Hall – The Reformation Roots of Social Contract
David W. Hall
The Kuyper Institute
The Philadelphia Society,
April 26, 1997
"The Reformation Roots of Social Contract"
(Permission to quote this speech must be granted by the Author)
Introduction: Noting that distinguished biologist Michael Behe is speaking on evolution
tomorrow-and I think both he and I would avoid the dogma of macro evolution-this morning, I
wish to speak about the micro-evolution of an idea. Like the kind of development supported by
good science, and unlike the kind of evolution neither supported by good science or metaphysics,
the development of a particular political idea appears in a specific religious incubator.
Contrary to much secular thought, I want to assert that the true origin of a social contract that
guarantees human liberty lies in the seedbed of the Reformation. Another social contract, the
humanist one, did have its cradle in the secular thinking of the Enlightenment. The one, I’ll call it the
social covenant (to distinguish), has resisted tyranny, totalitarianism, and authoritarianism with
consistent and irrepressible force; the other has led to oppression, large-scale loss of life, and the
general diminution of liberty, economic and personal.
Others have drawn this contrast between Reformation and Revolution thought, chiefly Burke,
Lammenais, Haller, and Guillaume Groen Van Prinsterer. The American Founding Fathers, I
believe it can be shown, drew predominantly on the Reformation’s social covenant model rather
than imbibing from the well of Revolutionary Social Contract.
In our time, I hope to review or acquaint you with a few of the peak performances of Reformation
political thought, and commend to you these earlier readings not only as some of the most ignored
within our society, but moreover as some of the most essential readings. Indeed, a 21st century
person unfamiliar with these building blocks will be as unprepared for many political winds of
doctrine as 20th century secularists have been. In the main, I will summarize and introduce 5
leading tracts from the period that had wide and enduring political impact.
The Right of Magistrates (1574) by Theodore Beza
The Rights of the Crown of Scotland (1579) by George Buchanan
Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, (1579) Eng. trans. Harold Laski
Politica (1603) by Johannes Althusius
Lex Rex (1644) by Samuel Rutherford
[Note: These, along with the binge of tracts from 1550-1580, seem organically connected.]
The result shows the common threads of political ideas that have evolved from this unique basis of
thought (a paradigm of Kuhnian proportions in its own right). Indeed, no other philosophical world
view precisely accounts for the ideas founded upon this epistemological platform. Much antecedent
Western political thought is hopelessly confused if this lacuna is not illuminated. It is not too much to
claim that Western society owes many of its best political advances to Reformation theology.
Yet, these ideas did not develop ex nihilo. They had a few noticeable points before which they
were rarely in existence. Further, there are also definite points where they achieved massive
society-wide acceptance. In many cases, these ideas developed slowly and in seed form; they
evolved over time, but did so in a particular Petri dish (or since so many were Scottish, maybe we
should say in a cloning lab).
Hence, I will propose two theses: (1) Ideas evolve incrementally out of past contexts. In the
words of Solomon, a motto of our Center, nihil novum sub sole ("There is nothing new under the
sun."). If that is true, then all political ideas have precursors, and political advances grow out of
specific intellectual soils. For our discussion, this means that some of the best ideas associated with
democracy are not really the property of those democracies. Instead, democracies came as
after-effects and were the beneficiaries of these good ideas.
I will seek to show that the evolution of resistance against monopolism had its root uniquely in
the Reformation thought. There were, to be sure, seedling precursors to this Reformation thought
(which I’ll briefly mention below)-but they were few and far between. The quantum leaps of
development from the years 1520-1650 were so monumental as to deserve notice as a signal and
(2) This Reformation evolution of Social Covenant was first manifested writ large in and is the origin
of our Republic. Rather than a humanist version of social contract as the political glue of our
society, it is more accurately the case that a decidedly religious, transcendent platform lies at the
base of American society-despite the massive secularist mythos to the contrary.
First, an ever so short review of six key turning points in the development of good
government: All were religious and rooted in biblical thought. The first three are prior to the
Reformation (and are given only brief notice.)
TURNING POINT #1: The Hebrew contribution to Republicanism
Johannes Althusius, extolled: "I consider that no polity from the beginning of the world has been
more wisely and perfectly constructed than the polity of the Jews. We err, I believe, whenever in
similar circumstances we depart from it." Part of what he had in mind as unimproveable was an
early form of republican-federal government.
Specifically, Exodus 18 (Jethro and Moses) provides an early example of
federal-republican structure, which became the basis for our American republic. Calvin
viewed this as a representative republican form.
Samuel Rutherford in Lex Rex used the Mosaic pattern to argue for a republican, or at
least anti-monarchical form of civil polity. Indeed, most of the Reformation era political
tracts (e. g., by Calvin, Beza, Bucer, Knox, Buchanan, Ponet, Althusius, etc.) devoted
extensive commentary to the OT patterns of government. These Reformers viewed the
canon of Scripture as applicable for their own politics.
