Regulative Principle of Civil Government, Is it Biblical? Is it Covenanter?

Regulative Principle of Civil Government, Is it Biblical? Is it Covenanter?
By Michael Daniels

It is never a fun job to have to write an article against those whom you consider friends. It is with a heavy heart and burden that I take up the pen and now write. The issue before me is regarding a debate within Covenanter circles about the limitation of the role of civil government, and how that intersects with other ordained spheres of authority that God ordains, as well as how much of God’s moral law that the civil magistrate may enforce. Many of these issues deal with welfare concerns. Does the civil government have a role and function in education? What about helping the poor? But it also deals with issues that relate to moral laws of God that do not have a defined civil penalty attached.

On the outset let me state what I believe and where I am coming from. I am an old school Cameronian Covenanter. I adhere to the old doctrines of the Cameronian Covenanters of the 1500’s and 1600’s. I believe that civil magistrates are ordained vice-gerents of God to enforce both tables of the law and are ‘Custos utriusque Tabulæ’, keeper of both tables of the law including open blasphemy, idolatry, heresy, etc. I believe the State is to protect the church and be a nursing father to it. I believe in the preceptive will of God in civil government and thus civil government is clearly defined in holy Scripture and not established by the providential will of God. I believe in national covenanting and the establishment principle and I do not believe in Kuyperian total sphere division. By all definitions I am not a Reconstructionist Theonomist but a Covenanter Theonomist.

But there is a teaching going around that says that to believe in limited civil government or what it is being commonly called ‘Regulative Principle of Civil Government’ is not only unbiblical but also contrary to Covenanter Theology and that those Covenanters who hold to the ‘Regulative Principle of Civil Government’ are not holding to Covenanter doctrine but Reconstructionist theology and Kuyperian total sphere division. The author of is one who has written much on this subject and has tried to provide quotes from Westminster divines and Covenanters (out of context in my opinion) to show that the ‘Regulative Principle of Civil Government’ is not Reformed and not Covenanter. I have known the author of this blog for many years and I consider him a good friend and I pray we will continue this friendship on into eternity.

There are various other people who have said such things who are connected with differing Presbyterian and Covenanter denominations. I do not know for certain if what they have said regarding the matter at hand is the officially held position of these various denominations. Some are connected with the Presbyterian Reformed Church and some are connected with the Free Church of Scotland Continuing, And again, I consider them good friends.

I am not going to claim that no Reformer, Puritan, or Covenanter has held that civil government does not have a welfare concern. From all that I have read among those three levels of the Reformed world there was disagreement on the issue of education and other welfare concerns for civil government. I have seen John Calvin claim that the state has a role in education of a nation and should fund education by taxation. The Church of Scotland declared that it is the role of the church and does not mention the state funding education except one time, that if “sufficient provision” were lacking then the magistrates were to give to the church by the personal purse (and not the purse of the nation) of the magistrate. But while I absolutely believe in the Establishment Principle, I do not believe it is the role of the state to fund education and believe that John Calvin was wrong in this particular issue. Funding education for the poor belongs to the church through the voluntary free will offering of the people of God.

Civil Theonomy is as follows: The scriptural system of God’s laws applied to the civil sphere. It teaches that all nations are to submit to the rightful King of nations, and that Magistrates are servants of God and are supposed to be His vicegerents here on the Earth for carrying out justice. Our concept of justice will always be sin-tainted (“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord”, Isaiah 55:8; “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me”, Psalm 51:5; “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”; Jeremiah 17:9). But “The law of the Lord is perfect…” (Psalm 19:7) We need the pure and righteous justice of God as defined by God in His revealed will which is written in His Holy Word.

The root of Civil Theonomy lies in the doctrine of Total Depravity. Man is fallen and cannot and does not do good unless regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Since man is fallen and has the original sin of Adam man can not know what is just, holy, and righteous. The Scripture testifies that the natural man does not seek God nor follow the ways of God. So the bottom line of Theonomy is this: How can fallen sinners invent laws and punishments which are more just, righteous and holy than what God has sovereignly given? The answer is that they can’t. If man chooses laws that require less than God’s law, then they are not equitable and thus unjust; however, if man chooses laws that require more than God’s law, then they are tyrannical and also unjust. Theonomy recognizes that only the Sovereign God has the right to determine what is a civil crime and how it is to be punished in a manner which is equitable.

God, who is King over all the earth (Ps. 47:2, 7-8), has established four separate institutions for our good and for the ordering of human society. These institutions are: self, the family (Gen. 2:24; Col. 3:18-21), the church (Gen. 12:1-3; Eph. 1:22-23; 2:19-22), and the state (Gen. 9:5; Rom. 13:1-7). Each has been granted authority from God for the carrying out of their respective commissions.

