The idea of a Christian political order has enthralled many over the years, but it is not easily derived from Scripture without doing violence to the text. Since Constantine, the first Roman emperor to become a Christian, many rulers have claimed God’s favor, with some assent from the clergy. Yet throughout the Middle Ages the Church put limits on the power of kings and made sure that Christian kings followed laws and traditions, as well as God’s ordinances and justice. Popes and patriarchs claimed the right to crown and depose kings.
The Church’s power of persuasion eventually declined, and certain monarchic dynasties pulled medieval fiefdoms together into countries. Some people, such as Britain’s King James (VI of Scotland and later I of England), argued that the circumstances that led to a government such as his own were a sign of divine favor, implying a divine right to rule. In 1598, James published The True Law of Free Monarchies, a general treatise on the subject and a response to populist political theorists in Scotland. He also published Basilikon Doron (Greek for Royal Gift), a manual for his son on being a king.
“The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth, for kings are not only God's lieutenants upon earth and sit upon God's throne,” James expounded to the English Parliament in 1610. “Kings are also compared to fathers of families; for a king is truly parens patriae [Latin, parent of the country], the politic father of his people.”
In the Anglican and broader Protestant understanding, the divine right of kings of the 17th century is a political and religious doctrine of royal legitimacy. It asserts that a monarch answers to no earthly authority; his right to rule comes directly from the will of God. The king is not subject to the will of his people, the aristocracy, or any other group, including the Church, he governs. As we have seen, Martin Luther urged secular authorities to crush the Peasant Rebellion of 1525 based on his interpretation of Pauline writings.
In England, the idea was rejected by the Puritans and other nonconformists under Cromwell, who committed the then-shocking crime of regicide in 1640; however, Cromwell and his order were overthrown. The disconnect between the divine right of kings and the English way of life erupted in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Whig overthrow of James and permanent installation of Protestantism as the sole legal form of Christianity (Catholicism remained illegal until 1840), with limited rights for Nonconformists, notably set in motion in the 1689 Bill of Rights of the modern constitutional British monarchy, which gives the king or queen the right to reign but not rule.
A very different story can be told of developments across the English Channel, where Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704), a bishop and theologian, became court preacher to Louis XIV of France (1638-1715), also known as the Sun King (le Roi-Soleil), and notably tutor to his son.
Bossuet is the principal French Christian theorist of the divine right of kings, although monarchical absolutism in France can be traced to Cardinal Richelieu and the Sun King himself, whose well-known saying “L'état, c'est moi (I am the State)” is more accurately rendered “The interests of the state come first. When these have priority, one labors for one's own good. Advantages to the state redound to one's glory.”
The writings of Bossuet helped define monarchy in the 17th and 18th centuries, in his country and through much of Europe. He is most notable today for three classics he wrote as royal tutor: Traité de la connaissance de Dieu et de soi-même (Treatise on the Knowledge of God and Oneself—1677), followed by Discours sur l'histoire universelle (Discourse on Universal History—1679) and Politique tirée de l'Écriture Sainte (Politics Drawn from Holy Scripture—1679).
Like Luther, Bossuet got some of his ideas about authority from Paul, but at the heart of Bossuet’s theology is the notion that human history is under the protection of divine providence. This is a perfectly orthodox, biblically rooted Catholic doctrine found in St. Augustine’s City of God, which Bossuet updated in his Discourse on Universal History. It teaches that God preserves the universe. Despite evil arising from human misuse of free will, God continues to direct all things, even evil and sin itself, to the purpose for which the universe was created: that all should manifest the glory of God and reach full development and eternal happiness therein.
The book of Wisdom, for example, speaks of the world as a ship captained by God under a “fatherly Providence that brings her safe to port” (14:3). Similarly, in Matthew 6:25-34 we see Jesus admonishing his disciples, “Do not fret over your life, how to support it with food and drink; over your body, how to keep it clothed,” for “If God, then, so clothes the grasses of the field, which today live and will feed the oven tomorrow, will he not be much more ready to clothe you, men of little faith?”
