Skip to main content
Listen to Acton content on the go by downloading the Radio Free Acton podcast! Listen Now

Acton University 2024 Mobile Banner

    Contrary to much secular thought, the historic emergence of a social contract that guarantees human liberty stems from the seedbed of Geneva’s Reformation. To be sure, a different social contract, the humanist one, had its cradle in the secular thinking of the Enlightenment. The one I refer to as the social covenant (to distinguish) has resisted tyranny, totalitarianism, and authoritarianism with consistent and irrepressible force; the other has led to oppression, large-scale loss of life, and the general diminution of liberty, both economic and personal.

    Following is a brief review of five leading tracts from the Reformation period that had wide and enduring political impact in support of liberty: The Right of Magistrates (1574) by Theodore Beza, The Rights of the Crown of Scotland (1579) by George Buchanan, Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (1579) by Phillipe du Plessis Mornay, Politica (1603) by Johannes Althusius, and Lex Rex (1644) by Samuel Rutherford

    A Signal and Unique Contribution

    To view these comparatively reveals a common fabric of political ideas that have evolved from this unique basis of thought. Much antecedent Western political thought is hopelessly confused if this lacuna is not illuminated. Moreover, it is not too much to claim that Western society owes many of its best political advances to the theology emanating from Geneva.

    The evolution of resistance against monopolism had its root uniquely in Reformation thought. There were, to be sure, seedling precursors to Reformation thought that cannot be developed in this essay. For example, Augustine and Aquinas, along with the best of Roman Catholic theology of the state, provided earlier and enduring support for this social covenant and resistance to tyranny. Antedating the Reformation teaching in Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, Aquinas argued that Christians are “obliged to obey authority that comes from God but not that which is not from God…. Whoever seizes power by violence does not become a true ruler and lord, and therefore it is permissible when the possibility exists for someone to reject that rulership….”

    Turning points prior to the Reformation, however, were few and far between. The quantum advances in the doctrine of resistance during the years 1550—1650 were so monumental as to deserve notice as a signal and unique contribution. This Reformation evolution of a social covenant was subsequently manifested writ large in the origin of our Republic–despite the massive secularist mythos to the contrary.

    Though medieval sources contained precedents for resistance, the Genevan paradigm especially animated the pursuit of theological foundations for greater democratic expression. In The Cultural Significance of the Reformation (1911), Karl Holl described the Reformation as initially setting “a rigid limit to the absolute power of the state.” Further, he conceded “to the Reformation respect for being the first of all in modern times to have prepared the way for freedom of conscience in the state. All further victories with respect to tolerance rest on this first step….”

    Everywhere Geneva’s Calvinism went, so did its views of putting government in its place by opposing tyranny. Calvinism “placed a solid barrier in the path of the spread of absolutism.” Even though Holl admits that some precursors of human rights were found in the Middle Ages, the normalization of universal human rights did not arrive except as a consequence of the Reformation impetus. Further, this advance was not merely the modification of a single point but “included in itself the transformation of the whole concept of the state.” Planting the seeds that would eventually bear fruit in the American Revolution, Protestants generally laid the foundation for the motto on Thomas Jefferson’s seal: “Resistance to Tyrants Is Obedience unto God.”

    The Corporate Body of People Is Above the King

    The second generation of reformers briskly articulated a theology of the state. Calvin’s disciple, Theodore Beza (1520—1603), made considerable comments on political matters, much of which reflects the shock of the 1572 Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre of the Huguenots. Beza’s The Right of Magistrates (1574) justified armed resistance led by intermediating magistrates against a king. The limitation of the magistracy is seen in Beza’s assertion that the power of the lawful magistrate is neither infinite nor unconditional. If corruption is present, then resistance may be allowed. Beza’s rule was: “On every occasion when we cannot obey the command of men without offending the majesty and despising the authority of the King of kings and the Lord of lords,” then Christians must not submit.

    Much of Beza’s thought on these matters was further developed in the 1579 Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, commonly attributed to Philippe du Plessis Mornay. Writing within the same decade as the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, Brutus (the pseudonymous author of the Vindiciae) denounced the arrogance of a state that assumed unlimited power unto itself, and maintained that the corporate body of the people is above the king. The argument–radical for its day–put the government in its place as an agency accountable to the citizens. Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos raised and answered these strikingly anticipatory questions that are as germane as the latest Independent Counsel’s investigation:

    • Are kings themselves above the law?

    • May the prince make new laws, or are they made by the people?

    • Does the ruler have power of life and death over his subjects?

    • May the king ignore the law in granting pardon to those found guilty?

    • Does the property of the people belong to the king?

    • Is the king the lawful owner of the kingdom?

    • May the king use the property of the people for his own ends?

    Notwithstanding, this powerful tract did not so much explicate a raw populism (the absolutizing of populism came later with Hobbes and the children of the Enlightenment) as it demonstrated “the impossibility of an absolute state.”

    Since God had made a covenant with the king, the king also was to make a covenant with the people. If he violated his covenant, then this king could rightly be seen as having forfeited the right to rule. Thus, resistance would be vindicated in a case of covenant abdication. Whereas Beza had defended the right of the intermediate magistrates to resist a ruler based on the fundamental rights of the people (“Everyone can resist those who in the violation of their official duties assume a tyrannical power over the subjects.”), and whereas the Scottish theologian George Buchanan advocated that citizens were “relieved of their obligation of obedience if the ruler damages” the ruler’s covenant, Brutus went so far as to advocate, in the words of Jurgen Moltmann, that “the traditional right of resistance of the estates against the crown is no longer defended, but rather a new federalistic-democratic idea of the state is propagated.”

