Saturday, May 9, 2020

The Problem with Calvinist Resistance Theory: John Calvin Himself

In an effort to reacquaint myself with the work being done here at AC I have been reviewing the wonderful back-and-forth exchanges between Mark David Hall and Gregg Frazer.  I have been particularly interested in the disagreements over Calvinist resistance theory and its role (or the lack thereof, depending upon your persuasion) in the American Revolution.  

Personally, I have a long way to go in gaining a better appreciation for Calvinist theology (which has always left a sour taste on my Mormon palate).  I understand Dr. Hall's reasons for favoring Calvinist theology as being the "first cause" that got the whole resistance to authority ball rolling, but also understand why Dr. Frazer is hesitant to bestow all credit upon the Reformed Christian tradition, or as Frazer put it in one of his comments, "I am refuting Hall’s claims that Madison [and by extension many of the other key founders] was influenced by Calvin – I am not saying anything about whether Calvin’s view is right or wrong.   

The jury is still out for Yours Truly.  The majority of my free time these days is devoted to determining just how important of a role Calvinism played in developing a model of opposing authority, and just how much of an impact this model may have had on the American Revolution.  Part of my problem in determining who played what role and how big of an impact that role may have been boils down to semantics.  What do specific historians mean when they reference terms like "Calvinist resistance theory"? 

I think fellow blogger, Tom Van Dyke gets to the core of what I am struggling with when he writes (in two different comment threads):
My favorite question to the Gregg Frazers and DH Harts and other paleo-Calvinists is, "Whose Calvinism is it Anyway?"
The thing is, the Reformation did not end with Luther and Calvin. It was a continuously evolving [and also liberalizing] jumble of theologies, and the historian-sociologist is not the one to decree which were Christian and which were not.
In Calvin's Geneva, Romans 13 was an iron-clad prohibition; only decades later, the persecution of the French Huguenots led to the development of "Calvinist Resistance Theory" that helped power the American Revolution.

The most immediate and pressing ecumenical question for Protestants is not their relationship to Rome but their relationship to one another. From the moment Luther refused to accept Zwingli’s memorialist view of the Lord’s Supper at Marburg in 1529, the history of Protestantism has followed the pattern that Roman ­Catholic critics predicted: ever-increasing theological and institutional fragmentation.
Insisting that the unity for which Christ prayed need only be spiritual, and not institutional, Protestants have become as divided from one another as they are from Rome."
It seems to me that the whole of Protestantism is like an alphabet soup in which anyone with an agenda and a big enough bowl can spell out whatever appeals to their liking. 

And when it comes to the topic of Calvinist resistance theory, which Dr. Hall seems to suggest was a concept that evolved over time and wasn't simply born in its entirety from the mind of Calvin himself, when do we arrive at the point of evolution in which we have a new specie?  In other words, when are we safe to no longer label something Calvinist?  It seems like tremendous liberties are being taken in applying the whole of resistance theory to Calvin alone, or even to Calvin and his Reformed Christian followers alone.  Surely other factors and influences came into play. 

My biggest issue with granting Calvinism credit for the exclusive development of resistance to authority centers on some of the foundational claims specific to Calvinist theology, specifically the "TU" in their "TULIP." 

[I realize I am straying into the weeds of theology here but hear me out.  Like I said, I am trying to piece all of this together in my mind].

If humanity is in a state of TOTAL DEPRAVITY and God arbitrarily chooses whom he will and will not save via UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION, how does resistance to authority become a thing?  Calvin's somewhat strange understanding of free will (i.e. the notion that mankind is "hard wired" to sin thanks to the Fall of Adam, and therefore will always default to sin unless "re-wired" by God through Election), which reminds me of when my oldest son hit his brother and replied, "It's not my fault, he made me do it," implies that all actions, good and bad, are predetermined and mankind is simply acting out the script which God has already foreseen and foreordained.

In other words, man was not free to act, but to be acted upon. 

The implications for resistance to God's authority figures would then be that God, in His infinite wisdom, predestined (or foresaw) the regime of an evil leader; a leader God himself predestined to assume power, who then deserved (or didn't deserve depending on your interpretation of Romans, 13) to be opposed and potentially removed from power.  Such confusing and contradictory theology seems to fly in the face of so many later figures who tended to favor a more Arminian approach to mankind's participatory role in salvation.  It is this Arminian perspective that seems, at least to me, to be more in harmony with resistance to authority than does Calvin. 

These are just a few thoughts I wanted to write down.  Now I hope to hear your $0.02 on the matter.  Please, don't hold back.  I need to figure this shit out!  Lol. 


Mark David Hall said...

