Josiah, Erastianism and National Covenanting
Part 1
By Al Hembd
Copyright 1997 © First Presbyterian Church of Rowlett

[Editor’s Note: This paper is part of a series that originally were email posts to FPCR’s Internet discussion group, The Westminster Forum. Mr. Hembd wrote his articles as part of a discussion of George Gilliespie’s 17th century tract, Wholesome Severity Reconciled with Christian Liberity. ]

[The following question was asked by the moderator of the Westminster Forum.] "In the example of Josiah is there a practical difference between national covenanting and Erastianism? What is the difference in a practical sense? How could the Christian magistrate today cause all his citizens to stand to a covenant between Christ and His elect?"

I offer my meager remarks. May the LORD add His blessing to my feeble endeavors.

I hope to organize this paper in the following manner, namely:

1. Was what Josiah did, in making his countrymen stand to the covenant, Erastian?

2. May the Christian magistrate today make his countrymen to stand to the covenant of God? Does he have warrant in the Word of God to do such a thing?

3. CAN a Christian magistrate do such a thing? That is, is there any ability or power promised to him to effect such a thing?


In II Kings 23:1-3 and in II Chronicles 34:29-33, in making his countrymen to stand to the covenant, was King Josiah practicing Erastianism?

2 Kings 23:1-3

And the king sent, and they gathered unto him all the elders of Judah and of Jerusalem. And the king went up into the house of the LORD, and all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem with him, and the priests, and the prophets, and all the people, both small and great: and he read in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the LORD. And the king stood by a pillar, and made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD, and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all their heart and all their soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people stood to the covenant.

2 Chronicles 34:29-33

Then the king sent and gathered together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. And the king went up into the house of the LORD, and all the men of Judah, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the priests, and the Levites, and all the people, great and small: and he read in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant that was found in the house of the LORD. And the king stood in his place, and made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD, and to keep his commandments, and his testimonies, and his statutes, with all his heart, and with all his soul, to perform the words of the covenant which are written in this book. And he caused all that were present in Jerusalem and Benjamin to stand to it. And the inhabitants of Jerusalem did according to the covenant of God, the God of their fathers. And Josiah took away all the abominations out of all the countries that pertained to the children of Israel, and made all that were present in Israel to serve, even to serve the LORD their God. And all his days they departed not from following the LORD, the God of their fathers.

According to today’s modern "evangelical Christianity," Reformed and Presbyterian churches included, the answer would probably be "Yes." According to today’s churches any magisterial intervention in matters of religion or the Church is regarded as Erastian. This author remembers the PCA version of the Westminster Standards that he once owned. In the preface to that version, the editor, speaking on behalf of the General Assembly, explained why the PCA had altered or deleted Article III of Chapter 23 and Article II of Chapter 31 from the Confession. According to him, these articles "smacked of the Erastian influence that predominated in that [the Westminster] Assembly." Many Presbyterian denominations worldwide have similarly deleted these articles or taken exceptions to them. The RPCNA and the OPC are examples.

Similarly, the modern Dutch reformed denominations — The Netherlands Reformed Congregations, the Protestant Reformed Churches, and the Free Reformed Church — have all followed the lead of the Christian Reformed Church in seriously revising Chapter XXXVI of the Belgic Confession. This practice has had the effect of curtailing seriously the duties of the civil magistrate toward the First Table of the Law in defending and promoting the true religion.

But, the question arises: what really is Erastianism? Few today actually define the term, particularly by referring to the primary documents of the Erastians themselves. This is why it is most profitable to read the writings of the Westminster divine, George Gillespie. Through him, one learns how Erastianism was understood and overcome in the Westminster Assembly itself.

I now refer to Gillespie’s most excellent work, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, in defense of Presbyterian church government. In order to understand Erastianism, one should read Gillespie’s book. The entire book is a defense of Presbyterianism over against the Erastian doctrine advocated by certain men in the days of the Westminster Assembly: notably, a certain Mr. Coleman and a Mr. Prynne (though Gillespie cites the writings of several other Erastians as well, including Thomas Erastus himself.)

