The Political Philosophy of John Cotton Part 3 -- By: Stanley D. Starr

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 108:431 (Jul 1951)
Article: The Political Philosophy of John Cotton Part 3
Author: Stanley D. Starr

The Political Philosophy of John Cotton
Part 3

Stanley D. Starr

(Concluded from the April-June Number, 1951)

{Editor’s note: Footnotes in the original printed edition were numbered 39–66, but in this electronic edition are numbered 1–28 respectively.}

And now we must tread lightly as we enter that area of cooperation between church and state. Cotton asserted quite dogmatically that “the head of the Church under Christ is the Civill Magistrate.”1 This did not mean that the magistrate was supreme in spiritual matters. In expressing a similar idea elsewhere Cotton explained that only “a carnall and worldly, and indeed an ungodly imagination” would confine “the Magistrates charge, to the bodies, and goods of the subject,” and would “exclude them from the care of their souls.” We have already seen that the magistrate was given power to suppress heresy. And Cotton defended this point of view in his dispute with Roger Williams. He firmly held that it was the right of the civil magistrate to interfere in religious matters if it was necessary to uphold the truth.

Whether or not Mr. Cotton includes this type of interference in the area of cooperation he does not make clear. We do know that he conceived of some type of cooperative unity between the church and the state, for he says that “it is good to have these two states joyned together, that the simplicity of the church may be maintained and upheld, and strengthened by the civill state according to God, but not by any simplicity further than according to the Word.”2 He asserted that if the two were joined together, then the

church could not be broken without its greatly affecting the welfare of the body politic. He conceded that political states had existed under heathendom, but he held that once the true church had been introduced it was to the good of the state to protect that church.3

In addition to the matter of suppressing heresy, Cotton conceived of two other instances in which the church and state could cooperate. The first of these was in the act of declaring war. Before taking up arms the state should seek direction from the Word of God by asking the advice of the clergy. “The rulers of the people should consult with the ministers of the churches upon occasion of any war to be undertaken, and any other weighty business, though the case should seem never so clear.”4 Apparently there were other things important enough to require direction from the Word of G...

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