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:
Calvin fell victim to state propaganda and believed there was a divinely ordained office with exclusive monopolistic authority to administer justice.
It was indeed formerly permitted, as we shall see in its proper place, to put to death robbers by night, as also it was lawful for the husband, or the father, of a ravished woman to kill the adulterer caught in the fact; but it is absurd that the law should allow a person to avenge the death of his brother.
With this, Adams comes to the punch line:
So if Scripture does not teach that God has ordained a special office of civil magistrate with the exclusive right to administer justice, what does Romans 13:1-4 mean? Consider John Frame
“State” is not a biblical category in the sense that “family,” “people of God,” “Israel,” and “church,” are biblical categories… [I]n what passage did God establish the state?
To come to the point: there is no such passage.
[W]e may say with Paul in Rom 13:1 that “the authorities that exist have been established by God.” But it is important to remember that the authority of the state is essentially a family authority, not something different. For that reason, I consider it somewhat misleading to talk about a “divine institution of the state,”
Frame mistakenly thinks this authority was given to families as such, rather than simply to all mankind, but he correctly notes that this is the authority referred to in Romans 13. Thus the authority of Romans 13 is essentially private, individual authority, not something different.
In conclusion, God has given all image bearers the authority to wield the sword to administer justice/vengeance.
I will stick with family; I don’t expect a five year old to administer justice.
It is fortuitous that I am reading On Power: The Natural History of its Growth, by Bertrand de Jouvenel at this time. He offers a succinct summary of what Adams describes in this post. From my summary of de Jouvenel’s comments on this topic, best exemplified in medieval law:
The value of the old and good law was that it kept “law” out of the hands of the king or, in our day, the legislature. It kept law in the hands of the people and their memory of custom. It was not always libertarian law (perfect isn’t an option when it comes to human interaction), but it was free from absolutist dictates.
This old and good law – whether from God, the gods, or some other source – was not a sphere available for man to take a part. The punishment was also not in man’s hands. Both the law and punishment came from custom. Only the administration was in the hand of the king.
The law came not from man, but from God (or custom); punishment came not from man, but from God (or custom). Only the administration of this law and punishment – a law and punishment under which all men lived – was in the hands of man. In medieval times, this meant a king whose sole authority was administration and nothing more; a king, whose rulings were subject to veto by any individual noble.
The avenger of blood. Clearly, someone will take on this role – it can be at higher or lower levels of civil authority; only the lowest levels can be considered reasonably consistent with libertarianism in practice.
The avenger of blood: this regards the administration of law and punishment determined by another; law and punishment is not for any individual man to decide. Law and punishment comes from custom.
In this analysis, one can find the roots of my position regarding culture and liberty. The NAP does not – and cannot – answer the question “what is the law?” In other words, what is a violation of the NAP? Repeating over and over “the initiation of aggression” does not answer the question; it only begs another: what is aggression? Sure, some things are obvious, but the gray areas will remain with us forever; there are many different NAP-consistent answers to this question.
The NAP does not – and cannot – answer the question “what is proper punishment?” In other words, what punishment is consistent with the NAP? Sure, some punishments are clear violations of the NAP (shooting a child as punishment or vengeance for stealing an apple), but what is the specific proper punishment for each specific violation? There are gray areas, and the gray areas will remain with us forever. There are many different NAP-consistent answers to this question.
In a society that hopes to live with as little “government” (as the term is commonly used today) as possible, these questions can only be answered by custom – whether the custom is derived from God, the gods, or distant ancestors.
Custom removes significant arbitrariness from life, hence reducing significant cause for tension and conflict; reduced cause for conflict and tension improves the likelihood of a thriving and sustainable libertarian community.