Theodore Beza wrote De jure magistratum (On the Rights of Magistrates) in 1574. It provides a helpful, somewhat concise summary of reformed thought on civil government at the time.
The Origin of Magistrates
People desire to be ruled, so they elect someone to rule over them.
To give a clearer answer to this question I must first lay down certain principles constituting as it were the foundations of the whole question. Assuredly, (it is clear) that peoples did not in the first instance originate from rulers, but whatever peoples desired to be ruled by a single monarch or by chief men elected by them were anterior to their rulers. Hence it follows that peoples were not created for the sake of rulers, but on the contrary the rulers for the sake of the people, even as the guardian is appointed for the ward, not the ward for the guardian, and the shepherd on account of the flock, not the flock on account of the shepherd. This proposition is not merely obvious in itself but may be corroborated by the history of nearly all nations, So much so that God Himself, although he had elected Saul to substitute him for Samuel in accordance with the desires of the people, yet willed that he should be chosen and accepted as King by the suffrages of the people. Thus David, although he had first been chosen as king by God Himself, yet would not undertake the administration of the Kingdom except he had first been confirmed by the suffrages and unfettered concord of the tribes of Israel. (Question 5)
The Purpose of Magistrates
Magistrates are necessary for the preservation of the human race.
In short, if we would investigate the histories of ancient times recorded by profane writers also, it will be established — as indeed Nature herself seems to proclaim with a loud voice — that rulers by whose authority their inferiors might be guided were elected for this reason that either the whole human race must needs perish or some intermediate class must be instituted so that by it one or more (rulers) might be able to command the others, (and) protect good men but restrain the wicked by means of punishments. And this is what not only Plato, Aristotle and the other natural philosophers — furnished with the light of human reason alone – have taught and proved, but God Himself by the utterance of St. Paul writing to the Romans, the rulers of almost the entire world, confirmed this with clear words. There the origin of all States and Powers is with the best of reasoning derived from God the author of all good. (Question 5)
Those who elect a ruler lay down conditions for that ruler.
[T]he people existed before there was any magistrate and that the magistrates were made for the sake of the people and not vice versa… [T]he authority of all magistrates, however supreme and powerful they are, is dependent upon the public authority of those who have raised them to this degree of dignity, and not contrariwise… I maintain that as long as right and justice have prevailed no nation has either elected or approved kings without laying down specific conditions. (Question 6)
[L]et those who so far exalt the authority of kings and supreme rulers as to dare maintain that they have no other Judge but God alone to whom they are held bound to render account of their deeds, furnish proof that there has been any nation anywhere which has consciously and without intimidation or compulsion of some kind subjected itself to the arbitrary rule of some supreme ruler without the express or tacit addition of the proviso that it be justly and fairly ruled and guided by him. (Question 6)
Constitution Limited According to Its Purpose
The people have no authority to delegate a ruler contrary to the purpose of magistrates (the peoples’ self-preservation).
[A]n agreement whether freely manifested by or extorted by means of violence or intimidation from the whole people or a majority of them should rather be annulled than observed if it were established beyond doubt that such agreement was clearly incompatible with fairness and honor. For who would persuade himself that some nation would freely, wittingly and unconstrained wish to subject itself to some ruler to this end that it might subsequently be murdered and utterly destroyed by him? (Question 5)
[I]f someone were to furnish an example of peoples who upon being defeated in war surrendered at discretion and swore to the conditions dictated by the victors, it would not be enough for me to answer with the lawyers that (undertakings) extorted by violence or intimidation which is the rule of consciences does not easily permit oaths of that kind to be heedlessly violated. But I shall further add that even if any people has consciously and of its free will granted assent to an undertaking which is as such evidently sinful and opposed to the law of nature, such obligation is null and void; so little ground is there for reasonable doubt whether that obligation which was contracted as a result of violence or intimidation or of open deceit and malpractice should be regarded as valid and binding.
