What is Political Sovereignty?
Samuel Rutherford (c. 1600 – 1661) was one of the foremost Scottish theologians and apologists for Presbyterianism in the seventeenth century, playing a major role in formulating the Westminster Standards at the Westminster Assembly. He is best known for his many devotional letters and Lex, Rex–his seminal work on political sovereignty.
17 Jun, 2016

Political sovereignty is not usually a widely and hotly debated topic. Yet the question of whether the EU undermines sovereignty dominates discussion. How do we define sovereignty and does it matter? We can get some help from past thinkers who have helped to shape our constitutional heritage.

Our ideas of political power and its limitations were significantly shaped by Reformed writers. Such principles helped the Covenanters to resist autocratic rule. They remain relevant today. Samuel Rutherford published a key statement of these principles in Lex, Rex (The Law and the King). This book is a hammer blow against state claims for absolute power.

It contained such a powerful argument that Charles II ordered it to be burnt by the hangman. Rutherford was charged with treason, dismissed from his post and placed under house arrest. He only escaped execution through being seriously ill. Rutherford said that “he would willingly die on the scaffold for that book with a good conscience.”  Why would he risk so much for a complex book about political government?

 

Political Sovereignty Flows From God

Sovereignty is the power of government by laws.  An important aspect of Rutherford’s book is that God is ultimately sovereign. “Sovereignty, and all power and virtue is in God infinitely”. True sovereignty belongs to God not man. “All civil power is immediately from God in its root”. Rutherford demonstrates this from Romans 13:1 “the powers that be are ordained of God” as well as Romans 13:5 and 1 Peter 2:13. Power must be exercised to the glory of God: “all in authority…are obliged to procure that their subjects lead a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty”.

 

Political Sovereignty Flows From God to the People

God has given this power of government (limited by His law) not to one or two but to the people as a whole “united in society”. “Though this power were principally given to the people, it is not so given to the people as if it were the people’s power, and not God’s, for it is God’s power”. The people may grant and withhold this authority to their rulers but it is limited by constitution and law not unlimited. Rulers are under the rule of law as much as anyone else.

The God-ward Aspect of Voting

 

Political Sovereignty Flows From God and the People to their Rulers

Sovereignty flows from God to the people and from them to their rulers. The people do not surrender their sovereignty to the ruler but rather delegate rule within the limits of the law and constitution. Thus, the ruler only holds power in trust for the people. They exercise it for a limited period of power and then return it to the people who exercise it once more. Rutherford argued: “It is false that the people do, or can by the law of nature, resign their whole liberty in the hand of the king. They cannot resign to others that which they have not in themselves”.  Another implication of this is that rulers cannot give away sovereignty since it is not their’s to give. It can never become the exclusive possession of those who govern.

This diverges starkly from the broadly secular tradition in Europe that shaped the Enlightenment. That tradition envisages every individual surrendering their sovereignty to the ruler. It can entail an almost blind obedience to the ruler. This reflected an historic over-emphasis in some parts of Europe on the “sovereignty” of the ruler.

Rutherford maintained that the “law has a supremacy of constitution above the king.” The constitution gives rulers their power: “therefore, he must be king by a politic[al] constitution and law; and so the law, in that consideration, is above the king…The king is under law…because there is no absolute power given him to do what he listeth, as man.”

if you give to a king a prerogative above a law, it is a power to do evil as well as good; but there is no lawful power to do evil

There is no Lawful Power to Do Evil

 

Political Sovereignty Must be Able to Flow Back to the People

Sovereignty can be reclaimed by the people since it has only ever been lent. Intrinsic to this notion is that the people must be able to withdraw this power by exercise of the vote. This is the normal method of the people exercising their sovereignty. There must be accountability.  This means an ability for the people to hold to account those who exercise power on their behalf.

it is their own power in the fountain; and if they give it for their own good, they have power to judge when it is used against themselves, and for their evil, and so power to limit and resist the power that they gave.

According to this view the idea of “pooling sovereignty” amongst sovereign nations is not lawful since it does not allow for full accountability. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Rutherford said that power is strong wine and men are easily drunk on it. If power is abused in this way the people should recover what belongs to them.

But if the king have royalty mediately, by the people’s free consent, from God, there is no reason but people give as much power, even by ounce weights, (for power is strong wine and a great mocker,) as they know a weak man’s head will bear, and no more. Power is not an immediate inheritance from heaven, but a birthright of the people borrowed from them; they may let it out for their good, and resume it when a man is drunk with it.

This means that the people must have their conscience rightly informed and exercised to judge the conduct of those to whom they lend power.

The people have a natural throne of policy in their conscience to give warning, and materially sentence against the king as a tyrant, and so by nature are to defend themselves.

