Oaths, Obedience, and Resistance

Final Commentary on Michael Hudson’s Divine Right of Government

The prior two entries of this commentary series cover the lion’s share of the seventeenth century monarchist, Michael Hudson’s Divine Right of Government. The gist of Hudson’s theory can be gleaned from the preceding 10 chapters but there are some worthwhile nuggets of insight, for our purposes, in the closing two chapters pertaining to the duties of subjects to rulers, the right of resistance (or lack thereof), and the role and authority of oaths or covenants—what Richard Baxter might call fundamental law (see John Eusden’s Puritans, Lawyers, and Politics for more on that idea). As I said before, Hudson is interesting for the pride of place Baxter gives him, as a window into seventeenth century royalist theory (about which much less is now written compared to the radical stuff), and for the way Hudson, as an generally unknown theorist, diversifies the field of Protestant political thought. Here is a staunch royalist who leans heavily on suggestive texts and natural law for divine right and, nevertheless, exhibits a broad religious toleration by the standards of that day. That’s a fun combination if nothing else.

Considering the duty of subjects, Hudson reminds the reader of his earlier definition of monarchy as to its principal ends: God’s glory, the honor of the king, and the good of the people (salus populi), in that order. They are not coordinate ends but a hierarchy of ends. A good king pursues the good of the people, which demonstrates his own honor, and both unto God’s glory. In a perfect scenario, there would be no discontinuity between the three ends, but harmony. Likewise, subjects, the people should pursue their own good and safety, for the king’s honor, and glorify God in all that they do. But given that there is a hierarchy of ends, if any of the three should conflict, which takes precedence?

In truth, this is a battle for second place. God’s glory obviously takes priority over the other two ends. The question is whether people may pursue their own good and safety to the detriment of the king’s honor and whether the king may pursue his honor to the detriment of the people’s good and safety.

Hudson turns to Christ’s summary of the law, i.e., love of God and love of neighbor. We are to love God above ourselves but are under no obligation to love our neighbor, our fellow creature,

“either above our selves, or equally with our selves, but onely like our selves; so that the love of our selves in this second part of the Law of Nature, is allowed the first place; and wee may lawfully value our owne life, limbs, estates, and liberties, above our neighbours, and preferre the indempnity of our selves, before the indempnity of our neighbour, in each of these severall respects, (when they chance to come in competition.)”

This may be difficult for certain evangelicals to swallow. That self-love is prerequisite to loving others (see Jean Porter’s Nature as Reason on this), and second, that we are under no obligation to love others above or even equal to ourselves, but only as or like ourselves. That is, according to the nature of the object in view. The sense of as (ὡς) or like is “in the same manner as,” or “after the fashion of.” No such qualifier or comparison is inserted before the command to love God. We cannot love God like ourselves because he is wholly other, metaphysically above and unlike us. Therefore, we must love him above ourselves and not equal or less than ourselves.

Returning to the inequality between love of self and love of neighbor— “a love (not exceeding, but) inferiour unto the love of our selves”— Hudson reasons, “And therefore no Law, either of God or man, doth make homicide capitall, (no nor culpable) where it is necessitated se defendendo.”

Hudson does not deny any of this in principle, only that it justifies a subjugation of the king’s honor to the people’s safety. By extension, he denies that self-love justifies resistance to kings.

The point of contention is proper understanding not a basic point of natural law (outlined above) but of the duties imbedded in the fifth commandment, which Hudson maintains does not belong to the second table of the Decalogue. It is not the case, says Hudson, that children relate to their parents as neighbors (i.e., equals) or that subjects relate to their rulers as neighbors. The relations are differently constituted in terms of authority. For rulers are as gods, not as neighbors. Unless a totalizing levelling is enacted then it is impossible to relate to rulers as neighbors. We must love neighbors in a similar manner to ourselves but not, according to duty, above ourselves. But we are to love God above ourselves. Analogically, we are to love and obey our rulers (and parents) above ourselves according to their authority and God’s command. Allow Hudson to explain himself:

