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Protestantism, Aristotle, and the Godly Commonwealth

. . . Often much more important than what people argue is how people argue. . . . Many whom we may have hastily taken as kindred spirits, because they happen to have reached some conclusion we moderns take for granted, turn out on closer inspection to have been motivated by wholly different concerns, so that the convergence is largely illusory. Others, however, whom we might be apt to dismiss as barbaric for their unenlightened ideas, turn out to have been strikingly liberal-minded.

One of the differences between the casual student of history and the true intellectual historian is that the latter recognizes that often much more important than what people argue is how people argue.  Attention to the latter can often have a very unsettling effect on our traditional assumptions and stereotypes.  Many whom we may have hastily taken as kindred spirits, because they happen to have reached some conclusion we moderns take for granted, turn out on closer inspection to have been motivated by wholly different concerns, so that the convergence is largely illusory.  Others, however, whom we might be apt to dismiss as barbaric for their unenlightened ideas, turn out to have been strikingly liberal-minded.  By closer attention to the how and why of our predecessors’ arguments, we can often discover many more valuable conversation partners in the past than we may have expected to.  We are sometimes apt to feel that those of an earlier age, bound by prejudices and assumptions common to their age, cannot possibly speak to our own; the way in which they argue within those assumptions, however, often opens up points of contact which far transcend their own time and context.

Political theology is rife with such examples.  In my own period of study, for instance, the late 16th century, it has often been common, particularly among more popularizing, second-rate historical works, to seize on the Puritans’ opposition to state imposition on the church, and to hail them as early prophets of the separation of church and state, or the rights of conscience.[1]  In fact, however, very few of them doubted that the one true religion ought to be imposed upon the whole nation and maintained by force of civil authority; their chief complaint was simply that the supreme magistrates were not listening to the counsel of godly ministers on what the shape of that one true religion looked like!  Indeed, their proposed regime was often more repressive of conscience than the alternative, as it proposed to transform what had been mere good-order regulations into prescriptions binding by the law of God.

On the other hand, not all defenses of the established church-state order were created equal, and not all were as illiberal as they may appear to the modern mind.  For instance, among staunch late Elizabethan conformists, we find quite a gulf separating Richard Bancroft’s 1589 insistence that “To whose [the authorities’] godly determination in matters of question, her dutiful children ought to submit themselves without any curious or willful contradiction”[2] and Richard Hooker’s 1593 plea, “Nor is mine own intent any other . . . than to make it appear unto you, that for the ecclesiastical laws of this land, we are led by great reason to observe them . . . my whole endeavour is to resolve the conscience, and to shew as near as I can what in this controversy the heart is to think.”[3]  We also find quite an intriguing difference in the way that arguments for the royal supremacy over the church were constructed in the Tudor period.

Among early apologists for the Tudor reformation(s), we commonly encounter the refrain that the English monarchs have been called to take up the mantle of the great reforming kings of ancient Israel, to be a new Hezekiah or Josiah, purging the land of idols.[4]  Indeed, the brief reign of Edward VI seemed tailor-made for such comparisons: the boy-king Edward was crowned at the age of nine, just one year older than the greatest of Old Testament reforming kings, Josiah.  Just as Josiah had rediscovered the Book of the Law, so the Word of God was being rediscovered again, as it seemed for the first time in centuries, in England.  Just as Josiah, guided by the priests of the Lord, fulfilled his divine calling to destroy idols and high places and restore worship according to the law of God, so the pious Edward, under the tutelage of Cranmer and other Protestant bishops, was to reform, restore, and govern the Church in England according to Scripture.  In the midst of such literature, we feel ourselves uncomfortably confronted with a wholly alien mentality, one in which not only are kings and queens anointed by divine right, but they are tasked also with the execution of divine law, one in which the world of the Old Testament is felt to be contemporary, its laws essentially unchanged after more than two millenia.[5]  Political theologians could certainly be forgiven for shaking their head in bewilderment, leaving such doctrines wholly to the historians, and seeking elsewhere for more fruitful conversation partners.

But another look at the writings of this period reveals another, somewhat unexpected and rather intriguing mode of argument among the more philosophically-inclined Protestant thinkers.  Many of these, such as Peter Martyr Vermigli and Richard Hooker, were steeped in classical literature and the writings of Aristotle, and had profited from the Renaissance’s revival of Aristotle’s Politics and Nicomachean Ethics.  While they had no doubt that kings bore a commission from God to rule righteously, and ought to seek instruction out of Scripture, including the example of godly rulers from the Old Testament, they were not content to simply assert that God in Scripture commanded kings to rule over the church, and leave it at that.  Just as the medieval scholastics had sought to reconcile their appreciation for Aristotle with Scripture, so these Protestant Aristotelians did, particularly when it came to their political thought.

