Saturday, December 08, 2007

A Classic Statement of the Theory of Divine Right

In the following excerpt from his third lecture on Unbelief and Revolution, Groen van Prinsterer demonstrates from Romans 13:1 that St.Paul possessed an understanding that authority bearers hold authority by divine right.

To distinguish my own opinions from GVP's, the reader should understand that while I consider all government to be grounded in God's own authority and to be granted by him as GVP does, I also believe that certain offices and institutions more perfectly represent the divine authority than others. For example, I believe manhood represents God's authority in a fuller sense than womanhood does. Also, kings represent this authority to a fuller degree than Presidents or CEO's of corporations. I hope the reader can see that this opinion does not necessarily entail denying legitimacy to these other offices and institutions.

GVP's statement is here presented to supplement my own argument that OT kingship and priesthood derived from Adam's headship and NT kingship and priesthood derive from Christ's own royal priesthood. The heritage possessed by the Church universal is both royal and sacerdotal, and the inheritance of every baptized man is that he is a priestly-king and every baptized woman that she is a priestly-queen. This is a very high truth and my desire is to joyfully emrace it. But, this Doctrine of the royal-priesthood of all believers should not be construed in such a way as to deny that various members of Christ's body participate in Christ's authority in special ways to different degrees.

The numbers within {...} represent page numbers from the Van Dyke edition of GVP's work.
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{50} What, then, is the meaning of divine right?

Although we could also appeal to classical antiquity, the simple and plain answer is found in Scripture: "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God."[1]

All power is ordained of God. {51} It is not permissible, whenever something seems too strong to us, to water it down by means of some insipid interpretation that conforms to what we consider acceptable. Therefore, we may in no wise try to evade the intention of these words, for example by pointing to the care of Providence which brings forth good out of the evil that it tolerates. The powers that be are not just tolerated. They are willed, instituted, sanctified by God himself. This is the only plausible meaning of ordained.

We must be equally on our guard against a distortion of Scripture invited by miscomprehension or inspired by base design. All power must be understood as referring to every kind of legitimate power, in the sound sense demanded in the context by the reminder of God's righteousness and holiness. Power here is not synonymous with might or force. To be sure, I realize that when Paul wrote this, Nero was in power; I also admit that the Christian is not always called to enter into disputes concerning the legitimacy of existing powers; and I am quite willing to allow that the expression "also to the froward,"[2] used in connection with masters over slaves, also applies, by analogy, to the injustices of civil authorities. Nevertheless, I will not subscribe to any interpretation that would oblige us to be obedient to the villain who holds a dagger under our nose, or to hail today as a power ordained of God the crowned robber who yesterday banished our legitimate prince.[3]

Furthermore, {52} it is plain that the nature of the submission required of us depends upon the nature of the power granted by God. In The Hague I am not obliged to submit to the type of authority that is lawfully exercised in Constantinople or St. Petersburg. Similarly, as a Netherlander I am not entitled to the liberties and privileges enjoyed by the subjects and citizens of London or Paris.

Every kind of lawful power. Divine right is not the trademark of Monarchy. It applies to all forms of government. Thus, whatever we might want to hold against John de Witt and his fellow oligarchs, we would not fault them for their strenuous efforts, given their insistence on the sovereignty of the States of Holland, to defend their authority in that Republic by appealing to the divine origin of their rights to sovereignty.

All power is of God. A civil power is God’s lieutenant and God’s minister. In this duality of the relation (its twofold direction, upwards and downwards) lies the whole theory of divine right. We are to obey the higher power for the Lord’s sake; he is to be obedient to God. "For he is the minister of God to thee for good," writes the apostle.[4] The supreme power {53} is a gift of God which must be employed in His service, for the benefit of others, and to His honor.

But (someone will object) this is true of any gift of God. To be a lieutenant, minister, and steward of God is the calling of everybody, each in his own sphere. In every rank, in every relation, man has been given a talent, which is at his free disposal: on the understanding that God will call him to account concerning its use. A sovereign bears God's image on earth, but—thus runs the objection—so does a father with respect to his child, and a judge with respect to the accused. In fact, so does the possessor of any goods and talents whatsoever, since each talent is a gift and every possession is a loan. All men, therefore, are to walk in the Name and after the commandment of God in the good works which He has ordained for us.[5] The principle is the same for all, in the rights it confers, in the duties it imposes, and in the norm it implies. To what, then, are we to ascribe the strange and extraordinary position that is always so pompously granted to government?

I welcome this objection. I agree with everything said. For it seems to me that the very simplicity of the case reveals its incontestability. So far from being peculiar or extraordinary, divine right is but the most natural application of a universal truth. The objection raises the very point that has been such a fatal source of misunderstanding: those who appealed to divine right from self-interest considered it an exceptional right, those who opposed it out of resentment regarded it as an odious privilege. Away with this arbitrary restriction! The truth that a violation of rights is a violation of the divine right holds for no one or it holds for all. All have an interest in its observance. It gives stability to the entire structure of society. The promise, "War to the castles, peace to the huts," is deceitful, for the same reasoning which demolishes the palace of the prince will not spare the counting-house of the merchant {54} or the humble roof of the peasant or the lowly hut of a day-laborer. By contrast, the doctrine of divine right protects both the throne and the property of the least of its subjects.

Viewed in this light, the ancient institution of anointing kings and the use of the formula Sovereign by the grace of God need give no offence. The ceremony of anointment, to be sure, was but a foolish superstition if some mysterious power was ascribed to it without any sincere invocation of God’s name; and it was a cunning trick if its purpose was to place the clergy above the king, or the king above the law. But it was anything but an empty show if done in accordance with its original purpose: namely, to have the people acknowledge their Sovereign as an agent and ambassador of the Most High; to remind the prince of his need for divine assistance; to teach him to realize his own unworthiness and to ask for a wise and understanding heart;[6] to add solemnity to his vow to uphold the laws of charity and justice; to add power to the pledges made on this occasion. In the same way the title “Sovereign by the grace of God” {55} admonished a ruler to show his gratitude for the gift received by grace by performing his duty with humility. As such, the formula sums up the whole theory of divine right.

1. [Rom. 13:1]
2. [I Peter 2:18]
3. Cf. Otto von Gerlach, Das Neue Testament, nach Luthers Uebersetzung, mit erklärenden Anmerkungen (Berlin, 1840).
4. [Rom. 13:4]
5. [Cf. Micah 4:5; Eph. 2:10]
6. [Cf. I Kings 3:8-12]

Groen van Prinsterer, Unbelief and revolution: A series of Lectures in History, Abridged and translated by Harry Van Dyke © 1989, 2000 (Jordan Station, ON: Wedge) pp. 50-55.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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