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Kuyper on Civil Government and Divine Right

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”.

  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. 95-6, s. 11.2
  2. Ibid., p. 96, 11.2

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.

4 replies on “Kuyper on Civil Government and Divine Right”

Thanks for posting this Simon. I haven’t had a chance to read Kuyper’s volume yet, but I plan to.

In your summary here, Kuyper seems to ignore the traditional reformed view that God immediately establishes the office of magistrate/government, but that he medidately establishes the particular person holding that office by the voluntary election of the people. From what I have read, the reformed argued against the idea that providence establishes a particular person to the office. That was the view held by divine right absolutists and was rejected by the reformed.

They rejected it for at least a few reasons: 1) It results in logical contradiction in the event of a war, especially a civil war. 2) It renders self-defense impossible because anyone who has gained the upper hand has just authority and must be submitted to. 3) It means might makes right. 4) Romans 13 says that we are to submit to the authorities because they have been ordained by God. But we are not called to submit to providence (God’s decree) but only to command (God’s revealed will).



It’s worth noting that the newspaper Kuyper established was dissolved after WWII because when Hitler conquered Holland, the newspaper refused to oppose Hitler because they believed they had to submit to him because he was now the rightful ruler. See p. 324

“I grant, often God’s decree revealed by the event, that a conqueror be on the throne, but this will is not our rule, and the people are to swear no oath of allegiance contrary to God’s Voluntas signi, which is his revealed will in his word regulating us.”

Buchanan, George; Rutherford, Samuel (2013-04-22). Lex, rex, or, The law and the prince : a dispute for the just prerogative of king and people, containing the reasons and causes of the most necessary defensive wars of the kingdom of Scotland (1843) (p. 40). . Kindle Edition.

“according to Scripture, nothing regulateth our will, and leadeth the people now that they cannot err following God’s rule in making a king, but the free suffrages of the states choosing a man whom they conceive God hath endued with these royal gifts required in the king whom God holdeth forth to them in his word, (Deut. xvii.) Now thei’e be but these to regulate the people, or to be a rule to any man to ascend lawfully, in foro Dei, in God’s court to the throne. (1.) God’s immediate designation of a man by prophetical and divinely-inspired unction, as Samuel anointed Saul and David ; this we are not to expect now, nor can royalists say it. (2.) Conquest, seeing it is an act of violence, and God’s revenging justice for the sins of a people, cannot give in God’s court such a just title to the throne as the people are to submit their consciences unto, except God reveal his regulating will by some immediate voice from heaven, as he commanded Judah to submit to Nebuchadnezzar as to their king by the mouth of Jeremiah. Now this is not a rule to us; for then, if the Spanish king should invade this land, and, as Nebuchadnezzar did, deface the temple, and instruments and means of God’s worship, and abolish the true worship of God, it should be unlawful to resist him, after he had once conquered the land : neither God’s word, nor the law of nature could permit this. I suppose, even by grant of adversaries, now no act of violence done to a people, though in God’s court they have deserved it, can be a testimony to us of God’s regulating will; except it have some warrant from the law and testimony, it is no rule to our conscience to acknowledge him a lawful magistrate, whose sole law to the throne is an act of the bloody instrument of divine wrath, I mean the sword.”

Buchanan, George; Rutherford, Samuel (2013-04-22). Lex, rex, or, The law and the prince : a dispute for the just prerogative of king and people, containing the reasons and causes of the most necessary defensive wars of the kingdom of Scotland (1843) (p. 41). . Kindle Edition.

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