Romans 13:1-7 has stood as one of the most important texts throughout the history of Christian political thought, but like so many biblical texts, has proven capable of being put to the service of several different—even contradictory—ends. The 16th century in particular stimulated several different readings of the passage, readings which have continued to remain popular down to the present day.
Perhaps surprisingly, Romans 13 was a fairly marginal text in much medieval political theology, and when it was invoked, it was as often to undermine the claims of political authorities as to bolster them—papalist theologians could claim that since the pope was the highest power, the injunction to “be subject to the higher powers” called for the subjection of all lower powers to papal authority. With the Protestant Reformation’s forceful attack on papal prerogatives and reclamation of lay authority, the passage—interpreted more literally and with more historical sensibility as a reference to Roman political authorities—became a standard prooftext in the Reformers’ exaltation of civil authorities as divine agents.
Initially, leading Reformers such as Luther and Calvin read the passage as commanding absolute passive obedience: it asserted flatly that the civil authorities were ordained by God, and we were therefore called to obey them in all things not contrary to God. But what about when they commanded things that were clearly contrary to God? The standard early Protestant answer was that in such a case, of course, the subject must disobey, but be prepared to suffer the consequences; it was not his place to rebel and overthrow the ruler, since the ruler remained “a minister of God.” However, this possibility raised important theoretical questions about what it meant for a wicked, tyrannical ruler to be ordained by God.
The Reformed theologian Peter Martyr Vermigli provides an interesting example of how the magisterial reformers sought to address this question. In his scholium “Of a Magistrate,” he anticipates the objection, “if every magistrate is divinely given, then each should always rule without fault.” His response is to distinguish between the office and the individual. Evil individuals may occupy a divinely sanctioned office. Of course, even the individual remains within the general providence of God, who oversees the rise and fall of men and kingdoms in the course of his governance over all creation, but this does not mean he acts as God’s agent when doing evil: “And in this manner they are said not to reign by God, for that they apply not themselves to the written and revealed will of God. Howbeit it cannot be denied but that God by his hidden and effectual will would have them to reign.” But this would seem to create space for Christian subjects to seek to remove an unworthy individual who is ruling tyrannically, while still respecting the office, since the tyrannical ruler is no longer fulfilling the God-ordained office.
Vermigli, however, seeks to forestall this by suggesting another way in which the tyrant is still fulfilling a God-ordained office: he is serving, he says, as a chastisement for the sins of the people, as we see in numerous Scriptural examples. In fact, by this means the tyrant still, despite himself, serves to exercise the divine office described in Romans 13, since he remains a “terror to the evildoer.” For even the saints remain evildoers, and must humbly accept this call to repentance.
Unsurprisingly, though, this sort of reading proved harder and harder to swallow once supreme magistrates such as Queen Mary in England and the French monarchs showed themselves obstinately intent on the persecution of the Protestant faithful. The result was a range of remarkable re-interpretations of Romans 13 from the 1550s through the 1580s. Among the most striking, though, were those in Scotland—surprising because Mary Queen of Scots bore few marks of a tyrant and made substantial concessions to the Protestants. These, however, were not enough for the zealot John Knox, for whom her own personal Catholicism cast deep doubt on her divine right to rule. Knox sought to press home the distinction that theologians such as Vermigli had made between the office and the person, putting it to a new, more revolutionary use.
In his famous debate with William Maitland of Lethington at the 1564 General Assembly, Knox was taken to task for his recent sermon on Romans 13. Lethington summarized, “Ye made difference betwixt the ordinance of God and persons that were placed in authority, and ye affirmed that men might refuse the persons and yet not to offend against God’s ordinance.” Knox replied that Lethington had heard him aright, and proceeded to expound further:
“First, the Apostle affirms that the powers are ordained of God [for the preservation of quiet and peaceable men, and for the punishment of malefactors; whereof it is plain that the ordinance of God] and the power given unto man is one thing, and the person clad with the power or with the authority is another; for God’s ordinance is the conservation of mankind, the punishment of vice, the maintaining of virtue, which is in itself holy, just, constant, stable, and perpetual. But men clad with the authority are commonly profane and unjust; yea, they are mutable and transitory, and subject to corruption. . . . And now, my Lord, that the prince may be resisted and yet the ordinance of God not violated, it is evident; for the people resisted Saul when he had sworn by the living God that Jonathan should die. . . .
“And now, my Lord, to answer to the place of the Apostle who affirms ‘that such as resists the power, resists the ordinance of God,’ I say that the power in that place is not to be understood of the unjust commandment of men, but of the just power wherewith God has armed His magistrates and lieutenants to punish sin and maintain virtue. . . . [I]f that men in the fear of God oppone themselves to the fury and blind rage of princes . . . they resist not God, but the devil, who abuses the sword and authority of God.”
