Tyranny and Resistance Theory

Tyranny and Resistance Theory
History 132, Professor Tutino, 03/01/05
This work is original and unpublished by David Kute


In 1572, the marriage of Henri of Navarre and Marguerite Valois was to bring peace to France’s religious divide, and stability to the French kingdom. But as the wedding evolved from joyous festivities and fetes into carnage, murder and chaos religious differences that already were threatening France’s very unity became only more acute and dangerous. The events of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and the wholesale massacre of thousands of Protestant guests for which it came to be known, were to have a dramatic impact on the relations between the two sides, and on the Valois hopes for moderation and stability. A few years later, the French Huguenot Philippe Du Plessis- Mornay would write the Vindicae Contra Tyrannos, in which he advocated the principle of tyrannicide, or resistance theory. At the same time, Jean Bodin wrote on the topic in Six livres de la republique, where he writes that it is unlawful to disobey a sovereign, regardless of his evil deeds or tyrannical behavior. A trusted adviser of Francis, duke of Alencon, and employed under the French crown, Bodin argues that the king is God’s trustee and agent, justifying the sovereign’s right to make laws and do as he wishes. While it is easy to see Bodin as representing the Catholic monarchy and Du Plessis- Mornay as representing the distrustful Huguenots in the historical context of the time, the views of both writers on the subject of tyranny and authority have their precedents. Starting with Martin Luther, through John Calvin and John Knox, there were no real correlations between resistance theory and Protestantism. Du Plessis Mornay’s thought had precedents and shared similarities with earlier Protestant writers, yet his work marks a major departure from them as well. It is my contention that by tracing the evolution of resistance theory through the major Protestant thinkers of the 16th century it becomes clear that their works are not so simplistic that mere historical context (i.e. religious war, etc.) is a key to understanding them. Instead they are complicated works concerned with scriptural doctrine, traditional views on the subject of authority, and historical facts.

Martin Luther’s tract On Governmental Authority follows the earlier tradition in that the ruler’s authority is God given and that the Christian should therefore heed authority. Written in 1523, the tract is important in that it argues for a separation between the church and the state (ML, pg. 43). Luther writes that “the Christian submits most willingly to the rule of the sword, pays his taxes, honors those in authority, serves, helps, and does all he can to assist the governing authority, that it may continue to function and be held in honor and fear.”(ML, pg. 48) The Christian is one who obeys authority and being a good citizen is his duty and responsibility.


What can be the meaning of the phrase, “It is God’s servant,” except that governing authority is by its very nature such that through it one may serve God?…therefore you should esteem the sword or governmental authority as highly as the estate of marriage, or husbandry, or any other calling which God has instituted.(ML, pg. 53)


The Christian then follows authority as a “calling which God has instituted.”


Key to Martin Luther’s view is his interpretation of scripture, in which he sees authority as emanating from God’s will. “First we must provide a sound basis for the civil law and sword so no one will doubt that it is in the world by God’s will and ordinance.”(ML, pg.43) Luther sees the order of the temporal world as part of a grand design, as manifesting from “God’s will and ordinance.” Thus, the law and the authorities who wield the sword are instruments of God’s will. Luther finds evidence of this in scripture. He cites Rom.12, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authority, for there is no authority except from God; the authority which everywhere exists has been ordained by God. He then who resists the governing authority resists the ordinance of God, and he who resists God’s ordinance will incur judgement.” This passage clearly states that authority is ordained by God, and that if authority is resisted, it is akin to resisting God. “Moreover, we have the clear and compelling text of St. Paul in Rom. 13[:I], where he says, “The governing authority has been ordained by God.”(ML, pg. 53)


Luther also feels there is no right to resist tyranny. As mentioned already, since authority stems from God’s will, there is little support in the scriptures for resistance to it. Obeying the king is thus lawful and what a good Christian should do. But Luther expands on why resistance by its very nature contradicts God’s law. On the subject of resistance to authority, Luther cites Matt. 5 [:39] , “Do not resist evil,” etc. (ML, pg. 54) This quotation is what Christ told his followers at one time, and Luther uses it as evidence to further argue why it is unlawful to resist an evil king. If man is not to resist evil, then surely he is also not to resist tyranny. With this type of response to evil, rebellion or resistance to the rule of tyrants is not an option. 