Now, when God gives authority to men, He always gives clear instructions on the purpose, limits, and use of that authority. The Word of God reveals these necessary instructions (torah, or laws) so that the individual, the family, the church, and the state will be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Within those spheres God sets limits to the use of that authority within those respective spheres. What pertains to the family may not apply to the state. What pertains to the church may not apply to the state. What pertains to the state may not apply to the church, etc.. The Church may not ordinarily pick up the sword and punish evildoers and the State may never pick up the keys to the kingdom and pronounce excommunications or even preach.

But within Biblical and by extension Covenanter Theology (unlike reconstructionist theology) there is not an absolute separation of those powers. There is a cooperation and co-ordination between the church and the state. But when these spheres do overlap God always sets the perimeters and limits within this overlapped cooperation and co-ordination.

In addition not all sins are crimes temporally punishable. There are sins that only God can punish and there are sins that God commands the magistrates to punish with the sword. Also what may be punishable in the family may not be punishable by the state, and what may be punishable in the church may not be punishable by the state. All of these punishments must be determined by the revealed will of God. God has not left it up to the capricious minds of man, nor has He left it up to man to try in wisdom to determine what is a just, equitable punishment. Only the Sovereign God has the right to determine what is a civil crime and how it is to be punished.

So Theonomy teaches that civil rulers are morally obligated to enforce God’s laws of common equity found throughout the Scriptures which are addressed to magistrates (as well as to refrain from coercion in areas where God has not prescribed their intervention).

So I find it ironic that godly men who are believers and testify to Civil Theonomy want to give near limitless authority to the civil magistrate to punish all sins. How can rulers, most especially unbelieving rulers (As a Covenanter I am not claiming here that unbelieving rulers are legitimate rulers), try in their wisdom to determine what an equitable punishment ought to be for those sins that do not have a specific punishment attached in Scripture? A nation mourns when they are ruled by fools who do not fear God (Proverbs 29:2, Psalm 14:1). How can a fool determine justice when the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). This literally draws us back to square one -– allowing fallen sinners to determine laws and punishments that are supposed to be a just recompense.

It is also, I believe, an attempt to usurp God’s divinity, i.e, a form of idolatry. Only God is the lawgiver and only God can determine what a just recompense should be for a particular sin or what part of the law of God that he is suppose to enforce. So to allow magistrates to enforce all moral law without clear biblical precept or to determine what a sin should deserve when scripture does not command one is to act like God thus usurping His divinity. In Job 35:2, Elihu accused Job of this very serious breach, “Thinkest thou this to be right, that thou saidst, My righteousness is more than God’s?” In Job 40:8, Yahovah asked Job a similar question, “Wilt thou disannul my judgment? Wilt thou condemn me, that thou mayest be righteous?”

Again, my argument rests in the doctrine of total depravity. A Magistrate does not know what is just or equitable apart from the revealed word of God. So I do hold to the regulative principle of government, since justice is not a matter of liberty (e.g., food Rom. 14), but a matter of law and morality. For example, I do not believe the state has the right to do whatever they want with tax money (8th & 10th commandments).

Civil Magistracy was instituted by God and we find in the Word of God express and particular rules, directions, qualifications, and limitations regarding the election and duty of kings as noted in the The Act, Declaration and Testimony of 1741:

“… we find, the Word of GOD gives an express and particular Rule and Direction anent the Election and Duty of Kings, Exod. 18.21, and Deut. 17.14, to the End, which we look upon as a Moral Precept, and therefore binding upon Christians under the New Testament, as well as upon Israel under the Old.”

So at the outset, the Covenanter position is clear that Word of God gives express and particular rule and direction regarding not only the election of magistrates and who may qualify, but also what the duty of kings are. That this principle was of moral equity, and not limited to the Jewish nation of the Old Testament is clearly stated.

But what about the function of the magistrate? What moral laws are magistrates required to enforce or not enforce, and what penalties are magistrates suppose inflict on transgressors? Can the magistrate decide on a different penalty?

Westminster divine George Gillespie stated,

“Now that the Christian Magistrate is bound to observe these Judicial laws of Moses which appoint the punishments of sins against the Moral law, .. by these reasons. 1. If it were not so, then it is free and arbitrary to the Magistrate to appoint what punishments himself pleaseth. But this is not arbitrary to him, for he is the Minister of God, Rom. 13.4. and the judgment is the Lord’s, Deut. 1.7; 2 Chron. 19.6. And if the Magistrate be Keeper of both Tables, he must keep them in such manner as God hath delivered them to him. ” –Wholesome Severity Reconciled, George Gillespie-1644

Gillespies’ understanding is that the Magistrate is not free to do whatever he wishes. He is limited by the revealed will of God because he is a minister of God, and so his function and job is not arbitrary. The magistrate is not free to do whatever he wants, he is not free to come up with laws on his own, nor is he free to determine what punishments he may give to any infraction to the moral law of God. The magistrate is not even free to determine what moral law he may enforce or not enforce. This is all regulated by the mouth of God in His Word.

