Who is Sovereign? God or the State?

It’s time to choose the right Lord: the one who grants His people a great deal of liberty and responsibility, who isn’t interested in erecting massive unaccountable bureaucracies, whose laws are fixed and can be easily understood.

The Sovereign who wants His people to grow free and self-governing, rather than be a chained, suppressed, silenced, de-empowered, disposable slave in some massive machine, grinding to failure, poverty, sterility, and death.

Men are saved by God’s grace.

Not by a vast sea of arbitrary laws, sporadically enforced depending on the Will of some Mighty Man.

The following is a cut-n-paste from:

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History: European — Political Theory
Gary North

Are men saved by law or saved by God’s grace? This is the fundamental question of the theological doctrine known as soteriology. Political theory necessarily reflects the answers to this question which individuals and societies have proposed.

The question of soteriology points back to an even more fundamental issue: sovereignty. What is it? Where is sovereignty found? This problem is manifested in the practical question: What is the highest court of appeal? The court beyond which there is no appeal is sovereign.

This raises the next question: Is sovereignty in essence unitary or plural? Is it one or many? If it is many, how does it hand down a final decision?

Once this issue is agreed upon, the next question is inescapable: What is authority? Authority is the sovereign’s lawfully designated agent or agency that serves as the sovereign’s official spokesman and enforcer. This in turn raises the next question: Is authority unitary or plural?

The other questions follow:

What is law? Is it unitary or plural?
What are law’s sanctions? Are they negative or positive or both?
How can law and sanctions correctly be applied through time, which changes?

One major theoretical issue that few (if any) histories of political theory discuss in detail is this: society vs. state. Conservative political theory after the French Revolution has emphasized the distinction between society and state, i.e., social institutions as distinguished from political institutions. In contrast, liberal political theory sees the question as Rousseau saw it: the state as the supreme representative of society. Liberal political theory has been dominant in politics and academia.


The history of the West (and everywhere else) has been a history of rival views of sovereignty, authority, law, sanctions, and time. In the West, this played out mainly as political conflict, 600 B.C. to 325 A.D., and from about 1400 until today.

From the era of the classical Greeks until today, there have been defenders of the state as sovereign. This assertion means that there is no higher court of appeal than civil government’s highest court. Salvation is seen as political. This was the message of Greek philosophy from Plato and Aristotle: “There is no salvation outside the polis.” This is why Socrates drank the hemlock rather than accepting banishment from Athens.

In contrast to the Greek view was the view of the ancient Hebrews. God was seen as absolutely sovereign in history. This was stated clearly in Isaiah 45 and Job 38-41. The victim of injustice could appeal to God, who would intervene and deliver him. The supreme example was the Hebrews’ time under Egypt’s bondage. Moses, acting as God’s designated agent, delivered the nation. Pharaoh had claimed sovereignty. God said otherwise.

Thus, the supreme dividing issue in political theory has always been sovereignty. Self-proclaimed autonomous man seeks sovereignty in history. Because the state possesses what appears to be supreme power, defenders of autonomous mankind return again and again to the state as the final court of appeal. They invest the state with nearly divine status, for it is believed to have replaced divinity in history. The agents of the state are seen as priestly.

Paul said that the civil magistrate is a minister of God (Romans 13:4). But God is not the state. Paul also spoke of the authorities as plural (13:1), not unitary. Men owe allegiance to multiple authorities. This was true even in the Roman Empire, which was highly unitary. This rival view of politics created an irresistible conflict between the church and Rome. Christianity resisted any suggestion, including formal liturgy, that proclaimed the emperor as divine.

From the Renaissance’s self-conscious revival of classical politics (and in some cases, even religion: occultism), the old debate between Caesar and Christ reappeared. It was the same debate that had divided Moses and Pharaoh. It was the debate between God as sovereign vs. the state as sovereign.


Begin with the rivalry between two view of sovereignty: God vs. mankind.

Is man’s supposed sovereignty based on individualism (natural rights) or collectivism? Who or what grants natural rights, if they exist? In both the classical and modern outlooks, the state possesses supreme power. Power establishes legitimacy.

Frame the Christian view in terms of the Trinity: God as both unitary and plural. This means the equal ultimacy of the one and the many. But God speaks as one Person, even though He is also three Persons. He is absolutely sovereign in history.

The Trinity is ontological: unity of being and equality of the three Persons. It is also economical: a hierarchy in relation to the creation. Jesus said: “I must be about my father’s business” (Luke 2:49).

Then move to authority: plural. In the biblical worldview, no single institution represents or speaks for God in every area of life. All authority is hierarchical. There are multiple appeals courts. There are only four oath-bound covenants: personal, ecclesiastical, familial, and civil. In the prevailing humanist worldview, the central government is viewed as the agency to reconcile conflicts.

Then on to law. It is revealed by God in the Bible (special revelation) and in nature (natural revelation). Nature is fallen. So is man’s mind. So, there is need of grace: special (regeneration) and natural (healing). For humanism, the civil law is either a natural order which is discovered or else an autonomous order which is declared. There is a permanent conflict between law viewed as the product of judges (legal precedents) vs. law viewed as the product of legislatures (legal codes). This is the ancient battle between Heraclitus (historical change) and Parmenides (logical coherence).

Political sanctions in the biblical framework are are exclusively negative. They protect. They do not save. They repress evil (Romans 1:1-7). They do not make men good. From the humanist standpoint — anarchism excepted — the state’s sanctions are both positive and negative.

Finally, a view of history: ethical progress which is manifested in the reform of civil institutions, i.e., justice.


Rousas J. Rushdoony’s book, The One and the Many (1971), focuses on the issues of salvation by politics, the pretended divinity of the state, and the conflict between Christianity and classical politics. His monograph, The Foundations of Social Order: Studies in the Creeds and Councils of the Early Church (1968), extends this analysis.

On the link between classical religion and classical politics, read Numa Denis Fustel de Coulange’s The Ancient City (1864).

On Plato and Aristotle, read volume 1 of Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). His treatment of Hegel and Marx in Volume 2 is less effective, though useful.

On the theological and political conflict between the early church and Rome, see Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars (1955). On the philosophical issues of this conflict, see Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture (1940).

On the history of Western political theory, read Sheldon Wolin’s Politics and Vision (2006) and George Sabine [SAYbin], History of Political Theory (1960). For a history of political theory according to the followers of Leo Strauss, read History of Political Philosophy, edited by Strauss and Cropsey (1963).

On medieval legal theory, the indispensable book is Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (1983), by Harold Berman. It is a detailed study of the medieval settlement of the concept of two authorities, church and state, in 1076: the debate between Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII. The Foreword is crucial to understanding the battle over law in the modern world.

Quentin Skinner covers early modern Europe, Renaissance and Reformation, in The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (1978).

On society vs. state, see Robert A. Nisbet, “Rousseau and the Political Community” (1943), in Tradition and Revolt (1968), and Nisbet, The Social Philosophers (1973).

On the history of political theory as an example of Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts, see Sheldon Wolin, “Paradigms and Political Theories,” in Politics and Experience: Essays Presented to Professor Michael Oakeshott on the Occasion of His Retirement, ed. Preston King and B. C. Parekh (1968).

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