Both Vermigli and Hooker, then, can be found constructing an argument along the following lines[6]:

To be sure, they say, the commonwealth as such is concerned with the affairs of earthly life, not with eternal salvation; it is not the magistrate’s office to be in the business of saving souls.  However, as Aristotle teaches, the commonwealth is concerned with not merely living, but living well in community; indeed, the commonwealth exists to realize the supreme temporal common good, and as the highest goods are those of the soul, the supreme magistrate has a very direct interest in the business of maturing souls, that is, cultivating virtuous citizens.  At this point his task overlaps with the task of religion, which is concerned both with making virtuous people in the present life and with fitting them for the life to come.  Accordingly, Aristotle himself and all the respectable ancients realized that cultivation of religion must play a central role in the magistration’s curation of virtuous citizens.  Although the reformers deemed that Aristotle, and all pagans, had an inadequate grasp of the natural virtues, they believed that he was right to recognize the importance of religion, and that the true religion, Christianity, illuminated the true shape of the virtues—merely civil virtues were distinct from the theological virtues, and yet the latter exist to perfect the former, not to render them irrelevant.  Accordingly, once we supply to Aristotle’s argument the knowledge of true righteousness that he himself sadly lacked, it appears, by his own premises, that to be a good magistrate and maintain a true commonwealth, rulers ought to oversee the well-ordered propagation of true religion, that is, Christianity, in their realms.

Such an argumentative strategy has some important consequences.  For one, it grounds the magistrate’s cura religionis (care for religion) not in the shaky exegetical ground of a direct appeal to the model of Old Testament kingship, but in reason, and the common structure of political order itself.  In other words, though Hooker and Vermigli are primarily engaged with interlocutors who accept completely the authority of Scripture, they think that this argument for the importance of the cura religionis ought to prove compelling even to the godless; indeed, Hooker notes that even atheists perceive the value of this “politic use of religion”[7]; what they lack is conviction of its truth, and thus don’t care much “of what sort our religion be.”[8]  For another, it means that, since the magistrate’s duty in the maintenance of true religion is a means to the end of maintaining the temporal common good in a commonwealth ordered toward virtue, there is ample room for diversity in how this cura religionis is practiced.  Old Testament precedents serve as useful examples for how the English monarchs might well go about reforming and protecting the church, but they are only examples; the particular adminstration of this duty, Hooker is particularly clear, will vary according to time, place, constitutional limitations, and the needs and situation of the people.
Such an argument, it should readily appear, is one that we moderns might much more easily have a conversation with.  To be sure, a wide gulf still separates the assumptions of our day from his—not least the very idea that a commonwealth may be ordered to a common good, and that laws might be of much effect in promoting virtue of any kind.  For Rawlsian liberalism, certainly, such ideas are nearly as alien as the claim that presidents ought to take their cue from Josiah.  Yet not all liberalisms need be Rawlsian, and for those that are not, such Protestant Aristotelians might continue to provide surprisingly fruitful conversation partners on the public role of religion in a plural society.


[1] For a particularly egregious example, see Douglas F. Kelly, The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World: The Influence of Calvin on Five Governments from the 16th through 18th Centuries (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992).  For a much more scholarly work that nonetheless commits similar errors, see David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).  Another perspective, which is much more historically careful but nonetheless seeks to argue for a connection between English Puritanism and American liberties, is Michael Winship’s Godly Republicanism: Puritans, Pilgrims, and a City on a Hill (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).

[2] Richard Bancroft, A Sermon Preached at Paul’s Cross (London: E. B. [Edward Bollifant] for Gregorie Seton, 1588/89), 42.

[3] Richard Hooker, Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie (1593), Pref.7.1.

[4] See especially W.J. Torrance Kirby, The Zurich Connection and Tudor Political Thought (Leiden: Brill, 2007).

[5] See Andre Gazal, Scripture and Royal Supremacy in Tudor England: The Use of Old Testament Historical Narrative (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2013).

[6] See especially Hooker, Lawes, VIII.3; Vermigli, Common Places (1576), IV.13-14.

[7] Hooker, Lawes V.2.3.

[8] Hooker, Lawes V.1.3.

4 thoughts on “Protestantism, Aristotle, and the Godly Commonwealth

  1. The sort of agreement you describe at the begining of your piece is called “An incompletely theorized argreement” by Cass Sustein. I always thought it captured the nature of actual agreement and disagreement well. Very interesting essay!

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