Political Resistance in the Sixteenth Century

For some time I have been working on the paraphrase of John Ponet’s 1556 work, A Short Treatise of Political Power. I have decided to release it in installments on my weblog for accountability and feedback. Nothing can replace Ponet’s original words which must either be obtained in facsimile, or in e-books that contain many errors in attempting to eliminate archaisms. In this paraphrase I am attempting to present his ideas in contemporary language, yet with a view to literary and historical context. Ponet, like many authors of his day, was fond of redundant words and phrases to amplify and emphasize his point. I maintain redundancy only when their appearance produce a hybrid thought. This manuscript is in draft form only and will certainly be subject to further revision. Even if you don’t normally like political literature, please read the following and let me know what you think.

John Ponet died in 1556 at the young age of 40. He graduated from Cambridge with a Master of Arts at 19, and was ordained a priest at 20. He was an outstanding mathematician and astronomer and is credited with having constructed the famous sundial which is still on display at Queens’ College, Cambridge (read about it at “Reading the dial at Old Court”) and created a copy of it that may still be seen at Hampton Court palace. An edgy Protestant who did research for Thomas Cranmer, he was not only an early advocate of clerical marriage, but got married even before priests were allowed to do so legally in England. Nevertheless, he found favor during the brief reign of Edward VI and was appointed a bishop twice. In 1551 he was consecrated Bishop of Winchester, replacing the formidable Catholic Stephen Gardiner. When Edward died and Mary Tudor ascended to the throne, he joined the throng of English Protestants who fled to the continent, and ended up in Strasbourg in 1553. He wrote the work that follows in 1556, and it was published just before his death. In A Short Treatise of Political Power he speaks about the legitimacy of Christian resistance to unjust rule. Catholic historians have vilified him, but John Adams credited his foresight as one who elucidated “all the essential principles of liberty.” Following is a paraphrase of his most important work, rendered in twenty-first-century English.


To the discerning reader:

You will be encouraged by what you are about to read. There is nothing heretical, criminal, or treasonous in this short book. Nevertheless, everything in it is thoughtfully presented for your benefit with needed advice and wise instruction. As publisher, I must tell you that I am not completely sure whether the author of the work is still alive as the book goes to print, but the subject is so timely, the work so vitally important, and the style so carefully crafted by this man who so fervently loves his country, that I am proud to be able to make it available to the public. All the author’s thoughtful work should be available during these difficult days. That is why I am publishing it, though how and whether the public receives its pointed words is beyond my control. I would hope that there are still many true Englishmen who care about the condition of their country and the welfare of future generations who will welcome its contribution.

My prayer for you, good reader, is that God will eventually allow you the discernment to examine your own heart, and the grace to trust Christ as an uncertain future unfolds. Amen.

Chapter One: The Origin, Intention, and Dispensation of Political Power

No one expects domesticated cattle or sheep to run the farm they live on. Farm animals cannot reason. They have to be managed by the farmer, who has the ability to reason because he is a human being. Now just because the farmer has the ability to reason does not undo the fact that he—like all members of humankind—has incredibly warped analytical powers due to the fall of the first man, Adam. The obvious enslavement to sinful passions that skews the discernment of the human being makes it easier to see what is abundantly true, fall or no fall: Man, the creature, himself needs someone less impaired to manage him. That is, people by themselves cannot rule for themselves in a reasonable way.

In days gone by some people deceived themselves into thinking that they were sovereign because they had the ability to reason. They thought they could do whatever they wanted, when they wanted, in the public sphere as well as in their private lives. Some went so far as to propose that the possession of Reason explained why human beings formed communities and commonwealths in the first place and why well-governed states of a past “golden age” lasted as long as they did. The problem was that their theories about Reason being some sort of key to good people management never panned out. Whenever they tried to imitate these classical models their idealism quickly crumbled like a dry biscuit.

The wisdom and ability of the ancient Greeks, Iberians, and Romans, formidable as it was, could not keep their institutions from disintegrating. The traces they left behind have abundantly testified to the fact that they existed. But all their artifacts are less a testimony to their glory than to the inescapable conclusion that all their indomitable reason failed to produce an ideal state. If someone wants a perfect governor, he or she must look beyond his or her own reason to discover that only God is that perfect ruler. As Augustine said, “In him we live, and move, and have our being.” He made us; we did not make ourselves. And as the psalmist explains, “we are his people and the sheep of his pasture (Psalm 100:3).” He made everything for humankind, and human beings he made for himself, so that they might serve and glorify him. God alone has taken upon himself the order and government of humankind, his highest creature, and set down rules of conduct for our behavior and what we may and may not do.

