Just War Theory: Tradition on Post Reformation Practices

Just War, Rebellion, and the American Revolution: John Keown and Modern Critiques on Whether the War of Independence was Just.

Part 12: Church Tradition and Rebellion, Tradition on Post Reformation Practices

By Leonard O. Goenaga

This survey thus far has expanded on two important points. Based on Pre-Reformation contributions, resistance to tyranny is legitimate, if not necessary, to oppose injustice and protect the common good. However, this led to the problem of identifying the proper authority to initiate and lead rebellion. Can just anyone resist and lead a rebellion? Would this not produce anarchy and terrorism? Based on Reformation contributions, the answer is found in lower magistrates initiating and leading the resistance. This now leaves the question of furthering the identity of what classifies as ‘tyranny’, and what would then be a just cause to justify a rebellion. Here we find the post Reformation Christian thinkers Suarez and Locke to be particularly helpful and influential.1

The Spaniard Suarez would develop Catholic doctrine on the subjects of tyranny and revolt in his tractate Defensio Fidei. Addressed to an overreaching James I of England, Suarez’s Defensio Fidei would challenge “the Council of Constance’s unqualified condemnation of tyrannicide, foreseeing the possibility that a lawful sovereign may be lawfully deposed and slain by his subjects, but only in limited circumstances and within the boundaries of law.”2 Holmes summarizes the Christian Philosopher and Englishman John Locke as developing the work of Aquinas and Suarez in arguing “the implications of government by popular consent for the legitimacy of revolution.”3 Centering the discussion on individuals rights to life, liberty, and property, Locke argues in his Second Treatise that a violation of these three precipitates a state of war. As Holmes summarizes, “on this basis Locke discusses the justice of both war between nations and war against tyranny.”4

After quoting King James in his speech to Parliament in 1603, and again in 1609, Locke quotes the British king as saying:

[A King should] ever prefer the weal of the public and of the whole commonwealth, in making of good laws and constitutions . . . the king binds himself, by a double oath, to the observation of the fundamental laws of his kingdom–tacitly, as by being a king, and so bound to protect, as well the people as the laws of his kingdom.5

Locke comments on these kingly words, writing:

That learned king, who well understood the notions of things, makes the difference betwixt a king and a tyrant to consist only in this: that one makes the laws the bounds of his power and the good of the public the end of his government; the other makes all give way to his own will and appetite.6

The prior treated themes of pursuing the interests of the commonwealth and the centrality of a rule of law are both evident in Locke’s quotations and commentary of King James. Locke proceeds to connect the relation between the end of law and the beginning of tyranny with the legitimacy of a lower magistrate to resist the tyrannical officials, claiming:

Wherever law ends, tyranny begins, if the law be transgressed to another’s harm; and whosoever in authority exceeds the power given him by the law, and makes use of the force he has under his command to compass that upon the subject which the law allows not, ceases in that to be a magistrate, and acting without authority may be opposed, as any other man who by force invades the right of another. This is acknowledged in subordinate magistrates.7

Such a fusion of the various principles and contributions find their apex in Locke’s position on the dissolution of government. These combination of factors led Locke to conclude:

Whensoever, therefore, the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society, and either by ambition, fear, folly, or corruption, endeavor to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people, by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and by the establishment of a new legislative (such as they shall think fit), provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society.8

The influence Locke would have on the British and American experiences cannot be underestimated.9 As John Eidsmoe said in Christianity and the Constitution, “The most cited thinkers were not deists and philosophies, but conservative legal and political thinkers who often were also Christians.”10 Regarding Locke’s influence on the Founders, Jefferson would claim Locke, Bacon, and Newton as the “three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in Physical and Moral sciences.”11 The extent of Locke’s influence is most evident in Jefferson’s borrowing of his coined phrase “Life, Liberty, and property” in its altered form in the Declaration of Independence.12 With such direct influence apparent, and with Locke’s role in synthesizing the inherited Just War tradition in light of natural rights, we can see a direct link within the Christian Just War tradition as it relates to the intellectual influences of the American Revolution.13 As Grudem argues,

The reason that a number of early Americans thought it was justified to rebel against the British monarchy is that it is morally right for a lower government official to protect the citizens in his care from a higher official who is committing crimes against these citizens.14

Locke’s conclusions are the byproduct of a robustly developed Just War tradition that emphasized the legitimacy of going to war to defend the liberties essential to a common good and in defense against tyranny.


