers, in quibus est veritas, " in whom is truth," if he say it, it shall be done. Fourthly, qui oderunt avaritiam, hating covetousness. Far from it; he will not come near it that hateth it. It is not he that will give five hundred pound for an office. With these qualities, God's wisdom would have magistrates to be qualified.[2]

Promoting the English Iconoclasm Movement

Just as the Old Testament supports destruction of idols, so did Latimer. Latimer was an important figure in the English iconoclasm movement:
[I]conoclasm rose to prominence in 1533 when Hugh Latimer ... was invited to public debates in Bristol. Latimer gained notoriety and favor with Thomas Cromwell in 1533 to become the prime propagandist for the reformist policies after he began preaching against images, the veneration of saints, and the doctrine of purgatory.[3] 
On Latimer's iconoclasm, one author writes:
In 1537 Latimer ordered the stripping of Our Lady of Worcester in the priory of St. Mary's, Worcster, in obedience to Cromwell's injunctions. In early 1538 he returned to London to participate in a public condemnation of relics and images, during which the famous Rood of Boxley, the "Rood of Grace in Kent," was smashed and burned at Paul's Cross, while Hilsey preached the sermon. Latimer presided at the degradation of the Rood of Rumsbury, reportedly picking it up and hurling it out the west door of St. Paul's. The intensity of these events is reflected in Latimer's report to Cromwell on [O]ur Lady of Worcester: "She hath been the devil's instrument to bring many (I fear) to eternal fire: now she herself, with her old sister of Wilshingham, her young sister of Ipswich, with their other two sisters of Dorcestor and Pearce, would make a jolly visitor in Smithfield; they would not be all day burning!"[4]  

The Temporal Sword Must Punish According to God's Word

For Latimer, rulers must rule by God's word:
There is no king, emperor, magistrate, and ruler, of what state soever they be, but are bound to obey this God, and to give credence unto his holy word, in directing their steps ordinately according unto the same word: Yea, truly, they are not only bound to obey God's book, but also the minister of the same, "for the word's sake," so far as he speaketh "sitting in Moses' chair;" that is, if his doctrine be taken out of Moses' law. For in this world God hath two swords, the one is a temporal sword, the other spiritual. The temporal sword resteth in the hands of kings, magistrates, and rulers, under him, whereunto all subjects, as well the clergy as the laity, be subject, and punishable for any offence contrary to the same book.[5]
Note how when it comes to the authority of the temporal sword, Latimer does not mention anything beyond God's book (it is by this that rulers must direct their steps ordinately); he only refers to authority to punish "for any offence contrary to the same book," and to rule by the law of Moses.


[1] Hugh Latimer, The Sermons of the Right Reverend Father in God, and Constant Martyr of Jesus Christ, Hugh Latimer, Sometime Bishop of Worcester, Now First Arranged According to the Order of Time in which They Were Preached, Collated by the Early Impressions, and Occasionally Illustrated with Notes, Explanatory of Obsolete Phrases, Particular Customs, and Historical Allusions. Volume I., ed. John Watkins (London: James Duncan, 1824), 235.
[2] Ibid., 165, 166.
[3] Brenda Deen Schildgen, Heritage or Heresy: Preservation and Destruction of Religious Art and Architecture in Europe (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 47.
[4] Michael Pasquarello III, God's Ploughman: Hugh Latimer, a "Preaching Life" (1485-1555) (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2014), 74. Citation from Chester, Hugh Latimer, 130, 131.
[5] Latimer, The Sermons of the Right Reverend Father in God79, 80.

Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562), Italian Theologian, "the International Reformer"

