Sovereignty, Power, and Dominion

By R. J. Rushdoony
April 21, 2016

Near the conclusion of his analysis of The Decline of the West, Spengler made a statement with respect to ascertaining the future: “A power can be overthrown only by another power, not by a principle.”1 Principles or ideas can have an extensive influence; they can create a climate of opinion which can greatly affect a culture, but they are not a power unless they are a religious faith, the governing power in a man’s life, and in a culture. Ideas prevail when a faith no longer governs.

An example of a “prevailing” idea is to be found in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Filostrato tells a story based on an idea of law: “laws should be common to all and made with the consent of those whom they concern.”2 It was the popularity of this idea that made Boccaccio’s story possible. It is not without significance that a consequence of such a view of law was not democracy but the vicious tyrants of the Italian Renaissance. A false idea of law had helped disarm the peoples. When law was transferred from God to man, the tyrants were able to prevail over the religiously disarmed peoples.

In the twentieth century, similar views undermined the Christian view of God as God’s enscriptured law-word gave way to humanistic law and pseudo-equalitarian ideas. Together with a semblance of democracy, there came again an era of tyranny, this time in the name of the people.

To deny the power of God is to open society to the evil powers of men. Fallen men can only exercise evil power; hence, the denial of God’s sovereignty and law is the choice of human tyranny and the triumph of evil.

Berle, in his analysis of power, gave five laws of power, of which the first and third concern us here:

One: Power invariably fills any vacuum in human organization. As between chaos and power, the latter always prevails.
Three: Power is invariably based on a system of ideas or philosophy. Absent such a system or philosophy, the institutions essential to power cease to be reliable, power ceases to be effective, and the power holder is eventually displaced.3

The “system of ideas or philosophy” on which humanistic powers are based is in every case a development of the basic premise of the tempter and of man’s fall, Genesis 3:5, every man as his own god, knowing or determining good and evil for himself. If any man opens up for himself the freedom to determine good and evil for himself in his own chosen domain, i.e., money, property, sex, or anything else, he has thereby breached the law for others and is congenial to the same license in others. As a result, a general lawlessness is established whereby the man seeking power over all others is able to gain his objective. The result is a tyrant state and a slave people. Their ideas or philosophies provide the soil for tyranny, and nothing short of a Biblical faith can effect a substantive change.

Linscheid has written, with respect to sovereignty,

Black’s Law Dictionary defines sovereignty as “supreme political authority … the self-sufficient  source of political power, from which all specific political powers are derived; the international independence of a state, combined with the right and power of regulating its internal affairs without foreign direction.” Black’s states that sovereignty is “(t)he power to do everything in a state without accountability—to make laws, to execute and to apply them, to impose and collect taxes and levy contributions, to make war or peace, to form treaties of alliance or of commerce with foreign nations, and the like.”4

This, of course, is tantamount to saying that the state is a god, and statist claims to sovereignty sooner or later lead to conflict with Christianity. What John Dryden said of monarchs applies to all statists:

Monarchies may own religion’s name
But states are Atheists in their very frame.

A civil government is a limited sphere, one among many spheres of government, such as individuals, families, churches, schools, vocations, and society, with its many institutions. A state sees itself as the government, and all these other spheres as under its jurisdiction. It sees itself, in Black’s language, as “the self-sufficient source of political power,” and, eventually, of all power.

With Spengler’s and Black’s premises concerning power in mind, let us go a step further. The practitioners of revolution speak readily about “power to the people,” i.e., power to the down-trodden and the helpless. In all revolutions, however, the people become only more savagely oppressed. The new power group oppresses more savagely than any would have imagined possible, and the people are its primary victims. In any and every non-Christian society, power allies itself with power, not weakness. It exploits weakness. The powers in a society may compete for supreme power; they may seek to weaken or demolish one another. What is always certain is that the weak will be destroyed.

The weak may be flattered. They may technically be given an “equal” status in theory, but not in practice. Cicero saw himself, and other men, as gods.5 For Cicero, the common possession of the gods and of men was Reason, and “Law is the highest reason, implanted in Nature,” and “Law is a natural force.”6 Of course, for Cicero, very few men in the Roman Empire or elsewhere were men of reason. Thus, this godhood was in fact very limited, held by a few! Cicero’s affirmation of the gods was pragmatic; the common people should be persuaded that “the gods are the lords and rulers of all things, and that what is done, is done by their will and authority.”7 Ruling them would then be easier.