Constitution Limited According to the Law of God
[T]he authority of all magistrates (with however great power and sovereignty they be vested) is as it were hedged in by these two limits set by God himself, namely Piety [first table] and Charity [second table]. And if they themselves should chance to transgress these, it will be well to call to mind that saying of the Apostles: “It is better to obey God than men” lest we be of the band of those whom the Lord cursed by the mouth of Micah because they obeyed the impious commands of their King, or lest we follow the perverse examples of those who worshipped even the most cruel tyrants as if they were gods, ascribing to them the titles and acts of God. (Question 1)
Obedience to Rulers
Inasmuch as only the will of almighty God is the eternal and immutable Rule of all Justice, we declare that it must be unconditionally obeyed. As regards however the obedience due to Princes, they too would doubtless have to be obeyed always and unconditionally if they ruled constantly in accordance with the utterance of God. Since however theirs is often the contrary case, such obedience must be made subject to the following condition, namely that they command nothing impious [first table of the law], nothing unjust [second table]… Pharaoh’s command to slay all the male offspring of the Jews was unjust and the midwives rightly refused to obey him, whose houses or families God therefore blessed… The command of Jezebel, however, to slay the prophets of God was both impious and unjust; therefore Obadiah who not only refrained from slaying them but concealed them alive and nourished them, acted piously. (Question 1)
A conqueror or an elected ruler who violates the election agreement is an illegitimate ruler.
Since these principles which were demonstrated above concerning the origin of kings and other rulers have been established, it follows that they are not legitimate rulers who by force or deceit usurp that authority which by no right belongs to them… Of such tyrants there are two kinds: for some, in violation of the laws laid down and received, usurp tyranny over their fellow-citizens… Others however, not content with that absolute power which they rightfully acquire over their own people, extend their dominions at the cost of their neighbors’ liberty and increase them by means of fortified boundary-lines; for this reason have monarchies ever since the origin of the world achieved such wide dominions; of this the sacred writings offers us an example in Nimrod… it was a true remark which the captive pirate dared to utter when he was dragged before Alexander; he declared that he differed in no way from (the king) but that the latter plundered the world with a multitude of ships whereas he did so with but a single vessel. (Question 5)
Self-Defense Against a Conqueror
Private citizens may defend themselves against any non-elected conqueror, whether foreign or domestic.
[I]f anyone strives to seize or has already usurped an unjust tyranny over others, whether he be a stranger or whether as a viper he leaps from the womb of his country that by his birth he may cause her death, then shall private citizens before all else approach their legitimate magistrates in order that it may be the public enemy he cast forth by the public authority and common consent of all. But if the magistrate connives (at the attempt) or in some way refuses to perform his duty, then let each private citizen bestir himself with all his power to defend the lawful constitution of his country, to whom after God he owes his entire existence, against him who cannot be deemed a lawful magistrate since he either has already usurped that rank in violation of the public laws or is endeavoring to usurp it. (Question 5)
[H]e who launches an attack upon those who are in no way subject to him… may lawfully be prevented even by force of arms and by any (citizens) soever, even of the humblest station, to whom he desired to do violence, since they are by no obligation bound to him. (Question 6)
Self-Defense Against Lesser Magistrates
Only magistrates have the authority to act in self-defense against other magistrates.
[I]f it were to happen (as happens only too frequently in our times) that one lower magistrate should undertake some act of violence against another against the express will of their superior, then I should assuredly say that the magistrate who had been wronged is, when he has first exhausted all legitimate and peaceful means, entitled to equip himself with the armor of the laws and to oppose unjust violence with a just defence as was done by Nehemiah against Sanballat and his associates. (Question 4)
Self-Defense Against a Tyrant
Three kinds of subjects… some are private citizens performing no duty of public administration… others [are] inferior magistrates… [others are] the bridles and reins to keep the supreme ruler to his duty.
Private citizens may not defend themselves from a lawfully elected ruler.
Private citizens may not offer resistance to their lawful ruler who is a tyrant… [N]o private citizen is entitled on his own private authority to oppose the tyrant with violence against violence, but that it in every way behooves him either to depart from the realm of that (ruler) and change his domicile or to bear the yoke of the tyrant patiently by taking refuge with God in prayer…
[H]e who has once been approved and accepted by his people, though he abuse his right, yet retains the basis of his authority as against his own private subjects, since an obligation entered upon publicly and by mutual consent cannot be dissolved and broken by the will of any private citizen. For were this otherwise, endless disorders, worse even than tyranny itself, would ensue, and in the place of a single tyrant whom it might be our intention to cast down, a thousand would succeed. Furthermore, a single reason derived from the authority of the Word of God should here be of greater weight than anything else that could be adduced to the contrary. St. Paul in prescribing their duty to men in private station not merely forbids them to resist their rulers (supreme rulers as well as subordinate) but enjoins us to obey them also for conscience sake…
I maintain that no one in private station is allowed to set himself in open violence against a tyrant to whose domination the people of its own free will previously consented; for if we must so far abide by private contracts, pacts, agreements and undertakings that we suffer damage rather than break our word, how much more should private citizens be on their guard lest they in any way refuse to honor an obligation entered upon by a solemn and public agreement?…
[P]rivate citizens, unless they have authority from a subordinate magistrate or the saner part of the Estates, concerning which more is discussed shortly, here have no other just remedy but reflection combined with patience and prayers which God will assuredly not always reject and without which all other remedies however legitimate will be subject to His curse. (Question 6)
Lesser magistrates may defend themselves and private citizens, but they may not punish the tyrant.
