Marsiglio’s Defensor Pacis is a tragic example of the damage that can be wreaked by a pseudo-piety. The Franciscan Order to which Marsiglio belonged required a vow of poverty and withdrawal from the world. This prompted him to insist on a radical separation of church and state. The state, being secular, has no obligation to God’s Law. Rather, it is governed by human reason after the Greek model.
Who was Marsiglio? (1274-1343) Marsiglio was a Franciscan political philosopher and doctor. With Defensor Pacis, he sketched the outline for the modern secular state. He also proposed the radical view of separation of church and state that vexes politics to this day.
Historical context. Thomas Aquinas died in 1274. He left his massive, but unfinished Summa Theologica to infect Southern Europe with Aristotle’s rationalism. The Renaissance was the result. It brought a revival of art and culture and a stress on “man is the measure.” The political results of Aquinas’ rationalism and natural theology were not long in coming. Marsiglio’s Defensor Pacis (1324) built on the work of Dante, who lived at the same time. As with Dante, his motive rose from church-state squabbles during the early Renaissance. Earlier, (1075) the “Papal Revolution” had loosed the church from the chains of state control.
Marsiglio’s views on a neutered church spring from the Franciscan oath to renounce the world in a vow of poverty. The writing of Defensor Pacis was in fact provoked by the attack of Pope John XXII on the doctrine of poverty. Also the Pope had claimed the right to approve the taking office of a secular ruler.
Summary of Marsiglio’s teaching. Defensor Pacis means “Defender of the Peace.” Marsiglio was disgusted with church excesses. He believed that only a strong central government could effectively defend the peace. Dante was inspired by ancient Rome. But Marsiglio like Aquinas returned to Greece, notably Aristotle and Plato. Rather than the Bible, Marsiglio found the authority for government in reason. This would be either the will of the people or the wisdom of their enlightened leaders: Plato’s philosopher-kings. Moreover, the state’s power is free of any moral oversight by church leaders.
Implications for subsequent history. Civil government today is adrift from any sense of responsibility to Bible law. It has by definition assumed the role of a tyrant (rule apart from the law of God). In the United States it is actually illegal for an officeholder to legislate or pass judgment on the basis of the Bible. The church is viewed as being of no value to the culture. Moreover, the church has no authority to advise the magistrate. Or, as in Erastianism, the church is viewed as a department of state.
The evil outcome is everywhere obvious. Rampant crime, war, abortion, sodomy, sky-high taxes, and illegal seizure of property are just a few symptoms. We have Marsiglio of Padua to thank for much of this. “…of the Mosaic law, we have not here to do,” he said, “not even with the political precepts which such laws provide for the affairs of this life” (Defensor Pacis)
Marsiglio’s position springs naturally from quietism or pietism. Even the Reformers were not completely immune from his teaching. Hobbes’s and Rousseau’s theories of the state come from Marsiglio, according to Alan Gewirth. Gewirth noted that “in the view of the state as reason, the philosopher-kings are sovereign; in the coercive state, the strongest are; in the republican view, sovereign power belongs to the whole people” (12). Virtually every national revolt has borrowed from one or another of Marsiglio’s ideas.
Biblical analysis. Civil courts were set up by God to assign justice according to Bible law, including the death penalty. They are dependent on God and answer to God. Civil government was set up by God in the Noahic Covenant after the flood. He granted the civil ruler the power of the sword to execute justice and prevent future outbreaks of evil. “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God made he man” (Gen. 9:6). Having been set up by God, it is treason to suggest — as Marsiglio did — that civil government may function apart from the Bible or the counsel of the church. It is especially offensive when done in the name of an advanced level of spirituality.
Corrective or prescriptive actions. We must forsake both the wisdom of the ruler and the will of the people as the basis for civil rule. Instead, civil government must return to its covenantal roots. Then the new official would be sworn to govern in accord with the Word of God.