And the End of the Private/Public Distinction

The radical commands of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount (esp. Matthew 5:38-48) and Paul in Romans 12:17-21 are often evaded by use of the distinction between "private" vengeance and "public justice." Here is how Calvin draws the distinction:


Matthew 5:38-41

Luke 6:29-30

38. You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. 39. But I say to you, Do not resist evil: but whoever, shall inflict a blow on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also: 40. And to him who wishes to enter into a law-suit with thee, and to take away thy coat, allow him thy cloak also: 41. And whoever shall constrain thee to one mile, go with him two.

29. To him who striketh thee on one cheek offer also the other, and from him who taketh away thy cloak, do not forbid thy coat also. 30. And to every one that asketh from thee give; and from him who takes what are thine, do not ask them again.

Matthew 5:38. An eye for an eye. Here another error is corrected. God had enjoined, by his law, (Leviticus 24:20,) that judges and magistrates should punish those who had done injuries, by making them endure as much as they had inflicted. The consequence was, that every one seized on this as a pretext for taking private revenge. They thought that they did no wrong, provided they were not the first to make the attack, but only, when injured, returned like for like. Christ informs them, on the contrary, that, though judges were entrusted with the defense of the community, and were invested with authority to restrain the wicked and repress their violence, yet it is the duty of every man to bear patiently the injuries which he receives. (emphasis added)

In other words, only "private" vengeance is prohibited; princes are not prohibited from taking "public" revenge.

Greg Bahnsen agrees:

The Pharisees were wont to appeal to the Older Testamental principle of equitable punishment in civil court in order to justify personal revenge and vindictiveness. Christ is speaking to the situation of interpersonal relations and prohibits the exacting of due punishment for wrongs suffered. in civil jurisprudence there is still to be an "eye for an eye, etc." but between individuals there is to be forbearance. Jesus attacks the use of the ius talionis for revenge instead of for retribution; in private life the methods of civil jurisprudence do not apply. The Older Testament applies the principle of an "eye for an eye" to court-room contexts, that is, when public justice was being exacted; Jesus did not repudiate this use of the ius talionis. . . .  Paul's words in Romans 12:18f. is parallel to what Jesus teaches: "beloved, never take your own revenge." To see Jesus annulling the Older Testamental law here would imply that Jesus is saying that there is no longer any need for public justice -- a totally unacceptable implication.
Theonomy in Christian Ethics, p. 118, emphasis in original.

The implication is "unacceptable" only when certain presuppositions are made or denied in advance. Bahnsen presupposes, for example, a qualitative difference in acts "between individuals" and acts which individuals commit while wearing the hat of "the State." We shall call this "The Nuremberg Defense of the State." Our goal is to "pierce the corporate veil."[1]

Culver sums it up:

[Jesus] spoke to people who were fully aware, from the Scripture and from their own history, of the valid biblical distinction between response to evil in the area of private conduct and in the area of public duty of civil magistrates. Jesus is clearly speaking of the former. . . .  Undoubtedly, therefore, the saying cited by Jesus was to impart and emphasize a basic principle of justice in exacting penalties for offenses against public law in ancient Israel.
Toward a Biblical View of Civil Government, Moody, 1974, pp. 207, 206

The distinction can no longer be drawn. In our day the People govern. "We the People" are the government, and therefore all "public" justice is really private vengeance. 

Calvin was living in the days of "the divine right of kings." The People had little choice in the matter of rulers. Calvin and his followers would eventually change that, but in the 1550's the rulers did not generally consult the polls before they acted. The Westminster Confession says that the Civil Magistrate is ordained by God, "under Him, over the people." Expositions of the Fifth Commandment three and four centuries ago stressed the "over the people." Strict levels of obedience were required from "inferiors" to their "superiors." Commentators in the 1800's struggled to maintain the old duties in the face of new political theories. A.A. Hodge, in his exposition of the Westminster Confession (1869), writes:

Some have supposed that the right or legitimate authority of human government has its foundation ultimately in "the consent of the governed," "the will of the majority," or in some imaginary "social compact" entered into by the forefathers of the race at the origin of social life. It is self-evident, however, that the divine will is the source of all government; and the obligation to obey that will, resting upon all moral agents, the ultimate ground of all obligation to obey human governments.

