Objection: Magistrates Liable to Abuse the Enforcing of the First Table

It is objected, that the power in question is very liable to be abused, has been abused in all ages; and that, if we give power to magistrates about religion, they will employ it for the support of a false religion as well as the true. This is an objection which has the greatest influence upon the ignorant, and is accordingly most frequently urged, and represented with all possible aggravations. It will not however bear examination.

Ab abusu usum non valet consequentia. It is not just reasoning, to argue from the abuse of any thing, against its use. What power is there among fallible and corrupt men which is not liable to be abused, greatly abused, which has not been abused in every age, which is not daily abused by many? Some kinds of power may be more liable to be abused than others, or when abused, may be productive of worse consequences.[31] Corruptio optimi, pessima, is a common maxim; the corruption of the best is the worst. Shall we therefore abolish and reject these altogether, on account of their abuse? It is well known that the power committed by Christ to the office-bearers of his church has been very grossly abused. Great and highly culpable as the encroachments of civil rulers upon the prerogatives of Christ and the consciences of men have been and are, let us not forget that the greatest enemy on earth that ever the church of Christ saw, or will see, was a power not civil, but spiritual or ecclesiastical, “sitting in the temple of God,” which, principally by claims to a spiritual kind, rose to such a surprising ascendancy, as to “exalt himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped,” and during so many ages usurped the supremacy of Jesus Christ, the prerogatives of princes, and the rights of mankind. It is not uncommon with many, from this abuse, to declaim and decry all church power, and Presbyterian courts in particular, as proceeding upon the same principles, and liable to similar abuses. This is unreasonable.

And it is equally unreasonable to confound the power allotted by Presbyterians to Magistrates, with that which has been claimed or exercised by persecuting, tyrannical, Popish or Erastian governments; or to discard the exercise of civil authority about religion, when duly limited, from a dread of the wildest excesses which have been committed by the rage of tyranny, bigotry, or fanaticism. There is no more affinity between these, than there is between the legitimate principles of government or of necessary defense, and the numerous unjust wars, massacres, rapine, and oppression, which have been practiced in all ages by nations and their rulers. The misapplication of civil power to the support of a false religion, is common to it with all other power among men. The true religion must still continue to have the only just claim to support, although its rivals may often supplant it; nor are we to go over to the camp of skepticism, by representing it as impossible to distinguish between truth and falsehood in the matter. The objection drawn from abuse was as strong against the power of the Jewish kings.[32]

[31] Such an objection must come with a bad grace from those who have said, respecting a right which they are afraid to plead for as moral: “They may and often do err and offend the most high God, by substituting a false worship in the place of that which he requires: but no power on earth may take their right from them” (New Testimony, p. 195). What we plead for is a moral right, which gives no countenance to abuses, and leaves unimpaired all those means which are proper for correcting or restraining these, as committed against the law of God and the good of society.

[32] “We do not deny,” says Dr. Rivet, “that by the abuse of this power, the church may be disturbed, and the true worship of God overturned; which also happens from the abuse of ecclesiastical power. In the kingdom of Judah, within a very short space, King Ahaz burned incense in the high-places; what his son Hezekiah abolished, Manasseh restored, which Josiah his grandson again destroyed. But these changes did not derogate from the Regal power in matters of religion; nor do we ever hear that the prophets contended against this power, although they, in the name of God, severely reproved the abuses of it (Oper., Tom. i, p. 1375).

Thomas M’Crie, Brief View of the Evidence for the Exercise of Civil Authority about Religion

Ab abusu usum non valet consequentia. It is not just reasoning, to argue from the abuse of any thing, against its use.
Ab abusu usum non valet consequentia. It is not just reasoning, to argue from the abuse of any thing, against its use.

One thought on “Objection: Magistrates Liable to Abuse the Enforcing of the First Table

  1. […] Establishment of religion is not to be confused with the control of the Church by the State, i.e. the civil magistrate (which is Erastianism, the Anglican error) on the one extreme, or the control of the State by the Church (which is Ecclesiocracy, the Papist error) on the other extreme. Our confession explicitly denies both extremes and holds a strict institutional and jurisdictional separation of Church and State, the State only having power circa sacra (about religious matters) rather than in sacris (in religious matters). “Synods and councils are to handle or conclude nothing but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate (Luke 12:13-14; John 18:36)” (WCF 31:5). “The Lord Jesus, as king and head of his Church, hath therein appointed a government in the hand of Church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate” (WCF 30:1). “He [i.e. the civil magistrate] may politically, outwardly exercise his power about objects, or matters spiritual, but not spiritually, inwardly, formally act any power in the Church. He may act in Church affairs as did Asa, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, Josiah, not as did Korah, Saul, Uzzah, or Uzziah” (Jus Divinum, pg. 77). It is not a legitimate excuse to argue against the Establishment Principle simply because it has been distorted and abused in the past; “It is not just reasoning, to argue from the abuse of any thing, against its use.“ […]


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