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Resistance and Romans 13 in Samuel Rutherford's Lex, Rex

  • Ryan McAnnally-Linz (a1)


The many conflicts around the reformation of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries drew the problem of political resistance to the forefront of European political thought. Thinkers in all of the various religious camps considered scripture to be politically normative. Consequently, both pro- and anti-resistance thinkers from a variety of traditions had to engage with Romans 13:1–7, Paul's apparently definitive pronouncement in favour of obedience and, therefore, against resistance. The opponents of resistance could cite Romans 13 with fairly little explanation, but the resisters and revolutionaries faced the challenge of working with the text to draw different political conclusions from it without violating the ‘literal’ sense that they almost universally held to be authoritative. Some even aimed to bring Paul forward as a staunch supporter of the sort of violent political resistance they advocated.

Lex, Rex, the political tract of seventeenth-century Scottish theologian Samuel Rutherford (1600–1661), represents a particularly comprehensive early modern justification for violent resistance against a political sovereign. Rutherford was a member of the party of the radical covenanters, who vehemently opposed the church reforms of Charles I and, when hostilities began, fervently supported the war against the king. This article explores the series of arguments, distinctions and theological moves that Rutherford employs to incorporate Romans 13 as a central supporting text for his pro-resistance argument. Among these are: the distinction between God's immediate institution of governmental power and the constitution of particular governments mediately through the people, the positing of a conditional covenant agreed upon at the constitution of any government, the scholastic distinction between voluntas beneplaciti and voluntas signi in the divine will, and the distinction between the royal office in abstracto and its concrete occupant. Using these and other arguments and distinctions, Rutherford constructs a conceptual apparatus that is able, to a great extent, to appropriate Paul's exhortation to obedience in the service of a justification of resistance. In so doing, Rutherford illustrates some of the array of theological and philosophical resources that early modern resistance theorists could marshal in support of their cause, while still maintaining their fundamental theological commitments.



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1 My sincerest thanks to Bruce Gordon for turning my attention to Samuel Rutherford's work and providing invaluable feedback on various drafts of this article.

2 Lamont, John, The Chronicle of Fife (Edinburgh: George Ramsay, 1810), p. 159. Cf. Coffey, John, Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions (Cambridge: CUP, 1997), p. 60, and Loane, Marcus L., Makers of Religious Freedom in the Seventeenth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), p. 100, who suggest slightly different timelines for the event.

3 See Lynch, Michael, Scotland: A New History (London: Century, 1991), pp. 276–81; Coffey, Politics, pp. 219–24, 249–51.

4 This is not to imply that the issue was new or that it had been neglected before the sixteenth century. See Parsons, Wilfrid, ‘The Medieval Theory of the Tyrant’, Review of Politics 4 (1942), pp. 129–43.

5 See Skinner, Quentin, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, vol. 2, The Age of the Reformation (Cambridge: CUP, 1978); parts II and III of Burns, J. H. (ed.), The Cambridge History of Political Thought 1450–1700 (Cambridge: CUP, 1991); von Friedeburg, Robert, Self-Defence and Religious Strife in Early Modern Europe (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004); Friedeburg (ed.), Murder and Monarchy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); Friedeburg (ed.), Widerstandsrecht in der frühen Neuzeit (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2001); and Scheible's, Heinz sourcebook, Das Widerstandsrecht als Problem der Deutschen Protestanten, 1523–1546 (Gütersloh: G. Mohn, 1969).

6 See e.g. Whitford, David M., ‘Robbing Paul to Pay Peter’, in Holder, R. Ward (ed.), A Companion to Paul in the Reformation (Boston: Brill, 2009), pp. 573609; Muller, Richard A., ‘Calvin, Beza, and the Exegetical History of Romans 13:1–7’, in Roney, John B. and Klauber, Martin I. (eds), The Identity of Geneva (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998), pp. 3956; Friedeburg, Self-Defence, p. 8.

7 See Mason, Roger A., ‘Introduction’ to A Dialogue on the Law of Kingship among the Scots, trans. Mason, Roger A. and Smith, Martin S. (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004 [1579]).

8 Goodman, How superior powers oght to be obeyed (Geneva: John Crispin, 1558), p. 110.

9 Skinner does note a supposed theological dilemma brought on by the office/occupant distinction (Foundations, vol. 2, pp. 225ff.). I believe Skinner mischaracterises the cause of the theological problem (it is not the distinction per se, but the question of the nature of divine sovereignty that is the sticking point), but his recognition of the theological facets of resistance arguments is valuable.

