The Concept of the Rule of Law

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Tuesday, June 6, 2017 4 comments

by Bill Fortenberry

America’s founding fathers claimed repeatedly to have found the principles of republican government in the Bible, but what did they mean by that? Modern theologians claim that the Bible promotes either monarchy or theocracy as the ideal form of government. What did the founders see differently? Are there really republican principles in the Bible?

The first principle of republican government is that of the rule of law. John Adams once wrote that “the very definition of a Republic is ‘an Empire of Laws and not of men.’” This idea that a republican government is founded on the rule of law has been discussed by philosophers for millennia. One of the earliest references to it is found in Plato’s writings where he claimed that:
"Where the law is subject to some other authority and has none of its own, the collapse of the state, in my view, is not far off; but if law is the master of the government and the government is its slave, then the situation is full of promise and men enjoy all the blessings that the gods shower on a state."

Plato envisioned a state in which the law was supreme and all men, both rulers and citizens, were subject to the written law of the land. But this idea of the rule of law did not originate with Plato.

Long before Plato was ever born, God Himself established a government on the principle of the rule of law. God gave Israel a written Law that all the people, both rulers and citizens were subject to. As we read in Deuteronomy 4:1-2:
“Now, Israel, hear the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.”

In Israel, not even the king was above the Law. In fact, God specifically commanded of the king that:
“When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.” (Deuteronomy 17:18-20)

Thus, when John Adams spoke of the rule of law being the foundation of a true republic, he was not just echoing the writings of ancient philosophers, but the Bible as well.

Ronald Reagan once famously claimed that, “Freedom prospers when religion is vibrant and the rule of law under God is acknowledged.” This sentiment is the key to republican government, and it is exactly what we find in Scripture. As long as Israel was submissive to the rule of the Law of God, they lived in freedom and prosperity. But every time one of their rulers sought to exalt himself above the Law, the nation suffered. This has been pointed out by theologians for thousands of years, and it was just as widely known among the theologians of the revolutionary period as it is today. The rule of law – that concept which forms the cornerstone of republican government – is taught clearly and emphatically in the Bible.

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Charlie said...


I am not making the connection between "rule of law" and "republican government" (emphasizing on the governmental structure more than merely how to operate a government). The "rule of law" was also put into place in a monarchy with the Magna Carta and my understanding of our founding father's mentality is that they would have pulled from that. I do agree with your notion that "rule of law" is Biblical, however the Magna Carta does demonstrate this concept is not a "republican government" idea but a concept that oversees any form of governmental structure. The founding fathers could have established a monarchy instead of republic and the "rule of law" still would not change.

I see the use of these Biblical principles you have brought forth in this post and previous ones in how to operate a republic, but I do not see them in establishing the republican governmental structure itself. There is a difference between the two, and I am not seeing the clarity of that in these posts. Does that make sense?

Bill Fortenberry said...

That's a good question, Charlie, and let me begin to answer it by pointing out that you are correct to note that this definition of a republic would include England as a republic from the time of the signing of the Magna Carta. I would ask you to think for a moment about the nature of the Magna Carta. What does this document signify if not that the King of England was subject to the sovereignty of the people? From the signing of the Magna Carta onward, England has been a monarchical republic in which the people have sovereignty in making the law and in which no man, not even the king, is above the law. The law reigns supreme even though they have a hereditary monarch as their ruler.

In fact, if you'll follow the link in my article, you'll note that John Adams identified England as a republic in the very same sentence in which he agreed with the definition that a republic is "an Empire of Laws, and not of men." Adams, along with nearly every philosopher that ever wrote about republics, recognized several different types of republican governments including monarchical republics like England.

Consider, for example, this excerpt from a letter that Adams wrote to Roger Sherman:

"So the people of England might create king, lords, and commons, for a year, or for several years, or for life, and in any of these cases, their government would be a monarchical republic, or, if you will, a limited monarchy, during its continuance, as much as it is now, when the king and nobles are hereditary. They might make their house of commons hereditary too. What the consequence of this would be it is easy to foresee; but it would not in the first moment make any change in the legal power, nor in the name of the government."