[T]he obligation between the king and the officials of the kingdom is mutual and that not the entire administration of the kingdom is entrusted to the king alone but only the highest rank, and that the subordinate officials severally hold part of it each in accordance with his own rank, and that on fixed conditions on either side. If those conditions are not kept by the subordinate magistrates the supreme magistrate is entitled to discharge them…
In the contrary case, however, if he who has received the royal dignity either by being elected thereto or by hereditary right openly departs from those conditions under which he was expressly recognized and approved as king, who would be inclined to doubt that the subordinate magistrates of the kingdom and further the very provinces also and the cities whose administration has been entrusted to them are automatically (ipso iure) free from their oath… [W]ould it not be just according to all law, diving and human, that by reason of the oath taken by them to ensure the observance of the laws, somewhat greater (liberty of action) should be granted to these subordinate magistrates than to those (citizens) who are of entirely private station and without any public office?… [W]e are not treating the tyrant who must be utterly thrust and cast down from his throne, but we are inquiring whether no one can and should in accordance with his rank set himself against his open violence (Question 6)
The Orders or Estates may and must punish and dethrone the tyrant.
The Orders or Estates, established to curb the supreme magistrates, can and should in every way offer resistance to them when they degenerate into tyrants… [N]o nation has either elected or approved kings without laying down specific conditions. And if those kings violate these the result is that those who had the power to confer this authority upon them have retained no less power again to divest them of that authority. [Beza provides historical examples from Rome, Athens, Sparta, Israel, Denmark, Sweden, Scotland, England, Poland, Venice, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and Gaul.] (Question 6)
[I]n all compacts and covenants which are contracted by mutual and sole agreement between the parties, those by whom the obligations were entered into, can of themselves cancel and annul it, whenever reason so demands. Accordingly those who possess authority to elect a king, will also have the right to dethrone him. (Question 6)
The purpose therefore of all that has been said above is as follows, namely that the highest authority rests with kings or other supreme rulers with this proviso that if they violate the nobelest laws and sworn conditions and degenerate into unabashed tyranny nor give heed to sound counsels, it shall be lawful and permitted to the subordinate magistrates to take precautions for themselves and for those over whom they exercise guardianship, and to offer resistance to the tyrant of the people. But the Estates or Orders of the realm upon whom this authority has been conferred by the laws, can and must so far oppose the tyrant and even, if need be, inflict just and deserved punishment upon him until matters have been restored to their former condition. (Question 6)
[E]ven in marriage also, if one party deserts the other, the Apostle proclaims the deserted party relieved of every obligation, because the deserter violates the principal condition of marriage. But let us imagine that someone declares himself willing to keep his wife with him and that he attempts to do so, yet if it becomes known that this man desires to have his wife in order to kill her or to remove her in some other way, will he not have to be regarded in the light of a manifest deserter (of his wife)? But assuredly the design of tyrants does not differ from his since they do not strive to have subjects in their power for any other reason but to persecute and crush them to their destruction while they indulge their own lusts; why therefore should the wielders of judicial authority not pronounce the same judgment over both? But if not even the canons of the Church consider that a wife who cannot safely live with her husband, should be compelled to live with him, why shall a subordinate magistrate not be allowed to take precautions on behalf of himself and his people and to have recourse to the Estates against a manifest tyrant? (Question 6)
Unless they can defend themselves upon the authority of some lawful subordinate magistrate or of the Estates of that nation, private persons must assuredly either go away until such time as a better light shall shine upon them, or bow their necks to the yoke while urgently asking God in constant prayer for patience and meantime proceeding under His chastisements. But it is the part of the subordinate magistrates (to protect against all) strenuously the good laws to whose defense they personally have sworn, each in accordance with the station he has obtained in the constitution of the community, and in general all should strive to prevent the laws and conditions upon which that constitution rests, from being undermined by any violence from without or from within. Finally, emperors, kings or other supreme rulers acquire the highest authority on the understanding that, if it should meanwhile become notorious that they rather plunder the territory of which they have undertaken the government, that cunningly and without self-control they set themselves against law and reason and wantonly break their sworn promises, they can and should be forced, compelled and brought to their duty even by armed force, if it cannot be otherwise, by those who upon special conditions have raised them to this high office. (Question 7)
I deny that the patience and gentleness which we require in Christians prevent a man from employing lawful remedies to repel an injury which is being done to him. It is certainly permissible to claim one’s property from an unjust possessor in court, and to lodge complaints with the supreme magistrate concerning the injustice of an inferior; why therefore by the same reasoning should it not be permissible to go to laws against a tyrant before the Estates? (Question 7)
Submission to Providence or Command?
