Church Tradition On Reformation Practices

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

Part 11: Church Tradition and Rebellion, Tradition on Reformation Practices

By Leonard O. Goenaga

As Bainton writes in the Just War classic, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace, “The churches of the Reformation, with the exception of the Anabaptist, all endorsed the theory of the just war as basic.”1 Among the magisterial reformers, Luther is representative of a strict approach to the question of sedition. Bainton summarizes Luther’s conclusion that “only the magistrate is ordained of God to bear the sword.” 2 Regarding Luther’s response to prince John Frederick’s actions against peasant uprisings, Bainton writes that “Luther informed him that as a magistrate he was obligated to use the sword: ‘smite, stab, slay, and kill,’ because no justice can result from rebellion. It creates disorder and out of disorder only new injustice can arise.” 3 Bainton also notes “Luther appeared here to be using pragmatic arguments.” Luther’s response would only solidify upon the German Peasant Rebellion and the minister Thomas Münzter’s role in leading a revolt. 4 Although Luther maintains an aversion against rebellion, the Lutherans of Magdeburg would develop a theory of resistance allowing lower magistrates to protect the commonwealth by justly resisting higher magistrates.

This contribution of lower magistrates resisting higher magistrates is also evident in John Calvin and his followers. In addition to rejecting the divine right of kings, Calvin wrote on lower government officials in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, stating:

If there are now any magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings . . . if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that . . . they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance. 5

Calvin also saw the value of checks and balances, expanding on the role that lower magistrates served in protecting the people against an unchecked upper magistrate. 6 Regarding the American Revolution, Grudem notes, “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.” 7


1 Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1960) 142.

2 Ibid. 140.

3 Ibid. 140.

4 On Luther’s response to Münzter, Bainton wrote: “Luther fumed. To engage in revolution against God’s ordained magistrate is rebellion, but for a minister to instigate revolt in the name of the gospel is sacrilege. What then should be done if the minister thus forsook his proper role? Smite him down! Thus Luther’s hardness was a corollary of his doctrine of nonresistance in the case of the minister. . . . When asked later if resistance to the emperor was justified if the emperor sought the destruction of all Protestants, Luther was initially hesitant. However, he did make concessions on the legal validity of certain Jurist arguments, yet still rejected resistance as opposed to New Testament principles (Bainton 142). Roland concludes in saying it seemed Luther was highly influenced by the medieval understanding that only equals could wage war.

5 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.20.31 as quoted in Wayne Grudem’s Politics According to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan) 89.

6 John Calvin, “Civil Government,” Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. by John T McNeill and trans. by Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960) Book IV, Chapter XX, Section 31.

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

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