TURNING POINT #2: The Magna Carta
Pre-Reformation political theology did not absolutize democracy; that came with Hobbes, and the
children of the Enlightenment. Antedating the Reformation teaching in Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos,
Aquinas argued that Christians are "obliged to obey authority that comes from God but not
that which is not from God. . . . Whoever seizes power by violence does not become a true
ruler and lord, and therefore it is permissible when the possibility exists for someone to
reject that rulership . . ."
M. Stanton Evans points out that the Magna Carta, as a medieval document, was a catalogue of
liberties, rights, and safe-guards from statist intrusion. Expressive of the medieval theology of its
time, this document was a benchmark of civic liberties and owed its origin to Christianity.
TURNING POINT #3: The Conciliar Movement
The Renaissance witnessed a simultaneous exhibition of the potency of free-trade, as well as of the
tendency toward corruption in inferior kings. Both coalesced to support the Reformation era
changes in economics and politics. "The thought and practice of the Middle Ages," notes Evans,
"thus produced two related concepts limiting the rule of princes: the idea of their implied or explicit
contract with their subjects; and the idea of the higher law above the state, represented in the
prerogatives of the church. Kings who violated either could be resisted."
The theology of the Middle Ages bore much fruit in the political formulations of the next centuries.
Even the early modernists could not escape the influence of the biblical categories maintained in the
church fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, and the pre-reformers. Modern developments of the state are
difficult to assess, if considered in the abstract or not against the backdrop of medieval and
Reformation theologies of the state.
TURNING POINT #4: The Magisterial Reformers (1500-1550)
Medieval sources contained precedents for resistance, but Protestants became especially animated
pursuing theological foundations for more democratic expressions. Holl summarized the major
effects of Reformation thought as: "on the one hand, a deepening of the theory of the state; on the
other, a definite limitations of its powers."
Over time, delimitations to this principle of unqualified submission became increasingly
acceptable. In light of some of the abuses and excesses of civil rulers, most Protestants came to
accept a modified resistance (passive) if the ruler mandated something explicitly opposed to
revealed matters. Despite the Protestant unity on this issue, a division arose over whether or not it
was permissible to actively resist the civil magistrate. If such active resistance was recognized, to
whom was this responsibility entrusted: to the masses or to the lower magistrates?
John Knox, for example, agreed that people should revolt against a tyrannical ruler, even going so
far as to permit deposition and execution. In 1558, Knox’s co-pastor, Christopher Goodman,
published How Superior Powers ought to be obeyed of their subjects; and wherein they may
lawfully by God’s word be disobeyed and resisted. This Reformation revolution affirmed:
When kings or rulers become blasphemers of God, oppressors and murderers of their subjects,
they ought no more to be accounted kings or lawful magistrates, but as private men to be
examined, accused, condemned and punished by the law of God, and being condemned and
punished by that law, it is not man’s but God’s doing . . . When magistrates cease to do their duty,
the people are as it were without magistrates . . . If princes do right and keep promise with you,
then do you owe them all humble obedience. If not, ye are discharged and your study ought to be
in this case how ye may depose and punish according to the law such rebels against God and
oppressors of their country.
I will skip Luther, except for one summary quote from Karl Holl. Attributing to Luther a large role
in the advance of civic freedom of conscience and the adoption of the view which viewed the state
as superior to the will of the individual, Holl noted: "at the same time it was the Reformation that
first set a rigid limit to the absolute power of the state." Moreover, he conceded "to the
Reformation respect . . . for being the first of all in modern times to have prepared the way for
freedom of conscience in the state. All further victories with respect to tolerance rest on this first
step . . ." Civic freedom was a consequence of the religious freedom.
Another early Reformation tract, Heinrich Bullinger’s 1534 De testamento seu foedere Dei unico
et aeterno (Concerning the One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God), was one of the first
Reformation treatises. In that Bullinger’s work was prior to Calvin’s Institutes, and noting that
Bullinger was one of the most prolific and influential theologians of the Reformation, his work
should be considered integral to Reformation studies. Bullinger’s shadow extended not only to the
ecclesiastical but to the civil realm as well.
John Calvin on the Civil Government
Calvinism is often credited with immense political impact. Asserting that the state was not merely a
necessary evil for Calvin, Karl Holl recognized that Calvinism, even more than Lutheranism,
provided a theological basis to oppose unjust governments. Everywhere Calvinism went, so did its
views of putting government in its place. Calvinism "placed a solid barrier in the path of the spread
of absolutism." Holl claimed that even though precursors of human rights were found in the Middle
Ages, nonetheless, "its formal acceptance into political theory is not completed until this period and
only under the impact of religion. . . . The acceptance of universal human rights into the constitution
was, however, not just the modification of a single point; it included in itself the transformation of
the whole concept of the state." John Calvin (1509-1564) is frequently credited with massive
impact on political and economical matters in modern Europe.
