“We must obey God rather than men”: Lutheran-Calvinist theories of resistance

“We must obey God rather than men”: Lutheran-Calvinist theories of resistance
By Keir Martland 

The theology of Luther, Calvin, and other sixteenth-century Protestants is similar in some respects to that of S. Augustine, and arguably in the case of Calvin, based on a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of Augustine’s doctrine of predestination, with Harro Hopfl describing the latter as Luther and Calvin’s “favourite Patristic theologian.” Whatever the provenance of it, there is in the writings of Luther and Calvin a strong emphasis on the fallen nature of man. Now, earlier Christian thinkers with such a view of the impaired, flawed, even wretched nature of man, tended to also hold such a view of society as a whole. When thinkers such as Augustine or later ‘Political Augustinians’ applied themselves to political matters, because of their view of man and society, they gave no ‘naturalistic’ interpretation of government, authority, and power, no account of it independent of the source of all goodness, God, since man and society were, on this account, incapable of any virtue apart from Christian virtue. Their treatments of politics, then, left little room for theories of resistance or even for theories of ownership and political authority independent of the Church; rather, such thinkers tended to view all dominion as belonging ultimately to the Church and they expected at least passive obedience from the Christian to the established secular – delegated – and spiritual authorities. Yet there developed in the sixteenth-century a Lutheran-Calvinist resistance theory, or theories. It is, on the face of it, hard to see how the resistance theory as found in Theodore Beza or the Vindiciae contra Tyrannos developed from the writings of Luther and Calvin.

The development of a Lutheran-Calvinist theory of resistance seems unlikely, especially when one considers the problem of the Anabaptists, who were actually revolutionary; Luther and Calvin made it quite clear they had no sympathy for the Anabaptists. More importantly, in the literature, after the fashion of Augustine, Luther, who influenced Calvin, was very clear that strong government is necessary and was ordained by God to keep the unjust in check, since St Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 9, “Laws are not given to the just, but to the unjust.” By the unjust, Luther meant those who were not “true Christians” since only true Christians live in peace and harmony with one another. If society included only true Christians, then, writes Luther in On Secular Authority, “there would be neither need nor use for kings, princes, lords, the Sword or law.” These true Christians are remarkable men, for all they do is right and all wrongs they endure willingly. In such a situation, therefore, there is no need for law – there would be no aggression or disagreements among the true Christians, but were they to arise, they would suffer any maltreatment placidly. The Augustinian influence – after all, Luther was an Augustinian monk – is made all the clearer when we consider his division of the descendants of Adam into those who belong to the “kingdom of God” and those who belong to the “kingdom of the world.” Those who belong to the kingdom of God “have the Holy Spirit in their hearts” and truly believe in Christ, so that they “act well and rightly.” But no man is just, since no man is by his nature a Christian. True Christians are exceedingly rare – scarcely one in a thousand. Rather, all men are by nature evil and God therefore must hinder men “from expressing their wickedness outwardly in actions.” Government, for Luther, and forceful government at that, not just Recht or Reich, but Gewalt, is ordained by God, and any distinction between mere power and legitimate authority is eroded by Luther’s view of the function of government as necessarily repressive and punitive. Indeed, even, it seems, when the concession is made by Luther that a particular ruler is not a good one, at least in the sense of being a good man, he is held to be working out God’s purpose. God still “uses” unjust princes to punish the wicked. It is naïve to wish for a just prince, since they are few and far between and always will be. Only a miracle or especial divine favour can explain a good prince, since “the world is too wicked to deserve princes much wiser [than children] and more just than this.” Luther in this case, then, denies the subject the right of resistance on the grounds of the prince being unjust, since it is not for the subject to question God’s choice of prince, nor ought they to expect the reward of divine favour or great miracles.