10 The literature on Rutherford is sparse. While popular biographers have been profiling Rutherford for over three centuries, there has been only one scholarly monograph published on his life and thought, namely, Coffey, Politics. More confessional works on Rutherford include Rendell, Kingsley G., Samuel Rutherford (Fearn, UK: Christian Focus, 2009); Loane, Makers; and Murray, Thomas, The Life of Samuel Rutherford (Edinburgh: William Oliphant, 1828). A number of articles address specific aspects of Rutherford's thought. See e.g. Bell, M. Charles, ‘Samuel Rutherford’, in Calvin and Scottish Theology (Edinburgh: Handsel, 1985), pp. 7091; Raath, Andries and Freitas, Shaun de, ‘Theologically United and Divided’, Westminster Theological Journal 67 (2005), pp. 301–21; Ford, John D., ‘Lex, rex iusto posita’, in Mason, Roger A. (ed.), Scots and Britons: Scottish Political Thought and the Union of 1603 (Cambridge: CUP, 1994). Finally, Rutherford shows up at least briefly in numerous works on the British Civil Wars and the Scottish Covenanters, including a commendable treatment in Smart, Ian Michael, ‘The Political Ideas of the Scottish Covenanters. 1638–88’, History of Political Thought 1 (1980), pp. 167–93.

11 Although Skinner has persuasively argued against the supposed radicality of the ‘Calvinist’ contribution to resistance theory, restricting my analysis primarily to the Reformed tradition is helpful for maintaining a manageable scope. See ‘The Origins of the Calvinist Theory of Revolution’, in Malament, Barbara C. (ed.), After the Reformation (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980), pp. 309–30.

12 See Maclear, J. F., ‘Samuel Rutherford: The Law and the King’, in Hunt, George L. and McNeill, John T. (eds), Calvinism and the Political Order (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965), p. 75; Zagorin, Perez, A History of Political Thought in the English Revolution (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1954), p. 5; Allen, J. W., English Political Thought, 1604–1644 (London: Methuen, 1938), p. 424.

13 Richards, Peter Judson, ‘“The Law Written on Their Hearts”?’, Journal of Law and Religion 18 (2002–3), p. 154, notes this feature of Lex, Rex and recognises that a coherent summary of its resistance theory must involve the rearrangement of some of Rutherford's points. A single argument often appears in numerous variations throughout the text, leaving the reader to piece together the whole from its scattered parts. My treatment of the text seeks to organise a number of important points into coherent themes.

14 It is not within the scope of this article to consider each nuance of Rutherford's multifaceted argument. Since I am concerned chiefly with the theological problems presented by Rom 13 and the relationship between divine sovereignty and tyrannous governments, my discussion of Lex, Rex avoids many of the more strictly legal and historical arguments therein.

15 Maxwell, John, Sacra-sancta Regum Majestas (Oxford, 1644), pp. 20–1.

16 Ibid., p. 46.

17 Ibid., p. 52. Cf. Ford, ‘Lex, rex iusto posita’, pp. 264–7.

18 Rutherford, Samuel, Lex, Rex: The Law and the Prince (London: John Field, 1644), pp. 916. Ford, ‘Lex, rex iusto posita’, discusses the institution/constitution distinction in Lex, Rex. Cf. Richards, ‘The Law’, p. 170. This distinction is far from original to Rutherford. It is present e.g. in the pseudonymously written Vindiciae, contra Tyrannos, available in English trans. by George Garnett (Cambridge: CUP, 1994 [1579]), pp. 68 [76]. Indeed, Brian Tierney has shown that the idea of powers originating from God but coming through a body of people goes back at least to the thirteenth century and figures prominently in the conciliarism of Nicholas of Cusa, among others. See Tierney, Religion, Law, and the Growth of Constitutional Thought, 1150–1650 (Cambridge: CUP, 1982).

19 LR, pp. 9–10.

20 Cf. LR, p. 13.

21 For David's ascent to kingship, see LR, pp. 14–15, and for the sparing of Saul, LR, p. 329.

22 Rutherford's focus on the community (as opposed to the individual) comes out clearly in question 9: LR, pp. 58–68.

23 The central role of lesser magistrates and the Estates of Parliament in Rutherford's political thought receives a good deal of attention in the literature. See LR, pp. 159–65, 252; Coffey, Politics, p. 177; Maclear, ‘Samuel Rutherford’, pp. 76–7; Raath and de Freitas, ‘Theologically United’, p. 318; Smart, ‘Political Ideas’, p. 169. Rutherford's proposal for the best form of government can be found at LR, p. 387.

24 Coffey, Politics, p. 125. For more on Rutherford's providentialist outlook, see ibid., pp. 225–7.

25 LR, pp. 16, 29, 38–9.

26 LR, p. 57.

27 LR, p. 127.

28 LR, p. 102; emphasis added.

29 LR, p. 96. This is just one of two covenants that Rutherford highlights in Lex, Rex. The second takes place between God on the one side and people and king on the other. See LR, p. 100. The concept of multiple covenants also features in Vindiciae, but in that text the number includes covenants between God, king and people; God and people; God and king; and king and people (pp. 18[7]–22[13]; 129[159]–137[167]).

