Secular Resistance Theorists?

Anyone who read this blog last summer probably feels that I owe David VanDrunen a break, after my exhaustive vivisection of his Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms.  Of course, to that I might reply that I have given him a break of several months, and as the crucial chapters of his book overlap with my Ph.D research so much, I find myself forced to continue to use him as a foil as I study the relationship of Scripture and “natural law” in late Reformation political theology.

In chapter four of his book, focusing on the use of natural law in the Reformed resistance theorists, VanDrunen sought to show that in the largest body of sixteenth-century Reformed political writings, it was natural law, rather than Scripture, that played the decisive role.  In the context of VanDrunen’s project as a whole, this claim serves to help undergird a narrative in which it was the use of natural law and two kingdoms doctrines in the Reformed tradition that helped open up a separate “secularized” civil sphere, insulated against the sacred concerns of the spiritual realm.  In other words, it was Reformed thinkers who helped create the notion of a political science that was for the first time not “political theology,” the notion of a state that existed to serve civil ends, not to foster religion.  

This narrative, of course, is hardly new with VanDrunen, even if his use of it to endorse a certain theological agenda is somewhat idiosyncratic.  A similar story was told by Quentin Skinner in his magisterial Foundations of Modern Political Thought, although Skinner was at pains to make the point that the contributions of the “Calvinist resistance theorists” were not uniquely “Calvinist” at all, but were in fact borrowed from the Lutherans or the Catholics.  The effect, however, was to develop, at least among the Huguenot resistance theorists, a general foundation of the people’s political rights against unjust political rule, a model of political justice and rights that did not depend on any theological agenda or program for church/state relations.  These theorists, believes Skinner, succeeded for the first time in isolating “political science” as an independent discipline that could leave theology on the sidelines; and of course, Skinner is very happy about this development. 

Skinner’s account is of course open to a whole slew of objections, whether the Cavanaughian argument that the early modern politics did not involve a desacralization of politics, but rather the transfer of sacredness from church to state, or the Eric Nelson argument (in The Hebrew Republic; similar themes are sounded by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age), that traces an actual increase of religiosity in early modern statecraft.  Indeed, I think Skinner’s portrait rests on a rather selective reading of the texts on which he builds his case. But that’s a whole ‘nother discussion.  My interest here is to explore the questions that Skinner’s account raises about VanDrunen’s.  

In my review of VanDrunen’s chapter on the resistance theorists, I complained that his approach appeared to consist of little more than culling references to “nature” and the “natural” from the pages of various resistance theorists, and using this as proof that the foundation of natural law undergirded their political doctrines.  In my mind, the quotations he brings forward do not even succeed even in demonstrating that natural law as such serves as a legitimate foundation for politics in most of these thinkers, much less that it supplants Scripture as the chief foundation for politics, which is of course what VanDrunen wants to argue in his larger project.  If we accepted Skinner’s account, we might grant that something of the sort is underway (though still incomplete) in the Huguenot resistance theorists (Hotman, Beza, Mornay), but is most definitely not in the Marian writers (Knox, Ponet, Goodman).  

Indeed, Skinner argues emphatically (and, based on my reading of three of the six sources thus far, compellingly), for a fairly crucial divide between these two, which he categorizes as the difference between a “duty to resist” and a “right to resist.”  In the former group of writers, he argues, the emphasis is on the duty of the people, in particular the inferior magistrates, to resist a ruler who, by his ungodliness, has ceased to legitimately claim divine ordination and has become a destroyer of the Church and promoter of idolatry.  Sacred motives prevail over “secular” in this construction;  it is the imperative to create and protect a godly commonwealth that calls for revolution.  No one is arguing for religious toleration, since the Protestants intend to be every bit as intolerant once their rebellion has succeeded.  However, for the theorists of a “right to resist,” the issue is much less theologically charged.  The Huguenot theorists argue that based on a combination of history, Scripture, natural law, etc., we can see that rulers are created to serve their people, not vice versa, and so if the ruler becomes an enemy to his people, they have the right to resist in defence of their liberty–of their liberty, mind you, not in defence of the purity of the Church or the godliness of the commonwealth.  wNow, this is certainly a very one-sided narrative, and it is unquestionably true that the Huguenot theorists do share with the English and Scottish Calvinists a concern for a fully Reformed commonwealth, and make much of the religious dimensions of the conflict in their tracts.  However, they certainly do not do so nearly as much as the Marian exiles.

And this raises an interesting question for VanDrunen’s narrative.  If the Reformed as a whole were characterized by the theological concern to establish politics on the basis of natural law, rather than Scripture, to separate the civil kingdom of politics from the spiritual kingdom of the Church, then why should this impetus appear in only one group of Reformed political thinkers?  Because, let’s face it, even if Knox and his company are willing to speak of female rule as “a monster in nature” they aren’t about to concede that political rule as such is a matter of nature rather than religion; the most VanDrunen can seriously hope for is to enlist the Huguenots as allies.   But why does their approach differ so much? 