In Calvin’s Institutes, much the same view of man and therefore government can be found. Just as in the writings of Luther, in Calvin we find an emphasis on the wickedness of men. While we live out our mortal and transitory lives, Christ will establish within some of us “the beginnings of the celestial kingdom.” But the celestial kingdom is plainly not here among us. If the kingdom of God were to “put an end to this present life” then secular government would be unnecessary. As it is, man is not perfect, and it is “stupidity” to expect the perfection which removes the need for government and laws to ever be found in mere human beings or associations of human beings. Indeed, even laws and force have proven insufficient to restrain the wicked from their evil-doing. In response to the objection that the New Testament has brought to men perfection through Christ and his Gospel and therefore that any kind of servility is inappropriate in this new age, Calvin comments that those who make this argument expose not only their stupidity but their “devilish pride”, since their claim of perfection for man is manifestly false, not least in themselves! Magistrates are necessary above all “to provide for the common peace and well-being” and in doing so they exercise, as Moses told the rulers he appointed in Deuteronomy, the judgement of God. Calvin also cites St Paul in his Epistle to the Romans, asserting that rulers “do not bear the sword in vain…for they are God’s ministers to execute his wrath and wreak vengeance on evil-doers.” Furthermore, just as Luther appears to rule out all resistance as essentially resistance against God, Calvin makes the argument quite explicitly: “make no mistake: it is impossible to resist the magistrate without also resisting God.” Just as Luther had told subjects of ungodly princes to trust in God’s inscrutable providence, so does Calvin, who exhorts the reader to consider the countless times Scripture treats of God raising up kings and overthrowing them, giving the kingship to whomever he wishes, such as Nebuchadnezzar. Of this ungodly king, it is written in the prophet Jeremiah “I have given the kingdom to Nebuchadnezzar; therefore serve him and live.” Calvin says that if we keep this – God’s providence in raising some men up and overthrowing others – in mind, and that it is true for all kings, including the very worst kings, “the seditious idea that a king is to be treated according to his deserts” or “that we need not obey [an ungodly or unjust king]” will not enter our minds.

Nevertheless, in the writings of Luther and Calvin there is hidden away some potential for a theory of resistance, which allows other contemporary and near-contemporary thinkers influenced by them to get their foot in the door and develop this theory further. There is some brief mention of natural law and reason towards the end of On Secular Authority, when Luther writes that “[g]ood judgement is not to be found in books, but from free good sense, as if there were no books.” By the use of an example of Duke Charles of Burgundy killing a man who had taken the honour of a woman, tricking her into thinking he would free her husband if she slept with him, Luther argues that this “truly princely punishment” could not have come from the law or from books. Luther concludes “written law is to be held in lower regard than reason, for indeed reason is the source of all laws.” Even if the example used is not particularly auspicious for resistance against tyrants, the idea of natural law and reason as superior to positive law is there in Luther and the possibility of judging the positive law by a higher standard of law – and one discovered by reason at that! – is conceded.

In Part II of On Secular Authority, Luther attempts to make a distinction between secular and spiritual matters when discussing how far the secular power extends. For Luther, God ordained two governments, the spiritual “which fashions true Christians and just persons through the Holy Spirit under Christ” and the secular, which “holds the Unchristian and wicked in check and forces them to keep the peace outwardly.” The two governments concern different matters, then: the former concerns inward matters, i.e. making men just; the latter concerns externals or outward matters, i.e. peace. Now, this distinction is meaningless for our purposes unless it circumscribes the proper sphere of the secular power. Luther refers us to Matthew 22:21, “Render unto Caesar” etc. From this, Luther concludes that there are indeed two distinct, separate spheres, since otherwise “there would be no point in distinguishing the two [Caesar and God].” Since the ruler cannot control the soul in any way – he cannot teach it, guide it, kill it, judge it, hold it etc. – Luther concludes that the soul is not subject to the ruler’s power, “but as to goods and honour, here is his proper domain.” Here we have some real potential for a theory of resistance to a ruler, because we have a criterion for judging whether a ruler has overstepped the mark. The ruler is to concern himself with property and ‘honour’, but not with men’s souls, since God said in Genesis 1: 26 that man was to rule over external things, but not souls. This is, of course, rather vague, but Luther gives an example: “…if a prince or a secular lord commands you to adhere to the papacy, to believe this or that, or to surrender books, then your answer should be: it is not fitting for Lucifer to sit next to God.” While books are clearly property, Luther is putting forward here a defence of the conscience; you owe obedience to a ruler regarding your life and property, but not your conscience. A ruler becomes a tyrant when he commands beyond the limits of his authority and Luther tells us our response must be “I will not obey.” However, since Luther believes that life and goods fall within the authority of the secular ruler, the form of disobedience cannot be violent, for if a ruler does indeed confiscate our books then we must submit, comforted by the knowledge that God has “counted you worthy to suffer for the sake of his Word.”