The law of nature is the bedrock of commonwealth

God put these rules we call the law of nature in the minds of people prior to the ruination that came with the fall. God wrote this rule in summary form in the Ten Commandments, which number Christ reduced to just two: love God and love others. Jesus explained what it meant to love others when he said, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them (Matthew 7:12).”

The law of nature is all about justice. It tells us how to serve God and strikes the proper balance in dealing with different kinds of people. It is the bedrock of every commonwealth. It is the standard against which the deeds of every person, whether she be queen or beggar, good or evil, are measured. It is also the standard by which every human law will be judged to be just or unjust, godly or wicked. Allow me to give you an example of how pervasively the law of nature stands in judgment of human law: Suppose in their creativity certain legislators make a law that decrees only pins manufactured domestically may be used within the borders of their country—I know, I know, this seems trivial, but let’s say they did it because pinmaking is the dominant trade or industry of the country, and that domestic pinmakers are in pitched competition with their foreign pinmaking counterparts. If making this law helps prevent the people of a nation from becoming lazy loafers it is a good law and pleasing to God because refusing to work honestly is a violation of clear commands from God: You shall not steal; you shall not kill; you shall not solicit a prostitute, and so on—all these ugly vices grow out of avoiding honest work. Now, on the other hand, suppose that they made this law despite the fact that their own economy was diversified. Making pins only represented a small cadre of workers in the law-making country, while the workers of a neighboring country depended upon the importation of their pins into the former country for their own survival. The law of the former country was just a mean-spirited design to cut off the latter country as a trading partner, thus wrecking their economy. The same law in the second circumstance would be both wicked and unjust because stealing the means for a neighbor to make a living is a violation of the command to love your neighbor. Further, it violates Christ’s command to do to others as you would wish them to do to you. Any law designed to starve a neighbor is wrong from the get-go because we would not want to be subjected to starvation ourselves.

In the same way, a law that prohibits a man with a promiscuous past from marrying a woman would also be a bad law because one of the purposes of marriage is to present an opportunity for a person to avoid continued sinning (1 Corinthians 7:9, 36). What kind of law would encourage a struggling person to fornicate or commit adultery? That would be contrary to the moral will of God expressed in the commandment, “You shall not commit adultery”? It would be an entirely unjust law.

Here is another example that helps us identify an unjust law: Suppose a ruler forcibly “requests” his subjects to lend him something he needs, which they grudgingly agree to do because they are afraid of the worst he might do to them. Now suppose this same ruler creates a parliament made up of legislators who were not among those who made the loan, but who are equally afraid to cross the ruler. Just to mollify him the MPs create a law that says the ruler does not have to pay back the debt he owes to the lenders. This would be another wicked, ungodly, and unjust law! And why? Because the MPs did not act in such a way as they would like to have done to them. Instead, out of cowardice, they destroyed the living of numerous people, starving their children and forcing their employees to resort to theft, and perhaps even murder, in order to survive. Here again is the rule God has made: Love God and love others, and do to others as you would wish to be done to you. If this is kept in mind one will soon learn to distinguish between good and evil, godliness from ungodliness, and right from wrong.

But it is also clear that no one who violates the commandments and golden rule can claim ignorance or be excused. Further consideration will show that the law of nature is inherent.

Corporal punishment begat political power

It was not until after the world was destroyed by the Great Flood that physical punishment was prescribed for violations of the law. Even though Cain and Lamech had committed horrible murders they received no capital punishment, rather they actually received protection from God so that no one could lawfully harm them. But all that changed after the Flood, with the new policy coming about because God’s creatures could not be persuaded to do the right things by his gentleness and patience alone. Right up to the Flood sinful behavior was the norm and mayhem increased as murder and mischief increased. So God made severity the order and added corporal punishment to the penalty for those who refused to obey his commands. He made this law which he announced to Noah after the waters receded: ““Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image (Genesis 9:6).”

It was by this ordinance and law he established political power and he gave men authority to make more laws. He it was who gave humans authority over the body and life of a human being because he wanted them to live peaceably with one another. Peace was requisite to permit all to the possibility of living in holiness and righteousness during their time on earth. At the same time, he gave human governors authority over material possessions, the very things that tended to breed strife and distracted people from serving God as he required. But that is not all. The ordinance also required something of those who legislate new laws: do not allow subjective emotion to distract from making sure that the “punishment fits the crime.” For example, do not punish an innocent person or small offender you have a grudge against while you let the major felon escape because he is likeable. This same ordinance is the basis for the authority of the magistrate to enforce the law. A law that cannot be enforced is as worthless as a bell without a clapper. At the same time, it is not specified whether the legislative and executive functions are concentrated in one person or divided among many. Monarchy or multiarchy is a determination left up to the People, who are permitted to determine in a given circumstance how best to maintain the state. The Israelites were content with the laws Moses established, just as the Spartans were with those of Lycurgus, and the Athenians with the laws made by Solon. In Rome, the laws were made by ten men, while in others a crowd had to assent. In the same way, in some countries people were content to be governed where laws were enforced by a single ruler. In some, the laws were enforced by nobles while others by the common people. In still others kings, nobles, and commoners had to work together to see that the ordinances were enforced.
Different forms of government but one goal: maintenance of justice

