John Brown: Limitations to Governance

John Brown: Limitations to Governance

From On the Absurdity of Authoritative Toleration of Gross Heresy, Blasphemy or Idolatry

John Brown of Haddington discusses limits to law making and limits to the exercise of punishments. 


10. Authorities may only impose laws within the bounds of their realm of governance and commanded in the Law of God.

All governing authority empowers the possessors of it to issue forth laws or commandments binding on the subject of it. But these laws or commandments can extend their binding force no further than the particular department belonging to that power, as by that, every particular form of authority, derived from God, is limited.

  • The laws or commandments of parents, masters, magistrates, and church-rulers, extend only to external things in the family, commonwealth, or church. Those of conscience and of Christ extend also to that which is inward in the heart.
  • As all human superiors are imperfect in knowledge themselves, and cannot enable their subjects perfectly to understand their whole duty, it is necessary that laws of families or nations, or constitutions of churches, require nothing but what is plainly agreeable to the Law of God, and include nothing in religion but what is plainly required by the Word of God, so that nothing may be contrary to these laws but what is not only really, but plainly contrary to the Word of God.
  • The weaker the subjects are, the more condescension ought to be exercised towards them in this matter, Rom 15: 1, 2.

11. Authorities may only impose laws which are clearly commanded in the Law of God

As men cannot bow the hearts of their inferiors unto subjection, they ought always to issue forth their commandments in the most prudent, mild and gaining manner. It is very improper to issue forth any law doubtful or obscure, or which most of the subjects are not likely to be got peaceably to comply with. This ought especially to be attended to in the framing and imposing of laws and constitutions relative to religion, which ought to be a reasonable and voluntary service.

12. Punishment may be withheld from weaker members who break the laws, but the offences nonetheless must not be tolerated.

As nothing, particularly in religion, ought to be contrary to any law of church or state but what is plainly contrary to the Law of God; and nothing ought to be held censurable by the laws of the church, or punishable by the laws of the state, but what is plainly contrary to these laws, and has become duly public, in the providence of God, without requiring the party concerned to be his own accuser.—So, on account of the weakness or number of the offenders, or the disordered state of the society, many real scandals in the church must be forborne without censure, and many real crimes against the state forborne without punishment; notwithstanding, it would be extremely wicked, authoritatively, to license or tolerate them in either. If your children be very young, raving in a fever, delirious, or apt to fall into convulsive fits, it might be very prudent and dutiful for you to forbear severe chastisement of them for playing on the Lord’s Day; repeating some wicked expressions they had heard from their fellow children, or the like. But would it be lawful in you to give them a parental licence to profane the Sabbath or name of God, and promise them protection in so doing? You dare not pretend it. God himself wisely forbears the punishment of many things, which his law forbids.

13. Punishments should not be extreme, and even mild in cases where there is evidence of repentance.

As it is never errors or corruptions of the heart, but wicked words and deeds, sufficiently and regularly manifested, which are to be corrected in families, punished in commonwealths, or censured in churches, Deut 13: 1-14, Deut 32:46, Heb 10:28, 1 Tim 5:1 —So even in punishing manifest crimes, especially in matters of religion, all proper mildness ought to be exercised, never proceeding to extremities, where there is any hope of reformation, or where, as in the case of heresy or blasphemy, confession and repentance can make any kind of [lead to] restitution, Mat 18: 15-18. Among the Hebrews, not one appears to have been punished for idolatry, if he professed repentance and reformation.

  • The princes of Israel first attempted to bring the Reubenites and Gadites, whom they supposed guilty of it [i.e., idolatry], to repentance, Josh 22.
  • Never in the reformation by Asa, Hezekiah, or Josiah, have we one instance of a penitent idolater slain.
  • The idolaters condemned to death, Deut 13:17, are represented as men of Belial, presumptuous, and obstinate in their wickedness.
  • The prophets of Baal whom Elijah caused be put to death, 1 Kgs 18:40, and Mattan the priest, who was slain by Jehoiada’s orders, 2 Kgs 11:18, were no doubt of this sort, and probably also guilty of promoting the murder of the Lord’s prophets and people.
  • The man put to death for profanation of the Sabbath, appears to have acted presumptuously, Num 15:30-36.
  • Asa and his subjects covenanted to put to death such as obstinately adhered to idolatry, 2 Chr 15: 12, 13.