By David Hall

Other Voices in the Chorus

Calvin’s and Beza’s thought was so fertile as to spawn many followers. Summaries of Ponet, Daneau, Hotman, and many others are worth consulting at any Inauguration. Another disciple who particularly refined this theory was the Marian exile, Christopher Goodman, whose ideas will be explored briefly below. 

Christopher Goodman,[1] a Genevan exile with John Knox and William Whittingham, authored a 1558 systematic defense of ideas close to Knox’s heart: How Superior Powers Ought To Be Obeyed By Their Subjects: And Wherein They May Lawfully By God’s Word Be Disobeyed And Resisted.[2] Arguing against custom and negligence as twin sisters of error, Goodman, Knox and Whittingham united (on January 1, 1558, from Geneva) to declare: “Obedience is necessary where God is glorified, but if God is dishonored, your obedience is abominable in the sight of God, be it never so beautiful in man’s eyes. . . . [W]hen it [Scripture] commands us to obey God, we must disobey man to the contrary: for no man can serve two masters. . . . [O]bedience to God’s Laws by disobeying man’s wicked laws is very commendable, but to disobey God for any duty to man is all together damnable.”

Goodman (with Knox’s hardy concurrence) argued that had the apostles obeyed the government when it prohibited their free exercise of religion, “the foundation of the Church should have been shaken, and the whole assembly discouraged.” Based on that historical precedent, Goodman awarded both power and discretion to the people (prefiguring explicit formulations of “the consent of the governed”) as he wrote: “the residue of the common people, seeing their superiors of all degrees and estates, by whom they should be governed with godly laws, and to whom they ought to obey in the fear of God only, thus cowardly forsake their obedience to God” if they fail to resist a tyrant. Thus, Goodman insisted that “to obey man in anything contrary to God, or His precepts though he be in highest authority, or never so orderly called there unto is no obedience at all, but disobedience.”

Whether conscious of its revolutionary implications or not, Goodman was pioneering a new concept that would achieve wide currency centuries later: “the election of princes and kings.” Rulers who are “elected” can of course be recalled or “unelected.” Picking up on the growing swell of a Reformation chorus, Goodman essentially denied that kingship was hereditary. He succinctly stated, “Obedience is to hear God rather than man, and to resist man rather than God.” Moreover, he proclaimed, “there is no obedience against God, which in His judgment is not manifest rebellion.” Resistance to wicked kings is not rebellion. It is difficult not to see the seeds of Thomas Jefferson’s motto, “Rebellion To Tyrants is Obedience to God,” in Goodman’s Calvinistic manifesto.

Calvin’s pen, particularly through the Institutes, his commentaries, his disciples and his personal genius spawned that revolution.

Peter Martyr’s Commentary on the Book of Judges (1561/1564)

      Translated into English in 1564 by John Daye, this commentary[3] would be considered revolutionary since it embodied many of the Reformation arguments, even calling for civic elections as following on precedents from Judges. Martyr wrote, “The monarchs in these days are so set on fire with such great ambition that they have no respect how many they are able to govern.” According to Martyr, the disease of ambition to govern over many was a sign of tyranny. Indeed, Martyr thought that it was lawful, at times, to pray against a tyrant—a notion that was revolutionary for its day. He discussed whether treason was ever lawful, concluding that to overturn an evil king was appropriate under certain circumstances.

Later in his commentary he addressed common questions of the day, most specifically, “Whether it is lawful to lie to preserve the life of our neighbors?” Martyr approved the Old Testament precedent of Ehud, who clearly lied when he deceived Eglon, as an act of resistance against a tyrant. Once the principle of disobedience in speech was justified, it is little wonder that the next query by Martyr was whether it was ever lawful for subjects to rise against their princes with force. Martyr recognized a differentiation of possible callings among private men, inferior rulers, or superior rulers. He believed that institutionalized agents could resist, but denied—in principle—that “altogether private” individuals should seek to overthrow a ruler. Drawing upon the inspired history of David, Daniel, the New Testament apostles, and others, Martyr stipulated that others in public weals, who were “in place and dignity lower than princes,” and yet in positions of responsibility to “elect the superiors,” have power by existing laws to govern the commonwealth. If, therefore, a prince does not perform his covenant as promised, “it is lawful to constrain and bring him into order and by force to compel him to fulfill the conditions and covenant which he had promised, and that by war when it cannot otherwise be done.” The trigger mechanism for limitation of government was the objective foedus, or covenant. As precedents, he cited episodes from Roman, Danish, English, and Jewish history. These precedents also supported limited resistance to tyranny, which could legitimately be viewed as the correction of abuse.

