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John Calvin and the Logic of Armed Resistance, Pt. 1 (Andrew Fulford)

…Just considering very recent history, from the Arab Spring to South Sudan to Ukraine, revolution and resistance has been a very real part of our world. The popularity of this idea in cultures spanning the planet gives the political theologian pause. Is the apparent widespread support for this kind of act an expression of common grace, a preservation of the light of practical reason in spite of the fall? Or is it simply an expression of the rebellion bound up in the heart of our fallen species?

Despite ongoing partisan strife, countries in the Anglosphere enjoy relative political stability. But a psychoanalyst or anthropologist studying the artifacts of our popular culture might wonder if our societies are craving something else. Consider the following films and shows, listed in no particular order: Gladiator, V for Vendetta, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Bourne films, Serenity, Tears of the Sun, 24, Person of Interest, and the list could go on. What all these have in common is a general, at least tacit, support for the idea that justice can sometimes demand using illegal force. In some cases, this is taken to the point of armed resistance against the government itself. And outside of the Anglosphere, this idea has a life beyond art. Just considering very recent history, from the Arab Spring to South Sudan to Ukraine, revolution and resistance has been a very real part of our world. The popularity of this idea in cultures spanning the planet gives the political theologian pause.  Is the apparent widespread support for this kind of act an expression of common grace, a preservation of the light of practical reason in spite of the fall? Or is it simply an expression of the rebellion bound up in the heart of our fallen species?

Dialogue with significant thinkers can be a useful point of access into the larger discussion on these matters, and that’s what I plan to engage in here, with John Calvin. I have chosen the French Reformer for three main reasons: firstly because of his importance to my own ecclesiastical tradition, secondly because of his significance to the West more broadly, and thirdly because there has been lively debate over Calvin’s position on resistance.  My broad approach in the following will be to outline some of Calvin’s general political theology, to present Calvin’s conclusion on the matter of resistance, and then to argue that his principles perhaps should have led him to a slightly different conclusion.


Calvin’s Political Theology

Calvin’s famous doctrine of providence teaches that all creatures and events in creation are expressions of divine power and government. Contrary to occasionalism, he notes that God providentially governs and upholds every thing he has made in accord with its specific nature.[1]  And thusthe Creator’s providence over human beings thus takes a form suitable to their nature. In affirming this, Calvin contradicts fatalism.[2] As the Reformer writes,

But the Lord enjoins you to beware, because he would not have [any peril] fatal for you. These fools do not consider what is under their very eyes, that the Lord has inspired in men the arts of taking counsel and caution, by which to comply with his providence in the preservation of life itself. … God pleased to hide all future events from us, in order that we should resist them as doubtful, and not cease to oppose them with ready remedies, until they are either overcome or pass beyond all care. I have therefore already remarked that God’s providence does not always meet us in its naked form, but God in a sense clothes it with the means employed.[3]

As part of God’s providence, human activity properly has the same end as God, which we have seen is his own glory.[4] This desire for God’s good includes the desire for the good of others, and so Calvin encapsulates the entire law this way: “First, indeed, our soul should be entirely filled with love of God. From this will flow directly the love of neighbour.”[5] And this love of neighbour expresses itself in doing good to the neighbour.[6] The Reformer argues that by nature human beings are instinctively social, and that all people thus have a sense of what good civil order is.[7] He expounds the meaning of the sixth commandment in the following way:

…the Lord has bound mankind together by a certain unity; hence each man ought to concern himself with the safety of all. To sum up, then, all violence, injury, and any harmful thing at all that may injure our neighbor’s body are forbidden to us. We are accordingly commanded, if we find anything of use to us in saving our neighbors’ lives, faithfully to employ it; if there is anything that makes for their peace, to see to it; if anything harmful, to ward it off; if they are in any danger, to lend a helping hand.[8]

God has also established hierarchy in nature, expressed preeminently in the office of the magistrate. Magistrates should thus behave in a manner consistent with their calling and “represent in themselves to men some image of divine providence … and justice.”[9] And they are ordained so that “their sole endeavor should be to provide for the common safety and peace of all.”[10] Sin presents an obstacle to accomplishing this goal, but because of general and special grace, this end can still be reached, though not perfectly. General grace provides both the awareness of fitting laws for civic order,[11] and a restraint on the evil will of fallen human nature.[12] Special grace illuminates the mind with truth and enamors the heart with righteousness.[13]


Calvin’s Doctrine of Resistance on Constitutional Grounds

As noted above, scholars dispute what Calvin concluded on the matter of resistance from these principles. However, the most probable conclusion seems to be this: with reservation, he affirmed that lesser magistrates could engage in armed resistance on the basis of positive law principles. That is, he argued that since nations like France in fact had constitutional provisions for armed resistance, in theory such acts could be morally permissible. According to Robert M. Kingdon this was the position of Peter Martyr Vermigli,[14] and Quentin Skinner contends that Martin Bucer held the same view (though he does not think Calvin held to it; see below),[15] based in turn on the constitutional arguments of Philip of Hesse.[16] Positive evidence that Calvin held this position can be found in various places in his works, but important instances are the end 1559 Institutes, and his comments in his letter to the Admiral de Coligny on the matter of the conspiracy of Amboise. In the Institutes he writes:

For if there are now any magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings … I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance.[17]

