Theologico-Political Treatise 1862/Chapter 19

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When I said above that they who were intrusted with the administration of affairs were the sole arbiters of right, and that all legislation depended on them, I did not mean this to be understood as referring to civil affairs only, but also to things sacred; for I maintain that the government of a country should also be the guardians and interpreters of these. Now, my purpose in this chapter is to enforce this principle; for there are many who deny such a right to civil rulers, and refuse to acknowledge them as interpreters of the divine decretals; whence, further, they assume the liberty of condemning and vilifying, and even of excommunicating their rulers, ex cathedra, as Ambrose did the Emperor Theodosius. But I shall show that such persons seek occasion in this way to divide the state against itself, and even to seize the supreme power for themselves. First, however, I shall demonstrate that a religious system can only acquire the force of law from the decree of those who are at the head of the state, and have the right to command; and that God has no especial empire among men save through those who govern; moreover, that religious worship and pious practices should be arranged harmoniously with the peace and wellbeing of the commonwealth; consequently, that these are to be determined by the ruling powers alone, who are at the same time to be the judges of their worth and fitness. I speak expressly of pious practices and outward religious observance, not of those sentiments of piety and veneration towards the Supreme Being whereby the mind is inwardly disposed to the worship of God. For inward worship and pious contemplation are the inalienable right of all, the right which cannot be given away nor transferred to another, as has been shown towards the end of Chapter VII. And what I understand by empire or kingdom of God I think is sufficiently explained in Chapter XIV., where I have shown that he fulfils the divine law who studies justice and charity from the commandments of God; whence it follows, that there the kingdom of God truly is where justice and charity have the force of law. And here I say that I acknowledge no distinction or difference, whether God teach and enforce the practice of justice and charity by natural impulse or by revelation; for it matters not how the necessity for their exercise is made known, so as they obtain supremacy, so as they become the chiefest law to man. If, then, I have already shown that justice and charity cannot acquire the force of a law and commandment except by the authority of the government, I conclude from this — inasmuch as the right of command inheres in the supreme authority alone — that religion also only acquires the force of law by the decision of those who have the right of commanding, and that God has no kingdom among men save by those who hold the chief authority. But that the practice of justice and charity does not acquire the force of law save from the right of authority has been already shown in what precedes. In Chapter XVI., for example, it has been demonstrated that in the natural state the empire of appetite was as authoritative as the rule of reason, and that they who lived according to the laws of appetite had as good a right to all they could compass as they who lived in obedience to the laws of reason. From this cause we said that we could not conceive sin as existing in the natural state, nor God, as judge, punishing men for their transgressions, but found that all things went on according to the general laws of nature at large, and that the same thing — to speak with Solomon — was just and unjust, pure and impure, &c., and that there was no place found for justice or charity. That the doctrine of true reason, that is, the divine doctrine, should have the absolute force of law, it were necessary that every one ceded his natural rights, and that each and all transferred these either to all collectively, to a few, or to one; and that then we were first informed of what was justice, what injustice, what was to be done, what left undone, &c. Justice, therefore, and the whole of the doctrines of right reason, and as a consequence of this, neighbourly charity, receive the force of law from the rights of the ruling power alone; in other words, from the decree of him who has, or of them who have, the power to command. And since, as I have already shown, the kingdom of God wholly consists in the supremacy of justice and charity, or of true religion, it follows, as I maintain, that God's kingdom among men exists through those who hold the supreme authority, and is thus, I repeat, ever the same, whether we conceive religion to be derived from our natural faculties or from prophetic revelation. For the proposition is still a general one, inasmuch as religion is always the same, and is equally revealed and given by God, whether it be supposed to have been communicated to man in one way or another. Thus it came to pass, that in order to give even the religion prophetically revealed to the Hebrews the force of law, it was necessary that they should first cede their natural rights, and all determine by common consent only to obey the commands prophetically revealed to them by God; much in the same way as we have seen things done in a democratic state, where all deliberate together, and by common consent agree to live by the rules of right reason alone. The Jews, indeed, besides mutually ceding their rights, transferred them to Jehovah. But this was done mentally rather than in fact; for we have seen that they did verily retain the supreme power among themselves, until it was transferred to Moses, who thence forward became their absolute king, and God through him disposed of the nation. Moreover, it was from this cause, viz. that a religious system only acquires the force of law by the authority of the ruling power, that Moses could not punish those who broke the Sabbath before the covenant, when every one was still possessed of his natural rights, as he did after the covenant was made, and each man had ceded the rights he naturally possessed, and when observance of the Sabbath had acquired the force of a commandment in virtue of the decree of the ruling power. For the same reason, also, when the Hebrew empire fell, the religion revealed to its people ceased to have the force of law; for it is impossible to doubt that when the Hebrews transferred their rights and allegiance to the king of Babylon, the kingdom of God and the divine law established among them incontinently came to an end. For by this act the compact whereby they bound themselves to obey God in all that he commanded was plainly annulled; nor, indeed, could it now have been enforced, seeing that from this time forward the Hebrew people were no longer their own masters, but servitors to the king of Babylon, whom they were bound to obey in all things. This Jeremiah declares expressly, when he says, "And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives; for in the safety thereof shall ye have safety." Now the Jews could have taken no measures for the safety of Babylon as citizens or ministers of the Babylonian empire, for they were slaves; it could only have been by avoiding conspiracy and sedition, by showing themselves obedient to all commands, observant of the rights of the empire and the requirements of the laws, although sufficiently different, perchance, from the laws to which they had been accustomed in their native country. From the whole of these particulars it follows very obviously that religion among the ancient Hebrews acquired the force of law from the fiat of the governing authority alone; and this authority destroyed, religion in itself could no longer be regarded as a system adapted to a single nation, but became a catholic or universal system of reason; I say of reason, for the truly catholic religion was not yet made known to man by revelation.