The Authority of the Judicial Law

In The Reformation of the Ecclesiastical Laws of England of 1552, which Vermigli contributed to, blasphemy, idolatry, witchcraft, and adultery—all of which the Old Testament requires the state to punishare considered crimes.[1] For Vermigli, magistrates should not only punish offenses against the Second Table of the Law, but the First as well:
First, I said that the magistrate is the guardian of the divine law, which includes not only the second table, but the first also.  Therefore he is the guardian of both the one and the other.  I also mentioned the words of Augustine who said that both private men and kings should serve the Lord. It is written in the Psalms, When peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to worship the Lord. In another place, Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.  Serve the LORD with fear, with trembling. Augustine adds that a private man serves the Lord by confessing His name and living rightly.  This, however, is not sufficient for a king or magistrate.  He should  serve the Lord with his authority and power by punishing those who oppose Him.  Unless he does this, the magistrate appears to give his assent to blasphemy and heresy.  When the king sees and suffers these men, he joins himself to them and promotes their shameful acts.  When Nebuchadnezzar first came to know God, he proposed a decree promising capital punishment for those who should blaspheme against the God of Daniel.  Darius later made a similar decree.  Our magistrate should stamp out all idolatry, blasphemy and superstition. ... The law of God states that blasphemers should be put to death not by a private man or by priests, but by the magistrate. [Leviticus 24:16][2]
Note how in the last sentence, Vermigli, in discussing the death penalty for blasphemy, appeals to the judicial law as authoritative. Naturally, then, Martyr would say this about the execution of Servetus for his blasphemies:
I have nothing to say of him, except that he was the very son of the devil, whose pestilential and frightful doctrine should be everywhere hunted down; and that the magistrate who condemned him to death is not to be blamed, seeing that he gave no sign of improvement, and that his blasphemies were beyond endurance.[3]

The Sufficiency of the Word of God for Civil Rulers

Vermigli holds that God's word applies to all things in general, and to civil government in particular:
[T]he word of God is a common rule, whereby all things ought to be directed and tempered. For it teacheth in what manner the outward sword and public wealth ought to be governed: And generally also it showeth how all things ought to be done of all men. So Ambrose when as Theodosius the Emperor raged too cruelly and without all consideration against ye Thessalonians, persuaded him, that in all punishment of death, there should be xxx. days space after the sentence given, least the magistrate should do those things in a rage and fury, whereof although he afterward repented him, yet they might not be any more remedied. So, many Bishops oftentimes in things most weighty, used their authority, and many times either put away cruel wars, or else pacified them, and even while wars were in hand preached sermons out of the word of God. So that the Ecclesiastical power after this manner comprehendeth all things, because out of the word of God it findeth how to give counsel in all things. For there is nothing in the whole world whereunto the word of God extendeth not itself. Wherefore they are far deceived, which used to cry, what hath a preacher to do with the public weale? What hath he to do with wars? ... But let them tell me: when the minister of the word perceiveth the law of God to be violated in these things, why should he not reprehend them by the word of God? ... [T]he rule of either of them [civil and ecclesiastical powers] is to be taken out of the word of God ... [4] 
And so the English Puritan Thomas Edwards says that for Vermigli,
[I]n the law of Moses [is] the fountain of all punishments of wickedness against the second table, as of transgressions against the first; and therefore if the magistrates' punishing of murder, theft, adultery etc., for the taking away of evil from amongst the people, be an act of love to God and man, a vindication of the glory of God, then the punishing of blasphemy, idolatry, and such like for the taking away of the evil is an act of love to God and our neighbor.[5] 

[1] James C. Spalding, The Reformation of the Ecclesiastical Laws of England, 1552 (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1992), 82, 100, 130.
[2] Peter Martyr Vermigli, Of a Magistrate, and the Difference Between Civil and Ecclesiastical Power (1561) in W. J. Torrance Kirby, The Zurich Connection and Tudor Political Theology (Leiden, the Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2007), 116-17.
[3] Cited in Paul Henry, The Life and Times of John Calvin, the Great Reformer: Volume II, trans. Henry Stebbing (London: Whittaker and Co., 1849), 234.
[4] Cited in Peter Martyr VermigliThe Political Thought of Peter Martyr Vermigli: Selected Texts and Commentary, ed. Robert McCune Kingdon (Geneva, Switzerland: Librairie Droz, 1980), 33, 34. We have somewhat modernized the text.
[5] Thomas Edwards, The Casting Down of the Law Stronghold of Satan: A Treatise Against Toleration and Pretended Liberty of Conscience, 67.

Henry Barrow (1550?-1593), Martyr, Separatist Leader, "the Founder of English Congregationalism"

