This is Samuel Rutherford’s response to the prelate Maxwell who advocated absolute obedience to monarchs in all respects. This book is a point by point refutation (and reads like it). Rutherford’s Key argument: “I reduce all that I am to speak of the power of kings, to the author or efficient, -the matter or subject, – the form or power, – the end and fruit of their government, – and to some cases of resistance” (Rutherford 1).
We can say it another way: We can reorder the scholastic causes (formal, efficient, material, final) to forms of limitation: what is the purpose of govt? Who or what brings govt into existence? Who or what constitutes govt? If these distinctions aren’t kept in mind, Rutherford’s argument doesn’t make sense. In fact, constitutional govt wouldn’t make sense, either.
Rutherford explains government is natural in its root but voluntary in its mode. Further, The power of creating a man a king is from the people (6). Can the people cede all of their liberty to the king? No, for the people do not have absolute power over themselves. You cannot cede what you do not have (81). The king is above the people by eminence of derived authority as watchman, but he is inferior to them in fountain-power, as the effect to the cause (115). This is Rutherford’s key, and in my opinion, strongest, argument in the book. God’s intention per civil govt is “external peace, and quiet life, and godliness of his church and people, and that all judges, according to their places, be nurse-fathers to the church (Isa. 40.23)” (105).
Can we resist the government? Well, individually no. As a member of an estate and body politic, yes. Resistance and patient suffering are not contraries when considered as virtues (153ff). If resistance can fall under the virtue of self-preservation, then it is not an evil. Were the entire Parliament and city of London to lay down their arms and go meekly to their deaths at the hand of Irish rebels? In lighter situations, such as taxes and tribute, we may not use acts of re-offending. Did Paul meekly submit to the king of Damascus or did he engage in self-preservation and escape (159)?
The book is somewhat difficult to read because Rutherford is engaging in a point-by-point refutation of Maxwell, so it isn’t always clear which point is under discussion.
I found Rev David Field’s analyses of Rutherford very helpful and invaluable.
Rev Field’s key point, taken from Rutherford:
A woman or a young man may violently oppose a king, if he force the one to adultery and incest, and the other to sodomy (162 ).
If it be natural to one man to defend himself against the personal invasion of a prince, then is it natural and warrantable to ten thousand, and to a whole kingdom ; and what reason to defraud a kingdom of the benefit of self-defence more than one man? (158 )?
Key argument: I reduce all that I am to speak of the power of kings, to the author or efficient, -the matter or subject, – the form or power, – the end and fruit of their government, – and to some cases of resistance (Rutherford 1).
Field neatly rephrases Rutherford’s argument: If we reorder the causes (to final, efficient, formal and material) and take “cases of resistance” to be “forms of limitation” we may rephrase the conclusions of Lex, rex as a series of questions: What is the purpose or goal of government? Who or what brings government into being? What is it that makes government government, or what is the essence of government? What is government made out of? What are the due limitations of civil government (Field 5)?
Rutherford gives a book-length response to “P. Prelate.”
C1: “All civil power is immediately from God in its root” (Rutherford 1).
- Civil society is natural in radice but voluntary in modo.
- The power of creating a man a king is from the people (6).
- Judges 9.6; 1 Sam. 11.15
- A choice is made to choose this man and not that man.
- Is God’s call to not resist ordained authorities always absolute? Rutherford gives a number of reductios to prove otherwise:
- A pastor is ordained of God; if a pastor becomes a robber, is it a sin to resist him?
- If a king brings in foreign invaders, such as “Irish cutthroats,” it is lawful to resist (15).
C2: Where obligation exists by contract, violation of the faith plighted in the contract, cannot in proper terms be called disobedience or contempt of authority (24).
- Government and power-making: the community, not the Pope, doth put forth this act (making a king) as a free, voluntary power (29).
- The community keeps to itself a power to resist tyranny (35).
- The previous laws of a community or nation give people the right to resist invaders who try to overthrow that order (36).
C3: Idolatry and Prior Laws
- If a nation is Christian (or theistic), the people do not have to aid a ruler in making it idolatrous (40).
- Rutherford’s hypotheticals are quite interesting: if a king invites Papists to invade and subdue the Protestants, must the Protestants merely accept this?
- Covenants limit the power of kings (57).
- The Western legal heritage at this time had already limited the power of kings: if a king negates the conditions which made him king (e.g., the people’s investiture), then he may be negated since he violated them “from his own consent” (63).
C4: Nature and Destruction
- Law is rooted in nature and nature can’t be destroyed. Therefore, a king doesn’t have the power to destruction (66).
- What if a people are conquered?
- This is why there really can’t be a “blank check to Nero” type interpretation, otherwise it gets really silly.