At the very end of Calvin’s Institutes, there is a variant of the argument that where the two spheres of authority – secular and spiritual – conflict, man must obey God and his conscience rather than men. This principle is, for Calvin, “the one exception” to the rule of obedience to secular authority. God is the source of all secular authority and all secular lords must ultimately “lay down their insignia” before his majesty. Therefore, it is surely absurd to obey men while incurring the wrath of the king of kings! Israel was condemned for doing so, while Daniel did well to deny he was guilty of any offence against an ungodly law. For Calvin, as for Luther, what was crucial was whether a ruler “transgressed the bounds set to him by God” and thereby “raised his horns against God.” Now, what this implies, although Calvin doubtless would not have meant this, is that where, as St Peter proclaimed in Acts, “We must obey God rather than men”, the ruler, as Harro Hopfl points out, is no longer ipso facto a ruler since we are no longer to “submit to their ungodliness.” Calvin is anything but specific and may not be advocating active resistance, but he certainly makes Luther’s argument in a more forceful and pithy way.

Calvin also makes another altogether different argument concerning resistance against tyrants. Of course, Calvin is squarely against the notion that subjects may be called to inflict the Lord’s vengeance upon tyrants. But here he is only thinking of “private persons.” It may, however, be the case that ‘popular’ or ‘lesser’ magistrates have been established “to restrain the licentiousness of kings” along the lines of the Tribunes of the People in ancient Rome. Calvin suggests that parliaments may have a similar function and duty and that he would not wish to “prohibit them from acting in accordance with their duty.” For, just as the king is established by God, Calvin likewise assumes that those set up to restrain the king have been established by God. Therefore, if such assembles do not protect the “poor common people” then they are traitors and frauds and are misusing the power given to them by God. Here, then, is another great germ of the later, more developed resistance theory: that, acting as public persons, and exercising established authority, men may work to protect the common man by restraining the ruler.

Something of a false start by way of resistance theory is surely represented by John Knox. In the outline he gives of his proposed Second Blast of the Trumpet, Knox does, however, deal with the same issues as Luther and Calvin. Whereas Luther and Calvin had – only just – implied that one might be justified in resisting – though not actively –an ungodly ruler, and only then when he commanded you to act against your conscience in a matter outside his legitimate, secular sphere of authority, Knox goes much further. Knox is concerned here with idolaters and “cruel persecutors” – for his purposes, Catholic rulers – and these, he argues, can and should be deposed. That Knox uses the expression “cruel persecutors” does suggest that he has in mind Catholic rulers who overstep their authority and persecute the godly in matters of the soul, but we cannot be sure. Furthermore, Knox also asserts that a king is made by election and not only by blood, thus also perhaps conceding a role for popular or lesser magistrates or the nobility who elected him to continue to constrain him after his election – but again, we cannot be sure. Nevertheless, although only in blueprint form, what we seem to see in Knox is a hard-line restatement of the two pillars of the Lutheran-Calvinist grounds for resistance: 1) the concept of the soul or the conscience as being beyond the control of an ungodly ruler and 2) the concession of a constitutional role to men other than the ruler.

