In this series, we are examining the sixteenth-century Huguenot book Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants), a Christian treatise on the civil magistrate. The treatise is written in the form of answering four questions. In parts one and two, we went through the first of these questions: whether subjects are obligated to obey rulers who issue commands contrary to the law of God. We came to the conclusion that men are not obligated to obey such commands; indeed, it would be sinful to obey them. We will continue in this series by beginning to answer the second question: whether it is lawful to resist a ruler who violates the law of God. As before, I will post in full a section of the book, followed by my summary of the section.
Continue to keep in mind that though the civil magistrate is referred to as “king” or “prince,” the principles laid out in Vindiciae are just as applicable to presidents, prime ministers, judges, congressmen, senators, governors, or whatever other form or title the civil magistrate takes.
THE SECOND QUESTION, part 1 of 3: Whether it is lawful to resist a ruler who violates the law of God, or ruins His Church; by whom, how, and to what extent it is lawful.
This question appears to be a difficult one insofar as circumstances tend to hinder it from being raised. On the one hand, it is quite unnecessary in a situation where the ruler fears God, and on the other hand, it is quite a dangerous question to ask in the realm of those kings who acknowledge no other sovereign but themselves. For this reason, few have given it any attention at all, and even then, only in passing. The question is, is it lawful to resist a ruler who violates the law of God, or who tries to ruin the church, or hinders the restoration of it? If we submit this question to the authority of the Holy Scriptures, it will quickly be answered. For if it had been lawful to the Jewish people (which may be easily seen in the books of the Old Testament), in fact, if it had been actually commanded them, I believe that the same principle may be applied to the entire people of any Christian kingdom or country whatsoever.
In the first place, it must be considered that God chose Israel out of all the nations of the earth to be a peculiar people to Him, and so He established a covenant with them that they should be the people of God. This is written in various places in Deuteronomy, the substance and tenor of this alliance being, “That all should be careful in their several lines, tribes, and families in the land of Canaan, to serve God purely, who would have a church established amongst them for ever.” This may be seen in various passages, namely, the twenty-seventh chapter of Deuteronomy; there Moses and the Levites covenanting in the name of God, assembled all the people, and said unto them: “This day, O Israel, art thou become the people of God, obey you therefore His voice,” etc. (Deut. 27:9-10) And Moses said, “When thou hast passed the River of Jordan, thou shalt set six tribes on the mountain of Gerizzim on the one side, and the six others on the mountain of Eball, and then the Levites shall read the law of God, promising the observers all felicity, and threatening woe and destruction to the breakers thereof, and all the people shall answer, Amen.” (Deut. 27:15-26) This was afterwards repeated by Joshua, at his entering into the land of Canaan, and some few days before his death. We see by this that all the people are obligated to maintain the law of God to perfect His church and to exterminate the idols of the land of Canaan. This covenant was never intended to apply to this person or that person, but rather to the nation as a whole. This is seen in the placement of ark of the Lord in the center of camp with the tents of the the twelve tribes arranged around it in a large circle — in other words, all should be concerned with the preservation of that which was committed to the custody of all.
There are examples in Scripture as to how this covenant was worked out in practice; for example, the inhabitants of Gibeah of the tribe of Benjamin gang-raped the wife of a Levite, and she died from the ordeal. The Levite then hacked his wife’s body into twelve pieces and sent them to the twelve tribes, to the end that all the people together might wipe away this horrible crime that had ever been committed in Israel. (Jg. 19: 29-30) All the people met together at Mizpah and demanded that the Benjamites hand over the guilty parties for punishment. This the Benjamites refused to do, whereupon with the consent of God, the other tribes of Israel declared war against the Benjamites, and by this means the authority of the second Table of the Law was maintained: an entire Israelite tribe who had broken one of its commandments was massacred.
