Sun | Jan 24, 2021

Clinton Chisholm | No one is above the law

Published:Friday | October 18, 2019 | 12:00 AM

The recent arrests of Ruel Reid’s family and Caribbean Maritime University’s President, Fritz Pinnock, as well as the ongoing impeachment inquiry of United States President Donald Trump have made popular a now-entrenched legal maxim with a most interesting history.

That legally entrenched maxim is “no one is above the law”. It had its genesis, arguably, in an encounter between an emperor and a bishop in the 4th century of this era and got two other shots in the arm by the British Magna Carta in the 13th century and a bombshell of a book written by a fellow controversial clergyman in the 17th century.

In AD/CE 390, some people in Thessalonica rioted, arousing the anger of the Christian emperor, Theodosius the Great. He overreacted, slaughtering some seven thousand people, most of whom were innocent.

Bishop Ambrose, who was located in Milan – which was also where the emperor lived – did not turn a blind eye to the emperor’s vindictive and unjust behaviour. He asked him to repent of his massacre.

When the emperor refused, the bishop excommunicated him. After a month of stubborn hesitation, Theodosius prostrated himself and repented in Ambrose’s cathedral, bringing tears of joy to fellow believers.

The emperor, too, was under the law, and Ambrose would not allow the emperor or others to forget that.


Nor can we forget the significant influence of the Church, through the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, and his Christian colleagues, on the British Magna Carta (the Large Charter) of 1215, which gave new rights to barons and the people in general, and which also challenged the notion of the king being above the law. (An aside, Langton was behind the innovation of chapters and verses in the Bible).

The Rev’d Samuel Rutherford, a Presbyterian, wrote his Lex, Rex: the Law and the Prince in 1644. The main thesis, as implied in the title, is that the law is king, and so the king is under the law and not above it, a notion that was regarded as treasonously contrary to the tradition of the ‘divine right of kings’.

Rutherford was hounded for execution, but he died before they caught him. I guess we’ll have to wait to see the results of being under the law for the arrested Jamaicans and the inquired American being investigated!

I recommend the following to persons interested in the sources behind this piece.

Under The Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization, p. 250, Alvin Schmidt, A History of Christianity, p. 105. Paul Johnson.

The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, Francis Schaeffer, Volume 5, pages 473-476.

Reverend Clinton Chisholm is the academic dean, Caribbean Graduate School of Theology. Email feedback to