Heaven Favors the Crown: An Apology for Monarchy

Feast of St Agathus, Pope of Rome

King_David_Square_2.jpegALTHOUGH I am unable to attend the Great Conversation on "Who is currently the best candidate for the President of the U.S.A.?", I would like to respond to the question about whether or not the movements behind Trump and Sanders constitute a desire to return to monarchy, as well as the question of whether or not the right leader can provide a moral compass for America.

I am not totally certain of the motivations behind the supporters of either Trump or Sanders, but I think that as Christians the orientation towards monarchy ought to be more natural to us than an orientation towards democracy or republicanism. To put it as concisely as possible: the Western tradition, in its three main streams—Graeco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian—favors monarchy more robustly than any other form of government. My focus will be on the biblical, Jewish, and Christian sources of that tradition.

Much of the Classical tradition insists on monarchy as the proper means for the moralization and humanization of the people: e.g., Musonius Rufus:

In the next place it is essential for the king to exercise self-control over himself and demand self-control of his subjects, to the end that with sober rule and seemly submission there shall be no wantonness on the part of either. For the ruin of the ruler and the citizen alike is wantonness. But how would anyone achieve self-control if he did not make an effort to curb his desires, or how could one who is undisciplined make others temperate? One can mention no study except philosophy that develops self-control. Certainly it teaches one to be above pleasure and greed, to admire thrift and to avoid extravagance; it trains one to have a sense of shame, and to control one's tongue, and it produces discipline, order, and courtesy, and in general what is fitting in action and in bearing. In an ordinary man when these qualities are present they give him dignity and self-command, but if they be present in a king they make him preeminently godlike and worthy of reverence. ~Musonius Rufus, That Kings Also Should Study Philosophy, Fragment 8

The king, in his own moral example, inspires and empowers the people to follow him in righteousness. This is the best answer for social corruption in the Classical tradition: put a king in power who has spent his life studying philosophy and how to be andreios (manly, virtuous), and you will provide the necessary rudder for the nation as a whole. For the Classical tradition of kingship, kings are images of the divine, who exercise the rule of the gods over their subjects and to whom are due divine honors; because they mimic the divine government of the cosmos, they are capable of bringing the same order to the people beneath their scepters. The philosophical tradition seems, on the whole, to afford more legitimacy to this sort of governance than to democracy as it existed, say, in Athens; hence Plato's wealth of material on the philosopher king in The Republic. On the whole, democracy was backwards in the ancient world; it succumbed again and again to partisan division and exploitation by wealthy and powerful tyrannoi in Athens; its distant cousin, the Roman Republic, similarly eventually fell, first to manipulation by the principate and then into dissolution by imperium, and the much more open and frank kingship of emperors like Domitian.

Monarchy in the Jewish tradition also begins with the conviction of divine kingship mediated by a human representative. God is the ultimate king over the people of Israel and, also, the cosmos; as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks says in his introduction to The Koren Sacks Siddur

The word melekh, 'King,' when applied to God means, first, that God is the sole ultimate Sovereign of the people of Israel, who accepted His kingship at Mount Sinai. At that ceremony, God undertook to guide the Israelites' destiny, while the people accepted their vocation as 'a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,' bound by God's laws. The second and wider meaning is that God is Sovereign over the universe and all humanity—with whom, via Noah, He made a covenant after the flood (Gn. 9). That covenant, with its seven laws, embodies the fundamental principles of human conduct under God. Though God's sovereignty is not yet recognized by all, it will be in the end of days. Hence our prayers often end with the prophecy of Zechariah (14:9), 'Then the LORD shall be King over all the earth.' The sovereignty of God is the ultimate sanction against tyranny. It implies that all human authority is delegated authority, to be exercised only within the constraints of the covenant. . . . God created the universe, He owns it. The world and its benefits do not belong to us. What we possess, we hold in trust from God. This is the legal basis of divine sovereignty of the universe—similar to the ancient concept of 'eminent domain' by which all ownership of land within a country is ultimately vested in its head of state. As Sovereign of the universe, God rules by right, not power. ~The Koren Sacks Siddur, xlvi