In George Buchanan’s Dialogue on the Law of Kingship among the Scots, we find a much more radical and sophisticated resistance theory. The theory of resistance in the Dialogue is hardly uniquely Calvinist theory and is more akin to a social contract theory, or more accurately a corporation theory, i.e. one in which the whole people is superior to the ruler, where the rulers are in a sense delegates of the people. As there is to be found in the briefest of brief passage in Luther, so in Buchanan there is a lengthy discussion of nature and reason. Man has, says Buchanan, in his mind “a certain light whereby he might discerne things filthy from honest” which might be called the Law of Nature. From his discussion with Maitland, Buchanan arrives at the conclusions that “[by the] law of Nature, whereof we formerly made mention, equals neither can; nor ought to usurpe dominion” and, further, that “the People have power to conferre the Government on whom they please.” Thus Buchanan defines a king as a man whose power derives from the consent of his subjects and who rules in accordance with the law and the predictable corollary is that there is such a thing as an illegitimate king, a tyrant. Buchanan’s rhetorical question concerning the definition of a tyrant is “he that doth not receive government by the will of the people, but by force invadeth it, or intercepteth it by fraude, how shall we call him?” Such a man may be resisted by force by anyone and even assassinated if necessary[1], since his rule is not legitimate and therefore the Biblical exhortations to obedience do not apply, “For saith Chrisostome, these things are not by Paul written of a Tyrant, but of a true and Lawfull Magistrat.” The all-important definition of legitimate king as opposed to illegitimate tyrant would resurface in later Protestant political writings.

Following the St Bartholomew’s Day massacres of 1572, Robert Kingdon notes that the Protestants of France were forced to develop a new political theory of resistance, and that it had to be one which was not ‘democratic’ – since the mob were quite willing to join in the attacks against Protestants – and which was not narrowly Protestant, since Protestants needed non-Protestant allies. Nevertheless the resulting theories contained both familiar and new themes. Theodore Beza in The Right of Magistrates, while making clear his detestation of sedition, further develops the old Lutheran-Calvinist theme that God above all must be obeyed. Indeed, Beza’s second sentence in Right of Magistrates is “Hence Him alone we are obliged to obey without exception.” The by now familiar argument that where the secular magistrates’ commands conflict with obedience owed to God we must disobey the former is also present in Beza, again very early in the text. It is not just right but “it is your duty to refuse to act.” In the case of tyrants who are usurpers, all may resist by any means necessary. In the case of a legitimate sovereign who has become a tyrant, the case is a little more complex, but the remedy is familiar. The concept from Calvin of the private person as opposed to the public person is employed by Beza, and the private person “may not, on his own initiative, answer force with force but must either go into exile or bear the yoke with trust in God.” The public person – whether a lesser magistrate such as a city mayor, “the officers of the kingdom”, or a magistrate whose constitutional role it is to advise the king – may act. In the case of the lesser magistrates, “there is a mutual obligation” between king and officers of the kingdom and if a king “goes back on the conditions [of his election or accession or recognition]” then the lesser magistrates “are free of their oath” and “entitled to resist flagrant oppression of the realm.” In the case of the Estates General and other such bodies, bodies which are important in the creation and maintenance of kings, if they fail to hold the king to his responsibilities then they too may rise up against him. Such bodies, also, may call themselves in the event that a king does not call them, for “it is the duty of each estate to seek a common and lawful assembly” in the case of a sovereign who has become a “notorious tyrant.” Therefore in Beza we see essentially familiar themes such as the definition of a tyrant as seen in Buchanan, coupled with the Lutheran-Calvinist emphasis on obedience to God over man and the further development of the ‘Calvinist’ recommendation of constitutional means of resisting a tyrant, along with, it must be added,  late mediaeval Roman (private) law contractualism – the contract of good faith, for example, in which there were reciprocal obligations for both parties.

