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On the Civil Magistrate

I was given a facsimile of the 1560 edition of the Geneva Bible, and was reading through it on Sunday. In this edition, the English Church in exile in Geneva included a letter to Queen Elizabeth, along with their gift of the Geneva Bible, encouraging her to continue the work of reforming the Church according to Scripture. I think it is interesting that throughout the majority of Church history, the Church has believed it is the God-given duty of Christian rulers to establish Christianity in some form within their nation. In the middle of their letter to Elizabeth, the author writes:

Moreover, the marvelous diligence and zeal of Jehoshaphat, Josiah, and Hezekiah are by the singular providence of God left as an example to all godly rulers to reform their countries and to establish the word of God with all speed, lest the wrath of the Lord fall upon them for the neglecting thereof. For these excellent Kings did not only embrace the Word promptly and joyfully, but also procured earnestly and commanded the same to be taught, preached, and maintained through all their countries and dominions, binding themselves and all their subjects-both the great and small-with solemn protestations and covenants before God to obey the word, and to walk after the ways of the Lord.

Notice that they believe the methods of these Kings over the Church are intended by God to serve as examples for “all godly rulers to reform their countries”. It is not that the Church should be reformed by its own, inward mechanisms alone, though this certainly should occur, but also civil governance has a proper role in assisting the Church’s reform by ensuring that their country is religiously conformed to what God desires. With that in mind, they point out that the way a country is to be conformed to God’s will is through three means: embracing the Bible, establishing a means by which the Bible is taught, and establishing a means by which the Bible’s moral laws are enforced. They point out that this was what the good King Asa did.

Facsimile of 1560 Geneva Bible

Yes, and in the days of King Asa it was enacted that whosoever would not seek the Lord God of Israel, should be slain, whether he was small or great, man or woman. And for the establishing of this and the performance of this solemn oath, as well, Priests as Judges were appointed and placed through all the cities of Judah to instruct the people in true knowledge and fear of God, and to minister justice according to the word, knowing that, except God by his word did reign in the hearts and souls, all man’s diligence and endeavors were of no effect: for without this Word we cannot discern between justice and injury, protection and oppression, wisdom and foolishness, knowledge and ignorance, good and evil.

It is often argued against this particular view of the role of civil governance in the Church that the government cannot make a person regenerate, or cause them to be born again. Detractors suggest that because the civil government cannot regenerate men, it really has no business in promoting Scripture, or enforcing its laws. Now, it is true that the civil government cannot regenerate men, and should not aim to lead people to falsely confess faith in Christ! But the authors of this letter suggest to Elizabeth that it is useless to try to reform a country’s morals or religion if the word of God is not promoted in it by the government. While a government cannot regenerate mankind, the word of God can regenerate. And if the word of God is promoted, then regeneration will likely follow. Even if the word of God is not employed by God to regenerate people, and cause a love of His laws, God often uses His word to restrain the wicked by threats. In the end, the promotion of the reading, preaching, and practice of Scripture will then have the effect of altering the morals of a nation. So, in this portion, they imply that the Queen should consider the best ways to promote the teaching of Scripture, as well as applying its moral imperatives in her Kingdom.

Therefore, the Lord, who is the chief governor of his Church, wills that nothing be attempted before we have inquired at his mouth. For seeing he is our God, of duty we must give him this preeminence, that of our selves we enterprise nothing, but only that which he has appointed, he who alone knows all things, and governs them as may best serve to his glory and our salvation. We ought not therefore to prevent him [go around him], or do any thing without his word, but as soon as he has received his will, immediately to put it into action

Contemporary format* of Geneva Bible (edited by yours truly)

They conclude this paragraph by hinting that Queen Elizabeth should not seek to alter the morals and religion of her nation of her own wisdom or that of her councilors, but instead to consider what God has to say about it in the Bible. Knowing the role of Knox in penning this letter to her, and knowing the offense that his prior work, A Trumpet Blast against the Monstrous Regime of Women, gave to the Queen, we can only assume this letter was not received with much joy. I imagine that if I were a sovereign over a nation, I would believe this to be rather too authoritative a suggestion. But the authors of the letter intended the Queen to see their addresses not as their own suggestions, but as necessary revelations from Scripture of what God has willed for godly rulers.


*Original format:

Moreouer the maruelous diligence and zeale of Iehofhaphat, Iofiah, and Hezekiah are by the finguler prouidence of God left as an example to all godly rulers to reforme their countreys and to eftablifh the worde of God with all fpede, left the wrath of the Lord fall upon them for the neglecting thereof. For these excellent Kings did not onely imbrace the worde promptely and ioyfully, but alfo procured earneftly and commanded the fame to be taught, preached and maynteyned through all their countreys and dominions, bynding them and all their fubiectes both the great and fmale with folemne proteftatitons and couenants before God to obey the worde, and to walke after the waies of the Lord. Yea and in the daies of Kyng Afa it was enacted that whofoeur wolde not feke the Lord God of Ifrael, fhulde be flayne, whether he was fmale or great, man or woman. And for the eftablifhing hereof and performance of this folemne othe, afwel Priests as Iudges were appointed and placed through all the cities of Iudah to inftruct the people in true knollage and feare of God, and to minifter iuftice according to the worde, knowing that, except God by his worde dyd reigne in the heartes and foules, all mans diligence and indeuors were of none effect: for without this worde we can not difcerne betwene iuftice, and iniurie, protection and oppefsion, wifdome and foolifhnes, knollage and ignorance, good and euil. Therefore the lord, who is the chefe gouernour of his Church, willeth that nothing be attempted before we haue inquired thereof at his mouth. For feing he is our God, of duetie we muft giue him this preeminence, that of our felues we enterpife nothing, but that which he hath appointed, who only knoweth all things, and gouerneth them as may beft ferue to his glorie and our faluation. We oght not therefore to preuent him, or do any thing without his worde, but affone as he hath reueiled his wil, immediately to put it in execution.

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