John Calvin and Resistance Theory

When is it right to resist unjust rulers?

In this irregular series on resistance theory, I now turn to the French/Swiss reformer John Calvin (1509-1564). Resistance theory has to do with political, ecclesiastical and theological questions about whether resistance to the state is ever justified. Calvin dealt with this matter in various ways, as did most of the Reformers.


1509 Born in France.
1523 Calvin goes to Paris to study.
1527 Conversion to reformed thought.
1536 Settles in Geneva.
1536 First edition of the Institutes.
1538-1541 Away from Geneva.
1955 Calvin fully leads the church in Geneva.
1559 Final edition of Institutes is published.
1564 Dies in Geneva, just 54 years old.

Calvin deals with these matters in some of his sermons and commentaries of his later years, but a main place to begin of course is with his Institutes of the Christian Religion. The short final chapter (chapter 20 of the last of his 4 books) deals with civil government. In 27 pages he lays out his position on the purposes of civil government, on conducting war, and if and when resistance can occur.

In section 1 he says this: “[O]n the one hand, frantic and barbarous men are furiously endeavouring to overturn the order established by God, and, on the other, the flatterers of princes, extolling their power without measure, hesitate not to oppose it to the government of God. Unless we meet both extremes, the purity of the faith will perish.”

And the very last sections (31 and 32) speak to this more fully. Like other reformers, he thought that private citizens should not be taking up arms in resistance to ungodly rulers, but other magistrates could. He states:

We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against Him let us not pay the least regard to it, nor be moved by all the dignity which they possess as magistrates – a dignity to which no injury is done when it is subordinated to the special and truly supreme power of God. On this ground Daniel denies that he had sinned in any respect against the king when he refused to obey his impious decree (Dan. vi. 22), because the king had exceeded his limits, and not only been injurious to men, but, by raising his horn against God, had virtually abrogated his own power. On the other hand, the Israelites are condemned for having too readily obeyed the impious edict of the king. For, when Jeroboam made the golden calf, they forsook the temple of God, and, in submissiveness to him, revolted to the new superstitions (1 Kings xii. 28). With the same facility posterity had bowed before the decrees of their kings. For this they are severely upbraided by the Prophet (Hosea v. 11). So far is the praise of modesty from being due to that pretence by which flattering courtiers cloak themselves, and deceive the simple, when they deny the lawfulness of declining anything imposed by their kings, as if the Lord had resigned his own rights to mortals by appointing them to rule over their fellows, or as if earthly power were diminished when it is subjected to its author, before whom even the principalities of heaven tremble as suppliants. I know the imminent peril to which subjects expose themselves by this firmness, kings being most indignant when they are contemned. As Solomon says, “The wrath of a king is as messengers of death” (Prov. xvi. 14). But since Peter, one of heaven’s heralds, has published the edict “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts v. 29), let us console ourselves with the thought, that we are rendering the obedience which the Lord requires, when we endure anything rather than turn aside from piety. And that our courage may not fail, Paul stimulates us by the additional consideration (1 Cor. vii. 23), that we were redeemed by Christ at the great price which our redemption cost him, in order that we might not yield a slavish obedience to the depraved wishes of men, far less do homage to their impiety.

In this he does not sound much different than Luther and others. But as mentioned, he does speak more to this elsewhere. Part of the backdrop to Calvin’s thinking on these matters had to do with the oppression of Protestants (the Huguenots) that was taking place in France. He wrote to them offering counsel and comfort. When his Institutes were translated into French in 1541, that helped to consolidate the thinking and activities of the Protestants there. So too did his lectures on Daniel, published in 1561.

On this matter of the Huguenots, let me offer some commentary by Alister McGrath:

Throughout the 1550s, as Calvinist influence in France grew steadily more significant, French Calvinist political agitation increasingly focused on religious toleration. There was, it was suggested, no fundamental contradiction between being a Calvinist and being French; to be a Frenchman and a Calvinist (or a Huguenot, for the terms are more or less interchangeable) implied no disloyalty to the French crown. The logic and persuasiveness of this position, which commended it to Calvin among others, were shattered in May 1560 through the Conspiracy of Amboise, in which an attempt was made, apparently aided and abetted by a number of Calvinist pastors (to Calvin’s irritation), to kidnap Francis II. It was, however, the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre (1572) that precipitated a radical shift in French Calvinist political thinking.


