The Key Political Thinkers & Writings of the Reformation Era

Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants) by Stephen Junius Brutus, 1574

During the Reformation era, some Bible-based thinkers rose up and challenged the Divine Right of Kings—the unlimited, absolute rule and power of monarchs—calling for political reform in the church and civil government.  These early modern writers included John Ponet, Theodore Beza, “Stephen Junius Brutus,” Hubert Languet, Philippe de Mornay, and Samuel Rutherford among others.  Many advocated for greater religious and political freedom and the people’s right to resist civil tyranny.  Notably, they defended their positions from the Bible.  Many of their writings impacted later European and American thinkers who influenced American ideas.  For example:

  • In 1556, British Anglican Bishop John Ponet wrote A Short Treatise of Political Power to oppose the Divine Right of Kings and advocate for the Law of Nature and the right to resist civil tyranny based on the Bible.  Ponet influenced American Founder John Adams and, according to Adams, the ideas of John Locke and Algernon Sidney, important philosophers to the American founders.
  • Theodore Beza, a French protégé of John Calvin, wrote in 1574 On the Rights of Magistrates to argue for the right to resist tyranny based on a Bible-inspired political covenant that existed among the people, their rulers, and God.
  • Anonymous French Huguenot writer pseudonymed “Stephen Junius Brutus” (thought to be Hubert Languet or Philippe de Mornay) published in 1574 A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants (Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos) to expand the ideas of Bible-based covenants and resistance.  It became the most well-known and quoted work of Protestant political thinkers in the 1600s.  Beza and Brutus’s covenant theory was later taken up and secularized by Locke.  Adams saw Brutus as influential to American political thought.
  • In 1644, Scottish Presbyterian minister Samuel Rutherford published Lex Rex, or The Law and the Prince, which applied ideas in Vindiciae to the political situation in England.  Lex Rex was seen by many as a play on words to mean The Law is King.  It argued that rulers are not the law but are rather subject to the law—the concept of Rule of Law (contrary to the order of the day that the king is law, or Rex Lex).  Like Vindicaie, Lex Rex defended Bible-based political covenants and resistance.  It impacted the English Civil War of the 1600s and influenced the ideas of Locke.
  • The Westminster Assembly, a group of Calvinist clergymen including Rutherford, wrote in 1646 the Westminster Confession of Faith, the doctrine of the Church of England and Scotland.  It affirmed God’s moral law, the Law of Nature, covenants, freedom of conscience, and the right to resist tyranny.  Next to the Bible, it was the most widely read document in the pre-revolutionary American colonies and influenced early American values.

Thus a clear line of modern, Western political ideas with explicit roots in the Bible can be traced through these unprecedented writings of the early modern Reformation era.  Because these writings impacted later European and American thinkers who influenced American ideas, they reveal the Bible’s significance to America’s principles and founding.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

Source:  Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related Blogs/Videos:
1.  The Context of the Protestant Reformation
2.  The Igniting of the Protestant Reformation – Martin Luther’s 95 Theses
3.  The Key Tenets of the Protestant Reformation
4.  The Reformation Led to the Translation and Printing of the Bible Into People’s Common Languages
5.  The Catholic Counter-Reformation
6.  Three P’s That Led to Freedom in the West:  Printing Press, Protestant Reformation, & Pilgrims

Activity:  Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 1, Part 1, Activity 4:  Details, Questions, and Conclusions, pp. 56.  HS.

To download the whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the member resources page on americanheritage.org.

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