For rather a change of pace, I'm going to post up not my own thoughts, but 450-year-old thoughts from Philip Melanchthon. In my research, I came across an essay "Whether It Be a Sin to Transgress Civil Laws, Which Be the Commandments of Civil Magistrates," published in English in the 1550s, and never since, so far as I can tell. It was extremely difficult to read on the old pages and archaic font and spelling, so I decided to transcribe it so I could study and evaluate it properly. Here is the result (sometimes I left the older spellings, sometimes I didn't; I wasn't very consistent. In a couple places, the transcription is quite uncertain). I'm not going to put any of my own thoughts up now, except to say that there seem to be some glaring problems in it, in the (probably vain) hope of seeing whether anyone else will read it through and spot the same problems.
So here it is--a blast from the past:
Moral virtue requireth not only to refrain outwardly the hands, and to rule external actions, but also it requireth in the mind a deliberation and an intent of counsel. It also requireth a mind inured to hold in all ?braydes?, and to use a certain moderation to deliberate. These two things are truly required to virtues, and youth must be trained up, to understand the force and nature of either of them. Deliberation or advisement, must seek out and understand the causes and reasons of all actions, which (as it were with a bridle) draw back the furious mind into the right way, and show what is to be done.
But moral is called that facility of the mind, or equability, moderation, and stay wherewith it can refrain itself, until that it be well advised of the matter, to do that which is most right, with a certain pleasure.
Seeing then it is needful to understand the causes of honest actions, it is not enough to know the laws, but it is most necessary to the performance of moral virtue, to know what the authority of the laws be, how far it is needful to obey them. The mind being with this doctrine established, shall both think more honorably of the laws, and also understand how far forth it must obey. This judgment of the authority of laws pertaineth to moral virtue.
First I answer, that to break civil laws, or the precepts of civil magistrates is mortal sin, though there be no matter of offence; for Paul saith plainly that we must needs obey, not for fear of vengeance only, but also because of conscience, that is, that we not only fear civil punishment, but also know that our conscience is made guilty, if we do not obey. Now it is the part of a good mind to consider, how great this band of obedience and common quietness is, which God also requireth, that we obey laws and magistrates.
And if we obey not, he saith that he will revenge it. And God truly punisheth both in this life, and also after this life, as the fourth precept speaketh of punishments in this life, “if thou wilt live long upon earth, etc.,” (Ex. 20) for that precept giveth charge of obedience, that we obey not only our parents, but also all them to whom our parents do give their authority, to wit, the magistrates. And therefore many other sentences in the Scripture speake of the punishments that shall be suffered in this life. “Fear God and the king, and have no fellowship with the seditious, for their destruction that come suddenly.” (Prov. 24) And Christ saith, He which taketh the sword in hand, shall perish with the sword”; for to take a sword in hand, signifieth to take up the sword forbidden by the laws and the magistrates, that is, to be seditious, and to disobey the present magistrates. And the examples set out in the Scripture, do not only show this, but also the histories of all ages, that murderers, thieves, perjured persons, unjust judges, seditious and tyrants, are for the most part punished by God in this life. This I say unto this end, that we may know how that God requireth this discipline, to keep men in awe with fear of punishment.
This fear increaseth reverence toward the laws, and causeth some morality in our minds, when as it bridleth as it were our lusts, and inureth them to obedience. And there is no doubt, but that many grievous chances are punishments of this barbarous liberty, which many take upon them, and will not be ruled by the authority of the superiors. For the law of God erreth not, which saith, “Honor thy father and mother, if thou wilt live long upon earth.” Besides that, there is more reverence in our minds, when as we believe, that the breach of the laws is punished with eternal torments after this life, except we do repent. This sentence touching the precepts of magistrates must wisely be understand, namely, of those precepts, which bid us not to do againstt the commandments of God. We must also consider, whether it be wantonness in them which disobey, or whether some causes happen, which have some excuse. The difference whcih Gerson useth, liketh me, who discerneth laws, saying, “That some are made for necessity, such as serve for common quietness, as of theft, murder, marriages, dividing of inheritances, tributes, warfare, judgments, and such like. Some are not made so much for necessity, as for comeliness, as it is provided, that a woman marry not, before she have left mourning for her former husband.