For the first we have an example sufficiently manifest in Joshua. After the Reubenites, Gadites, and Manassites returned to their own land beyond Jordan, they foolishly built a large, impressive altar near the river. (Josh. 22:9 ff.) This seemed contrary to the commandment of the Lord, who explicitly forbade them to sacrifice anywhere but in the land of Canaan only — it was feared that these men intended to serve idols. This action was communicated to the people who inhabited this side of Jordan, the place assigned for the meetings of the states was at Silo where the Ark of the Lord was. They all accordingly met, and Phineas the High Priest, the son of Eleazar, was sent across the Jordan to deal with them concerning this offence committed against the law. And so that they might know that this was the will of all the people, they sent also the principal men of every tribe to complain that the service of God is corrupted by this device, that God would be provoked by this rebellion, and become an enemy, not only to the guilty, but also to all Israel, as was the case in Peor. In short, they would declare open war against them if they did not abandon whatever plans they had for their altar. Great harm would have resulted if the tribes beyond Jordan had not insisted that they had erected that altar only for a memorial and that the Israelites both on the one and the other side of Jordan profess one and the same religion. Whenever they have proven themselves to be negligent in the maintenance of the service of God, they have always been punished. This is the real reason why they lost two battles against the Benjamites as told in the end of the Book of Judges; for in so carefully undertaking to punish the rape and outrage done to a particular person, they neglected the maintenance of their duties to God, including omission to punish both corporal and spiritual immorality. There was then in these first times such a covenant between God and the people.
When after that, kings were given unto the people, there was no reason to revoke or void the former contract. In fact, it was renewed and confirmed for ever. We have already said at the inaugurations of kings, there was a double covenant treated of, to wit “between God and the king”; and “between God and the people.” The agreement was first passed between “God, the king, and the people.” Or between the “high priest, the people” (which can be found in the twenty-third chapter of the second book of the Chronicles) “and the king.” The intention of this was that the “people should be the people of God,” which is the same thing as saying, “that the people should be the church of God.” We have showed before to what end God contracted covenants with the king.
Let us now consider why He also covenants Himself with the people. Certainly God has not done this in vain, and if the people had not “authority to promise, and to keep promise,” it would be a waste of time to contract or covenant with them. It may seem then that God has done like certain creditors, who, having to deal with not very sufficient borrowers, take a number of them jointly bound for one and the same sum, insomuch as two or more being bound one for another and each of them separately, for the entire payment of the total sum, Under this arrangement, he may demand his whole debt from whatever one of them he pleases. There was much danger to commit the custody of the church to one man alone, and therefore God put it in trust “to all the people.” The king being in such a high position that he might easily be corrupted. For fear that the church should stumble with him, God intended the people also to be answerable for it. He, or (in His place) the High Priest is the stipulator in this contract, the king and all the people, to wit, Israel, do jointly and voluntarily assume, promise, and oblige themselves for one and the same thing. The High Priest demands that the king and the people promise that the people shall be the people of God, and that God shall always have His temple, His church, among them, where He shall be purely served. The king is answerable, so also are the people (the whole body of the people are representative of the office and place of one man) not individually, but jointly, as the words themselves make clear, and immediately and without interruption, first the king, then the people.
We see here then two undertakers, the king and Israel, who by consequence are responsible one for another and each for the whole. For as when Caius and Titus have promised jointly to pay to their creditor Seius a certain sum, each of them is obligated for himself and his companion, and the creditor may demand the sum from which of them he pleases. Likewise, the king for himself, and Israel for itself are responsible to see to it that the church is not damaged. If either of them turn out to be negligent of their covenant, God may justly demand the whole from whichever of the two He pleases; more probably from the people than from the king, because many cannot so easily slip away as one, and have better means to repay the debts than one alone. In like manner, when two men are indebted, especially to the public treasury, the one is in such manner accountable for the other that he can take no benefit of the division granted by the new constitutions of Justinian. So likewise the king and Israel, promising to pay tribute to God, who is the King of Kings, for accomplishment whereof, the one is obliged for the other. And as two covenanters sign a contract, their mutual obligation that exposes them to forfeitures and hazards, the failings of the one causes damage to the other: so that if the people of Israel forsake their God and the king doesn’t care, he is justly guilty of Israel’s delinquency. In like manner, if the king starts to worship false gods, and, not content with his own idolatry, encourages his subjects to follow after him, attempting by all means to ruin the church, and if Israel seek not to withdraw him from his rebellion, and contain him within the limits of obedience, they make the king’s transgression their own.
