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Question III: Whether Royal Power and Definite Forms of Government be From God?


This question concerns whether the particular form of government be from God.  Rutherford notes the argument of Bellarmine that God generally appointed the fact of some kind of government, but the precise form of that government be something wholly in human hands.

This issue ultimately touches upon the matter of divine sovereignty and the freedom of human will. Rutherford would hold a compatibilist position. Crudely stated, Human beings choose what they want, but they will choose exactly what God requires:

Proverbs 16:1 (ESV)

The plans of the heart belong to man,

but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord.


Proverbs 21:1 (ESV)

The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord;

he turns it wherever he will.


Acts 2:23 (ESV)

23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.


Rutherford first considers a number of scriptural passages which indicate God appoints rulers. He then summarizes and concludes:

So, if the king be a living law by office, and the law put in execution which God hath commanded, then, as the moral law is by divine institution, so must the officer of God be, who is custos et vindex legis divinæ, the keeper, preserver, and avenger of God’s law.

Samuel Rutherford, Lex, Rex, or the Law and the Prince (Edinburgh: R. Ogle, 1843), 4.

Rutherford then turns to an objection: If God appoints monarchs, then every other form of government must be “wrong.”  Rutherford rejects that position. First, the actual forms of government are not more less acceptable from a Christian perspective: God does not mandate that a country have a monarchy rather than a republic.

Second, even a king is subject to law:

and wherever God appointed a king he never appointed him absolute, and a sole independent angel, but joined always with him judges, who were no less to judge according to the law of God (2 Chron. 19:6,) than the king, Deut. 17:15. And in a moral obligation of judging righteously, the conscience of the monarch and the conscience of the inferior judges are equally under immediate subjection to the King of kings;

Samuel Rutherford, Lex, Rex, or the Law and the Prince (Edinburgh: R. Ogle, 1843), 5. Thus, “All three forms [of government] are from God” (5).

How then does a country choose a government? Don’t they choose independently of God?  No. The moral law of nature requires a government: without a government there will be anarchy and loss of life (consider how quickly anarchist movements develop some “council” to make decisions). Human beings simply will not long tolerate no government of any sort.

How then do they choose a particular form? Rutherford gives the analogy from one’s marital status:

so then, the aptitude and temper of every commonwealth to monarchy, rather than to democracy or aristocracy, is God’s warrant and nearest call to determine the wills and liberty of people to pitch upon a monarchy, hic et nunc, rather than any other form of government, though all the three be from God, even as single life and marriage are both the lawful ordinances of God, and the constitution and temper of the body is a calling to either of the two; nor are we to think that aristocracy and democracy are either unlawful ordinances, or men’s inventions, or that those societies which want monarchy do therefore live in sins (5)

It is in the nature of the particular country as which government it will choose – and God has sovereignty over the nature of the country, also