In Book 2, Chapter 1 (pp. 75 and 76 in the edition printed by Sprinkle Publications in 1985) Gillespie claims:

" … I shall, after their example, make known briefly what I find concerning the rise and growth, the planting and watering, of the Erastian error. The father of it is the old serpent … [H]e hath cunningly gone about to draw men, first into a jealousy, and then into a dislike of the ecclesiastical discipline by God’s mercy restored in the reformed churches. The mother of it is the enmity of nature against the kingdom of Jesus Christ, which He as Mediator, doth exercise in the government of the church; which enmity is naturally in all men’s hearts, but is unmortified and strongly prevalent in some, who have said in their hearts, ‘We will not have this man to reign over us,’ Luke xix … The midwife which brought this unhappy brood into the light of the world, was Thomas Erastus, doctor of medicine at Heidelberg, of whom I shall say no more than what is apparent by his own preface to the reader, namely, that as he was once of the opinion that excommunication is commanded in God’s Word, so he came off to the contrary opinion …

" … The Erastian error being born, the breast which gave it suck were profaneness and self-interest. The sons of Belial were very much for it, expecting that the eye of the civil magistrate shall not be so vigilant over them, nor his hand so much against them for a scandalous and dissolute conversation, as church discipline would be … And is it as little to be marvelled at if those, whether magistrates, lawyers, or others, who conceived themselves to be so far losers, as ecclesiastical courts were interested in government, and to be greater gainers by the abolition of ecclesiastical interest in government, were biased that way …

" … The tutor which bred up the Erastian error was Arminianism; for the Arminians, finding their plants plucked up, and their poison antidoted by classes and synods, thereupon they began to cry down synodical authority, and to appeal to the magistrate’s authority in things ecclesiastical, hoping for more favour and less opposition that way. They will have synods only to examine, dispute, discuss, and to impose nothing under pain of ecclesiastical censure, but to leave all men free to do as they list. See their Exam. Cens. cap. 25, and Vindic. lib. 2, cap. 6, pp. 131-133. And for the magistrate, they have endeavored to make him head of the church, as the Pope was; yea, so far, that they are not ashamed to ascribe unto the magistrate that jurisdiction over the churches, synods, and ecclesiastical proceedings, which the Pope did formerly usurp. For which see Apollonius in his Jus Majestis Circa Sacra."

Now I would have my reader note the following things:

1) Erastianism opposed church authority to excommunicate scandalous offenders. As Gillespie notes in other sections of Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, some Erastians would allow the church the right to suspend scandalous offenders temporarily from the sacraments. However, they would never allow for the church to have the authority to excommunicate the continuously impenitent.

2) Heretics of that day, notably the Arminians, favored Erastianism. By it, they believed they could maintain their errors within the churches; nay, they could even, with their man-pleasing doctrines, prevail with most earthly monarchs and so secure control of the Church.

3) The Erastians, particularly the Arminians, were prepared to grant the monarch all authority which the Pope had formerly claimed: that is, the power of all judgment, the power of all ultimate authority, in matters of doctrine, worship, and practice in the Church. They wanted to make the magistrate the head of the Church on earth.

The pinnacle of what constitutes the doctrine of Erastianism was that the civil magistrate, as head of the church, had power as a lawgiver to the church. In that capacity, he could rule in all matters ecclesiastical, even to the imposition of man-made rites of worship, and to the exclusion of all church discipline other than mere classical and synodical "recommendations."

Now, having seen Erastianism in all its dark colors, can we say that Josiah was Erastian? Did the godly Josiah in any way usurp the authority granted to the priests alone? Did Josiah impose any human rites upon the worship of God? Did Josiah eradicate all church authority? Did Josiah impose himself upon the nation and the Church, as a new head of the Church, and consequently, as a lawgiver, with power to impose man-made laws of his own choosing?

