Monarchy: Deposing Rulers

Johannes Althusius says in his Politica (which I should get around to reading, especially to learn about fœderalism),

[The king] is over individuals in order to administer rightly, to which extent he is the executor, preserver, and minister of the law. Properly speaking, therefore, law is thus over everyone. It is the superior above all […]. Therefore, if [the king] governs against the rule of law, he becomes punishable by the law […].

Indeed, in any kingdom the law should provide for impeaching the king. This principle I take in response to the biblical example of Athaliah and to classical Confucian political theory.

Athaliah, a daughter of King Ahab, is recorded in both the Book of Kings and the Book of Chronicles to have reigned over Judah upon the death of her son, in the six years that her grandson Joash was hidden from her in the temple of YHWH. An idolatrous tyrant, she was overthrown, the coup orchestrated by Jehoiada the priest. For in ancient Israel the law that goes deeper than any one monarch’s authority is the requirement that the rulers obey God’s righteousness and serve no other gods.

Mencius might say that Athaliah, like King Jie of Xia or King Zhou of Shang, was not a proper monarch but rather a felon to be punished, since she exterminated the royal heirs and promoted idolatry. For even Hobbes, the inveterate absolutist, recognizes higher sovereignties than that of the elect ruler, keeping the principle that rulers who do not protect their subjects forfeit their right to rule. Mencius, then, theorizing that criminals lose the Mandate of Heaven, considers it right to depose and punish a wicked ruler, just as Althusius deems it right for ephors, collectively higher than the supreme magistrate (and so together are they the interrex of the body politic?), to depose that magistrate if he persists in breaking the covenants that bind him.

Now having touched on covenants and duties to God, I want to return to the Athaliah episode, particularly to examine what’s appropriate in a Christian commonwealth. That Jehoiada’s the one leading the coup, without negative comment, seems to be good evidence that the Scriptures allow bishops, as lords spiritual of Christendom (things work differently in pagan Rome), to take part in deposing wicked kings. While God draws strong lines between lay and clerical rulers – Jehoiada doesn’t take the throne himself, nor is Uzziah allowed to offer incense in the Temple – both are expected to work for the increase of faith, with interventions going both ways.

So as a Queen Elizabeth may remove a Bishop Oglethorpe who elevates the host, the bishops also may coöperate with lay nobles to remove a lawless king.


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