Both Luther and Philipp Melanchthon allowed resistance to the superior magistrate to be carried
out by the inferior magistrate in a Roman Catholic Establishment. This Lutheran claim was
applicable, in their view, if a superior magistrate attempted to "exterminate the pure teaching of the
Holy Gospel . . . then the lower godfearing magistrate may defend himself and his subjects." Thus,
tyrants were to be removed by the intermediating magistrates. Martin Bucer also held that the OT
validated cases of intermediating magistrates preserving "the people of God from evil and
defend[ing] their safety and goods. . . . [when] superior power falls to extortion or causes any other
kind of external injury . . . [inferior magistrates could] attempt to remove him by forces of arms."
Planting the seeds which would eventually bear fruit in the American Revolution, Protestants
generally came to agree that the overthrow of a ruler was acceptable under certain conditions (i.e.,
his opposition to true religion and through the intermediating magistrates).
TURNING POINT #5: Post Reformation Political Advance (1550-1650)
Theodore Beza (1519-1605)
The second generation of reformers briskly articulated a theology of the state, with the following
seminal works appearing in rapid succession in less than thirty years: Martin Bucer’s De Regno
Christi (1551), John Ponet’s A Short Treatise of Political Power (1556), Christopher
Goodman’s How Superior Powers ought to be obeyed of their subjects; and wherein they
may lawfully by God’s word be disobeyed and resisted (1558), Francois Hotman’s
Francogallia (1573), Beza’s De Jure Magisterium (1574), George Buchanan’s De Jure Regni
Apud Scotos (1579), and Mornay’s Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (1579).
Theodore Beza (1520-1603) left considerable comment on political matters, which must be
understood as resulting in some measure from the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of the
Huguenots. Beza’s The Right of Magistrates (1574) justified armed resistance led by
intermediating magistrates against a king.
The limitation of the magistracy is seen in Beza’s assertion that the power of the lawful magistrate is
neither infinite nor unconditional. If corruption is present, then resistance may be allowed. Beza also
qualifies that such overthrow is never to be violent; "the rule is steadfast and perpetual." Beza’s rule
was: "on every occasion when we cannot obey the command of men without offending the
majesty and despising the authority of the King of kings and the Lord of lords," then we must
In The Grounds and Principles of Christian Religion (1591), Beza argued: "As often as the
Magistrate commands anything that is repugnant either to the worship which we owe unto God, or
to the love which we owe unto our neighbor, we cannot yield obedience thereunto with a safe
conscience. For as often as the commandment of God and men are directly opposed one against
another, this rule is to be perpetually observed; that it is better to obey GOD than men."
Much of Beza’s thought on these matters was further developed in the 1579 Vindiciae Contra
Tyrannos, probably written by Philippe du Plessis Mornay. This work viewed the masses as
essential covenant partners in the nation. Writing within the same decade as the St. Bartholomew’s
Day Massacre, Brutus denounced the arrogance of a state that assumed unlimited power unto
itself, and maintained that the corporate body of the people is above the king. The argumentradical
for its daywas: "Therefore, as all the whole people is above the king, and likewise taken in one
entire body, are in authority before him, yet being considered one by one, they are all of them under
the king." The argument, therefore, called for 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 civil corporation. Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos raised and answered the following
questions which are strikingly anticipatory of questions that are still germane:
* 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?
Even by these questions, radical for their times, this was not an argument that granted absolute
sovereignty to the people. Instead of arguing for populism, this powerful tract did not so much
explicate an argumentum pro populum as it demonstrated "the impossibility of an absolute state."
Since God had made a covenant with the king, the king also was to make a covenant with the
people. If he violated his covenant, then this king could rightly be seen as having forfeited the right
to rule. Thus resistance would be vindicated in a case of covenant abdication. Whereas Beza had
defended the right of the intermediate magistrates to resist a ruler based on the fundamental rights of
the people ("Everyone can resist those who in the violation of their official duties assume a
tyrannical power over the subjects."), and whereas the premier Scottish theologian of the loci,
George Buchanan, advocated that citizens were "relieved of their obligation of obedience if the ruler
damages" the ruler’s covenant, Junius Brutus (the pseudonymous author of the Vindiciae) went so
far as to advocate that, "the traditional right of resistance of the estates against the crown is no
longer defended but rather a new federalistic-democratic idea of the state is propagated." The
"double covenant" idea (i.e., that citizens covenant with both God and the ruler) advances the
discussion by asking the following:
(1) Do subjects owe obedience to a ruler whose decrees contradict the law of God?
(2) Is one allowed to resist the ruler if he violates the law of God?
(3) Is it allowed to resist a ruler who ruins a state?
(4) Are neighboring rulers allowed to help foreign subjects based on religious or political grounds?
One of the earliest systematic treatises of matters of state was George Buchanan’s The Rights of
the Crown of Scotland (De Jure Regni Apud Scotos). This workperhaps "the most influential
political essay of the century" was an early (1579) integrated Protestant argument for limited
government. Buchanan believed that lawful kings and tyrants were contraries. This early Protestant
asserted that, "it was much safer to trust liberties to laws than to kings . . . confine them to
narrow bounds, and thrust them, as it were, into cells of law . . . circumscribe [them] within
a close prison." That rulers were to be subordinate to a constitution is seen in Buchanan’s
statement: "Kings being accordingly left, in other respects free, found their power confined to
prescribed limits only by the necessity of squaring their words and actions by directions of law."