One can speculate that what Hodge found to be "self-evident" was a direct and intentional reference to what Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, found to be "self-evident":

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Anarcho-Calvinists are pacifists, and agree with Hodge that government should be obeyed, not resisted, and taxes paid, because God commands it, civil disobedience being reserved for those occasions in which "we must obey God rather than man." The real question is whether an individual has the right to call himself "the State" or be chosen by the State to become a part of the State, and take vengeance against enemies, and fund this vengeance by extortion. The reverence and deference accorded to kings before the Civil War was not an anarcho-pacifist "resist not evil" kind of obedience, but one grounded in the belief that there was a divine quality infused or imputed to kings by God. There was a certain aura, much like pre-Vatican II papal infallibility, which theologians accorded to kings. They were "over," the people were "under."

The situation is largely reversed in our day. The People are the master, and the magistrates are "public servants." 


Thomas Jefferson wrote to David Hartley:

PARIS, July 2, 1787.
DEAR SIR,I received lately your favor of April the 23rd, on my return from a journey of three or four months; and am always happy in an occasion of recalling myself to your memory. The most interesting intelligence from America, is that respecting the late insurrection in Massachusetts ["Shay's Rebellion"]. The cause of this has not been developed to me, to my perfect satisfaction. The most probable is, that those individuals were of the imprudent number of those, who have involved themselves in debt beyond their abilities to pay, and that a vigorous effort in that government to compel the payment of private debts, and raise money for public ones, produced the resistance. I believe you may be assured, that an idea or desire of returning to anything like their ancient government, never entered into their heads. I am not discouraged by this. For thus I calculate. An insurrection in one of thirteen States, in the course of eleven years that they have subsisted, amounts to one in any particular State, in one hundred and forty-three years, say a century and a half. This would not be near as many, as have happened in every other government that has ever existed. So that we shall have the difference between a light and a heavy government, as clear gain. I have no fear, but that the result of our experiment will be, that men may be trusted to govern themselves without a master. Could the contrary of this be proved, I should conclude, either that there is no God, Or that he is a malevolent being. 
The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 6, p.150-52

On the same day Jefferson wrote to T. B. Hollis, Esq.:

PARIS, July 2, 1787.
SIR,On my return from a tour through the southern parts of France and northern of Italy, I found here the present of books you had been so kind as to send me. I should value them highly for their intrinsic merit, but much more as coming from you. You will have seen that one of our republics has experienced those commotions which the newspapers have been always ascribing to all of them. I am not satisfied what has been the cause of this, but the most probable account is, that these individuals were of those who have so imprudently involved themselves in debt; and that a vigorous exertion in their government to enforce the payment of private debts, and raise money for the public ones, occasioned the insurrection. One insurrection in thirteen States in the course of eleven years that they have existed; amounts to one in any individual State in one hundred and forty-three years, say a century and a half. This will not weigh against the inconveniences of a government of force, such as are monarchies and aristocracies. You see I am not discouraged by this little difficulty; nor have I any doubt that the result of our experiment will be, that men are capable of governing themselves without a master. I have the honor to be, with sentiments of the highest esteem and respect, Sir, your most obedient, and most humble servant.
The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 6, p.155p.156

In his Inaugural Address, William Henry Harrison pledged:

I proceed to state in as summary a manner as I can my opinion of the sources of the evils which have been so extensively complained of and the correctives which may be applied. Some of the former are unquestionably to be found in the defects of the Constitution; others, in my judgment, are attributable to a misconstruction of some of its provisions. Of the former is the eligibility of the same individual to a second term of the Presidency. The sagacious mind of Mr. Jefferson early saw and lamented this error, and attempts have been made, hitherto without success, to apply the amendatory power of the States to its correction. As, however, one mode of correction is in the power of every President, and consequently in mine, it would be useless, and perhaps invidious, to enumerate the evils of which, in the opinion of many of our fellow-citizens, this error of the sages who framed the Constitution may have been the source and the bitter fruits which we are still to gather from it if it continues to disfigure our system. It may be observed, however, as a general remark, that republics can commit no greater error than to adopt or continue any feature in their systems of government which may be calculated to create or increase the love of power in the bosoms of those to whom necessity obliges them to commit the management of their affairs; and surely nothing is more likely to produce such a state of mind than the long continuance of an office of high trust. Nothing can be more corrupting, nothing more destructive of all those noble feelings which belong to the character of a devoted republican patriot. When this corrupting passion once takes possession of the human mind, like the love of gold it becomes insatiable. It is the never-dying worm in his bosom, grows with his growth and strengthens with the declining years of its victim. If this is true, it is the part of wisdom for a republic to limit the service of that officer at least to whom she has intrusted the management of her foreign relations, the execution of her laws, and the command of her armies and navies to a period so short as to prevent his forgetting that he is the accountable agent, not the principal; the servant, not the master. Until an amendment of the Constitution can be effected public opinion may secure the desired object. I give my aid to it by renewing the pledge heretofore given that under no circumstances will I consent to serve a second term.
Messages and Papers of the Presidents, W. H. Harrison, vol. 3, p.1864

While not explicitly Biblically based, skepticism about power was a Christian ideal. If we are consistent with this ideal ("consent of the governed," the State as public servant, not master), then it becomes impossible for an individual to hide behind the mask of "public service." If it is wrong for a private individual to usurp the vengeance which God claims for Himself, then it is wrong for any individual to "vote" for another to take vengeance for him, and wrong for any individual to take vengeance "under color of law."

A related question is whether the "eye for an eye" statute was concerned with "vengeance" or with something quite different. A revolution in our thinking about this verse may be required.

{1} Bahnsen's second assumption concerns the nature of the "eye for an eye" commandment. He reads it as a secular, "judicial" law, and assumes that we can duplicate Israel's "court-room context" in our day. A little digging will show that context is ceremonial and typological, not merely judicial[2]. Where the lex talionis appears in Deuteronomy 19:21 it is preceded by the command to bring the controversy "before the LORD, before the priests and the judges, which shall be in those days" (Deut 19:17). We have neither priests nor judges in our day, and the presence of the priests here alerts us to the ceremonial/typological significance of the ritual shedding of blood involved in the context of another appearance of the lex talionis, in Leviticus 24. We have explored the typological aspects of "civil" bloodshed elsewhere

Bahnsen adds,

Moreover, could Jesus be against the ius talionis and still need to go to the cross for our sins? If God does not evaluate "an eye for an eye" as a righteous standard of judgment and penalty, then Jesus would not have to die as a substitute taking the punishment due for our sins.

During His preaching ministry, Jesus foreshadowed the full results of His work on the Cross. Jesus lived in "the last days" of the Old Covenant, a time of transition into the New Covenant. In Matthew 12:28, Jesus said, But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God is come unto you. Jesus did indeed cast out devils, therefore we know the Kingdom had come upon them. To some extent. Yet He also said the coming of His Kingdom was yet future: 

Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in His Kingdom.
Matthew 16:28

In the same way that Jesus could cast out demons before the Kingdom had come in its fulness, so he could begin phasing out the shedding of blood before the Cross.

But even if we assume there were no typological aspects to the lex talionis and other required sheddings of blood, the question is whether the private/public distinction holds up to analysis.

{2} It was judicial to the extent that it mandated an equitable shedding of blood based only on the extent of the injury. It prohibited a kind of vindictiveness which punished an injury of one stripe with two or more.