[T]he will of God must be heeded to the extent that He Himself has deigned to reveal it to us; otherwise there would be no crime so heinous but what it could be imputed to the Divine will, since not even those events which are regarded as in the highest degree fortuitous occur by chance or accidentally. Hence it comes about that the man who meets with highway robbers, by whom no one is murdered without the consent of the will of God, has the power in accordance with the authority of the laws to resist them in just self-defense which incurs no blame because no one forsooth has (received) a special command from God that he meekly allow himself to be slain by robbers. Our conviction is entirely the same about that regular defense against tyrants which we are discussing. (Question 7)
Enforcement of True Religion
[T]he purpose of all well-ordered polities is not simply peace and quiet in this life, as some heathen philosophers have imagined, but the glory of God, towards which the whole present life of men should be directed, it therefore follows that those who are set over nations, ought to bring to bear all their zeal and all the faculties they have received from God to this end that the pure worship of God upon which His glory depends should in the highest degree be maintained and increased among the people over whom they hold sway. (Question 10)
True religion in a society is established by the Holy Spirit, but subsequently defended by the ruler by force.
It is one thing now for the first time to introduce religion into some part and another to preserve it when it has already been received somewhere or to wish to restore it when it has gone to ruin and has been buried as a result of the connivance or ignorance or malice of men. For I grant that initially it should be introduced and spread by the influence of the Spirit of God alone, and that by the Word of God (which is) suited to teaching, conviction and exhortation. For this is the particular task of the Holy Spirit which employs spiritual instruments.
It will therefore be the part of a pious ruler who wishes to entice his people away from idolatry and false superstitions to the true religion, to see to it in the first instance that they are instructed in piety by means of true and reliable argument, just as on the other hand it is in the part of the subjects to give their assent to truth and reason and readily to submit. Finally the ruler will be fully occupied in rendering the true religion secure by means of good and noble decrees against those who assail and resist it out of pure obstinacy, as we have seen done in our times in England, Denmark, Sweden, Scotland, and the greater part of Germany and Switzerland against the Papists, the Anabaptists and other heretics. (Question 10)
Enforcement of True Religion
The magisterial reformers employed a slight of hand on this issue. They argue first that a magistrate is necessary for the self-preservation of society and that all actions of a magistrate must conform to this purpose. The reason societies elect rulers over themselves is because they cannot otherwise defend themselves against violence. Then they argue that life is about more than just surviving. The chief end of man is to glorify God. That is true, but that is a different question. Why is a magistrate necessary? is not the same as What is the chief end of man? It is true that every man ought to “bring to bear all their zeal and all the faculties they have received from God to this end that the pure worship of God upon which His glory depends should in the highest degree be maintained and increased among the people over whom they hold sway,” but that does not answer whether a ruler has “received from God” any authority to repel false doctrine with violence. Beza argued the purpose of a magistrate is determined by its necessity (what it provides that private citizens need but cannot themselves provide) and its authority is limited by its purpose. Thus, the question is, can true religion “be maintained and increased” without a magistrate, or is a magistrate necessary for true religion to “be maintained and increased”?