30 LR, p. 101. On the burden of the power to do violence, see LR, p. 44.

31 LR, pp. 156–7.

32 LR, p. 98.

33 See Coffey, Politics, pp. 62–70.

34 LR, p. 218. Cf. Cicero, De Legibus 3.3.8. The same maxim is the epitaph for Locke's Second Treatise of Government.

35 LR, pp. 187, 150–1.

36 LR, p. 151. Beza, similarly, identifies ‘the glory of God’ as ‘the purpose of all well-ordered polities’ and declares it to be ‘the principle duty of a most excellent and pious ruler that he should apply whatever means, authority and power has been granted him by God to this end entirely that God may truly be recognised among his subjects and may, being recognised, be worshipped and adored as the supreme king of all kings’. Du droit de magistrats, q. 10, available in English trans. by Gonin, Henri-Louis, Concerning the Rights of Rulers over their Subjects and the Duty of Subjects toward their Rulers (Cape Town: HAUM, 1956), pp. 82–3.

37 Coffey, Politics, p. 169.

38 LR, p. 263.

39 ‘First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity’ (NRSV, emphasis added).

40 E.g. Coffey, Politics, pp. 82–113; Loane, Makers, pp. 62–9; Maclear, ‘Samuel Rutherford’, p. 65.

41 LR, p. 213, cf. p. 89.

42 LR, p. 28.

43 The texts are: Epiphanius, Panarion 1.3.40; Basil, Homily on Ps 32; Hilary, Ad Constantium Augustum. (Rutherford's reference to Gregory – ‘Nazianzen Orat. ad subd. & imperat’ – does not correspond to the standard title of any of Gregory's Orations.)

44 Cf. Muller, Richard A., Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), s.v. ‘voluntas Dei’.

45 LR, p. 320.

46 LR, p. 88.

47 LR, p. 265.

48 See Conal Condren, ‘The Office of Rule and the Rhetorics of Tyrannicide in Medieval and Early Modern Europe’, in Murder and Monarchy, pp. 53–5; Skinner, Foundations, vol. 2, pp. 196ff. The distinction is present in Beza (Concerning the Rights, q. 6, 39), Knox (The Works of John Knox, vol. 1, ed. David Laing (London: James Thin, 1895), pp. 331–2, which Rutherford quotes at LR, p. 269), Vindiciae (pp. 88 [102], 112 [136]), Goodman (p. 139), and Buchanan (De iure regno, pp. 113[72]), among others. Its heritage stretches back through the Middle Ages, esp. in conciliarist thought. See Tierney, Religion, pp. 31–3. In fact, it appears to have Christian roots reaching at least to Chrysostom, who makes the distinction between magistrates and magistracy as such in Homily 23 on Romans, which addresses Rom 13:1–7: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st ser. 11, ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), p. 511.

49 LR, p. 212.

50 LR, p. 213. Cf. LR, pp. 221, 267.

51 Maclear points out that Rutherford is relatively unspecific regarding the content of the law. ‘Samuel Rutherford’, p. 78.

52 LR, p. 331. Cf. LR., p. 190. This case was a popular one. See e.g. Melanchthon's use of it in Melanchthons Briefwechsel, vol. 4, ed. Heinz Scheible (Stuttgart: Frommann-Holzboog, 1983), p. 395, cited by Friedeburg (Self-Defence, p. 68).

53 See Stevenson, David, The Scottish Revolution 1637–1644 (Newton Abbot, UK: David & Charles, 1973), pp. 127213.

54 LR, p. 103.

55 Maxwell, Sacro-sancta, pp. 90–1.

56 LR, p. 152. Cf. LR, pp. 199, 258.

57 LR, p. 59. Note that this passage incorporates a premise from Rom. 13:1 into its argument.

58 On Calvin and God's use of tyrants, see Institutes 4.20.24–9. Says Rutherford regarding God's ultimate providential control of tyrants: ‘And if the King tyrannizes, I cannot say it is beside the intention of God making a King, nor yet beside his intention as a just punisher of their transgressions, for to me as I conceive, nothing either good or evill falleth out beside the intention of Him who doeth all things according to the pleasure of his will’, LR, p. 103. (Note that ‘pleasure of his will’ corresponds to voluntas beneplaciti.)

59 LR, p. 147.

60 Ibid. Jacques Almain, with whose work Rutherford was familiar (see LR, pp. 50, 418), had maintained a similar position on the inalienability of the power of self-defence. See Questions at Vespers, trans. Arthur Stephen McGrade, in Kraye, Jill (ed.), Cambridge Translations of Renaissance Philosophical Texts, vol. 2, Political Philosophy (Cambridge: CUP, 1997), pp. 1335.