Hence the opening to most of the wealth of Jewish prayer: Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam, "Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe. . ." The kingship of Israel's God, both over the heavenly powers whom the other nations worship as gods as well as over the earth and all of its kingdoms, and especially of Israel, is the central theme of the Psalms (e.g., LXX Ps. 43:4, 92:1, 94:3, 95:10, 96:1, 98:1, 144:1, 13, 145:10, 149:2). However, the Old Testament generally maintains that God's divine kingship is to be rightfully mediated through the human Israelite monarch. Despite the anti-monarchic material found in 1 Samuel 8, the majority of the Deuteronomistic History seems to assume both the inevitability, legitimacy, and necessity of the Israelite monarchy (see, for example, Dt. 17:14-20). This is the explicit apologetic point of the Book of Judges: namely, the repeated idolatry and covenant infidelity displayed by Israel in the period of the Judges was possible only because "in those days there was no King in Israel; [therefore] every one did what was right in his own eyes" (Jg. 17:6, 21:25).

The Davidic dynasty, especially, is chosen by God to rule Israel forever (2 Sam. 7:1-17) and is promised inheritance of the nations and the ends of the earth, and imperial dominance over other kings and lands (LXX Ps. 2:7-9; 71:8-11; 88:27). The Isaianic visions maintains that Israel's messianic future will be symbolized and centralized around the rule of a Davidic descendant whose rule will be eternal and through whom peace is created among the nations and to whom all of the Gentile kings and nations both pay homage and look to in hope (e.g. Is. 9:6-7, 11:1-10). Hence the thrice daily prayer of the Siddur:

May the offshoot of Thy servant David soon flower, and may his pride be raised high by Thy salvation, for we wait for Thy salvation all day. Blessed art Thou, LORD, who makes the glory of salvation flourish. ~Fifteenth Benediction

The Christian tradition, itself an extension of the Jewish tradition, everywhere seeks to explain Christ in his relationship to the Davidic royal house, as the proper heir to the throne of Israel. The sheer amount of material evidencing this fact in the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers is exhausting in its size and depth, but some important passages are worth noting. Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy that seeks to establish Jesus' Davidic legitimacy and populates his Gospel with references to Jesus's royalty (e.g. 2:1-12) and Davidic inheritance (e.g., Mt. 9:27, 12:1-8, 23, 15:22). The Annunciation in Luke, iconically represented on the royal doors of every Orthodox iconostasis, consists in an angelic promise that Jesus will reign forever as Davidic king:

He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the houes of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end." ~Luke 1:32-33

And again in the Song of Zechariah:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us; to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant, the oath which he swore to our father Abraham, to grant that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life. ~Luke 1:68-75

The good tidings of Jesus's birth depend integrally on his birth in David's city (Lk. 2:10-11). In all four Gospels, the Triumphal Entry of Christ into Jerusalem is interpreted by the people as the advent of the Davidic kingdom (Mt. 21:1-11; Mk. 11:1-10; Lk. 19:28-38; Jn. 12:12-15); when asked to rebuke them, Jesus declines (Mt. 21:14-16; Lk. 19:39-40). Jesus's suffering death is interpreted through the lens of Davidic royal psalms (e.g., Ps. 69:2 in Lk. 23:36; Ps. 31:6 in Lk. 23:46; I owe this point to Joshua W. Jipp and his excellent book, Christ Is King: Paul’s Royal Ideology) and his crucifixion establishes him as King of the Jews (Mt. 27:37; Mk. 15:26; Lk. 23:38; Jn. 19:19-20). In response to a question from the disciples about whether or not he will restore the Israelite monarchy, the Risen Christ does not reject the inquiry as illegitimate or inappropriate but rejects only the disciples' presumption to know the kairous and chronous which the Father has established by his own power; instead, the disciples will enact an apostolic ministry to the ends of the earth since, as Davidic king, Jesus is heir to that domain, and his new lordship must be announced there (Acts 1:6-9). The restoration of the Davidic monarchy is alluded to again later in Acts, where St. Peter promises kairous of refreshment and the chronous of restoration to be connected with the return of Christ, who must remain in the heavens at least until Israel has received him (Acts 3:17-26). For St. Paul, Jesus' Davidic royal status is an integral part of the Gospel (e.g., Rom. 1:1-4, 15:12; 2 Tim. 2:8), as it is to the Apocalypse (Rev. 3:7, 5:5, 22:16) and the Apostolic Fathers, where Christ's descent from David is often especially connected to the Eucharistic celebration, as a foretaste of the coming, all-encompassing Davidic kingdom (Ignatius Trallians 9:1-2; cf. Ephesians 18:2, 20:2; Romans 7:3; Smyrnaeans 1:1; Didache 9-10). St. Paul, especially, draws on the rhetoric and language of ancient kingship discourse to exalt Christ, and the logic of kingship proliferates his letters everywhere (seriously, I can't recommend Jipp's book highly enough for this sort of thing).