As when there is danger that one of the debtors frittering away his substance may make himself unable to meet his obligation, the other must satisfy the creditors who do not deserve to suffer loss; though one of his debtors has squandered his estate, this principle applies in the case of Israel toward their king, and of the king towards Israel. If one of them becomes an idolater or breaks the covenant in any other sort, the one of them must pay the forfeiture and be punished for the other. Now that the covenant of which we at this time treat is of this nature, it appears also by other testimonies of Holy Scripture. Saul being established king of Israel, Samuel, priest and prophet of the Lord, speaks in this manner to the people. “Both you and your king which is over you serve the Lord your God, but if you persevere in malice” (he taxes them of malice for that they preferred the government of a man before that of God) “you and your king shall perish.” (2 Sam. 12:14-15) He adds after the reason, “for it has pleased God to choose you for His people.” (2 Sam. 12:22) You see here both the parties evidently shared in the condition and the punishment. In like manner Asa, king of Judah, by the council of the prophet Assary, assembles all the people at Jerusalem, to wit, Judah and Benjamin, to enter into covenant with God. There came also a number of men from the tribes of Ephraim, Manasses, and Simeon, who were come there to serve the Lord according to His own ordinance. After the sacrifices were performed according to the law, the covenant was contracted in these terms, “Whosoever shall not call upon the Lord God of Israel, be he the least or the greatest, let him die the death.” (2 Chr. 15:12-15) In making mention of the greatest, you see that the king himself is not excepted from the designed punishment.
But who may punish the king (for here is question of corporal and temporal punishment) if it be not the whole body of the people? For it is the people to whom the king swears and obliges himself, no more nor less, than the people do to the king. We read also that king Josiah, when he was twenty-five years old, together with the whole people, made a covenant with the Lord, the king and the people promising to keep the laws and ordinances of God; (2 Chr. 34:31-33) and for the better fulfillment of this agreement, the idolatry of Baal was presently destroyed. If any will carefully examine the Holy Bible, he may well find other testimonies to this purpose.
But to what purpose should the consent of the people be required; why should Israel or Judah be explicitly obligated to observe the law of God? For what reason should they promise so solemnly to be forever the people of God? If it be denied, by the same reason that they had any authority from God, or power to free themselves from perjury, or to hinder the ruin of the church. For it makes no sense to cause the people to promise to be the people of God, if they are also obligated to allow the king to draw them after false gods. If the people are absolutely in bondage, why are they commanded to take order that God be purely served? If they cannot properly perform their obligations to God, and if it is not not lawful for them to keep their promise, shall we say that God has made an agreement with them, who had no ability either to make a promise, nor to keep a promise? But, in making a covenant with the people, God openly and plainly shows that the people are able to make, hold, and accomplish their promises and contracts. For, if someone who bargains or contracts with a slave or a minor is not worthy to be heard in public court, shall it not be much more shameful to lay this charge upon the Almighty, that He should contract with those who had no power to perform the conditions of the covenant?
But for this occasion it was, that when the kings had broken their covenants, the prophets always addressed themselves to the House of Judah and Jacob, and to Samaria, to advise them of their covenantal duties. Furthermore, they required the that people not only refuse for themselves the sacrificing to Baal, but also that they call down the king’s idol, and destroy his priests and service in spite of the king himself. For example, Ahab having killed the prophets of God, the prophet Elijah assembles the people, and as it were converted the estates, and accuses, censures, and reproves every one of them; his exhortation causes the people to take and put to death the priests of Baal. (1 Ki. 18:40) And for so much as the king neglected his duty, it behooved Israel more carefully to perform theirs without any kind of a riot, not in haste, but by public authority; the people and officials being assembled, and the equity of the cause orderly debated, and carefully considered before they came to the execution of justice. Despite this, whenever Israel has failed to oppose their king who would abandon the service of God, that which has been formerly said of the two debtors (that is, the foolish management of the one always causes injury to the other) happened to them; for as the king has been punished for his idolatry and disloyalty, the people have also been chastised for their negligence, ignorance, and stupidity. It has commonly happened that the kings have been much more often seduced, and drawn others with them than the people have corrupted a king, for ordinarily it is the king who sets the example which the people follow. In other words, many more usually offend after the example of one, than that one will change himself as he sees all the rest.
