Covenants in Scripture

God’s dealings with men in all matters are always expressed in terms of a covenant or compact. Such a covenant is an agreement between God and a chosen group, but is always one initiated by God. Covenants are, of course, also made between men and other men. The root idea of a covenant is to bind together or to obligate the parties involved. There are numerous examples in the Scriptures of such covenants. A covenant will as a rule contain the following elements.

1. A promise - a reward from God to man
2. A condition - obedience to the will of God or faith in Him.
3. A penalty - for violation of the terms of the compact.

It is in the nature of a covenant that there be two or more parties whether this is solely between men or between men and God. Sometimes this covenant is expressly stated as being a covenant. At other times there exist all the salient elements of a covenant whereby it is then implied. There are many such covenants in Scripture. The covenant God made with Adam is implied in Genesis 2, but nonetheless for that still quite clear. The covenant with Noah is explicitly stated. Both covenants extend to the posterity of both men.

In the covenant with Adam: the promise given was that of life; the condition was perfect obedience; and the penalty was death. Everything said to Adam by God had reference as much to his posterity as to him. This is clear from the fact that the penalty also fell on all who followed him: Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.  ... by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation.” (Romans 5:12) With reference to the covenant with Noah we read that it was: a covenant between me and the earth. ... between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. ... that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth. (Genesis 9:13, 15-16)

The plan of salvation is expressed in Scripture in the terms of a covenant and is described as such. A distinction is to be made between the implicit covenant of redemption and the explicit covenant of grace. The covenant of redemption was made between the Father and the Son and entered into in eternity. In the same way that all ‛in Adam’ are included in that first covenant, so those ‛in Christ’ are included in the covenant of redemption so that Christ would receive by promise from the Father all who are to be saved. The comparison made by the apostle Paul between Adam and Jesus Christ is evidence enough of such a covenant. “Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” (Romans 5:18-19) Where one person assigns to another a specific task with the promise of a reward on completion, there exists a covenant. Clearly, this was true in relation to the Father and the Son. Jesus could thus pray to His Father: “I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do.(John 17:4) Our salvation results from a genuine transaction between Father and Son to execute a particular work, to fulfil a preconceived plan with the promise of a reward on its accomplishment.

The covenant of grace issues forth from the accomplishment of that which Christ was covenanted to perform. Salvation is offered to all men on the condition of the covenant of grace, namely faith in Christ. It is a covenant made with all men. Yet this covenant rests in the certainty of what Christ has accomplished for His posterity, namely, for those who would believe in Him and have been given to the Son by the Father in fulfilment of the covenant promise between them. “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. (John 6:37)  The promises of this covenant are given solely to those to whom God has promised to give the Spirit that they might believe. The greatest sin therefore must be to hear the Gospel of God’s grace and refuse to believe, placing themselves outside the covenant of grace, thereby forfeiting all hope of eternal life.

It being so that God always deals with men under the terms of a covenant, there will also be a covenant or compact when we come to consider civil government and the ordering of things on earth. Just government, therefore, will also be founded on a covenant and we find this implicitly in Scripture, containing all the essential elements of a covenant. A three-way covenant exists between individuals in the presence of God and under His laws in which it is the duty of the government to act and enforce conformity to God’s revealed Word. This covenant exists and is valid regardless of its acceptance or refusal. Like all God’s covenants with men they are initiated by Him and obliges all men without exception.

It is a mistake to view the thousand years of the medieval period as  ‛dark ages’. Rather, its view of God, man and government was an clear improvement on the previous pagan order.  Previously, nature was something to be feared, to be appeased by magic. Warring gods ruled the forces of nature and were to be placated, magically propitiated and manipulated through the intermediary offices of a divinized ruler or polis in possession of esoteric knowledge. This was now largely gone, replaced by a more Scriptural understanding of God as Creator and Sovereign of the universe. Scripture as the Word of God removed the divine from the State to God Himself. Now kings and rulers were subject to the higher rule of God’s law and this law was accessible and knowable. The validity of the covenant in medieval times was central and shaped the institutions of the West. The idea of a higher law dominated politics. Any biblical doctrine of the Covenant must imply a higher law to which all men are obligated, the violation of which brings punishment.

