Taking a Look at a Benjamin Morgan Palmer Quote on Church & State

“(1) The provinces of church and state are perfectly distinct, and one has no right to usurp the jurisdiction of the other. (2.) The state is a natural institute founded in the constitution of man as moral and social, and designed to realize the idea of justice. (3.) It is the society of rights. (4.) The church is a supernatural institute, founded in the facts of redemption, and is designed to realize the idea of grace. (5.) It is the society of the Redeemed. (6.) The state aims at social order; the church at spiritual holiness. (7.) The state looks to the visible and outward; the church is concerned for the visible and inward. (8.) The badge of the state’s authority is the sword, by which it becomes a terror to evil doers, and a praise to them that do well; the badge of the church is the keys by which it opens and shuts the kingdom of heaven, according as men are believing or impenitent. (9.) The power of the church is exclusively spiritual; that of the state includes the exercise of force; the constitution of the state must be determined by human reason and the course of providential events.”

Dr. Benjamin Morgan Palmer
Sermon to 1st Presbyterian GA of the CSA — 1861

Benjamin Morgan Palmer along with Thornwell, Girardeau, and Dabney were the theological giants of Southern Presbyterianism. However much I love Palmer though the above quote finds me taking issue with a number of points.

(1.) Perfectly distinct? A godly visible Church has no right to usurp the jurisdiction of an ungodly state or an godly state has no right to usurp the jurisdiction of a ungodly church? I cannot agree with that idea. As far as the church usurping the jurisdiction of the state even the Southern church did that inasmuch as the Southern Church along with all of the South was told to submit to Northern intent at subjugation. At that point the Southern church (and Morgan no less than anybody else as seen in his famous Thanksgiving Day Sermon of 1860) did usurp (and rightly so) the jurisdiction of the ungodly state under the Lincoln usurpation. Similarly, a godly state may indeed usurp the jurisdiction of a ungodly visible church just as Constantine would call Church to a Nicaea council to discuss important Arianism.

(2a.) The state is indeed designed to realize the idea of justice but it can not learn of justice apart from the Scripture which is also an interest of the Church. If the state is going to pursue justice it therefore at the very least should be consulting the Church on what God’s Word as to say on justice.

(2b.) I’m not comfortable with saying that the state is a natural institute. I mean, the state was sanctioned there in the Garden with Adam being the first sovereign under God. All because the state does not handle the means of grace and is not an institution that handles the keys does not mean the state is not also a supernatural institution ordained by God unto its particular end.

(3.) I’m also not sure I want to talk about the state being the society of rights. Is Palmer here being influenced by Enlightenment categories to be talking about “rights.” Christians are increasingly understanding that only God has rights and man should be thought of having duties more than having rights unless those rights can be directly connected to a “thus saith the Lord” as found in Scripture.

(4. – 5.) There is nothing I disagree with here.

(6.) A church that aims at spiritual holiness is also indirectly aiming at social order because the only thing that can make for a social order characterized by a harmony of interests is the production of spiritual holiness in those living in the social order. I don’t think we can separate these matters out like Palmer and the “Spirituality of the Church” school desires. I do believe the Church should aim at both spiritual holiness and the social order because if the church fails to aim, where and when necessary at the social order the result is that some other religion/faith is going to succeed in forming and shaping the social order. The church needs to be able to connect the dots between spiritual holiness and the social order. Having a church who is creating a pietistic inwardly looking spiritual holiness that does not speak to outward social order issues leaves the church likely to fail on both counts as our own times are demonstrating.

(7.) This sounds awfully pietistic in a bad sense. When I read this sentence the confrontation between Hitler and Rev. Niemöller comes to mind where Hitler says to Niemöller upon Niemöller’s statement that he was concerned only for “the welfare of the church and of the German people.” Hitler tersely replied; “You confine yourself to the church. I’ll take care of the German people.”

As the meeting was breaking up, Niemöller fired his final shot, “You said that ‘I will take care of the German people.’ But we too, as Christians and churchmen, have a responsibility toward the German people. That responsibility was entrusted to us by God, and neither you nor anyone in this world has the power to take it from us.”

I don’t think Palmer’s thoughts in sentence #7 allows the Church to look to the outward matters that it needs to look to when necessary.

(8.) I agree with this one.

(9.) As long as we say that the “spiritual” includes smacking ungodly magistrates with the crozier when the ungodly state is involving itself in the jurisdiction of the Church as it faithfully speaks forth Scripture as it applies to every area of life.

I agree that the state’s role is to exercise force but only as consistent with what the Scripture teaches. The state here was beyond doubt using force to legislate in favor of abortions but that ungodly use of force was rightly denounced by many churches and denominations.

And the final appeal in #9 to human reason leaves me reaching for my revolver. That certainly has the sound of the Enlightenments call for “right reason and natural law.”

Author: jetbrane

I am a Pastor of a small Church in Mid-Michigan who delights in my family, my congregation and my calling. I am postmillennial in my eschatology. Paedo-Calvinist Covenantal in my Christianity Reformed in my Soteriology Presuppositional in my apologetics Familialist in my family theology Agrarian in my regional community social order belief Christianity creates culture and so Christendom in my national social order belief Mythic-Poetic / Grammatical Historical in my Hermeneutic Pre-modern, Medieval, & Feudal before Enlightenment, modernity, & postmodern Reconstructionist / Theonomic in my Worldview One part paleo-conservative / one part micro Libertarian in my politics Systematic and Biblical theology need one another but Systematics has pride of place Some of my favorite authors, Augustine, Turretin, Calvin, Tolkien, Chesterton, Nock, Tozer, Dabney, Bavinck, Wodehouse, Rushdoony, Bahnsen, Schaeffer, C. Van Til, H. Van Til, G. H. Clark, C. Dawson, H. Berman, R. Nash, C. G. Singer, R. Kipling, G. North, J. Edwards, S. Foote, F. Hayek, O. Guiness, J. Witte, M. Rothbard, Clyde Wilson, Mencken, Lasch, Postman, Gatto, T. Boston, Thomas Brooks, Terry Brooks, C. Hodge, J. Calhoun, Llyod-Jones, T. Sowell, A. McClaren, M. Muggeridge, C. F. H. Henry, F. Swarz, M. Henry, G. Marten, P. Schaff, T. S. Elliott, K. Van Hoozer, K. Gentry, etc. My passion is to write in such a way that the Lord Christ might be pleased. It is my hope that people will be challenged to reconsider what are considered the givens of the current culture. Your biggest help to me dear reader will be to often remind me that God is Sovereign and that all that is, is because it pleases him.

3 thoughts on “Taking a Look at a Benjamin Morgan Palmer Quote on Church & State”

  1. On point #7, please re-refer to pp. 185-6 of David Irving’s ‘Hitler’s War’. Hitler had, through a wiretap, caught Niemoller in a lie, along with further revelations of a character that was clearly not above reproach. Certainly, Niemoller had no warrant to give any sanctimonious retorts to Hitler. As Alfred Rosenberg pointed out in his ‘Memoirs’: “The Church, after all, is not so completely innocent of blame for what has happened in Germany. Unfortunately, the Himmler-Heydrich police answered this challenge, as has become clear in the meantime, in a most unworthy manner.”

    1. Ron,

      I don’t doubt what you posted here is correct. However, the truth of your post does not get in the way of the point I am making here. That point is that the Church has a responsibility to shepherd a nation just as much as the magistrate does.

      1. True enough. My point is that the Reich really bent over backwards to respect the sphere sovereignty of the churches: Protestant and Catholic. God’s Word wasn’t the guide for the State, but neither was it for the churches.

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