Office and person have now become completely separable. Sure, God ordains the office of magistrate, but he ordains it for a particular good purpose, described in Romans 13. If any particular magistrate fails to fulfill this ordained purpose, then he is no lieutenant of God, but of the devil, and is to unwaveringly opposed as such. Romans 13, then, is suddenly transformed from a text chiefly calculated to instill obedience to a text authorizing and providing a litmus test for armed rebellion.
This line of argument is taken up and taken further in Knox’s ally, the opportunistic Scottish humanist George Buchanan, who in his deeply subversive dialogue, De Iure Regni Apud Scotos, despite seeking to argue from classical authorities and reason rather than Scripture, feels the need to confront Romans 13 head-on. He too quickly succeeds in knocking out of the hands of his opponents and using it as a weapon against them.
The key again lies in reading it as a definition of the proper task of magistracy: “In his Epistle to the Romans [Paul] defines a king with almost dialectical precision: he says that the king is an officer to whom the sword has been given by God to punish the evil and to encourage and sustain the good.” He then, citing the same passage from Chrysostom that Vermigli cites at one point in his commentary, says that these things are not written about a tyrant, “but of a true and lawful magistrate, who is the earthly representative of the true God.”
He strengthens this point by appealing to what he takes to be the original rhetorical context. Here he intensifies the original Protestant concern with the historical context of the passage, but with a somewhat different result. Paul was writing, he says, to combat libertines and enthusiasts: “But if you also consider what induced Paul to write these words, note that this passage may count strongly against you. For Paul wrote it in order to censure the rashness of certain men who denied that the commands of magistrates were necessary for Christians.”
Therefore, we are to understand that
“Paul, then, is not concerned here with those who act as magistrates but with magistracy itself, that is, with the function and duty of those who are set over others; and he is not concerned with any particular type of magistracy, but with the form of every lawful magistracy. His argument is not with those who think that bad magistrates ought to be restrained, but with those who reject the authority of all magistrates….In order to refute their error Paul showed that magistracy is not only good but also sacred, the ordinance of God, indeed, expressly established to hold groups and communities of men together in such a way that the would recognise the blessings of God towards them and refrain from injuring one another.” 
So, by appealing to the rhetorical context, he manages to turn the passage into a discourse on civil authority in the abstract, rather than any kind of concrete command to submission. Paul has no intention of authorizing tyrants, only magistracy in general: “You will find nothing in Paul to show why they [tyrants] should not be punished for violating the laws of God and of man. For he discusses the power of magistrates as such, not how evil men evilly wield that power. Indeed, if you measure tyrants of that kind against Paul’s rule, they will not be magistrates at all.” He recognizes God’s providential use of such rulers, but unlike Vermigli, is not willing to thereby give them any direct divine authorization, since that would make God the author of evil: “God sometimes appoints an evil man to punish evil men, but no one in his right mind will dare to assert that God is the author of human malice, just as everyone knows that He is responsible for punishing evildoers.”
So we may justly conclude that “the definition of a power laid down by Paul does not apply to tyrants at all, since they devote the strength of their authority to the fulfilment of their own desires, not to the benefit of the people.” Romans 13, by defining the right use of authority, thus serves as a basis for identifying improper authorities, and by implication, absolving people from any duty to obey them.
Buchanan, though, is a bit shrewder than Knox, for he realizes that he will have to do a bit more to get around a potential objection–after all, wasn’t Romans 13 written to people under Nero? Weren’t rulers like Caligula and Nero precisely the sort of people that, on Buchanan’s reading, Paul should have been encouraging Christians to resist. His next move serves to historically relativise the passage (a revolutionary move among his contemporaries): it was a pragmatic command to Christians in a particular circumstance, but not one that should apply in all times and all places.
“Paul wrote this in the very infancy of the church, when it was necessary not only to be above reproach, but also to avoid giving any opportunity for criticism to those looking even for unjust grounds for making accusations. Next, he wrote to men brought together into a single community from different races and indeed from the whole body of the Roman Empire.”
These were mostly lower class people, he goes on, who had no powers in the government.
“If such people had tried to take any part in government, they would inevitably have been thought not only foolish but quite out of their minds; still more so if they had come out of their hiding-places and made trouble for those who controlled the government.”
In other words, these were people who simply weren’t in a position to rebel successfully. Their only option was patient submission, and so that’s what Paul counselled. No doubt he would say the same in the sixteenth century, Buchanan says, to Christians living under the Turks–as they are in a position of impotence, quietism is the only option.
Needless to say, this last development is one that would’ve deeply unnerved Knox, and many other Protestants in that era, who were determined to find direct guidance in Scripture for contemporary politics. However, it was to anticipate subsequent developments in Protestant political thought, which in the 17th century began to develop a stronger historical consciousness, an awareness that the social arrangements that were best for ancient Israel or the early church were not always best for every era.