The strange answer from the magisterial reformers (see Rutherford here) is that true religion can be first introduced and increased “by the influence of the Spirit of God alone… which employs spiritual instruments” but it cannot be preserved without the magistrate. The enforcement of true religion is thus cast in terms of self-defense. Once the true religion has been established in a nation, it must be defended by violence against false worship. But a distinction between the introduction of true religion by the Holy Spirit and the subsequent defense of it by force is not found anywhere in Scripture. Neither Jesus or the Apostles ever used force to defend Christianity. Rather “though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” – which means that violence is not necessary to defend and maintain Christianity. Appeal is made, of course, to Israel. But Israel was established by violence in the conquest of Canaan. It was violent from beginning to end and did not first require a nonviolent establishment, as Beza says is necessary.
It took a while, but eventually reformed theologians started realizing their error. Increase Mather, who initially agreed with Beza and put it into practice in New England, upon later reflection said “A good subject has a title to all temporal possessions and enjoyments, before he is a Christian; and it looks odd, that a man should forfeit his title, upon his embracing the faith.”
Private Citizen’s Right to Self-Defense
Beza’s argument for denying a private citizen the right of self-defense is very weak. He was trying to 1) make sense of Romans 13’s command to be subject to rulers, and 2) distance the reformation from the violent, radical Anabaptist revolutions. But his reasoning is self-contradictory. He says private citizens have authority to exercise self defense against a conqueror they did not elect, but they must submit to a tyrant’s killing because they swore an oath to obey him. But he also says the compact was mutual and conditional. Thus if the ruler breaks the agreement, the private citizens no longer owe him their obedience. Later reformed theologians recognized the inconsistency. Sir James Stewart expressed the Scottish reformed understanding when he said “by vertue of this mutual compact, the Subjects, have jus against the King, a Right in law to pursue him for performance… For it is absurd to say, that in a mutual conditional compact, one party shall still be bound to performe his conditions, though the other performeth none” [p. 112, 117 Jus Populi Vindicatum, or The People’s Right, to defend themselves and their Covenanted Religion, vindicated (1669), quoted in Beisner, E. Calvin His Majesty’s advocate : Sir James Stewart of Goodtrees (1635-1713) and Covenanter resistance theory under the Restoration monarchy, p. 187]. Continental reformed political philosopher Johannes Althusius said
[N]o realm or commonwealth has ever been founded or instituted except by contract entered into one with the other, by covenants agreed upon between subjects and their future prince, and by an established mutual obligation that both should religiously observe. When this obligation is dishonored, the power of the prince loses its strength and is ended [Althusius, Politica (Latin), 19.15. quoted in Beisner p. 185] …
In this election . . . certain laws and conditions concerning subjection, and the form and manner of the future imperium, are proposed to the prospective magistrate . . . . If he accepts these laws, and swears to the people to observe them, the election is considered firm and settled. This agreement entered into between magistrate and people is known as a mutually binding obligation. [19.29. quoted in Beisner p. 185] …
If this condition [ruling justly and dutifully] is lacking, the people no longer are obligated to obey. Moreover, the chain of this obligation is dissolved by that one, who first withdraws from the agreements, who therefore loses every right acquired by the agreement, that the other may become free: For the obligation vanishes and is held for nothing, when its essential conditions, on account of which it was concluded, are violated. [38.32. quoted in Beisner p. 185] …
When he abuses his power, he ceases to be king and a public person, and becomes a private person. If in any way he proceeds and acts notoriously or wickedly, any one may resist him [18.95 quoted in Beisner, p. 117]
Thus Beza’s argument that “Private citizens may not offer resistance to their lawful ruler who is a tyrant” is an oxymoron. If a ruler is a tyrant then he is not a lawful ruler and has no right to be obeyed. He is merely a private citizen committing violence against other private citizens. Roger A. Mason referred to this as the “explosive doctrine of single-handed tyrannicide.” [Roger A. Mason, ‘People Power? George Buchanan on Resistance and the Common Man’, in Robert von Friedeburg, ed., Widerstandsrecht in der frühen Neuzeit, in Zeitschrift für Historische Forschung, beiheft 26 (2001), 163–81, at 179. Quoted in Beisner, p. 115] Rutherford summarized the view, saying
[T]he royal dignity doth not advance a king above the common condition of men, and the throne maketh him not leave off to be a man, and a man that can do wrong; and therefore as one that doth manifest violence to the life of a man, though his subject, he may be resisted with bodily resistance, in the case of unjust and violent invasion. [Rutherford, Lex, Rex, Q.XXXII]
If I give my sword to my fellow to defend me from the murderer, if he shall fall to and murder me with my own sword, I may (if I have strength) take my sword from him. [Q.XXXII]