“For Christ in that prementioned division of the Morall Law, Mat. 22.37. makes but two objects of mans duty; one superiour, whom wee are obliged to love and respect above our selves, and that is God: another inferiour object, whom wee are obliged to respect onely as our selves; that is, in the respect of the degrees of extension of our love equally to our selves; (for wee must have a regard unto our neighbour, in his person, and life, chastity, goods, and good name, as well as our owne:) but yet we are not obliged to an equality, in reference to the degrees of the intension of our love to our neighbour in any of these particulars; for we may, and ought to love and respect our own life, goods, and good name, above our neighbours: so that every man is set in the middle betweene these two objects; to the one hee lookes upward as an object above him, to the other downeward, as an object below him: So that if Kings and parents relate to us only as neighbours, and not as Gods, (for there is no other third object of mans duty,) then they are not our superiours but inferiours; nor may we respect their persons, goods, or good name, above our owne, as things sacred; but beneath, and after our owne, and so to preserve our owne, may destroy theirs.”

Hudson notes that in Romans 13:9, Paul instructs love of neighbor as a fulfillment of the law, but does not include the substance of the fifth commandment therein, only the subsequent precepts.

Recall that Aristotle in his Politics affirms that not all forms of rule are not the same. “The rule of a household is a monarchy, for every house is under one head: whereas constitutional rule is a government of freemen and equals.” Similarly, “the soul rules the body with a despotically rule, whereas the intellect rules the appetites with a constitutional and royal rule.” More basically, “that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” These are very classical assumptions and help us understand what Hudson is saying. In a relationship of equality, of like kind, neighborly relations are possible. These are constitutional arrangements in this sense. The basis of interaction is mutual agreement rooted in self-referential analogy. The Golden Rule governs easily. Under a relation of inequality and hierarchy this is not the case. Neighborly relation is not possible because of the inequality and dissimilarity, at least in terms of office and authority. Parents and children do not relate in a neighborly way, and neither do rulers and subjects. This does not discount sacrifice on part of the parent-ruler for the sake of the child-subject; it, in fact, may require it. It merely conditions the posture of the child-subject. We love and obey parents as parents, not as our friends, so to speak. Parents should and do, however, sacrifice for their children, but the children have no right to rebel on account of some neighborly—I have analogically called it constitutional—equality. Moreover, as Richard Baxter goes to great lengths to impress upon the reader, self-governance (i.e., self-control and self-direction) is different in kind to rule of others and, therefore, is not a source of transference of governing power. That is, the basis of political rule is not individual self-control—this is a denial of popular sovereignty in its most common sense.

Returning to Paul’s use of the Decalogue, commandments six through ten refer to prohibitions whereas the fifth commandment pertains to positive duty (submission to higher powers, Romans 13:1). Additionally,

“it doth not enjoyne such a retaliation of love, as every Commandement of the second Table doth; for every Commandement of the second Table, doth enjoyne our neighbour to returne the like respects and measure of love to us, as we doe give to him: but this fift Commandement doth not enjoyne our parents to honour and reverence us, as we are bound thereby to honour and reverence them.”

It is not an ethic of reciprocity. Ultimately, because the fifth commandment deals with divinely granted authority, it belongs to the first table as a duty to God himself. Constitutional or neighborly duties belong to the second. (“[T]hat which distinguisheth the two Tables, is the object of the duty to whom it is to be performed, and not the subject who is to performe it. And wee doe not finde that the duties of the fift Commandement are to be performed to any inferiours, but onely to superiours.”)

The bottom line is this, duties of the first table are grounded in a love (obedience or obligation) that exceeds love of ourselves, at least, as to the political (broadly conceived) capacity of the derivative authority invested in certain men. There is a distinction, of course, between the natural and political nature of rulers.

