A question of political theology I have considered, I recently saw addressed by the German Reformer Wolfgang Musculus, translated by John Man of Merton College, Oxford, in Common Places of the Christian Religion (London, 1578), ¶ ‘Magistrates’, § ‘Whether that the Magistrate have authority to take order in religion or no’, pages 1303–1304. The question is this:
Some man will say: What if the faithful people have no faithful Magistrate, but are subject unto an ungodly prince and enemy of true religion, in whom shall then the power be for the charge of religion? When the Israelites were in slavery in Egypt and Babylon, and subjected unto the power of those wicked kings, unto whose jurisdiction did the charge of the true Religion appertain to at that time?
It is easy enough to see, in Protestant political theory, that the Christian magistrate has cura religionis (care of religion) by divine ordinance; what some writers seem to say little of is the question relevant to Christians who face persecution, whether in China or in Afghanistan: When the chief magistrate is not even a professing Christian, is he the temporal head of the Church within his country? Who is in charge of true religion?
I answer: It did appertain unto the very kings of the Egyptians and Babylonians unto whom they were subject. It was their duty [i.e., the kings’ duty] both to understand and to serve the Lord, by whom they did reign, and also to have the care and order of his true religion. And whereas they did the contrary, it was an ungodly abuse of their good authority, whereunto the people of God was not bound at all to obey. So when Nebuchadnezzar did set up an image of gold, and commanded it to be worshipped, he was not to be hearkened to: but then men were bound to hearken unto him, when he forbade by open proclamation that no man should blaspheme the name of the true God, the God of Israel.
This is a hard saying; many cannot accept it. It is especially hard to those who come from cultures that speak often of ‘separation of chuch and state’, or of the autonomy of ‘the Church’ (read: the clerics) from the operation and even the jurisdiction of the magistrate. In support of the notion that Christian believers are a societas perfecta (complete society) that needs no magistrates, neither dependent nor bound to obey, Christians may even cite 1 Corinthians 6, where St Paul writes against the Corinthians’ taking each other to court in front of unbelievers. That is indeed the political theology promoted by Rome and, in their own way, the Anabaptists such as the Amish. It also seems pious to defend the rights of ‘the Church’ against the merely ‘secular’ hands of ‘the state’, and so papists and Baptists alike are prone to circling the wagons when (for example) a cleric is accused of sexual assault or the like. This is the logic of Thomas Becket, who was not martyred for the faith. Musculus, in contrast, exemplifies a different political theology that insists that the chief magistrate, even when he is a heathen, is temporal head of the Church within his own commonwealth.
Having upheld the temporal headship of the king even in ‘churchly’ matters, Musculus then describes a descending chain of authority, such as Charles Bartlett also described a decade ago in terms of the Church of England’s Litany:
When the kings are wicked and adversaries to godliness, the charge of religion comes to the priests and elders of the people, such as at that time Ezra, Nehemiah, Zerubbabel, etc. were judges, priests, and elders of that people, after the captivity until the time of our saviour Christ. And when they also became corrupt, the power of the charge and order of religion was put over by Christ himself unto the Apostles, and to the ministers of the word, until the time that kings and princes began to understand the truth of God, to believe in the Lord, and to serve him. And how they used this power, we may perceive by their laws. But in case that neither kings nor princes, nor the priests nor elders, not the people itself, should taken upon them the care of well ordering religion, but should go out a contrary way from the word of God, so that the saying of Jerome should be fulfilled, ‘There are wonders and marvels done in the earth, the prophets do prophecy falsely, and the priests do clap their hands at it, and like it well, and the people do love such’: then there is no safety else, but that every husband and master of his family must practise the power of religion in his own house, and dispose and order the same, according unto the prescript of God’s word. So the matters were done in the times of the Fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
So we see a chain of descending authority in the care of religion, from kings in the first place, to the priests and elders of the people, to extraordinary ministers of the word, to the people itself exercising authority on its own behalf, and finally to the patriarchs of every family. But the substitution was only ‘until the time that kings and princes began to understand the truth of God, to believe in the Lord, and to serve him’. When kings and princes began to believe in the gospel, they began to use their God-given supreme power to foster true religion in their realms. This is not a Constantinian stage the Church has grown out of, but the norm and the ideal to which God bids us aim in the conduct of temporal affairs.