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Sphere Law

The idea of sphere law is basic to Christian orthodoxy and to an understanding of Western history. The concept is also termed sphere sovereignty, not an altogether accurate designation, since sovereignty is not ascribed to the spheres but to God and His law.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony,
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(Condensed from "This Independent Republic"1)

The idea of sphere law is basic to Christian orthodoxy and to an understanding of Western history. The concept is also termed sphere sovereignty, not an altogether accurate designation, since sovereignty is not ascribed to the spheres but to God and His law. Moreover, the term sphere sovereignty is a modern one, owing its central philosophical formulation to Abraham Kuyper and its great development to Herman Dooyeweerd.2 The historical and theological origins, however, are much older and are of vast significance to our history.

In ancient history, the Tower of Babel stands as the best witness to man's virtually universal faith.3 The unity of life was asserted, the unity of god or gods and man, of divine and human, so that man's total life, religious and political, was under the power of this unified divine-human order, against which there was no appeal.

The sole exception to this was ancient Israel when faithful to the Lord. The priestly and kingly offices were strictly separated, although without separating religious responsibilities from the king. In apostasy, the state sought this union of powers in pagan cults. This unity, however, was forbidden to the human order; only in the Messiah were the priestly and royal offices, common to pagan monarchs, to be united. The development of Judaism, however, represented the apotheosis of this unity, so that, as Christ, representing the incarnation and transcendental focus of this unity, came onto the scene, He clashed at once with a hierarchy which saw the challenge of His presence. The hope of the Jews had become a world order governed by themselves as God's chosen people, with the Messiah, where accepted by a particular party within the state, seen as subservient to this hope.

The coming of Christ was thus a challenge to the truly totalitarian world of antiquity. The Caesars recognized the challenge and fought it savagely and bitterly, and lost.4 With Athanasius and Augustine, the faith triumphed that there can be no confusion between the human and the divine orders.

The history of the Christian era has been largely the struggle in some sense to reestablish the divine and unitary state, the Tower of Babel bond of heaven and earth, as against the Christian sundering of that bond. In the West, the Holy Roman Empire quickly developed the same claim to represent total order, and its one-power theory led it to claim "apostolic" rights over the church. Against this, in terms of the Christian faith, there was the bulwark of Augustinian and Gelasian affirmations of the two-power theory, i.e., church and state, both under God. Later, however, Pope Innocent III abandoned this concept in favor of the one power idea, the church as the divine-human bond of heaven and earth, thekingdom of God on earth, though various factors within the church paved the way for the development of sphere law and the integrity of creaturely activity.

The Reformation, while challenging the one-power concept of Innocentine faith, and of the state, was also a continuation of the new sense of priesthood being developed by the Tertiaries. Significantly, also, Augustine was a major influence on both Luther and Calvin. With respect to sphere law, Calvin at three major points fashioned the doctrines of a new world order:

1. Calvinism denied that the kingdom of God is to be equated with the church. Instead, wherever God reigns, there is the kingdom and God should reign everywhere. Hence, man can serve God everywhere, and the kingdom of God includes every area of life, and every institution which obeys His commandments.

2. Calvinism, both in terms of this concept of the kingdom and in terms especially of justification by faith, which relates man directly to God, asserted the priesthood of all believers. Thus, man is as fully a priest of God at his business desk and cobbler's bench, when he faithfully obeys God, as is any ordained man in the pulpit. He has direct access to God, and serves God everywhere. Hence, the glory of the closed church meant for Protestantism that the institution and building were there for worship, but not needed for access constantly to God, Who heard men everywhere. Every sphereof life is an area of priesthood and a place of nearness to God. Similarly, man under God is king or vicegerent of creation, called to exercise dominion over creation by godly exploitation, exploration, knowledge, and activity. Again, he is a prophet, called upon to interpret creation in terms of the Word of God.

3. This led to a third factor, not immediately recognized but steadily asserting itself. In view of this doctrine of the spheres, and the kingdom, neither church nor state has any right to rule over the spheres, since each is directly under God and equally in the kingdom. It is Christ Who is the mediator, and the only mediator, and no institution, order, or person can interfere between God and man. Interventionism is a pretension to deity, a claim to powers of mediation and to divine government, and hence is inadmissible.

Medieval feudalism, whatever its weaknesses, still had the Christian virtue of asserting against total government the limitation of powers and the responsible, contractual or feudal nature of power. It was thus a forerunner of true federalism. To this inheritance was added the Protestant concept. The independence of the spheres was an interdependence in life and activity but an independence in terms of human authority. It meant for society a necessary division of powers in institutional and sphere activity: in civil government (as developed in the United States, executive, legislative, and judicial branches, all under a constitution which presupposes a higher law), in the church (minister, session or board, members, church synods and conferences, creeds, Bible), in education (the development in the United States of trustees, a new concept and derived from church lay rule), and in other realms a like division. Man, being a sinner, needs checks and balances. Man, being in the kingdom and a priest, serves God everywhere. Every area has its own law-sphere, and every area its own powers as well as God-imposed restraints on its powers. The unity of these activities and spheres is not in any one of them, in man, or in the whole, but is transcendental; it is in God only. Man experiences the spheres as unity, but he sins if he seeks to unify them under his government. Thus, no institution or sphere, nor man himself, individually or collectively, can claim to be the source or the mediator of unity and authority. Totalitarianism, civil or ecclesiastical, claims institutional divinity and authority.

The sources of American liberty are deeply rooted in this faith and cannot long survive apart from it. The U. S. Constitution had a severe conception of the limitation of powers, and most present federal activity is in violation of the express power doctrine of the Constitution. Instead of being rootless, American history is deeply rooted and hence hostile to the empty forms of traditionalism. Its emphasis on localism and development within context are aspects of this respect for sphere law, or, from a theological point of view, for the priesthood of all believers.


1. Condensed from chapter 11, "Sphere Laws" in R. J. Rushdoony, ###a target="_blank" href="This" class="redactor-linkify-object"> Independent Republic (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1964). Ross House Books will be republishing this book in 2001.

2. For this development, see Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1961); Evan Runner in Christian Perspectives 1961 (Hamilton, Ontario: Guardian Publishing Co., 1961), 188; Herman Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 19531958), 4v.

3. See Eric Burroughs, "Some Cosmological Patterns in Babylonian Religion," in S. H. Hooke, ed., The Labyrinth, Further Studies in the Relation between Myth and Ritual in the Ancient World (London: SPCK, 1935), 4370; and Andre Parrot, The Tower of Babel (New York: Philosophical Library, 1955).

4. Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1955).

R. J. Rushdoony
  • 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.

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