Front Page Titles (by Subject) VII.: Use of Scripture. - The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates
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VII.: Use of Scripture. - John Milton, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates 
The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, edited with Introduction and Notes by William Talbot Allison (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1911).
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Use of Scripture.
In the seventeenth century, Scripture and reason were the touchstones for Puritan arguments on nearly every subject. It was the common custom to prove anything from the Bible, sometimes with the consent of reason, sometimes in defiance of common sense. The poet Waller, for instance, made a speech in the House of Commons in objection to the bill to enforce the burial of the dead in woollen shrouds, and thought he had proved his case when he cited the evangelist who has recorded that Christ was buried in linen. And if the Bible was used with advantage as an authority on general subjects, it was believed by Milton, and all Puritans, that no one could impose, believe, or obey aught in religion, but from the word of God only.1 Inasmuch as the subject’s relation to his prince involved questions of conduct, the Bible was regarded as an authority on such themes as the divine right of kings and the legitimacy of armed resistance to tyrants. The translation of the Old Testament by Luther supplied his followers, and the Calvinists also, with an arsenal of arguments on political questions. The stormy history of the Jews afforded precedents to the upholders of divine right, of passive resistance, and of tyrannicide. Needless to say, the teachings of the law and the prophets were regarded as of equal authority with the precepts of Jesus and the apostles. ‘Calvin had set forth in his lectures,’ says Weill, ‘that it would be chimerical to wish to transform all the laws of Moses into laws for modern society. Yet in spite of his objection, the political government of the Hebrews seemed to the religionists of the reformed party a model to copy in all its details; and the example of the monarchy of Israel, so often denounced by the prophets and overthrown by insurrectionists inspired by God himself, fortified their hatred of despotism, and their confidence in ultimate success.’2 The Protestants, however, were in two camps, as far as political theory was concerned. Although Luther and Calvin were somewhat ambiguous, the former was more a defender of the theory of the divine right of kings than of civil liberty; the latter advised passive resistance, but by his utterances against tyranny encouraged such disciples as Knox and Goodman in more revolutionary principles. The Lutheran defenders of despotism naturally attached more weight to the teachings of the New Testament, especially the Pauline and Petrine dicta on unreserved submission to magistrates. The Protestant defenders of civil liberty, Knox, Buchanan, and Milton, for example, emphasized the rebellions and cases of tyrannicide in the history of Israel, and did their best to explain away the awkward passages in the New Testament.
Certain texts and instances in both the old and the new Scriptures became loci classici for controversialists. The friends of monarchy advanced the following leading arguments from the Bible:—(1) When David had Saul at his mercy, he refused to kill the Lord’s anointed; (2) God punished Israel because of her revolt against Nebuchadnezzar, her lawful sovereign; (3) when David, in Psalm 51, confessed the murder of Uriah, he did not admit that he had sinned against his subject, but only against God; (4) according to 1 Sam. 8. 11-18, God conferred certain rights upon kings; (5) in the New Testament they relied mainly upon three texts—Rom. 13. 1; 1 Pet. 2. 13, 14; Tit. 3. 1; (6) Luke 20. 25, and the fact that Jesus submitted to Pilate, were also often cited. On the other hand, the opponents of the theory of divine right justified rebellion to tyrannical princes on these Biblical grounds:—(1) Ehud, Jael, Jehu, and Judith killed tyrants, being sent by the Lord as liberators; (2) David did not kill Saul, for their quarrel was a matter of private enmity; but at any rate the Lord approved his armed resistance to the forces of the king; (3) the priestly town of Libnah revolted against Jehoram1 (Weill says that Libnah was a sort of La Rochelle to the Protestant writers); (4) the tribes of Israel fell away from Rehoboam; (5) the Maccabees repelled the Syrian tyrant.
This searching of the Scriptures for arguments to support political theories had been in full swing for over a century when Milton undertook to review the well-worn citations in this treatise. He dwells upon the rebellion of Jeroboam against Rehoboam (16. 6), the deposition of Samuel (16. 12), and the three cases of tyrannicide—by Ehud (20. 29), by Samuel (22. 33), and by Jehu (23. 6). In all these citations he uses Scripture fairly, but in other places, where the plain sense of the text or incident is against him, he does not hesitate to wrest the Scripture to his purpose as unscrupulously as any of his opponents. When he quotes Deut. 17. 14, ‘I will have a king set over me,’ he interprets these words as referring solely to the people’s right of choice, thus deliberately ignoring the words in the next verse, ‘Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose’ (15. 20). The Royalist argument from Psalm 51, though it seems absurd to the modern mind, was hard to meet with a direct answer, so Milton brushes it aside with the remark that, after all, these are only ‘the patheticall words of a Psalme’ (14. 18). The New Testament texts are also treated with a high degree of ingenuity. He cannot get round the simple words of 1 Pet. 2. 13, 16, where Christians are enjoined to obey superior powers, so he adds the phrase ‘as free men,’ a refinement used by Christopher Goodman in 1558.1 Paul’s dictum in Rom. 13. 1, ‘For there is no power but of God,’ is explained as referring not to tyrannical, but to just power only. This gloss upon the text had also been used by Goodman. The use which Milton makes of Rev. 13. 2 is an excellent example of how eagerly he strained after any text which might seem to uphold his argument (17. 26). Other New Testament texts quoted by him are also arbitrary, and seem ineffective to present-day readers, but were no doubt regarded as forceful citations by Milton’s contemporaries.1 The pamphlets of such writers as Prynne, Walker, and Filmer, and indeed all the Stuart controversialists, abound in what seems to us a tiresome and even ludicrous use of Scripture. Compared with these and other pamphleteers, Milton is very sane in his exegesis, and moderate in his citation of texts. A grotesque use2 of Scripture in this pamphlet should also be mentioned, namely, the allusion to Adonibezek’s sufferings (55. 21), and the story of the priests of Bel (56. 35). These illustrations are characteristic of Milton’s prose.
[1 ]Of True Religion, etc. (Bohn 2. 513).
[2 ]Les Théories sur le Pouvoir Royal en France, p. 82.
[1 ]See 1 Kings 8. 22.
[1 ]See note on 17. 11.
[1 ]See notes on 24. 2, 24. 8, and 24. 12.
[2 ]For examples of this humorous use of Scripture see Rem. Def. (Bohn 3. 86); Ibid. (Bohn 3. 74); Reas. Ch. Govt. against Prel. (Bohn 2. 463); First Def. (Bohn 1. 41, 211), etc.