In an earlier post, I critiqued the Presbyterian position on civil authority known as Cameronianism. In this post, I would like to add some further thoughts and clarifications that are relevant to that controversy and to the nature of civil authority in general. I hope that these thoughts may aid dialogue between Cameronian and non-Cameronian Presbyterians.
It seems to me, as I continue to think about it, that there are really two distinct issues/questions involved in the Cameronian controversy. The conversation can proceed much more clearly if these two issues are kept properly distinct.
1. Can only magistrates who meet the full biblical requirements indicating how civil magistrates should behave be considered legitimate, duly constituted, de jure civil magistrates?
My answer to that questions is no. As we saw in the previous post on Cameronianism, the Scriptures indicate that anyone who, by providence, is actually filling the role of civil authority, regardless of how he came to fill that role, should be obeyed and honored as having civil authority. I am going to make some more nuanced comments on this in a moment, but for now we can note from this fact that God holds the role of civil magistrate so important to human welfare that he wants us to recognize and support whomever is actually filling that role at any given time. We are not to go without civil authority.
The importance with which God holds the role of civil magistrate is also seen in the fact that he commands his people to appoint civil rulers. This is not an optional thing, but a commanded thing. Again, we are not to go without civil authority.
If civil authority is so important to God, and if God commands his people to support even pagan rulers when he in his providence has put such over them, then it is clear that whomever has the best claim to civil authority over a body of people should be considered to have de jure authority, even if he be pagan. If a pagan government claims authority over a people, and there is no better claimant challenging that claim, then, as the people are to have civil rulers, this government should be considered to have legitimate, duly constituted, de jure civil authority over that people.
We can also see the answer to this question by looking at the essential nature of civil government. It is of the essence of church government that it be Christian. It is not necessarily of the essence of church government that it fully fulfill all the ideal requirements of God. It can be imperfect in various ways and still be overall legitimate. But it must be Christian, because the entire point of church government is to teach the Christian religion and to shepherd the members of Christ's church in that religion in doctrine and life. A non-Christian church of Christ would obviously be a contradiction in terms.
On the other hand, it is not of the essence of parental government that it be Christian. Parents are indeed commanded to raise up their children "in the nurture and admonition of the Lord," to teach them the law of God, etc. It is one of the main roles of parents to raise up godly children, trained in Christian thinking and virtues. However, the parental role can still exist and function to some degree even when parents are non-Christian. Children are commanded to obey their parents in general, not just those that are Christians. Just as husbands and wives still have duties relative to one another even when one or both are not Christians, so parents and children have duties relative to one another when one or more are not Christian. Parents have a right and a responsibility, de jure, to care for and raise up the children who are under their care, whether the parents be Christian or not. If they are not Christian, they will do this very badly in some very important ways, but it is still their rightful responsibility to do it, and in some aspects they may do well at it. Children cannot withhold obedience to their parents on the grounds that their parents are not Christians, but are to submit to them in obedience to their lawful commands simply because they are their proper parents.
Civil government, in its nature, is more like parental government in this respect than it is like church government. Though it is true that a civil government will rule wrongly in a number of crucial ways if it be not Christian, yet civil authority can still exist and function and have purpose even where civil governors are not Christian. They can still restrain wrongs such as murder, theft, etc., and if they are duly and legitimately constituted they have a right and a responsibility to do so, and the people under them have a duty to obey and honor them.
Therefore, the Westminster Confession is quite right when it says that "infidelity, or difference
in religion, doth not make void the magistrates' just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience
to them" (WCF 23:4).
2. Are all actually functioning civil governments, allowed to exercise authority by the providence of God, legitimate, duly constituted, de jure civil governments?
It seems to me that the answer to this question is no as well. This is a distinct question from the former question. I think that many of those opposed to Cameronian imbalances (including myself) have often not adequately articulated a clear answer to this question.
One of the main objections Cameronians have against a non-Cameronian position is that it seems absurd to say that any government which has actually become able to exercise power, no matter how villainous their methods of obtaining and maintaining that power, are to be regarded as having de jure, legitimately constituted, civil authority, and the right to rule. Under this reasoning, if I conquer a country by means of unjust violence, and I end up actually winning, and I subjugate the people, as soon as I have succeeded I can quote Romans 13 and say that I am the rightful, legitimate ruler over the people, no matter what the conquered people may want, as if there has been nothing wrong with my method of attaining power. Does God put his mark of sanction in this way on wicked and violent actions? Surely a person who attains power in this way is not a rightful ruler, but a usurper and a tyrant! This is especially the case if the previous ruling party has not been entirely destroyed, but has perhaps been banished or imprisoned, so that it would be possible to return the realm to their authority. Does not the conqueror have a moral obligation to return the realm to its previous rulers if possible, or can he quote Romans 13 and refuse to do so on the grounds that he is now the rightful, duly constituted civil authority? The Cameronians hold that it would be absurd to say that such a conqueror has fully legitimate authority.