Other questions posed and addressed by Martyr’s commentary on Judges include:

  • Is a poor magistrate better than none?
  • Who ordains magistrates?
  • Are magistrates bound to serve God?
  • What is the duty of the magistrate?
  • How far is the magistrate to be obeyed?
  • How far are inferior magistrates bound to obey the superior?

Lest he be interpreted as maintaining that any manner of revolution was acceptable, Martyr (like Calvin) reminded Reformation audiences that the New Testament apostles also taught the duty of obeying princes, including those such as Nero (“a most impure beast”). Such perversions, however, were distortions of the office, for magistrates were called to be nursing fathers. Additionally, the magistrate’s function was compared to a shepherd who “excels the people,” or puts the interests of the citizens above his own. As to who ordained various magistrates, Martyr allowed that “sometimes [it] is done by the consent of the Senate, sometimes by the voice of the peoples [popular democracy], or by the will of the soldiers, or is by the succession of inheritance.”

In an early statement of the limitation of either sphere of government, Martyr wrote:

These functions ought to be separated. . . . The political prince gives [legal] judgment, and the ecclesiastical does not indeed give judgment, but he teaches how judgment ought to be given. . . . The political magistrate does not preach nor administer the Sacraments. . . . In the civil magistrate is to be considered both the power, and also the man which bears and exercises the power. . . . In the minister of the church also is to be considered both the ministry itself and also the person who executes it. As touching the person, the minister is subject to the civil power; he is both a citizen and pays tribute as other men do, and is under the correction of manners. But as concerning the ministry, he is also in some ways subject unto the magistrate.

Peter Martyr also expanded his views in his Common Places, which was translated into English as early as 1583 by Anthony Marten (with a dedication to Queen Elizabeth in the English edition). While commenting on the third commandment (Part 2, section 4), he wrote: “Therefore we must determine either that idolatry is no sinne; or else, that it ought to be punished by the magistrate, as well as other sinnes be. . . . It is meet that even kings do serve the Lord. . . . In that therefore they be kings, they be warned to use the power and sword given them by God to defend the veritie of the true faith and to repress the ungodly . . . so that it is not lawful for princes to grant impure worshippings unto the ungodly; naie rather, it is their part speciallie to be earnest in setting forth sound doctrine, ceremonies, and rites.” Still, he allowed that rites and ceremonies might not be uniform. Religion was part of the prince’s charge, and a “faithful magistrate ought not to suffer the goods of the church to be wasted by” the enemies of the church. The magistrate, asserted Martyr, stands in the place of God.

Magistrates were sometime chosen “by the consent of the Senate, sometimes by the voices of the people,” but in each case, the proper cause, according to Martyr, is “God himself.” Sometimes, inferior magistrates elected the prince, and Martyr distinguished inferior from superior magistrates.

1579   Vindiciae Contra Tyrannus (“Junius Brutus”)

If Beza opened the door to limited resistance against a higher magistrate, his thought on these matters was substantially extended in the 1579 Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, a work that appeared under the pseudonym Junius Brutus but was probably written by Hubert Languet or Philippe du Plessis Mornay.[4] This work viewed all citizens as essential covenant partners in the nation. Writing not long after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre,[5] Brutus denounced the arrogance of a state that assumed absolute power unto itself and maintained that the corporate body of the people is above the king.[6] The thesis was radical for its day. The argument favored legitimate government and individual submission; however, this treatise also put the government in its place, lodging the head of state under the authority of the entire civil corporation. Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos raised and answered the following questions:[7]

  • Did the passage of time erode the rights of the people if they had failed to resist tyranny?
  • Why were kings created?
  • 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?[8]

