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How Are Christians to View Government?: Lessons from Church History, Part 5


401201In Part 4 of this series, we looked at the beginnings of Protestant resistance theory, that is, the question of when it is acceptable for a Christian to resist an unjust government. The emerging consensus, beginning with Luther’s Torgau Memorandum (1530), was that when the king broke the fundamental laws of God or of the kingdom, the “lesser magistrates” had the right and responsibility to lead resistance against the king.

Although in the wake of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacres (1572), in which thousands of Huguenots were murdered across France, French Calvinists took more radical positions on the question of resistance, overall they showed remarkable restraint: They continued to argue for resistance led by the lesser magistrates, with only a few allowing for resistance by the people directly, and then only in carefully defined situations.

In Britain, resistance theory developed along similar lines, though with some differences. As we have already seen, Protestants fleeing persecution by Mary Tudor had started to write about resistance theory by the 1550s. One of these exiles, Christopher Goodman, went well beyond other theorists and argued that, should the lesser magistrates fail to take action against a tyrannical monarchy, private individuals could rise up and resist the government. This remained a minority view among theologians and political theorists, but it would be adopted by several Scottish and English thinkers and groups during the next century.

The Divine Right of Kings

As in other places in Europe, religious conflict led political theorists in England to posit the idea of the Divine Right of Kings. This stated that kings were appointed by God to rule the people, and it was thus the people’s duty before God to obey the king in all matters. If the king ordered them to do something contrary to God’s law, it was their responsibility to obey the king, who would then answer to God and to God alone for his errors. This was a new development in political theory: As we have seen, in the Middle Ages, government was always limited and no one was trusted with the kind of absolute power the Divine Right of Kings advocated. But Divine Right advocates believed that it was the only way to solve the problem of religious conflict.

George Buchanon and Samuel Rutherford

English and Scottish theologians both argued against the Divine Right of Kings, basing their arguments largely on Calvinist social contract theory. The most radical was Scottish thinker George Buchanon. In “De Jure Regni apud Scotos” (1579), he argued that power resided in the people, who then delegated it to the king. This meant that the king was not above the law. If he broke the law, he should be punished like any other person; if he violated the terms of the contract that gave him power, he became a common outlaw. While Buchanon expected the lairds (Scottish nobility) to lead in resistance to outlaw kings as they had so often done in the past, he also allowed private individuals to take up arms against the king if needed, just as they could against any other outlaw.

More typical was another Scottish theologian, Samuel Rutherford. His “Lex, Rex, or, The Law and the Prince” (1644) argued that power comes from God to the people, who delegate it to governments. Rutherford believed that there were a variety of legitimate forms of government, but in all cases authority is vested in offices, not in the persons who hold those offices. Thus, in a monarchy, it is the office of the king that has the authority, not the person of the king himself; it is thus in principle possible to depose the king without touching the true foundation of royal authority. Government is established by a covenant built on a moral framework drawn from natural law, which also is the basis for biblical law and positive law (i.e., human legislation). In order to break the covenant, the people need a just cause rooted in a violation of natural law; one of the duties of preachers in these circumstances is to explain carefully the moral case for or against resistance to the government. Unlike Buchanon, Rutherford argued that when resistance was justified, it must be led by the lesser magistrates. The people had no direct right of rebellion, though he does note the example of the people saving Jonathan from Saul in 1 Samuel 14:45.

Radicals in the English Civil War

“Lex, Rex” was written in the early days of the English Civil War. The details of the war are complex and need not detain us here. Of greater significance was the popularization of ideas of resistance to the monarchy among the more radical groups associated with the Parliamentary side. Some of these were relatively small and did not have a systematic approach to government, relying instead on broad principles. For example, Fifth Monarchists believed they were inaugurating the fifth kingdom of the vision in Daniel 2 which would be ruled by King Jesus; Diggers were radical egalitarians who believed people should live in small, self-sufficient rural communities with no social or political hierarchy and no private property.

For our purposes, the most significant of the radical groups was the Levelers, so named because they wanted to level out the social hierarchy. Unlike the Diggers, they accepted the idea of private property, and they had a far more coherent political program outlined in “An Agreement of the People,” a series of manifestos published from 1647-1649 that developed with the changing conditions in England during the Civil War. The basic demands were freedom of religion (later versions exclude Roman Catholicism from this), frequent convening of Parliament, and equality before the law. In its final form, it included provisions for equal representation in Parliament, suffrage of all adult male property holders, the right to remain silent in court, the right not to be drafted, and a host of other rights that we recognize today. Although the influence of the Levelers in England waned after 1650, scholars believe that “An Agreement of the People” was a significant influence on the American Constitution.

Although the radicals did not agree with each other or with the mainstream Parliamentary side, they were united in their belief that King Charles I had violated the rights of the people, particularly with respect to religion, and thus had lost his legitimacy. They drew this idea in part from earlier writers going back to Calvin, whose writings could be read to imply that “entrenched idolatry” was legitimate grounds for rebellion against the king. In this way, Calvinism could be used to promote revolution. The English Calvinists built on his ideas, anchoring rights in natural law rather than positive law and then recognizing idolatry as a violation of natural law. In this way, Puritan divines laid the groundwork for a truly explosive political ideology far more radical than the better known ideas of John Locke, who was in many ways their successor. We will turn to his ideas and their influence on the American Revolution in the next article.

Image courtesy of Goodreads.

 

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