Let us conclude therefore without reservation that religion, whether revealed by natural inherent capacity or prophetically, receives the force of a mandate only from the decree of those who have the power to command, and that the kingdom of God in the world is in those who hold the supreme authority. This also follows, and is even more appreciable, from what is said in Chapter IV., where we have seen that the decrees of God involve eternal truth and eternal necessity, and that it is impossible to conceive God as a Prince or Legislator, imparting laws to man. Wherefore, the divine precepts, whether made known by natural light or prophetic revelation, do not receive the force of commandments immediately from God, but necessarily from those or by means of those who are in possession of the sovereign authority, and have the power of passing and enforcing their decrees. In the same way, we cannot conceive God otherwise than by their means as reigning over mankind and administering affairs with equity and justice, as is proved by every-day experience; for no traces of divine justice are ever seen save where the just have authority; where it is otherwise (recurring to the words of Solomon) we see the same fate befall the just and the unjust, the pure and the impure, a conclusion which has driven some, who think that God reigns immediately over man and rules the whole universe for his advantage, to doubt of the divine providence.

Since, therefore, experience and reason alike declare that the divine right depends entirely on the decrees of the governing powers, it follows that they also must be the interpreters of this right. In what way they are so we shall now see; for it is time we showed how all outward religious worship, and all pious exercises, should be so regulated as to secure the peace and prosperity of the commonwealth, if God is to be obeyed aright. So much once proven, we shall readily understand in what way the ruling powers are properly the interpreters of the religion and regulators of the pious practices of the country.

