Archive Authors Civic Polity E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

God’s Sovereignty as a Safeguard against Tyranny

Thus Emil Brunner, in Justice and the Social Order:

People do not normally obey the state because disobedience would be punished, but because they feel it to be right to do so, quite apart, of course, from mere force of habit. But where doubts of the justice of the state arise, its power is already undermined. Oderint dum metuant is not good political wisdom. The state lives far more on its moral credit than is generally believed, and that means on the conviction of its lawfulness and legality.

This unqualified power over every individual and every group in the state is, however, its dangerous aspect. To possess power is a constant temptation to abuse power. This abuse of power can be twofold; it can be spiritual and appear in the form of arrogance–superbia–or it can be material and appear as the use of power in a way contrary to justice. The state must know its limits. Hence, as has already been pointed out, its realization of its subordination to a higher power is no mere political ornament but the foundation of all political wisdom. The atheistic or positivistic state cannot but degenerate; it has no alternative but to set itself up as absolute by means of the conception of the sovereignty of the state. There is only one limit to the sovereignty of the state; it is the knowledge of the sovereignty of God. The first commandment: “I am the Lord thy God…thou shalt have no other gods before me” is the one safeguard against the power of the state setting itself up as absolute. Thus the old doctrine that the state needs religion is no crafty device of princes who imagine that religion gives them a better hold over their subjects, but the basis of all true statesmanship. Where it is lacking there is no limit to the superbia of the state, for there is only one remedy for superbia–the fear of God. How else shall the power which claims for itself the title of “supreme” realize its limits save in that most supreme power? By the will of the people? As if the will of the people could not itself fall victim to that superbia! The unlimited sovereignty of the people and the unlimited sovereignty of the state are simply two forms of superbia, the one individualistic, the other totalitarian. (p. 213)

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.