The American Right to Revolt Against Tyranny: Part A—Ancient Roots

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Posted by Kelly OConnell 


The American Republic was founded upon Revolution. Talk of resisting King George’s tyranny had long been in the air in the colonies. When the crown refused to take heed of the colonists complaints, the Americans decided they had a right to take up arms in their grievance. Most importantly, the naturally religious Americans found biblical warrant for their armed resistance against tyranny in the ancient world and also in great theologians like Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Johanne Althusius and Samuel Rutherford.

Of course, Americans did not invent revolution, or the idea that a free people had the right to rebel against unjust authority. In fact, this idea goes back far into the recesses of history. First, in the classical world, both the Greeks and Romans declared the right to fight against tyrants. Second, the New Testament writers were opposed to tyranny. This is the first of a two-part historical explanation of the sources the Founders used to create a biblical argument for their defense against tyranny.

I. Ancient World

A. Julius Caesar

The term “tyrant” is from the classical lexicon, which Webster defines as:

An absolute ruler unrestrained by law or constitution, a usurper of sovereignty; or a ruler who exercises absolute power oppressively or brutally, one resembling an oppressive ruler in the harsh use of authority or power.

The case of Julius Caesar presents a case of fatal pride. Caesar, one of the most brilliant leaders in history became too ambitious and desired to rule Rome as the sole, permanent leader of the people. He was assassinated for his efforts, on the Ides of March. That day the Senate planned to offer him the kingship of the Roman Republic, which Brutus and his conspirators put a permanent end to.

Fortunately, the American people can use the political process of impeachment today, instead of resorting to violence, when removing a leader.

B. Apostles: Romans 13 & Duty to Oppose Wicked Rulers

There has long been a debate in the church over whether Believers have the right or duty to remove unjust rulers. Interestingly, given America’s history—its a fairly modern position of the church that whatever leader arises, and whichever policies are enacted, Christians have a spiritual duty to simply accept their fate.

But is this pious fatalism really biblical? The history of the West is littered with Christian arguments against unjust laws and ungodly leaders, as will be shown. In fact, the creation of America after armed resistance against an unjust government is inconceivable without a strong biblical element. Revolutionary pulpits outlined much of what was subsequently achieved in the colonies leading up to the American War of Independence, as seen in Ellis Sandoz’ Political Sermons of the American Founding Era (1730-1788).

Romans 13:1-7 (NASB) is a definitive passage regarding the Christian’s duties for government:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.

Whereas many modern pastors teach this passage as an utter block against any dissent, those of the Reformed generation were not so easily swayed. The argument made by divinity professor and pastor Samuel Rutherford in Lex Rex (Law is King) is that all men are under God’s law, and those that refuse to accept this—even rulers—are then under God’s judgment. One writer explains Rutherford’s analysis of Romans 13:

Lex, Rex, the political tract of seventeenth-century Scottish theologian Samuel Rutherford (1600—1661), represents a particularly comprehensive early modern justification for violent resistance against a political sovereign. Rutherford was a member of the party of the radical covenanters, who vehemently opposed the church reforms of Charles I and, when hostilities began, fervently supported the war against the king. Rutherford uses a series of arguments, distinctions and theological moves to incorporate Romans 13 as a central supporting text for his pro-resistance argument. Among these are: the distinction between God’s immediate institution of governmental power and the constitution of particular governments mediately through the people, the positing of a conditional covenant agreed upon at the constitution of any government, the scholastic distinction between voluntas beneplaciti and voluntas signi in the divine will, and the distinction between the royal office in abstracto and its concrete occupant. Using these and other arguments and distinctions, Rutherford constructs a conceptual apparatus that is able, to a great extent, to appropriate Paul’s exhortation to obedience in the service of a justification of resistance.

C. Augustine & Aquinas

Both Saint Augustine (354-430) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) taught that an unjust law was no law at all. Aquinas, who believed in principled resistance to evil leaders, wrote in Summa Theologica, Part IIII (Secunda Secundae):

Tyrannical governance is unjust, since it is ordered to the private good of the ruler, not to the common good, as the Philosopher (Aristotle) makes clear in the Politics and the Ethics. And so disturbances of such governance does not have the character or rebellion, except, perhaps, in cases where the tyrant’s governance is so inordinately disturbed that the subject people suffer greater harm from the resulting disturbance than from the tyrant’s governance. Rather, tyrants, who, by seeking greater domination incite discontent and rebellion in the people subject to them, are the rebels. For governance is tyrannical when ordered to the ruler’s own good to the detriment of the people.

