by Jon Roland
The title, Lex, Rex, is a play on the words that conveys the meaning
the law is king. When theologian Samuel Rutherford published the book in
1644, on the eve of the revolutions that rocked the English nation from 1645
through 1688, it caused a sensation, and provoked a great deal of controversy.
It is ostensibly an argument for limited monarchy and against absolute
monarchy, but its arguments were quickly perceived as subversive of monarchy
altogether, and in context, we can perceive that it provided a bridge between
the earlier natural law philosophers and those who would further develop their
ideas: the Leveller movement and such men as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and
Algernon Sidney, which laid the basis for the American Republic.
This book has long been undeservedly neglected by scholars, probably because
it is written as a polemic in the political and sectarian controversies that
are distasteful to later generations, and many of its references are somewhat
obscure, but a closer reading reveals how it laid the foundation for the
contractarian and libertarian ideas that came to be embodied in the U.S.
Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
Rutherford's main idea is that in the politic realm the real sovereign is
the people, and that all officials, including monarchs, are subject to the
rule of law, a phrase Rutherford uses only once, in Question 26,
"Whether the King be above the Law or no", but this is the book that
developed the contrast between the rule of law and the rule of men. He
does not use the term social contract, but does develop the earlier idea
of covenant in a way that leads naturally to the idea of the social
contract. He also develops the idea of a separation of powers between
legislative (nomothetic), executive (monarchic), and judicial functions, in a
way that they can balance one another, in a mixed constitutional order that
combines the best features of monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic forms of
What made the book controversial was Rutherford's argument that not only
does the magistrate lose his authority when he violates the law, but that it is
a right, and perhaps even a duty, for the people to resist such violations.
The book was intended to be a comprehensive defence of the Scottish Presbyterian ideal in politics, reflected in the rules for governance within the church. It defends the rule of law and the lawfulness of defensive wars (including pre-emptive wars) and advocates limited government and constitutionalism in politics and the "Two Kingdoms" theory of Church-State relations (which advocated distinct realms of church and state but with religious toleration). Rutherford's Lex, Rex utilizes arguments from Scripture, Natural Law and Scottish law, and along with the sixteenth century Vindiciae contra tyrannos, it attacked royal absolutism and emphasized the importance of the covenant and the rule of law (by which Rutherford included Divine Law and Natural Law as well as positive law). After the Restoration, the authorities cited Rutherford for high treason, but his death intervened before the charge could be tried. Lex, Rex itself was burned in Edinburgh (the Scottish capital) and St. Andrews (where Rutherford had been principal of the university) and in 1683 Oxford University included it in what ended up being the last official book-burning in England.
Acknowledgement and Notes on the Text
Rutherford's footnotes have been converted to chapter endnotes and
renumbered. To view the Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac words, you will need to
install the SPIonic Greek font,
SPTiberian Hebrew font, and
SPEdessa Syriac font, into your fonts
directory. Daniel Reilly, a Semitic languages scholar, who also is familiar
with Greek and Latin, helped with finding the Greek Biblical quotes in the
authoritative Septuaginta (to which Rutherford refers with the Roman
numeral LXX, or 70, for the seventy scholars who produced it), the Hebrew
quotes in the Masoretic text, the Syriac in the Peshitta, and
other quotes in other original sources, and typing them using the above fonts.
He also provided the Syriac transcriptions. There were several errors in
Rutherford's text that have been corrected in this online edition, with
additional endnotes that indicate some of these. I have also corrected obvious
typographical errors. Readers are asked to check our work and notify me of any
errors you may find that we have overlooked.
Additional endnotes of the editor are appended after the Rutherford notes,
separated by ______.
As this is written, the transcriptions of the Hebrew and Syriac words into
Roman characters has not been completed, and will be done as time and funding
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