It is certain that devotion to our country is the highest virtue that can be shown; for this wanting, nothing good can remain, all runs to confusion, and licence and impiety bear sway, to the terror and damage of all, whence it follows that nothing can be advantageous to any one which is not bad in itself, if it prove injurious to the commonwealth at large; as, on the contrary, no act can be amiss, can be otherwise than absolutely good, if done to the advantage of the commonwealth. For example, it has been held pious to give him who attacks me and would take my cloak, my coat also; but when this decision is brought to the bar of right and reason, and the thing is seen to be injurious to the public at large, as well as to the individual, it becomes an act of piety to bring the robber before the judgment-seat, to the end that he may be punished and the community protected. Manlius Torquatus is renowned because the safety of the republic was of more moment in his eyes than pity and compassion for his son. And if this view be well founded, it follows that the safety of the state is the supreme law, to which all laws, divine and human, must be made to bend. But since it is the office of the government to determine what is for the good of the whole community and necessary to the safety of the state, and to command that to be done which is deemed necessary, it follows that it is also the province of the supreme power alone to determine in what way every one shall comport himself to his neighbour; in other words, in what way every one shall be held bound to obey God. These considerations give us the key to a right understanding of the way and manner in which the ruling power of the state is the interpreter and regulator of its religious system; and also why no one can truly obey God who does not accommodate his religious observances to public utility, and consequently who does not obey the commands of the governing authority. For inasmuch as all without exception by God's commands are ordered to be observant religiously, and to do injury to no one, it follows that it is lawful to do no service to any one who brings damage upon another, much less when he causes detriment to the whole state; no one, therefore, can do service to his neighbours in obedience to God's commands, unless his charitable and pious purpose be found in accordance with the public advantage. But no merely private person can always know what is useful to the commonwealth; this he must learn from the governing authorities and their decrees, the proper business of the ruler being to administer the affairs of the state; consequently, no one can be accounted truly pious, nor obedient to God, unless he obeys the decrees of the government of his country. And all this is confirmed by experience. For any one, whether a native or a stranger, a private person or one in authority, whom the supreme power in the state has adjudged to death, or has declared an enemy, must on no account be sheltered or succoured by a subject. So also, although the Hebrew was ordered to love every one of his neighbours as himself (Levit. xix. 17, 18), he was nevertheless held bound to deliver over to the judge any one who had done aught against the commandments of the law (Levit. v. 1, and Deut. xiii. 8, 9), and even to slay him if he were adjudged worthy of death (Deut. xvii. 7). Again, in order that the Hebrew might preserve his recovered liberty, and possess the land he occupied in safety, it was absolutely necessary that he should accommodate his religious practices to the exigences of the civil power, and keep himself distinct and separate from other nations; therefore was he instructed to love his neighbour, but to hate his enemy (vide Matt. v. 43). After the fall of the Jewish empire, however, and when the people had been led captive to Babylon, Jeremiah taught his countrymen that they should consult the safety of the very state into which they had been taken captive; and after Christ had seen the Jews scattered and in exile over the face of the whole earth, he taught that they should love and do good to all indifferently — friends and foes alike: these things show most obviously that the principles of religion were always accommodated to the exigences and uses of the community. But should it now be asked, By what right and. authority did the disciples of Christ, being private men, presume to preach their religion? I reply, It was in virtue of the power which they received from Christ against the impure spirits (Matt, x. 1). For I have already expressly declared that all were to keep faith, even with a tyrant, — all, except him to whom God by a special revelation promised assistance against an oppressor (vide Chap. XVI. towards the end). No one, therefore, can take an example from this, unless he have the power of performing miracles. And this also makes plain the meaning of what Christ said to his disciples when he told them they were not to fear those who had the power of the sword (Matt. xvi. 28); for had this been said to all indiscriminately, the state or commonwealth would have been constituted in vain, and the saying of Solomon (Prov. xxiv. 21), "My son, fear God and honour the king," would have been a mockery, which very certainly it was not intended to be; and so must we necessarily understand the authority which Christ gave his disciples, as having been given to them in especial, and that it was not intended that others should receive any warrant from his words.

I do not pause to discuss the reasons of those who would sever the civil from the religious element in the state, and who maintain that the former rests with the government alone, the latter with the whole body of the Church, for I find these so frivolous as not to deserve a serious refutation. I cannot avoid declaring how miserably, in my opinion, they are deceived who in support of this seditious view (I ask pardon for the hard word) cite the example of the chief priests among the Jews, with whom in ancient times lay the right of administration in sacred things; just as if these pontiffs had not received the right they exercised from Moses, who himself possessed the supreme power, and could not even be deprived of it at his bidding. Moses not only elected Aaron, but his son Eleazar, and his nephew Phineas, and gave them authority to administer the pontificate, which the high priests in succession after them retained in such wise that they appeared like the substitutes of Moses, that is to say, of the supreme civil power, for, as we have seen, Moses elected no successor to himself in the state, but so distributed his various offices that those who came after him seemed his vicars, who administered the government as if the sovereign had been absent, not dead. In the second empire, indeed, the high priests held this right absolutely, when with the pontificate they had usurped the principality also. The pontifical authority, therefore, always depended on the edict of the supreme civil ruler, nor did the high priests ever possess the chief power in the state until after they had usurped the sovereignty. The right of sacred things, indeed, lay with the kings absolutely (as I shall show in what I have still to say at the end of this chapter), with this single exception, that it was not lawful for them to take part in the celebration of the sacred rites within the temple, and this was because all who did not derive their descent from Aaron were held impure, an idea which has no place in the Christian system. We cannot therefore doubt but that the sacred rites of the present day (the administration of which requires peculiar morals, but not family descent, so that no one is now excluded as impure and profane from qualifying himself to take part in them) are entirely in the power of the supreme ruler of the state; and that no one, save by the authority of the sovereign or government, has any right of administration in ecclesiastical affairs, of fixing the foundations and determining the doctrines of the Church, of judging in matters of morality and public piety, of pronouncing excommunications and excluding from or of receiving into the Church, nor, in fine, of providing for the poor and the needy. And all this is not only demonstrably true, as we have shown, but is indispensably necessary also, as well to religion as to the well-being of the state, for all are aware how much right and authority in sacred things avail with the people, and how much all are dependent on his report who possesses them; it were scarcely too much to say that he bears the most sovereign sway in the minds of men to whom such right and authority are conceded. Any one, therefore, who should attempt to deprive governments of this authority over sacred things, would in effect attempt a division of the state, from which would necessarily arise differences and dissensions as among the Hebrew kings and high priests of old, differences which could never be composed; he, indeed, who should seek to take away this authority from the civil power would rightly be held as aspiring to the sovereign authority for himself. For what were left to the decision of the civil power were the right over religion denied it? Nothing, either in regard to war or peace or any other business, if it were once compelled to bow to the opinion of another who should inform it whether that which it had deemed useful and proper were really just or unjust, right or wrong. No, everything in the well-regulated commonwealth must be done by the decrees of those who are intrusted with the supreme civil power, and with it the right of judging and decreeing what is beneficial or injurious, just or unjust, right or wrong. Examples in illustration of the effects for good or for evil, as one or other of these courses has been followed, abound in history. I shall adduce but one, the papacy, as an epitome of all the rest. Because the absolute right of over-ruling the civil power had been conceded to the Roman pontiff, this priest came by degrees to assert his supremacy over all the kings and principalities of Christendom, until at length the very crown and pinnacle of earthly power and greatness was attained; so firmly was the empire of the Pope established, too, that for ages all that the sovereigns of Europe, and especially the emperors of Germany, attempted against it, proved of non-avail; on the contrary, every fresh endeavour to curb its exorbitant power, in ever so trifling a degree, seemed long but to add immeasurably to its strength. What neither king nor kaiser could accomplish by fire or sword was done by an ecclesiastic, in the middle ages, with the stroke of a pen; a fact from which the immense power of the ecclesiastical order may readily be inferred, and which also shows how necessary it is that civil rulers should keep the sovereign authority in their own hands. And if we but duly reflect on the contents of the preceding chapter, we shall see that this will conduce in no small measure to the increase of piety and true religion. For we have seen above that the prophets themselves, although gifted with divine powers, because they were mere private individuals, often excited and inflamed the people rather than instructed and corrected them, by the freedom of their expostulations and denunciations, when the sovereign, with the right of warning and of punishment in his hand, would have readily bent them to obedience. It is further notorious that the Hebrew kings themselves, solely because they were not firmly established in the right of controlling things sacred, frequently seceded from the national religion, along with almost the whole of the people; and the same thing, from the very same cause, too, has happened on various occasions in Christian countries also.