In the anonymously published Vindiciae contra Tyrannos[2], familiar themes are also present. For one, the text begins with a discussion of whether obedience is due to a prince whose commands contradict the Law of God, the answer to which is in the negative. The author also argues that it is lawful to resist a prince who wishes to break the Law of God and desolate the Church, that it is lawful to resist a prince who oppresses the commonwealth, and that neighbouring princes may aid the subjects of a tyrant. The concept of the tyrant is treated much as in earlier writings, with a tyrant by usurpation posing no great problem for the author; he can be deposed by force by anyone, even “the least of the people.” The legitimate ruler-turned-tyrant, however, just as in Beza, can be deposed only by the officers of the kingdom whose constitutional role it is, in some sense, to restrain tyrants. Where the author of the Vindiciae is original is in the heavily contractual explanation of the relations between man and man and man and God, which serves to systematise earlier vague notions of a greater obligation to God over and above man, and which explains the origin of obedience of man to man, and highly technical terms from later mediaeval Roman law are used. The author’s explanation is also rather ‘feudal’ in that it is in the language of fief, vassal, and lord, and it is probably no coincidence that the very idea of a ‘feudal system’ or ‘feudal-ism’ was first successfully, if somewhat ahistorically, articulated by sixteenth-century French antiquarian-historians.[3] The author argues that just as the vassal must forfeit his fief “if [he] does not keep the fealty he swore”, “so also with the king.” The king makes a covenant not just with his people but with God at his coronation. If the king breaks God’s law, then God may no longer be understood to be ‘loyal’ to the king. This development of the more primitive or vague contractualism of earlier resistance theorists is partly explained by the author’s close reading of St Paul, who before writing the oft-quoted “there is no power but of God” wrote also “let every soul be subject to the higher powers”, which the author takes to include kings “so that no rank may seek exemption.” The resistance theory of the Vindiciae, then, is heavily contractual, and it develops the exhortation to follow God rather than men into a feudal contract theory in which God also features, thereby uniting the theological with the constitutional grounds for resistance against illegitimate or tyrannical rulers.

In the writings of Luther and Calvin, one is left with the impression that there are no grounds for resistance against tyrants. However, there are two broad features present even in Luther and Calvin: the service of God above that of men, since we serve men only because God has established them as rulers; and the use of constitutional mechanisms by public persons to restrain or depose tyrants. In Buchanan’s Dialogue on the Law of Kingship among the Scots, there is a stronger emphasis on the idea of government by consent through a corporation theory and an attempt at a definition of a tyrant. Later resistance theorists, however, are able to articulate much more sophisticated theories because they spend less time contemplating the reasons for the secular power, i.e. to beat down the multitude of wicked men. Furthermore, the emphasis on God tends to diminish the obedience due to men. In the Augustinianism of Luther, man obeys the established authorities because he has no right to question those whom God has raised up; man obeys man because he obeys God. Later theorists, in the wake of the events of 1572, would obey men in their capacity as private persons, and would not suffer tyrants to break the Law of God. The later resistance theorists, too, however, are essentially natural law theorists, making use of the Roman private law and universalising it in accordance with principles of right reason. The perfect synthesis of the theological and the constitutional or contractual or corporation theory is achieved by the author of the Vindiciae contra Tyrannos. While there is an element of truth in Quentin Skinner’s remark that these resistance theories were “neither revolutionary nor Calvinist”, their genesis, in their most primitive and circumscribed forms, has to be traced back ultimately to the works of Luther and Calvin.


Anonymous, Vindiciae contra Tyrannos (transl. G.S. Garnett)

George Buchanan, A Dialogue on the Law of Kingship among the Scots (ed. and transl. R. Mason and M.S. Smith)

Hopfl (ed), Luther and Calvin, On Secular Authority

Van. Helderen, ‘So merely humane’: theories of resistance in early-modern Europe’, in A. Brett and J. Tully (eds.), Rethinking the Foundations of Modern Political Thought

Mason (ed.), John Knox, On Rebellion

R.M. Kingdon, ‘Calvinism and resistance theory’, in J.H. Burns and M. Goldie (eds.), The Cambridge History of Political Thought

Theodore Beza, The Right of Magistrates, in J. Franklin, Constitutionalism and Resistance in the Sixteenth Century, pp. 101-135



[1] How hard has Buchanan thought about this – putting daggers in the hands of every citizen? It would seem to undermine the rest of his thought. His is a very Ciceronian conception of citizenship. Perhaps he thought only some were ‘true’ citizens; it is hard to tell.

[2] The Vindiciae is very scholastic and written in a rhetorically hard-hitting ‘high’ Latin and there is even explicit quoting of St Thomas Aquinas. There is something to be said for the argument that much Protestant resistance theory only worked to the extent that it abandoned Protestantism.