“Now in regard the King doth represent the person of God, he is to be honoured, not according to what he is in himselfe, and in his naturall capacity (that is, as a man) but according to what the person is whom hee represents, and that is God. For you know the respects which we exhibite to the Mayor of a towne, (which happily may be a Cobler) are not proportioned according to the worth and honour of that Cobler, but according to the worth and honour of the King whom he represents.”

(The same goes for parents.) In this scenario, the king is to God as the cobbler mayor is to the king, a possessor of derivative authority not resultant of his natural person but of the superior’s will. When he is obeyed, his superior is obeyed and honored. Distinguishable here too is the, perhaps, faulty and sinful edicts of the inferior magistrate. Obedience to bad rulers is not per se obedience to the bad ruler as such, but to the ultimate source of authority which is good in itself. Hence, Hudson’s position on resistance to evil commands:

“We may resist his commands, but not his power; for in those cases we must obey God by an active, the King onely by a passive obedience: for which wee have the president of the Apostles themselves, Acts 4. and 5. who did refuse to obey the commands of the Rulers, prohibiting them to preach in the name of Jesus; but yet submitted to their power, in yeelding themselves to be imprisoned and beaten, according to the commands of the Rulers: so that they obeyed both God and the Magistrate; the first by doing, the latter by suffering.”

We may resist neighbors because they are equals. The right of self-defense applies because there is no duty to love neighbors above ourselves (see above). But this cannot, in Hudson’s view, apply to relations of inequality where submission and obedience is commanded on account of God’s authority. And so, Hudson has no place in his scheme for resistance, even to tyrants. For “to resist a Tyrannicall King, is to resist God, from whom that Tyrant doth derive his power.” He cites Christ’s submission to Pilate (John 19:11). Only resistance to Rehoboam is divinely sanctioned in the Bible and, therefore, Hudson thinks exceptional. It must be said that Hudson’s exegesis on this question is somewhat selective and at odds with his earlier, more sweeping application of texts that suited monarchy. That said, it’s not that his case is entirely implausible, just weak.

Does the introduction of oaths or covenants alter any of these dynamics of authority?

It is first important to remember the hierarchy of authority: God, king, people. A king may revoke a law that dishonors him—dishonoring one’s self is unnatural—but not if he was sealed his own law by an oath.

“the King may not breake a Law confirmed by an Oath, although it be destructive to his owne Honour. The reason whereof is, Because Gods Honour by that Oath is made an hostage for the Kings fidelity; and therefore, the King is bound to regard the performance of that Law, as he regards the Honour of Gods Name, which must have the preheminence above his owne Honour. Although all other Lawes (not ratified with this high sanction) may, and ought to be revoked by the King, if they be prejudiciall to his owne Honour; for all such Lawes are supposed to be fraudulently procured.”

But an oath-backed law may be broken if it dishonors God. “Holinesse is the very Nature and Essence of God, and all wicked Lawes which are opposite to this, are destructive to his eternall Honour, and therefore not capable of this sanction of an Oath, for thereby Gods Honour is opposed to itself.”

So, the king must abide by his oaths for God’s honor is attached to them unless said oaths themselves dishonor God. Does this mean that the king may promise or covenant away his own honor, subordinating it to the safety and good of the people despite the hierarchy of ends in view? In a word, yes.

Does this, in turn, mean that the people may respond if the oath of the king is broken and, thereby, the king’s honor and God’s honor are violated to the detriment of the people’s good—basically, the entire hierarchy of good ends of monarchy? No, insists Hudson. For, the bad act of a king, to his own dishonor and God’s, and the people’s harm, is categorically distinct from that of the people’s rebellion, even if the latter has just cause in the sense just described. It seems to me that Hudson is too reliant on his earlier distinctions between types of relations which are fine insofar as they go but do not contain the strength to subvert his own logic of oath and covenant within the hierarchy of ends. Perhaps, his political commitments and milieu did not allow otherwise.

Image Credit: Execution of Charles I, 1649, engraving.

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.

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