How are Christians to View Government?: Lessons from Church History, Part 4

Francois_Dubois_001In the previous article, we looked at the foundations of Protestant political thought in the 16th century, notably Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. The righthand Kingdom consists of the true church, which is invisible and known only to God; the lefthand Kingdom is in the visible world and is governed under God via the state and the church. Since the state is ordained by God, Christians need to acknowledge and follow its authority.

But what happens when the state turns against God? What do we do if it orders us to do something that God forbids, or forbids something that God commands? Do we have a right of resistance? Is there a right to self-defense against the government?

The Beginning of Protestant Resistance Theory

This situation came up very early in the Reformation, as Protestant princes in the Holy Roman Empire were faced with an Emperor who was hostile to Protestantism and wanted to see it abolished. They decided to form a defensive alliance to protect the Reformation (and their own territories) against imperial attack and asked for Luther’s blessing.

He refused.

Luther argued on the basis of Romans 13 that we are to obey all governing powers, and therefore that the princes needed to obey the Emperor. If he asked them to do something they could not do in good conscience, then their only choice was civil disobedience: obeying God and conscience and accepting the consequences. Only in this way could they honor the God-given authority of the Emperor.

Luther was undoubtedly reacting at this point to the Knights’ Revolt of 1522 and the German Peasants’ War of 1524-1525. The bloody results of the latter gave Luther a real fear of social uprisings, and as a result he condemned all forms of rebellion against duly constituted governments.

This was not the answer the princes wanted. They needed Luther’s approval, and so they did the only logical thing they could think of: They sent in the lawyers.

The lawyers told Luther that what he said about Romans 13 was true in most circumstances and for most people, but it did not apply to the princes in the Empire. First, the princes were themselves governing authorities. Romans 13 was written for the average Christian who had no part in government, and so those instructions were not written for the princes. Further, the imperial office was an elected position: Seven of the princes selected him, and thus it was their responsibility to oversee what he did. Should an emperor violate the law or break his word, it was not just their right to resist him; it was their duty to do so.

Resistance by the Lesser Magistrates

Luther listened to the arguments and was persuaded. In 1530 he issued the Torgau Memorandum, in which he said that if the lawyers were correct about the constitution of the Empire, in other words, if the princes were responsible under the law to lead resistance against the emperor should he break his word or violate the law, then it was also theologically acceptable for them to do so. The common person had no right of rebellion—the Peasants’ War was unjustifiable—but if resistance were led by “lesser magistrates” (also called “inferior magistrates”), it was legitimate, at least within the context of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Torgau Memorandum provided the theological justification for the Schmalkaldic League, which was founded the next year. The subsequent history of the League is not particularly important for this article; the key here is that the Memorandum laid the foundation for the subsequent development of Protestant resistance theory and particularly the idea that only resistance led by lesser magistrates was legitimate.

Early Calvinist Resistance Theory

As in so many other areas, Luther’s thinking on this point was widely adopted by other Protestant leaders. John Calvin, Peter Vermigli Martyr, and John Poynet, the Protestant bishop of Winchester under Edward VI who fled into exile when the Catholic Mary Stuart became Queen of England, all followed Luther’s lead on this.

Others, pressed by circumstances in their countries, began to develop Luther’s thinking further. John Poynet had already begun to address the question of when a legitimate king turns into an illegitimate tyrant. Christopher Goodman, another exile from Mary Stuart’s persecutions, wrote in 1558 that though it would be best if resistance to tyranny were led by the inferior magistrates, if they fail to do so, the common people can rise up against the tyrant. Romans 13 applied to legitimate kings who reward good and punish evil; it did not apply to tyrants. In fact, since tyranny comes from Satan, to obey a tyrant is to rebel against God. Far from being a sin, resistance to tyranny is a responsibility before God.

The French Wars of Religion

In France, Catholic attacks on Protestants (Huguenots) led them to arm themselves to protect their services; this devolved into vandalism of Catholic churches. Catherine de Medici, the queen mother, attempted to avert a civil war by giving the Protestant nobles limited rights to worship (Edict of January, 1562), but a massacre of a legally worshipping Protestant congregation led the Protestants to mobilize and triggered the first of the Wars of Religion later that year. There was a long sequence of these wars, and Catherine attempted to end them by arranging a marriage between her daughter Marguerite and Henry of Navarre, the nominal head of the Protestant side. The Protestants were given a guarantee of safe conduct to Paris for the wedding, but due to circumstances too complex to relate here, a large-scale massacre of Protestants occurred on St. Bartholomew’s Day (August 23), 1572. Copycat massacres followed across France. Estimates of the death toll range from 5,000 to 30,000.

Although the massacre seems to have been unplanned, King Charles IX took responsibility and claimed (falsely) that those killed had been conspiring against him. This posed a problem for the Protestants: Up to this point, they had argued that they were loyal to the king, but opposed his evil advisors who were misleading him about the Protestants. Now, they were faced with a king who accepted responsibility for the deaths of thousands of their co-religionists.

As far as the Huguenots were concerned, a king who murders his own people has beyond question turned into a tyrant. The question was how to respond. Theodore Beza, a French nobleman who had become Calvin’s protégé in Geneva, and Pierre Viret, a prominent Swiss theologian, both wrote treatises that continued to argue for resistance by the lesser magistrates. Others allowed for the people to rebel, though only in carefully defined circumstances. The overall tendency was to continue to rely on lesser magistrates, no doubt in part because there were Huguenot nobles in France ready and willing to lead the fight against the Catholic monarchy.

Social Contract Theory

Poynet, Goodman, Beza, and others were inspired by Calvin’s writings to propose an early form of social contract theory of government. All authority derives from God, who delegates his authority to the people; they in turn delegate their authority to the king to execute true justice in line with God’s will on behalf of the people. If the king ever saw himself as the ultimate authority and acted against God and the people, they had a right to revoke the authority delegated to the king and rebel against him, particularly if led by inferior magistrates.

The Puritans in England took an even more radical stance than did Calvinists on the Continent. We will look at them in the next article.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.



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