Archive Civic Polity Reformed Irenicism Simon Kennedy

James I and the Will of the King

In his recent book, The Watershed of Modern Politics (Yale, 2015), the eminent historian of ideas Francis Oakley makes the case that the theory of the divine right of kings is a constant and central one for a large part of the history of western political thought. In short, the prominence of ‘sacral kingship’ in western thought is Oakley’s main focus. In his examination of the political thought of James I of England (also James VI of Scotland) Oakley uncovers a very interesting overlap between theology proper, and James’ own political theology.

Oakley identifies that James, in his expression of the absoluteness of the monarch’s authority, makes a curious theological conflation. The first part of the conflation is the initially theological distinction, later to become a canon law-inspired theopolitical distinction, between the ordinary power of the monarch (the potestas ordinata, where the monarch is acting within the positive law he himself authorises) and the absolute power of the monarch (the potestas absoluta, where the monarch can act to remedy defects in the law). The second is the distinction between the revealed will of God (in his Word and in his creation) and the secret will of God (which is, well, secret and so not revealed). Oakley claims that James conflates these two distinctions; that he conflates the potestas absoluta/ordinata with the secret/revealed will distinctions.

While it is beyond me to assess the rightness of Oakley’s claim, there is definitely some sense in which James conflates these two points in his 1609/1610 speech to the Parliament on divine kingship:

But now in these our times we are to distinguish betweene the state of Kings in their first originall, and betweene the state of setled Kings and Monarches, that doe at this time gouerne in ciuill Kingdomes: For euen as God, during the time of the olde Testament, spake by Oracles, and wrought by Miracles; yet how soone it pleased him to setle a Church which was bought, and redeemed by the blood of his onely Sonne Christ, then was there a cessation of both; Hee euer after gouerning his people and Church within the limits of his reueiled will. So in the first originall of Kings, whereof some had their beginning by Conquest, and some by election of the people, their wills at that time serued for Law; Yet how soone Kingdomes began to be setled in ciuilitie and policie, then did Kings set downe their minds by Lawes, which are properly made by the King onely; but at the rogation of the people, the Kings grant being obteined thereunto. And so the King became to be Lex loquens, after a sort, binding himselfe by a double oath to the obseruation of the fundamentall Lawes of his kingdome: Tacitly, as by being a King, and so bound to protect aswell the people, as the Lawes of his Kingdome; And Expresly, by his oath at his Coronation.

And he concludes his speech with just such a conflation:

I conclude then this point touching the power of Kings, with this Axiome of Diuinitie, That as to dispute what God may doe, is Blasphemie; but quid vult Deus, that Diuines may lawfully, and doe ordinarily dispute and discusse; for to dispute A Posse ad Esseis both against Logicke and Diuinitie: So is it sedition in Subiects, to dispute what a King may do in the height of his power: But iust Kings wil euer be willing to declare what they wil do, if they wil not incurre the curse of God. I wil not be content that my power be disputed vpon: but I shall euer be willing to make the reason appeare of all my doings, and rule my actions according to my Lawes.

Oakley’s main point in drawing this issue out is to counter the claim that James’ ideas are an expression of the concept of “The Great Chain of Being”. On the contrary, writes Oakley:

It is … that vision of order, grounded in will, promise, and covenant, rather than the rival vision expressed in the notion of the great chain of being, that constitutes the broadest intellectual context in which the controversial claims that James expressed … should properly be read.1

In other words, James’ concept of divine right of kings is part of his own vision of societal and universal order under a sovereign, covenant-making God.

  1. The Watershed of Modern Politics, Yale University Press, 2015, p.170

By Simon Kennedy

Simon is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland. He resides in Geelong, Victoria with his wife and four children.