1 Locke surely deserves a place among fellow Christian philosophers. Some persons seek to pass him off as a Deist, or some secularized rationalist. Locke was primarily a Christian, and secondly a philosopher. Much of his work in political philosophy derives from assumptions made theologically (such as the Creator God entitling humanity as Co-Creators responsible for cultivating and maximizing this world). His understanding of sin and the state of nature, although un-Calvinistic in its form, would still assume sin as a major motivation for leading persons into the self-preservation of a social contract. Later in his life, Locke would write extensively on theological questions, and concluded his last years paraphrasing and commenting on several major portions of Scripture. As Joshua Mitchell writes in Not by Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993) 73: “Theef florescence of the seemingly pure liberal political vision is to be found in the thought of Locke. To comprehend it fully, this flowering, this enlightenmentd clarification, this seemingly explicit political vision in which reason, property, and toleration play so large a part, must be understood as an attempt to grasp the meaning of biblical history and the place of humankind within the particular moment of history in which it dwells. As such, Locke’s vision, like the vision of Luther and Hobbes that preceded it, is best understood as a political theology”. I have written a series of overlapping research papers on Locke’s contributions and musings in politics, ethics, and theology, which may be accessed at <http://leonardooh.com>: Leonard O Goenaga, “Locke and the Baptists; Parallels in Ecclesiology and Liberty” <http://leonardooh.files.wordpress.com/2009/08/his5130-locke-and-the-baptists-parallels-in-ecclesiology-and-liberty.pdf>; “Lockean Moral Philosophy; A Survey of Locke’s World and Worldview in Light of His Moral Philosophical Ideas” <http://leonardooh.files.wordpress.com/2009/08/eth7503-lockean-moral-philosophy.pdf>; “Locke, Religion, Morality, Law and State” <http://leonardooh.files.wordpress.com/2009/08/eth7610-locke-religion-morality-law-and-state.pdf>; “The Pulpit and the Patriots; The Influence of Calvin, the Puritans, and the Pulpit in the American Revolution” <http://leonardooh.files.wordpress.com/2009/08/eth7260-the-pulpit-and-the-patriots-the-influence-of-calvin-the-puritans-and-the-pulpit-in-theamerican-revolution.pdf>

2 David Brown, The Sword, the Cross, and the Eagle, 155-156. See also Francisco Suarez, Defensio Fidei Catholicae, et Apostolicae, in Selections from Three Works of Francisco Suarez (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1944), vi, 6.

3 Arthur Holmes, War and Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975) 239.

4 Ibid. 239

5 John Locke Second Treatise on Civil Government, ” in Arthur Holmes, War and Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975) 263-64.

6 Ibid. 263-64.

7 John Locke Second Treatise on Civil Government, 264.

8 Arthur Holmes, War and Christian Ethics, 266-267.

9 According to Donald S. Lutz in “The Relative Importance of European Writers on Late Eighteenth Century American Political Thought.” American Political Science Review (1984), 189-197, Locke would be the fourth most frequently cited thinker among the Founders between 1760-1805. Third would be Sir William Blackstone, second Montesquieu, and first the Apostle Paul.

10 John Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987) 52.

11 Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson to John Trumbull (Library of Congress) <http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trm033.html>. “Bacon, Locke and Newton, whose pictures I will trouble you to have copied for me: and as I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical & Moral sciences.” Note the blasphemous affection displaced by Jefferson’s hand-drawing equating the three to a trinity.

12 In the Declaration, Jefferson supplements the word “property” with “Happiness.”

13 In Locke in America The Moral Philosophy of the Founding Era, Jerome Huyler quotes Richard Henry Lee on the Lockean influence of the Declaration of Independence as charging it was “copied from Locke’s treatise on Government,” (Huyler 2-3). In The Declaration of Independence A Study in the History of Political Ideas, Carl Becker makes the following conclusion regarding Lockean influence: “…The Americans did not borrow [this philosophy], they inherited it. The lineage is direct…It was Locke’s conclusion that seemed to the colonists sheer common sense, needing no argument at all. Locke did not need to convince the colonists because they were already convinced,” (Becker 27, 79, 72-73). For a paper written on the Lockean Influence of the Declaration, see Leonard O Goenaga, “Lockean Liberalism and the Declaration of Independence”, <http://leonardooh.wordpress.com/2008/02/18/lockean-liberalism-and-the-declaration-of-independence/>.

14 Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, 89.

The Moral Liberal Research Writer, Leonard O. Goenaga
, is a Baptist Associate Pastor (assigned to the Youth) at Glory of God Christian Fellowship, Raleigh, North Carolina; a Mentor (Computer Lab/Technology) at the Wake Forest Boys & Girls Club; a husband (to Katrina); and rugby coach. He holds a B.A. in Political Science (with a specific concentration in Political Theory, Social Contract, and Constitutionalism), a second B.A. in Religious Studies (with a concentration in World Religions and Early Christianity), a Master of Divinity in Christian Ethics, and an A.A. in Entrepreneurship. He has begun Ph.D with a concentration likely centered on an analysis of Locke’s Social Contract, H.L.A. Hart’s Legal System, American Constitutionalism, and Baptist Ecclesiology of Covenant. Visit his website at Leonardooh.com