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Argumenta ex Silentio

W(h)igging Out?

In discussions of political theology, one sometimes encounters the claim that the so-called “Constantinianism” of the magisterial Reformers was a kind of unthinking holdover from an earlier era; the implication seems to be, in other words, that their assumptions were perhaps not Christian enough, and were certainly not reflective enough.

This post is one in an ongoing but intermittent series1 intended to get us to reflect on the fact that our assumptions (regarding separationism, disestablishmentarianism, vel sim.) are subject to the same kind of objection, and there is no reason why we should privilege them straight out of the gate, especially given that they are, in point of fact, relatively recent in historical terms. Just because these assumptions are ours doesn’t make them right. Perhaps we have seen the Whigs, and the Whigs are us. Consider this, then, an exercise in convening Chesterton’s democracy of the dead. We ought not to dismiss the Reformers as apish Constantinians until we have understood, and refuted, their principles.

History and Fallacy

So, regarding the possibility of a magistrate exercising cura religionis:

We might think that allowing for the possibility of such a thing is ruled out by the New Testament witness: neither Jesus nor the apostles say anything about, say, a “Christian state” or “Christian commonwealth”2This is, of course, what is referred to as an argumentum ex silentio, a type of argument that is often (though not always) treated as fallacious, but nevertheless remains important in historiography.

Whether it is fallacious or not, one can admit that it has some force. Peter and Paul, for instance, never speak explicitly about a Christian magistrate. We might therefore infer either the strong conclusion that they were resolutely opposed even to the idea of such a thing or that they considered it an impossibility, a contradiction in terms; or a weaker conclusion, such as the following: they didn’t care about such a thing, and neither should we. There were lots of things they spent time discussing. If this wasn’t one of them, other issues must have held greater importance for them, and perhaps the Christian citizen (if there can even be such a thing!) should focus (only) on those.3

To balance this argument, however, I’d like to put forward another and competing argumentum ex silentio, though it is one that is much more seldom discussed.

Lex Naturalis Antiqua…et Perpetua?

In the ancient world, it is everywhere taken for granted that the magistrate has cura religionis–that religion is a matter of public concern and thus subject to public regulation.4 One could multiply citations to this effect from the Greco-Roman world: Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero all touch on it.5 For philosophers, it is a matter of natural law that this should be so.

Furthermore, legislation in Greek polities, the Roman Republic, and the Roman Empire confirms that the view of the philosophers was actually put into practice, and it is, I think, beyond argument that the practice preceded any reflective philosophical justification for it.

This phenomenon was not, however, simply Greco-Roman. Anyone who reads the Old Testament can see that this was the case in ancient Israel as well.  Here an objection might be raised, viz., that we must read ancient Israel (solely) in the context of redemptive history and therefore should not take it as either normative or even exemplary. Let us accept this objection, arguendo;6 for ancient Israel is not necessary for this argument.

Why not? Because this same assumption was still in place in the Hellenistic Roman cultural world in which the New Testament was written and would have been no more alien to the man on the street in the first century, Christian or otherwise, than water is to a fish. It therefore stands to reason that, if the apostles had rejected this principle, they might have said so.

Civitas Nuda

But in fact, we find no assertion of the rectitude of a principially atheistic state either in the New Testament or in mainstream Christian tradition in the early church.

To be sure, the New Testament everywhere teaches that God must be obeyed rather than man when the two come into conflict. The early Christians refused to offer sacrifice to Caesar–but the justification for such a refusal was the falsehood of Caesar as a divine being, not the rejection of the state’s having any interest in religious matters. The early Christians do not seem to have agitated for a public-square version of the Capitoline Venus. I might go so far as to say that no one in the ancient world had the mental equipment even to think such a thing.

Speculum and Speculation

Why, then, do we not find a speculum principis in the New Testament? Perhaps because there were no Christian magistrates at the time (let us recall here the occasional nature of the New Testament epistolary corpus). There were, however, Christian masters, Christian slaves, Christian husbands, Christian fathers, Christian wives, Christian mothers, and Christian children; and Paul gives advice to all of them. Would it really be so surprising if he had given advice to Christian princes, had there been any such thing? If Paul recognized the architectonic religious principle behind magisterial power, one could be forgiven for thinking that it would not have been surprising at all.

This last, however, is speculation. But it is no more speculation than the idea that the apostles must have believed in the desirability, feasibility, or even possibility of a completely secularized state because they said nothing to the contrary, and this last idea does not cohere as well with the rest of what we know of the ancient world. Perhaps Paul didn’t need to say anything about the inevitability of public recognition of the divine order at all, because he knew everyone already accepted it as a matter of the law of nature, either reflectively or intuitively.

