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Lex Rex

Lex Rex is a work of Samuel Rutherford, the Scotch Presbyterian (1600-1661) who lived through the political and religious turmoil of 17 Century Britain.

In 1643, Rutherford was appointed as a delegate to the Westminster Assembly. At this time, Rutherford wrote the instant rejoinder to the work of a man named Maxwell:

About this time, he wrote his celebrated work entitled Lex Rex, in answer to a treatise by John Maxwell, the excommunicated Bishop of Ross, entitled “Sacro-Sancta Regum Majestas, or the sacred and royal prerogative of Christian kings, wherein soveraigntie is, by Holy Scripture, reverend antiquitie, and sound reason asserted,” 4to., Oxford, 1644. This work endeavours to prove, that the royal prerogative of kingly authority is derived alone from God; and it demands an absolute and passive obedience of the subject to the will of the sovereign. The arguments in Lex Rex completely refute all the wild and absurd notions which Maxwell’s work contains, although some of the sentiments would be thought rather democratical in modern times.

Samuel Rutherford, Lex, Rex, or the Law and the Prince (Edinburgh: R. Ogle, 1843), xviii–xix.

Not surprisingly, after the restoration of the monarchy, Rutherford’s work was seen as seditious. He was ordered to appear to answer for the charge of high treason:

His work, Lex, Rex, was considered by the government as “inveighing against monarchie and laying ground for rebellion;” and ordered to be burned by the hand of the common hangman at Edinburgh. It met with similar treatment at St Andrews, and also at London; and a proclamation was issued, that every person in possession of a copy, who did not deliver it up to the king’s solicitor, should be treated as an enemy to the government. Rutherford himself was deprived of his offices both in the University and the Church, and his stipend confiscated; he was ordered to confine himself within his own house, and was summoned to appear before the Parliament at Edinburgh, to answer a charge of high treason. It may be easily imagined what his fate would have been had he lived to obey the mandate; but ere the time arrived he was summoned to a far higher than an earthly tribunal. Not having a strong constitution, and being possessed of an active mind, he had evidently overworked himself in the share he took in the struggles and controversies of the time. Although not an old man, his health had been gradually declining for several years. His approaching dissolution he viewed with Christian calmness and fortitude. A few weeks before his death, he gave ample evidence of his faith and hope in the Gospel, by the Testimony which he left behind him.* On his death-bed he was cheered by the consolations of several Christian friends, and on the 20th of March 1661, in the sixty-first year of his age, he breathed his last, in the full assurance and hope of eternal life. His last words were, “Glory, glory, dwelleth in Emmanuel’s land.”

Samuel Rutherford, Lex, Rex, or the Law and the Prince (Edinburgh: R. Ogle, 1843), xix.

The work itself is long, complex, contains numerous (now) obscure allusions, filled with Latin and Greek (at times both in the same clause, “a κατὰ τιad illud quod est dictumἀπλῶς”); and written it is in 17th century English by a man from Scotland. In short, the book does not make for an easy read. Therefore, I will endeavor to summarize the conclusions of his argument to make the matter plain for myself and perhaps be of use to others.

The work is structured as a catechism, question and answer – which was a form of teaching common at the time. Rutherford asks a question and then divides the proposition into smaller parts and examines those elements (and so on)?[1]

Question 1: Whether Government be Warranted by a Divine Law

Answer: Yes. Rutherford gives two reasons.

First, Scripture states that government (although not a specific form of government) is stated to derive from God (Rom. 13:1). Rutherford also bases this upon the inference drawn from the proposition that Christians are commanded to be in subjection to government (Romans 13:5; 1 Peter 2:13).

Second, since peace is an obvious appropriate end of human life (he derives this without reference from God and from “nature”), the ability to achieve that end must be also appropriate.

Question 2: Whether Government be Warranted by the Law of Nature

Nothing in nature gives one man the right of rule over another:

The law saith there is no law of nature agreeing to all living creatures for superiority; for by no reason in nature hath a boar dominion over a boar, a lion over a lion, a dragon over a dragon, a bull over a bull: and if all men be born equally free, as I hope to prove, there is no reason in nature why one man should be king and lord over another;

Samuel Rutherford, Lex, Rex, or the Law and the Prince (Edinburgh: R. Ogle, 1843), 2. In so writing, Rutherford strikes at the argument that X has the right of rule over Y due to some inherent superiority of X over Y.

However, that does not mean that government is necessary at odds with that freedom.  Thus, while nature does not give the power of one human to rule another, yet government may rightly exist as something which has its warrant in God’s grant:

Therefore I see not but Govarruvias, Soto, and Suarez, have rightly said, that power of government is immediately from God, and this or that definite power is mediately from God, proceeding from God by the mediation of the consent of a community, which resigneth their power to one or more rulers;

Samuel Rutherford, Lex, Rex, or the Law and the Prince (Edinburgh: R. Ogle, 1843), 3.  (Incidentally, one can see from the references in the above-quotation, that Rutherford considered and argued with a great many political thinkers.