61 LR, p. 193.

62 Macinnes, Allan I., Charles I and the Making of the Covenanting Movement 1625–1641 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1991), pp. 189–92.

63 See Stevenson, Scottish Revolution, pp. 127–213; Macinnes, Charles I, pp. 192–7.

64 LR, p. 226.

65 LR, p. 100.

66 LR, p. 200.

67 LR, p. 260.

68 LR, p. 321.

69 LR, p. 322.

70 See Smart, ‘Political Ideas’, p. 169; Maclear, ‘Samuel Rutherford’, p. 76; Zagorin, History, p. 6; and LR, pp. 159–65, 252. Restricting permissible resistance to lesser magistrates was the rule in resistance theories of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. See Vindiciae, pp. 46[46]–63[69]; Beza, Concerning the Rights, qq. 6, 36 and 41. Goodman and Buchanan were notable (and therefore incendiary) exceptions. See Goodman, How superior powers, pp. 142, 189–90; Buchanan, Dialogue on the Law of Kingship, pp. 151[96]–155[98]. The case of a tyrant without title (a usurper or conqueror) generally received different treatment. Even staunch royalists like William Barclay, who wrote his De regno et regali potestate (1600) explicitly ‘adversus Buchananum’, admitted that a private individual could justifiably kill such a tyrant. See J. H. M. Salmon, ‘Catholic Resistance Theory, Ultramontanism, and the Royalist Response, 1580–1620’, in Burns, Cambridge History of Political Thought 1450–1700, p. 235.

71 LR, pp. 159ff. Rutherford is not original in defining inferior magistrates as powers from God. This move is central to the constitutional arguments of the Hessian jurists following the diet of Speyer (1529) and was later adopted by thinkers such as Peter Martyr Vermigli. See Skinner, Foundations, vol. 2, pp. 195ff. Friedeburg has argued that the lack of clearly defined constitutional structures and easily distinguishable inferior magistrates in Britain complicated the adoption of resistance theories from the Continent, esp. those (like Althusius’) of a markedly constitutional stripe. See Self-Defence, pp. 157–8, and with specific reference to Scotland, Widerstandsrecht und Konfessionskonflict (Berlin: Dunker & Humblot, 1999), pp. 130ff. Rutherford has no qualms invoking inferior magistrates, and his language at points suggests that he considers not only members of parliament (LR, p. 269), but also mayors and provosts to be included in their number (LR, p. 146). Nevertheless, Friedeburg's point, that arguments involving inferior magistrates changed significantly in a British context, stands.

72 This is obviously the case in the example of sexual assault cited above, wherein the offence is individual. I am referring here to the possibility of private people responding to a public evil.

73 LR, p. 152.

74 LR, pp. 327–8.

75 LR, pp. 53, 107.

76 LR, p. 165.

78 LR, p. 146: ‘All Powers are, in abstracto, from God, Rom. 13.2’.

79 LR, p. 265.

80 LR, pp. 268, 280. Interestingly, though Rutherford does not note it, Acts 5:29 explicitly commands obedience to God before mennot before powers or authorities. The NRSV trans. is misleading in this regard, since it renders the Greek anthropoi (men) as ‘human authorities’. In Rom 13:1, Paul commands obedience to exousiai (powers), not anthropoi.

81 LR, p. 352.

82 LR, pp. 265–6.

83 See LR, p. 280.

84 See LR, pp. 53, 162, 165, 257.

85 David Whitford has made much of the supposed rereading of Rom 13 through the emphasis on and slight alteration of vv. 3–4 in the Magdeburg Confession: ‘The Duty to Resist Tyranny’, in Whitford, David M. (ed.), Caritas et Reformatio (St Louis: Concordia, 2002), pp. 92–3; ‘From Speyer to Magdeburg’, Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 96 (2005), pp. 72–3. He is right to draw attention to the importance for resistance theories of reading these verses as prescriptive rather than descriptive. Such a reading features not only in the Confession and Lex, Rex, but also in Ponet, John, A short treatise of politike power (Strasburg, 1556), Goodman, How superior powers, p. 111, and Buchanan, Dialogue on the Law of Kingship, pp. 113 [71]. Whitford is wrong, however, to emphasise the novelty of that reading in the Confession. As Friedeburg has pointed out, well before the siege of Magdeburg, Johannes Bugenhagen had looked to Rom 13 as a source for the duties of princes to defend their subjects against the Emperor's persecution (Self-Defence, p. 50).

86 LR, p. 165.

87 Rutherford is fond of citing these verses to define the office of a ruler. See LR, pp. 126, 137, 165, 187, 189, 219, 261, 265.

88 LR, pp. 105, 464.

89 LR, p. 275.



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