Bossuet, however, got carried away and came to see Louis XIV’s France and Solomon’s Israel as equivalent moral and holy examples of national rule. His attitude is clear in his reference in a letter to “le roi, Jesus-Christ, et l'Eglise, Dieu en ces trois noms” (the king, Jesus Christ, and the Church, divine in these three names). In fact, he hoped in the future to see France ruled by a Christian philosopher on the throne, presumably his pupil. Louis’ son, however, died before his father and never occupied the throne. Still, Louis XIV became an absolute monarch who, with his successors, claimed to rule by divine right.
Monarchism as a heresy
The core of all heresy or heterodoxy, meaning teaching that is simply not in accord with the Christian faith yet claims to be, is that it takes elements of a teaching and distorts it, usually by aggrandizing its place. Luther turned elements of faith, such as the Bible and the divine gift of grace, and turned them into the unique and only (sola) core of all Christian belief.
The divine right of kings is embedded in contemporary strands of political thinking that still claim Christian support for authoritarian rule (including many a murderous dictator claiming to defend “Western Christian Civilization”), but a careful distinction will disabuse the reader of such a thought.
The Bible does not easily and glibly support monarchy, even though that was the predominant form of government when it was being composed. When the people ask Samuel for a king, the last of the biblical judges reminds them that God is the their only king, but the people want one of flesh and blood like those of their neighbors. This is Israel’s disloyalty, ultimately its ruin.
Similarly, Jesus famously sidestepped political issues of his day, such as paying taxes (Matthew 21:33-46; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:9-18), and refused to claim a territory (John 18: 33-37), while asserting that the rule (mistranslated “kingdom”) of God began with his ministry (Mark 1:15). The words “king” and “kingdom” are misused in worship (feast of and hymns about Christ the King) and in biblical translations where other terms are more accurate (David, for example, is anointed as a maschiah, or savior, and secondarily put in place as a monarch). The passages translated as praising kings and turning the rule of Christ into a “kingdom of God” are examples of Christian pandering to kings by clergy and not entirely accidental.
Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, however, provided grist for the mill for the likes of Luther and Bossuet in a well-known passage, 13:1-7. The passage begins with a seemingly unfettered endorsement of the state: “Every soul must be submissive to its lawful superiors; authority comes from God only, and all authorities that hold sway are of his ordinance.”
However, those who appeal to the passage pretend that it is the only and final word on the matter. In fact, while Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17; 1 Timothy 2:1-4; and Titus 3:1—all Pauline texts—present a positive view of the state, Matthew 4, Luke 4, 1 Corinthians 2:6-8, Ephesians 6:12 and Revelation 13 show government in more negative terms.
Romans is the source of much controversy in Christianity, mainly because it is one of Paul’s most complex writings, obviously written for people who lived in the sophisticated capital of the world at the time. Yet even in this government-positive Romans 13 passage Paul makes clear that the state serves God and has no intrinsic authority. There is no suggestion that Christians should obey state orders contrary to the gospel of love and peace.
Indeed, the history of the early Church shows that when Roman soldiers converted, the first thing they did was quit the army. Tertullian remarks, “shall a Christian serve in war? Nay, how shall a Christian serve even in peace?”
Drawing on Romans, Augustine narrowed the distance between faith and the state, although he was among the first major Christian thinkers to live in the peculiar circumstance of a government whose ruler proclaimed himself a Christian. In the late Middle Ages, with a longer experience of what the mix actually meant, Thomas Aquinas drew on Romans to allow the overthrow of a king to the point of regicide when the king was a usurper, but he forbade the overthrow by his subjects of any law-abiding king.
Christendom, or the earthly social culture of monarchical caste societies organized under the veneer of barely skin-deep faith, died a deserving death in 1914. That year, on Christmas, World War I soldiers from both sides were brought to stop their industrial-scale murder by the sound of carols. An informal truce broke out for miles along the front—a peace brought about by the faint echo of faith in nominally Christian Europe—which was ended swiftly by orders from both sides’ high commands.
Such a faith-inspired outbreak of peace was never to recur; within three years, the first overtly atheist European state was proclaimed.