De Laicis — Saint Robert Bellarmine’s Treatise on Civil Government

Chapter 3

As to the first point, the Sacred Books of the Old Testament are replete with proofs. In Exod. XXII. the judges of the people are called gods by God Himself, as indeed we find in Ps. 81, “God hath stood in the congregation of gods: and being in the midst of them He judgeth gods.” The reason for this designation Josaphat explains when he states that the judges exercise the authority of God, not of men; that is, they judge in place of God. 18 And in like manner Moses admonishes the judges of the people to judge justly, 19 since judgment is of God; and Christ says, “If he called them gods, to whom the word of God was spoken . . . . whom the Father hath sanctified and sent into the world, etc.” 20 Here Christ means, “If God calls the princes gods, since to them the Divine command is given to judge in His place, why not the more so, etc.” for it is not correct to say, as some do, that all those to whom God has spoken were called gods; if, therefore, the princes are called gods since they take His place, the authority of princes cannot be questioned unless the authority of God is likewise questioned.

Moreover, Moses lays down the laws for the future King, 21 and in the Book of Judges, last chapter, last verse, the Holy Spirit, wishing to assign the cause of all the evils which happened at that time, says: “In those days there was no king in Israel, but every one did that which seemed right to himself.” In the same Book of Judges and here and there in the Book of Kings, we find God arousing the judges of Israel, or the princes, through whom He might liberate the people. “Through Me kings rule.” 22

The Anabaptists reply that rulers were allowed to the Jews on account of their imperfection, but under the New Testament the dispensation is different.

But the contrary is true, for in the beginning the Prophets predicted that all the kings of the earth would serve Christ and the Church, which could not come to pass unless there were kings in the Church. “And now, O ye kings, understand; receive instruction, you that judge the earth; embrace discipline,” 23 according to the Hebrew Naschechubar, embrace ye the Son, whom in the same Psalm the Scriptures call the Messias. Likewise, “All the kings of the earth shall adore Him, all the nations shall serve Him.” 24 “The nations shall walk in Thy light and kings in the splendor of Thy rising.” 25 And, “Kings shall be Thy nursing fathers and queens Thy nurses: they shall worship Thee with their faces towards the earth and they shall kick up the dust of Thy feet.” 26 We have certainly seen this fulfilled in the cases of Constantine, Theodosius, Charlemagne, and others who venerated the tombs of the Apostles and Martyrs, and endowed and protected churches.

Moreover, Christ, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, said, among other things: “Render to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.” 27 St. Paul commands that, “Every soul be subject to higher powers: for there is no power but from God, etc.” 28 And in the same place he repeats three times that the secular princes, to whom tribute is paid, are the ministers of God. Indeed, Irenaeus makes use of this very passage. 29 Likewise, the Apostle expressly orders the people to pray for kings. 30 Tertullian makes use of this passage in his Apologetics, 31 because the pagans falsely accused the Christians of being unwilling to obey the magistrates; but, certainly, if the Gospel did not allow secular power, it would be necessary to pray for the destruction of kings and princes. But we read, “Admonish them to be subject to princes and powers,” 32 and “Fear God, honor the king.” 33

But they answer that from these evidences is proved that we ought to obey the pagan king, but not that it is lawful for Christians to hold sway over kingdoms, and to wield the power of magistracy. To which we answer, first, that it is not surprising that in the New Testament but little mention is made of magistrates, for Christ did not come to establish a temporal kingdom, but a spiritual and heavenly kingdom; and in like manner the Apostles were occupied with proclaiming and spreading the spiritual kingdom, and left the political kingdom as it was before.

Besides this we add: Granted that the Sacred Writings of the New Testament do not expressly approve magistracy in the Church, nevertheless it is evidently to be gathered from the proofs offered above; for it is lawful for Christians to be subject to a pagan king, why not rather to a Christian king? And if it is lawful for Christians to be subject, why is it not lawful for them to rule, since to be subject seems to be more opposed to Evangelical liberty than to rule?