Hi Brad,

I'll pass on your description of Calvin's view of predestination, but he clearly believes even unredeemed men and women can choose to act more or less justly because of common grace. But I suspect that when the Calvinists are writing about resisting tyrants, they are primarily thinking about Christians doing so. Sarah Morgan Smith and I trace the development of this. tradition in these two articles:

“Whose Rebellion? Reformed Resistance Theory in America, part 2.” Co-authored with Sarah A. Morgan Smith. Invited article for Unio cum Christo. 4 (April 2018): 171-188.

“Whose Rebellion? Reformed Resistance Theory in America, part 1.” Co-authored with Sarah A. Morgan Smith. Invited article for Unio cum Christo. 3 (October 2017): 169-184.

They can be accessed online here:

You have to download each journal, but it is free to do so.

Enjoy your research!

Brad Hart said...

Thanks, Mark. I found Part I last night and only started to read it. I assure you I will finish them (probably tonight).

By the way, I have enjoyed a few of the videos you have done for Liberty University on this topic. I decided to complete my Ph.D. through Liberty (I'm not looking to join academia as I currently enjoy my career as a cop here in Colorado Springs, but I wanted to intellectual stimulation). So far I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Keep at it, Dr. Hall. I enjoy your work.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx for the HT, Brad, and I'm happy you've opened up this subject again.

FTR, I wrote the first paragraph attributed to me but the second is from Carl R. Trueman, a leading "Orthodox Presbyterian" [OPC] theologian.

The most immediate and pressing ecumenical question for Protestants is not their relationship to Rome but their relationship to one another. From the moment Luther refused to accept Zwingli’s memorialist view of the Lord’s Supper at Marburg in 1529, the history of Protestantism has followed the pattern that Roman ­Catholic critics predicted: ever-increasing theological and institutional fragmentation. Insisting that the unity for which Christ prayed need only be spiritual, and not institutional, Protestants have become as divided from one another as they are from Rome.

You're correct that evil or abusive rulers were seen as God's will in traditional interpretations of Romans 13--the Jews were a conquered people and Nero and the Roman occupation were God's will. However, as early as Aquinas and perhaps John of Salisbury in the 12th century that view as challenged in the context of a free people.

Thomas Aquinas on the right to resist

Many theologians have interpreted [Romans 13] as requiring Christians to submit to every governing official in every particular, refusing to obey only when commanded to commit a sin. Of course, this interpretation prohibits any form of organized resistance or revolution. This view is still influential; I have occasionally heard evangelical Christians discuss anxiously whether the American War for Independence was a violation of Romans 13. (I hasten to add that the War for Independence is nevertheless very popular among American evangelicals.)

Thomas Aquinas also addressed the questions raised by this passage. I think we can see how a medieval analysis like his, reconciling classical political theory with the New Testament, could be important to later Christian revolutionaries. In the 1500s, in fact, some of the more radical Protestants resorted to arguments the scholastics had been using for centuries, as an alternative to the original and highly inconvenient Lutheran condemnation of popular resistance.

Folks tend to forget that Aquinas was well-embedded in "Christian thought" for over 200 years before Calvin and his "resistance" successors appeared on the theological scene.

Brad Hart said...

I'll have to brush up on what Aquinas has to say about resistance to authority. Sounds interesting.

I now wonder even more why we are giving Calvin the credit? If this was happening before (and after) Calvin, why does he get the credit?

Tom Van Dyke said...

It's not Calvin especially, who does no more than perhaps open the door a crack [reputedly in his commentary on the Book of Daniel] But his friends and immediate successor Theodore Beza opens the crack wider during the persecution of the neighboring French Huguenots, and then the Scots, starting with their opposition to [and oppression by] the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots.

Dave Kopel does a quick rundown of the players here.

Calvin always believed that governments should be chosen by the people. He described the Hebrews as extremely foolish for jettisoning their free government and replacing it with a hereditary monarchy. He also came to believe that kings and princes were bound to their people by covenant, such as those that one sees in the Old Testament.

In Calvin's view, which was based on Romans 13, the governmental duties of "inferior magistrates" (government officials, such as mayor or governors, in an intermediate level between the king and the people) required them to protect the people against oppression from above. Calvinism readily adopted the Lutheran theory of resistance by such magistrates.

In a commentary on the Book of Daniel, Calvin observed that contemporary monarchs pretend to reign "by the grace of God," but the pretense was "a mere cheat" so that they could "reign without control." He believed that "Earthly princes depose themselves while they rise up against God," so "it behooves us to spit upon their heads than to obey them."


Beza agreed with St. Augustine that evil governors are simply a type of robbers. Just as people had an obvious right to resist highway robbers, people likewise had a right to resist the tyranny of the state.

Beza lauded the Lutheran resistance at Magdeburg (against the Holy Roman Emperor, who was trying to wipe out the Reformation) as a perfect example of intermediate magistrates restraining an evil prince. Government, wrote Beza, was not created by God so that people were born into servitude. Instead, "man's fundamental condition must be one of natural liberty."