The answer to all these questions, of course, is "no." In no wise did Josiah usurp Christ’s exclusive claims as the Head and sole Lawgiver of the Church. " … [T]here is one Lawgiver, Who is able to save and to destroy," James 4:12. Josiah was in no wise supplanting Christ’s place as Sole Head and Lawgiver to the Church. To the contrary, Josiah was submitting himself to that one true Head and Lawgiver of the Church, in obeying God’s specific laws with regards to the King, in making the people to stand to the covenant.

The King of Israel was not an absolute monarch. He was to submit himself to the real King in Zion, Jehovah God. See Psalm 20:9; Psalm 24:8-10; Psalm 47:2; 6-7, and Psalm 84:6. Note that King David called Jehovah his king in Psalm 20:9 and Psalm 24:8-10. The kings of Israel, as true sons of David, were all required to bow down to the King of Zion in heaven, the LORD of hosts, and as such were to serve Him by ruling by His Laws alone. And paramount in the Law was the king’s duty to use his magisterial power to keep Israel faithful in her covenant to her God: Exodus 24:7-8; Deut. 4:13, 23; Deut. 5:2-3, and Deut. 17:18-20.

Deuteronomy 17:18-20 reads as follows:

And it shall be, when he [the king] sitteth upon the throne of the kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of the Law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites: and it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life; that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, to keep all the words of this Law and these statues, to do them: that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left: to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he, and his children, in the midst of Israel.

The kings of Israel, the sons of David, were to keep all the words of the Law. They were to enforce them, as the supreme magistrates, under God, in their land. They were to see to it that Israel did not "forget the covenant of the LORD their God, which He had made with them," cf. Deut. 4:23, especially His "Ten Commandments, written upon two tables of stone," cf. Deut. 4:13.

The king was to do this, not by usurping the unique duties and authorities granted to others in their stations by God’s Law. Rather he was to see to it that others faithfully discharged their God-given duties and authority in their offices committed to them.

Hence, Josiah did not usurp the duties or authority committed to the house of Aaron or to the Levitical priesthood. Certain duties, including authority in Church matters, devolved upon the Levites alone. To the Aaronic priests and the Levites alone belonged these peculiar duties: teaching the Law on a regular basis, administering the temple ordinances, and judging between the clean and the unclean (that is, church discipline). Josiah in no way infringed upon this sphere of uniquely ecclesiastical duties.

It was the Levite who was to teach, on a regular basis, the Law of God to the people. The Levites were also to judge between the clean and unclean, and were to exclude the unclean from church rights and participation in the ordinances. The Law of God in no way gave Josiah or any of the kings any right to interfere in these specific duties delegated to the priesthood alone.

Leviticus 10:9-11 speaks of these commandments to the sons of Aaron in particular. They were not to drink wine when they went into the tabernacle of the congregation, so that they would be clear of mind, when judging between the holy and unholy, the clean and the unclean; and so that they would with a clear head be able to teach the people. "..that ye may put difference between holy and unholy, and between clean and unclean; and that ye may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the LORD hath spoken unto them by the hand of Moses," are the Scripture’s own words, in verses 10 and 11. And, the Levites being ordained to help the sons of Aaron, it was lawfully permitted them to assist in these duties, under the oversight of the Aaronic priesthood. See II Chron. 35:3 and II Chron. 30:7-8.

Hence it was that the sons of Aaron were to be "teaching priests," II Chron. 15:3. The absence of teaching priests in the nation was considered a judgment from God. It was equated with being "without Law," there being no lively exposition of it.

Specifically regarding the mandated duty of the priests and Levites to separate the clean from the unclean, we must note that the high priest Jehoiada set the porters at the gates. Those porters had the task of examining prospective worshippers to determine whether their names were written in the books of the genealogies (called "the book of life"). They had a further task of determining whether the prospective worshippers were ceremonially clean and whether they were free from scandal. These porters, a type of the ecclesiastical elders who today are to keep watch over the Lord’s Table, had the task of separating between the holy and the unholy to see to it that the unclean and the unholy were excluded from the Temple ordinances.