The Huguenot document of 1579, Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, stressed the duty of all men to obey the law of God. It went on to argue that should rulers command the contrary, it becomes the duty of the people under the leadership of magistrates to oppose such a king in order to uphold God’s law. The law of God applies to all men in the first instance because He is the Sovereign Creator of all things. It applies to all men without exception and that whether rich or poor, believer or unbeliever. All men are required to keep God’s law despite that fact that all have broken it and stand before Him as guilty sinners. All men are equal before the law because they are God’s creatures and because they are sinners. No one is above God, no one is above His law and are sinners having transgressed the law. All stand accused. “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one ...  For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:10 & 23). No one can say they will disregard God's law because they are not religious or do not believe in Him.

In a Christian commonwealth, such as that envisaged by the English Puritans and the early settlers in North America, God’s government is founded upon and established by law as must be all human governments. Civil government is seen as being of divine origin for the good of people in the midst of original sin. It will have the good of the people at its heart or lose God’s sanction. Rulers are limited by the fundamental constitution of God’s law. Here a just government is one founded on a compact between rulers and people under divine law. Any act that is contrary to this compact is illegal and therefore null and void. No one is bound to obey such an illegal act, so that there exists the right to resist encroachments on one’s right to life, liberty and the fruit of one’s labours. Much of this is found also in the Magna Charta, not a particularly well-liked document these days. There should be honour and obedience to good rulers on the grounds of the compact or covenant and spirited opposition to bad ones. In this latter case he who resists someone in authority who has violated fundamental law, God's Law, is not a rebel but a protector and upholder of the law. Not without reason, Oliver Cromwell was Lord Protector and declined all offers of a crown. Rulers themselves live under the law and their powers are not absolute but limited by it. It is totally unjustified to assert a supposed right to absolute rule. In the English Revolution and also the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the validity of absolute power was denied.


The Secularisation of the Christian Covenant

The biblical doctrine of total depravity, of original sin, found a  parallel within the secular doctrine of the ‛social contract’ in the writings particularly of Thomas Hobbes (1588--1679), but also to some extent in John Locke (1632-1704) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). The pure Christian teaching was diluted because the classical tradition of ‛natural right’ was added. It was understood that there were universal norms found in God’s revealed will, which could be known by the study of Scripture. Gone were the abstract universals of classical thinking that were freely accessible to autonomous reason. Natural law was always thought to be part of the human constitution, but now it was made available and credible by the sovereign God of Scripture. This combined classical and Christian understanding and produced the Renaissance and Enlightenment theory of natural rights. Property rights, for example, were inviolable and beyond the interference of kings and rulers. Much later, in the United States teaching on natural rights was influenced by the writings of English Puritans and the Glorious Revolution but also the writings of John Locke, who wrote in a secular vein despite his Puritan background.

The classical tradition of natural rights was given a Christian tone by emphasizing universal legal norms produced by God’s will, yet knowable from Scripture rather than being the abstract universals knowable only by the autonomous rationality of classical thought. Natural law had always presupposed a God who had designed its laws into the constitution of man’s being. However, it was the sovereign God making these moral laws and not as the unknown god of the Greeks. Hobbes first of all, then Locke, tried to supplant the earlier idea of Covenant with a replacement secularised social contract.

The classical liberalism of John Locke attempted to combine the ideas of the Reformation and the Renaissance, even although in reality they were quite incompatible From the Reformation he took:

  • the absolute worth of human personality
  • a higher, rationally knowable, divinely given law
  • society as a compact under God based on higher law and culturally prevalent Christian morality.

From the Renaissance he took:

  • the autonomy of the human mind in the newly revived dictum of Potagoras: ‛man the measure of all things’
  • the outlook of new science; society composed of atomistic individuals living together under laws not revealed, but made; obeyed not because they are inherent justice, but as a result of the force and coercion behind them.

The Christian faith was therefore first reduced to a rationalistic religion and then it was attacked as irrational. By the beginning of the 19th century utilitarianism had proclaimed the unknowable hedonistic principle of the ‛greatest good for the greatest number’. Later, Pragmatism and historicism taught endless change as fundamental and reinforced by Darwinian evolutionary speculation. Finally, positivism proclaimed nihilistic facts-values dualism. All traces of Christian morality and assumptions were removed in thoroughly relativistic and collectivistic 20th century liberalism.