Barrow Defends the Judicial Law in an Inquisitorial Examination 

While under arrest by the English authorities, Barrow underwent an inquisitorial examination. According to Barrow's account, this exam included a question about whether it was lawful to hang ordinary thieves. Barrow denied this, since God's law requires a different punishment:
[T]he judge Anderson asked me, Whether I thought it lawful to hang a thief or no? I answered, that there were many kinds of thieves, as sacrilegious thieves, men-stealers, etc.; that these ought by the laws of God to die. Then, he said, he meant ordinary thieves of goods and chattels. I said, that God in the law had ordained another kind of punishment for such ...[1]
According to Barrow, he was then asked "Whether it be lawful for the prince to alter the judicial law of Moses, according to the state of her country and policy, or no?"[2] Barrow answered,
I ought to be wise in sobriety, and not to answer more than I know. Great doubt and controversy hath been about this question a long time, but for my part, I cannot see that any more of the judicial law was or can be abrogated by any mortal man or country, upon what occasion soever, than belonged to the ceremonial law and worship of the temple, from which we have received other laws and worship in Christ's testament; but that the judgments, due and set down by God for the transgression of the moral law, cannot be changed or altered, without injury to the moral law and God himself.[3]

Wicked Laws Result from Rejecting or Adding To the Judicial Law

Barrow points out that rejecting or adding to the judicial laws of Moses results in the enactment of wicked laws:
In the commonwealth, when they both abrogate all God's judicial laws and cut them off at one blow, as made and belonging to the commonwealth of the Jews only (as though God [had] no regard of the conversation of other Christians his servants also) or else had left some peculiar laws for the manners of the Gentiles, or had left them in greater liberty to be and to make laws and customs unto themselves. Hereupon it commeth to pass, that so many wicked ungodly laws and customs are decreed; that the whole order and course of judgment and justice is constuprate and perverted, that so many capital mischiefs as God punished by death, as blaspheming the name of God, open idolatry, disobedience to parents, are not by law punished at all; incest, adultery, either passed over or punished by some lighter trifling chastisement; willful murder often pardoned; theft (if it be above 13 pence) punished by death; yea, this sin is punished not only in the person of the thief (who that wise king said if he should steal seven times, may yet live and satisfy with his body or goods) but in the persons of all such as this their unjust law judgeth any way accessory; which extendeth so far, as many honest men may for this trifle for buying or receiving part of these stolen goods, be also put to death and forfeit all the lands and goods they have; whereby their wives, children, and families are punished also and utterly undone. And thus by this their policy are many thieves made for one; not to speak of all this guiltles [guilty?] blood that is upon the head of the magistrate, judge, officers, jury, and the whole land by this means: what should I stand to particulate their infinite transgressions of God's laws even in their civil estate, which is in much worse case than many heathen nations which never knew God or his Christ.[4] 

God is the Only Lawmaker

Barrow affirms that God, and God alone, has authority to make civil laws. Civil rulers are therefore God's servants, and do not have the liberty to invent their own laws:
Neither will these lymmes [limbs] of the devil be satisfied with any humble acknowledgement of the civil power, or with any Christian submission unto the same; but will extort by oath an allowance and subscription unto this their ungodly power, blasphemous titles, anti-Christian decrees and proceedings, etc. It will not suffice to confess that God hath made the civil magistrate the keeper of the book of the law, to see both the tables thereof observed by all persons both in the church and commonwealth, and so hath power over both church and commonwealth; but they must have this indefinite proposition granted them: that a prince hath power to make laws for the church. ... A godly prince is bound to God's law, made the keeper thereof, not the controller; the servant, not the Lord. God hath in that book made most perfect and necessary laws both for church and commonwealth: he requireth of the king and magistrate to see these laws executed, and not to make newHe that maketh any new laws taketh unto him the office of God, who is the only lawmaker: all men of what estate soever are but God's creatures, servants, and subjects to his law. Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Hezekiah, made no new laws, but revived and executed the old laws which God had made.[5] 


[1] George Punchard, History of Congregationalism from about A. D. 250 to the Present Time: Volume III (NY: Hurd and Houghton, 1867), 66, 67.
[2] Ibid., 67
[3] Ibid.
[4] Henry Barrow, The Writings of Henry Barrow: 1587-1590, ed. Leland H. Carlson (Elizabethan Non-Conformist Texts: Volume III) (New York: Routledge, 1962), 599, 600.
[5] Ibid., 601, 602.

The True Confession of 1596

The True Confession of 1596 was adhered to by the Separatists who went
on to become the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony.