Buchanan called it an egregious mistake to suppose that "nations created kings not for the
maintenance of justice, but for the enjoyment of pleasure." He maintained that, "the people from
whom he [king] derived his power should have the liberty of prescribing its bounds; and I require
that he should exercise over the people only those rights which he has received from their hands."
Buchanan noted: "The law then is paramount to the king, and serves to direct and moderate his
passions and actions."
According to this emerging Protestant consensus, a king exercised power on behalf of the people,
whereas a tyrant wielded authority on behalf of himself: "For to make everything bend to your own
nod, and to center in your own person the whole force of the laws, has the same effect as if you
should abrogate all the laws." Further, Buchanan argued:
But those who openly exercise their power, not for their country, but for themselves, and pay no
regard to the public interest, but to their own gratification; who reckon the weakness of their
fellow-citizens the establishment of their own authority, and who imagine royalty to be, not a charge
entrusted to them by God, but a prey offered to their rapacity, are not connected with us by any
civil or human tie, but ought to be put under an interdict, as open enemies to God and man.
Some think of the pinnacle of Reformation political thought as the mature work of Johannes
Althusius (1557-1638). Daniel Elazar sums up: "The road to modern democracy began with the
Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, particularly among those exponents of Reformed
Protestantism who developed a theology and politics that set the Western world back on the road
to popular self-government, emphasizing liberty and equality." Althusius’s 1603 Politicaa digest of
"politics methodically set forth and illustrated with Sacred and Profane Examples"recognized that
the federal design was first exhibited in Scripture: "Moreover, . . . every aspect of the polity is to be
informed by federal principles and arrangements in the manner of the network of biblical covenants.
Also, it . . . is grounded in a realistic understanding of human nature, its limits and possibilities." (Cf.
his work reprinted by Liberty Press)
Althusius anticipated much recent discovery, asserting that some transcendental basis for civil law is
necessary: "For there is no civil law, nor can there be any, in which something of natural and divine
immutable equity has not been mixed. If it departs entirely from the judgment of natural and divine
law, it is not to be called law. It is entirely unworthy of this name, and can obligate no one against
natural and divine equity."
One of the contributions of Reformation era thought was the value of limited governmental power.
The reformers saw all institutions under the sovereign administration of Christ. Thus, the power of
the state could never be ultimate, nor complete. It, too, was always sub Deo. Althusius and others
spoke of the power of state as limited and qualified by some objective standards outside itself. The
state, if it failed to heed these, forfeited its legitimacy. State legitimacy was always
contingentcontingent upon conformity to an objective, supra-national, and unchanging
standard. It was noted that rulers "do not themselves have such great power, for no one gave them
the power and jurisdiction to commit sin. Nor did the commonwealth . . . deprive itself of the
means of self-protection, and thus expose itself to the plundering of administrators. . . . Finally, the
wickedness of administrators cannot abolish or diminish the imperium and might of God, nor
release the administrators from the same."
This pinnacle of Reformation political theology affirmed that the governor "is over and superior to
the commonwealth so far as he governs by the rule of law . . . [however,] if he governs against the
rule of law, he becomes punishable by the law, and ceases to be superior." An objectivism of law is
maintained, such that the rulers are subservient to several powers or realms. Far from being
totalitarian powers, governors are objectively subordinate to "God, the law of nature and of
nations, and the ephors." The power of a ruler is, at best, relativerelative to other absolutes. "It is
not absurd or contrary to nature that a king as the greater is subjected" to the law, to the
constitution, to his custodians, and ultimately to God. "All power," noted Althusius, "is limited by
definite boundaries and laws. No power is absolute, infinite, unbridled, arbitrary, and lawless.
Every power is bound to laws, right, and equity. Likewise, every civil power that is constituted by
legitimate means can be terminated and abolished."
"The magistrate," cautioned Althusius, "exercises not his own power, but that of another, namely,
the supreme power of the realm of which he is the minister." Thus, even the highest power is
limited. Reflecting a true grass-roots approach, the magistrate is reminded that the people are "prior
in time and more worthy by nature than its magistrate, and has constituted him." Accordingly, "the
people can exist without a magistrate, but a magistrate cannot exist without people . . . the people
create the magistrate rather than the contrary." The nation empowers its governors precisely by a
"covenant" or by the constitution. This covenantal instrument binds the magistrate "to the body of
the universal association to administer the realm or commonwealth according to the laws prescribed
by God, right reason, and the body of the commonwealth."
The limited power of the governor was well circumscribed by Althusius: "The supreme magistrate
exercises as much authority as had been explicitly conceded to him by the associated members or
bodies of the realm. And what has not been given to him must be considered to have been left
under the control of the people or universal association. . . . Absolute power, or what is called the
plenitude of power, cannot be given to the supreme magistrate."This limitation of government is
rooted in a definite theology; it finds its expression (and origin) in no other world view.