This difference liketh me, not only because reason breedeth sundry bonds, but rather, because the mind of the magistrate is evident, which in the former matters simply requireth obedience; in other lighter matters it doth not so enact it. The mind of the lawmaker must be considered, how far he will bind, and yet in these lighter things there may be no wantonness and contempt of authority, for it is an evil example. But it is profitable as well for discipline, as the quietness of the common wealth, so to accustom our minds, that even in trifles they may regard the authority of the laws. And this we must know, that we live not to our selves, but to the common wealth. We must therefore take heed, that our examples be no public hurt. The same doth Plato most graciously write in his fifth book of laws, that he is the best and most worthy citizen, which accounteth not triumphes or any victories to be the chiefest renown in the city, but to excel others in diligent obeying of the laws.
But here the question is asked, whether the like judgment be of ecclesiastical ceremonies, which by the authority of man are ordained. I answer, that herein this rule must be observed, that in case of offence it is sin to break them, but no offense being given, they may be broken without mortal sin. For it is needful to keep this doctrine, that such ceremonies are things indifferent, and not necessary for righteousness before God, as it is indifferent to wear a gown or a cloak, etc. this rule of Paul is profitabl both to common peace and the quietness of our consciences, for it concerneth public rites, and biddth to beware of offenses, common tumults, and public disturbing of orders. Again it delivereth the conscience from many superstitious opinions, and horrible cruelty; for if good minds do thing that the observance of such orders is necessary (no cause of offense being) it will be a hard bondage.
In so great a number of rites, how oft shall our consciences fall, sometimes in fastings, in rehearsing of prayers, in keeping of holy days, of such like; many things happen to them, especisally which have business, why they cannot always observe their orders. Therefore this rule containeth a profitable moderation, which forbiddeth public offences, preserveth customs profitable for quietness, and privately delivereth the consciences from danger.
When the causes of these laws and traditions are understood, good natures will the more embrace them, then is it fit that these things be known, namely that these ordinances are appointed by the Church for good and public order’s sake, and that the Church will not privately entangel any man’s conscience. And most moral is it to love common quietness and order, good men therefore will greatly embrace these ordinances, seeing that to quietness and order they are available, and in that they are delivered from superstious opinions, and know that without danger these ceremonies may be left, no offense being given. (middle of 9)
But here it is asked, whether ecclesiastical ordinances, and the civil laws of magistrates do diversely bind. I answer, the bond is unlike; and although reasons may be asked, yet the plainest way is to judge these things by the evident and clear testimonies of Scripture. First therefore I will rehearse them, then will I add the reasons and interpretation, lest any absurdity may be taken by our opinion.
Touching obedience due to the civil laws, Paul says, we must obey, not only for fear of vengeance, but also for conscience sake. This commandment bindeth us even without matter of offence; for we must obey the authority of God, though no offence be given. But touching ecclesiastical ceremonies, Paul says, “Let no man condemn you for meat or drink, or a piece of an holy day.” And again, “Stand fast in the liberty, wherewith Christ hath made us free, and wrap not yourselves again in the yoke of bondage.” And Christ says, “That which enters into the mouth defiles not the man,” and the apostle excuses them, which break traditions.
Because it is needful that this doctrine be in the Church, that those traditions touching meat and such like are no worshipping or righteousness, but things indifferent; therefore the gospel teaches, that our consciences may not be burdened with the opinion of necessity. Notwithstanding, because this life cannot lack ordinances and ceremonies, this moderation is needful, to have them so observed, lest the doctrine of true worshipping and of the benefit of Christ should be darkened. Again, lest our consciences should be burdened with infinite vexations, which might cause shipwreck of faith; therefore, the Gospel will have us understand that these rites may be left out, without matter of offence be given, but for good order, and for avoiding of offenses, they ought to be kept. This liberty being limited by the authority of the Gospel, cannot be taken away by man’s authority.
I have showed by the testimonies of Scripture, that the binding is unlike. This is the plainest answer unto this question, but we will show the reason.
The first is taken of the efficient causes, or the right of power, and this Gerson followeth. The civil magistrate by God’s authority, hath right to make honest and profitable laws, in those matters which pertain to the defence of this corporal life and civil society, as of judgments, the penalties of offences, contracts, successions, and such like, as Solomon says, “By me kings do reign, and appoint just things.”
But ecclesiastical power is limited, so as it hath a commandment what it ought to teach, and that it invent no new worshipping, neither burden the consciences with traditions of ceremonies. For Peter says, “Why tempt you God, laying on a yoke, etc.?” And Paul, “Why make you decrees, touch not, handle not, etc.?” Seeing then that the right of either power is unlike, the laws also diversely do bind.