[3] For the sake of time I will not address François Hotman in any depth, but we see the same Gallican nationalism and legal humanism – which is essentially anti-Bartolus and anti-Roman law – in Francogallia. Hotman had himself served the king under l’Hôpital. The antiquarians of the sixteenth-century, and indeed all nobles, were interested in the origin of their titles and rights. This was amplified by royal involvement. The result was the collation and translation of thousands of charters and the subsequent invention or oversystematisation of the Customs in an ahistorical story of the evolution of ‘feudalism.’ The Protestant resistance theorists fit into the picture since they too were interested in the history of the proprietary aristocracy, since they needed to explain how it was that, if it is indeed the case that in some sense all power comes from the people, the present system had come about. The answer was historical degeneration brought about by the usurper Hugh Capet in 987, whereby he was able to establish himself as an hereditary senior magistrate by doing a deal with the ‘feudal’ aristocrats to make their positions hereditary also. This is history common to many of the resistance theorists, chiefly to Hotman and Buchanan. The resistance theorists set out to prove that all the Merovingian kings were elected and that their own corporation theory was once practiced. On this, the magistratial reading of history, it was the feudal aristocrats who ran the show. The historicity or otherwise of the narrative is an open question, but there can surely be no doubt that the writers in question were often looking for facts to fit the preconceived theory and narrative.



  • You may be interested to read some more about Samuel Rutherford:

    “Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661), author of Lex Rex (1644), established some guidelines for Christian resistance. Rutherford was a Scottish Presbyterian who was one of the commissioners at the Westminster Assembly in London (1643-1647). Lex Rex was an attack on the foundation of seventeenth century political government—“the divine right of kings”—which taught that the king or State ruled in the place of God; therefore, the king’s word was law. Rutherford’s work stipulated that the Law was king and that all civil rulers must obey its demands. Kings as well as subjects are under the law and not above it. When any government contradicted God’s Law, that government was considered to be immoral.

    “It follows from Rutherford’s thesis that citizens have a moral obligation to resist unjust and tyrannical government. While we must always be subject to the office of the magistrate, we are not to be subject to the man in that office who commands that which is con- trary to the Bible. . . . Rutherford suggested that there are three appropriate levels of resistance: First, one must defend himself by protest (in contemporary society this would most often be by legal action); second, he must flee if at all possible; and third, he may use force, if necessary, to defend himself. One should not employ force if he may save himself by flight; nor should one employ flight if he can save himself and defend himself by protest and the employ- ment of constitutional means of redress. Rutherford illustrated this pattern of resistance from the life of David [fleeing from King Saul] as it is recorded in the Old Testament.” {This paragraph quotes Francis Schaeffer}

    “John Whitehead, in The Second American Revolution, says of Rutherford’s thesis: “Lex Rex challenged the fundamental principle of seventeenth century political government in Europe: the divine right of kings. This doctrine held that the king or state ruled as God’s appointed regent. Therefore, the king’s word was law. (Although Scripture was seen as normative, it was the king alone who interpreted and embodied that norm.) Counter-balanced against this position was Rutherford’s assertion that the basic premise of government and, therefore, of law must be the Bible, the Word of God rather than the word of man. All men, even the king, Rutherford argued, were under law and not above it. This religious concept was considered both heresy and treason and punishable as such.”

    Quoted from God and Government, Gary Demar, pages 101–102, 498–499

    Rutherford’s Lex Rex was deeply influential in pre-revoltuionary colonial America. Yes, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, etc loved to quote Roman and Greek political thought as they wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. However, these were only widely accepted throughout the 13 colonies because the theology of resistance against tyrants, (as developed by Calvin and Rutherford), was already being widely taught in the churches.

  • Well, all this is rather dull and dry to those of us who are not Catholics or even Christians.

    But I did enjoy the retort I was once told about, made by a Christian anarchist to a politician: “I obey God’s laws. Not yours.”

    • The only Catholic mentioned above is Aquinas; the rest are Protestants. And the references to theology are few, and passing.

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