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PMV's Uneasy Balance

Well, sickness and a barrage of papers and then travels have kept me from coming back to PMV for a while, alas, but I've been reading his "On the Magistrate" recently and finding some very interesting notions. Some well-informed fellow named Steven offered an extended comment on my previous post, which I hope to interact with later. Some of what is in this post, I think, addresses some of the issues he pointed to.

I'm still trying to give PMV the benefit of the doubt (though the previous post may not have sounded like it), but his articulation of the relation of Church and State in "On the Magistrate" had some troubling points.

In his treatise “On the Magistrate,” PMV attacks the claims of the Roman pontiffs to supreme spiritual and political authority, and outlines the proper authority of the magistrate. PMV is very focused on trimming the Church down to size, after its medieval pretensions, and so attempts to outline a doctrine of church and state in which the two exist in a harmonious, symmetrical equality. Thankfully, he seems to recognize that the Church needs to still have some kind of supremacy so he suggests repeatedly that since the Word of God is supreme over all, and the Word is entrusted to the Church, the Church maintains a kind of supremacy. However, his exposition of the two authorities shows that this supposed supremacy is meaningless, and that, if anything, the magistrate ends up on top.

So first, what is the authority of the ecclesiastical power? Inasmuch as it wields the Word, it encompasses everything, even the civil power: "the 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." PMV is no advocate of the spirituality of the Church; he realizes that it makes no sense to say that the Church governs merely the inward and spiritual, for of course this must translate into action. "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 it self. Wherefore they are far deceived, which use to cry, what hath a preacher to do with the public weal? What hath he to do with wars? what with apothecaries? what with cooks? 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? Why should he not admonish them? Why should he not exhort them to cease from sin?" This is indeed a wonderful confession of the scope of the Church's concern and authority, extending to all areas of life, contrary to what most moderns will tell us. He specifically says that ministers should rebuke magistrates for going to war wrongfully (if only we had more of that nowadays!)

But the rub comes when he goes on to sketch the legitimate sphere of control of the state. Political power, he says, “is extended to all things which pertain to political power.” Ok, fair enough. “But after what manner?” he and we ask. Well, the magistrate doesn’t require internal repentance of his subjects, he says; it doesn’t have the tools to compel these things. But the Church does, and so the magistrate should make sure the Church does its job: “it ought to have a care that Bishops, pastors, and teachers in the Church, do teach purely, reprehend fatherly, and by the word of God administer the sacraments.” So it seems we have a reciprocal arrangement, in which the Church has authority over all things in a spiritual way, and makes sure the State does its job, and the State has authority over all things in a civil way, and makes sure the Church does its job.

PMV summarizes, “Wherefore either power extendeth most amply, and comprehendeth all things, but not after one and the self-same manner.” So both have full jurisdiction, but in different ways? So they’re basically equal? Well, PMV again points to the important difference in the very next line: “And the rule of either of them is taken out of the word of God, the which doth plainly appear to be in the Church.” So this is the basic set-up: church and state both have jurisdiction over every area of society, including each other, but each according to their proper type of jurisdiction; nevertheless, the Church maintains the primacy through its guardianship of the Word.

PMV goes on to clarify how these two types of jurisdictions work—they are two different types of subjections, the civil/political and the spiritual. All men are under the civil/political, which is enforced by the magistrates and which uses the means of external punishments (fines, execution, imprisonment), and external reward (money, honour, praise).
On the other hand is the spiritual subjection, which is a subjection of “faith and of obedience, for straightway as men hear of their duty out of the word of God, and that either this thing or that is to be done, or this or that to be avoided, they give place, believe and obey, because they perceive that it is the word of God which is spoken.” In other words, the civil power enforces itself by appealing to people’s physical fears and desires, and the spiritual power enforces itself only by appealing to men’s faith in and sense of duty toward God.
The civil power itself is subjected to the ecclesiastical, not civilly of course, but spiritually. For “it belongs to the Ecclesiastical power, to admonish out of the word of God for salvation.” But what if they don’t listen? Well, according to PMV’s earlier definition, it seems like this is all that can be done, for the spiritual power can only appeal to people’s faith and sense of duty—it cannot compel anything by external means. But it’s not quite that simple. For PMV thankfully grants that, if that magistrate doesn’t listen, then the minister should resort to excommunication.
Likewise, then, in this symmetrical, reciprocal arrangement, the ecclesiastical power is subjected to the civil, not spiritually, but civilly. “For these powers are occupied about the self-same things, and mutually help one another….The ecclesiastical power is subject unto the magistrate, not by a spiritual subjection but by a political.”
This is true first because, since all ministers are citizens, they owe civil allegiance to their magistrates: “Howbeit ministers, in that they be men and citizens, are without all doubt subject together with their lands, riches, and possessions unto the magistrates…their manners also are subject unto the censures and judgments of the magistrates.”
So it seems at first as if he is going to protect the crucial functions of the Church as the Church from civil interference: “as touching the sacraments and sermons, it [the Church] is not subject unto it [the civil power], because the magistrate may not alter the word of God, or the sacraments which the minister useth. Neither can he compel the Pastors and teachers of the Church to teach otherwise, or in any other sort to administer the sacraments, than is prescribed by the word of God.”
But, he goes on, in the next paragraph, to say, “We say moreover that ministers are subject unto the magistrate, not only as touching those things which I have rehearsed, but also concerning their function. Because, if they teach not right, neither administer the sacraments orderly, it is the office of the magistrate to compel them to an order, and to see that they teach not corruptly, and that they mingle not fables, nor yet abuse the sacraments, or deliver them otherwise than the Lord hath commanded. Also if they live naughtily and wickedly, they shall put them forth from the holy ministry.”