Althusius paved the way for other governmental developments, as can be observed from his
teaching that sounds like a precursor to the 10th Amendment (whatever powers are not explicitly
delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states) to the U. S. Constitution: "Besides,
whatever power the people did not have it could not transfer to its administrators. Therefore,
whatever power and right the administrators did not receive from the people, they do not have,
they cannot exercise over the people, nor ought they to be able to do so." "An administration is said
to be just, legitimate, and salutary," said Althusius, if it "seeks and obtains the prosperity and
advantages of the members of the realm, both individually and collectively, and that, on the other
hand, averts all evils and disadvantages to them, defends them against violence and injuries, and
undertakes all actions of its administration according to laws."
Sum: Althusius, Buchanan, and the Vindiciae all enunciate these similar and evolving
ideas: that government is limited to its righteous charter. The later Lex Rex articulated
this even more fully.
Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex
Shortly thereafter, the Scotsman Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) echoed similar sentiments.
Rutherford’s Lex Rex (Law is king) is one of the most comprehensive discussions of the role of civil
government. Rutherford maintained that the people create the king; but he is also from God.
Notwithstanding, true sovereignty belongs primarily to Godnot the people. Upon the election of
rulers, the people do not so much surrender the liberties and rights as delegate the authority to
govern to the governor. Rutherford also recognized that people may resume their power at times,
particularly if the king has become tyrannical. He attested that the power of the people was actually
above the power of the king. Rutherford set forth this syllogism: "If the people, as God’s
instruments, bestow the benefit of a crown on their king, upon condition that he will rule them
according to God’s word, then the king is made by the people conditionally." In all cases,
Parliament has a greater power than the monarchwho is appointed to be a servant, or executor
(hence, executive power). Later, he would argue that while the king had co-ordinate power with
parliament to make laws, the monarch’s power was only co-ordinate, while the parliament derived
its power originally and fontaliter. An extended argument clarifies:
The people either make the man their prince conditionally:(1) that he rule according to law or
absolutely;(2) so that he rule according to will or lust;or (3) without any vocal transactions at all . . .
and so there are no conditions;or (4) the king is obliged to God for the condition which he promises
by oath to perform toward the people; but he is to make no reckoning to the people . . . for the
people begin inferior to him, and he solo Deo minor, only next and immediate to God, the people
can have no law over him by virtue of any covenant . . .
He concluded that a proper understanding of authority did not require citizens to give positive and
unlimited authority to any governor to rule as he pleases. The ruler is always sworn by oath to
objective and constitutional standards according to Lex Rex. Rather than being above the law, the
prince is under the law and subservient to the ends of the state. Rutherford viewed civil governors
not so much as dominating lords, but as ministerial fiduciaries analogous to tutors, husbands,
patrons, ministers or fathers.
Rutherford asserted that the parliament had greater power than the kinga notion disputed at the
time. The king did not have unlimited power. To the contrary, any tyranny which opposed justice,
peace, and the good of the people, was "unreasonable and forbidden by the law of God and the
civil law . . . [it] cannot be lawful power, and cannot constitute a lawful judge . . . How can the
judge be the minister of God for good to the people (Rom. 13:4) if he has such a power as a king,
given him of God, to destroy and waste the people?" Moreover, Rutherford argued: "God, in
making a king to preserve his people, should give liberty without all political restraint, for one man
to destroy many is contrary to God’s end in the fifth commandment, if one has absolute power to
destroy souls and bodies of many thousands."
He concluded that tyranny is not automatically better than no government. "To be a king and an
absolute master," said Rutherford, "are contradictory. A king essentially is a living law; and absolute
man is a creature that they call a tyrant, and no lawful king." The king is a "life-renter, not a
proprietor." Rutherford, at one point, set forth ten arguments to support that, "simply and absolutely
the people are above and more excellent than the king, and the king in dignity inferior to the
people." Among these were that a pilot is less than the sum of the passengers; the death and
destruction of a church is sadder than the death of a king; and nursing fathers are of less worth to
God than those to whom they are to nurse. It is little wonder that Rutherford’s writing was seen as
anti-monarchical and ordered to be burned.
He argued: "It is false that the people do, or can by the law of nature, resign their whole liberty in
the hand of the king. They cannot resign to others that which they have not in themselves, Nemo
potest dare quod non habet; but the people have not an absolute power in themselves to destroy
themselves, or to exercise tyrannical acts." Lower governors, or inferior judges, were also ordained
to check the tyranny of the king: "Inferior judges are no less essentially judges and the immediate
vicars of God than the king." These lower magistrates also received their commission from God and
were responsible to him, not to the king.
Rutherford argued that the people made the king their ruler conditioned on his faithfulness to the
covenant. The role of the national covenant was essential to restrain both the ruler and the ruled to
keep their obligations. The king was responsible to God to keep his covenant agreements, and the
people were responsible to keep their’s as well. Yet, he maintained that the "law has a supremacy
of constitution above the king," for a king is one not by nature, but only by virtue of a constitution:
"therefore, he must be king by a politic[al] constitution and law; and so the law, in that
consideration, is above the king, because it is from a civil law that there is a king rather than any
other kind of governor. . . . The king is under law, in regard of some coercive limitation; because
there is no absolute power given him to do what he listeth, as man." Rutherford distinguished: "An
absolute monarch is . . . a sleeping lion, and a tyrant is a waking and a devouring lion, and they
differ in accidents only."