The True Confession of 1596 was a Separatist confession thought to be written by Francis Johnson and Henry Ainsworth. The following summarizes its background:
Two leaders of a young Separatist church, Henry Barrowe and John Greenwood, were imprisoned [in England - SH] in 1586, but in 1589 they sent from prison a simple church creed called A Trve Description ovt of the Word of Godof the visible Church.  The creed did not concern itself with doctrinal matters since the congregation was already of one mind in holding Calvinistic views. 
In the summer of 1593 there was a change of policy on the part of the government toward the Separatists.  While their leaders remained in prison, the dissenters left England for Holland.  Most of the emigrants reached Holland in 1595 where the church was re-gathered.  Desiring to make clear its doctrinal position and its ecclesiology, in view of the threats of attacks, the church prepared in 1596 a new creed, the shortened title of which is A Truve Confession.  The seven Particular Baptist Churches of London used this confession as a model when they drew up their earliest confession in 1644.  Thus, the Separatist Confession entered into Baptist life.[1]   
(We must note that this confession was not properly Baptistic, since it adhered to infant baptism.)

On this confession, Williston Walker writes:
The creed itself consists of forty-five articles, treating some of doctrine, others of polity. In matters of belief they are in substantial harmony with the positions of the Calvinistic churches of the Continent, and with the Puritan wing of the Church of England. On these heads their creed is but little more than a re-affirmation of the current beliefs of a vast majority of the Protestant churches at that day.[2]
This confession was adhered to by the Separatists who went on to settle in the famous Plymouth Colony (the Pilgrims). Donald Burke shows this by pointing out that in the church they attended in Leiden (the Netherlands) prior to coming to America, the confession was affirmed by its members.[3]

Article 39: Rulers Should Destroy Idolatry, Defend the True Church, and Rule According to Scripture

According to Article 39 of the confession, rulers have a duty to suppress false ministries, false religions, and idolatry. By contrast, they are to protect the church, and to protect and maintain the good in general. Moreover, as God's lieutenants, they must punish and restrain evil according to God's word:
39. That it is the office and duty of princes and magistrates, who by the ordinance of God are supreme governors under Him over all persons and causes within their realms and dominions, to suppress and root out by their authority all false ministries, voluntary religions and counterfeit worship of God, to abolish and destroy the idol temples, images, altars, vestments, and all other monuments of idolatry and superstition and to take and convert to their own civil uses not only the benefit of all such idolatrous buildings and monuments, but also the revenues, demesnes, lordships, possessions, glebes and maintenance of any false ministries and unlawful ecclesiastical functions whatsoever within their Dominions. And on the other hand to establish and maintain by their laws every part of God's word His pure religion and true ministry to cherish and protect all such as are careful to worship God according to His word, and to lead a godly life in all peace and loyalty; yea to enforce all their subjects whether ecclesiastical or civil, to do their duties to God and men, protecting and maintaining the good, punishing and restraining the evil according as God hath commanded, whose lieutenants they are here on earth.[4] 
This section includes the following prooftexts from both the Old and New Testament: 1 Romans 13:3, 4; 1 Peter 2:3 [should be 13], 14; 2 Chronicles 19:4. etc. and chapters 29 and 34; Judges 17:5, 6; Matthew 22:21; Titus 3:1; 2 Kings 23:5, etc.; Psalm 110; Deuteronomy 12:2, 3 with 17:14, 18-20; 2 Kings 10:26-28; 2 Chronicles 17:6; Proverbs 16: 12 and 25:2-5; Acts 19:27; Revelation 17:16; Deuteronomy 17:14, 18-20; Joshua 1:7, 8; 2 Chronicles 17:4, 7-9 and 19:4 etc. and chapters 29 and 30; Daniel 6:25, 26; Psalm 2:10-12 and 72:1 etc.; Isaiah 49:23; Revelation 21:24; Ezra 7:26.

Deuteronomy 17:18-20 and Joshua 1:7, 8, cited as a prooftexts, forbid rulers from turning from God's word to the right hand or the left. The former reads:
And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the leftso that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:18-20)


[1] "English Separatist-Baptist Confessions," The Reformed Reader. Retrieved October 27, 2014 from
[2] Williston Walker, The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism (NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1893), 44, 45. 
[3] Donald Burke, New England New Jerusalem: The Millenarian Dimension of Transatlantic Migration. A Study in the Theology of History (Detroit, MI: ProQuest, 2006), 133.
[4] Cited in Walker, The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism, 71, 72. We have modernized the spelling. Regarding defending the church, Article 41 also reads: "That if God incline the magistrates' hearts to the allowance and protection of them therein they account it a happy blessing of God who granteth such nursing fathers and nursing mothers to His church, and be careful to walk worthy so great a mercy of God in all thankfulness and obedience." Ibid., 72.

