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King James

David Cowles

Nov 15, 2022

“We’re not in Kansas (or even Kensington) anymore, are we?”

We’ve recently posted several Thoughts on ‘legitimate government’ and on the proper relationship between church and state:

The Gettysburg Address

Gettysburg Too

Election Day 2022

We hoped to point out that things we take pretty much for granted can be viewed in very different, but still coherent, ways. 

King James I of England (aka James VI of Scotland) succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603. We are indebted to him for the most famous book ever published, the King James Bible. King James had a view of government that is different from anything we’ve reviewed so far. We can take a peek at his 1609 speech before Parliament; but caveat lector: this did not come from The New Yorker or from the editorial pages of The Guardian

“Kings are not only God's lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God's throne, but even by God himself they are called Gods... 

“Kings are justly called Gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth. For if you will consider the attributes to God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a king…

“God hath power to create, or destroy, make or unmake at his pleasure, to give life or send death, to judge all, and to be judged nor accountable to none. To raise low things, and to make high things low at his pleasure…

“And the like power have Kings: they make and unmake their subjects: they have power of raising, and casting down: of life and of death: judges over all their subjects, and in all causes, and yet accountable to none but God only... They have power to exalt low things, and abase high things, and make of their subjects like men at the chess. A pawn to take a bishop or a knight… 

“As to dispute what God may do is blasphemy, so is it sedition in subjects to dispute what a king may do…” 

Wow! We’re not in Kansas (or even Kensington) anymore, are we? (Notice how James cleverly manipulates the threat of class warfare to scare the nobles in Parliament into submission!)

James is an ultra-nominalist. He rejects the idea that God does what he does because it is objectively ‘good’; James believes that things are ‘good’ because God does them. Nominalism is the theological equivalent of every parent’s last refuge: “Because I said so.” 

Similarly, laws are ‘just’ solely because the king wills them. Forget about ‘Church and State’, welcome to ‘Church of State’. 

In a theocracy, Church rules: the State is merely a ‘functional department’ of Church. In a Republic, Church and State are distinct, albeit overlapping, entities with distinct, but also overlapping, jurisdictions.  Messy, but...

In the world of King James, however, State rules: the Church is a ‘functional department’ of State. None of the 20th century’s greatest tyrants (Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, e.g.) would have dreamt of asserting such bold a claim to legitimacy.

Today’s world is full of Theocrats and Republicans (above) leaving few to champion James’ Absolutism. His 1609 proclamation deviates from the developing political philosophy of Europe (500 to 1600), but it also reverses a basic tenet of Judeo-Christian theology that dates back at least to Genesis (2,000+ years before James). In fact, you’re only three verses into Genesis when you see the problem:

“Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light. 

God saw that the light was good.”

According to James, God acts without regard to ‘good’. Why then does he check to see if the light he created passes muster? God acted, but he immediately evaluated his act in reference to a pre-existent standard (Good). According to James’ theology, God has no truck with Good. He acts however he acts and by that ‘acting’ he creates Good…for us. It would be ridiculous for God to check to see if his action was good since Good did not exist before he acted. How do you get around this? I only see three alternatives:

(1) God is ridiculous, (2) God is delusional, (3) God is ignorant - his right hand doesn’t know what his left hand is doing, (4) “It’s just Genesis!” It’s true that we need to read Genesis with a different eye then we would use when reading a book like Maccabees, but arguably the two most important books of the Old Testament, Job and Psalms, are devoted to the idea that ‘God is Good’ (not ‘Good is God’).

Perhaps we’ll take a look at those sources in a later edition of TWS


Image: James I, oil on canvas by Daniel Mytens, 1621; in the National Portrait Gallery.


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