But here some one perchance will ask. Who is to stand forth to vindicate religion, if they who possess the supreme authority prove themselves careless or irreligious? Shall they in such a case still be held its regulators and interpreters? But I in my turn demand, What if ecclesiastics (who are also men of private station, and whose sole duty it is to mind their own affairs), or they with whom is lodged the right of jurisdiction in sacred things, choose to show themselves impious persons, are they then to be esteemed the regulators and interpreters of the religious system of the state? This much is certain, indeed, that if they who hold the reins of power may go their own way, without control of any kind, whether they have authority in sacred matters or not, all things, both sacred and profane, never fail to get into disorder, and ran on from bad to worse, till they end in ruin; and this by so much the more quickly if there be any meddling by private persons who seek to vindicate the divine right by exciting sedition and rebellion. Wherefore nothing is gained by denying the right over sacred things to the civil power; on the contrary, the evil to the state is but increased; for it inevitably happens that they, like the Hebrew kings of old, who had not the right in question conceded to them absolutely, fall away from their religion, and as a consequence of this the damage to the commonwealth, from uncertain and contingent is made certain and necessary. Whether, therefore, we consider the truth of the thing, or the safety of the state, or, lastly, the increase of piety, we are compelled to admit that even the right divine, or the right over things sacred, depends absolutely on the decision of the supreme civil power in the state, and that this power is also the interpreter, and avenger if need be, of things sacred. From this it follows that they are the true ministers of God's word who teach the people piety on the authority of the ruling powers, seeing that this by other decrees is arranged harmoniously for peace and profit with all the other institutions of the state.