All of this is to say that, while there may well be a place for arguments from silence in adjudicating the political-theological question, there are many such arguments to hand, and they do not all tend in the same direction.

And in any event, if we’re not biblicists, the New Testament data is not the only data relevant to the question; natural law, the way in which God made the world, has a role to play as well.




  1. See, e.g., here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, in addition to the series of posts on the commentary tradition on Psalm 148:11-12.
  2. I leave those terms vague and undefined for the time being, because their definition doesn’t pertain to this particular criticism or the point of this post.
  3. This way of framing the issue of course ignores the occasional and contextual aspects of many of the NT writings, which for the sake of rigor would actually need to be addressed to arrive at this conclusion for present-day Christian intellectual and theoretical endavors.
  4. This is perhaps too weak of a way to make the claim, as it is not universally acknowledged that “religion” can even be considered a separate, self-contained conceptual domain in antiquity. That particular debate, however, has no bearing on my argument, which only requires that matters we would consider “religious” were subject to public oversight.
  5. Turretin offers citations from all three in his discussion of the magistrate in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology 18.34.6, under the Locus De politica ecclesiae gubernatione.
  6. In point of fact, I do not accept it–or, rather, the latter part of it. Ancient Israel is not normative; but if we can take aspects of Greek and Roman civilization as exemplary, I see no reason why the same (at least) cannot be done with Israel. Furthermore, one cannot assume prima facie that aspects of Israelite order did not reflect general natural as well as special divine law. It seems more likely that Israelites recognized some of the same contours of  nature as did the Greeks and Romans.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

11 replies on “Argumenta ex Silentio”


I’m wondering what impact does the regulative principle of worship have upon the argument from silence. While the argument from silence is rightly a fallacy in epistemic contexts, however in Protestantism especially of a more “Calvinist” or robust Reformed sort, the silence of the Scriptures upon a kind of worship practice is usually considered itself as evidence against it.

It seems to me therefore that, especially on issues of church polity and the ordering of worship in a congregation, the regulative principle has a particular application in that if the Bible does not mention Christian Magistrates as possessing any form of ecclesiastical authority in the church or having the right to order the affairs of the Church, then that silence is itself a commendation against it.

If indeed the ordering of worship and the ecclesiastical offices who are empowered so to do are not subject to the regulative principle, where will the argument end? Shall we have Cardinals and Popes as well? Melanchthon, coming from the Lutheran end where the realm of adiaphora covers a very wide field, was willing to tolerate Popes as long as they allow the Gospel, I think the Reformed on the other hand would be a little reticent in allowing so much latitude in questions of Church polity and authority in the Church.

Eric, I appreciate the point you are trying to make here.

But for those like myself who don’t favor Constantianism, the argument is not that the Bible or NT favors a “completely secularized state” — whatever that is. Instead the argument comes from first, the way that notions of Christian states clearly botched things up (at least for non-Christians but you could also throw in the church). Second, the preference for a secular over a Christian state reflects a post-Israel, Petrine and Augustinian take on Christians as exiles. Something different did take place when Israel ceased to be the site of God’s covenant people.

Dear Darryl,

Thanks for your comment. Some responses, in no particular order:

1. I would have thought that what I meant by “completely secularized state” would have been clear from the post itself: one in which there is no recognition of divine order underwriting human order.

2. Part of the point of the post was an exploration of the bearing of the law of nature on the question of public order and cura religionis, so it is unclear to me how anyone “botch[ing] things up” pertains; but in any event the record on this question is rather complex, and I don’t think the problem can be solved quite so easily as saying, “Wow, Christians (or people posing as Christians, or taking advantage of Christians) really messed things up.”

3. A secular order (in the sense of temporary, as pertaining to the saeculum) is not the same thing as a secularized order, and the latter was what I had in view. The former would not necessarily be opposed to magisterial principles.

4. Such a preference *may* very well reflect a Petrine view; but it also may not, which is why I was discussing the basic assumptions in place in the first century. Peter’s teaching on exile, then, *may* not be incompatible with these other basic assumptions, for the reasons I sketched above.

5. It is not at all clear to me that what I suggest is incompatible with Augustinianism, and I would say that the opposite is true (cf. with 3; the former would be Augustinian, while the latter would not).

6. It isn’t self-evident that the exile motif points in the direction you suggest. As only one example, Calvin hammers on the motif, and did not favor a secularized order.

7. Of course something changed from OT to NT. This is why I said that Israel was not normative, and why I explicitly left Israel out of the argument. My point was rather about what people long believed to be a matter of the law of nature.

Thanks again for stopping by.


Eric, thanks.