Johannes Brenz (1499-1570), Influential Lutheran Theologian

(note: we do not endorse the Lutheran view of the sacraments)

Brenz and Old Testament Civil Law

In discussing laws proper for the Christian community, Brenz appeals to the Old Testament to show how the state should deal with one who either commits fornication with a virgin (with the virgin's consent), or who rapes a virgin (Exodus 22:16, 17; Deuteronomy 22:23-27). He likewise appeals to the law of Moses in advocating punishments for blasphemy and adultery (citing Deuteronomy 22:22 for the latter).[1]

Moreover, just as in the Old Testament false worship was to be suppressed, for Brenz, so should it be today:
[I]f a Christian prince desires to perform his office diligently and to preserve secular decency, as is proper, he can do this in no more effective way than by establishing and ordering true divine worship in the place of ungodly worship, so that true divine peace before God and piety in worship will overflow into everyday civic life and lead both prince and subjects to God's grace, favour,and salvation.[2] 

Since Civil Authority Comes from God, the State should only Rule According to God's Word
Brenz affirms that civil government is an institution established by God. As such, God, and God alone, should be the state's source of law:
It is therefore necessary that every Christian government should promote and protect the word of God and devote all its power to it. For since the power of government comes solely from God, as Christ says in John 19[:11] and Paul in Rom. 13[:1], so it is always proper, indeed necessary, that one conduct oneself according to the will of him that created the office of government and to rule according to the word that creates, maintains, and rules all creatures. For the reason that the secular sword has been established is to keep its subjects in peace. But how can temporal, secular peace be better maintained than through the word of peace which pacifies the sinner, the great enemy of God, the highest good? And how can external peace be maintained if one does not have peace of mind and heart toward God, which only happens through the word of God that incorporates us into the one Christ by the one Holy Spirit? For this reason the Holy Spirit has bestowed upon government the majestic title of "gods," Exod. 22: "You shall not revile the gods," which title gives sufficient indication of what the Lord demands of government, namely that it should rule according to the word of God, not according to its own reason or opinion. ... Furthermore, God sternly commands through Moses, Deut. 17[:18-19], saying: When you choose a king and he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall have written for him a book of this divine law. "And it shall be with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, by keeping all the words of this law." Behold, God commands the government to take the book of God's law in hand, to be occupied with God's word, and to wield the sword in accordance with that law. And it has always been the case that that government conducted according to the word of God has been long-lasting and left in peace, although many troubles were wakened against it, as was the case of the government of Kings David and Hezekiah. To be sure, they suffered affliction; but because they trusted faithfully in the word of God, all their enemies had to retire in shame. 
Therefore, if a government desires to fulfil its office in the best possible manner, this can be begun, carried out, and completed on no better foundation than by promoting the word of the Lord, who established the office. For where his word is absent, there can be nothing else than rebellion, envy, hatred, dissension, war, and all plagues, as Levit. 26[:14-39] and Deut. 28[:15-68] teach. But where his word is, there is also peace, amity, and all love, because the word brings peace and Christian love with it.[3] 

Ruling Solely by the Word Assumes People are not the State's Property

For Brenz, subjects are not a ruler's property, but a trust from God. As such, the regulative principle of the state is a given. In a section of writing titled, "That the people, because they belong not to the ruler but to God, are to be governed according to God's will,"[4] he writes:

For just as children are not the property of their father but God's gift to him, that he might exercise his faith and love on them, Gen. 33[:5], so also the people are not the property of the rulers but a trust from God, whose will is to be worked upon them. Consequently it is easy to understand in what manner and form the people are to be governed. For since the people are a trust and gift from God, they must be ruled in no other way than according to the will and out of the word of God, not of men, whether emperor or pope. 
The people that are so ruled belong not at all to the emperor but rather to God, and thus must also be ruled according to the will of God, Deut. 1[:17]: "You shall not respect persons in judgment, [...-SH] for judgment is God's." Again Exod. 23[:2]: "You shall not follow the multitude to do evil; nor shall you bear witness in a suit, turning aside after a multitude, so as to pervert justice." Acts 5[:29]: "We must obey God rather than men."[5]

Apply the Regulative Principle of the State—Even if all Men Oppose it

Brenz understood that the regulative principle of the state is not always popular among men, and so he writes the following under a section titled "One must rule according to the will of God, regardless of what people think"[6]:
To sum up briefly: power comes from God, John 19[:11], Rom. 13[:1]. It must, therefore, be used according to God's will and word, even if all the world is opposed.[7]



[1] Johannes Brenz, Godly Magistrates and Church Order: Johannes Brenz and the Establishment of the Lutheran Territorial Church in Germany, 1524-1559, ed. and trans. James Martin Estes (Canada: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2001),89, 90.