The Swiss reformer John Calvin also recognized the same principles that Luther did when it came to authority. While expounding on the concept of predestination in the Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), Calvin also recognizes that God’s will is behind everything, “that all events whatsoever are governed by the secret counsel of God.”(JC, pg. 81, First Book, Ch XVI) From this logic, it is not difficult to see that the Calvinist view on predestination and its inherent understanding that all things that exist are manifestations of God’s will supports the notion that the authority is divinely ordained.


In short, it imagines that all things are sufficiently sustained by the energy divinely infused into them at first. But faith must penetrate deeper. After learning that there is a Creator, it must forthwith infer that he is also a governor and Preserver, and that, not by producing a kind of general motion in the machine of the globe as well as in each of its parts, but by a special Providence sustaining, cherishing, superintending, all the things which he made, to the very minutest, even to a sparrow. (JC, pg. 80)


Material reality, and everything it is and becomes, is guided by the “Creator,” who also acts as a “governor” and “Preserver” who sustains, cherishes, and superintends all things. With this understanding of the world, one closely resembling that of Luther, it is clear why Quentin Skinner can write that Calvin’s “basic commitment is unquestionably to a theory of non- resistance.”(QS, pg. 192)

Calvin, however, also departs from Luther through ambiguities in his writings and establishes the foundations for the resistance theory that was later to develop among Protestant thinkers. Skinner suggests that there were two concessions in Calvin’s Institutes that allowed for the exceptions when it was justified to resist tyranny (QS, pg. 192).

One is that, as he expresses it in his closing paragraph, ‘in that obedience which we have shown to be due the authority of rulers, we are always to make this exception, indeed to observe it as primary, that such obedience is never to lead us away from obedience to him to whose will the desire of all kings ought to be subject.’ The other concession, inserted into every edition of the Institutes after 1539, is that if the people ‘implore the lord’s help,’ God may sometimes respond by raising up ‘open avengers from among his servants,’ arming them ‘with his command to punish the wicked government and deliver his people, oppressed in unjust ways, from miserable calamity’(p.1517).


The first concession does not really justify resistance theory, since holding God’s law as primary is not the same thing as resisting tyranny. In fact, this passage could be interpreted in various ways, and different conclusions can be arrived at from its basic premise that the king should never lead the subjects away from God’s supreme law. The second concession discusses divine intervention and retribution, and again, is not clearly or openly stating that resistance is a viable approach to an unjust king, but rather that God, through his own mechanisms will “punish the wicked government and deliver his people.” While Calvin did not outright endorse resistance to authority, Calvin is not as clear cut as Luther in condemning it.


The Scottish reformer John Knox, writing after Calvin in the mid 16th century, believed it was lawful to resist the king if the sovereign acted against God’s law. Robert Grieves writes of Knox, “Throughout his career he maintained that obedience to higher powers was due as long as those powers did not command things contrary to divine precepts. When such things were commanded, disobedience was justified.”(RG, pg. 245) Knox had taken Calvin’s view that the people should never be lead away from God’s law by the king one step further. When “disobedience was justified,” it meant more than just passive resistance or not following explicit commands that were opposed to God’s laws. During the 1550’s, Knox had asked Calvin and another Protestant thinker named Heinrich Bullinger whether it was lawful to resist authority. The answer was that it was not, and for a period of time Knox accepted what Mason has called the “orthodox Calvinist policy of disobedience in all things repugnant to the law of God, but passive acceptance of any persecution that such a stance might bring upon them.” (JK, pg.xiii) But Knox’s view eventually diverged from the Calvinist one, as explained in the following passage from the introduction to On Rebellion:


When faced with the contention that the powers are to be obeyed ‘be they good or be they bad’, Knox retorted that, when kings acted wickedly, God ‘hath commanded no obedience, but rather He hath approved, yea, and greatly rewarded, such as have opponed themselves to their ungodly commandments and blind rage’ (p.95).


Although not fully articulated here, Knox was working towards the conclusion that there was a great difference between the power ordained by God and the person who wielded that power … [later] Knox made the distinction much more explicitly in defending the proposition ‘that the prince may be resisted and yet the ordinance of God not violated’(pp.191-2) (JK, pg. xix)


The people were not supposed to follow a wicked king who transgressed divine law. The main Protestant thinkers of the 16th century– Luther, Calvin– had agreed upon that. Knox had expanded the theory to include not just passive resistance and disobedience, but active resistance.

