Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The Reformation of the sixteenth century in general and the Reformation in the Netherlands in particular frequently were made possible by the aid of the secular magistrate and by the sword that the secular magistrate wielded. Wars were fought against enemies of the Reformation, wars that from our earthly point of view made the Reformation possible.
Especially in the Netherlands the success of the Reformation, culminating in the great Synod of Dordt, was dependent upon the might and power of magistrates who were willing to use the sword in the work of reforming the church. The Netherlands was at war with Spain. Spain was Rome’s strongest supporter among all the countries of Europe, including Italy. The Reformation in the Lowlands was so closely entwined with the war between the Netherlands and Spain that the two cannot be understood except in relation to each other.
The burning question is this: Is reformation in the church of Christ ever to be supported by the sword power of the magistracy?
A Brief History
For many centuries the Lowlands (combining what is now the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg) were ruled by the royal house of Hapsburg. Prior to the Reformation this Hapsburg rule meant that the Lowlands were under the rule of the king of Spain, who at the time of the Reformation in the Lowlands was Charles V. However, chiefly due to the love of the Lowlanders for liberty, the people of the Lowlands had traditionally been granted far more freedom than most other people under Spain’s rule. Other than paying their taxes faithfully and obeying the minimal laws imposed on them, these Lowlanders enjoyed great freedoms and even were ruled by their own local rulers.
The Lowlands, because of their strategic location at the mouth of the Rhine River, had become wealthy and prosperous, for through them passed much of Europe’s commerce devoted to overseas trade. Their freedom and prosperity were cherished by the people on this western fringe of Europe.
The Reformation came to the Netherlands rather early and was chiefly Lutheran. Yet the unique features of the Lutheran Reformation were never etched on the soul of the nation, for shortly after Lutheranism had altered the thinking of some, the Calvin Reformation came as Geneva exerted its influence throughout the continent. Calvinism swept through the Netherlands like wildfire. While from an earthly point of view Calvinism seemed to be ideally suited to the sturdy, hard-working, and self-reliant character of the citizens of the Lowlands, from God’s point of view the country was being prepared to be the cradle of the Reformed faith.
Spain, loyal to the pope and ruled by the strongly Roman Catholic Charles V, took notice of the intrusion of the truths of the Reformation into the distant part of the realm called the Lowlands. Charles was determined to destroy any Reformation influences in his kingdom and especially in what is now the Netherlands and Belgium. He therefore sent a regent (his sister, Margaret of Parma) and troops into the land to suppress all Calvinism and to make use of torture and murder to accomplish his purpose. At first the measures of his regent were sufficiently mild to be tolerated by the Lowlanders—although already under her regency the nobility and merchant class considered Charles’ efforts to be unwarranted limitations on the freedoms that they had come to enjoy.
But Charles, worn with the cares of the empire, retired to a monastery to spend his last days wearing a hair shirt, and Philip II took his place on the Hapsburg throne. Philip was a different sort. Cruel, wholly dedicated to the pope, lacking in judgment and tact, bitterly hateful of the Reformation, he decided to impose his false religion on the Lowlands at any cost. Philip ordered the Duke of Alva with his army into the Lowlands to suppress the Reformation. Alva was given a free hand and the use of the cruel Inquisition to accomplish the goal of wiping out the Reformation and bringing the Lowlanders to submission.
The result was bitter persecution. Thousands were put to death in unbelievably cruel ways, and tens of thousands fled to other countries, including England and Germany. The nobility and merchant classes took up arms in defense of their homeland. William the Silent, later murdered by a papal supporter, became their leader. And what became known as the Eighty Years War followed.
It is clear, however, that from the very outset religious issues were inseparably connected with political issues. The people of the Lowlands, especially the nobility and merchant classes, were Calvinistic and were threatened by Spain’s attacks religiously, politically, and economically. There were many ups and downs in the war, and actual fighting was only sporadic. But gradually, partly because of some important victories for the northern provinces at Brielle and Leiden, and partly because of the neglect and demoralization of the Spanish troops, the northern part of the Lowlands (what is now known as Holland) gained its independence as a sovereign state, with Calvinism as its religion. The sword had won the day.¹
The Netherlands had become a Calvinist country. The church organized in that land became a national church, that is, a church supported and promoted by the government. So dependent was the church on government support at the time of the Arminian conflict that the Reformed could do nothing to stop the spread of Arminianism until the existing government of Oldenbarneveldt was overthrown in a coup d’ etat led by Prince Maurice. Once more the government was instrumental in preserving the Reformed faith.
