The typical understanding of the bible’s teaching on civil government is that it is a special office directly ordained by God wherein a subset of humanity is given authority to wield the sword in a way that the rest of humanity may not…. I am not yet convinced this understanding is biblical. Everyone who holds this view starts with Romans 13.
So writes Brandon Adams in a piece entitled “The Avenger of Blood.” It is a detailed and critical analysis of the biblical view toward civil government and vengeance.
But because Romans 13 actually presents some very challenging logical difficulties for interpretation and even within the reformed tradition interpretation varies significantly, I think it is best to start with clearer statements in Scripture regarding the use of the sword for vengeance before addressing Romans 13.
“[C]hallenging logical difficulties” is an understatement. The mainstream interpretation has no answer for Stalin or Hitler (or Roosevelt).
Adams begins to build his foundation through the Old Testament books of Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua, presenting the case that the “avenger of blood” is “the nearest relative of a murdered person.”
This avenger (“goel”) did not act on his own authority:
The goel acts as the agent of the Lord himself… The goel was the instrument for the administration of justice in the early period of Israelite history.
The practice was not limited to the ancient Israelites; it was found in other ancient civilizations as well. Nimrod, the king of Babylon and first king or emperor “of the world” broke this model. He took vengeance into his hands and out of the hands of the next of kin:
Thus if Nimrod was the first violent conquerer, what would he think about private blood vengeance? Would he tolerate the idea that the people he conquered and killed had divine authority to execute him? Certainly not.
Thus asserting exclusive authority of vengeance became a means of control.
Control, indeed. Consider this in the context of a president authorizing drone strikes that kill non-combatants. The closest relative of the victim would be the criminal if he took vengeance into his own hands.
Private blood vengeance. Such was the practice throughout the Germanic Middle Ages – the most politically decentralized period in western history since before Rome. This came to an end via two factors:
“At the Holy Roman Empire’s Reichstag at Worms in 1495 AD, the right of waging feuds was abolished. The Imperial Reform proclaimed an “eternal public peace” (Ewiger Landfriede)
This passage requires a slight expansion; what of this Ewiger Landfriede?
The Ewiger Landfriede ("everlasting Landfriede", variously translated as "Perpetual Peace", "Eternal Peace", "Perpetual Public Peace") of 1495, passed by Maximilian I, German king and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, was the definitive and everlasting ban on the medieval right of vendetta (Fehderecht).
It was aimed primarily at the lesser nobles who had not kept pace with the process of development of the princely territories. Their propensity to feuding (Fehdefreudigkeit) increasingly went against the intent of the imperial princes and imperial cities to pacify and consolidate their territories.
Consider: Emperor Maximilian I passed this ban on feuding to make it easier for the emperor to pacify the lesser nobles. Take away “vengeance” from the people and it then becomes a tool of control.
Of course, “eternal peace” did not mean the end of murder; only a change in who would be permitted to avenge the murder.
Returning to Adams: the second factor was Calvin: