A Vindication of Resistance
April 12, 2021 · C.E. Carter
On the day of the feast of St. Bartholomew in the year 1572, thousands Huguenots were slaughtered in the streets of Paris by mobs of Roman Catholics under the decree of the French monarchy.
The Huguenots were a Protestant theological minority in France. They were importers of Calvin’s theology, and their numbers had grown steadily from an underground movement smattered across southern France to a much larger and more public presence. It is estimated that the Huguenots made up around 10% of the French population on the eve of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. Their growing influence incited Catholic hostility, and a number of intermittent conflicts arose between the Huguenots and the Catholics in France during the 16th century known as the French Wars of Religion. During a time of peace prior to the massacre, a prominent Huguenot leader named Admiral Gaspard de Coligny had begun to sway King Charles IX towards the side of the Protestant faith. This brought consternation among the Guises, a royal family of ardent Catholics who were old rivals with Coligny. The Guises tried to solve this problem by attempting an assassination against Coligny, which left him severely wounded but still very much alive. The Huguenots were understandably furious that an attempt at Coligny’s life had been taken during a time of peace, and their outrage caused Queen Catherine De’ Medici and the rest of the royal court to be thrown into a panic, fearing that the Protestants would make a counterattack on the royal family. The Guise were dispatched by the royals to finish Coligny off, but a miscommunication led the town guard to believe that Guises meant them to kill of every Protestant in the city, and not just Coligny. The ensuing massacre on St. Bartholomew’s Day marked a turning point in the conflict between French Protestants and Catholics, as it is estimated that anywhere between 5,000 to 30,000 Huguenots died in the carnage. Similar massacres happened as word spread to neighboring towns and cities, resulting in the martyrdom of countless more Huguenots.
One of my favorite depictions of the event is John Everett Millais’ painting A Huguenot on St. Bartholomew’s Day, which shows a Catholic girl and her Huguenot lover sharing a warm embrace. As she embraces him, she is attempting to tie a white strip of linen around his arm, a signal which was used by Catholics that day to signify their allegiance and shield them from the onslaught. As he embraces her, he kindly refuses the offer, preferring instead to die for his faith and share a few last moments with the woman he loves. His face is calm as his fate approaches; a countenance which Coligny himself was said to have had on the day of his attempted assassination. The war was likely to be lost. The immense death toll of the day seemed to break the spirit of the Huguenots. Their hold on France was gradually lost, with some Huguenots converting back to Catholicism, concluding that God was not on their side, and others dying in the wars of religion that followed.
Those that remained Protestant adopted a different disposition. Many of them abandoned the long-held view that they should be loyal to their king in every circumstance, and went to the Scriptures in search of a means of codifying the circumstances under which a ruler was no longer legitimate. It was out of these circumstances that this book, Vindiciae Contra Tyrranos, was written, and since that time it has gone on to become the most influential work of these so-called “Monarchomach” political theorists. These Monarchomachs argued for the right to overthrow unjust rulers, and applied some rigor to who fit the bill for being called “unjust”, and how resistance against them ought to be done. The title is translated implicitly as A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants, and for good reason: its derivative works influenced the likes of English political theorist John Locke, who secularized its ideas in his own works which would go on to guide founding fathers of the United States of America, and bring philosophical legitimacy to the actions of the American Revolution. Despite these secular consequences, it is a plainly and distinctly Christian work, drawing its foundation from Reformation-era theologians like Martin Luther and John Calvin, and formed the basis for a collection of ideas known as Protestant Resistance theory. It is absolutely steeped in Scripture, as many older Reformed works are, and brings many accounts of Old Testament kingship and resistance to the surface in order to guide our decisions, practices, and hope (Romans 15:4).
The First Question
The book is structured chiefly around a number of questions that address the interplay between kings power, God’s law, and the rights of the King’s subjects. The first question is as to whether subjects are bound to obey kings if they command that which is against the law of God. The answer is no of course, and the author admits that this is a bit of a superfluous point to make, especially given the history of civil disobedience done by the apostles and martyrs. Many men throughout church history have opposed kings by believing in Christ and preaching the gospel. In the 21st century, we are entreated to an even greater array of men who disobeyed civil authority for the sake of obedience to God, from men like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who staunchly and publicly opposed Nazism and all its evils, to our many brothers and sisters who profess Christ underground in countries like Iran and North Korea where the faith is outright illegal to practice. Civil disobedience for the sake of the gospel is not any more dishonoring to a king than the dishonor he has already brought upon himself by being an enemy of it. Christians are servants of Christ before they are servants of any other authority, and reserve the duty to disobey any authority if obedience to it means disobeying Christ. Kings and other civil magistrates are appointed by God as His servants, and so they are lesser authorities than He is. The principle is simple: when there is a conflict of obedience between a king and God, we always obey God first. Not only is God always true in what He decrees, but He is also the higher authority in the situation. We should defer to Him for the final say on what is right and wrong. When there is not a conflict of obedience, then we honor God when we obey the king even if he does not share our religion. The king is His servant, and if the king rules justly, then our disobedience would not only be a dishonor to the king, but a dishonor to God as well. This is the scriptural principle of submission to governing authorities. The apostle Peter writes,
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. (1 Peter 2:13-14)
We are commanded to submit to human institutions, not for their own sake, but for the Lord’s sake. Likewise, the king and his governors have the job of punishing evildoers and rewarding those who do good, not for their own sake of what is good and evil, but for the sake of what the Lord says is good and evil. Citizens ought to obey government, and government ought to use their authority for good. According to the Vindiciae, these two duties imply a twofold covenant that God makes with a nation and its king. The first part of this covenant is made between God and all the people, including the king, agreeing that the nation will be the people of God, and that He will be their God. The second part of this covenant is made between the people and the king, that the people will obey the king, and that the king will rule justly. The people fulfill this covenant to be obedient to the king not for the king’s sake, but for the sake of the Lord, since the Lord is the one who establishes both kings and their subjects. Similarly, the king has a duty to exercise justice for the sake of the Lord, again, since the Lord is the one who establishes both kings and their subjects. And since God establishes every man, both kings and subjects alike, all the people of the nation are to give their ultimate allegiance to Him as their God. If either party breaks this agreement, the covenant is null and void, and the violating party is liable to be punished. Rulers may violate this covenant by being using their power to rule unjustly, and many tyrants like Nero, Caligula, Hitler, and Stalin, have met the end of their lives in short and brutal ways for the oppression they exercised over their own subjects. By contrast, many other good kings who ruled in accordance with God’s justice (even if it was not explicitly Biblical) have lived out their days in relative peace. Similarly, the subjects of a nation may be equally disobedient to God by being immoral people, and nations that are full of immoral people bring the judgement of God upon themselves. By contrast, nations that are composed of upright and obedient people prosper, and are blessed by the Lord.
The Second Question
God certainly uses natural means to get rid of His disobedient kings. God is certainly at liberty to dispense with tyrants by bringing them to meet their end with suicide, or inflict others with something like infectious disease. However, more often God uses the agency of other human beings who bring correction to a tyrant, with anything from simple advice to deadly force. The second question of the Vindiciae deals with how kings who disobey the law of God or seek to destroy the true church ought to be handled, who is to do the handling, under what circumstances, and how they are to go about it. To answer this, the author first establishes the fact that both the civil magistrate and the citizens of a nation are jointly responsible for the sins of the nation as a whole, kings and princes and all. That is the first part of the twofold covenant: all the people shall be God’s people. Those that obey God are responsible for correcting those that are not, including the king himself. This covenantal “lumping together” of the king and the people is seen throughout the Old Testament, where Israel and her king are both brought under judgement for either a failure of the people or a failure of the king. We must remember that Israel is not different from any other nation in this context. The fact that a secular nation may be under the delusion that no covenant exists God and her does not mean that there really isn’t one. That would be like arguing that the law of gravity doesn’t apply to you because you didn’t agree for it to. All of life is the Lord’s, and He demands that all of His creatures be obedient to Him solely on the basis that He created them for His glory. Not only has God created every human being in His image, He graciously sustains and nourishes each one by providing them blessings that they enjoy daily. God does not have to do this for us, but He does because He is kind and gracious even towards His enemies. No person created in the image of God has any right to choose whether he or she has an obligation to the Him; every ruler and every citizen, regardless of their religious preferences or delusions of autonomy, is bound by covenant to obey God in all that He commands them to do. This includes everyone from King David, to Andrew Cuomo, and to you and me and your next door neighbor. Before God as a nation, we are “all in this together”, so to speak and we have a moral obligation to correct each other towards obedience. Likewise, even if the king himself is disobedient to God, then his subjects have not only a right to resist him, but a moral obligation to do so. The author says,
It is then lawful for the people of Israel to resist the king, who would overthrow the law of God and abolish His church. And not only that, but also they ought to know that if they neglect to perform this duty, they make themselves guilty of the same crime, and shall bear the punishment along with their king. (Vindiciae 37)
This sort of correction must be done on a case-by-case basis, as there are varying degrees of disobedience that a king may exhibit, and equally various ways that these disobediences ought to be addressed. Every infraction of a king against the law of God and the church should be corrected, but not every infraction is a cause for public outrage or taking up arms to storm the palace. We are to meet each assault on its level, as the author says,
If their assaults are verbal, their defense must be likewise verbal; if the sword is drawn against them, they may also take arms, and fight either with tongue or hand, as circumstances warrant. Even if they be assailed by surprise attacks, they may make use both of ambushes and counterattacks, since there is no rule in lawful war that directs them to use one over the other, whether it be by openly attacking their enemy, or by waylayings; provided always that they carefully distinguish between advantageous stratagems, and perfidious treason, which is always unlawful.. (Vindiciae 37)
This means we are to meet words with words and steel with steel. In times where resistance must be exercised, we are allowed to use whatever tactics are necessary to the ends that are required, meeting propaganda with counter-propaganda and battlefield maneuvers with appropriate countermeasures, so long as all maneuvers work towards the overall strategy restoring national obedience to God, and not the destruction of the nation altogether. That last part would include anything that falls under the category of “perfidious treason”. Even when it has been established that taking up arms against the king is the appropriate course of action, they are not to be taken up haphazardly. The idea of a mob of citizens storming the palace of the king is largely a romantic fantasy, which would likely result in excessive losses and embarrassingly little progress. Aimless mutinies are more likely to establish an even more insidious despot in place of the one they seek to overthrow, if they even get that far. Anticipating this, the Vindiciae explains an idea in Resistance Theory called the Doctrine of Lesser Magistrates, an idea which originated with Martin Luther during the Reformation. This doctrine states that resistance of a disobedient king ought to occur under the leadership of a lesser magistrate, which just means a lower-ranking government official who stands in as representative of the people. A lesser magistrate in our day might be a county sheriff, a city major, or a member of the house of representatives who would act on our behalf in an effort of resistance. This, again, is an idea which is drawn directly from scripture. The author points to the Old Testament for examples of times when a lesser magistrate of the kingdom of Israel led a resistance against the king, and this action was commended by God. If resistance is the right move, the God-honoring way to go about it is to find a lesser magistrate who will lead the cause, and support them, rather than taking matters into your own hands.
To this end, the author condemns private citizens who take up arms against the king for their own cause. Private mercenaries who seek violence against the king are nothing more than anarchists who are just as disobedient as the king they wish to straighten out. Anarchists are criminals who should fear for their lives, knowing that the government does not bear the sword for nothing (Romans 13). This is because God has granted the responsibility of bearing the sword to the state, and not to the people. Any legitimate resistance with arms must be led by a lesser magistrate, and supported by private citizens. This may involve taking up arms as a member of a well-regulated militia, as in Nehemiah 4, where the people of God took up arms to defend themselves against other nations while they repaired the walls of Jerusalem. This is a case for the church to be well armed, not for the sake of defending herself under her own authority, but for such time as would be necessary to aid and assist the lesser magistrate in an effort of resistance. Taking up arms for religion in this way is a worthy cause. There is no greater tyranny than tyranny of the soul, and no better reason to be well-armed than to assist in defending the true church.
The Third Question
From here, the Vindiciae turns to the third question of when it is right to resist a king who seeks to destroy a public state or commonwealth, and how this should be done. It is here that the author makes the astute observation that kings are established by the people collectively, and therefore, that the legitimacy and duties of a king are grounded in the will of the people. A person who is established by another must be subordinate to that other; he who is established is less than he who establishes. For example, an employee is subordinate to his or her employer, by virtue of the fact that the employer existed first and created the position and role of the employee. By the same token, no king has ever appointed himself to the throne, and few throughout history have ever been so delusional as to think that their inauguration and coronation were the result of their own doing. Not even the brightest sun king rules alone or establishes himself; even Christ, the King of kings, was appointed king by His Father (Psalm 110, Daniel 7). In the same way it is the people, through the representation of the lesser magistrates, who establish any human king or governing authority. The people as a whole existed before the king and appointed him to his role, and so kings are made by the people collectively. In the same way that an employee is subordinate to his or her employer, so kings are subordinate to the people collectively.
Curiously, this does not mean that the king is subordinate to any one of the people individually. A king’s job is to render justice to individuals, thus he must be able to exercise authority over any individual citizen or group of citizens in order to fulfill his divinely appointed role. An individual person cannot resist a king upon the merit that the king is subordinate to all the people collectively, and that they are “one of the people”. Only the lesser magistrates can represent the people as a whole, and thus, only lesser magistrates have the authority to resist the king on behalf of the people. The king is both subordinate to the people collectively, and superior to any person individually. As the author writes,
Therefore, as all the whole people is above the kin, and likewise taken in one entire body, are in authority before him, yet being considered one by one, they are all of them under the king. (Vindiciae 76)
This begs the question as to what kings were created for, and why the people would exchange a portion of their freedoms for the restrictions of civil government. What do we, the people, get out of this exchange? In a country where our governing authorities appear to have lost their last two marbles a long time ago, we might be tempted to say that government is good for almost nothing. Scripture testifies to the contrary that kings and governments are established by God for the sake of human flourishing. What we give up in freedom, we gain in true liberty, obtaining an institution that bears the sword for the sake of keeping peace. The peace is kept when the civil magistrate is a minister of God’s justice, rendering to everyone what they are due according to the law of God (1 Peter 2) and protecting the nation from external threats. Wicked kings dishonor God and are a plague to their citizens, but kings who use their authority for the sake of true justice honor God, and their kingship is a blessing to every household in their nation. The Vindiciae argues that this dynamic of the people establishing the king for the good of the whole is the basis for many other principles of limited government, such as the fact that the laws of the nation are also established by the people, that a king may not alter or impose his own laws upon the people without the consent of those he governs, that a king is brothers with his fellow citizens, that a king cannot and does not possess the property of his citizens, that a king is a steward of his kingdom and not the owner of it, and so on. Each of these is a brick in the wall to bolster the case that kings may under no circumstances destroy the liberty of their own people or the constitution of their own commonwealth, having a duty instead to preserve liberty through the execution of justice.
The Fourth Question
The fourth and final question answered by the Vindiciae is whether a neighboring king is bound to aid the subjects of another kingdom in their oppression. The answer here is yes, but not without cautioning that a king may order such an advance being more motivated by the prospect of selfish gain than by conviction to aid the church of Christ. That said, the principle is clear: the church of Christ is not confined to a particular region on the globe, nor is there a church of Christ for each nation individually. The church in the United States is part of the same body of Christians as the church in Somalia; they are not two distinct things with distinct situations. This global “catholicity” of the church means that where the church is blessed in one part, it is blessed in all parts, and where it suffers in one member, all members suffer. Thus it is the duty of a God-fearing nation not to turn a deaf ear to the oppression of the church in other nations, instead assisting them as they seek to be liberated from their tyranny. Sometimes the interference of another nation is a relief to both the tyrant and the oppressed, as the author observes that tyrants often have to keep the pressure on their subjects, even if they want to back off. You cannot let go of the ears of a wolf; you either hold on or you die. Intervention from other nations can be a way of breaking the stalemate and delivering the people of God from their oppressed misery. Whether this is the expected outcome or not, a good king has a duty to come to the aid of his brothers and sisters who are visited with the oppression of tyranny.
The Church Resistant
If there is one word to sum up the main idea of Vindiciae, it is an old Roman word: piety. Piety, as I have written about in other places, is not just religious holiness. The oldest definitions go further than that. The original Latin word pietas stood for one of the chief virtues of Roman civil life, and meant “duty to the gods, to Rome, and to family”. We might translate this today to mean, “duty to Christ, to country, and to family”, although these shouldn’t be considered three separate duties. Christ is Lord over all of life, and as such, true devotion to Him spills over into everything else. Seek first the kingdom and righteousness of God, and you’ll have everything else thrown in too (Matthew 6:33). Many Christians today recognize that our society is barreling towards the edge of a cliff at a high rate of speed, and are wondering what can be done to save it. The answer is not clever politics or bloody revolution, as if the problem was only out there in Washington, or sitting in the newsrooms of the mainstream media, or deliberating in board meetings for big tech corporations. There is great evil in these places because there is great evil in the hearts of Americans. You can’t drain a swamp that’s fed by a spring, and if you try, you can’t fill in the big muddy hole you’ll make with the same kind of big government political action and legislation that you wanted to clean up in the first place. Saving America requires a revival of real Christian piety. That means real Christian preaching; the stuff that pierces the heart and divides the marrow from the bone. It means real Christian brokenness for sins, and real Christian repentance that longs for holiness. It means real Christian forgiveness, one from Christ, and one for another, because forgiveness gives us strength to face the day in the midst of our failures. These things lead to real Christian living, which is the kind of grace from God that overflows and spills over into marriages, family life, education, politics, government, economics, industry, science, scholarship, art, and all the rest of life for generations onward. Piety is the foundation of resistance. That is I where I will conclude with a last word from our Huguenot fathers:
And to conclude this discourse in a word, piety commands that the law and church of God be maintained. Justice requires that tyrants and destroyers of the commonwealth be compelled to reason. Charity challenges the right of relieving and restoring the oppressed. Those who make no account of these things, do as much in them lies to drive piety, justice, and charity out of this world, that they may never more be heard of. (Vindiciae 203)