The Historical Context
The idea of a national church was not new to the Netherlands. With some important differences, the Roman Catholic Church had established national churches throughout Europe. In Geneva, Calvin had also worked to establish a close relationship between the church and the state. To the state was assigned the duty and obligation to support and promote the true religion.² The chief idea of a national church was a church within a state ruled by those who were Reformed. Calvin did not think a Reformed church was possible without a Reformed magistracy.³
In France the establishment of a national church was impossible, because the authorities in France were consistently Roman Catholic,4 and the Calvinistic church in France was consistently persecuted. Yet, in France, too, the Protestants (known as Huguenots) resorted to the use of arms to protect themselves. Bitter wars were fought in France between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics, which left parts of France in ruins.
Calvin was opposed to using the sword to promote the true religion. W. Fred Graham writes,
It is well known that Calvin would countenance rebellion against even the most repressive government only in extreme circumstances and then only when led by lower magistrates. But in practice Calvin would allow no rebellion at all, not once advising anyone to raise a sword against a monarch.5
Although the Huguenots, the persecuted Protestants in France, resorted to the use of arms in defense of their faith, a mitigating factor must be mentioned: The defense of the Reformation by the use of arms was frequently politically motivated and was usually practiced when the Reformation was under the leadership of political figures such as Admiral Coligny and Condé. When these men were dead and the Huguenots were simply a church fighting for their rights to worship God, they did not resort to arms, but suffered terrible persecution, until they were finally expelled by the ferocity of the enemy after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes under Louis XIV in the seventeenth century.
Such was not the case in the Netherlands. The idea of a national church came from Geneva, but the willingness and even eagerness to resort to arms in defense of the Reformed faith did not. It was an idea borrowed from earlier Huguenot history in France.
The church is forbidden by Scripture to defend itself by resorting to arms or rising up in warfare against the magistracy. Jesus makes it very clear that they who fight with the sword will perish with the sword. Calvin was right (and Luther): The gospel is not promoted nor the church gathered by force; nor is the church of Christ, “gathered, defended, and preserved”6 by the Son of God, in need of carnal warfare to attain its goals. Nor may one argue that persecution gives the church freedom to fight back. The Scriptures make it clear that persecution is for Christ’s sake; that it is suffering in fellowship with Him; that it is the expected lot of God’s people; that it is to be considered a privilege for which the saints must be joyful; and that the cause of the gospel is advanced and not destroyed by the ravages of persecution.
It may be argued that in the Netherlands the war against the Spaniards was a war of self-defense; that religious issues were mixed in by virtue of events that transpired in the Lowlands; and that, therefore, the war was political and could not be extricated from the religious aspects of it. It might be further argued that the war against Spain made the Reformation in the Lowlands possible. But these arguments are specious. It remains a question whether even from a political point of view the uprising against Spain can be justified. Spain sent its soldiers to the Lowlands because of the rapid spread of the Reformation. The nobles and merchants were concerned primarily about their positions of authority and their material prosperity. If God was pleased to use the sinful actions of the Lowlanders to establish the Netherlands as the cradle of the Reformed faith, it would not be the first time that God used wickedness for the welfare of the cause of His truth. God can and does use a crooked stick to draw a straight line.
The deeper problem is the problem of a national church. Whatever may be one’s position on the relation between church and state, a national church is an impossibility. It does not take a Reformed magistracy to perpetuate a Reformed church. Because the magistracy is almost always an enemy of true religion, it does more harm than good for the cause of the gospel. The history prior to Dordt proves this. No wonder that it took a political coup d’ etat to bring about the Synod of Dordt and the victory of the Reformed faith.
God uses weakest means to fulfill His will. The Reformed faith nourished in the Netherlands is our heritage. Let us be thankful for it. But let us learn that our salvation does not lie in the bloodshed of our enemies; it lies rather in our bloodshed as we are persecuted for Christ’s sake.
¹ For more information consult any good book that describes the history of the Reformation in the Netherlands, and consult the pertinent chapters in my Portraits of Faithful Saints, especially chapters 30-32.
² See Article 36 of the Belgic Confession, with its footnote.
³ See Emile G. Léonard, A History of Protestantism, vol. 2, tr. By R. M. Betholl (Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1967) 84-94.
4. With the exception of Henry IV, who later became Roman Catholic. He justified his betrayal of the Protestant cause with the remark, “Paris is worth a mass.”
5. W. Fred Graham, The Constructive Revolutionary: John Calvin and His Socio-Economic Impact (John Knox Press, 1971) 61.
6. Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 54.
Babington, J. A., The Reformation (London: John Murray, 1901), 209-252.
Chadwick, Owen, The Early Reformation on the Continent (Oxford University Press, 2001), 323.
Graham, W. Fred, The Constructive Revolutionary: John Calvin and his Socio-Economic Impact (John Knox Press, 1971).
Léonard, Emile G., A History of Protestantism, tr. by Betholl, vol. 2 (Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1967), 84-94.
Lindberg, Carter, The European Reformation (Blackwell Publishers, 1996), 298-309.
MacCulloch, Diarmáid, The Reformation (Viking Penguin Press, 2003), 303, 326, 356-368.