There are different names for these kinds of states. A monarchy is a state where one person rules. An aristocracy is ruled by a number of the “best” citizens. The multitude of people rule in a democracy, and a state where monarch, nobles, and commoners share the load of governance is a mixed state, which has long been held to be the best form based on its track record. Commonwealths that have a mixed form of governance have proved to have the greatest longevity.

Now all these kinds of states have the same end in view: maintain justice to every citizen’s benefit and not just that of the ruling classes. Historically, every time rulers abused their authority for their own narrow advantage the form of governance changed. For example, the Israelites changed from the rule of judges to a king when the inappropriate behavior of the judge Samuel’s children was discovered. The Romans changed forms numerous times. First, Tarquin’s public oppressions and personal lewdness caused the Romans to turn from having a king forever. As first they switched to consuls, then from consuls to ten rulers and later from ten to three until eventually they arrived at an imperial government, though the people retained their ultimate authority. For even though these pagans had but the law of nature within and their own deficient reason they could plainly see that without political power (meaning here justice that benefits all) humankind could not survive. They feared that each special interest would seek its own benefit even if it meant the suffering of others: the rich person would oppress the poor man, and because of his envy the poor man would seek to wipe out the one who had wealth. The strong person would crush the weakling as Theodoretus said, “The big fish gobbles up the small fry.” The weak person would seethe with revenge toward the strong. In short, without political power everyone would be devoted to the cause of destroying one another, until all order was wiped out and chaos ensued.

Authority to uphold justice comes from God

The pagans recognized that the authority to write and to enforce laws was necessary to prevent anarchy. What they were not aware of was that this authority came from God, and the reason he called them “gods” in Psalm 82:6 with a small g was not that they were actually gods, or even transformed into gods (because after all they behaved like finite people and died like mortals). No, he was underlining the fact that the earthly authority they had been given to serve as governors came from God, and thus the governed should honor and obey them as his representative ministers of justice just as they were commanded.

And it should not escape our notice that wherever God’s Word has been embraced and as a result the people determined to follow God, this tyrannical abuse of power has not been tolerated. Each individual within the body did what God’s Word told them to do in loving their neighbor as themselves. They sought the prosperity of their neighbor because that is how they would want to be treated themselves. Taking the Word seriously has this sort of effect on people: they end up loving one another, having been blinded to their differences. And it is God who watched over them, proposing and disposing their rulers to prevent them from oppressing any members of the body. This was similar to the system of the Spartans in setting up watchdogs called Ephori whose purpose was to make sure neither of the two kings abused their power. Likewise the Romans had their tribunes who were sworn to defend and maintain the liberties of the people from the potential abuses of the nobility. Those who live in countries that have a Christian influence had this sort of check and balance spelled out in the Word of God that rulers would not be allowed to oppress the poor and bend the law to serve their selfish purposes. There are examples from several countries of Christendom. In Germany, the Diet is the buffer between the Emperor and the people. In France, as in England, royal power is checked by a parliament made up of people of various backgrounds who work in concert to make sure that nothing can be done without the knowledge and consent of all.

What happens to those who abuse power?

On the other hand, wherever people have turned their backs on God the devil’s minions have taken over and subverted equal justice. A prime example of this is Turkish-occupied Hungary where the people have not utterly given up on God’s Word, but are growing increasingly weary of the good fight. Hungary is a place that did not become a tyranny overnight, but allowed despotism to chip away at the commonwealth little by little until liberty disappeared completely. This sort of thing should be so self-evident that there should not be any need to persuade the reader by further examples. Every concerned Christian should beware lest in forsaking God they invite the devil and his tyrants, who adore injustice, to rule over them. The danger is real and there are serious consequences.

Even pursuing desirable ends through dishonest means is unacceptable. It sidesteps trust in God’s justice and promotes a dangerous independence. No wonder our ancestors considered those who adopted this approach to be crooked. They demanded that such underhanded people should make reparations and be exposed as unfit for the calling of honest people in the same way a common thief would be. This was no flippant opinion of theirs, but was arrived at through careful thought and the counsel of community. Look, no one can be an expert in every matter and this is by nature’s design. It works out well because it perpetuates our need for others—we cannot make it on our own and are glad to help others who ask of us—and joins us together as friends. This is what makes acting as if the ends justified the means so deplorable: it destroys the two most important virtues without which human society would come to a screeching halt. Those virtues are faith and friendship.

