In a situation where human monarchy had become so flawed that it had to be resisted and removed in the search for a better kingdom, John Milton (1608-74) explains the extraordinary events of 1649 which saw the execution of the English monarch. Writing at this time of upheaval, Milton rejected the royalists' interpretation of certain biblical passages as a defense of human monarchy and its oppressive consequences. Milton is one of the foremost advocates of an understanding of Christian politics which reflects those radical, nonconformist instincts. He began writing The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (Dzelzainis 1991) during King Charles's trial but completed and published it after his execution. It is a text which is explicitly contextual and, as such, differs in several key respects from the line taken by some of Milton's radical contemporaries like Lilburne and Winstanley. Milton argues the case for the right to execute a tyrant, but also the more radical case for popular sovereignty based on an original social and governmental compact that ensures the people's right to choose and change their governments as they see fit. It is a manifesto of those who value religious liberty and a "free commonwealth" without monarchy or aristocracy. Milton was one of the foremost apologists of nonconformity. In The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates we find passages from the Hebrew Bible treated to support the bibli cal attitude to monarchy, which is then taken further with an examination of famous passages connected with Christianity and royal power (Matt. 22 and Rom. 13: Iff.). The work offers a thoroughgoing interaction with major scripture passages which may often be mentioned in passing in other radical or reformist writings, and to which interpreters return again and again down the centuries (Dzelzainis 1991).
In his consideration of Matt. 17: 24-7, Milton points to the fact that if, on the authority of Christ, Peter was a child of God, and therefore free, so also are contemporary Christians and citizens. Turning to Matt. 22: 16-21, he points to Christ's response: To ask for the coin and ask whose image is thereon. The image becomes the basis for a defense of human dignity and the basis of prime responsibility to God:
if upon beholding the face and countenance of a man, someone would ask whose image is that, would not any one freely reply that it was God's. Since then we belong to God, that is we are truly free, and on that account to be rendered to God alone, surely we cannot, without sin and in fact the greatest sacrilege, hand ourselves over in slavery to Caesar, that is to a man, and especially one who is unjust, wicked and tyrannical?
In similar vein Milton interprets the concluding saying of Jesus as a summons to humanity to recognize the limits of their obligation:
Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and the things that are God's to God. . . . who does not know that those things which belong to the people should be given back to the people? So not all things are Caesar's. Our liberty is not Caesar's, but is a birthday gift from God. To give back to any Caesar what we did not receive from him would be the most base and unworthy of the origin of man.
Like some modern commentators, Milton demands that we take seriously the context in which the question about the payment of taxes to Caesar was asked (especially Luke 20: 20). Christ wanted not so much to remind us "so obscurely and ambiguously of our duty towards kings or Caesars, as to prove the wickedness and malice of the hypocritical Pharisees."
In contrast to the Israelites who kept - like all the nations - asking for a king, Christ had demanded something different: "you know the princes of the nations are rulers over them" (Matt. 20: 25-7). So that Christian people should not ask for a ruler, like the other nations, Christ warned, "among you it will not be so." There will not be "this proud rule of kings." There is to be none of the "spin" of the "great and the good" who "are called by the plausible title of Benefactors." Milton here draws on the variant version of the saying in Luke, possibly addressed to a community where there was a putative elite: "whoever wishes to become great among you (and who is greater than a prince?) let him be your attendant; and whoever wishes to be first or prince let him be your slave" (Luke 22: 25; Wengst 1985: 103). A Christian king, therefore, is the servant of the people: "But a king will either be no Christian at all, or will be the slave of all. If he clearly wants to be a master, he cannot at the same time be a Christian."
Addressing at 1 Pet. 2: 13-15 the most explicit summons to subordination in the New Testament, Milton stresses the importance of taking the context of the apostle's advice seriously: "Peter wrote this not only for private persons, but also for the strangers [1 Peter 1.1 f.] who were scattered and dispersed throughout most of Asia Minor, who in those places where they were living had no right except that of hospitality." He demands consideration of the root meaning of the verb "be subject." King and governor are appointed by God to punish wrongdoers and praise those who act well, which is the will of God. The basis for this precept is given in 1 Pet. 2: 16: one does this "as free men" - therefore not as slaves. Monarchy and government in their various particulars are said to be human institutions. So if rulers rule with torture and destruction of the good, and praise and reward of wrongdoers, human power should be used to appoint what is good and advantageous for men and women, and remove what is bad and destructive.
Similarly, when he considers Romans 13, Milton refuses to allow that Paul is setting Nero or any other tyrant above all law and punishment. Milton attends to context and points to the difficult situation at the time of writing: "At that time there spread about people's gossip exposing the apostles as rebels and insurrectionists, as if they did and said everything to overthrow the common law." The time of writing of Romans reflects a more ordered and just period of governance either under Claudius or the early years of Nero, which were not tyrannical. God prescribes the establishment of magistrates, but the precise form of the governance is a human creation. Such human, political arrangements of God's ordinance for order in society will be faulty because they are from men or even the devil. According to Milton, something that is faulty and disorderly cannot be ordained by God. Without magistracy no human life can exist; but if any magistracy acts in a fashion contrary to one who supports the good, it cannot be properly ordained by God. In that situation subjection is not demanded, and sensible resistance may be contemplated, "for we will not be resisting the power of a magistrate but a robber, a tyrant or an enemy." Subjection is not required in every circumstance, therefore, "but only with the addition of a reason, the reason which is added will be the true rule of our subjection: when we are not subjects under that reason, we are rebels; when we are subjects without that reason, we are slaves and cowards."
In the approaches he takes to the New Testament passages Milton anticipates more recent interpreters (Belo 1981; Clevenot 1985; Wengst 1985), including the authors of the Kairos Document (1985), a biblical and theological comment on the political crisis in apartheid South Africa. The authors of the Kairos Document reject the idea that Paul presents an absolute doctrine about the state, and argue that the text must be interpreted in its context, which was a situation in which some Christians believed that they were freed from obeying the state because Christ alone was their king (in other words, they were anarchists). Paul insists on the necessity of some kind of state, but that does not mean that all the state does is approved of by God. When a state does not obey the law of
God and becomes a servant of Satan, it is passages like Rev. 13 to which one should turn instead.
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