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John Calvin and the Logic of Armed Resistance, Pt. 2 (Andrew Fulford)

Later Calvinist texts, like the famous Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos, would go further than the Reformer and claim natural law defenses for resistance.[1] I want to contend that Calvin’s principles provided a basis for this kind of argument, even though Calvin did not take this route in his own thinking. And the place to begin this line of argument, I think, is with his comments on the sixth commandment.

This is a continuation of a post begun last week.

Later Calvinist texts, like the famous Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos, would go further than the Reformer and claim natural law defenses for resistance.[1] I want to contend that Calvin’s principles provided a basis for this kind of argument, even though Calvin did not take this route in his own thinking. And the place to begin this line of argument, I think, is with his comments on the sixth commandment.

As we saw above, for Calvin the command is not simply an injunction against harming people, but a direction to positively help them, even to the point of warding off danger. If we turn to places where Calvin talks about the coercive activity of the state, we can see that he thinks such work is justified by this more basic principle. For example, when he supports the justice of war, he writes:

But kings and people must sometimes take up arms to execute such public vengeance. On this basis we may judge wars lawful which are so undertaken. For if power has been given them to preserve the tranquility of their dominion, to restrain the seditious stirrings of restless men, to help those forcibly oppressed, to punish evil deeds—can they use it more opportunely than to check the fury of one who disturbs both the repose of private individuals and the common tranquility of all, who raises seditious tumults, and by whom violent oppressions and vile misdeeds are perpetuated? If they ought to be the guardians and defenders of the laws, they should also overthrow the efforts of all whose offenses corrupt the discipline of the laws.[2]

War is justified because it preserves the common good, which consists at least partly in social peace. Further, when Calvin turns to the justification for resistance on the part of lesser magistrates, the same kind of reasoning appeared:

… 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… .

Armed resistance is founded upon the logic of the sixth commandment: the obligation to protect innocent people from harm. But, we might ask, is this obligation only in place if it has been enshrined in constitutional law? In the course of discussing the justice of armed humanitarian intervention, Oliver O’Donovan lays out the problem this way:

There may well be dangers attached to the kind of humanitarian intervention which has been argued for; but they need to be overwhelmingly conspicuous if they are to provide support for a universal prohibition running counter to the humanitarian instincts of civilised peoples. To turn one’s back while a neighbouring community is being slaughtered is not an easy thing to recommend; and international law should not demand it without reasons so strong as to seem, when pointed out, morally irresistible. Certainly, the maintenance of a ‘rather tidy legal regime’ based on the sovereignty of the nation-state will not suffice.[3]

It is not difficult to see that the same moral principles that justify normal war, resistance on the part of lesser magistrates, and arguably humanitarian intervention, would also provide a natural law basis for resistance even apart from constitutional grounds for such action. By supporting the fundamental principle that justifies the first three types of conflict, Calvin’s principle, the sixth commandment broadly interpreted, seems to commit him to the fourth type.

Thus a natural law defense of resistance can be motivated based on principles native to Calvin’s thought. But, then, what about the concerns Calvin had about such lines of reasoning? Space cannot permit a point-by-point reply to every relevant argument Calvin made, but a few representative ones can be addressed. They can be categorized into two types: those based on natural law, and those based on scripture.


Natural Law Arguments: Hierarchy 

While it is true that the Reformer provided a kind of teleological natural law explanation for the existence of magistracy, he also explicitly notes a qualification on the obedience this requires at the end of the Institutes:

… how absurd would it be that in satisfying men you should incur the displeasure of him for whose sake you obey men themselves! The Lord, therefore, is the King of Kings, who, when he has opened his sacred mouth, must alone be heard, before and above all men; next to him we are subject to those men who are in authority over us, but only in him.[4]

Calvin seems to be appealing to an obvious moral principle at this point. If a means appointed to an end begins to subvert that end, it no longer receives its justification from that end. This logic is indeed commonsensical; it is the same principle used to justify medically necessary amputations. Yet, Calvin taught that the magistrate had a “sole” purpose, “to provide for the common safety and peace of all.” Why, then, would the people for whose good the magistrate exists be bound to obey that magistrate when it ceases to act for its proper end? It is not clear that Calvin could avoid falling into the absurdity he recognizes in the parallel case above. That is, unless he took the road his followers later did, and supported a natural law case for resistance.


Peace and Order 

Calvin also wanted to preserve a relatively just and peaceful social order, believing that such was natural good of human beings. As an implication of this principle, he upheld the basic principles of just war tradition, as Mark J. Larson has recently shown in his Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian State. Included within this tradition are the rules that just wars should be waged for a just cause, and with the right intention, i.e., a just peace. Above I quoted Calvin’s justification for war based on the duties of the state, and the examples he gives for justified wars are what would count as just causes. It should be noted that Calvin does not list any minor, frivolous infractions there. Rather, he speaks of people who disturb “the repose of private individuals and the common tranquility of all, who [raise] seditious tumults, and by whom violent oppressions and vile misdeeds are perpetuated.”[5] The Magdeburg Confession around his time, and Calvinist thinkers like Christopher Goodman and “Junius Brutus” after him, would make explicit that resistance is justified not for any failing on the part of the government, but for atrocious and notorious ones, and Calvin’s own logic would support this point.