Perhaps this will be made clear by examples. What do we suppose to have been the cause of the defeat and overthrow of the army of Israel with their king Saul? Does God chastise the people for the sins of the ruler? Is the child beaten instead of the father? It is hard to swallow, people say, to maintain that the children should bear the punishments due their fathers; the laws do not permit that anyone shall suffer for the wickedness of another. Now God forbid that the judge of all the world (said Abraham) should destroy the innocent with the guilty. On the contrary, says the Lord, as the life of the father, so the life of the son is in my hands; the fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin. (Deut. 24:16) That overthrow, then, happened because the people did not oppose Saul when he violated the law of God, but applauded that miserable ruler when he wickedly persecuted David and the priests of the Lord.
There are many other examples; let us consider a few. The enlarge the possessions of the tribe of Judah, Saul broke the public faith granted to the Gibeonites, when the Israelites first came into the land of Canaan, and put to death as many of them as he could find. (2 Sam. 21:1-2) By this execution Saul broke the third commandment, for God had been called to witness this agreement (Josh. 9:15-20), and the sixth also, in so much as he murdered the innocent; he ought to have maintained the authority of the two Tables of the Law. Therefore it is said that Saul and his house have committed this wickedness (2 Sam 21:1). In the meantime, after Saul’s death, and after David had been established king, the whole country of Israel was afflicted with a famine for three years because of this cruelty, and the hand of the Lord did not cease to strike until that seven men of the house of Saul were given to the Gibeonites, who put them to death. Now, seeing that every one ought to bear his own burden, and that no man can inherit another’s crime, why do they say that all the whole people of Israel deserved to be punished for Saul, who was already dead, and had (as it might seem) that controversy buried in the same grave with him? It is that the people neglected to oppose a mischief so heinous, although they should have done it. Do you think it’s reasonable that any should be punished unless they deserve it? In what way have the people failed, but that they allowed their king to do evil? In like manner when David commanded Joab and the governors of Israel to number the people, (1 Chr. 21) he is charged with having committed a great sin; for even as Israel provoked the anger of God in demanding a king in whose wisdom they seemed to place their safety, even so David did much forget himself in hoping for victory through the multitude of his subject. This is very much like the abominable idolatry mentioned elsewhere in Scripture of “sacrificing to their net, and burning incense to their dragnet.” (Hab. 1:16) The governors, seeing that it would bring evil on the people, hesitated at first. But then, when the obligation to carry out the command became too heavy for them to resist, they went ahead with the census; in the meantime all the people were punished. Then David, and also the elders of Israel, who represented the whole body of the people, put on sack-cloth and ashes. This practice was not done when David committed those horrible sins of murder and adultery. It is clear that in this last act, all had sinned, and that all should repent; and finally that all were chastised: David, who had provoked God by so wicked a commandment, the governors, who as peers and assessors of the kingdom, ought in the name of all Israel to have opposed the king, and the people, by their connivancy and over-weak resistance, who allowed themselves to be numbered without a fight. In this respect, God acted much like a chief commander or general of an army: he chastised the offence of the whole camp by a sudden alarm given to all, and by the exemplary punishments of some particulars to keep all the rest in better awe and order.
But tell me why, after that, when King Manasseh had defiled the Temple at Jerusalem (2 Chr. 33:5), did God not only afflict Manasseh, but all the people also? (2 Chr. 33:11) It was to warn Israel, one of the sureties, that if they do not keep the king within the limits of his duty, they would all suffer for it; for what did the prophet Jeremiah meant when he said that the house of Judah is in subjection to the Assyrians, because of the impiety and cruelty of Manasses? They were guilty of all his offences, because they made no resistance. It was for this reason that Saint Augustine and Saint Ambrose said Herod and Pilate condemned Jesus Christ, the priests delivered Him to be crucified and even though the people seem to have some compassion, nevertheless all were punished. But why? For all were guilty of His death because they did not deliver Him out of the hands of those wicked judges and governors. There can be added to this many other proofs drawn from various secular authors for the further proof of this point, but the testimonies of holy scripture should be enough to be sufficient for Christians.
