Sacral Kingship and Obedience to the Unjust Ruler- Ambrosiaster’s Curious Ambiguity


In my first post, What Is Societas Christiana (Part I), I noted the diversity of patristic views on the nature and location of authority in the societas Christiana.  One of the views so noted was “the Church is in the Empire,” which means that of the two orders that make up Christian society, the spiritual order is ordained by God to be in civil subjection to the temporal order.  This is one possible spin on the more general patristic theme, based on both Scripture and Greco-Roman political theory, that the civil order is divinely-ordained and that the character of civil rule is therefore not to be lightly cast aside.

Following the literature on this subject, I will frequently use the term “sacral kingship” to denote this view.  Like all things Medieval, this position turns out to be quite complex in terms of themes that different thinkers working in different times and circumstances latch onto and develop into carefully-nuanced sub-positions.  In this post, I would like to present a few citations from Ambrosiaster, a fourth century commentator on Paul’s Epistles, that taken together show an intriguing ambiguity on the question of the extent to which reverence and obedience are owed to a sacral civil ruler.  First, he writes of David’s behavior towards King Saul, “the Lord’s anointed,” that the king is not to be disobeyed because he has the image of God just as the bishop has the image of Christ:1

Is it for this reason that after God has withdrawn from Saul, David calls upon Christ and offers honor to Saul?  David, who is not ignorant of the divine tradition regarding the royal office and valuing him in accordance with that tradition, therefore still does honor to the same Saul, lest he seem to do injury to God, who established the dignity of his rank.  For the king indeed has the image of God, just as the bishop has the image of Christ.  Therefore, as long as he [the ruler] is in accord with the tradition he is to be honored—if not on his own account, then on account of his rank.  Whence the Apostle said, “Be in submission to the higher powers, for there is no power except it is from God: whatever powers exist are ordained by God.”  Hence it is that we may do honor to the Gentiles, who, granted that in themselves they are unworthy, are nevertheless placed in power and ordained of God to hold back the evil one.  That is to say, force is to be considered, because it has earned respect.  For instance, therefore, it was revealed to Pharaoh in a dream that there would be a famine: and Nebuchadnezzar (who wished himself to be adored in the image), saw the unique son of God in the fiery furnace not by the use of what was proper to himself, but by the use of what was proper to his royal order.2

In a passage a few chapters later (ch. 91), Ambrosiaster continues even more provocatively: “Indeed, the king is adored on earth as the vicar of God.  Also, Christ is adored in the heavens and on earth behind his subsitute by a completed dispensation.3

These passages seem clear that the authority of the king is not to be gainsaid lightly.  The only hint of an exception comes with the phrase “Therefore, as long as he [the ruler] is in accord with the tradition he is to be honored—if not on his own account, then on account of his rank” (emphasis mine).   Almost twenty chapters later (ch. 110), Ambrosiaster gives us a discussion which is provocatively capable of multiple trajectories of interpretation.  Again, here is my translation:

We say that this seat of the pestilent which is ordained outside of God, which certainly was founded for this, that from it unjust judgments might go out: therefore this has been called the seat of pestilence, which is corrupt, which begets death, just as even the wicked [beget] damnation.  Therefore, it is not from God, this which is the seat of death.  For Moses received the seat of life.  For this [reason] also it has been given that the authority in it may be of the just judge, even of God the creator.  Whence the Lord says, “The Scribes and Pharisees sit on the seat of Moses,” and the Apostle says, “There is no power except from God: those which exist are ordained by God.  Whence he [the Apostle] says to the prince of the people: “You, indeed, sit judging according to the law and against the law you judge me, having beaten me.”  Insofar as he said, “according to the law,” he signified a just and beneficial authority of the seat.  Moreover, that which he said, “against the law you judge me, having beaten me,” he showed that that itself was an unjust judgment, so that sitting in the seat of God he [the prince] judged unjustly.  Hence it is from there even Daniel said “The kingdom is of God, and he gives it to whom he wishes.”  Therefore, just as the authority of the earthly emperor proceeds through all things, so that awe of him may be in all thing; thus God instituted that the authority of God begins from the king himself and proceeds through the whole: although the world frequently does not understand this, and he subjects others themselves in the power which [his] position obliges, yet the institution [of the seat of life?] is not, [for] there the seat of the pestilent is discovered…


Ambrosiaster’s precise meaning is, as Carlyle carefully admits, “obscure.”  On the one hand, the foundation of the kingship, his “seat,” is said explicitly to be from God and to be due reverence because the very authority of God Himself on earth begins from the king.  On the other hand, Ambrosiaster is quite clear that unjust judgments can issue from the king’s seat, and that this results in the paradox of injustice coming from the cathedra Dei itself.  Apparently Ambrosiaster goes no further than this, but later Medieval writers will make much of this obvious counterpoint to an otherwise absolutist-type theory of kingship.  And, to be sure, discerning readers will see in these citations material that is strikingly relevant to our times.