Secular forms of the social covenant, compact, contract, postulate an original ‛natural state’ in which all individuals are free and equal and at the same time remain individuals. Thomas Hobbes used the theory of the ‛social contract’ to explain society and the various individual obligations involved. This compromise or contract, called a ‛covenant’ by Hobbes, is an agreement among people to live by a certain set of rules or ‛conventions’ we now call the ‛laws of society’. Hobbes and others believed that the original contract would in the end justify the abandonment of all freedom of personality. The social contract for him is not orientated to personality, but to the domination of the laws of mathematical science. By contrast, Locke formulated inalienable human rights in opposition to the absolutist doctrines of Hobbes. Locke was a genuine Enlightenment figure. He held fast to an optimistic view in which mathematics provided the best guarantee of the freedom of personality.

Thomas Hobbes preferred the evils of absolute power to those of a chaotic society. We must see his assertions against the background of the English Civil War when Hobbes fled to the Continent. He did not want to live in a country lacking a powerful sovereign and he felt in constant danger of assassination. He returned to England, but in 1662 was ordered to stop all publishing on social and political matters or end up in gaol. He believed the only way to keep one’s life, property, or family safe is to compel people to obey the laws of society or be punished. Abuses of power are to be preferred above chaos. According to Hobbes this can only work when there exists an all-powerful sovereign with authority to enforce the law. The reason for this is that a group of rulers would bring about conflict among themselves. There would be a divided power of enforcement. A single monarch cannot be divided against himself and enjoys the ‛leak free’ secrecy of counsel.

Without this kind of social contract, says Hobbes, chaos would ensue because essentially all men are by nature selfish and egoistic. Hobbes’ statement is well-known, that man’s life in a state of nature is ‛solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. To survive the conflicts of the state of nature he must effectively abandon all egotistical impulses. Therefore, society is a compromise entered into by the population for the sake of peace and is essential to survival. Chaos and conflict would follow were there no such laws. Hobbes believed the law to be only of use when enforced and this can only be the case where there is absolute power. Otherwise, conflict becomes impossible to avoid.

Even under Hobbes’ social contract, the subject has certain ‛liberties’ or things he may refuse to carry out when commanded by a monarch. Despite the sovereignty created by the covenant or contract, a subject retains all those natural rights which cannot be transferred by covenant.

  • obedience cannot be demanded where one’s own life is in danger
  • the subject is not bound to testify against himself in a criminal action
  • military service may be refused where the sovereign’s purpose is not the maintenance of peace, but the subject may not refuse to defend the country.

Liberty does not include the defence of anyone seeking to overthrow the sovereign. Rebellion of this kind in always unwarranted. The protection of a criminal from officers of the law is also unjust. There is liberty to defend lives from threats by the sovereign and the sovereign can be sued. All obligations to the sovereign last only for as long as the sovereign is able to protect. The whole point of obedience in the end is protection. No subject is permitted to make a new covenant or to rebel against the monarch as long as he can protect him.

Hobbes thought that no breach of the covenant was possible by the sovereign himself as he has made no contract with his subjects. They have agreed among themselves to abide by certain laws and have appointed the sovereign as an agency to enforce those laws. There is one appointed sovereign holding absolute power and any dissenting minority must acquiesce or suffer the consequences. It is not possible for the sovereign to act unjustly towards anyone. The sovereign makes the law, so that what he does will be the law. He is in control of all opinions and decide what will cause chaos or conflict and what will bring peace. He makes all the civil laws and adjudicates disagreements involving the law.

It is John Locke who can said to be the theoretical architect of our modern form of democracy.  His work the Second Treatise on Civil Government was especially influential to both the founders of the American and French republics. Evidence of Locke is found in the wording of the American Constitution and also the Declaration of Independence. Both documents are full of expressions taken directly from John Locke.

  • “All men are created equal...”
  • “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness...”
  • “We hold these to be truths to be self-evident...”

Locke was involved in intrigue against the King of England and was forced to flee on two occasions, in 1675 and again in 1679.  He opposed most vehemently the views of Thomas Hobbes.

Locke begins with the origins of government and a ‛social contract’ just as Hobbes does. In order to provide an answer to Hobbes, he distinguishes between life in a ‛state of nature’ and life in a ‛state of war’. Life in a state of nature is to a large degree peaceful. Men own private property, land, private possessions, sheep and cattle, and can dispose of property at will. Men by nature are not wholly selfish; they co-operate and often work together for the benefit of each other. Nevertheless, from time to time they will behave egotistically.