Puritan theologies like these led to the colonization of the New World. The Puritans loom large as
some of the spiritual ancestors of the New World which cultivated the strongest democracies in
history. All sides, sympathetic to Puritans or not, admit that the Puritan faith was at the foundation
of the New World Colonies. Since this New World led to such paramount developments of
government, the underlying root is not unimportant. Features such as limited terms, balance of
powers, citizen nullification, interpositional magistracies, and accountability to the church authorities
were at the heart of New World governmentconcepts which were popularized by the Reformation.
Conclusion: One hundred years prior to the US Revolution, most of the major ideas were set; and
they were not originated properly from Enlightenment social contract thought so much as from
Buchanan/Rutherford’s social covenant, with its distinctly OT and biblical moorings.
TURNING POINT #6: The Federalist Impulse and the US Constitution
Barry Allan Shain has recently determined that rather than a generic republicanism or seventeenth
century libertarianism nourishing the root of American democracy, a much older religion did: the
biblical faith. The preaching of this biblical faith was a staple in the intellectual life of Colonial
America for a century and a half prior to the US Revolution. Shain notes: "Americans in the late
eighteenth century were not a people who had founded colonies and then a nation around a
pervasive, indeed, almost monolithic commitment to classic ideas such as individualism, freedom,
and equality. . . . Americans did not hold to a republican outlook that was anthropocentric and
independent of a Christian or a rationalist faith in an omniscient God. . . . [E]ighteenth century
Americans were a parochial reformed Protestant people whose thought was (to the contemporary
republican apologist, inconveniently) strikingly dependent on a Christian origin or natural ordering in
the Cosmos." Shain continues to note that the founders of the American republic were more
interested in biblical dynamics than "in personal development through direct participatory political
Shain takes issue with the currently regnant secular paradigm that seeks to explain America’s origin
in predominantly secular terms. His research leads him to believe that neither the ‘classical
republican’ explanation nor the ‘libertarian individualistic’ model sufficiently explains
America’s unique cradle. Although those features certainly "have their place in the totality of the
Revolutionary drama," Shain admits, nevertheless, "the defenders of each model have been guilty of
greatly exaggerating the coherence, hegemony, and institutional strength in Revolutionary America
of their preferred body of thought. They do so while virtually ignoring more powerful, though today
less useful, influences on the speech and practices of the majority of European Americans; such as
the reformed Protestant foundations of almost all the Colonies and their citizens; . . . The confusion
is understandable because it is so easy today to forget that in the years 1765-1785 . . . America
was a nation of Protestant and communal backwater polities . . . only in 1776 did republic,
republican, and republicanism change from defamatory clichés to being taken generally as terms
with affirmative connotations." Shain explains that rather than being based in "the revolutionary and
atheistic liberalism of Hobbes and Mandeville," American foundations were based on other
ideological platforms. Indeed, historian Henry May has argued that such humanist authors were
generally reviled by pre-revolutionary Americans, today’s vast secular mythos notwithstanding. "In
short," Shain concludes, "the exaggerated attention shown to liberal individualism and classical
republicanism probably speaks more to the needs and sensibilities of contemporary urban and
secular commentators in search of a useful past than to the historic reality of a rural and Protestant
people nestled in a caring and purposeful universe of divinely inspired meaning."
Earlier commentators were quicker to admit more of the religious infrastructure than our
contemporaries who are more concerned with other factors. For example, John Wingate Thornton
believed: "One nationality, and that of a Protestant people, was essential to constitutional
liberty in America." Begrudgingly, even Perry Miller acknowledged concerning the preaching at
the American revolution: "[A]mong the masses the Hebraic analogy was at least as powerful an
incentive as the declaration of inalienable right."
The Federalist impulse-a contribution that is often minimized amidst an anarchical zeitgeist-flowed
directly from this Judao-Christian seedbed. Perhaps James Madison, having been educated under
the paradigm of John Knox in the early days of Princeton, reflected this view when he said,
"Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. . . . It may be a reflection on human nature, that
such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government but
the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be
necessary." (Federalist Papers, #51) A theological belief, the doctrine of human depravity,
animated his politics.
Outward similarity of vocabulary notwithstanding, earlier colonial American leaders were not
democratists. John Cotton, chief theologian of early Massachusetts, noted: "Let all the world learn
to give mortal men no greater power than they are content they shall use, for use it they will . . . It is
. . . most wholesome for magistrates and officers in church and commonwealth never to affect more
liberty and authority than will do them good, and the people good; for whatever transcendent
power is given will certainly overrun those that receive it . . . It is necessary, therefore, that all
power that is on earth be limited, church power or other . . . It is counted a matter of danger to the
state to limit prerogatives; but it is a further danger, not to have them limited."
