At first blush the inclusion of a whole volume on the Scottish Covenanters in a series covering two thousand years of Christian history may be put down to an excess of provincialism on someone's part. But the inclusion of this volume is due to something more than an exaggerated estimate of the importance of seventeenth-century Scotland in the on-going story of the Church in the world. Thucydides wrote the history of the Peloponnesian War not simply because of the part which it played in his own career, but also because in the record of this conflict, waged over a period of twenty-seven years between the leading states of the Greek world, he discerned principles and patters of action which tended to recur in the fortunes of men and nations. So, too, the story of the Scottish Covenanters, limited as it is in space and time, brings out in sharp outline a crucial issue which the Christian Church has had to face from its earliest days, and which is as acute today as ever it was.
This issue is not the question whether episcopacy or presbytery is the more apostolic order. To this question there are more than two possible answers. The issue is that of the relation between Church and State. The highest authority that Christians recognize bids them "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." But it is not easy to fix the limits of those things that are Caesar's, and less easy than ever when Caesar himself turns Christian. Extreme positions were taken up on either side in seventeenth-century Scotland, when the divine right of kings was opposed by the divine right of presbytery -- the divine right of presbytery, moreover, not only in the Scottish Kirk but in England and Ireland as well. The kindly, tolerant, hospitable English people have often been bewildered, and at times even exasperated, by the stiff-necked behaviour of the other nations that share with them the islands of Great Britain and Ireland, with their inordinate sense of history and their contempt for the suggestion of reasonable compromise when principles are at stake. Even where a national symbol like the Stone of Destiny is concerned, Scots know where they stand on the point of legal principle and call from time to time upon the sister nation to honour the Treaty of Northampton. But it was not national honour that was at stake in the seventeenth century, but the Crown Rights of the Redeemer -- the claim of Christ to be Master in His own house. On this principle an Aberdeen doctor will insist as strenously as the most zealous Protestor from the west lands.
For, whatever may be thought about the interpretation which Andrew Melville and his followers put upon the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, it is a fundamental Christian doctrine. On the one hand, there are still times when it must be emphasized that the civil ruler, as such, even when he is a Christian, has no authority in church councils beyond that of the humblest church member. On the other hand, the obedience which a Christian man, or the Christian community, owes to the civil ruler, even when the ruler is a Christian, is never absolute. There are times when it may be not merely a Christian right, but a Christian duty, to disobey the civil ruler: when his claims clash with the law of God, the Christian will say with the apostles: "We must obey God rather than men." Where men so conscious of their Christian right and duty as the Covenanters were confronted by men so blindly insistent on imposing their own will as the Stuarts, the resultant conflict revealed the issues involved with exceptional clarity.