The only law governing men is said to be the ‛law of nature’. This can be summarised by saying that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions”. Men will from time to time transgress the law of nature; they may attempt to kill or steal. When this happens the injured person has the right to punish the wrongdoer. There is no real reason for men to leave the state of nature and form societies, except for difficulties arising in punishing those who offend the law. There are three main basic difficulties arising from this supposed state of affairs:

  • each man in the state of nature is his own judge as to what is right and wrong. This can, of course, be biased. Who then decides who is right and who is wrong?
  • even when it is clear that the law has been violated, many have not sufficient force to punish the wrongdoer.
  • the degree of punishment may vary between different groups of individuals.

To overcome these problems men require:

  • a judiciary that will administer the law impartially.
  • an executive that can enforce the law when broken.
  • a legislature to lay down consistent and uniform laws.

Society therefore comes about as attempts are made to develop institutions that will remedy these defects. The community will decide among themselves precisely what the nature of these institutions are to be.

A state of war is a completely different scenario and exists when one person or group of persons seeks absolute power over all the others. There is no ‛common judge’, just a struggle for survival. Hobbes’ mistake, so Locke, was to confuse the two states. In the state of war, persons create this situation between themselves and those whom they seek to dominate. Opposition in this case is not simply justified, but required. According to Locke, the monarch by seeking absolute domination over citizenry has established a state of war between them.

In John Locke we find some of the most basic elements of democratic theory:

  • the law not force is the basis of government.
  • government without law is tyrannical.

It is the characteristic of monarchy, particularly that envisaged by Hobbes, to rule by decree. Even though there may be no previous law, a monarch may fabricate one at will and imprison anyone he does not like. Such a government rules by caprice and society is rendered unstable. Democracy on the other hand is government by laws arrived at by long deliberation by properly chosen representatives of the people and published so that everyone knows them.

There are some areas of life that are immune from government interference, these are called ‛rights’ by Locke. From this came the Bill of Rights in the American Constitution. The Bill of Rights maintains the government is powerless to limit certain conduct, e.g. the freedom to speak or worship as one pleases. The main right found in Locke is the right to own property. No government can justly confiscate property because private property is largely the fruit of one’s labour. In Locke the term ‛property’ is used to refer to a man’s life and liberty as well as property. Confiscation of property is therefore equally an attack on the physical person. Hobbes and Rousseau strongly disagree with each other. Property, they held to be a creation of society. Hobbes maintained that before society exists there can be no ‛thine or mine’. No one has any right to anything, save for that which he can hold on to by force. This is rejected by Locke. He had a profound influence on the Bill of Rights and established the democratic belief that ‛all men are created equal by nature’.

Locke believed all men to be equal in the sense that they have rights which are anterior to those given them by society. Since they are not given them by society, then equally they cannot be taken from them by society. Today it is clearly understood that everyone is to be treated equally before the law and ‛due process’ is the application of it.

The most important element in Locke’s theory is that society is created to eliminate the defects of the state of nature. On leaving the state of nature the power of punishment is relinquished to an executive whom the people appoint. Locke emphasises that the executive is appointed by the people and therefore responsible to them. In summary, he believes that the purpose of government is to make laws for the regulation and preservation of property, for the defence of the community against external aggression, and all this only for the public good.

If the government violates our trust by attempting to usurp our rightful authority, we can dismiss it. Ultimately, the source of authority lies with people who appoint the government. The powers are delegated not relinquished. Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address is in parts almost a paraphrase from Locke’s Second Treatise.
“A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does, of necessity, fly to anarchy or despotism. Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.”

In 1750 a question was posed by the Academy of Dijon and a prize offered for the best response. Jean-Jacques Rousseau submitted “Discours sur les sciences et les arts”. He shot to fame. His offering was a passionate attack on humanistic civilisation which had been dominated by the science ideal and trampled on the rights of human personality to a natural development. From the outset the humanistic ideal of science had implied a fundamental problem between scientific thought and autonomous freedom and the value of human personality. Rousseau found an antinomy between these two polar motives of human thought. He did not eschew the consequences of disavowing the science ideal in order to make possible the recognition of human personality as a moral aim in itself.

In Rousseau, the free individual remains the central point of the civil state. Locke construed the transition from the natural to the civil state by means of  social contract. Citizens had already possessed their inalienable rights of freedom and property in the natural state, but needed the social contract to guarantee them by an organised power. This was the sole purpose of the social contract as far as Locke was concerned, namely the continuation of the natural state under the protection of an authority, the maintenance of innate human rights of the individual.