Like John Knox, French Huguenot writer Philippe Du Plessis- Mornay argues in Vindicae Contra Tyrannos that it is lawful to resist tyrants. In the Vindicae Contra Tyrannos, Du Plessis- Mornay answers the question “may a prince who oppresses or devastates a commonwealth be resisted ….”(PM, pg.162) His answer is that the prince can be resisted. “The principle of tyrannicide- that it is right and proper to slay iniquitous princes who oppress their peoples … was set forth with particular clarity and force by the Huguenot leader Philippe Du Plessis- Mornay.”(PM, pg. 61) This work, set in the context of religious conflict in sixteenth century France following the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, gave legal and moral pretext to French Huguenots that it was justified to resist a monarch.

The justification for Du Plessis- Mornay’s contention is based on the people coming prior to the king and acting as the agent that legitimates the monarchy. Du Plessis- Mornay explains(PM, pg.162) “ while a people can rule itself without a king, it is clear, beyond all doubt, that the people is prior to the king and that kings were originally established by the people.” What Du Plessis- Mornay is saying in this passage is that the emphasis should be on the people rather than the sovereign. Since “kings were originally established by the people,” the legitimacy of rule stems from the people. Thus, the people are prior to the monarch, and it is from their will that the king is made. He explains further that:


It is the people that establishes kings, give them kingdoms, and approves their selection by its vote. For God willed that every bit of authority held by kings should come from the people, after Him, so that kings would concentrate all their care, energy, and thought upon the people’s interests. (PM, pg.162)


Here it is clear that the king safeguards “the people’s interests” while he receives all authority from the people, which is God’s will. Du Plessis- Mornay’s view then is that the people, being the source of the king’s rights to rule, come prior to the king, and it is only through their approval that the monarch rules.

There are many reasons why the king receives his powers from the people in Du Plessis- Mornay’s view. First, Du Plessis- Mornay argues that there is little difference between kings and other men. “Born the same as all the rest of the men….” (PM, pg.162) Du Plessis- Mornay believes that kings have little to distinguish them from other men except the title of monarch. There is no inherent superiority in the monarch and rather an egalitarian type relationship between the king and his subjects, at least when it comes to issues of equality under God’s law. In his own words, “they are not to think that they are of a higher nature than the rest of men and rule as men rule over cattle.”(PM, pg.162)


He also cites historical precedents and evidence for his views on the role of the people. One example is some evidence he cites to show why kings “are not kings by birth, or by inheritance, but become kings only when they have received the office, together with the sceptre and the crown, from those who represent the people’s majesty.”(PM, pg. 162) In order to illustrate why this is so, he writes that “in Christian kingdoms now reputed to descend by succession, these traces of election are quite evident. The kings of France, Spain, England, and other countries are normally inaugurated by the estates of the realm….”(PM, pg.163) He uses evidence of this type to come to the conclusion that in “the beginning all kings are elected.”(PM, pg. 163)


A third argument of Du Plessis- Mornay’s is that the people legitimize the king, as already discussed above. Du Plessis- Mornay also argues that the king relies on the people in a common sense sort of way. “There can be no king without a people, but a people can exist without a king.”(PM, pg. 163) In addition, “a king is powerless if the people do not support him.”(PM, pg. 163) From a practically based type of reasoning, the people emerge ahead of the king. And finally, there is the issue of the people and their “interests” being placed ahead of the king, as has been discussed already.


Du Plessis- Mornay’s argument is based on his own reasoning rather than church doctrine. He abandons the maxim of St. Paul that authority is ordained by God. Instead he uses historical evidence and appeals to common sense to argue his points. Although Du Plessis- Mornay incorporates elements of doctrine into his argument, his work marks a departure from interpretations of authority and divine will that had dominated European thinking on the issue throughout Christian times.


Du Plessis- Mornay’s views contrasted heavily with those of Jean Bodin, a scholar with ties to the Valois royal family who published in 1576 his definitive work Six livres de la republique. The book contained a discourse on the concept of sovereignty, which Bodin defined as “the absolute and perpetual power of a commonwealth.”(JB, pg.1) The absolute power belonged to the monarch as he was the highest agent for God’s will in the world. The sovereign was selected by God, and was the highest authority in the world of men. Simply the fact that he was sovereign meant that divine will had chosen him as it’s agent in the world. This view contrasts heavily with that of Du Plessis- Mornay, as we shall see.