Moreover, the resiliency of this strain of thought is seen in its continuation. Among the descendants
of this Reformational paradigm were the Dutchmen Groen Van Prinsterer and Abraham
Kuyper-whose work is only lately in translation. Still, from the fragments, it is clear that they
applied this Reformational foundation to the development of modern politics in their own society.
Most recently, Jurgen Moltmann, a contemporary German theologian has reintroduced the ‘double
covenant’ idea of the Vindiciae as one to the few ideological sources that can withstand the raw
force of totalitarian states. The loss of this Reformational paradigm, he asserts, led to the Nazi
Leviathan. The separation of religion from politics, far from being salutary, relinquished politics to
unscrupulous and unrestrained forces. Once freed from a transcendent ethic, the state became
monopolistic, then totalitarian. Unleashed from the social covenant introduced by these Reformation
thinkers, peace and freedom were kidnapped by tyranny. Whereas Hobbes saw Leviathan as a
necessity, Moltmann and others see Leviathan as consistently opposed to limitation of powers and
oppressive. Resistance to this ‘macanthropos’ only comes from a transcendental ethic which
evaluates all states and agents in light of eternal standards. As such, "The power of the leviathan
becomes exclusively external and thus hollow."
Abraham Kuyper summarized the political impact of God’s sovereignty:
[T]he Calvinistic confession of the sovereignty of God holds good for all the world, is true for all
nations, and is of force in all authority which man exercises over man . . . It is therefore a political
faith which may be summarily expressed in these three theses: 1. God onlyand never any creatureis
possessed of sovereign rights, in the destiny of nations, because God alone created them, maintains
them by his Almighty power, and rules them by his ordinances. 2. Sin has, in the realm of politics,
broken down the direct government of God, and therefore the exercise of authority, for the
purpose of government, has subsequently been invested in men, as a mechanical remedy. And 3. In
whatever form this authority may reveal itself, man never possesses power over his fellow man in
any other way than by the authority which descends upon him from the majesty of God. Calvinism
protests against State-omnicompetence, against the horrible conception that no right exists above
and beyond existing laws, and against the pride of absolutism, which recognizes not constitutional
rights, . . . Calvinism is to be praised for having built a dam across the absolutistic stream, not by
appealing to popular force, nor to the hallucination of human greatness, but by deducing those rights
and liberties of social life from the same source from which the high authority of government
flowseven the absolute sovereignty of God.
For further verification of the theses above, one might consider the many test cases in the 20th
century. One could beneficially ask: Who/what philosophy resisted and eventually overturned
Naziism? The Soviet Union? Romania? In each of these cases, materialism failed to effect liberty.
Not even a defense of property rights accounts for these instances of stopping Leviathan, nor even
does an abstract pursuit of liberty account for the test cases above. It seems that only this
distinctively biblical faith has preserved the transcendence necessary to limit monopolism and
tyranical absolutism. In light of this long track record, one wonders what would possibly change in
the future to diminish this dynamic.
Religion, specifically the faith of the Reformation, has a track record of blessing societies. It is not,
as we must remind some of our colleagues, evangelicals who are producing the rise of drive by
shootings in the recent century. Indeed, an increase of biblical political activism may be one of the
most healthy and enduring trends of the late twentieth century.
It is reasonable to expect even more improvements in government, if founded upon the right base.
However, our century also offers this caveat: If governments are founded on politics that do not
provide for the transcendent, that are not compatible with the best of earlier governing-complete
with its religious roots-those political systems bear grave threats to commonweal, peace, and
Conclusion: The February 16, 1997, USA TODAY Weekend posed the question: Who is the man
of the millennium? Their answer was Thomas Jefferson.
It may be closer to true, if we but leave the immediacy of our own single day with all its peculiar
myopiae, say to 2997, that to the surprise of many of our contemporaries the man who contributed
the most to the Second Millennium AD may prove to be a religious leader, Martin Luther, John
Calvin, George Buchanan, or Samuel Rutherford. More in keeping with the irony that often intrudes
itself, and also in the spirit of a superb, essential, but little known offensive lineman, it may prove to
be the anonymous author of Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos. His thought, after all, has felled many
totalitarian tyrants and may even be in process of tumbling some of the remaining tyrants in the
Anyone whose thought so significantly repelled totalitarian regimes and supported the best of free
societies, at least, gets my vote.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What readings are recommended on the impact of Religion and Society?
M. Stanton Evans, The Theme is Liberty: Religion, Politics, and the American Tradition
(Washington, DC: Regnery, 1994).
Keith L. Griffin, Revolution and Religion: American Revolutionary War and the Reformed
Clergy (New York: Paragon House, 1994).
Ralph C. Hancock, Calvin and The Foundations of Modern Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University
Karl Holl, The Cultural Significance of the Reformation (Cleveland: Meridian, 1959).
Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953).
Barry Allan Shain, "The Protestant Communitarian Basis for American Political Thought," Religion
and Liberty, vol. 6, no. 2 (March-April 1996), p. 6. Cf. also Shain’s The Myth of American
Individualism (Princeton University Press, 1994).
2. What resources are available for the years 1500-1650?
The Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 4, chap. xx by John Calvin (Philadelphia:
The Right of Magistrates (1574) by Theodore Beza.