By contrast, Rousseau broke with this older form of liberalism. He did not consider the natural state of freedom and equality to be the highest ideal in and of itself. This state of affairs has gone forever. Man is called to a much higher destiny within the civil state. Only in the civil state can the sovereign freedom of the individual be elevated in its true value. The innate natural rights of men must be transformed into the inalienable rights of the citizens. It is by means of the social contract, says Rousseau, that the individual surrenders all of his natural freedom to receive it back again in the higher form of the freedom of the citizen.

Rousseau rejects the subjection of personality to mathematical thought. He says: “To  renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights of humanity and even its duties ... These words slavery and right contradict each other, and are mutually exclusive” (The Social Contract, Book I; Chapter IV). Freedom, like equality, is a inalienable human right that is to be abandoned in its natural form only to be regained in its higher form of citizenship. In Rousseau, transition from the natural state to the civil state must guarantee the sovereign freedom of personality in the only legitimate form of association. This was in opposition to earlier humanistic theories of natural law. Personality here achieves supremacy over the ideal of science. “The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain free as before” (loc. cit).

The problem is therefore to be solved through the ‛social contract’. To be valid such a contract must contain the precise words that each individual delivers himself with all his natural rights to all collectively and thus through becoming subject to the whole by his participation in the ‛general will’ receives again all his natural rights in a higher juridical form. “For, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others” (loc. cit).

According to Rousseau, the inalienable right of freedom maintains itself in the sovereignty of the people which can never be transferred to a magistrate. The sovereign will of the people is the general will which expresses itself in legislation. This must be sharply distinguished from the ‛volonté de tous’. Volonté générale is directed exclusively towards the general interest which is incompatible with the existence of private associations between the State and the individual because they foster particularism. Public law is formed by the general will and does not recognise any counter-poise in private spheres of association. The ‛social contract’ is the only juridical basis for all the rights of citizens. So the construction of the general will becomes the lever of an unbridled absolutism of the legislator.

“As nature gives each man absolute power over all his members, the social compact gives the body politic absolute power over all its members also; and it is this power which, under the direction of the general will, bears, as I have said, the name of sovereignty” (ibid Book II; Chapter IV).

Rousseau recognises the inner tension between volonté générale and the individual freedom of personality. “But, besides the public person, we have to consider the private persons composing it, whose life and liberty are naturally independent of it. We are bound then to distinguish clearly between the respective rights of the citizens and the sovereign, and between the duties of the former have to fulfil as subjects, and the natural rights they enjoy as men” (loc. cit.).

For Rousseau it is beyond dispute that in the social contract every individual transfers to the State only as much of his natural power, possessions, and freedom as is required for the ‛common good’ of the community. The ‛common good’ and also ‛general will’ do not recognise individuals, only the whole. In his democratic revolutionary political philosophy, nevertheless, Rousseau did not abandon altogether the mathematical pattern of thought. He sought to maintain the natural rights of human personality in the face of the despotism of Hobbes’ Leviathan.

Rousseau distinguishes between ‛volonté générale’ and the ‛volonté de tous’ as the former can only be directed towards the common good.
“There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will; the latter considers only the common interest, while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills; but take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel one another, and the general will remains as the sum of the differences. ” (loc. cit.)

With reference to the general will:
“Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole” (ibid, Book I; Chapter VI).
Personal freedom is absorbed by the principle of majority.
“...whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free” (ibid, Book I; Chapter VII).

The State Leviathan is construed in Hobbes, but does not disappear in Rousseau and this despite the picture of Leviathan with its head cut off in the frontispiece of the first edition of The Social Contract. The State still operates in accordance with the mathematical ideal of science, respecting no limits, devouring free personality in every sphere of life. The idea of the ‛volonté générale’ is meant in a normative sense. In it personality was to regain its natural autonomous freedom in a higher form construed by mathematical thought. Its introduction implied the absorption of free personality into a despotic construction issued from the condemned ideal of science.

Rousseau had outgrown the spirit of the Enlightenment. The accent of his philosophy shifted to ideal of personality. The latter can no longer be identified with mathematical thought. Feeling became the true seat of the humanistic ideal of personality which had been robbed of its vitality by the science ideal. He continually pleads to return into ourselves, that freed from the burden of science we may learn true virtues from the principles inscribed in the heart of everyone. He re-awakened the ideal of personality calling humanistic thought to self-reflection on the religious motive of freedom and autarchy of personality which called science into being in the first place.


