Question: "What is the divine right of kings?"
Answer: The divine right of kings is a Christian-flavored version of ancient pagan attitudes toward kings and emperors. In its most well-known form during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the divine right of kings claimed monarchs are ordained to their position by God, placing them beyond criticism and making rebellion against them a sin. The theory is based on an extreme interpretation of Romans chapter 13, combined with statements made in the Old Testament. The divine right of kings was controversial when first claimed by kings like James I, and it is generally rejected by theologians today.
A core argument of the Protestant Reformation was that each man is directly accountable to God, not to other men. This view drastically upset the balance between church and state in sixteenth-century Europe. The unrest didn’t just erode the authority of religious figures like the Pope. The same principle implied that secular rulers were subject to earthly accountability for their actions: that those who govern are not beyond reproach by the governed.
In response to their potential loss of authority, rulers such as James I—who also commissioned the classic translation of the Bible—sought to justify absolute and unquestioned rule. The concepts they promoted were not entirely new; Christian theologians had discussed portions of the idea many times over the centuries. All the same, in an attempt to establish the divine right of kings, three basic biblical ideas were highlighted in the arguments of rulers like King James:
First, Paul indicates that government is ordained by God (Romans 13:1). He teaches that anyone who “rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted” (Romans 13:2).
Second, David refused to kill Israel’s corrupted and failing king Saul, stating it was wrong to act against one anointed to the throne by God (1 Samuel 24:3–15).
Third, in certain places, the Old Testament refers to human authorities using the same term as is used to define God: elohim. Jesus Himself pointed this out when debating charges of blasphemy (John 10:33–38; cf. Psalm 82:6).
Based on these biblical principles, the divine right of kings claims monarchs have been placed in their positions by God, making them accountable to God and God alone. Rulers have a divine right to the throne and to the authority they wield. Only God, according to the divine right of kings, has the right to remove a king or emperor or to judge him for his actions. This effectively means kings cannot be deposed, rebelled against, or curtailed by their subjects. To rebel against the king, according to the divine right of kings, is to rebel against God.
In any political theory, there are countless subtle variations. Early proponents of the divine right of kings often predicated that right on the ruler’s adhering to godly principles. In such a view, godly kings carried godly authority, but ungodly kings were subject to rebuke. As a parallel, ancient Chinese culture promoted the concept of the mandate of heaven. This similarly held that an emperor’s power was absolute, if and only if he ruled according to just and moral principles.
Despite suggestions to the contrary, the divine right of kings is a throwback to ancient pagan concepts of kingship and godhood. Rulers such as the Egyptian Pharaohs were considered divine. Roman Emperors, at one point, demanded to be worshiped. The divine right of kings differs from these ideas only in the narrow sense that it does not imply a king is personally divine. In practice, however, the divine right of kings suggests the same level of unquestioning loyalty. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the divine right of kings was primarily meant as an argument for obedience from the people during a time when the dominant cultural authority—Catholicism—was being eroded.
In reality, the Bible does not support aggressive forms of the divine right of kings. Paul’s admonition in Romans relates to government and authority in general, but not in the absolute. In Scripture, God’s people are shown willing to challenge leaders when those leaders go astray (e.g., 2 Samuel 12:7; 1 Kings 18:17–19; Mark 6:17–18; Acts 26:27–29). David’s deference to Saul was in the context of the nation of Israel and her anointed king—not to all kings of all nations for all people. Scripture never suggests that worldly leadership, in and of itself, places a person on equal footing with the Creator. Submission to government is certainly taught in the Bible (Matthew 22:20–21; 1 Peter 2:17) but not in the sense that any person is beyond accountability to other people. As with slavery, misogyny, and other forms of oppression, the basic tenets of the gospel corroded the divine right of kings and led to its abandonment. As an example, the eighteenth-century Declaration of Independence rejected the divine right of kings and instead claimed “all men are created equal,” rooting its claim of mankind’s equality in God’s own handiwork.
Kings, and government in general, are divinely appointed only in the sense that human government is one of God’s means of restraining human sin (Romans 13:3). Christians are obligated to respect human government (Romans 13:5–7) and to obey the laws of the land whenever there is no conflict with God’s laws (see Acts 5:29). Scripture does not, ultimately, support the divine right of kings or the idea that any human ruler is beyond reproach or criticism by his or her subjects.