Adams then went on to say that America could be described as a monarchical republic as well.

"Let us now consider what our constitution is, and see whether any other name can with propriety be given it, than that of a monarchical republic, or if you will, a limited monarchy. The duration of our president is neither perpetual nor for life; it is only for four years; but his power during those four years is much greater than that of an avoyer, a consul, a podestà, a doge, a stadtholder; nay, than a king of Poland; nay, than a king of Sparta. I know of no first magistrate in any republican government, excepting England and Neuchatel, who possesses a constitutional dignity, authority, and power comparable to his. The power of sending and receiving ambassadors, of raising and commanding armies and navies, of nominating and appointing and commissioning all officers, of managing the treasures, the internal and external affairs of the nation; nay, the whole executive power, coextensive with the legislative power, is vested in him, and he has the right, and his is the duty, to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. These rights and duties, these prerogatives and dignities, are so transcendent that they must naturally and necessarily excite in the nation all the jealousy, envy, fears, apprehensions, and opposition, that are so constantly observed in England against the crown."

Bill Fortenberry said...

Now, the reason that a monarchy like England can still be considered a republic is that the definition of a republic does not exclude a limited monarchy. Adams provided a more detailed analysis of the definition of the term "republic" in his Defence of the Constitutions of the United States. Here is an excerpt from that analysis:

"But of all the words in all languages, perhaps there has been none so much abused in this way as the words republic, commonwealth, and popular state ... If, indeed, a republic signifies nothing but public affairs, it is equally applicable to all nations; and every kind of government ... Others define a republic to be a government of more than one. This will exclude only the despotisms ... Others, again, more rationally, define a republic to signify only a government, in which all men, rich and poor, magistrates and subjects, officers and people, masters and servants, the first citizen and the last, are equally subject to the laws. This, indeed, appears to be the true and only true definition of a republic. The word res, every one knows, signified in the Roman language wealth, riches, property; the word publicus, quasi populicus, and per syncope pôplicus, signified public, common, belonging to the people; res publica, therefore, was publica res, the wealth, riches, or property of the people. Res populi, and the original meaning of the word republic could be no other than a government in which the property of the people predominated and governed; and it had more relation to property than liberty. It signified a government, in which the property of the public, or people, and of every one of them, was secured and protected by law. This idea, indeed, implies liberty; because property cannot be secure unless the man be at liberty to acquire, use, or part with it, at his discretion, and unless he have his personal liberty of life and limb, motion and rest, for that purpose. It implies, moreover, that the property and liberty of all men, not merely of a majority, should be safe; for the people, or public, comprehends more than a majority, it comprehends all and every individual; and the property of every citizen is a part of the public property, as each citizen is a part of the public, people, or community. The property, therefore, of every man has a share in government, and is more powerful than any citizen, or party of citizens; it is governed only by the law."

The key point is this analysis is the claim that a republic is "a government, in which the property of the public, or people, and of every one of them, was secured and protected by law." If there is no law, then no one's property is secure for anyone with sufficient might can take whatever property he desires. If any given individual is above the law, then his property is the only property that is secure for there is no law preventing him from taking the property of others. The only way to secure the property of each and every individual within a community is to establish a government in which no one is above the law - ie. they must have a government of laws and not of men. A republic (a government in which the property of every individual is protected) can only exist under the rule of law.

Charlie said...

Okay, so to make sure I understand you correctly. You are defining a republic as any form of government where the law is over everyone, including the rulers and can be applied to a monarchy or an elected assembly. I have always understood a republic as a structure of government similar to a democracy but where instead of the people directly running the government, they elect an assembly to represent them.

If I understand this correctly, perhaps in your next blog post, you could emphasize on this distinction because I am certain that I am not the only one struggling with this. I'll be dead honest. I have never heard of a republic being defined as you have described it here. I have heard that "rule of law" is required for a republic, but not that rule of law is what makes it a republic. I will say this does make your posts make more sense in terms of knowing where you are coming from, but you have not made clear (until these comments) exactly what you mean by republic because it is different than what most people think of. It doesn't make you wrong. It just means not everyone understands what a republic is the same way.