Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Lutheran Resistance to Tyranny

The Reformed owe a debt to their Lutheran brethren for articulating early on a Biblical theory of resistance to tyranny, as found in two particular works which have been shown to have influenced the Huguenot resistance theory of Theodore Beza, for example.

1) Von der Notwehr Unterricht, Nutzlich zu Lesen (Instruction Concerning Self-Defense, Necessary to Read) by Justus Menius (1547, with editing done by Philipp Melanchthon; 1547, 2nd. ed. by Melanchthon). The second edition, which was popular in its day, includes sections titled "Instruction Concerning Self-Defense," by Menius, "How Self-Defense is a God-Pleasing Work," and other sections dealing with both passive disobedience of unlawful commands, and active resistance, up to and including tyrannicide. First published during the 1546-1547 Schmalkaldic War, the violent conflict between forces of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the Protestant Schmalkaldic League, this treatise helped articulate the Lutheran grounds for resistance to the Emperor (the work was not limited to civil and political resistance though; it speaks to resistance to the head of household when he acts tyrannically as well). It built upon the earlier writings of Martin Luther and others who found grounds to resist higher authorities in Luther's Of Temporal Authority: to What Extent it Should be Obeyed (1523), for example. Melanchthon wrote, "In the Warning [to his Dear German People] and in other writings, Dr. Martin Luther declared that defense was just" (quoted by Luther D. Peterson, "Melanchthon on Resisting the Emperor: The Von der Notwehr Unterrichte of 1547," in Jerome Friedman, ed., Regnum, Religio et Ratio: Essays Presented to Robert M. Kingdon, p. 143). Not only did Melanchthon justify constitutional resistance by lesser magistrates to superior tyrants, but in the section on "Who may lead resistance?" he also left the door open to permit individual active resistance to tyranny on basis of natural law providing the right of self-defense to all (giving as noble examples of this Obediah who hid the priests from Queen Jezebel; William Tell; Thrasybulus, who led the resistance against the thirty tyrants of Athens; Pelopidas, who saved Thebes from the Spartans; and even the wife of the cruel tyrant Alexander Pheraeus, who killed her husband), while at the same time condemning "Beruff" (unjustified rebellion) "violence carried out without a calling...and intended to raise oneself up" (ibid, p. 141).

2) Though militarily, the Schmalkaldic War ended in defeat for the Protestant cause, the Reformation would not be crushed by force. The ensuing dissatisfaction with the 1548 Augsburg Interim would lead to the 1555 Peace of Augsburg, embedded the principle of Cuius regio, eius religio ("Whose realm, his religion"), the idea that the religion of the civil magistrate dictated the religion of his jurisdiction. Yet, in 1550, the Magdeburg Bekenntnis Confessio et Apologia Pastorum et Reliquorum Ministorum Ecclesiae Magdeburgensis, more commonly known today as the Magdeburg Confession, articulated the position of Lutheran pastors of Magdeburg, who refused to submit to the Augsburg Interim, which Emperor Charles V attempted to enforce militarily by besieging the city. The Confession was one of many tracts and pamphlets issued in defense of Lutheran freedoms, and the most influential. Although a complete published English translation of this document is lacking, it has been discussed by Robert M. Kingdon, "The First Expression of Theodore Beza's Political Ideas," Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 46 (1955); David Mark Whitford, Tyranny and Resistance: The Magdeburg Confession and the Lutheran Tradition; and John Witte, Jr., The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism. Whitford describes the document:

The Confession begins with a one-page "Short Summary of the Contents of this Book," followed by an 11-page "Introduction." The body of the treatise is divided into three sections. The first section (chapters 1-7) recapitulates the main doctrinal loci of the Augsburg Confession. The second section discusses resistance theory, and the third section provides a warning to those who oppose Magdeburg's actions.

The Confession emphasizes the duty of lesser civil magistrates to interpose, or resist the tyrannical conduct of higher magistrates, in defense of the people under their care.

We will show from Holy Scripture that if a higher magistrate undertakes by force to restore popish idolatry and to suppress of exterminate the pure teaching of the Holy Gospel, as in the present instance, then the lower god-fearing magistrate may defend himself and his subjects against such unjust force in order to preserve the true teaching, the worship of God together with body, life, goods, and honor. The powers that be are ordained of God to protect the good and punish the bad (Romans 13), but if they start to persecute the good, they are no longer ordained of God. There are to be sure degrees of tyranny and if a magistrate makes unjust war upon his subjects contrary to his plighted oath, they may resist, though they are not commanded to do so by God. But if a ruler is so demented as to attack God, then he is the very devil who employs mighty potentates in Church and State. When, for example, a prince or an emperor tampers with marriage against the dictates of natural law, then in the name of natural law and Scripture he may be resisted.

Praise be to God. Because He lives we also shall live and be exalted since now we suffer with Him and for His sake we are killed all the day long (Psalm 44).
If the high authority does not refrain from unjustly and forcibly persecuting not only the lives of their subjects but even more their rights under divine and natural law, and if the high authority does not desist from eradicating true doctrine and true worship of God, then the lower magistracy is required by God's divine command to attempt, together with their subjects, to stand up to such superiors as far as possible. The current persecution which we are suffering at the hands of our superiors is primarily persecution by which they attempt to suppress the Christian religion and the true worship of God and to reestablish the Pope's lies and abominable idolatry. Thus the Council and each and every Christian authority is obliged to protect themselves and their people against this.

This Confession was very influential in the thought of Theodore Beza, who wrote in his 1554 treatise Concerning Heretics that a "signal example of [interposition by lesser magistrates against superior tyranny] has been shown in our times by Magdeburg, that city on the Elbe." Later, in 1574, Beza describes his famous treatise on The Rights of Magistrates explicitly as a "'revision' or 'reprint' of that treatise 'published by those of Magdeburg in 1550 and now revised and augmented with several reasons and examples'" (Whitford, Ibid, p. 61). Whitford goes on to sum up the significance of this connection:

The connection between The Magdeburg Confession and Theodore Beza places the Confession at the center of the debate over political resistance in Reformation thought. The Magdeburg Confession is, therefore, one of the most important documents of the Reformation on political theology, and it played a key and positive role in the development of resistance theory.


  1. Thanks for posting this thought-provoking article, Andrew.

  2. The Confession is now available in English for the first time!