It only now remains for us to point out the cause why in the Christian dispensation there has always been a dispute about the right in question, although among the ancient Hebrews, so far as I know, there never was a difference of opinion on the subject. It does indeed seem monstrous that concerning a thing so manifest, so necessary, there should ever have been any dispute, and that governments should never have exercised their right in this direction without controversy, sometimes, indeed, not without the danger of sedition, and always with great damage to the cause of true religion. And verily, could no definite reason be assigned for this, I could readily persuade myself that all I have set forth in this chapter was speculative only, or of that order of discussion which never comes to use. But when the origin of the Christian religion is inquired into, the reason of the state of things in question becomes abundantly apparent; for the first teachers of the Christian religion were not kings, but private persons, who, against the will of those who governed, and whose subjects they were, were wont to hold secret assemblies for religious worship, to appoint to sacred offices, and to order and conclude in spiritual things among themselves without taking any thought of the government. But by and by, as the Christian religion with the lapse of years began to form an element in the state, the priesthood were applied to by rulers for information on the constitution of their church, and thus came to be considered as the interpreters of the will of God, and finally as his vicars on earth; and in order that Christian kings should not at a future time resume the authority which they then conceded to the Church, the priesthood interdicted matrimony to themselves and their successors in the ministry for ever. In addition to this, the dogmas of the Christian Church grew so prodigiously in number, and were so mixed up with philosophical ideas, that its teachers and interpreters required to be at once consummate philosophers and theologians, and to give their minds to abstruse and profitless speculation, which could only be done by men possessed of abundant leisure, and without family cares or public employments.

But among the ancient Hebrews things were managed very differently; their Church was founded at the same time as their empire, and Moses, the supreme and absolute head of the state, also taught the people religious doctrine, arranged their religious services, and selected the ministers of the temple. And thus, again, it came to pass that the royal authority was the more esteemed of the people, and that the kings of the Jews were mostly held supreme in spiritual as well as in temporal things. For although after Moses' death no one ruled the realm with absolute sway, still the right of commanding, both in sacred and profane matters, remained with the prince or the government. Subsequently, the people were ordered to seek instruction in their religious duties from the judge as well as from the priest (vide Deut. xvii. 9, 11). In conclusion, although the Jewish kings had not that paramount authority possessed by Moses, they still gave almost every order, and made all the appointments required in connection with sacred things. David, for example, gave directions for the whole arrangements of the temple (1 Chron. xxviii. 11, 12, &c), and chose from among the Levites 24,000 to sing the Psalms,[1] 6000 to act as judges and officers, 4000 as porters or door-keepers, and finally 4000 as players upon musical instruments (lb. xxiii. 4, 5). Further, King David divided the Levites into "courses;" to each of which he appointed a leader, that each might be ready to take their turn of duty in the temple and minister in its sacred offices. The priests were also divided into "courses," as the reader will find set forth in the Second Book of Chronicles, from which I shall make but a single quotation in illustration of my position, that the civil power was supreme in all things among the ancient Hebrews. In verses 12 and 13 of the chapter referred to, it is said, "Then Solomon offered burnt offerings unto the Lord, &c, even after a certain rate every day, offering according to the commandment of Moses; and he appointed, according to the order of David his father, the courses of the priests to their service, and the Levites to their charges, &c, for so had David the man of God commanded; and they departed not from the commandment of the king unto the priests and Levites concerning any matter, or concerning the treasures." This alone I think is sufficient to prove that the whole of the religious institution and administration of the country depended entirely on the mandate of the king. I have made exception, however, of the appointment of the high priest, and of the right to consult God immediately and to condemn the prophets who exercised their vocation in the life-time of the king, powers which Moses possessed and exercised; I have called attention to this exception for no other reason but because the prophets, in virtue of the authority that belonged to them, could elect a new king, and pardon parricide; but it was not lawful for them to call the king to judgment for any attempt against the laws, or otherwise legally to oppose him.[2] Wherefore, if there were no prophet who by a special revelation could safely offer pardon to a parricide, the king had the whole and sole right both in sacred and civil affairs. The ruling powers of the present day, accordingly, who have no prophets, and are not required to receive them (for they are no longer bound by the laws of the Jews), possess this right absolutely, though they are not unmarried; and they must be careful to keep it for ever, unless they would consent to have the dogmas of religion endlessly multiplied, and confounded with the sciences, from which they ought ever to be kept separate.[3]


  1. In the English version the 24,000 " were to set forward the work of the house of the Lord." — Ed.
  2. I particularly request in this place the closest attention to the principles of law laid down in Chapter XVI.
  3. In England the strife between the temporal and spiritual power, with the best will in the world on the part of ambitions prelates and priests to renew it, continues to sleep, kept at peace mainly by the good sense of the community. The clerical element, however, still does battle vigorously as often as the civil power, in its efforts to enlighten the multitude, trenches upon the vantage-ground which the clergy in days of yore acquired for themselves in the control of the popular education. But they are gradually losing their footing here, and none but the very bigots among them would now restrict popular education to the Catechism and the Collects. As to Convocation, so long as the laity see that no two of the members of either house are ever precisely of the same mind, that the upper and the lower chamber always differ from each other, and that even though they were unanimous upon any matter of doctrine or discipline, they are still without power to enforce their decisions, — the laity, we say, continue to regard the transactions of the houses of Convocation with supreme indifference. — Ed.