In Common Grace, Kuyper combines the questions of God’s institution of capital punishment and the institution of civil government into one moment. He understands God’s command to Noah in Genesis 9:6 as the moment when God instituted civil government. He also rejects outright the modern liberal conception of the origins of civil government as founded upon a voluntary agreement or social contract. He says in section 11.2:
In the first place, God institutes government authority as such, and secondly, he ordains in his providental administration the person who will exercise this governmental authority in a certain region or appointed country. If this sovereign or regent believes that this is how he received his authority, and if the subjects believe that this is how authority was invested in him, then this conviction is the bond that binds sovereign and subjects together, and this authority bears a holy character for both, and both are accountableto God for the things they know they have for or against that authority. The rule, then, is that “by me kings reign,” and the apostolic word becomes true, that “all authority that exists comes from God” [Prov. 15:8; Rom 13:1] … Therein lies the solid foundation of authority, since God’s will is exalted high above the changing character of our human way of life, and is itself absolute. 1
This smells like a doctrine of divine right rulership. As we know, though, Kuyper is no divine right monarchist. He also rejects theocracy.
This “reigning by God’s grace” has nothing to do with the so-called “divine right” of kings, as if a sovereign were a privileged person who had received an entire people as his possession and at his disposal. Even less does it contain the idea of a theocracy, since a nation is governed theocratically only if God himself gives the law to a nation without the intervention of people, as he did to Israel, a law that is then also fixed and unchangable. 2
It is a fascinating biblical argument against the de-sacralised conceptions of the origins of civil government, and yet is one which doesn’t go to either divine right kingship or theocracy. Even though he rejects theocracy, he still maintains the possibility of a Christian commonwealth with the formulation above, that if both the ruler and the ruled agree that God has instituted the particular governmental authority, then the nature of the authority is “holy”.
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.
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