Power is exercised against the weak. George Orwell saw the spirit of the new politics as the continual obliteration of any independence on the part of the people. No deviant thought could be permitted. Even where no deviant thought exists, obliteration must take place, because humanistic power requires the continual exercise of brute force as its means of self-affirmation. Humanism began in the modern era with Rene Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” Now it declares, “I exercise power for power’s sake: therefore I am.” The image of such a future, according to Orwell, is “a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”8 The goal of humanistic sovereign powers is the exercise of such unrestrained power. To acknowledge a law over oneself as a restraint on power is to deny that one is a sovereign power. It is necessary to deny God and His moral law by choosing evil in order to affirm an independent will and sovereignty. As Camus said, “Since God claims all that is good in man, it is necessary to deride what is good and choose what is evil.”9

The doctrine of Kenosis, a prevalent heresy, makes weak men out of those in the church who accept it. Ostensibly, according to this doctrine, the Christian must be a pacifist, one who always surrenders, is a victim, not a conqueror or victor, and, with some Kenotic cults, the faith has involved self-castration. In all its forms, Kenosis calls for at least psychological self-castration by the believer. Kenosis began in Russia and has moved westward in the past century or more. It has deeply influenced the church in a variety of ways. R.J. Sider’s  views are Kenotic at the least. Dick Wulf’s Find Yourself, Give Yourself(1983), a publication of the Navigators, equates unconditional love for other people with the true Christianity. God can require of us unconditional love for Himself, but can we ever give it to any man? To Hitler, Stalin, the murderer, the rapist? According to Wulf, the starting point is, “I will accept myself as I am, just as God does.”10 God, however, does not “accept” us as we are; rather, by His sovereign grace, He saves us as we are and requires us to grow in holiness and faithfulness. To follow Wulf ’s counsel is to undercut sanctification. Wulf ’s religion requires self-acceptance and unconditional love for others to take precedence over God’s law, which does not enter into his view at all. This undercuts the moral nature of Christianity and places it in a position of Kenotic surrender to all evil.

If man plays god, he will exercise only an evil power. All sovereignties other than God’s are attempts at establishing an independent godhood and are an unrelieved evil. The Christian can never exercise sovereign power. As David tells us, “God hath spoken once; twice have I heard this; that power belongeth unto God” (Ps. 62:11). At most, the Christian can exercise delegated power. His truest power comes from faithfulness to the every word of God (Matt.  4:4). God’s law-word gives man the way to dominion, and dominion is not domination. Domination is the exercise of lawless power over others. Dominion is the exercise of godly power in our God-given sphere. The rejection of God’s sovereignty leads to domination; the affirmation of God’s sovereignty and His law is the foundation of dominion. It is also the means to power under God. To return to Spengler’s premise, we must add, a humanistic power can only be truly overthrown by God’s power, and men cannot escape domination and tyranny apart from a return to the triune God and their total calling and dominion mandate under Him.

1. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, vol. 2 (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, [1932] 1935), p. 506.

2. Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (New York, NY: Triangle Books, [1931] 1940), p, 307.

3. Adolf Berle, Power (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969), p. 37.

4. Steven K. Linscheid, “Sovereignty and Self-Determination,” MCC Peace Section Newsletter, September-October, 1986, p. 3. The citation from Black is from the 5th edition, 1979.

5. Marcus Tullius Cicero, “The Republic,” in Cicero, De Re Publica, De Legibus, ed. Clinton Walker Keyes (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, [1928]) 1959), p. 279, p. 281.

6. Cicero, “Laws,” inibid., pp. 317-23.

7. Ibid., p. 389.

8. George Orwell, 1984 (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanich, [1949] 1977).

9. Albert Camus, The Rebel (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1956), p. 47.

10. Dick Wulf, Find Yourself, Give Yourself (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 1983), p. 70.

Topics: American History, Culture , World History, Government, Statism

R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965.  His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.”  He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

More by R. J. Rushdoony