Many questions to follow but let me run the risk of testing your patience with one: if you did have to account for Christians really messing politics up, how would that affect your case for Christian politics or a Christian political order of some kind? I agree that Christian botches don’t settle political questions. But surely they factor into a narrative of how we got where we are. No?

Dear Darryl,

In point of fact, I did not attempt to make a case for a Christian politics above. I’m interested in this post in refining the status quaestionis as to what Christian principles allow (or don’t) vis-a-vis political order through the lens of a formulation of the law of nature.

If I had to account for “Christians really messing politics up,” I dunno–I suppose it could be attributed to sin, folly, imprudence, ineptitude, libido habendi, libido dominandi… the possibilities are legion. As to how it would affect my case, were I to make one, I’m not sure–probably analogously to how democratic or republican foibles affect the case for democratic or republican politics. I’m a big believer in the principle abusus non tollit usum (but, I hasten to add, I do think it’s important that we own up to errors in judgment and practice in the history of the Church, and not in the passive “mistakes were made” kind of way). That, however, does not vitiate the principle about abuse and use. For example, church government has botched things in the past, sometimes egregiously, but that doesn’t mean we dispense with the political governance of the Church.

But, again, the historical record is rather mixed on this; it’s not all one thing or another. For myself, I’m pretty grateful for Nicaea I, Constantinople I, and Chalcedon, for instance; or, for that matter, most of the Westminster Standards. These all depended on a non-secularized state.

In any case, while I’m sure the ups and downs of history help to explain how we got to where we are, I wasn’t intending to tell a story about that in this post. Again, the point was to investigate a principle that was operative in antiquity (and also in the Reformation), the truth or falsehood of which is not determined by historical contingencies.


Dear Dominic,

Thanks for your comment–sorry for not responding sooner.

I’m not sure I’m following, particularly on the relevance of the regulative principle. I was floating a hypothesis based upon a natural law view of cura religionis and civil office, and was not speaking to church officers binding the consciences of believers in worship. And, in any event, WCF 1.6 itself allows a role for the “light of nature” in circumstances of worship and church government.

Perhaps I’m not understanding you?


Thanks, Eric. The thing is, a difference exists between church rule and the polis or republic or kingdom. I understand why Christianity should govern the church. But I don’t see why Christians should expect Christianity to govern the civil realm. The problems that that expectation creates are not merely an abuse of a good thing. They are real, as in what to do with non-Christians in a Christian society. That is a problem that churches do not face unless they face the predicament of political establishment.

Dear Darryl,

(Mostly in the order of your comment.)

1. I hesitated to use the church comparison precisely for the reason you gave, though that was not the reason I used the analogy: if pressed, one would have to discuss the similarities and differences between ecclesiastical and civic polity. I used it only to illustrate the principle that the mishandling of an idea does not vitiate the idea (abusus non tollit usum). There are dozens of other examples to hand, of which I gave a couple. That was the only purpose in the comparison, and I said many things besides that offhand analogy. *If*, then, the principle is correct, historical blunders don’t negate it.

2. A principle is not exclusive of the real problems that attend it. Likewise, the “abuse of a good thing” is not exclusive of real problems. The example of religious toleration is an important one, and concerns about it have an important place. At the same time, and relatedly, there is an argument to be made that many of the fruits of religious toleration come from Christian principles. But I did not make that argument in the post above.

3. I’m not sure that churches don’t face the problem of being a mixed body, regardless of establishment. That is part of the point of the visible/invisible church distinction, as well as the historical/eschatological church distinction, as well as the distinction between effectual calling and the calling “by the ministry of the Word” experienced by those who “never truly come unto Christ,” as well as the imagery of wheat and tares (though obviously in the visible church everyone would presumably at least profess to be Christian). That is of course not to say that that issue can or should be handled in the same way in the different realms (ecclesiastical and civic), nor that the issue even has the same meaning in the different realms.

4. But, again, the point of the post had to do with a natural law argument from silence; and the truth or falsehood of that *principle* is a different thing from both historical contingency and the problems of practical application.

Thanks again for commenting.


What a refreshing post! It has long struck me that there is a kind of Anabaptist hermeneutic going on when contemporary Reformed folks reject the classic establishmentarianism of the 16th & 17th century divines because the apostles do not speak to or even contemplate the future role of Christian magistrates. In a similar way, one would dismiss infant baptism out of hand because it is not specifically mentioned and would only become a normative practice (after individual and household baptisms of the early church) in a subsequent historical context.

And critics of Christendom for having botched things up makes me scratch my head. The Reformation was not smothered in the cradle in large part because of Protestant magistrates. Did Frederick the Wise botch things up in patronizing Ursinus and Olevianus?

I’ll definitely have to keep coming back here. Thanks again.

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