It sounds here as if PMV is contradicting himself. The magistrate may not alter the sacraments and word, because these belong to the Church, but then we are told that he can correct what he perceives as wrong administration of these.
Why does the magistrate have such authority? “For the king ought to have with him the law of God written because he is ordained a keeper, not only of the first table, but also of the latter. So then he which offendeth in any of them both, runs in danger of his power.” From this, it sounds like the monopoly on the Word, which PMV had granted to the Church, has been breached. Magistrates may tell ministers how to preach the word, because they too are ordained as keepers of the written law of God. I hope that PMV would not take refuge by saying that he has only given magistrates the right to interfere if they deem that the word has been preached or the sacraments administered contrary to Scripture. This doesn’t work because 1) all authority is merely authority to punish errors, so this qualification is meaningless, and 2) this presupposes that the magistrates have some capacity, above and beyond the Church, to judge for themselves what the Word teaches, and to apply it. If they have such power, and have it over the Church, we may justly wonder whether this careful balance and the unique power of the keys, have been overturned.

As if this apparent veto on the Church’s supreme guardianship of the Word were not troubling enough, in the next line, it begins to seem as if the magistrate is in fact supreme; “But although a king may remove an unprofitable and hurtful Bishop, yet cannot a Bishop (on the other side) depose a king if he have offended. So now we find that the magistrate has a power over the Church for which there is no reciprocal, and a most important power: the power of deposition. If the magistrate can remove bishops that he deems to have erred, and the bishop cannot remove a magistrate that he deems to have erred, then which power has supremacy, especially if the Church does not have a monopoly on the Word?

PMV summarizes the whole arrangement: ““Briefly, as there is found no king nor emperor so great that is not subject to the word of God, which is preached by the Ministers: so on the other side is there no Bishop, which having offended, but ought to be reproved by the civil magistate. What difference soever there be, the same (as I have said) is wholly as touching the manners of reproving….Both of them do one help another, for the political prince giveth judgment, and the ecclesiastical indeed doth not give judgment, but teacheth how judgment ought to be given….So on the other side, the civil magistrate preacheth not, neither administereth sacraments. But unless these things be rightly ordered, he ought to punish the Ministers. And to be brief, there are two things to be considered of us in this comparison. In the civil magistrate is to be considered both the power and also the man which beareth and exerciseth the power. He in respect that he is a Christian man is subject to the word of God, and in the respect that he beareth authority and governeth, he ought also to be subject unto the same word of God, seeing that ought of the same he ought to seek rules to govern and bear rule. In the minister of the Church also is to be considered both the ministry in itself, and also the person which executes it. As touching the person, the minister is subject unto the civil power. For both he is a citizen, and he also payeth tribute as other men do, and is under the correction of manners. But as concerning the ministry, he is also subject some way unto the magistrat. For if either he teach or administer the sacraments against the word of God, he must be reprehended by the civil magistrate. And yet must he not seek for rules and reasons of his function at the same magistrate’s hand, but out of the word of God. But this distinction we may easily understand the differences and agreement of either power.”
PMV has again continued his illusion of mutual equality and support, with the Church as teacher over all. But if the Church is guardian of the Word, doesn’t it belong to the Church to reprove (and if need be, depose) a minister for improperly preaching the Word? Does it need the magistrate to do this for it? I can’t see why. Why should the magistrate be reproving a minister for failing to preach the Word unless it so happens that the magistrate disagrees with the Church about what the proper teaching of the Word (or administration of the sacraments) is. In this case, however, the magistrate must appeal to an independent right to interpret and apply the Word, apart from anything that the Church is teaching. So it appears, then, that the Word does not belong to the Church but rather floats free, to be applied by anybody to their proper sphere of authority, as in Kuyper’s spheres. If this be so, then, and the magistrate can actually compel the Church to alter its teaching, while the Church can merely advise the magistrate to change his tune, what do we have but full-blown Erastianism?

Again, perhaps I am being too harsh, as I tend to be when I get carried away typing something up. And perhaps PMV will remedy this in later writings. But I’m having a hard time seeing how this system is supposed to truly preserve the mutual integrity of each institution.


Brad, have you looked into the overarching theme of Gelasian dualism, otherwise known as "the Two Powers" doctrine? I haven't read much PMV, but from your summary here, I would put him squarely in this old, very Augustinian tradition. His language about the king's role relative to the Church in terms of error looks like the Medieval doctrine of the king as the defensor ecclesiae - in this case, defending the Church from herself. And we could cite as examples of this policy not only Constantine, but Charlemagne, Alfred the Great, Otto the Great, and no doubt others.

November 3, 2009 at 4:01 PM  

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