Resisting and Ousting Tyrannical and Failed Rulers and Governments

We now need to ask if we can rightfully resist and remove governments by some means, rulers who bring ruin to the nation. If so, by whom, and how far is it right? If we look into the Christian Scriptures by way of example, we find two covenants are involved: one covenant exists between God and the ruler; another one between God and the people. God holds each party to account both for what they do. It is in a real sense a three-way covenant, if one breaks the covenant, God can demand satisfaction from the other. Should any of the people default, then the ruler is called upon to execute punishment. Who may punish the godless ruler for not keeping his side of the bargain? The answer must be the people. This must be the case,  particularly when they are obstructed from obeying God.

We are given the example of Elijah in Scripture. King Ahab kills the prophets of God and so Elijah calls the people together. Elijah requires that they immediately stop worshipping Baal and that the priests of Baal be put to death. What the king neglected to do, the people should now do, not by mob violence but by the execution of justice. So many times in Israel the people refused to oppose a king who was out to overthrow the service of God. The King can be punished, but so too can the people for their failure to act against him. It follows that a people who fail to act, or support their ruler in his crime make themselves guilty of the same misdemeanour and should bear like punishment as the rulers.

When speaking of ‘the people’ it is understood that we mean those who stand for the people, e.g. the magistrates below the ruler, a tribunal authority that can restrain the encroachments of sovereignty and represent the people. In Israel there were seventy, six from each tribe with the high priest as president. There is an equivalent today with judges, provosts and similar. If the ruler uses his lieutenants to force us into idolatry, force us to do wrong, shall we not work to depose him? Of course we must do so, lest we make ourselves equally guilty.

All Israel’s kings received the Law of God. Two covenants were recognised, between God and the king and people; but also between the king and the people. The people ask the king whether he will govern the nation justly and according to God’s Law. He promises he will. Then the people answer, and not before, that as long as he governs uprightly, they will obey faithfully. The king promises simply, absolutely and unconditionally. The people promise conditionally. If the king fails the people they are relieved of their promise. Similarly, as we agree to be law-abiding citizens, should governments fail us, break the covenant, we are relieved of our side of the contract.

In God’s eyes, therefore in reality and truth, His is the only covenant on the table. All other covenants, compacts or contracts are but a figment of the human imagination, a fabrication of rebellious minds to escape responsibility before God. For the people the two covenants move in two directions: to the government but also to God. We had better forsake and disobey our rulers rather than God. We do not refuse to obey, provided what we are asked to do is lawful and also not against God. We are willing to pay taxes provided these do not abolish all that we owe to God. We obey Caesar whilst he fulfils the office of Caesar. When a ruler exceeds his limitations, takes to himself authority to which he has no right, wars against God, we think it then quite reasonable not to obey, even if initially this amounts only to passive resistance. We cannot have peace with our enemies when they are not willing and will not disarm. Those who want peace with us can have it. All they need to do is to cease fighting God and we will lay down our arms. Whilst the Church cannot be extended by force of arms, it may be justly preserved. Islam should be resisted by force if necessary because it introduces other laws than those of God and is consequently a threat to our people. Those who refuse to drive out all forms of impiety bring down upon themselves the judgement of God.

Is it right for private individuals to take up arms? That which is required of the people as a whole cannot be performed by individuals. In Scripture, God does not put his sword into the hands of private persons. There is no power, no calling to draw the sword of authority. The word must be, “put up thy sword into the sheath” (John 18:11). Individuals who draw the sword in this way make themselves delinquents. If magistrates fail to use the sword when they should, then they too are guilty.

Now we must take matters a step further and ask whether it is lawful to resist with force of arms a ruler or government that oppresses or ruins the State. We must also ask ourselves how far may that resistance be taken. In the Old Testament, rulers are made or confirmed by the people in the Old Testament. The elders of Israel represented the whole body of the nation. They met Samuel in Ramah, not willing any longer to tolerate the wicked sons of Samuel and so they demanded a king. The Old Testament people of God being wearied of the injustice under the sons of Samuel as judges and could no longer rely on Samuel in his old age (see 1 Samuel 8). “Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:5). They wanted a king to judge over them (verse 6). Samuel asked counsel of the Lord who revealed that He had chosen Saul. Samuel anointed Saul, but more was required. In order that the king would know he was established by the people, Samuel appoint the ‘estates’ to meet at Mizpah. Then, almost as though nothing previous to this had occurred, lots were cast. First, the lots came to the tribe of Benjamin, then the family of Matri and then on Saul. The people chose whom God had chosen and so Saul was declared king by the consent of all the people.