While ultimately Christians should maintain the apocalyptic sense that they are exiles and strangers among the kingdoms of this present age, since they are a peculiar people unto God and co-heirs with Israel in the divine election and inheritance (1 Pt. 2:1-12), Christians are also confident that the "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he shall reign for ever and ever" (Rev. 11:15). That is, Christ, as Son of David, has indeed inherited reign and rule over all the nations and the ends of the earth and sits now at the right hand of God until his enemies are utterly subdued (LXX Ps. 109:1). But within God's kingdom, exercised and ruled through his Davidic Messiah, the Christian tradition has usually asserted the possibility of Christian vassal-kings—that is, sub-monarchs who may rule in a godly manner on behalf of the exalted Christ, kings who owe their allegiance and homage to the King of kings, the Son of David and of God.

The institution of Christian monarchy has been by no means perfect, but it has served an important function for most of the Classical Christian traditions since roughly the 4th century. While Byzantium may be the natural candidate for the consideration of a Christian monarchy in the patristic era, it is not the only one; Georgia was ruled by Christian kings for centuries, as were Ethiopia and Russia. In each case, the monarchy was conceived in different terms and produced a variety of monarchs upon whom history affords the luxury of modern judgment and estimation. Of interest are the ways in which, in each instance of Christian monarchy, the power and legitimacy of the earthly monarch is always subordinated to the divine monarchy exercised through Christ. A powerful example of this in Byzantium was the refusal to address the emperor as empsychos nomos, living law, since this title was afforded solely to Christ, having fulfilled the Law of God in himself and become the true living Law. There are clear boundaries: a monarchy may submit itself to Christ and seek to act in accord with Christ's lordship, but there is no confusion between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Justinian, Davit IV, or Vladimir of Kiev.

To summarize: the biblical tradition and the history of Judaism and Christianity are inherently monarchical in their theopolitical outlook, and hold together in tension a theology of exile (both Jews and Christians are ultimately looking forward to the redemption of the people of God and the final consummation of the world in God's coming kingdom) with a theology of the divine legitimacy of human monarchy (both Jews and Christians also recognizing that any and all earthly monarchs are ultimately subordinate to God and the Davidic monarch, whom Christians believe to be Jesus). Kingship discourse about God and Christ are not metaphor: they are literal descriptions of the position and title to which the Father and the Son lay claim (in the prayer life of the Church, we might include also the Spirit: "O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth. . .”).

Whether Trump and Sanders supporters are longing for the kind of government that monarchy offers—a system where the gridlock of democratic and republican structures is bypassed by the dictatorial power of a single ruler—American Christians need to come to terms with the legitimacy their tradition assumes for such a system and, indeed, the ways in which monarchy is integral to the faith that they proclaim and the hope for which they long as Christians. This should influence not just the way that we approach the upcoming election (which increasingly presents us with fewer and fewer good options for a new POTUS), but also American politics in general: as apocalypticists by nature, we are essentially enemies of any and every State, being as we are allegiant to a King who has promised to shatter the power and stability of every presently existing rule and replace it with his own; from another perspective, we recognize the possibility for an interim rule characterized by Christian standards, but recognize also that such a thing has traditionally been carried out by monarchy. Moreover, a return to monarchy would be the most straightforwardly Classical and biblical solution to the dissolution of the moral consciousness of Western culture.

In short, heaven favors the crown. St. John of Kronstadt was right: "In Heaven, there is a Kingdom; in Hell, there is Democracy."


David Armstrong is an Orthodox Christian who enjoys a shameless love affair with Jews, Judaism, and other Christians. He is currently an Accelerated Masters student in Religious Studies at Missouri State University in Springfield, MO, where he is nearing completion of his undergraduate degree in Religious Studies with a minor in Classical Greek. He has an avid interest in far too many things, and would do well to specialize.