No Power to Oppress

 

Conclusion

Rutherford laid down the true bounds of freedom within the rule of law.  He opposed the absolute rule of men with their arbitrary unaccountable decisions. We are still in need of these priceless principles. As Rutherford concluded the preface to his treatise: “Lord establish peace and truth”.

 

Find out more about Samuel Rutherford and read other articles featuring his work.

REFORMING YOURSELF

How Do I Know if I’m Putting Christ’s Interests First?

Half-committed Christians fail to seek Christ’s interests first and foremost. The Church suffers as a consequence. Here’s how to get our priorities straight.

The Questions We Ask When Others Leave the Faith

When we hear of others leaving the faith we may have many questions. But the most urgent questions concern ourselves and Jesus Christ. George Hutcheson explains what these are from Scripture.

What Does it Mean to Have a Fulfilling Life?

Everyone is pursuing fulfilment but what does that mean? James Fergusson identifies the necessary aspects of a fulfilling life as defined by God.

How Do I Know if My Repentance is Genuine?

James Durham explains the different ways we can be impacted by the sense of sin forgiven and hope of future mercy.

The Irreconcilable Instincts of the Human Heart

Politics makes for a poor functional saviour. James Fergusson gets to the heart of the war on sin.

Recovering True Empathy in a Fractured World

Empathy seems to be in serious decline today. James Fergusson shows how the apostle Paul highlights the need for true empathy.

How Far Should Reformation Go?

Reformation is not merely an event in the past; it is a present imperative.

How Does Faith Help Love?

This question matters a lot; especially if your love has grown colder. Faith works by love but how does love work by faith? To love God is to know and trust Him. How does deepening our faith influence the strength of love?

The Christian’s Spiritual Dress Code

There is something that should be worn by every Christian. It identifies them. We’re not talking about fashions and uniforms–the garment is humility. Are you wearing it?

Why Face-to-Face Communication is a Biblical Priority

Technology has had a negative effect on both the quality and quantity of face-to-face communication. But it’s more than a social problem, because the Bible gives considerable emphasis to face-to-face communication.

REFORMING YOUR FAMILY

Is There a False Religion in Your Home?

Covetousness rebranded itself. Consumerism has become a world view where choice and freedom are the absolutes. Some wisdom from James Fergusson exposes the idolatry.

Helping Your Child Not to Become an Atheist

“Do as I say, not as I do!” Not a good enough maxim for Christians parents, says James Fergusson.

A Family Day…of Worship

James Durham shows how the Lord’s Day provides a golden opportunity for parents to orient their family towards eternal realities.

What’s Missing from Your Home?

The most important interaction is increasingly missing from many Christian homes–interacting about spiritual things.

Are Evangelicals Redefining Marriage?

Biblical marriage is not fully intact amongst evangelicals just because they oppose same-sex marriage. A more subtle and less publicised redefinition of marriage is prevailing in society: where do we stand?

No to the Named Person Scheme But Yes to What?

Matthew Vogan explains the three positive values our society has lost to arrive at this extent of State interference.

How to Define Not Redefine Marriage

Marriage has been redefined–will it be redefined further. How do we know that group marriage is wrong?

REFORMING YOUR CHURCH

How Do I Know if I’m Putting Christ’s Interests First?

Half-committed Christians fail to seek Christ’s interests first and foremost. The Church suffers as a consequence. Here’s how to get our priorities straight.

The Questions We Ask When Others Leave the Faith

When we hear of others leaving the faith we may have many questions. But the most urgent questions concern ourselves and Jesus Christ. George Hutcheson explains what these are from Scripture.

Does Church Discipline Matter?

If it matters to Christ, shouldn’t that make us think?

The Headship of Christ in His Church in China

What we see in Chinese now is what we saw in Scotland then.

Ordinary Means of Extraordinary Grace

Christian growth? Church growth? The Westminster Standards offer a different perspective on what really works.

Christ’s Intercession Answers Your Fears About the Church

We have genuine, justified fears for the Church. What can we do? Our answer is in looking beyond confidence in our own activities to the activity that is taking place in heaven.

Confessionalism and a Flourishing Church

A full confession of faith invites Christians to explore and value the panorama of God’s truth and become mature in their understanding. A Confession helps the Church fulfil its commission to make spiritually mature disciples.

Uncovering the Secrets of Christ’s Kingdom

Christ’s kingdom is a spiritual Kingdom not of this world, so those who are of this world find it incomprehensible. Alexander Henderson explained the necessary duty to study the nature and search into the mysteries and secrets of this kingdom.

What Should We Do if God is Hiding His Face?

When God hides His face there is a lack of His presence and blessing in the life of the Church. Why would God do this? And if this is the case, is there anything we can do? Consider what Jame Renwick has to say.

What Do We Forget in Forgetting the Church’s History?

We forget vital things about God, His Church and His promises when we forget Church history. We need to make use of it to inform, encourage and steel ourselves for serving God in our own generation.