Calvin on Resistance to Tyrannical Rulers

With disappointment, I note that as of a couple issues following, none have responded to David Engelsma’s rejection of martyr status for Dietrich Bonhoeffer—who was executed for plotting to take the life of Adolf Hitler. This reader salutes Engelsma for forthrightly stating the conservative Calvinist view on (violent) civil disobedience, which would leave him in the definite minority as far as general Christian opinion re Bonhoeffer is concerned. Let it be said, though, that the same fidelity to
Romans 13 would condemn Christian support for the American War of Independence and the losing cause in the Civil War. Engelsma’s review, however, is incomplete in this layman’s view for an important reason. I find no mention of Calvin’s discussion from his Institutes section on civil government concerning “magistrates appointed for the protection of the people and the moderation of the power of kings….” These are often referred to as “lesser magistrates,” of course, and this passage is familiar to many, offering a godly means to—in the words of scholar John T. McNeill—”check the irresponsible arrogance of kings.” In Engelsma’s view, were any of Bonhoeffer’s co-conspirators against Hitler such qualified “lesser magistrates”?

Harold Fynaardt


Mr. Fynaardt’s response to my review of Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, in the March 1, 2011 issue of the Standard Bearer is thoughtful.

He is right about Calvin’s allowance of the resistance of tyrannical rulers by “lesser magistrates” as lawful. Indeed, Calvin charges these magistrates with a duty. In my summary of Calvin’s Institutes (The Reformed Faith of John Calvin: The Institutes in Summary, RFPA, 2009), I write this about Calvin’s doctrine of the rights and duties of the lesser magistrates regarding tyrants:

The prohibition of revolt to “private individuals” does not rule out all violent overthrow of unjust kings, dictators, and other potentates. Other magistrates in a nation have not only the right, but also the solemn obligation to deliver the oppressed people from the tyranny of the supreme magistrate by force…. The overthrow of unjust, tyrannical, and oppressive rulers by other officials of the state is not revolution but a lawful, though admittedly extraordinary, act of justice. The overthrow of tyrants and despots by Calvinists in history should be carefully examined in light of the rights and duties of lesser magistrates before the overthrow is judged a “revolution” (p. 400).

With this teaching of Calvin, I am in agreement.

Mr. Fynaardt is also correct in requiring that the prohibition of Romans 13 that condemns Bonhoeffer’s rebellion against the German state in the person of the head of state be applied also to all other civil revolutions, regardless of popular, patriotic opinion. Mr. Fynaardt mentions specifically the American Revolution and the war between the states (“Civil War”). Regarding the latter, it must be kept in mind that in 1861 in the United States of America, it was a real question, whether the Constitution did not give sovereign states the right to secede. The settlement of the issue by war (always the final arbiter of such questions) does not necessarily make rebels, in the biblical sense, of the defenders of the rights of states at the beginning of the war.

The conspirators against the Nazi state in 1944 were military men, a few ministers, and laymen. I have not read a defense of the conspiracy that appeals to Calvin’s doctrine of the lesser magistrates. Mr. Metaxas does not make this case.

To such citizens of a nation as plotted the life of Adolf Hitler—”private individuals”—Calvin wrote this:

We must…be very careful not to despise or violate that authority of magistrates, full of venerable majesty, which God has established by the weightiest decrees, even though it may reside with the most unworthy men, who defile it as much as they can with their own wickedness. For, if the correction of unbridled despotism is the Lord’s to avenge, let us not at once think that it is entrusted to us, to whom no command has been given except to obey and suffer (Institutes, 4.20. 31).

With this teaching of Calvin also, I am in agreement.

—Prof. David J. Engelsma

Bonhoeffer a martyr?

With sorrow I read in the review of a book on Bonhoeffer [cf. SB, March 1, 2011] that Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom is questioned because it involved civil disobedience.
Romans 13:1-2 serves as proof text. But I agree with the writer of the book that this is too simplistic an interpretation of Romans 13, not because of a neo-orthodox denial of its inspiration, but because Romans 13 does not end at verse 2. The verses 3 and 4 begin with the word “for,” and provide the reason for the commandment in verse 1. Verse 3 says, “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.” This is not a fitting description for Hitler’s rule; on the contrary, Bonhoeffer’s assessment that Hitler’s rule was demonic is beyond controversy. And thus it is a valid question to what intent the apostle Paul wrote Romans 13, and how it should be understood and applied. And also the legitimacy of civil disobedience becomes a valid question, as well as all the other questions that are posed in the review. They are difficult ethical questions, but valid. And there is no denying that they involve sin. But God is sovereign over sin. Jacob stole the blessing by deceiving his father. Elimelech went to the pagan country of Moab. Jesus Christ is the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. It was all in God’s sovereign counsel that is beyond human understanding and past finding out. But let us not deny that those who have given their lives to free us from tyranny are martyrs indeed.

J.L. Reckman

Aylmer, Ontario Canada


Civil disobedience that is violent resistance to government by the private citizen of a state is never valid. It is always sin against the fifth commandment, the explanation of which by the Heidelberg Catechism deliberately adds, “…and also patiently bear with their weaknesses and infirmities, since it pleases God to govern us by their hand.”

Revolution is also plain disobedience to the clear command of Romans 13:1-7: “Let every soul be subject to the higher powers.” On the part of professing Christians, it flouts the warning of the passage: “whosoever… resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.”

This command is not conditioned by the godliness, or even the civic justice, of the state. At the time of the writing of Romans 13, Rome was not a godly, or even a decent, state. Caesar Nero was not an equitable ruler. I Peter 2:17-25 binds upon all disciples of Jesus Christ the example of our Lord in bearing patiently the suffering of outright persecution—unto death—at the hands of godless, unjust magistrates.

It is indeed the calling of the state to punish evildoers and to praise the citizens who live orderly lives in society.

But even when the state turns on those who do well, particularly Christians for their allegiance to Christ and obedience to His commandments, Christians are called to be in subjection, and suffer. This is true martyrdom.

The persecuting ruler is still no terror to the good works of the Christians, for in the ruler’s rage and violence is no wrath of God against the godly citizens. And the anger of God is the only “terror” for Christians.

This matter is of great practical importance today, as Western states increasingly become hostile to the Christian faith and life, and indeed take on the visage of Antichrist.

If every Christian may revolt whenever he is convinced that his government has become a terror to good works, the churches will become the worst nest of revolutionaries that ever there was. And our Lord Christ will be dishonored.

—Prof. David J. Engelsma