America was built on two seemingly-opposite principles: respect for legitimate authority and resistance against tyrants. But these concepts go hand-in-hand. A tyrant is a ruler who has exceeded his legitimate authority and has usurped the higher authority of God and His Law. Resistance against tyrants, the American colonists, said, is obedience to God.
The problem is, popular rebellion often leads to bloodshed, instability, and a new regime that may be more repressive than the previous one (witness Egypt, where the Obama Administration has toppled a pro-Western tyrant and replaced him with an anti-Western tyrant). And yet, unqualified submission to authority leads to tyranny and totalitarianism.
Interposition is a middle-ground position. According to interposition doctrine, the remedy for tyranny is not popular rebellion by the masses, but rather resistance by the lesser magistrates, the lower-ranking government officials, such as state and local governments. Their duty is to resist tyranny by interposing themselves between the tyrant and the people they represent, and either compelling the ruler to refrain from tyranny or remove him from office, by force if necessary. The Declaration of Independence (http://morallaw NULL.org/resources/key-documents/the-declaration-of-independence) of 1776 was a classic example of interposition, as was the Glorious Revolution (http://www NULL.britannica NULL.com/EBchecked/topic/547105/Glorious-Revolution) in England in 1688.
Many have traced the doctrine of interposition through Calvinist sources, including Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex (http://www NULL.lonang NULL.com/exlibris/rutherford/) (1644) and the French Huguenots’ Vindicae Contra Tyrannos (http://www NULL.reformed NULL.org/documents/vindiciae/index NULL.html) (1579). But the doctrine has earlier roots in the Lutheran Reformation. Martin Luther gradually came to this position in the 1530s and 1540s, and the Augsburg Confession (http://www NULL.gutenberg NULL.org/files/275/275-h/275-h NULL.htm#2H_4_0017)(1530) says “Christians are necessarily bound to obey their own magistrates and laws save only when commanded to sin; for then they ought to obey God rather than men. Acts 5:29.”
But the doctrine was developed further in the Magdeburg Confession (http://magdeburgconfession NULL.com/mag/), signed on 13 April 1550 (29 years before Vindicae, 94 years before Lex Rex) by the Lutheran pastors of Magdeburg, Germany, while the city was under siege by the armies of the Holy Roman Emperor to compel them to return to the Roman Catholic faith. Articles I-VI affirm the traditional Lutheran doctrines of the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, His substitutionary atonement on the Cross, and the Sacraments. Article VII, “Of Politics and Economy and the Power of Each,” sets forth the Lutheran concept of the two kingdoms, church and state. The Confession acknowledges that God “does not desire the powers to be mixed up with each other,” but “nonetheless He desires them to help each other in turn, so that in the end they all may agree, and that everything in its own place and way principally may promote the true knowledge of God and His Glory and their eternal salvation… .”
Legitimate magistrates defend the honest and the pious and punish the wicked, and so long as they do so, their subjects owe them obedience. However, when magistrates “persecute piety and uprightness, they remove themselves from the honor of magistrate and parents before God and their own consciences, and instead of being an ordinance of God they become an ordinance of the Devil, which can and ought to be resisted by His order for the sake of one’s calling.” The Magdeburg pastors note that Luther called a tyrant who upsets the moral order a “Beerwolf” (bearwolf, a monster of Germanic folklore) and declared that resistance was justified both by Germanic common law and by the law of nature. They note further that the Roman Emperor Trajan appointed a Master of the Horse and gave him a sword, saying, “Use this sword against my enemies, if I give right commands, but if I give unrighteous commands, use it against me.” Citing Scripture and history to support their position, the Magdeburg pastors “again affirm from the sure Word of God that when superior magistrates attempt to force Papistical idolatry upon their citizens, to overwhelm the true worship of God and His true worshippers, just as they have now begun to do, by unjust maneuvers with their laws, even if they pretend otherwise — then pious magistrates are not only able, but even have an obligation to resist them as far as they are able, to defend the true doctrine, worship of God, life, modesty, and the property of their subjects, and preserve them against such great tyranny.”
Existing only in German and Latin, the Magdeburg Confession was largely unknown to the English-speaking world for 462 year. Finally it has been translated into English by Matthew Colvin and published in book form by Matt Trewhella, available as The Magdeburg Confession 13th of April 1550 AD (http://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/gp/product/1470087537/ref=as_li_tf_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1470087537&linkCode=as2&tag=mucciolonet-20) (North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace 2012). In his Foreword Trewhella notes that John Knox of Scotland was familiar with the Magdeburg Confession. When the Secretary of State for Mary Queen of Scots told Knox he would not find many learned men who agreed with his doctrine of interposition, Knox handed him the Magdeburg Confession. The Secretary looked at the signers’ names and said, “Men of no note,” to which Knox replied, “Yet servants of God.” Likewise Theodore Geza, John Calvin’s successor in Geneva, wrote of interposition and said, “The city of Magdeburg, situated on the Elbe, offered the outstanding example of this in our own time,” and in1574, when writing On the Right of Magistrates (http://www NULL.constitution NULL.org/cmt/beza/magistrates NULL.htm), added to the title, “A Treatise Published by Those in Magdeburg in 1550.”
I am grateful to Matthew Colvin for translating the Confession, Matt Trewhella for producing it in book form, and to Dr. George Grant for writing its Introduction. In a day when we see government expanding exponentially and constitutional restraints ignored, the Magdeburg doctrine of interposition is needed as never before.
And what happened to the City of Magdeburg and its pastors? Get the book and find out for yourself! (http://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/gp/product/1470087537/ref=as_li_tf_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1470087537&linkCode=as2&tag=mucciolonet-20) (It’s on pp. 91-92.)