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Moral Law and Magisterial Design in Romans 13

It is well known that the Magisterial Reformers treated the Decalogue as a summary of the moral law, that is, as teaching the precepts of the law of nature. In that way, “divine law”–the moral law as revealed–was to serve as a standard for public life in concord with natural law, since the two are the same in terms of content. The former, moreover, served, by its continual proclamation, to clarify and renew man’s apprehension of the requirements of the natural law that were accessible to reason.1

Thus Philip Melanchthon, already in the 1521 edition of the Loci communes, notes the proper relationship between the three types of law we encounter (divine, natural, and human). The last of these should be determined by the first two; if they are not, they are unjust.

Bonus vir attemperabit civiles constitutiones aequo ac bono, hoc est, tum divinis, bum naturalibus legibus, contra quas quidquid constituitur, non potest non iniquum esse.2

The good man will accommodate civil constitutions to the just and the good, that is, to both divine and natural laws. Whatever is established in contradiction of these cannot help but be unjust.3

A passage of this kind has bearing on how we read the famous and controversial opening verses of Romans 13. Are they prescriptive or merely descriptive? A view that grants the existence of an objective moral order that transcends particular holders of office requires that the verses be prescriptive; they state what is required of the magistrate as minister of God, regardless of whether any particular office-holder discharges his duty properly. The magistrate’s failure does not alter what his office is for, and he cannot determine the good and the wicked simply by his own fiat or say-so.

Because Melanchthon believes in such a transcendent moral order, then, he reads the crucial verses prescriptively. He writes as follows, first quoting Paul and then intepreting him:

…Omnis anima potestatibus sublimioribus subdita sit. Non est enim potestas nisi a deo. Quae vero sunt potestates, a deo ordinatae sunt. Itaque qui resistit potestati, dei ordinationi resistit. Qui autem resistunt, ipsi sibi damnationem acquirunt. Nam principes non sunt timori boni operis, sed mali. Nam magistratuum et legum civilium non est aliud officium, nisi punire et arcere iniurias. In hoc sanciuntur leges de rerum divisione, de contrahendi formis, de poenis maleficiorum. Dei enim minister est magistratus, ultor ad iram ei qui deliquerit. Porro non licet magistratui statuere adversus ius divinum, nec obtemperari adversus ius divinum debet, iuxta illud in actis Apostolicis [5, 29]. Oportet deo magis obedire quam hominibus. Et ex hac sententia facile aestimabit prudens lector, quatenus humanis legibus obnoxii simus.

Let every soul be subject to the higher powers. For there is no power except from God. And the powers that exist have been ordained by God. Therefore he who resists the power resists the ordinance of God. Moreover, those who resist obtain condemnation for themselves. For princes are not a source of fear for good work, but for evil. For the duty of magistrates and of civil laws is nothing else except to punish and restrain injustices. For this purpose are laws decreed about the division of property, forms of contracts, [and] punishments for evildoers. For the magistrate is a minister of God, an avenger for wrath for him who has done wrong. Furthermore, it is not permitted to the magistrate to establish anything against the divine law, nor ought one to obey anything against the divine law, according to the passage in the Acts of the Apostles (5.29): It is right to obey God rather than men. And from this passage the wise reader will easily judge how far we are under obligation to human laws.

Incidentally, Melanchthon subdivides human law into two classes in the 1521 Loci, civil law and “pontifical” law, with the latter subject to the former in certain respects. It is for that reason–because church law is part of human law–that the church cannot legislate new articles of faith or propose new moral (e.g. celibacy) or ceremonial (e.g. works of penance and satisfaction) laws such that consciences are bound by them upon pain of damnation for their rejection. The moral law is the moral law, and so morality must be conformed to the created order, whether in church or in state. Likewise, the gospel is the gospel, and no requirements can be added to it beyond what the Lord has spoken. The church can speak only what it has heard: Misit enim Christus Apostolos docere, quae ipse tradiderat.4  

Laws such as those concerning celibacy and satisfactions, then, though they may be given spiritual justification, really pertain–like all other human laws–to “external works” alone, and to confuse these with spiritual works is to confuse the two kingdoms. As Melanchthon puts it, Ad eam functionem quid quaeso faciunt traditiones humanae, quae de externis tantum operibus iudicant?5 With respect to the law, divine law is to govern human law, in both civil society (let us recall, it is the same in content as the natural law) and in the institutional church. With respect to the gospel–well, it is what it is, and it is what the Lord has taught, appropriated by faith alone in Word and sacrament. It does not admit of addition or modification.

  1. Melanchthon makes this point in the section De evangelio in the 1521 Loci.
  2. All quotations are from the edition of the 1521 Loci in Corpus Reformatorum vol. 21, coll. 116ff.
  3. All translations are my own.
  4. For Christ sent the Apostles to teach what he himself had handed on.”
  5. “With respect to this function (i.e. the law’s condemnation of all hearts due to sin and the gospel’s consolation of those same hearts), what, I ask, do human traditions do, which judge concerning external works only?”

By E.J. Hutchinson

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