In the words of Hushai to Absolom, “Nay; but whom the LORD, and this people, and all the men of Israel, choose, his will I be, and with him will I abide” (2 Samuel 16:18). The monarchy in Israel was elective rather than simply hereditary. No one was born with a crown on his head. No one should be made ruler apart from the people. The people, after all, were there first. Sons do not succeed the father without the prior approval of the people.

The whole body of the people is above the government, above the rulers. The people should choose and establish their rulers. The one who is established by another is under him. Those who receive authority are under those who give it. The people may live without a ruler, but there cannot be a ruler apart from the people. Those who are raised to rule do not do so because of their own wisdom, excellence or status, but because of the mass of the people. When the people forsake a ruler, he falls and this must lead to his removal. This is something our own rulers should remember: to lose the people is always to lose power and the right to rule. Officers of government receive their authority from the people and this can only be removed by those who gave them that authority. Where it is not feasible for all the people to meet together, then the principle members of society gather as representatives of the whole. In Israel 71 elders, heads and chiefs were chosen from all the tribes. They had the care of public faith in war and peace. Magistrates were appointed in every town. When affairs of consequence were to be dealt with they were assembled together. David called together the officers of the kingdom when he wanted to invest his son Solomon; when he wanted some policy examined and approved; managing affairs he had restored; and also when the Ark of the Covenant was to be removed. They represented the whole people. They had Jonathan freed from death when condemned by the king.

Similar arrangements prevailed in the Persian Empire, seven magi or sages enjoyed equal dignity with the king. Kings never dissented from the judgement of the sages. In Egypt people chose and gave officers to the king to prevent encroachment and usurped authority contrary to the laws. Aristotle does not recognise as lawful rulers those who have no officers, advisers or counsellors. The alternative is a barbarous tyranny. In Rome senators and magistrates were created by the people. The tribune is made up of those called celeres, the prætor or provost of the city and others. So there was an appeal from the king to the people. At the time of the Emperors there was the senate made up of consuls, prætors, governors of the provinces and the people, all of which were called magistrates and officers of the people of Rome. By decree of the senate, the Emperor Maximus was declared an enemy of the State. Maximus and Albinus were created Emperors by the State. Why were Emperors created in Rome and what was there principal duty? They did not receive power and authority from the people in order to make it serve or pander to their own pleasures. Augustine of Hippo said: “These are properly called lords and masters who provide for the good and profit of others.” They must therefore obey them who provide for them. In truth, those who govern in this way serve those over whom they have command. To govern is nothing other than to make provision for those whom they rule. The only duty of rulers is to provide for the peoples’ good.

Justice comes first, but also the rulers are there to repulse enemies, purely in defence and not to wage wars to further their own selfish ends. Rulers are ordained by God and established by the people to procure and provide for the good of those over whom they rule. A ruler who applies himself largely to working for his own profit and pleasures, perverts the law, makes cruel use of his subjects and can be regarded as nothing better than a tyrant and should be ousted.

Are rulers above the law as Hobbes suggests? Does a ruler have in his power to determine everything merely according to his own will and pleasure? Is he himself subject to the law or does the law depend upon him? Certainly, governments ought to be the guardians of the law. Just in case the ruler should go against the law, the people invariably also appointed associates, counsellors. Nothing in the office of a ruler exempts him from obedience to the law. Before there was a king in Israel, God gave the civil and sacred laws through Moses. After the choosing of Saul and being established by the people, Samuel delivered the law to the king that he might carefully observe it. No succeeding king was received before having sworn to keep the Law of God. This has been the case in Britain up until our present Queen, but the  likelihood of this continuing seems remote. Under God, rulers receive laws from the people. A government may make new laws and abrogate the old, but only by common consent.

Does a government have the power of life and death over subjects? Some think so. However, the ruler is but a minister and executor of the law and may only pull the sword from its sheath and use it against those whom the law of God also condemns. To do anything other than this makes him a tyrant, someone who goes beyond what is permitted him. In which case he is no longer a ruler but a tyrant; no longer a judge but is a criminal himself; not a conserver of the law but a violator of it. Can the ruler then pardon those whom the law condemns? No, he cannot. Only cruel pity supports thieves, robbers, murderers, rapists, and others who plague us. Where this happens offences will only increase and provide the wrongdoer with yet more ammunition against the law. They become wolves among the sheep.