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  • commented 2016-02-25 12:44:02 -0600
    I don’t assume a republic or democracy as best. I simply assume that no man, or line of men, can be trusted to rule over others with absolute power for any length of time. Nor can we assume that these men, or women, will be followers of Christ, even nominally…let alone Old Testament kings who should have followed the God of Abraham. For every endorsement from Biblical or secular history of an enlighten despot is one of absolute tyranny. In many cases, a tyranny in which practicing a Christian faith is treated with disdain if not outright, and fatal, persecution. Granted, that same tyranny is equally able to be exercised democratically. I will happily profess my faith in Christ the King, but will not do so in a worldly king – however selected. My faith and hope do not rest in the kingdoms of men.
  • commented 2016-02-25 11:12:23 -0600
    Jim,

    I confess that I find your take on history somewhat revisionist. What criteria, for example, enable us to find in “the basics of human history” an argument for democracy or republicanism, that does not begin from the assumption that those forms of government are best? It’s difficult even to point to the American experiment as a good example of either democracy or republicanism since initially the most immediate model the Founders had for our society was the limited monarchy in the UK. There’s a letter from Col. Lewis Nicola to George Washington in the 1780s acknowledging that the Executive position is essentially a monarchical office and that, while the language of kingship might have negative connotations for those who have fought in the Revolution, it remains the best description and ought to be used.

    Moreover, I don’t understand your logic that the classical and biblical sources here reflect more their own stage in history than an actual support for monarchy. The ancient world knew of alternatives to monarchy, especially in Greece and Rome, and we possess actual arguments for and against the various ways to run a State. Plato’s Rebublic is perhaps the most famous. But my argument takes account not only of the fact that most of the ancient authors seem to prefer and praise some kind of monarchy, but also that the ancient examples of democracy and republicanism were more often than not the playthings of oligarchy, as our own system is today.

    As for the specifically biblical material, I suppose it comes down to a hermeneutical issue. 1 Samuel 8 cannot be isolated from the breadth of Deuteronomistic material that praises monarchy (and, specifically, the Davidic monarchy) and from the wider Old Testament material that assumes the integrity of monarchy to the way that God has made the world. It is true that Israel’s request for a monarchy comes from a sinful rejection of God’s desire that the people should live directly under the rule of divine kingship, but it ought to strike us that the next best thing to that, in the mind of the biblical author, is a king who has God’s own heart. I think Christology is really the lynchpin here, where the heart of all Christology—even the highest Christology in the Scriptures and that with which the Fathers concern themselves most, a Logos Christology that understands Christ to be the coeternal and consubstantial Logos of the Father through whom he created, sustains, and is revealed to the cosmos—is royal messianism, the prophetic and apocalyptic traditions that the ultimate establishment of divine kingship in the world over the enemies of God will be through the installation of a Davidic monarch. In other words, “Christ” means “Messiah,” Israel’s Anointed King, and when we confess faith in “one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not created, of one essence with the Father, through whom all things came into being,” we must understand that we are in fact confessing these things about the Messiah of Israel, the royal heir to the Davidic dynasty and the imperial lord of all the nations.

    The central confession of our faith is impossible without a recognition and pledge of allegiance to an ancient near Eastern theocratic monarchy. That is deeply offensive to modern sensibility and Western secular political and religious theory, but the biblical worldview not only assumes the legitimacy of such a construct, but is everywhere saturated with references to it, especially in the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers where the primary lens for understanding and proclaiming Christ is easily as Davidic Savior and King.

    That’s the bulk of my argument: the apology for an earthly, interim monarchy that acts as vassal-leadership on behalf of Jesus Christ as Son of David and Son of God (and hence, “firstborn of the kings of the earth,” per LXX Ps. 88:27, Rev. 1:5) is, to my mind, possible on the basis of a royal-messianic Christology and demonstrated in Christian history as a real possibility. It does not mean that Christian monarchs are perfect or that their kingdoms are the Kingdom, but merely that there have indeed been godly kings since the coming of Christ. My argument is not even so much that American Christians ought to push for a Christian monarchy in the States (glorious though such a thing could be), but more so that we need to come to terms with the radical discontinuity between the political culture in which we live and the political theology implied by our faith.