Bodin agrees with Luther, Calvin, and to a certain extent Du Plessis- Mornay in seeing authority as a manifestation of God’s will. For Bodin, the sovereign has been chosen by God, and his sovereignty, and therefore ability to override existing law, stems from this. Bodin explicitly tells how the sovereign is chosen: “Hence the prince of our country, being ordained and sent by God ….” (JB, pg. 120) Because God has given power to the sovereign, the sovereign is his representative on Earth. Du Plessis- Mornay also recognizes that God “makes kings, gives kingdoms, and selects rulers.”(JB, pg. 162) Understanding authority as a manifestation of God’s will does not necessarily mean for Du Plessis- Mornay, however, that the monarch comes before the people. Thus, while Bodin and Du Plessis- Mornay both agree on the basic framework, they come to entirely different conclusions based upon it.


Unlike Du Plessis- Mornay, he sees the king as holding absolute and perpetual sovereignty over the people, a God given right. When it comes to kingship, in fact, Bodin and Du Plessis Mornay hold views that are diametrically opposed. Bodin explains that “the laws of a sovereign prince, even if founded on good and strong reasons, depend solely on his own free will.” (JB, pg. 13) For Bodin, the prince or king has a sort of mandate to make laws of his own choice and will. The sovereign’s will supercedes that of any other man made laws, including common laws, customs, and laws of predecessors. Bodin articulates this further when he writes that “the law says that the prince is not subject to the law.”(JB, pg. 11) The sovereign thus is the highest authority, with absolute and perpetual powers, and his authority is a manifestation of the will of God. Du Plessis- Mornay, however, sees it entirely differently: the sovereignty ultimately belongs to the people. The people legitimize the king, the people come prior to the king, and they are responsible for the king’s very creation. For, as Du Plessis- Mornay rationalizes, there are no kings without a people. The historical precedents behind this view, cited from French history, are also many, going back to Merovingian times. According to this view, the monarch does not hold absolute powers, but instead it is vested in the people. The monarch also does not have the right to make laws and break them as he wishes. Thus, resistance to the king is justified “since the people as a whole is greater than the king.” (PM, pg.163) While Bodin holds that it is God’s will that the monarch holds ultimate temporal authority, Du Plessis- Mornay contends that it belongs to the people.


When faced with tyranny, Bodin and Du Plessis- Mornay believe there are different courses of action the people should take. Bodin argues that it is unlawful to rebel or resist a sovereign, no matter what one does or how evil one acts:


I conclude then that it is never permissible for a subject to attempt anything against a sovereign prince, no matter how wicked and cruel a tyrant he may be. It is certainly permissible not to obey him in anything that is against the law of God or nature- to flee, to hide, to evade his blows, to suffer death rather than make any attempt upon his life or honor.(JB, pg.120)


The people can never resist the sovereign in an active way, but instead, when forced to act against God’s law, they should passively resist, and “suffer death rather than make any attempt upon his life or honor.” This, of course, brings up a problem for Bodin, since the monarch has absolute and supreme rights, he can violate natural law unopposed. There is nothing to check or counterbalance a ruler whom has sovereignty but fails to uphold natural law. Bodin suggests that God will pay back a ruler whom violates natural law. He says of princes “it is not in their power to contravene them (natural laws) unless they wish to be guilty of treason against God, and to war against Him beneath whose grandeur all the monarchs of this world should bear the yoke and bow the head in abject fear and reverence.” (JB, pg. 13) So, the sovereign loses the rights of a sovereign if natural law is violated, and faces divine retribution from God for his folly. Du Plessis- Mornay, on the other hand, believes that it is lawful to resist tyranny. When the monarch violates God’s law, or even acts in violation of the people’s interests, it is lawful to resist and depose the monarch. The subjects of the king do not need to passively resist when their monarch orders them to violate God’s law. Instead, they may overthrow the monarch, since it is God’s will that the people and the king have a covenant, and if the king doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain, the people are not bound to follow the sovereign. Whereas for Bodin God has his own mechanisms for dealing with an authority who violates natural law, Du Plessis- Mornay believes that the people have the right to resist, since it is God’s will that the authority is made by, for, and an agent of, the people. Bodin sticks to the Pauline maxim that the authority is ordained by God, while Du Plessis- Mornay sees it as lawful to resist the authority if it transgresses God’s divine law.