Finally, if subjection or civil rule is opposed to Christian liberty, Ecclesiastical subjection or rule is more opposed to it, since Christian liberty pertains more to a Christian as a member of the Church than as a member of civil society. But Ecclesiastical rule or subjection is not opposed to Christian liberty, as is evident from the texts, “Who, thinkest thou, is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath appointed over his family?” 34 and “he that ruleth, with carefulness,” 35 and “Obey your prelates.” 36 Therefore, political government or subjection is not opposed to Christian liberty. And this solves the first objection.

In answer to the first Scriptural objection, therefore, we ought to say that in the passage adduced Christ spoke only of Himself, and most properly proved that, since He was the Son of God, the supreme King, He was not obliged to pay tribute to any prince; but in another place He ordered that the tribute money be paid to Caesar, 37 and St. Paul says, 38 “Tribute to whom tribute is due.” For although Christ, speaking of Himself, very properly said, “Then the children are free,” we may rightly deduce from this that ecclesiastics should be free from the necessity of paying tribute, since the son of the king is free in such wise that because of him his household is equally free, as we explained previously in the book on the clergy. 39

In explanation of the second objection: Christ instituted the ecclesiastical magistracy and distinguished it from political magistracy as well as from the corrupt political magistracy, with which pomp, pride, and haughtiness are usually allied. If, indeed, we are to understand that this latter is forbidden to Christians, we speak wisely, for there the kingdom as an institution is not censured, but the manner of ruling.

In explanation of the third objection: St. Paul does not mean that you are not permitted to be bound by any law, but that you should quickly pay all debts; for he had previously said, 40 “Render to all men their dues. Tribute to whom tribute is due, etc.” And since the debt of love can never be thus paid, but we are always bound to love, he says, therefore, “Owe no man anything, but to love one another.” 41

In explanation of the fourth objection, I say that to become the slave of man, in that place signifies to serve man merely for the sake of man; for besides, in another place in the same Epistle, St. Paul exhorts the slaves, even if they could become free, rather to choose servitude, and he says, “Serve one another.” 42

In explanation of the last objection, I say that there the word “Lord” is to be taken in the proper sense, in which it applies to God only, and for this reason kings and princes are not forbidden, since they are not rightfully lords, but servants of God, Who alone is true Lord, for there is no higher title; for the true Lord has two attributes which are proper to no creature. One is, that He can use as He pleases that creature whose Lord He is, and He can increase, diminish, change, annihilate it, etc. The other attribute is that He is subservient to no one, that is, that He stands in need of nothing, but suffices to Himself for all things, as Augustine correctly states, and quotes, 43 “I said to the Lord, Thou art my God, for Thou hast no need of my goods.” For in the Hebrew it is, “I said to the Lord, my Lord, ………..” And hence this is the meaning which translators of the Septuagint give everywhere; the name proper to God ……….., they translate by , and St. Jerome by Lord. Hence even Augustus, as Tertullian mentions, 44 never allowed himself to be called lord, because he knew that this title is fitting for God alone, and, on the other hand, Domitian is criticized by Suetonius for his unbelievable arrogance, because he willingly listened in the Amphitheatre to the salutation: “Good fortune to our lord and lady,” and because he ordered to be written of himself, “Thus hath our Lord and God ordered it to be done.”

18 2 Paralip. XIV.

19 Deuter. I

20 John X., 35, 36.

21 Deuter. XVII.

22 Proverbs VIII.

23 Ps. 2.

24 Ps. 71.

25 Isaias LX.

26 Ibid. XLIX.

27 Matt. XXII., 21.

28 Rom. XIII., 1.

29 Bk. IV., ch. 70.

30 1 Tim. II., 2.

31 Ch. 31.

32 Titus III., 1.

33 Peter II., 17.

34 Matt. XXIV., 45.

35 Rom. XII., 8.

36 Hebr. XIII., 17.

37 Matt. XXII., 21.

38 Rom. XXII., 7.

39 Ch. 125.

40 Rom. XIII., 7.

41 Ibid., 8.

42 Gal. V., 13.

43 De Gen., Book VIII., ch. 2; Ps. 15.

44 Apologetics, ch. 34.