The magistrate is ‘Custos utriusque Tabulæ’, the keeper of both Tables of the law as George Gillespie and many other Reformed theologians have declared. But even within that role it must be defined by the Word of God how that will function.

Samuel B. Wylie

Who is Samuel B. Wylie? Samuel Wylie was born May 21, 1773. He was a Covenanter of the Cameronian branch of the Covenanters. Most Covenanters who I know today will know of Samuel B. Wylie. Why? Because he wrote the book The Two Sons of Oil. Within the book of The Two Sons of Oil Wylie lays out his belief and understanding of the role of civil magistrates. He even brings out the failures and wickedness of the United States Constitution of failing to recognize God- Christ as King of the nation and His laws as the supreme laws of the land.
Wylie is by all standards a solid Covenanter and is in no way a Reconstructionist. In the same book he teaches on Preceptive Civil Government, the Establishment Principle, the relationship between church and state with the cooperation and co-ordination between them. The role of civil government is as a nursing father to the church as taught in Isa. 49:23. But he also taught on how the civil magistrate is limited. He believed in the ‘Regulative Principle of Civil Government’! He even went so far to say that the magistrate cannot enforce every single moral commandment of God.

Samuel Wylie states,

“And when the magistrate commands what is expressly required by the law of God, his subjects are bound to obey. Rom. 13:1: “Let every soul be subject to the higher powers.”

It may perhaps be inquired, what are those things which he may lawfully command? To this I answer, he may lawfully command whatever is contained in the constitution prescribed by him whom he represents. Deut. 17:18, we are told what this is, namely, the Divine Law. Whatever penalties are specified in that law, and nowhere either repealed or mitigated, should be duly inflicted, in case of disobedience. Where the law is silent or indefinite, with respect to particular crimes, against any precept of the decalogue, and the punishment due thereto, great prudence and discretion will be necessary to ascertain whether said crimes are punishable by civil pains, as there are many violations of the moral law to which no particular civil penalty can attach. “, Samuel B. Wylie, The Two Sons of Oil, 1803

What about some of the Westminster divine quotes that have been floating around? There are various quotes by Gillespie and others that are sometimes used for so-called proof-text against the ‘Regulative Principle of Civil Government’. One quote by George Gilllespie seem to contradict what I provided above.

George Gillespie stated in Aaron’s Rod Blossoming (his book on church government):

“The presbyterial government hath no such liberty nor arbitrariness, as civil or military government hath, there being in all civil or temporal affairs a great deal of latitude left to those who manage the same, so that they command nor act against the word of God.” George Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod, p. 84

The context of this quote is in relation to church government and Gillespie is comparing it to civil government. This quote has absolutely nothing to do with the function of civil magistrates or the relation of the civil magistrate to the moral law of God. This quote is dealing with structure and and organization of civil government. Church government is extremely static in structure, organization and offices. Whereas civil government and even military government is not so structured or organized within God’s law. This has nothing to do with moral laws but how a government is setup (apart of the base criteria in Exodus 18 and Deut. 17.14). Do we have smaller regional governments or one central government? Do we have a five tier appeals court system or two tier appeals court system? Do we have three branches of government (Executive, Legislative, Judicial) or two branches of government? The structure of civil government is not as rigid as church government is. In the church we have a presbyterial court system that is not hierarchical. We have a four office system (teaching pastor, ruling elders, doctor, deacons).

Nothing here relates to what moral law the civil magistrate or even a military commander may enforce or not enforce. Nothing here relates to what civil punishment they may or may not enforce.

The Act, Declaration, and Testimony of 1761 stated regarding 1 Peter 2:13-17,

“it is evident, that by every ordinance of man, can only be meant the different kinds and forms of civil government, and governors set up by men, to each of which the apostle exerts to a submission, providing, that in the setting up of these, they acted agreeably to the general laws and rules appointed by God in his word, both respecting the constitution of government, and the qualifications of governors. ”

So it is not fair to call Covenanters who hold to limited civil government ‘holding to Reconstructionist beliefs’. Samuel B. Wylie clearly held to limited civil government and I believe George Gillespie did as well. If holding to limited civil government makes one a Reconstructionist then Samuel Wylie and George Gillespie were Reconstructionist (even before the time of Reconstructionist). Limited civil government or what is commonly called today ‘The Regulative Principle of Civil Government’ is within the orthodox bounds of Covenanter theology.

Only God is the lawgiver and only God can guide by His Word what the magistrate may do and what he must punish or not punish. In my understanding, it is dangerous to give the magistrate broader power then what God has commanded and it has led to many abuses of God’s laws throughout history. Let us not repeat past mistakes, and may the kingdom of God be manifested throughout the Earth and flow to all nations.
For Christ Crown and Covenant


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