Historical facts are cited by Bodin in support of the monarch and by Du Plessis- Mornay in favor of the people to illustrate why one is supreme over the other. Bodin cites numerous historical precedents as evidence of the sovereign’s special relationship with God. Two of these precedents reveal aspects of the sovereign- God relationship. “Marcus Aurelius said that magistrates judge private persons; princes, magistrates; and God, princes.” (JB, pg. 31) The king is therefore answerable to God, being the highest authority in the temporal world. Another example: “the Essenes … held that sovereign princes, no matter who they might be, ought to be inviolable to their subjects as having been anointed and sent by God.” (JB, pg. 177) The sovereign is considered to be sent by God, and thus is not merely prince by chance or skill, but part of a higher pattern. Bodin looks to these precedents to show that the relationship between the ruler as the trustee and God as the ultimate authority has a long history, and one that does not include the people. Du Plessis- Mornay also cites historical facts to prove that the people come before and are responsible for the creation of the king, as has already been discussed. It should be mentioned that both men find sufficient evidence in the historical record to argue in a convincing fashion why the people or the sovereign comes first over the other.


The major Protestant writers of the sixteenth century wrote complicated and differing tracts on the topics of authority, tyranny, and resistance theory. Luther, Calvin, and Bodin all are decidedly against tyrannicide. Knox and Du Plessis- Mornay, however, believed it could be justified. While the course of events in each man’s life and the political realities of their times had to influence each in a certain way, and maybe even act as a motivation on the part of the Knox to allow resistance, or for Luther to condemn it, it is possible that there were many other factors at work. Scripture, historical precedents, and previous views, including St. Paul’s maxim, also played a part in the development of each theory and why one thinker chose resistance and another condemned it. In this light, it would be a mistake to assume Bodin wrote what he did because he worked for the French monarchy, or even to infer that Du Plessis- Mornay justified tyrannicide because of the betrayals the Catholics had perpetrated against the Huguenots (although in this specific case it may be a stretch to think St. Bartholomew’s had little influence). Why is this? Because when it comes to authority, there is nothing to distinguish Luther and Bodin, as already demonstrated, or even for that matter, Calvin. Resistance theory should not be looked at as being intrinsic to Protestantism, or obedience to the monarch as a solely Catholic institution. Therefore, I have argued that historical context alone is not enough to understand the complex views on authority, God’s will, and tyranny that are expounded on by Luther, Calvin, Knox, Du Plessis- Mornay, and Bodin.


Throughout the sixteenth century, Protestants and Catholics alike had discussed the subject of tyranny and resistance to it (PM, pg. 161). And throughout classical times and the middle ages, these topics were discussed by a wide array of philosophers, writers and thinkers. Rather than take on this multitude of material, we have traced the evolution of ideas on authority and tyranny through Luther, Calvin, Knox, Du Plessis Mornay, and Bodin. While Luther, Calvin, and Bodin would never justify open and active resistance to a tyrant, Knox and Du Plessis- Mornay believed it could be justified. While examining each thinker gives a brief outline in the history of political ideas during the sixteenth century on the subjects of authority and tyranny, it is far from complete and cannot be looked at in a linear fashion since there is a large collection of writings on the topic both contemporary to the sixteenth century and dating from the beginnings of western civilization. I have also argued that historical context alone is not a key to understanding the complexities of each thinker’s views on tyranny and authority, as church doctrine, historical precedents, and the works of previous or contemporary writers also influenced the conclusions arrived upon.

Works Cited



  1. Bodin, Jean. On Sovereignty. Cambridge University Press. 1992.
  2. Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952.
  3. Duplessis Mornay, Philippe. Vindicae Contra Tyrannos.
  4. Greaves, Richard L. “John Knox, the Reformed Tradition, and the Development of Resistance Theory.” The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 48, No.3, (Sep. 1976) pp.1-36
  5. Knox, John. On Rebellion. Edited by Roger A. Mason. Cambridge University Press. 1994
  6. Luther, Martin. “On Governmental Authority.” The Protestant Reformation. Harper & Row Publishers. 1968.
  7. MacArthur, Kathleen. “The Vindicae Contra Tyrannos: A Chapter in the Struggle for Religious Freedom in France.” Church History Vol.9, No. 4 (Dec., 1940) pp. 285-298
  8. Skinner, Quentin. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Vol. 2, The Age of Reformation. Cambridge University Press.