This volume, as much as any other, became the signature statement of Calvinistic republicanism. It defined a ruler as a “servant of the commonwealth,” “minister,” and “merely the supervisor and executor of the laws.”[9] William Dunning summarized the importance of the Vindiciae as follows: “King and people are co-contractors to maintain the worship of God; each, therefore, is responsible for the fulfillment of the obligation, and each is authorized to restrain the other from violating it, since the innocent party would participate in the penalty for such violation.” The Old Testament texts exhibit numerous instances of rulers enforcing citizens’ “conformity to their pledge to maintain the worship of God, and quite as many, on the other hand, in which the people constrained the kings to keep the covenant, or deposed them for the failure to do so.”[10]

The Second Inaugurated President John Adams later paid tribute to the Vindiciae, not only by direct reference (see his Works, vol. 6, p. 4) but indirectly by his association with many of its seminal ideas. American theologian Stanley Bamberg notes that John Adams commended Calvinist theorist John Ponet for promulgating “all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterward dilated by Sidney and Locke.” Later Adams specifically endorsed several other works from the Puritan period, including those by Milton and the Vindicae Contra Tyrannos among others.  

Early Inaugurations bore these fingerprints of Calvinistic ideas. One waits for a case yet to be made that the nature of man, the ambition of rulers, or the temptations to power have changed sufficiently to ignore this earlier political theology at this Inaugural.

Note: all quotes are from sources as noted. The only fictitious elements in these diary posts are to treat these as letters from John Calvin.

[1] As a sign of the long continuity, in 1603 a Geneva diplomat attended to the estate debts of Christopher Goodman, one of Knox’s compatriots. E. William Monter, Studies in Genevan Government, 1536-1605 (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1964), 55.

[2] This document is available at Patrick S. Poole’s “Reformation Political Works” site web-posted at Searches for the citations I have used may be performed by phrases on that page.

[3] References are taken from the 1564 edition printed in London by John Day of Aldergate.

[4] Harold Laski summarizes the arguments for authorship by Mornay in Junius Brutus, A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants, infra, 58-64; see also Paul T. Fuhrmann, “Philip Mornay and the Huguenot Challenge to Absolutism,” Calvinism and the Political Order, George L. Hunt, ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965), 54-56. In contrast, William Dunning, Abraham Kuyper and Douglas Kelly (op. cit, 49) argue for Languet’s authorship. The latest commentary on the Vindiciae (George Garnett, ed., Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994]) draws on early testimony to suggest that Languet was indeed the author, while Mornay provided disinformation to throw would-be persecuting authorities off the track in order to prevent a good man’s memory or surviving associates from being tarnished. George Garnett’s extensive discussion finds a number of indications of Mornay’s having given the “impression of deliberate misinformation” (lxv). He also suggests the possibility that Mornay wrote parts of the treatise, with Languet supplying the intricate constitutional pulp. Fortunately, since the substance of the work stands on its own, exact determination of authorship is not necessary for an appreciation of this political contribution.

[5] George Garnett, ed., Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), lxi, notes that the “Vindiciae clearly draws on” Beza’s The Right of Magistrates. Garnett also notes that the ideas of the Vindiciae are so clearly Genevan that at various times some thought that Francois Hotman composed the treatise (lvi); some even suspected that Beza himself was the author of the Vindiciae, but we can safely rule both of those out.

[6] Junius Brutus, A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants, trans. Harold J. Laski (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1963), 65, 124. An English translation of the whole work (Question Four was translated into English as part of another work in 1588) was made in 1648; it became so popular that it was reprinted in 1689 and again in 1924. Laski’s 1963 translation was supplemented with an abridgement in Julian Franklin, ed., Constitutionalism and Resistance in the Sixteenth Century (New York: Pegasus, 1969). The most modern translation is George Garnett, ed., Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Herbert Foster (96) notes that Beza’s Right of Magistrates was printed with the Vindiciae six times before 1608. Numerous American colonial leaders possessed copies of the Vindiciae.

[7] Wording is taken from a 1689 translation in Premise, vol. 5, no. 2 (April-May, 1998), 10, web-posted at: Searches for the citations I have used may be performed by phrases on that page.

[8] Laski, 36-171.

[9] For a survey of other Huguenot political tracts, see Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought: The Age of Reformation, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 333.

[10] William Dunning, A History of Political Theories from Luther to Montesquieu (New York: Macmillan, 1905), 50.


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