Furthermore, since it is the duty of a good magistrate to hinder and prevent mischief than to chastise the delinquents after the offence has been committed, as good physicians who prescribe a diet to allay and prevent diseases, not just medicines to cure them after the fact. In like manner a truly godly people will not simply agree to reprove and repress a ruler who tries to abolish the law of God, but also will take care that through malice and wickedness, he produce nothing that may hurt the same, or that over a long period of time would corrupt the pure service of God. And instead of supporting public offences committed against the Divine Majesty, they will take away all means by which the offenders might hide their sins; we read that to have been practiced by all Israel by a public council in the assembly of the whole people, to remonstrate to those beyond Jordan, touching the altar they had built (Josh. 22:16), and by the king Hezekiah, who caused the brazen serpent to be broken. (2 Ki. 18:4)
It is then lawful for the people of Israel to resist the king, who would overthrow the law of God and abolish His church. And not only that, but also they ought to know that if they neglect to perform this duty, they make themselves guilty of the same crime, and shall bear the punishment along with their king.
This is a prickly question, because it is unnecessary to raise under a godly ruler, but dangerous to raise under an ungodly ruler. However, it can be easily answered by examining whether it was lawful for the Jewish people in the Old Testament, and then applying that principle more broadly to all earthly kingdoms, Christian or not. First of all, it must be stated that the nation of Israel was specifically chosen (Deut. 27) and that God made covenant with the nation as a whole. Such being the case, the entire nation was obligated to uphold the covenant and to punish any part of the nation who broke it (see Judges 19 and Joshua 22). This covenant was not made void when Israel raised kings to rule them. As we saw in part 2 of this series, there was a double covenant established, both between God and the king and between God and the people. Why did God do this? “Certainly God has not done this in vain, and if the people had not ‘authority to promise, and to keep promise,’ it would be a waste of time to contract or covenant with them.” Under this arrangement, God has performed what a lender who is doubtful of the borrower’s ability to pay will do: He requires a co-signer. Thus there are “a number of them jointly bound for one and the same sum, insomuch as two or more being bound one for another and each of them separately, for the entire payment of the total sum . . . and he may demand his whole debt from whatever one of them he pleases.” The care of God’s church is much too important to be entrusted to a single man, so God makes both the king and the people as a whole jointly responsible for it by covenant as co-signers on a contract. “We see here then two undertakers, the king and Israel, who by consequence are responsible one for another and each for the whole.” Should the people forsake God and the king do nothing, then he is guilty as well; and should the king seek to lead the people astray and the people not resist, then they are guilty of the king’s rebellion as well. There are many examples in the Old Testament where the king and the people are lumped together for covenantal sanctions (e.g., 2 Sam 12 and 2 Chr. 15).
This leads to the next point: given joint responsibility, who may resist and punish the king for failing to keep covenant, if not the people themselves? “For it makes no sense to cause the people to promise to be the people of God, if they are also obligated to allow the king to draw them after false gods.” “For, if someone who bargains or contracts with a slave or a minor is not worthy to be heard in public court, shall it not be much more shameful to lay this charge upon the Almighty, that He should contract with those who had no power to perform the conditions of the covenant?” When a king broke his covenant with God, the prophets always went to the people to remind them of their covenantal duties, just as Elijah did when he assembled the people and had them put to death the king’s prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). In 2 Samuel 21, King Saul broke oath and committed murder by slaughtering the Gibeonites, and the whole nation of Israel was punished for it with three years of famine because they did not stop him. In 2 Sam. 24, King David sinned by taking a census, and the entire nation had to endure three days of pestilence for going along with it. In 2 Chr. 33, God afflicted not just the wicked King Manasseh, but the entire nation, when Manasseh defiled the temple. This “was to warn Israel, one of the sureties, that if they do not keep the king within the limits of his duty, they would all suffer for it; for what did the prophet Jeremiah mean when he said that the house of Judah is in subjection to the Assyrians, because of the impiety and cruelty of Manasseh? They were guilty of all his offences, because they made no resistance.”
In summary, “it is then lawful for the people of Israel to resist the king, who would overthrow the law of God and abolish His church. And not only that, but also they ought to know that if they neglect to perform this duty, they make themselves guilty of the same crime, and shall bear the punishment along with their king.” And Christians, being the new Israel, also have this lawful duty and will be punished if they do not perform it.