And in his letter to the Admiral he explains:

…that if the princes of the blood demanded to be maintained in their rights for the common good, and if the Parliament joined them in their quarrel, that it would be lawful for all good subjects to lend them armed resistance.[18]

Ralph Keen has argued that Calvin only ever permitted moral admonition on the part of lesser magistrates, rather than armed resistance,[19] but the letter to the Admiral seems to clearly contradict such a reading. In contrast, Skinner has argued that Calvin went beyond Bucer’s view in a democratic direction by using the terms populares magistratus not “inferior”, by saying they are “appointed” and not “ordained”, and by warning that a betrayal on this matter would be a betrayal of the people’s liberty. He says that Calvin confirms this sense with his example of the ephors.[20] H.A. Lloyd has replied fairly convincingly, however, that these terms derive from Roman law about guardians, and that in fact none of them imply the “ward” in question appoints its own guardian.[21] Going even further, Willem Nijenhuis has contended that Calvin changed his mind in a late sermon on 2 Samuel, suggesting that the Reformer regarded Abraham’s war in Genesis 14 as a justified act of private resistance.[22] However on closer inspection it seems that Nijenhuis perhaps has misread the sermon, as it does not seem to appeal to the war of Genesis 14, but rather to God’s description of Abraham’s role toward his family members in Genesis 18. So the “constitutional” reading of Calvin above seems to still be the most likely one.

In next week’s post, I will explore how the logic of Calvin’s doctrine of natural law could be extended to allow for a more comprehensive doctrine of resistance to tyrannical government.


Andrew Fulford is a Ph.D Candidate in Religion at McGill University, where he is researching the political theology of John Calvin and Richard Hooker.


[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), I.16.4; hereafter cited only by book, chapter, and section.

[2] Institutes I.17.4.

[3] Institutes I.17.4.

[4] Institutes II.8.2.

[5] Institutes II.8.51.

[6] Institutes II.8.54.

[7] Institutes II.2.13.

[8] Institutes II.8.39.

[9] Institutes IV.20.6.

[10] Institutes IV.20.9.

[11] Institutes II.2.13.

[12] Institutes II.3.3.

[13] Institutes II.5.5.

[14] Robert M. Kingdon, The Political Thought of Peter Martyr Vermigli: Selected Texts and Commentary (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1980), xvii; cf. Kingdon, xix.

[15] Quentin Skinner, The Age of the Reformation, vol. 2 of The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 205-206.

[16] Skinner, 195.

[17] Institutes IV.20.31.

[18] John Calvin, Letters of John Calvin, ed. Jules Bonnet, trans. Marcus Robert Gilchrist (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1858), 175.

[19] Ralph Keen, “The Limits of Power and Obedience in the Later Calvin,” Calvin Theological Journal 27 (1992): 272 n. 60.

[20] Skinner, 232.

[21] H. A. Lloyd, “Calvin and the Duty of Guardians to Resist,” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History  32, no. 01 (1981): 66-67.

[22] Willem Nijenhuis, Ecclesia Reformata: Studies on the Reformation, (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994), 2:92.

3 thoughts on “John Calvin and the Logic of Armed Resistance, Pt. 1 (Andrew Fulford)

  1. Love the article – very nicely setting the terms of the debate in context. This is very timely in my own Church, as we have peacemaking ministries that seem to assume the irrelevance, indeed the immorality of the tradition of Just War argumentation. THis is unfortunate in the presbyterian tradition when Calvin was so clearly integral to the development of not only that tradition of political argument, but the costly independence of the very American republic in which we are having it. I have always assumed Calvin disallowed private resistance, but allowed public because of his idea that the public officials are stewards of Gods Justice, as the reformed confessions teach. But, if I understand your essay correctly, you are saying this distinction deserves reconsideration. I look forward to your next installment, and the leisure to read some of the references to which you refer. Thanks!

  2. Mr. Kester,

    Thanks for your comment. To address your point at the end: you understand Calvin’s own conclusions correctly. My argument will be that there are principles within his theology which would justify something like the later idea of popular revolution. But not exactly what people have in mind sometimes when they refer to “private resistance”.

  3. The consideration of resistance is timely– Chris Hedges shows his Reformed roots, for example, in his argument for Gaza’s right to self-defense. I am responding partly to Mr. Kester’s comments about a church that might happen to be the Presbyterian Church (USA), and would draw your readers’ attention to a major conversation by ethicists through the 1980’s about resistance that influences our position supporting armed humanitarian intervention, for example. In 1983-4, a study, Presbyterians & Peacemaking: Are We Now Called To Resistance? was broadly circulated in the church. In 1985, the collection, The Peacemaking Struggle: Militarism & Resistance, was edited by Ronald H Stone and Dana Wilbanks. Another wide-ranging collection, Resistance and Theological Ethics, was published in 2004, edited by Stone and Robert L Stivers. Citations of all of these works can be found in the denomination’s current Peace Discernment study material, which holds to Reformed tradition even while specifically mandated to look at nonviolent forms of resistance. In his second article I appreciate Mr. Fulford’s mention of one of the 3 main essays on Constitutionalism and Resistance in the 16th Century, to use the title of Julian Franklin’s 1969 edited set of the three. In his Introduction, Franklin comments on the greater openness of English and Scottish thinkers to “private resistance.”

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