Beza's anonymously written "Right of Magistrates" was reprinted in French ten times and in Latin seventeen times over the following several decades.

And many others followed.

Individual revolt is still forbidden; all must obey rightful authority. But the Continental Congress was a rightful authority, and was also empowered by God to act on the people's behalf.

Brad Hart said...

Love it! I're read a bunch of material by Kopel. I guess my issue is this label of CALVINIST resistance theory. For whatever reason(s) it has bothered me, but I am beginning to see it was MUCH more (before and after Calvin) that contributed to opposition of authority.

@Mark David Hall:

I'm curious what you would have to say on this particular issue, since you do seem (from what I have read) to give Calvinism the overwhelming bulk of the credit.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I realize I didn't address your primary question--Aquinas was speaking theoretically in all-Catholic Europe, where there was no real rebellion until the Reformation blew the lid off. Cardinal Robert Bellarmine and a Jesuit named Francisco Suarez were propagating the Scholastic tradition in Calvin's time, ironically arguing against the Divine Right of Kings [mostly on behalf of Catholics] against Protestant monarchs like James I [yes the "King James Version" King James].

However, the Calvinists would hardly be caught dead in a field with the Catholic thinkers [clergy at that] let alone give them credit for their ideas! To cite them by name would poison the fruit. This is why you will seldom see the "Schoolmen" ever mentioned, let alone approvingly, anywhere in Protestant Europe--or America!!!

But educated men such as Theodore Beza certainly has read the Scholastics.
As did Algernon Sidney, well-known to the Founders:

...they who in politics lay such foundations, as have been taken up by Schoolmen and others as undeniable truths, do therefore follow them, or have any regard to their authority.

Tho the Schoolmen were corrupt, they were neither stupid nor unlearned: They could not but see that which all men saw, nor lay more approved foundations, than, that man is naturally free; that he cannot justly be deprived of that liberty without cause, and that he doth not resign it, or any part of it, unless it be in consideration of a greater good, which he proposes to himself.

But if he doth unjustly impute the invention of this to School divines, he in some measure repairs , he in some measure repairs his fault in saying,
This hath been fostered by all succeeding papists for good divinity: The divines of the reformed churches have entertained it, and the common people everywhere tenderly embrace it.

In other words Sidney is forced to credit the Scholastics on one hand and because of the regnant anti-Catholicism in England, is obliged to take it away with the other. This is why you'll seldom see the "Catholic" component of "Christian thought" ever explicitly acknowledged--even though the "Catholic" Aquinas himself predates Protestantism by almost 300 years.

Mark David Hall said...

John of Salisbury argued for tyrannicide before Calvin, but Calvinists developed their own arguments justifying active resistance and it was these arguments that impacted America's founders.

Enjoy your work at Liberty, Brad. They just hired my friend Jason Ross, I believe to work with PhD students (I'm not sure). If you can work with him, you should!

Tom Van Dyke said...

John of Salisbury argued for tyrannicide before Calvin, but Calvinists developed their own arguments justifying active resistance and it was these arguments that impacted America's founders.

I don't know if they read Salisbury although Aquinas was ingrained in Christian thought. Men like Beza, born and educated before the Reformation, could not help but have studied the Scholastics.

James I had the hangman burn Suarez's book and Bellarmine is central to the nexus that includes Filmer's Patriarcha, which was a response to Bellarmine [Jefferson had a copy] and both Locke's First Treatise and Sidney's Discourses on Government were written in response to Filmer.

I posit above why Protestant-dom was loathe to acknowledge its Catholic heritage, although certainly it needed to be adapted to elide papism.

The most interesting aspect of Patriarcha from a Catholic perspective is that the first pages discredit and attack the writings of St. Robert Bellarmine, who was one of the most eloquent and prolific defenders of freedom the Catholic Church has ever produced. It was customary that writers dealing with political and religious controversies begin their books by presenting their nemesis as an anti-thesis, which in Filmer's case was Bellarmine's position that political authority is vested in the people and that kings do not rule by divine right, but through the consent of the governed. This was a radical idea in the early 1600's, though it is widely accepted today.

In Patriarcha, Filmer quotes Bellarmine directly as follows: "Secular or Civil authority (saith he) 'is instituted by men; it is in the people unless they bestow it on a Prince. This Power is immediately in the Multitude, as in the subject of it; for this Power is in the Divine Law, but the Divine Law hath given this power to no particular man. If the Positive Law be taken away, there is left no Reason amongst the Multitude (who are Equal) one rather than another should bear the Rule over the Rest. Power is given to the multitude to one man, or to more, by the same Law of Nature; for the Commonwealth cannot exercise this Power, therefore it is bound to bestow it upon some One man or some Few. It depends upon the Consent of the multitude to ordain over themselves a King or other Magistrates, and if there be a lawful cause, the multitude may change the Kingdom into an Aristocracy or Democracy' (St. Robert Bellarmine, Book 3 De Laicis, Chapter 4). Thus far Bellarmine; in which passages are comprised the strength of all that I have read or heard produced for the Natural Liberty of the Subject." (Patriarcha, page 5.)