[2] Ibid., 97, 98.

[3] Ibid., 45, 46. 

[4] Ibid., 42.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 43.
[7] Ibid.

Edward Dering (or Deering) (1540-1576), English Reformer, Puritan divine

Dering and Ruler Qualifications

In advocating ruler qualifications, Dering appeals to the Old Testament:

But now, touching this calling in magistrates and officers of our commonwealth, I will lay no more, but in one word, as the Scripture speaketh. God calleth him unto his dignity, who is orderly appointed, and is a man of courage, fearing God, dealing truly, having no respect of persons, and hating covetousness ... [1] 
All Laws must Conform to the Equity of the Law of Moses

Deering believed that rulers must base all laws on the equity of the law of Moses:

We are sure that the law of Moses, was, to the people of Israel, an absolute and a most perfect rule of justice; so that all laws ought to be made according to its equity.[2]


[1] Edward Dering, "The three and twenty lecture, upon the 4, 5, and 6 verses," in Dering, Twenty-seven Lectures, Or Readings, Upon Part of the Epistle Written to the Hebrews, (London: Thomas Woodcocke, 1590). Digital version in Google books without page number. Retrieved October 20, 2014 from We have modernized the text.
[2] Cited in Benjamin Brook, The Lives of the Puritans: Containing a Biographical Account of Those Divines who Distinguished Themselves in the Cause of Religious Liberty, from the Reformation Under Queen Elizabeth, to the Act of Uniformity in 1662: Volume 1 (London: James Black, 1813), 206.

Thomas Cartwright (1535-1603), Puritan Leader, "The Father of English Presbyterianism"

Carwright and Civil Laws

Thomas Cartwright affirmed the abiding validity of the judicial laws which were not particular to Israel:
[T]hose judicial laws of Moses, which are merely politic, and without all mixture of Ceremonies, must remain; [such] as those which hinder not the atonement of Jews and Gentiles with God, or of one of them with another. Beside that, it being manifest that our Savior Christ came not to dissolve any Good government of commonwealth, he can least of all be thought to come to destroy that which himself had established.[1]
Cartwright understood Zechariah 13 to favorably prophecy the state punishing false prophets in the New Covenant era:
of that place of Zechariah ... that the same severity of punishments that was used against false prophets then, ought to be used now under the gospel, against false teachers, comparing one parson and circumstance with another.[2] 
For Cartwright, those apostatize and attempt to draw others away from God should be executed according to Deuteronomy 13.[3] He adds:
If this be bloody and extreme, I am content to be so counted with the Holy Ghost ... And although in other cases of idolatry, upon repentance life is given ... yet in this case of willing sliding back, and moving others to the same, and other some cases, which are expressed in the law as of open and horrible blasphemy of the name of God: I deny that upon repentance, there ought to follow any pardon of death, which the judicial law doth require.[4] 
On the magistrate's duty to prohibit Sabbath breaking, Cartwright writes:
[The magistrate must] see that all within his gates keep the Lord’s day; even strangers (though Turks, and Infidels) causing them to cease from labour, and restraining them from all open and public Idolatry, or false worship of God ... [5]

Applying the Equity of the Judicial Law 

On applying the equity of the judicial law, Cartwright says this in debate with a one John Whitgift:
And, as for the judicial law, forasmuch as there are some of them made in regard of the region where they were given, and of a people to whom they were given, the prince and magistrate, keeping the substance and equity of them (as it were the marrow), may change the circumstances of them, as the times and places and manners of the people shall require. But to say that any magistrate can save the life of blasphemers, contemptuous and stubborn idolaters, murderers, adulterers, incestuous persons, and such like, which God by his judicial law hath commanded to be put to death, I do utterly deny, and am ready to prove, if that pertained to this question. And therefore, although the judicial laws are permitted to the discretion of the prince and magistrate, yet not so generally as you seem to affirm, and, as I have oftentimes said, that not only it must not be done against the word, but according to the word, and by it.[6]

God's Word gives Direction in all Things
Also in debating Whitgift, Cartwright writes this while defending the abiding validity of the judicial law of Moses and its equity:
My former assertion was, That we have a word of God for our direction in all things which we have to do. My reason illustrating this truth was this, That otherwise our estate should be worse then the state of the Jews, who had direction (as is on all hands confessed) out of the Law, even for the least things; And whereas it is the virtue of a good law, to leave as little undetermined, and without the compass of the Law, as can be, my adversary D. W. [Dr. Whitgift] imagining that we have no word for divers things, wherein the Jews had particular direction, supposeth a greater perfection in the Law given to the Jews, than in that which is left to us.