Second reason, of the final causes of laws. Civil laws, are the bands of common society, therefore in breaking them, charity is always hurt, for because every one ought to use his obedience, as a seal, to the defence of common quietness, also the common tributes and all his travail must thereto be applied; when this they do not, they deceive the rest, and enjoy other men’s offices, employing nothing of their own unto it, even as he which to a common banquet giveth not his money, beguileth the guests.
The example also in breaking it doth hurt, and troubleth common quietness; therefore in civil laws, respect of charity and offence is always of force. But most part of ceremonies are private, and domestical observations, the breach whereof hurteth not others. Then seeing in them is no hazard of charity, nor offence’s chance, the authority of these laws is unlike, for of these also we have spoken, that then they are necessary, neither can they be broken without sin, when as the breach breedeth offences, that is, hurteth other men’s faith and manners, or rashly troubleth the quietness of others. And although it be profitable to consider these reasons and causes, and to understand the degrees of laws; yet is it more sure plainly to give judgment out of these sentences of Scripture before recited, for the reasons have many doubts, and do not sufficietnly establish the consciene. And wise men may seek and invent many dark matters on both sides, if that we shall judge only through reasons, and not out of the Scriptures. But here young men are to be warned, that although it be needful to know, that these indifferent things are no worshipping of God; yet they must learn, that the case of offence is large, and with diligenet care they must beware of it; for in the breach of traditions two things are hazarded, discipline and tranquility, or the agreement of the common wealth. It is fit for us to understand chiefly the greatness and force of either of these, being occupied in the studies of ?leavening? and virtues.
First for discipline’s sake, there need certain ordinances, for unskillful persons, who must be accustomed to ceremonies and rites, to holy days, to certain readings, to private and public exercises, and for that cause Paul calls the law a schoolmaster; for these ceremonies are certain institutions; necessary for young years. And although the Gospel doth bring a higher doctrine, yet it will not have discipline and institution to be abolished, but it commands that men be restrained, ruled, and taught with such instructions. What profti this discipline hath, I have showed elsewhere, for God is effectual in the which are tractable to be taught and resist not his word. Wherefore the example hurteth in the breach of traditions, for the common people, which naturally hate the bands of laws, willingly follow these examples, and thereof take contempt of the whole discipline, and of all the laws. These ordinances being abolished, there can be no discipline, neither can youth and the unlearned people be taught.
Then of necessity must follow exceeding barbarousness, and destruction, whether youth and the common people cannot be instructed. How great a wickedness and murder is it, to give such examples, whereby this desolation may arise; and in the other part of offence, how much evil is it, that the quietness of the Church and commonwealth is troubled.
In this corporal life we have need of ceremonies for orders’s sake, or for decency, which for man is most seemly. For if this order be disannulled, infinite confusion doth follow. For where there is no authority of teachers, no certain times to teach, no certain teachers, no certain form of doctrine; in such confusion, neither can the Gospel be presented, neither the Church instructed. Finally, as order and content of public ordinances do join men in fellowship together; so confusion of order does separate men’s minds, breedeth horrible tumults, and endless war.
Let us then think, that in breach of traditions, the example commonly and easily spreadeth abroad amongst others. Let us consider, what evil is in an example. Wherefore lest we burden our consciences with danger, lest we hurt others, let us observe with greater care the public ordinances whatsoever. It is tyrannical to regard more what delights ourselves, than what may do good to others; for we are not born unto ourselves, but our life pertaineth unto others, especially unto the Church, that is, to the glory of Christ, to the conservation of the ministry, and the retaining of discipline for the people. These two things which are the greatest, the Church desires chiefly to defend. Herein let us show our obedience, our diligence and endeavor, for the common quietness and health of us all. Plato says, we must love our country more than our mother, because our country is a certain heavenly thing. But the Church ought to be our true country, and this truly is heavenly; for it is the Temple of God, and the congregation of the members of Christ. Wherefore this we must love, and willingly obey it, and yield much unot the profit and tranquility thereof. Paul calls traditions “beggarly elements,” which although they be beggarly, that is, small things, transitory, not eternal, they are no worshipping, they are no righteousness, yet they are elements, that is, ordinances, which this corporal life cannot want, because of discipline and good order’s sake. Wherefore those ordinances are not to be disannulled, but Paul’s counsel must be considered, who although he call them beggarly, yet he calls them elements, and so takes away the praise of righteousness, showing still that there be ordinances, which have their profit. Great is the form of discipline, there is no sweeter harmony, than good order in a commonwealth. Therefore these are called elements, that is, ordinances, which preserve that harmony.