Moreover, there were certain matters in which a soul could be "cut off," or excommunicated, from the congregation (the Church), over a church matter, independent of any matter that would merit punishment under the Civil Law. This power of excommunication likewise pertained alone to the priests. An example of one of these matters was circumcision. The man-child who was not circumcised was to be "cut off" from his people. Yet this excommunication did not mean that he was to be put to death or banished with no possibility of reconciliation. If that were the case then the entire generation of the children of Moses, ages twenty and under at the time of the Exodus would have been executed or banished with no chance of being admitted into the commonwealth of Israel. This was obviously not the case, since they entered the land with Joshua even before being circumcised at Gilgal.

What did it mean, then, to be "cut off?" It meant, to be cut off from the covenant, and from the people of the covenant, and to lose membership status in the "congregation of Israel." It was ecclesiastical excommunication, as George Gillespie proved in chapters four through six, of the first book, of Aaron’s Rod Blossoming. Presumably, in order to be reinstated into the covenant, the concerned person and/or his parents (if the subject were still under age) would have to confess their sins before the priests, and offer a trespass offering. Then, they could be readmitted to the congregation, and to God’s ecclesiastical ordinances.

This would also have been the case with those who ate leaven during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, or who knowingly offered sacrifices in any of the temple ordinances, when unclean. That soul, upon being found out, would be "cut off," until due repentance and trespass offering, under the watchful eye of the priests, allowed for his re-admittance to church privileges. See Genesis 17:14, Numbers 19:13, and Exodus 12:15 for instances that demonstrate these truths.

As Gillespie proves from the writings of the Jews and from the Scriptures, in chapter 9 of the first book of Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, scandalous offenders were considered unclean, and excluded from the ordinances of the church, by the priests. The cutting off of those scandalous offenders by Church authority did not exempt them from civil punishments. However, it is to be noted that there was a dual censure observed in these instances: that of ecclesiastical censure, and that of civil punishment. All this proves that there were distinct spheres of authority between ecclesiastical and civil government. The kings of Israel were not allowed to interfere in the role of ecclesiastical authority, and vice versa.

With regards to judgment of doctrinal matters: there was no proscription in the Civil Law for priests who taught error, save when the ordinances were corrupted, when open idolatry was advocated, or false prophecy practiced. Presumably, when one of the "teaching priests" taught a doctrinal error, it was to be brought to the attention of the other priests, and they judged the matter. The king, however, certainly had no direct jurisdiction in such matters, other than a general responsibility to exhort the priests to discharge their duty. Thus, there was some synodical authority on the part of the priesthood, to insure doctrinal purity.

An example of the godly kings refraining from disciplining the priests in matters not directly pertaining to the Civil Law can be found in King Joash. The king mandated the priests to collect monies for the restoration of the Temple. The priests, for legitimate or illegitimate reasons (we do not know), did not comply. Did the king punish them for their disobedience? No. Instead, after conferring with them (and reproving them for their lack of diligence), he then devised a different plan: the providing of a chest to collect free-will offerings, outside the gate of the house of the Lord. See II Chron. 24:5-11. The king did not take it upon himself to punish any of the priests, though he did take liberty to exhort them to certain duties.

In fact, there are several instances in which kings exhorted Levites to perform their charges faithfully: in cleansing the house of the LORD, in separating the clean from the unclean, and in instructing the people in the book of the Law of the LORD. Josiah is a prime example of such a king, along with Joash and Hezekiah. Yet we never read of an instance in which a king punished an unfaithful Levite for not performing his ecclesiastical duties. It is quite safe to presume that thesis because the responsibility for disciplining erring priests and Levites lay with the priests themselves. The magistrate was free, even duty bound out of loyalty to the Cause of Christ, to exhort the priests and Levites to their duties; but he never was warranted to punish offenses that were solely ecclesiastical. That authority pertained to the Church alone.