The answer, suggests Skinner, lies in that feature of history which VanDrunen chooses to largely ignore–concrete circumstances.  When Knox, Ponet, and Goodman wrote to address the English situation in the 1550s, they were dealing with countries that had already been substantially reformed, where the rulers had already embraced the Protestant faith and made the notion of a godly commonwealth, free of idolatry, seem like a genuine possibility.  The reassertion of Catholic rule was thus conceivably a temporary aberration, one which could be corrected with a resolute enough populace, prepared to resist and rebel.  In France, however, it was another story.  Here, the Huguenots were a bare 2-5% of the population, facing a powerful and determined Catholic monarchy.  Toleration and liberty were first on their agenda; imposing the new uniformity of a reformed commonwealth, while perhaps desirable in theory, was simply not on the radar.  Fortunately, they were not so outnumbered as it might seem, due to the presence of a widespread Catholic resentment against the Valois monarchs, particularly among the nobility.  Could these be persuaded to rebel, liberty might be achievable.  In such a milieu, it was clearly impractical to argue for the overthrow of the monarchy in the name of purging France of idolatry and making her into a Reformed nation.  If resistance was to be advocated, it would have to be on wider, religiously-neutral terms, a strictly political theory that could command wide assent among Catholic and Protestant discontents alike.  And it was such a theory that was so ingeniously crafted in the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, laying the groundwork for seventeenth-century constitutionalism, and ultimately John Locke and his ilk.  But if Skinner’s plausible narrative is to be believed, this occurred not because of some particular theological insight of Calvinism (indeed, there was nothing distinctively Calvinist in the Vindiciae, he claims), but almost as a historical accident–by the awkward position of the Huguenots that left them needing to argue against religiously-motivated tyranny on (largely) religiously-neutral grounds.

This example thus serves to expose again the failure of VanDrunen’s rather abstract, history-of-ideas approach, in which theological theory is considered in isolation from concrete historical application.  No theology is done in a vacuum, least of all political theology, and if we want to understand a theologian who tries to bring his convictions to bear on the body politic, we’d best pay attention to which body politic before we draw too many conclusions.

5 thoughts on “Secular Resistance Theorists?

  1. Brad,Great post. I'd only add that I have trouble buying DVD's line that natural law and scripture are qualitatively different sources for political deliberation. (I may be wrong, but it seems that you assume this as well…?) But that assumption doesn't reflect what (admittedly little) I know about the scholastic natural law tradition. Regarding human life, scripture and nature are interpermeable. In fact, in some scholastics, scripture, reason, and nature appear to be sources of the natural law (which is itself derived from the eternal law of God). I think this is why scholastically-trained reformers like Bucer and Melanchthon tended to view the scriptural text as the equivalent of nature, and scriptural exegesis as the rough equivalent of reason. Civil laws taken out of the OT (like nature) cannot be directly applied without rational deliberation about historical context. The general equity principle applies. At the same time, if OT civil law is an example of a legal system derived from the NL (and sanctioned by God, no less), then it serves as a suitable pedagogic aid. I've looked, but I don't see DVD addressing this aspect of early Reformed NL theory. Rather, he seems to be assuming a hard-and-fast dichotomy between NL and scripture. And that just doesn't ring true, as far as I can tell.


  2. Michael Hickman

    Brad,Excellent topic! I’d say there is a deep and complex interplay between ideas and historical circumstances. Although ideas can powerfully influence the course of history (for after all, thought or "interpretation" does precede action) your general point is well taken that particular historical circumstances can also exert influence on the prevalence of ideas as well. In this regard, I’d say that your historical argument is actually stronger than you know. For indeed, as I see it, the reason those Marian exiles wouldn’t have wanted a “right to resist” for the people’s liberty is that in recent decades they’d seen England “substantially reformed,” as you say, through a massive governmental program of persecution, intimidation, bribery and propaganda. They also knew that it hadn’t succeeded by a long shot (witness e.g, the Prayer Book rebellion as late as 1549). Furthermore, Mary was quite popular with “the people” when she first took the throne. (The anti-Marian hostility in the populace primarily developed through her own folly of marrying Philip II, which of course was so successfully exploited to brand Catholicism as a hostile and foreign thing).In short, the Marian exile writers of which you speak would have known that for Protestantism to succeed in overthrowing the ancestral English religion, it would need to continue as what it had been since the days of Henry VIII: a top-down affair. All of this, of course, reinforces your point with regard to historical situation underlying the differences between the “resistance theorists” of which you speak.Michael


  3. Brad Littlejohn

    Davey, Thanks for adding this. Although the term "qualitatively different" is a rather vague one, I think I'd definitely agree with you in questioning this assumption of VanDrunen's, and so I don't think this is an assumption that I share. I accept the dichotomy for the sake of argument in this post, but, if I'm understanding you right, I think that this was a dichotomy that I pretty firmly rejected in my "Some Theses on Natural Law" post a couple months back–natural law and Scripture depend on one another. To cite another scholastically-minded early Protestant, Richard Hooker, whose work I'm currently reveling in, "When supernaturall duties are necessarily exacted, naturall are not rejected as needlesse. The lawe of God therefore is though principally delivered for instruction in the one, yet fraught with precepts of the other also. The scripture is fraught even with lawes of nature. In so much that Gratian defining naturall right (whereby is meant the right which exacteth those generall duties, thawt concerne men naturally even as they are men) termeth naturall right that which the bookes of the lawe and the Gospell do containe."Michael,Thanks. Yes, that is probably another important dimension of the matter, though it was stated with a rather heavy dose of partisanship. 😉


  4. Michael Hickman

    Brad, your indulgence is appreciated. If only it were just a matter of party (or denomination)… To see it this way presupposes a Protestant view of the Church, which has the "luxury" of not acknowledging a visible and historical locus of communion. By contrast, your highly commendable indulgence for entertaining differing points of view will recognize that, for Catholics, the catastrophes of the 16th century was the pulverization of the very body of Christ. Moreover, I would assert, it was the source of the wound that ultimately has our civilization, as it were, flatlining on the operating table of history. But I digress…


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