Imagine what Jefferson must have been thinking as he read the opening paragraphs of Patriarcha, a direct assault on the Roman Catholic scholarship of Bellarmine...

Gregg Frazer said...

Book IV, Chapter 20

23. "And make no mistake: it is impossible to resist the magistrate without also resisting God."

25. "But reflection on the Word of God will carry us beyond. For we are to be subject not only to the authority of those princes who do their duty towards us as they should, and uprightly, but to all of them, however they came by their office, even if the very last thing they do is to act like true princes."

"Those who govern for the public good are true examples and signs of his goodness; those who govern unjustly and intemperately have been raised up by him to punish the iniquity of the people. Both are equally furnished with that sacred majesty, with which he has endowed legitimate authority."

26. "... we must honor the worst tyrant in the office in which the Lord has seen fit to set him."

27. "If we keep firmly in mind that even the very worst kings are appointed by this same decree which establishes the authority of kings, then we will never permit ourselves the seditious idea that a king is to be treated according to his deserts, or that we need not obey a king who does not conduct himself towards us like a king."

29. "But if you go on to infer that only just governments are to be repaid by obedience, your reasoning is stupid."

31. "And even if the punishment of unbridled tyranny is the Lord=s vengeance, we are not to imagine that it is we ourselves who have been called upon to inflict it. All that has been assigned to us is to obey and suffer."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Which is why the proper term is "Reformed," not "Calvinist." John Calvin is not the only or final word on Reformed theology [although his commentary of the Book of Daniel opens the door to resistance].

Protestants don't have prophets or popes.

And the biggest irony is that the American Revolution was largely led by "Calvinists"!!

Mark David Hall covers the facts extensively here.




In the first part of this series, we showed that virtually all Reformed writers, from Calvin to the end of the Glorious Revolution, agreed that tyrants could be actively resisted. The only debated question was who could resist them. In this essay, we contend that the Reformed approach to active resistance had an important influence on how America’s Founders responded to perceived tyrannical actions by Parliament and the Crown.

Mark David Hall said...

An excerpt from the article, which can be downloaded at no cost:

These events seem to have encouraged Calvin to embrace a more radical approach to resisting tyrants. For instance, in a 1560 sermon on Melchizedek, Calvin contends that Abraham was a private person who received a “special vocation” to pick up the sword to save his people from ungodly rulers. A wave of violence against the Huguenots beginning in 1561 apparently inspired
even further movement. In a 1562 sermon, he contended that all citizens—public and private alike—have an obligation to pursue justice and righteousness: “We should resist evil as much as we can. And this has been enjoined on all people in general; I tell you, this was said not only to princes, magistrates, and public prosecutors, but also to all private persons.”

In his 1561 commentary on Daniel, Calvin writes,

For earthly princes lay aside all their power when they rise up against God, and are
unworthy of being reckoned in the number of mankind. We ought rather utterly to
defy than to obey them whenever they are so restive and wish to spoil God of his
rights, and, as it were, to seize upon his throne and draw him down from heaven.

Although in its immediate context this passage refers to those rulers who assert a right to be worshiped as if they were God himself, a broader reading could be that if the purpose of government is the good of mankind, then rulers who defy that purpose by their acts of tyranny and oppression are “ris[ing] up against God” as well. As such, they could be justly overthrown. Other parts of Calvin’s commentaries support this reading.

It is not necessary for the purposes of this essay to resolve definitively whether Calvin eventually embraced the view that private persons can actively resist tyrannical governments. We think there are very good reasons to believe he did, but even if he did not, it should be beyond dispute that Calvin did not embrace the doctrine of, as one political scientist puts it, “passive
obedience and unconditional submission” to civic authorities. At a minimum, we find Calvin to not only sanction but encourage resistance by lesser magistrates. Moreover, the Reformed tradition does not begin and end with Calvin; other thinkers, confronted with tyranny as a political reality and not merely a theoretical problem, developed their own answers to the question.

I think there is little doubt that Calvin taught that inferior magistrates may justly and biblically offer active resistance to tyrants, and there is good reason to believe he eventually reached the conclusion that private citizens may as well. But as Sarah and I clearly state in the last line quoted about, the Reformed tradition does not begin and end with John Calvin. Within this tradition, a very robust theory of resistance developed, and it did so long before Locke published his Second Treatise. I simply don't understand what is to be gained by denying this development. If one doesn't like it, just say they were wrong.

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