Thomas Aquinas is considered the greatest, most all-encompassing writer on the Natural Law, given his complete mastery of the pagan philosophy of Aristotle and biblical theology. It is therefore notable that he does not countenance the absolute duty of Christians to follow all government dictates, but instead that they must be ready to draw the line when rulers go too far from God’s laws. Aquinas’ position is summed up by the Stanford Plato Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

If the law purports to require actions that no-one should ever do, it cannot rightly be complied with; one’s moral obligation is not to obey but to disobey: And if it purports to authorize such acts (e.g. rape, theft, or infanticide), its authorization is morally void and of no effect; courts should not guide their adjudications by such laws. But law’s obligatoriness and authority is subject to further conditions, derived from the very nature and rationale of political authority. If the law-makers (i) are motivated not by concern for the community’s common good but by greed or vanity (private motivations that make them tyrants, whatever the content of their legislation), or (ii) act outside the authority granted to them, or (iii) while acting with a view to the common good apportion the necessary burdens unfairly, their laws are unjust and in the forum of reasonable conscience are not so much laws as acts of violence [magis sunt violentiae quam leges]. Such laws lack moral authority, i.e. do not bind in conscience; one is neither morally obliged to conform nor morally obliged not to conform.

Aquinas’ position on the right to resistance and overthrow of the evil leader are also noted:

All who govern in the interests of themselves rather than of the common good are tyrants, for that is what a tyrant is in the classical line of thought followed by Aquinas. Tyranny entails treating one’s subjects as slaves—persons used for the benefit of the master. The laws of tyrants are not laws simpliciter, but rather a kind of perversion of law [perversitas legis], and one is, in principle, entitled to treat them as one treats a bandit’s demands. Against the regime’s efforts to enforce its decrees one has the right of forcible resistance; as a private right this could extend as far as killing the tyrant as a foreseen side-effect of one’s legitimate self-defence. It is the tyrant rather than the subject who is morally guilty of sedition. If one can associate with others to constitute oneself with them a kind of public authority willing and able to assume responsibility for the common good of the state, one is entitled, in Aquinas’ view, to set about overthrowing, and if need be executing, the tyrant, with a view to the liberatio of the people [multitudinis] and the homeland [patriae]. Since rulers who are not tyrants are entitled to hunt down and most severely punish sedition, and both rulers and subjects may fall into error about each other’s moral status, subjects ought to be slow to judge a tyranny so unjust that overthrowing or forcibly resisting it is fair to those likely to be injured as a side-effect of revolutionary struggle; there is a (defeasible) presumption in favor of acquiescence and merely passive disobedience.

II. Reformers: John Calvin & Johannes Althusius

A. John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-1564) is the chief theologian of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was not simply opposition by a few principled souls against the Church, but also against corrupt secular leaders. Calvin seems to disallow violent opposition of leaders by private citizens. But he does allow lesser magistrates to eject greater magistrates, according to one author:

Calvin’s allowance of the resistance of tyrannical rulers by “lesser magistrates” is lawful. Indeed, Calvin charges these magistrates with a duty. 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.”

But Calvin was no fatalist, writing, “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,” in the last chapter of his Institutes.

B. Johannes Althusius

Johannes Althusius (1563 -1638) might be the greatest and most potent Reformation political mind, and he brooked no dissent with tyrants. (In fact, a current writer suggests Althusius’ Politica Methodice Digesta Exemplis Sacris & Profanis Illustrata would be a better influence for Obama than Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals: Barack Obama, Meet Johannes Althusius) Althusius was deeply Calvinist in his thinking, but carried Calvin’s ideas further. He wrote of the duty of those leaders (ephors) elected to public office,

The promise of obedience and compliance that follows the election and inauguration is the event in which the members of the realm—or the people through its ephors, and the ephors in its name—promise their trust, obedience, compliance, and whatever else may be necessary for the administration of the realm. This promise, which pertains to things that do not conflict with the law of God and the right of the realm, is made to the magistrate who receives the entrusted administration of the commonwealth, and is about to undertake his office and to rule the commonwealth piously and justly. … If the supreme magistrate does not keep his pledged word, and fails to administer the realm according to his promise, then the realm, or the ephors and the leading men in its name, is the punisher of this violation and broken trust. It is then conceded to the people to change and annul the earlier form of its polity and commonwealth, and to constitute a new one.

And consider how prescient was Althusius’ wise rejection of socialistic answers to society’s desire for equality,

Fairness for all citizens is not the same as equality of all citizens. To level all individual citizens without regard for their abilities, achievements, offices, or obligations is not only unfair and unjust it will only bring manifest disorder.


The great achievement of the Founding Fathers was to create a principled revolution, one which accepted the religion of God and His Word. Contrast this with the devilish and horrifically bloody French Revolution which buried god under a secular state. This prefigured all of the later murderously failed states of humanistic communism. It’s no coincidence Marx and the other greatest socialist writers toiled in Paris.

After the American Revolution, the pro-religious vision of the Founders and Framers ended up delivering a broad and principled foundation to the greatest, most productive and pacific revolution the world has ever seen. This is how we achieved our unparalleled success after our Puritan-derived Declaration and Constitution were hammered out like political gold. Next week we will consider the Founder’s views of principled dissent, and their main influences, such as John Locke.


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