    One of the earliest systematic treatises of matters of state was George Buchanan’s The Rights of the Crown of Scotland. This 1579 work–perhaps the most influential political essay of the century–was an integrated Protestant argument for limited government. This early Protestant asserted that, “it was much safer to trust liberties to laws than to kings… confine them to narrow bounds, and thrust them, as it were, into cells of law… circumscribe [them] within a close prison.” Buchanan viewed the constitution as the means toward that end and thought it an egregious mistake to suppose that “nations created kings not for the maintenance of justice, but for the enjoyment of pleasure.” He maintained that, “the people from whom he [the king] derived his power should have the liberty of prescribing its bounds; and… he should exercise over the people only those rights which he has received from their hands.” Buchanan noted: “The law then is paramount to the king, and serves to direct and moderate his passions and actions.”

    According to this emerging consensus, a king exercised power on behalf of the people, whereas a tyrant wielded authority on behalf of himself: “For to make everything bend to your own nod, and to center in your own person the whole force of the laws, has the same effect as if you should abrogate all the laws.”

    No Power Is Absolute

    Some scholars associate the pinnacle of Reformation political thought with the mature work of Johannes Althusius (1557—1638). Daniel Elazar asserts that the road to modern democracy was fueled “particularly among those exponents of Reformed Protestantism who developed a theology and politics that set the Western world back on the road to popular self-government, emphasizing liberty and equality.”

    The reformers saw all institutions under the sovereign administration of Christ. Thus, the power of the state could never be ultimate nor complete; it was inherently limited. It, too, was always sub Deo. Althusius and others spoke of the power of the state as limited and qualified by some objective standards outside itself. The state, if it failed to heed these, forfeited its legitimacy. State legitimacy was always contingent upon conformity to an objective, supra-national, and unchanging standard. Far from being totalitarian, the power of a ruler is, at best, relative to other absolutes. “All power,” noted Althusius, “is limited by definite boundaries and laws. No power is absolute, infinite, unbridled, arbitrary, and lawless. Every power is bound to laws, right, and equity. Likewise, every civil power that is constituted by legitimate means can be terminated and abolished.” Althusius argued that the people could exist without a magistrate but not vice versa.

    Law Is King

    Shortly thereafter, the Scotsman Samuel Rutherford (1600—1661) echoed similar sentiments. In Lex Rex (Law Is King), Rutherford maintained that the people create the king; notwithstanding, true sovereignty belongs primarily to God, not the people. Upon the election of rulers, the people do not so much surrender the liberties and rights as delegate the authority to govern to the governor. Rutherford also recognized that people may resume their power at times, particularly if the king has become tyrannical. Rather than being above the law, the prince is under the law and subservient to the ends of the state; he is a servant, or executor (hence, executive power). Rutherford viewed civil governors not so much as dominating lords but as ministerial fiduciaries analogous to tutors, husbands, patrons, ministers, or fathers.

    Rutherford maintained that the “law has a supremacy of constitution above the king,” for a king is one not by nature, but only by virtue of a constitution: “therefore, he must be king by a politic[al] constitution and law; and so the law, in that consideration, is above the king, because it is from a civil law that there is a king.… The king is under law, in regard of some coercive limitation; because there is no absolute power given him to do what he listeth, as man.”

    Old World Theology, New World Politics

    Puritan theologies like these loom large as the ideological predecessors of the New World that cultivated the strongest democracies to date. All sides, sympathetic to Puritans or not, admit that the Puritan faith was at the foundation of the New World colonies. Since this New World led to such paramount developments of government, the locus of the underlying root is not unimportant. Systemic features such as limited terms, balance of powers, citizen nullification, and interpositional magistracies were at the heart of New World government, all concepts that were popularized by the Reformation. One hundred years prior to the American Revolution, most of the major ideas were set, and they did not originate properly from Enlightenment social contract thought so much as from Buchanan/Rutherford’s social covenant, ensconced in its distinctly Biblical moorings.

    For example, James Madison, who in his early days at Princeton was educated by John Witherspoon in the paradigm of John Knox, reflected this theology when he said, “But what is government but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” A Genevan theological belief, the doctrine of human depravity, animated his politics.

    Abraham Kuyper summarized the political impact of God’s sovereignty as “a political faith which may be summarily expressed in these three theses:

    “1. God only–and never any creature–is possessed of sovereign rights, in the destiny of nations, because God alone created them, maintains them by his Almighty power, and rules them by his ordinances. 2. Sin has, in the realm of politics, broken down the direct government of God, and therefore the exercise of authority, for the purpose of government, has subsequently been invested in men, as a mechanical remedy. And 3. in whatever form this authority may reveal itself, man never possesses power over his fellow man in any other way than by the authority which descends upon him from the majesty of God. Calvinism protests against state-omnicompetence, against the horrible conception that no right exists above and beyond existing laws, and against the pride of absolutism, which does not recognize constitutional rights.… Calvinism is to be praised for having built a dam across the absolutistic stream, not by appealing to popular force, nor to the hallucination of human greatness, but by deducing those rights and liberties of social life from the same source from which the high authority of government flows, even the absolute sovereignty of God.”

    Geneva’s Contribution

    Geneva’s contributions to politics, constitutionalism, and the resistance to tyranny continues. In our own day the overthrow of totalitarianism has not been fueled by materialism or the love of liberty alone. Even a defense of property rights does not account for the instances of halting Leviathan in our century, nor does an abstract pursuit of liberty account for the principled resistance before the state-juggernauts of modernity. Only this distinctively biblical faith preserves the transcendental standard necessary to limit monopolism and tyrannical absolutism. The faith of the Reformation has a track record of blessing societies.

    Most Read

    David W. Hall is a senior fellow at the Kuyper Institute and a member of the Journal of Markets & Morality editorial board.