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The Order of Nature: Natural Law and Civil Theology in Sixteenth Century Scotland

1994 to 1995
University of Aberdeen

James Burns’ Gifford lectures focus on Natural Law and Civil Theology in sixteenth century Scotland but begin with the late-medieval/early-modern John Ireland. Ireland grounds the series in the world of French and Scottish monarchy with a debt to Scotist thought. Ireland offers and example of civil theology that seeks an idealised kingship modelled on divine majesty amid the bloodiness of state politics.

Burns then examines John Mair. For Mair humans are naturally social and political power may spring from violence but comes more commonly from consent. As well as a natural social basis Mair’s theory of law underlies his political thought. Human law should conform to the law of God and natural law. Mair favours monarchy as the best government and it should be hereditary, counselled but ultimate, and hold both legislative and judicial power. Yet Mair limits kings to political rather than private dominum. If kingship degenerates from the common good to tyranny the community is to defend itself. The best kingship is modelled on the rule of Christ over the church through the pope. Mair sees a congruence of political and ecclesial authority and argued for a conciliarist position.

The third lecture on the (partial) eclipse natural law explores the broader context of European reform. Luther could be very negative about worldly princes but godly Christian rulers came to hold a key place in later protestant views where civil and church society might be almost coextensive. Calvin saw political authority as part of God’s providential ordering of the world and therefore to be absolutely obeyed, even harsh and oppressive rulers, but Calvin’s teaching mostly pre-dated the counter reformation and the French wars of religion.

Burns maintains that in the 1540’s Scotland suffered protestant rebellion but not yet mature protestant revolution. George Wishart still held to Christian obedience and under Edward VI obedience was relatively unproblematic for Knox but it was shaken when Margaret Tudor ascended to the throne. Burns holds it was only in 1557-58 that Knox embraced resistance and even deposition of a ruler imposing idolatry. This duty lay with the whole people but primarily the nobility and estates of the realm. Knox defends his position primarily from Scripture but also by natural law. With these structures in place Knox commends obedience to godly government and places strict responsibilities on monarchs for the purity of religion.

During the tumult after the abdication of Mary Queen of Scots George Buchanan justified the proceedings from law of God and nature which apply to all people regardless of rank. The argument turned on the hinge between tyrant and legitimate sovereign. Society arises providentially and reasonably for Buchanan so he presents both a civil and natural theological account with strong Aristotelian influences. Buchanan is unique in the collegial place he assigns law alongside the king. The king is not law maker in an older sense but the people (through the parliament) are responsible for the making of the king and the law. Buchanan cuts down accepted royal power but expounds the king as moral exemplar. Virtuous citizens constitute a society and should act against a tyrant in light of the mutual pact between the governor and the governed. Buchanan arguments for tyrannycide were explosive. Unlike the fiercest Huguenot literature Buchanan falls short of finding scriptural warrant to slay a tyrant but Buchanan is worlds apart from those who sought to defend royal power.

Burns’ last lecture turns to King James VI’s defence of the crown. Against this Andrew Melville asserted the parity of all members in the Kirk under the kingship of Christ. James’ politics would not yield. Once secure James wrote ‘The True Lawe of Free Monarchies’ and expound a theory of divine-right kingship. James appealed to Scripture, the laws of the realm, the law of nature, and historic precedent for wide ranging powers. James rejected any form of pact as the basis for rule which might allow a sovereign to be overthrown if it was violated. James claimed rights of a king over his natural subjects like a father claims rule over his children. For James no tyranny was enough to justify rebellion against a ruler. For defenders, such as Bodin, Blackwood, and Barclay, royal power was sacred. In this view, nature, history, and law spoke in harmony with the revealed truth in favour of indissoluble royal power.

Burns covers vast territory with detailed material from primary documents. The scope shows connections with major theological themes and provides material that even this novice of political theology found engaging and insightful.    

  • Rebekah Earnshaw, University of St Andrews