    Part of the mission of Eighth Day, as I understand it, is to cultivate a culture of exile among American Christians—that is, to form what Michael Gorman calls “colonies of cruciformity,” pockets of the life of the Kingdom in the midst of an empire in decline. A Royal Christology assists that project, because it reorients our worldview. That’s what I think, anyway.
  • commented 2016-02-23 15:45:18 -0600
    The idea that Christians should take heart in a monarchy for the reasons outlined here misses some central tenets of our faith…let alone the basics of human history. Our faith recognizes both the best of mankind and our worst. We cannot rely on enlightened, philosopher kings to rule us. Simply put, history proves that the pool of potential rulers that fit this bill is infinitesimally small. For every example of Plato’s ideal ruler we’re met with countless examples of would-be-kings turned tyrants. Lord Acton admonishes us to be wary of power and its corrupting influence. We should remember this and the content of 1 Samuel 8. The classical and Bible history or “support” of monarchy outlined here is probably more a reflection of the times in which it was written than an endorsement of monarchy. Again, where will we find these enlightened rulers of humanity? Where in numbers great enough to put our faith in absolutism rather than some form of republic or democracy?

    This, of course, isn’t an endorsement of those currently running for president. We can just as easily elect a tyrant as we can have one dictated by the Divine Right of Kings.

    It boils down to this, for presidential elections the vote of the average American is worthless and has absolutely no bearing on the outcome. What’s more, and probably more important, it doesn’t matter where one falls on the political spectrum but, as Christians, government will always do something that is inherently immoral and violates our faith (i.e., progressives concerned about institutionalized racism and criminal sentencing problems or conservatives concerned about abortion). Thus, one is always being asked to endorse immoral behavior, let alone countless lesser compromises that even the most ideologically aligned candidate asks their supporters to make. I will not make these compromises and offer my implicit endorsement of government’s immoral action, especially when the value of my vote in a national election is de minimis. To the most-obvious rebuttal, our Constitution protects my right to speech, or not to speak, regardless of my participation in a given election. I will also potentially vote in local, state, and some other elections for U.S. House and/or Senate. Just don’t ask me to weigh-in on the person who would be our next king, or queen if Madame Clinton wins.

    Instead of worrying about the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania or our idealized vision of a monarch, let’s remember that Congress, no matter how flawed, and our federal system do two things. 1, Congress is a co-equal branch of government and should be treated as such and we should demand they recognize this fact, namely by not outsourcing law-making to the executive. 2, Our federal system was set up to allow civil society to function w/o government and for decisions to be made as close to the citizenry as possible. It should matter less who is our king, no matter how selected, and more what decisions are made in the statehouse, county courthouse, and city hall.
  • commented 2016-02-20 22:32:36 -0600
    With the death of my fellow Xavier alumnus, Anton Scalia, the character and the constitutional philosophy of he next president are of paramount importance. Providence has played a cruel trick on us as the Supreme Court will be adjudicating challenges to state Blaine amendments and the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Scalia’s wisdom and powerful mind will sorely be missed.

    I find Trump’s appeal less a turn toward monarchy than one toward Caudilloism while that of Sanders is toward statism.

    David Armstrong’s thoughts are of keen interest. I am less wedded to monarchy than he. When Christendom prevailed and we had such monarchs as Malcolm Canmore and his consort St. Margaret, the idea had appeal. I think of the line about Aragorn that the hands of the king be healing hands. The medieval monarch has been swept away by the cancerous rise of the modern state and the plagues we call ideologies most especially including nationalism.

    I am a fan of 1 Samuel 8. We must acknowledge the true kingship of the Lord. Madison saw the ultimate protection of liberty in the acknowledgment of a power higher than the state. In this world, weakened by original sin and operating under the modern bureaucratic and powerful state, I prefer a republic. The father of our constitution learned Polybius’s lesson that mixed government is best. Mr. Armstrong sells the Roman Republic short–it had a good run from the sixth century to the first. The success of the Roman Empire (49 BC–1452 AD) was due to Augustus’s wisdom in maintaining the forms of the Republic and exporting republican institutions to the many cities that constituted the Empire.

    St. John of Kronstadt was right: "In Heaven, there is a Kingdom; in Hell, there is Democracy.” Sadly, while neither in Heaven nor Hell but in this vale of tears, our least worst alternative is a republic.

    By the way, must we us acronyms like “PONTUS?” The president is neither a bridge to heaven nor to salvation.