Friday, November 7, 2014

Johannes Brenz and the Regulative Principle of the State

Johannes Brenz (1499-1570), Influential Lutheran Theologian

(note: we do not endorse the Lutheran view of the sacraments)

Brenz and Old Testament Civil Law

In discussing laws proper for the Christian community, Brenz appeals to the Old Testament to show how the state should deal with one who either commits fornication with a virgin (with the virgin's consent), or who rapes a virgin (Exodus 22:16, 17; Deuteronomy 22:23-27). He likewise appeals to the law of Moses in advocating punishments for blasphemy and adultery (citing Deuteronomy 22:22 for the latter).[1] 

Moreover, just as in the Old Testament false worship was to be suppressed, for Brenz, so should it be today:

[I]f a Christian prince desires to perform his office diligently and to preserve secular decency, as is proper, he can do this in no more effective way than by establishing and ordering true divine worship in the place of ungodly worship, so that true divine peace before God and piety in worship will overflow into everyday civic life and lead both prince and subjects to God's grace, favour,and salvation.[2] 

Since Civil Authority Comes from God, the State should only Rule According to God's Word

Brenz affirms that civil government is an institution established by God. As such, God, and God alone, should be the state's source of law:

It is therefore necessary that every Christian government should promote and protect the word of God and devote all its power to it. For since the power of government comes solely from God, as Christ says in John 19[:11] and Paul in Rom. 13[:1], so it is always proper, indeed necessary, that one conduct oneself according to the will of him that created the office of government and to rule according to the word that creates, maintains, and rules all creatures. For the reason that the secular sword has been established is to keep its subjects in peace. But how can temporal, secular peace be better maintained than through the word of peace which pacifies the sinner, the great enemy of God, the highest good? And how can external peace be maintained if one does not have peace of mind and heart toward God, which only happens through the word of God that incorporates us into the one Christ by the one Holy Spirit? For this reason the Holy Spirit has bestowed upon government the majestic title of "gods," Exod. 22: "You shall not revile the gods," which title gives sufficient indication of what the Lord demands of government, namely that it should rule according to the word of God, not according to its own reason or opinion. ... Furthermore, God sternly commands through Moses, Deut. 17[:18-19], saying: When you choose a king and he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall have written for him a book of this divine law. "And it shall be with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, by keeping all the words of this law." Behold, God commands the government to take the book of God's law in hand, to be occupied with God's word, and to wield the sword in accordance with that law. And it has always been the case that that government conducted according to the word of God has been long-lasting and left in peace, although many troubles were wakened against it, as was the case of the government of Kings David and Hezekiah. To be sure, they suffered affliction; but because they trusted faithfully in the word of God, all their enemies had to retire in shame. 
Therefore, if a government desires to fulfil its office in the best possible manner, this can be begun, carried out, and completed on no better foundation than by promoting the word of the Lord, who established the office. For where his word is absent, there can be nothing else than rebellion, envy, hatred, dissension, war, and all plagues, as Levit. 26[:14-39] and Deut. 28[:15-68] teach. But where his word is, there is also peace, amity, and all love, because the word brings peace and Christian love with it.[3] 

Ruling Solely by the Word Assumes People are not the State's Property

For Brenz, subjects are not a ruler's property, but a trust from God. As such, the regulative principle of the state is a given. In a section of writing titled, "That the people, because they belong not to the ruler but to God, are to be governed according to God's will,"[4] he writes:

For just as children are not the property of their father but God's gift to him, that he might exercise his faith and love on them, Gen. 33[:5], so also the people are not the property of the rulers but a trust from God, whose will is to be worked upon them. Consequently it is easy to understand in what manner and form the people are to be governed. For since the people are a trust and gift from God, they must be ruled in no other way than according to the will and out of the word of God, not of men, whether emperor or pope. 
The people that are so ruled belong not at all to the emperor but rather to God, and thus must also be ruled according to the will of God, Deut. 1[:17]: "You shall not respect persons in judgment, [...-SH] for judgment is God's." Again Exod. 23[:2]: "You shall not follow the multitude to do evil; nor shall you bear witness in a suit, turning aside after a multitude, so as to pervert justice." Acts 5[:29]: "We must obey God rather than men."[5]

Apply the Regulative Principle of the State—Even if all Men Oppose it

Brenz understood that the regulative principle of the state is not always popular among men, and so he writes the following under a section titled "One must rule according to the will of God, regardless of what people think"[6]:

To sum up briefly: power comes from God, John 19[:11], Rom. 13[:1]. It must, therefore, be used according to God's will and word, even if all the world is opposed.[7]



[1] Johannes Brenz, Godly Magistrates and Church Order: Johannes Brenz and the Establishment of the Lutheran Territorial Church in Germany, 1524-1559, ed. and trans. James Martin Estes (Canada: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2001),89, 90.
[2] Ibid., 97, 98.

[3] Ibid., 45, 46. 
[4] Ibid., 42.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 43.
[7] Ibid.


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