That this is a principal virtue of the Law, may be seen and evidenced thus; First, because conscience that is well instructed and touched with the fear of God, will seek direction from the light of God's word, even in the smallest actions. Secondly, common reason will urge it, the masters whereof give this rule [a word in another language is given], &c. Arist. [to] Theod. viz. It greatly behoveth those laws which are well made, as much as can be to determine of all things, and to leave as few things as  may be to the discretion of the judge.[7]


[1] Thomas Cartwright, The Second Replie of Thomas Cartwright: agaynst Maister Doctor Whitgiftes second answer touching the Churche Discipline (1575), 97. 
[2] Cited in A. F. Scott Pearson, Thomas Cartwright and Elizabethan Puritanism 1535-1603 (Cambridge, UK: University Press, 1925), 91.
[3] Ibid. 
[4] Cited in Ibid.
[5] Thomas Cartwright, A treatise of Christian religion. Or the whole body and substance of divinity (London, 1616), 115-16.
[6] Cited in John Whitgift, The Works of John Whitgift, D. D., the First Portion, Containing the Defence of the Answer to the Admonition, Against the Reply of Thomas Cartwright: Tractates I-VI. (Cambridge: The University Press, 1852), 270.
[7] Thomas Cartwright, Helps for Discovery of the Truth in Point of Toleration (London: Thomas Banks, 1647), 1. We have modernized the spelling.

The Clash Over the Judicial Laws of Moses in England in the 1570s

The debate over theonomy was heated during the 1570s, where English Prelates clashed with Puritans for holding that rulers are only authorized to rule by the judicial laws of Moses. 

The Puritan Thomas Cartwright was in the middle of this, whose advocacy of the regulative principle of the state we've already discussed. According to a one Bishop Sandys, this was the position of a number of Puritans. Kenneth L. Parker summarizes the situation:

While [John] Whitgift and [Thomas] Cartwright agreed that the moral law endured and the ceremonial law was abrogated, they clashed over the application of Old Testament judicial laws and penalties in English society. … Whitgift argued that these laws were established by God for one nation in a particular time and place. They did not bind the Christian magistrate or limit his power to make laws and assign penalties. The seventh of the 39 Articles affirmed that 'the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites do no bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth.' But in the 1570s, Cartwright and others objected to this teaching. Bishop Sandys of London complained to Bullinger in August 1573 that 'foolish young men' were disturbing the peace of the Church, and outlined their presbyterian programme. Among the points of contention was that 'the judicial laws of Moses are binding upon christian princes, and they ought not in the slightest degree to depart from them.'[1]
While Cartwright claimed that some parts of the judicial law were limited to the Jews, he denied that 'any magistrate can save the life of blasphemers, contemptuous and stubborn idolaters, murderers, adulterers, incestuous persons, and such like, which God by his judicial law hath commanded to be put to death.' [2]  The death penalty also applied to sabbath-breakers. Humphrey Roberts complained that 'if one do steal, or comit murder, the laws of the Realm doth punish with death. But for Idolatry, swearing, and breaking the Sabbath day, there is no punishment. And yet, the same God which said: Thou shalt not steal, said also … Thou shalt remember to keep holy the Sabbath day.' [3] While Charles George dismissed this adherence to the judicial laws as 'one of Carthwright’s wildest anachronisms'this view attracted a surprising number of adherents and influenced the legal codes in the colonies.[4]


[1] Hastings Robinson, ed., The Zurich Letters (Cambridge, 1842), pp. 295-6.
[2] John Whitgift, Works, volume 1 (Cambridge, 1851), p. 270.

[3] Humphrey Roberts, An Earnest Complaint of Divers Vain, Wicked, and Abused Exercises, Now Commonly Practised on the Sabbath Day (London, 1572), sig.B2V.
[4] Kenneth L. Parker, The English Sabbath: A Study of Doctrine and Discipline from the Reformation to the Civil War (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 57-58.

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