On the matter of right intention, the Reformer upheld the traditional criteria of “last resort” and “prospect of success”. With regards to last resort he states plainly:

For if we are to do far more than that heathen demanded, who wished war to appear as desired peace, assuredly all other means must be tried before having recourse to arms. In fine, in both cases, they must not allow themselves to be carried away by any private feeling, but be guided solely by regard for the public.[6]

And Larson notes[7] an important passage in Calvin’s commentaries that supports the principle of prospect of success:

Princes must not allow themselves to sport with human blood, nor must soldiers give themselves up to cruelty, from a desire of gain, as if slaughter were their chief business: but both must be drawn to it by necessity, and by a regard for public advantage.[8]

On the level of natural principles, Oliver O’Donovan notes that the traditional just war criteria of last resort and prospect of success logically flow from the right intention of peace, and this makes sense on an intuitive level.[9] If one is set on a course of violence knowing full well that other possibilities for peaceful resolution remain untried, or that there is no prospect of armed conflict creating a peaceful social order, including a functioning government, then one cannot be really aiming at peace at all, but rather something more like pure blood lust. And in fact Calvin applied this kind of logic to jus ad bellum concerns. He appealed to prospect of success concerns when he counseled against the conspiracy of Amboise: “…I strove to demonstrate to him [Le Renaudie] that he had no warrant for such conduct according to God; and that even according to the world such measures were ill-concerted, presumptuous, and could have no successful issue.”[10]

But all this might seem to work contrary to the argument I have been presenting: do they not provide reasons not to resist, rather than to do so? This is partly right. The criteria of just cause and right intention do not rule out all possible acts of resistance; if a particular case could meet the criteria, it would be justified. But they would rule out any act that had no reasonable chance of maintaining the kind of relative justice and relative order that Calvin thought God intended for the present age (as opposed to the perfect justice and peace of the eschaton). To put it another way: they would rule out any armed act that would be more likely to produce chaos and rivers of blood than an imperfect but acceptable social order. And so while the line of argument I am pursuing would allow for armed resistance beyond those with official government positions, it would still rule out any course of action with a probability of leading to the anarchy Calvin so dreaded.


Biblical Concerns

The Reformer also had exegetical arguments that would seem to undercut the kind of logic being defended here, most notably his rather stark reading of Romans 13’s command to submit to governing authorities[11] There is not space to explore these fully here, but it is worth noting a potential qualification to such arguments. Calvin marshals many passages from scripture against resistance in a general way, and yet seems to regard them all as consistent with his constitutional exception—that duly established lesser magistrates have a duty to resist in certain circumstances. This despite the fact that such an exception is not explicitly present within the texts themselves. No doubt Calvin would say that they are implied in it, since the principle they express is the duty to obey the law, and such exceptions are part of that law. Might we then suggest that the same kind of logic would apply to Calvin’s natural law grounds for resistance? That is, if the scriptures presuppose the existence of natural law (as Calvin certainly thought), might we not say that the biblical texts in question also assume the natural law “exceptions” to the general rule of obedience?



Much more could always be said of a figure like Calvin on an issue such as this. But hopefully, if nothing else, this little exercise has raised questions about what kind of issues and principles are involved in thinking about armed resistance to oppressive regimes. And perhaps I can conclude with one further point, relating Calvin more directly to the phenomena I noted in my introduction. Calvin scholar Winthrop S. Hudson once wrote that there were two pillars on which democratic thinking rests: “(1) the idea of limited sovereignty, of a government under law, of limits beyond which government cannot go and to which it must conform; (2) the right of resistance when these limits are exceeded.”[12] No serious student of Calvin would deny that Calvin affirmed the first pillar, and clearly he affirmed a version of the second. My argument is that his principles provide for a more robust version than even he realized.

Our political age is volatile. Some parts of the world struggle for freedom while others have (arguably) been lulled into giving it away. Western political theologians as a rule want to support democratic freedom both at home and abroad. This is taken as an obviously just cause to support, and I wholeheartedly agree with it. But it’s one thing to know the end; determining the best means to that goal is another matter. The ethical complexity of these issues is sometimes not recognized, and even when it is, this only serves to heighten our awareness of the problem, rather than to resolve it. But this need not lead to despair. There are older pathways through the thicket, and they can still help us on our journey towards a just and peaceful order regardless of our political circumstances.


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] Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos, ed. George Garnett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994): 139-140.

[2] Institutes IV.20.11.

[3] O’Donovan, The Just War Revisited (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 29.

[4] Institutes IV.20.32.

[5] Institutes IV.20.11.

[6] Institutes IV.20.12.

[7] Mark J. Larson, Calvin’s Doctrine of the State: A Reformed Doctrine and Its American Trajectory, The Revolutionary War, and the Founding of the Republic (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 75.

[8] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol 1., trans. William Pringle (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1845),195-196.

[9] O’Donovan, 59.

[10] Calvin, Letters, 176.

[11] Institutes IV.20.22; 25-28.

[12] Hudson, “Democratic Freedom and Religious Faith in the Reformed Tradition,” Church History 15, no. 03 (1946): 181.

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