Archive Civic Polity Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism Simon Kennedy

Kuyper on the institution of civil government

In Common Grace (Lexham/Acton Institute: 2015), Kuyper spends a number of chapters examining Genesis 9:5 and Genesis 9:6 in relation to capital punishment and, therefore, the instituting of civil government. Genesis 9:5-6 reads as follows:

And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.

“Whoever sheds the blood of man,
    by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.

Kuyper argues that these verses show three principle things. First, that God himself will avenge the taking of human life, whether it is taken by an animal or a human. Second, that capital punishment as a general ordinance is stipulated by verse 6. Third, that the institution of civil government is necessary for the proper carrying out of this ordinance, and therefore God, in this verse, establishes civil government.

Our conclusion can therefore be none other than that the Christian church has always justifiably read in these words not a prophecy, but a command, an ordinance. In this word God granted to man the right over the life of the murderer, and placed upon man the duty to apply corporal punishment to the murderer. This leads immediately to the question to whom is this duty assigned. Then the context shows convincingly that it cannot mean everyone who wants this, but the identity of the man in view here must be determined according to established rule and order. To this extent, Luther was entirely correct to say here lies the official institution of government, as were the Dutch Bible commentators in observing that here the legitimacy of government is being established.

Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that before the flood as well, an individual despot had assumed some kind of dominion over others, or occasionally many people had appointed a leader among themselves in order to defend themselves, although all such functioning of an authoritative person until now lacked ever higher sanction. People cannot create authority. Only God can do that. Even though everybody wants to declare together, “We appoint a leader over us and assign him the right, in the event of murder, to slay the murderer,” this would be nothing but presumption. Only God, who is sovereign over all, can set one man over others and clothe him with authority, and in the same way only God, who created the lives of all of us, can give to one so clothed with authority the right to decide about the life of another person.1

It is also noteworthy that in showing that God establishes civil government, Kuyper argues that this is an ongoing role that God plays. He does not hand over the ability to rightly establish civil authority to humankind. God, according to Kuyper, is always the one who clothes the civil magistrate with authority.

  1. Abraham Kuyper, Common Grace: God’s Gifts for a Fallen World: volume 1: The Historical Section, eds. Jordan J. Ballor and Stephen J. Grabill, trans. Nelson D. Kloosterman and Ed M. van der Maas, (Lexham Press: 2016) pp. 81-2, s. 9.4

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.

One reply on “Kuyper on the institution of civil government”

Thanks for posting this. Again, I look forward to reading Kuyper’s volume. Just some comments.

Kuyper says “the Christian church has always justifiably read in these words not a prophecy, but a command, an ordinance.” I agree with him that the passage is a command. However, at least some significant reformed theologians argued that it was not a command, but was rather a prophecy. Rutherford is one, and he points to Calvin as another.

Also, as I noted on your other post, Kuyper’s insistence that society may not appoint for themselves a ruler to execute this function is contrary to reformed opinion on that point – though reformed did argue that authority was given immediately from God to the office, and the people chose who would fulfill that office.

This leads immediately to the question to whom is this duty assigned. Then the context shows convincingly that it cannot mean everyone who wants this, but the identity of the man in view here must be determined according to established rule and order.

I can see how he could argue that the verse logically implies this duty is assigned to a magistrate, but how can he make that argument from the context itself? Rutherford notes “The consequence is vain: His blood shall be shed by man; therefore by a
magistrate ? it followeth not; therefore by a king ? it followeth not…
There was but family-government” (p. 28). Matthew Henry notes “by man shall his blood be shed, that is, by the magistrate, or whoever is appointed or allowed to be the avenger of blood… [in Gen 9, God] committed this judgment to men, to masters of families at first, and afterwards to the heads of countries.”

Without referencing either of those men, John Frame makes the same observation.

in what passage did God establish the state? Some have found divine
warrant for the state in Gen 9:6, where God commands Noah’s family to
return bloodshed for bloodshed. But this is a command given to a family.
There is no indication of any new institution being established. And in
the law of Moses, the execution of murderers was carried out, not by
the state as such, but by the “avenger of blood,” kin of the murder
victim, Num 35:19, 21; Deut 19:12. The family, here, is the
instrument of justice. We have no reason to believe, therefore, that any
special institution beyond the family for the establishment of justice
was created in Gen 9:6.

See “John Frame on Gen 9:6, the Avenger of Blood, and Romans 13”

and “The Avenger of Blood”

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