In conclusion, then, we see several things about Josiah’s decisive move toward reformation of the land in his reign. He made the people "stand to the covenant." But he in no way assumed headship of the Church, to prescribe new laws, new rites of worship, or to exercise uniquely ecclesiastical privileges, in teaching the people on a regular basis out of the Law, or in exercising Church discipline. In no way, then, was Josiah an Erastian.

How did Josiah make the people stand to the covenant? By making them swear to obey the Law in their peculiar stations and offices. He did not usurp the authority of the priest in his office, but rather exhorted him to faithfulness in it, even causing the priests to swear to God in the matter. So also did Josiah with the lesser judges and princes under him. Josiah seemed careful not to usurp their authority. He did not become involved in any cases of Law except those that were referred to him.

And, of course, Josiah himself swore to the keeping of the covenant. He set a right example before the people, in vowing himself before the LORD to keep the covenant, to serve the Cause of Christ. He swore to uphold God’s Law in all that sphere that God had delegated to him, viz. in the civil sphere.

In summary, then, Josiah, in his sphere of authority, exhorted the people to "stand to the covenant," by exhorting them to faithfulness in their spheres of authority and in their duties, as commanded by the Law. Josiah covenanted to uphold the Civil Law. Josiah likewise exhorted the priests to discharge faithfully their offices, without him intruding upon their specific spheres of divinely mandated duty. Josiah also, as head of the civil government of Israel, commanded the children of Jerusalem to vow to keep the covenant. This vow was really a reaffirmation of the covenant they as a nation and Church were already under by the sovereign declaration of God: see Exodus 24:7-8, Deut. 4:13, 23; and Deut. 5:2-3.

Now there is much here in the example of Josiah that pertains directly to modern magistrates, particularly of those who profess the Name of Christ. Since the resurrection of Christ, the kingdoms of this world are indeed become the kingdoms of God and of His Christ, Rev. 11:15, whether those nations acknowledge it or not. There is, however, a difference between Josiah’s position and that of the modern-day Christian magistrate. Josiah had no power to enact ANY laws of his own choosing. He was bound to enforce the Civil Law which the covenant-keeping Jehovah, the Almighty God, had given to that nation. He was to enforce that Law alone. He could enact no statutes in addition to the Civil Laws delivered to Israel; nor could he delete any. This arrangement certainly was part of the unique national covenant that the LORD had made with that nation, for the protection of the Church in the state of its infancy and tutelage under the Ceremonial rites.

Many of those judicial laws related directly or indirectly to the Ceremonial Law, which has expired; and hence, the Civil Law, as a body of binding laws, has certainly also "expired with the state of that people," (West. Conf. XIX.4). Moreover, certain of the Civil Laws, though direct applications of the Moral Law, were adapted to the cultural practices of that people, as with the practice of putting a battlement around their flat roofs. And some of the Laws were also adapted to the relative hardness of their hearts: because of their having lesser effusions of the Holy Ghost, Christ having not yet come. A chief example would be the laws allowing and even regulating polygamy.

Hence, we cannot consider the Civil Law as a body of laws to be binding or permanent, though due reference must be made to them by the magistrate. The Christian magistrate today is the minister of God, ordained of God "for the praise of them that do well." His calling is to be "a terror to them that do evil" He must indeed frame just and equitable laws, with reference always to the Moral Law of the Ten Commandments, as an eternal standard of what is right and wrong.

Else, if the Moral Law be set aside, in any of its commandments, what then is the standard of right (well doing) or wrong (evil-doing)? If one is, in the fear of God, to serve God as his minister, then he must rule in accordance with God’s moral law. The magistrate must protect both tables of God’s law, else the definition of morality itself is changed. For that Law is "just, holy, and good," and is the standard of all righteousness. The civil magistrate, as the minister of God, is duty bound to enforce God’s righteousness with regards to outward behavior alone: to "doing," whether good or evil. And thus it is that the civil magistrate is to frame just and equitable laws that uphold the righteousness of all of the Ten Commandments.

I refer the reader now to the second installment of this discussion, where I will continue looking at the duty of the civil magistrate in every nation to both tables of the moral law.