Tradition On Pre-Reformation Practices

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

Part 10: Church Tradition and Rebellion, Tradition On Pre-Reformation Practices

By Leonard O. Goenaga

Some of Christendom’s greatest minds began to think about the role of government and coercive force early on. Ambrose and Augustine both introduced the emphasis on the power of the sword to correct, oppose, and condemn sin.1 On using force to oppose injustice, Augustine stated in “Letter 153”, “if you take action against the crime in order to liberate the human being, you bind yourself to him in a fellowship of humanity rather than injustice. . . . Sometimes it is mercy that prompts punishment, and cruelty that prompts leniency.”2 That golden-tongued preacher, John Chrysostom, while commenting on Romans 13, notes that the point of the passage is not specifically “talking about each ruler individually, but about the institution of government.”3 He continues this emphasis of institution over person, noting “That is why the text [Romans 13] does not say, ‘there is no ruler except from God,’ but, speaking of the institution: ‘there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”4

Establishing that the power of the sword exists to combat sin, and establishing that the respect due to government is based upon the institution and not necessarily the person, two more Pre-Reformation thinkers provide noteworthy contributions as they relate to defining tyranny and war. While commenting on the ‘live by the sword/die by the sword’ principle in Matthew 26:52, the Chartres Bishop John Salisbury ties tyranny to an abuse of power by ruling outside of law. 5 For Salisbury, tyranny is the root of war, leading him to conclude:

If iniquity and injustice, banishing charity, had not brought about tyranny, firm concord and perpetual peace would have possessed the peoples of the earth forever, and no one would think of enlarging his boundaries. Then kingdoms would be as friendly and peaceful . . . and would enjoy as undisturbed repose, as the separate families in a wellordered state.6

In addition to Salisbury, the great philosopher of the Church Aquinas is worth mentioning. On the nature of law and tyranny, Aquinas argued:

Laws framed by man are either just or unjust. If they be just, they have the power of binding in conscience. . . . [L]aws may be unjust . . . by being contrary to human good . . . as when an authority imposes on his subjects burdensome laws, conducive, not to the common good, but rather to his own cupidity or vainglory. . . . Wherefore such laws do not bind in conscience.7

As with the earlier supplied scriptural passages, Aquinas notes the central importance of laws to the common good. Emulating his thoughts on tyrannical laws, Aquinas also calls into question the possibility of deposing a tyrannical ruler:

A tyrannical government is not just, because it is directed, not to the common good, but to the private good of the ruler [citing Aristotle]. Consequently there is no sedition in disturbing a government of this kind. . . . Indeed it is the tyrant rather that is guilty of sedition, since he encourages discord and sedition among his subjects, that he may lord over them more securely; for this is tyranny, since it is ordered to the private good of the ruler and to the injury of the multitude.8

Chrysostom provides the contribution that the institution of government is the object of submission and respect. Aquinas builds upon this by noting that a tyrannical government, like tyrannical law, is guilty of being the source of injustice and sedition. For Aquinas, opposing a tyrannical government places the guilt of rebellion not upon those deposing the tyrant, but upon the tyrant who himself is “guilty of sedition” for encouraging “discord and sedition” and ignoring the common good for the “private good of the ruler.” In light of Ambrose and Augustine’s recommendation that the power of the sword exists to combat and correct evil, Chrysostom, Salisbury, and Aquinas conclude that to oppose tyranny is to truly function as a government that exists to protect the common good of the multitude. However, this still leaves a fundamental question: who is to do the opposing? Is this available to any individual who considers the government tyrannical for any reason whatsoever? Such confusion brings about a second paradox that potentially opens the door to an anarchy detested by the earlier mentioned passages of Scripture. It is within the contributions of Reformation thinkers that a solution to this dilemma is found.


1 Ambrose, “Letter 50” in From Irenaeus to Grotius, eds. Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999). See also Ambrose, De Officiis i, 28, in From Irenaeus to Grotius, 84.

2 Augustine, “Letter 153,” sec. 3, in Augustine: Political Writings, eds. E. M. Atkins and R. J. Dodaro (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 73, 81.

3 Chrysostom, “From the Twenty-Fourth Homily on Romans,” in Augustine: Political Writings, eds. E. M. Atkins and R. J. Dodaro (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 92.

4 Ibid. 92.

5 John of Salisbury, Policraticus, viii, 17, in The Stateman’s Book (New York: Russell & Russell) 336.

6 Ibid. 336.

7 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, in Great Books of the Western World, vols. 19-20: Thomas Aquinas (Chicago: Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1952) i-ii, q. 96, art. 4.

8 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, ii-ii, q. 42, art. 2, r.o. 3

Self-Educated American 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