I think the Cameronians are right about this. If I have attained power illegally, and the previous legal power still exists and could have rule returned to it, surely my rule is illegitimate. I am a thief, and I have a moral obligation to return power to its rightful owner. And even if I have utterly wiped out the previous ruling powers, still I have attained my power illegally and unjustly, and so I ought to arrange for fair elections to be held so that new civil powers can be legally chosen (per Deuteronomy 1:9-18, etc.). If I do not do so, I continue to hold my power illegally, just as I attained it illegally. If, on the other hand, the people are given the chance but do not want to create a new government, but have come to accept my authority willingly (or at least they do not think it worth opposing and proposing an alternative), then while I attained power illegally and ought to repent of that, yet probably I can now continue to hold power legally. The acquiescence of the people and--if any remain--the previous authorities would make my rule henceforth legitimate.
It seems evident that if power is attained and maintained illegally, that power should not be considered legitimate and de jure. If a person kidnaps a child, he cannot declare himself the new "power that be" in the child's life and on that ground consider himself the rightful parent and refuse to return the child to his actual parents. If a church officer attains office through fraudulent means, surely he cannot claim that his exercise of authority is still legitimate and de jure simply because he has been successful in his fraudulent dealings. Surely this applies to civil magistrates as well. If they attain authority illegally (like Absalom, or like Athaliah), and their authority is not by some legal act made legitimate, it remains illegitimate and illegal.
Passages like Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17, etc., which teach that de jure authority belongs to whomever God in his providence places over a people, do not imply that there is no such thing as illegitimate rule. If a conqueror conquers a nation, and the people and/or the original rulers do not agree to it (as is implied in the very idea of "conquest"), we should say that the providence of God has not in fact placed the conqueror over the people in a position of authority. It is not simply the ability of someone to use power to make people do what they want that gives de jure authority, and I see no reason to think that passages like Romans 13, etc., are saying that it is. If this were the case, then thugs in a dark alley mugging someone could be said to have de jure authority to take people's money, or a gang in an inner city with enough power to beat the lawful police could be said to have de jure authority to rule and be obeyed. But instances in Scripture such as Absalom and Athaliah indicate that this is not the Scriptural view. Rather, a ruler can be said to have legitimate de jure authority to rule if providence has placed him in a situation where he has the best claim to a legitimate right to rule. The Roman government in the days of the early church had attained their rule by illegal conquest, and yet by the time of the New Testament there were no real, legal contenders to their position, and so their authority could be considered de jure. And that is why Christ, and Paul and Peter and the whole New Testament, treat them as having de jure authority.
There is one more thing that ought to be added here briefly: In some situations, a legitimate governing body may be overpowered by an illegitimate one. This does not make the conquering party legitimate per se, as we've just been saying, but it may require the people, temporarily, to act in some ways as if the conquerors are legitimate. For example, if a gang gets control of part of a city to such a degree that the true law enforcement cannot practically exercise jurisdiction, in this case, as a (hopefully) temporary and non-ideal expedient, the people may, practically in some ways, need to treat the gang leaders as if they are the true governors, simply because given the situation they are actually functioning as such and the only ones who are. So if the gang offers some semblance of law and order, it would be appropriate for the people to take advantage of this in cases of necessity; and the gang, while holding its illegitimate rule, would have a moral obligation to provide such services. (They would have a higher moral obligation to give up their rule, but we can sometimes talk about lower moral obligations in cases where higher moral obligations are not being met.) We could compare this to a situation where the only skilled doctor in an area is an illegally-practicing surgeon. Ordinarily, this "doctor" should not be practicing medicine, but if a need arises which only he can fulfill, it would be appropriate for him to use his skills to meet that need, and it would be appropriate for those in need to make use of his skills (while not condoning his illegality).
In closing, I think the above observations show that the Cameronian position does have more merit in some aspects than it is perhaps often given credit for. And those who have opposed Cameronianism have sometimes fallen into an opposite imbalance (by acting as if there is no such thing as illegitimate rule). However, even taking these things into account, the Cameronian position itself still shows itself to be imbalanced in some areas. Hopefully, the addition of further clarity here will aid in dialogue between the differing positions.