The emergence of monarchomachs — people who wished to place severe restrictions upon the rights of kings and to uphold the duty (not merely the right) of the people to resist tyrannical monarchs ~ was a direct response to the atmosphere of shock which persisted in the aftermath of the 1572 massacre. In 1559, Calvin — perhaps beginning to recognize the practical and political importance of the question ~ had conceded that rulers might exceed the bounds of their authority by setting themselves against God; by doing this, he suggested, they had abrogated their own power. (1988, pp. 261-262)

Image of Calvin's Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church: Christ's Two Kingdoms (Law and Christianity)
Calvin's Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church: Christ's Two Kingdoms (Law and Christianity) by Tuininga, Matthew J. (Author) Amazon logo

Calvin’s fuller influence after he died, not only in France but in other countries will have to be the stuff of future articles. But here I can offer some further expert commentary on Calvin’s thought in this area. Let me begin with Matthew Tuininga’s important work, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church: Christ’s Two Kingdoms. I offer a few snippets from his section on “Theories of Resistance”. He writes:

Calvin is not saying … as some scholars have claimed, that magistrates who rise up against God forfeit their office entirely. He is not saying that usurpation of God’s throne is a legitimate cause for full scale rebellion. The point, rather, is that with respect to the case at hand the magistrate has laid aside his authority and may justly be defied.


In such circumstances, subjects are implicated in the impiety of their magistrates if they do not disobey them. In his commentary on Hosea, Calvin explains that the Israelites could not shift the blame for their idolatry to the rulers who had led them in it. “The people might indeed have appeared to be excusable since religion had not been changed by their voice, or by public consent, or by any contrivance of the many, but by the tyrannical will of the king alone,” but “the prophet shows that all were implicated in the same guilt before God because the people adopted with alacrity the impious forms of worship which the king had commanded.” The Protestants in France faced a similar temptation….


Calvin believed subjects have the obligation to criticize and disobey their magistrates when they violate justice, not only when they violate piety. For example, he praises the midwives who defied Pharaoh’s decrees to kill the male Hebrew children. While Calvin does not believe the midwives should have lied, he endorses their refusal to cooperate with injustice….


When a person acts unjustly, it is not a valid excuse that the unjust action has been commanded by a magistrate. Obedience to such unjust laws is “criminal obedience.” These are pregnant words and potentially inflammatory in a revolutionary setting, but it is crucial to interpret them within the parameters of Calvin’s broader political theology. All people are called to disobey and resist unjust laws, but each person is to do so in a way appropriate to her vocation. (pp. 348-349)

He continues:

Here the two kingdoms distinction explicitly informs Calvin’s approach to the question of violence. Christians are called to take up their cross and follow Christ, but just as Christian liberty does not destroy the legitimate authority of the political order, so the call to bear the cross does not nullify the legitimate vocational and civil prerogatives of the political order. It always remains within the prerogative of political officials to resist tyranny to the extent permitted by their vocations (4.20.31).


Calvin did not claim that resistance on the part of lesser magistrates could only take place when God’s law is at stake rather than constitutional or secular concerns. On the contrary, he justified the Huguenot cause in the first war of religion on definitively constitutional grounds. Furthermore, he praised constitutional structures that make rulers accountable to their subjects, and his very emphasis on the magisterial vocation implies a reliance on constitutional considerations. Nor did Calvin forbid lesser magistrates from practicing active resistance to tyranny, as his defense of the Huguenot cause demonstrates. Most scholars agree that Calvin affirmed a right of passive resistance on the part of private individuals and a right of active resistance on the part of lesser magistrates. This is true even though Calvin’s theory of active resistance was much less defined and his personal proclivities were much more restrained than were the theories of later Calvinist writers. (pp. 350-351)

Another quite important book on all this is by John Witte: The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (Cambridge University Press, 2007). It is an invaluable historical and theological look at things like resistance theory and how it has led to our modern notions of religious freedom and the like. For example, he compares Calvin with Luther on the place of the state:

Calvin charted a course between the Erastianism of Lutherans that subordinated the church to the state, and the asceticism of Anabaptists that withdrew the church from the state and society. Like Lutherans, Calvin and his followers insisted that each local polity be an overtly Christian commonwealth that adhered to the general principles of natural law and that translated them into detailed positive laws of religious worship, Sabbath observance, public morality, marriage and family life, social welfare, public education, and more. Like Anabaptists, Calvin and his followers insisted on the basic separation of the offices and operations of church and state, leaving the church to govern its own doctrine and liturgy, polity and property, without interference from the state. But, unlike both groups, Calvin insisted that both church and state officials were to play complementary legal roles in the creation of the local Christian commonwealth and in the cultivation of the Christian citizen. Calvin emphasized the uses of the law in the Christian commonwealth, and the collaboration of church and state in achieving the same…. (p. 78)

Much more needs to be said, but this introductory piece, plus the reading list below, should help take those interested in the right direction of a much further consideration of this.

References and further reading

Beeke, Joel, David Hall and Michael Haykin, Theology Made Practical: New Studies on John Calvin and His Legacy. Reformation Heritage Books, 2017.
Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christians Religion, Beveridge translation. Eerdmans, 1973.
Hall, David, Calvin in the Public Square. P&R, 2009.
Larson, Mark, Calvin’s Doctrine of the State. Wipf and Stock, 2009.
McGrath, Alister, A Life of John Calvin. Blackwell, 1990.
McGrath, Alister, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 4th ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 1988, 2012.
Ryrie, Alec, Protestants. William Collins, 2017, 2018.
Skinner, Quentin, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, vol. 2: The Age of Reformation. CUP, 1978, 2013.
Tuininga, Matthew, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church: Christ’s Two Kingdoms. CUP, 2017, 2018. 
Witte, John, The Reformation of Rights. CUP, 2002, 2010, esp. pp. 106-114.

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8 Replies to “John Calvin and Resistance Theory”

  1. Fantastic article. This series should be required reading for all civics classes. Thanks again, Bill.

  2. Thanks Bill. I’m surprised that so many reformed denominations didn’t heed this during the last few years.

    All we heard was, “Romans 13!”

  3. Very tough question, which I’ve been considering lately given the direction that our governments are going: when is it appropriate to disobey?

    I think it is best based on honouring authority, as we are called to do. But if the authority is calling you to accept and practice lies how can that be honouring? Indeed to stand against the lies and calling them out may be the best way to actually honour the authorities, since if they repent you will have contributed to their salvation.

    There’re certainly analogies in early Christian history, where many Christians accepted martyrdom rather than sacrifice to the supposedly deified Roman emperor. That was defying the authority, but by witnessing against the lie it would seem to me those early Christians were actually honouring Caesar, like the slave in the chariot.

  4. Calvin wasn’t the only French Protestant to examine the issue of resistance to the State. Your readers may be interested to note that I’ve put online a French ebook version of a Huguenot text dated 1579 (7 years after the St-Bartholomew’s Day massacre) and initially published as ‘Vindiciae contra tyrannos’. This work covers issues such as the king having to answer to God and to his people, but also the people’s power to depose a tyrant. The French ebook version (Revendications contre les tyrans) appears here (under the pseudonym “Brutus”):

    And an English translation is available here:

    A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants by Junius Brutus (attributed to Philippe Duplessis-Mornay)

    While the Vindiciae accepts people’s power to depose a tyrant, the anonymous author demands this only be done by subordinate authorities/lesser magistrates. In the medieval context these were the dukes, counts and other nobles composing the court around the King. Thus private individuals would be excluded from such initiatives. While the principle makes sense, the political scene has radically changed since the publication of the Vindiciae. Now pretty much all our subordinate authorities such as elected representatives, judges or technocrats are ALL on a leash as a result of being paid employees of the State. This is a radical change as at the time of the Vindiciae the dukes, counts and other nobles had their own private domains and INDEPENDENT sources of revenue. They were thus free agents. Now all our elected representatives, judges or technocrats are VERY susceptible to economic and ideological pressure from the State. Even the Church is under a lot of pressure to conform. So where we will find these free agents to oppose the neototalitarians and globalists is anyone’s guess. The game has changed a lot in 400 years…

  5. Many thanks Paul. I have 114 articles so far in my Resistance Theory section. And yes, I have already started articles on the Huguenots and on ‘Brutus’. So stay tuned!

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