The Christian Faith by Theodore Beza, trans. James Clark (East Sussex: Christian Focus, 1992).
The Grounds and Principles of Christian Religion by Theodore Beza (Edinburgh: Robert
The Rights of the Crown of Scotland, by George Buchanan (1579, rpr. Harrisonburg, VA:
Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, Eng. trans.: Junius Brutus, A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants,
trans. Harold J. Laski (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1963); reprint available from Still Waters
Revival Books, 4710-37A Ave., Edmonton, AB Canada Y6L 3T5
Politica by Johannes Althusius (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1995).
Lex Rex by Samuel Rutherford (1644, rpr. Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle, 1982).
Puritan Sermons Before the English House of Commons, 1640-1641 (orig. London, 1641),
rpr. available from Still Waters Revival Books, 4710-37A Ave., Edmonton, AB Canada Y6L 3T5
Patrick Poole, ed., Reformation Political Tracts (forthcoming).
Cf. Savior or Servant? Putting Government in Its Place, ch. 10 (Kuyper Institute, 1996).
3. What resources are available on the WWW?
Pat Poole’s Home Page (http://fly.hiwaay.net/~pspoole/reform.htm) includes the following:
* Concerning the Rights of Rulers Over Their Subjects and the Duty Of Subjects Towards
Their Rulers by Theodore Beza, edited by Patrick S. Poole
* A Short Treatise on Political Power by John Ponet
* How Superior Powers Ought to Be Obeyed by Their Subjects by Christopher Goodman
* Warning to His Dear German People by Martin Luther
* On Secular Authority by Martin Luther (http://fly.hiwaay.net/~pspoole/Secauth.HTM
* An Answer Given To A Certain Scotsman, In Reply To Some Questions Concerning The
Kingdom Of Scotland And England (http://fly.hiwaay.net/~pspoole/bulling.htm)
* The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates by John Milton
* An Admonition to England and Scotland To Call Them To Repentance by Anthony Gilby
* The Development of the Reformational Doctrine of Resistance in the Sixteenth Century by
Pat Poole (http://fly.hiwaay.net/~pspoole/Defense.htm)
* Vindicae Contra Tyrannos, or, A Vindication Against Tyrants
* Studies from the Kuyper Institute (http://capo.org/kuyper/ckuyper.html)
A Bibliography on Church and State by David Hall
A Footnote to the Political Theory of John Adams, Vindiciae contra tyrannos by Stanley
From Reformation to Revolution: 1500-1650 by David Hall
Sermon on National Sins by James H. Thornwell
Guilliaume Groen Van Prinsterer: Political Paradigm from the Past
Election Day Sermons (http://capo.org/premise/96/aug/toc.html)
Election Day Sermons (http://capo.org/premise/96/sept/toc.html)
The Roman Catholic View of the State (http://capo.org/premise/95/august/p950707.html)
4. What resources are recommended on the subject from 1650-1950?
The Federalist Papers
Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805, Ellis Sandoz, ed. (Indianapolis:
Liberty Press, 1991).
Lectures in Unbelief and Revolution by Guillaume Groen Van Prinsterer, Harry Van Dyke, ed.
(Wedge: Jordan Station, Ontario, 1989)
Lectures on Calvinism, Abraham Kuyper (recently abridged and published by Plymouth Rock
This Independent Republic, Rousas Rushdoony (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1978)
"The Relation between Church and Civil Community in Bucer’s Reforming Work" Martin Greschat
in Reforming Church and Community, ed. D. F. Wright (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 1994).
Fountainhead of Federalism: Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenantal Tradition by Charles S.
McCoy and J. Wayne Baker (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1991) contains several helpful
essays. In "Federal Political Philosophy: Mornay and Althusius," the seed of European views of
governmental ‘compact’ are treated nicely. Also, in the final essay, "Federalism and the U.S.
Constitution of 1787," the full bloom of this federalism is illuminated. Critiques of McCoy and
Baker on these subjects may be found in T. E. Wilder, "The Covenantal Tradition in Political
Theory: A Symposium," and Ruben C. Alvarado, "Fountainhead of Liberalism," Contra Mundum,
No. 10, Winter 1994. Bullinger’s "An Answer Given to a Certain Scotsman" (likely Knox) gives an
early form of the resistance theology.
5. What recent scholarship addresses similar concerns?
David W. Hall, "A Brief Tutorial on the Benefit of Religion" in The Arrogance of the Modern
(Kuyper Institute, 1997)
Politics, Theology, and the British Revolutions: Samuel Rutherford and the Scottish
Covenanters (Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History) by John Coffey (Publisher:
Cambridge Univ Pr; (ISBN: 0521581729) URL:
Jurgen Moltmann, "Covenant or Leviathan? Political Theology for Modern Times," Scottish
Journal of Theology, Vol. 47, no. 1 (1994).
Douglas F. Kelly, The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World (Phillipsburg, NJ:
Presbyterian and Reformed, 1992).
Introduction to Election Day Sermons.
Cf. Chart from Savior Or Servant?