George Gillespie On the Magistrate and the Penal Law

George Gillespie


The  true  resolution  of  a  present  controversy  concerning  liberty  of  conscience.

I have endeavored in this following discourse to vindicate the lawful, yea necessary use of the coercive power of the Christian Magistrate in suppressing and punishing heretics and sectaries, according as the degree of their offense and of the Church’s danger shall require: Which when I had done, there came to my hands a book called The Storming of Antichrist.1 Indeed, “The Recruiting of Antichrist, and the Storming of Zion” (if so be that I may anabaptize an Anabaptist’s book). Take one passage for instance (p. 25): “And for Papists,” he says, “though they are least to be borne of all others, because of the uncertainty of their keeping faith with heretics, as they call us, and because they may be absolved of securements that can arise from the just solemn oaths, and because of their cruelty against the Protestants in diverse countries where they get the upper hand, and because they are professed idolaters, yet may they be born with (as I suppose with submission to better judgments) in Protestant government, in point of religion, because we have not command to root out any for conscience,” etc. Why then, is this to storm Antichrist? Or is it not rather a storming “of this party,” in the prevailing whereof “God will have far more glory than in the Popish and Prelatical party,” as [he] himself speaks (p. 34). And if he will storm, surely some of his ladders are too short. “If any one rail against Christ,” he says (p. 23), “or deny the Scriptures to be his word, or affirm the Epistles to be only letters written to particular churches, and no rule for us, and so unsettle our faith, this I take may be punished by the Magistrate, because all or most nations in the world do it.” That all the nations in the world do punish for these things, I am yet to learn: and those that do, do they not also punish men for other ways of unsettling the grounds of faith besides these? The declining of some of the Epistles as being letters written upon particular occasions, and no rule for us, is an error which has been pretensed to be no less conscientious than those errors which now he will have indulged. Lastly, if he would needs storm, why would he not make some new breach? I find no material arguments in him for liberty of conscience, but what I found before in The Bloody Tenet,2 The Compassionate Samaritan,3 and M.S. to A.S.,4 so that my ensuing answers to them shall serve his turn. And now reader, “Buy the truth, and sell it not.” Search for knowledge “as for hid treasures.” If you read with an unprejudiced mind, I dare promise you through God’s blessing a satisfied mind….

…I. Concerning this question there are three opinions: two extremes, and one in the middle. So it is resolved not only by Dr. Voetius, in his late disputations, De Libertate Conscientia, but long before by Calvin, in his refutation of the errors of Servetus, where he disputes this very question, whether Christian judges may lawfully punish heretics.

The first opinion is that of the Papists, who hold it to be not only no sin, but good service to God, to extirpate by fire and sword, all that are adversaries to, or opposers of the Church and the Catholic religion. Upon this ground, Gregory de Valentia tells us there were 180 of the Albigenses burnt under Pope Innocentius the third, and in the Council of Constance were burnt John Hus and Hieronse of Prague (2am 2ae disp. 1. quest. 11 punct. 3).

…The second opinion falls short, as far as the former exceeds: that is, that the Magistrate ought not to inflict any punishment, nor put forth any coercive power upon heretics or sectaries, but on the contrary grant them liberty and toleration. This was the opinion of the Donatists, against which Augustine has written both much and well, in diverse places: though himself was once in the same error, till he did take the matter into his second better thoughts, as is evident by his Retractions (lib. 2, cap. 2, and epist. 48). In the same error are the Socinians and Arminians (See Peltii Harmonia, Artic. 21; Nic. Bodecher, Sociniano. Remon-strantismus, cap. 25. See also Grotii Apologeticus, cap. 6, p. 130; Theoph. Nicolaid, Tractat. de Ecclesia, cap. 4, p. 33). The very same is maintained in some books printed amongst ourselves in this year of confusion: viz. The Bloody Tenet; Liberty of Conscience;5 The Compassionate Samaritan; John the Baptist;6 and by Mr. Goodwin in his Theomaxia,7 and his Innocencies Triumph.8 In which places he denies that the Magistrate, and particularly that the two Houses of Parliament, may impose anything pertaining to the service and worship of God under mulcts [fines] or penalties. So M.S. to A.S. (pp. 53-55, etc.), disputes against the coercive power of the Magistrate to suppress heresies and sects. This power the Presbyterians do ascribe to the Magistrate, as I shall show by and by. Therefore I still aver, that Mr. Goodwin in denying and opposing this power, herein (as in diverse other particulars) ascribes much less to the Magistrate than the Presbyterians do: which overthrows that insinuation of the five Apologists.9

The third opinion is that the Magistrate may and ought to exercise his coercive power, in suppressing and punishing heretics and sectaries, less or more, according as the nature and degree of the error, schism, obstinacy, and danger of seducing others, requires. This as it was the judgment of the orthodox ancients (vide Optati opera, edit. Al. Baspin, p. 204, 215), so it is followed by our soundest Protestant writers; most largely by Beza against Bellius and Monfortius, in a peculiar treatise, De Hareticis á Magistratu Puniendis. And though Gerhard, Brochmand,10 and other Lutheran writers, make a controversy where they need not, alleging that the Calvinists (so nicknamed) hold as the Papists do, that all heretics without distinction are to be put to death: the truth is, they themselves say as much as either Calvin or Beza, or any other whom they take for adversaries in this question, that is, that heretics are to be punished by mulcts [fines], imprisonments, banishments, and if they be gross idolaters or blasphemers, and seducers of others, then to be put to death. What is it else that Calvin teaches, when he distinguishes three kinds of errors: some to be tolerated with a spirit of meekness, and such as ought not to separate brethren; others not to be tolerated, but to be suppressed with a certain degree of severity; a third sort so abominable and pestiferous, that they are to be cut off by the highest punishment?

And lest it be thought that this is but the opinion of some few, that the magistrate ought thus by a strong hand, and by civil punishments suppress heretics and sectaries: let it be observed what is held forth and professed concerning this business, by the Reformed Churches in their public confessions of faith. In the latter Confession of Helvetia (cap. 30), it is said that the magistrate ought to “root out lies and all superstition, with all impiety and idolatry.” And after, “Let him suppress stubborn heretics.” In the French Confession (art. 39), “Therefore he hath also delivered the sword into the hands of Magistrates, to wit, that offenses may be repressed, not only those which are committed against the second table, but also against the first.” In the Belgic Confession (art. 36), “Therefore hath he armed the Magistrate with the sword for punishing them that do evil, and for defending such as do well. Moreover it is their duty not only to be careful and watchful for the preservation of the civil government, but also to defend the holy ministry, and to abolish and overthrow all idolatry, and counterfeit worship of God.” Beza (De Hareticis), tells us in the beginning, that the ministers of Helvetia had declared themselves to be of the same judgment, in a book published of that argument. And toward the end he cites the Saxon Confession, Luther, Melancthon, Brentius, Bucerus, Wolfgangus Capito, and Bullinger. The Synod of Dordt (ses. 138), in their sentence against the Remonstrants does not only interdict them of all their ecclesiastical and academical functions, but [does] also beseech the States General by their secular power to suppress and restrain them.

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