Subjects or citizens must be regarded by their governments as their brethren not as their inferiors or slaves. Subjects or citizens taken as a whole body are themselves lords. God calls upon them not to lift their hearts above those from whom they were chosen. Servile fear is a bad guardian, for whom we fear we also hate. Affection maintains authority; love preserves the foundation of greatness. Those who govern as brethren live securely. Those who rule men whilst treating them with contempt must themselves live in constant fear to which recent history testifies.

Does the property of the people belong ultimately to those who rule? Can he expropriate at will for his own or the perceived common good? Some believe the blood, sweat and tears, the industry of fellow citizens is their proper revenue. In such a situation the miserable population is here little more than kept beasts to till the earth for their master’s good and profit. On the contrary, rulers are given of God for the benefit of the people and those in government who work for private ends and pleasures are little better than tyrants.

Instead of extorting goods from their true owners, they ought to be defending them against those thieves and oppressors who deprive them of what is their own. What difference is it if some foreign invader, gangsters or the State, or  some dreadful conman takes all I possess from me and leaves me a beggar? Is it not all the same?

Ahab could not compel Naboth to sell him his vineyard. Nor under Roman law was such a thing possible, although at first it seems to have been the case. According to civil law everything belonged to the king. Caesar was lord of all things. There is, of course only One who is Lord of all. Although the dominion of all belonged to Caesar, particular persons maintained the right of possession and commanding and the right of inheritance. A king may claim a right to a kingdom, but has no right to appropriate an honest man’s belongings, should he do so it is an injustice. Is not the ruler the proprietor of public revenue? The distinction between private and public expenditure must be rigidly maintained. It is a wicked thing to employ public funds for anything other than the public good. Is the government the usufructor of the realm? (Usufruct is the right of enjoyment, profit from property, title to another or held in common ownership.) Clearly, not. That which is used by government for other uses than the public good has been unjustly extorted. Rulers are neither proprietors nor usufructuaries of patrimonies, but solely administrators. They can by no just right attribute to themselves the property, use or profit of private men’s estates, nor of public revenues.

When the people of Israel demanded a king, Samuel outlines to them what can happen how easily unruly authority falls into disordered violence and kingly power can turn into wilful tyranny.
“And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots.  And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day.” (1 Samuel 8:11-18)
This passage is most instructive. The king using preposterous violence would draw the sword of violence against them and this mischief they wilfully drew down upon themselves and would repent of their decision when it was beyond remedy. This is in no sense a description of the right of kings.

What Samuel foretells is what the kings would do, not what they were entitled to do. Instead of keeping God’s Law they would rule according to their own fancy. What Samuel is doing is giving a warning that in asking for a king like other nations the tendency to degenerate into tyranny. Most rulers tend to believe anything thing that their own appetites suggests to them must therefore be lawful. He says that in the meantime Israel is willingly shaking off the Lord, whose will alone is just and equitable. It is a dangerous thing to put power into the hands of a weak minded man with a perverse disposition who believes his authority is unlimited.

A tyrant is one who gains a kingdom directly by violence or some other indirect means. A tyrant may initially be lawfully invested by election or succession, but then govern contrary to the law and the equity to which he obliged himself at reception. The tyrant will oppress by calumnies and fraud, using corrupt officers of state. He will often give out false reports of conspiracies against himself as a pretext for his actions. He will gather around him corrupt officials, who act in self-interest but are absolutely the ruler’s creatures. They applaud and apply themselves to fulfilling his loose and unruly desires. He keeps these people in place working to their benefit as well as his own to keep them on board. The tyrant hates, suspects, and fears wise, honest and virtuous men like no others. He sees his own security as best served in the corruption of officers of state. We see so many examples of this today, including in western 'democracies'.

The people are obliged to governments under a condition, but governments are obliged to the people unconditionally, pure and simple. In as much as the government fails, breaking the covenant, then to that extent the people are exempt from obedience, the contract is void, the right of obligation has no force. People who publically renounce the unjust dominion of a tyrant or seek expulse him by force are not guilty of any crime. It is permitted for officers of the kingdom to suppress a tyrant, it becomes not only lawful but a duty. The government holds first place in the administration of the state, and the officers the second. The officers of state are also guilty if they connive in a government’s wickedness. All discharge their duties under a solemn oath under God, like it or not, believe it or not.

David W. Norris