- This means “might makes right.”
- So, the new conqueror is automatically “the powers that be”?
- Does that mean the old–indeed, legitimate–ruler is now illegitimate?
- At what point does he become illegitimate–when the new conqueror conquers 50.01% of the land?
- Presumably, given the analysis in 2.1.1-2.1.4, a people would be sinning in resisting. Yet, let’s say they “reconquered” the conquerors. Does that automatically make them “in the right?”
- The Holy Spirit invests the people (Dt. 17.15-16) with kingmaking power.
- But that’s the Old Testament!
- Fair enough–it is also Western (and Russian) legal tradition.
- Can the people cede all of their liberty to the king?
- No, for the people do not have absolute power over themselves.
- You cannot cede what you do not have (81).
- They give the king political power to their own safety, but reserve natural power to themselves. Here Rutherford buttresses his argument with natural law reasoning and the 6th Commandment.
- Inferior magistrates are also “powers from God” (else, if Paul were just talking about the king, why didn’t he simply say “power”?).
- They also bear God’s sword (90).
- Scripture notes the people make the king, never the king the people (113).
- The people united to make David king at Hebron.
- The king is above the people by eminence of derived authority as watchman, but he is inferior to them in fountain-power, as the effect to the cause (115). This is Rutherford’s key, and in my opinion, strongest, argument in the book.
C6: Parliament and the People
- “The princes of the house of Israel could not be rebuked for oppression in judgment (Mic. 3.1-3) if they had not the power of judgment” (95).
- Historical reductio: Did Parliament sin by not giving Charles I the tax legislation he wanted?
- The Parliament can resist the king, for it, too, his of God, even “a congregation of gods” (111, quoting Psalm 82.6).
C7: Is the King absolute?
- God does not give absolute power, because: (101ff)
- The king has his power from the people, as already established.
- The king is commonly known as a living law, but if he is a law then he is not absolute.
- Is the power to do evil from God?
- Depends on what kind of distinctions we make. If “power” means “approval from God,” then did David have the power to kill Uriah and deflower Bathsheba (103)?
- Obviously, that is not a positive power but a mere permission.
- In either case, the king doesn’t have absolute power.
- The power to work contrary to the Good cannot be a lawful power, since the king is a minister of God for Good.
- The prophets rebuked the kings of Israel; hence, the power was not absolute.
C8: The Goal of Civil Govt.
- God’s intention per civil govt is “external peace, and quiet life, and godliness of his church and people, and that all judges, according to their places, be nurse-fathers to the church (Isa. 40.23)” (105).
- Therefore, God must have appointed means to this end.
- The obstruction of Good and justice works contrary to this end.
C9: The Health of the People
- If the people are the cause of the king, then their own safety must be principally sought (119).
- What is the end or purpose of the king? The king isn’t the king simply so he can be the king. Therefore, the prelate’s argument is reduced thus:
- The king is a lame king unless given the power to waste and destroy.
- The king cannot be happy unless he has the power to lay waste the Lord’s inheritance.
C10: Royalty mediately
- The king has royalty mediately by the people’s free consent (123).
- Power is not an immediate inheritance from heaven but is always mediated in situations.
C11: Judges and the Laws
- If judges exist, then the king is not the sole interpreter of the law (137).
- Private subjects, Rutherford carefully argues, may not officially rise against the king. Estates, however, may (139).
- There is a distinction between the king in concreto and the king in abstracto (office of the king).
C13: Venerable authority
- The person of the king is not venerable in its authority.
- If the contrary hold true, then Manasseh did not shed innocent blood or engage in sorcery (150).
C14: Resistance and patient suffering are not contraries when considered as virtues (153ff).
- If resistance can fall under the virtue of self-preservation, then it is not an evil.
- Were the entire Parliament and city of London to lay down their arms and go meekly to their deaths at the hand of Irish rebels?
- In lighter situations, such as taxes and tribute, we may not use acts of re-offending.
- Did Paul meekly submit to the king of Damascus or did he engage in self-preservation and escape (159)?
C15: Self-Defense as Rational and Natural
- We must first engage in supplications.
- Flight is not always possible or natural, as in the case of the aged and infants.
- Rutherford makes an interesting assertion: “No man in the 3 kingdoms sought to harm the king’s person” (162). It does not seem that Rutherford would agree with Charles’ execution.
- Humorous reductio on the Irish rebel and natural law (165).
C16: More on Just War Theory and Defensive Wars (166ff)
- As the priests executed a ceremonial law on King Uzziah, so may the three estates of Scotland execute the moral law of God upon the king (171).
C17: But what about martyrs? (182ff)
- Can Christians defend themselves against murderers?