1. The translation given here is my own.
2. Questions on the Old and New Testaments, 35, cited in A. J. Carlyle, A History of Mediaeval Political Theory, Vol. 1 (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1903), pg. 149, fn. 2.  The Latin text reads as follows:

Qua rationae David Saul, postquam Deus ab eo recessit, Christum Domini vocat, et honorem defert ei?  Non nesciens David divinam esse traditionem in officio ordinis regalis, idcirco Saul in eadem adhuc traditione positum honorificat, ne Deo injuriam facere videretur, qui his ordinibus honorem decrevit.  Dei enim imaginem habet rex, sicut et episcopus Christi.  Quamdiu ergo in ea traditione est, honorandus est, si non propter se, vel propter ordinem.  Unde Apostolus inquit, ‘Potestatibus sublimioribus subditi estote.  Non est potestas, nisi a Deo: quae enim sunt, a Deo ordinatae sunt.’  Hinc est ut Gentilem, in potestate tamen positum, honorificemus, licet ipse indignus sit, qui Dei ordinem tenens gratias agit diabolo.  Potestas enim exigit, quia meretur honorem.  Nam ideo Pharaoni futuram famis somnium revelatum est: et Nabuchodnosor, aliis secum assistentibus, solus filium Dei vidit in camino ignis, non utique merito suo, qui in idolo se adorari voluit, sed merito ordinis regalis.—Quaestiones Veteris et Novi Testamenti, xxxv

3. “Rex enim adoratur in terris quasi vicarius Dei.  Christus autem post vicariam impleta dispensatione adoratur in coelis et in terra.” – Quaestiones xci.8, cited in ibid., pg. 149, fn. 2.  Carlyle admits that the phraseology here is difficult to interpret.  Speaking only for myself, I am taking post vicariam as “behind his substitute,” meaning something like “in the figure of his substitute.”
4. “Hanc dicimus cathedram pestilentiae quae extra Dei ordinationem est, quae ad hoc utique inventa est, ut inde iniqua exeant judicia: propterea pestilentiae cathedra dicta est, quae est corruptio quae parit mortem, sicut et iniquitas damnationem.  Non est ergo a Deo quae est cathedra mortis.  Nam Moyses accepit cathedram vitae.  Ad hoc enim data est, ut auctoritatis in ea sit justi judicis vel creatoris Dei.  Unde dicit Dominus, ‘Super cathedram Moysi sederunt Scribae et Pharisaei’: et Apostolus, ‘non est,’ inquit ‘potestas nisi a Deo: quae enim sunt, a Deo ordinatae sunt.”  Unde dicit ad principem plebis: ‘Tu quidem sedes iudicans secundum legem et contra legem jubes me percuti.’  Quod dixit, ‘secundum legem,’ justam et salutarem cathedrae auctoritatem significavit.  Illud autem quod ait, ‘contra legem jubes me percuti’ illum ipsum injustum judicem ostendit, ut in Dei cathedra sedens judicaret injuste.  Hinc est unde et Daniel ‘Dei est’ ait ‘regnum, et cui vult dabit illud.’  Sicut ergo terreni imiperatoris auctoritas currit per omnes, ut in omnibus eius sit reverentia; ita Deus institutit, ut ab ipso rege Dei auctoritas incipiat, et currat per cunctos: quamvis frequenter mundus hoc non intelligat, et alii se subjiciat in potestate positus quam debet, tamen institutio non est, ibi cathedra pestilentiae reperitur…Itaque si in Dei cathedra sedentes, innocentes opprimant, injustum erit judicium non cathedra.  Ubi enim cathedra pestilentiae est, non potest judicium non esse iniquum.” – Quaestiones cx, cited in ibid., pg. 150, fn. 1.
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