Thursday, October 9, 2014

Henry Bullinger and the Regulative Principle of the State

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 our post 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.

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