It violates faith. No one wants anything from someone who he or she believes is not friendly toward him or her. No one trusts a person they consider to be unfaithful. Our ancestors thought it was inhuman to deceive someone who trusted you. Now if that is considered inhuman, how much worse is it for someone to deceive not just one trusting soul, but thousands of people in the body politic? This is just what these expedient dodgers do who pretend to help others but are really craving power. They are trusting only in themselves by buying votes, using people to get what they want, piling up references, dropping names as they rub shoulders with celebrities and feting them with free food and drink. They don’t seek consensus and if they must they will even use force of arms to bend others to their will. Yes, if we harshly judge an unfaithful friend in a small matter, what should we do with these power-hungry folks who harm those who trusted them with their lives and goods, and those of their families? And if we harshly judge these despots for craving power and possessions, how much more harshly should we judge those who sell out to the devil for the mere privilege of powering over others for a short time while they live? And if the people cry out and punish these people, how much more do you think God will harshly judge them that abuse the authority he granted them and deceive God’s people who trusted them as servants of God?

Listen up while there is still time to repent. Listen to their sentence according to the prophet Isaiah (10:1-4a):
Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees,
and the writers who keep writing oppression,
to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be their spoil,
and that they may make the fatherless their prey!
What will you do on the day of punishment,
in the ruin that will come from afar?
To whom will you flee for help,
and where will you leave your wealth?
Nothing remains but to crouch among the prisoners
or fall among the slain.
This woe is not only spoken to Jerusalem, but to Germany, Italy, France, Spain, England, Scotland, and every country where similar abuses may be committed. God is just and hates sin and will deal with it wherever it appears, but the more pervasive it becomes the greater the force he employs to quash it. He certainly dealt with Sodom and Gomorrah this way, but he dealt similarly with his beloved Jerusalem, the city of the King! Yes, he reserves special judgment for those who abuse political power, not only to humiliate them before those they have deceived, but to sear their negative example in the remembrance of future generations.

It may be that some of those whom God has put in a position to make and enforce laws would say, “We didn’t mean to insult God, or harm our country, or deceive those who trusted us. If disaster followed our efforts it was due to ignorance rather than malice.” Well, what do you think? What if you hired a trained shepherd to guard your sheep and due to his ignorance the wolf killed them all? Or, what if you pay good money for a competent horse whisperer to care for your horse and due to his negligence the horse dies? Do you think ignorance should be a reason to excuse these employees? Of course not. After all, we can agree that they accepted their contract and they were paid. At minimum, they should be forced to make retribution. Beyond that, it would not be unreasonable to prefer criminal charges against them so that other unwary stockmen might be protected from any further acts of deceit. How much more accountable then should those people be whom the people trust to make laws to the glory of God, and to the preservation of their liberties and way of life? How much more serious a matter is the conduct of those who are appointed to be keeper of God’s people—not hogs, horses, or mules—but those whom Christ delivered by his death? They are not merely “keepers.” They are physicians of the body politic who are prepared to redress, reform, and heal if anything is sick. If any medical student becomes a doctor for the money, but takes his oath and yet through lack of knowledge or an evil impulse decides to harm, or even kill, rather than to heal his patient would we hesitate to treat him as the murderer that he is?

Again, some one of these might say. “I listened to the advice of others, but they deceived us.” This is a lame excuse. Didn’t you expect to fall into a ditch if you, the blind, were led by the blind? God didn’t cut Eve any slack when she complained that the serpent deceived her. No, she not only got pain in childbirth (some say a fate worse than death!), but all her daughters to the present day experience the same curse.

Others might say, “I merely carried out orders from above, and if I had crossed my superiors they would not only have made my life hell, but would have ruined me financially and thus deprived my children.” Did you parents subject you to as much danger as you subject your children to by such cowardice? Father Adam said, “I couldn’t cross my wife!” Did this unacceptable objection serve Adam when he stood by and allowed Eve to eat the fruit, even though he himself knew God had forbidden it? Did he justify himself when he blamed “the woman who you (God) gave me”? No. Instead we continue to suffer from the consequences of his disobedience.

Like Aaron, who blamed the Israelites for forcing him to craft the golden calf, one might say, “Hey, don’t blame me. It is all the fault of those stupid people who forced me to act against my better judgment.” Fortunately, Aaron repented and took responsibility for his own idolatry. However, there doesn’t seem to be any repentance on the horizon for those hellions who have reestablished the Mass in England for fear of the brutes, and under pretense of obeying Queen Mary’s instructions.
So far we have seen where political power comes from and how it should be properly used. We have also considered what will come of those who are charged with making and enforcing laws, but who fail in their duty. The following sums up what God says to those who enforce the laws: “Consider what you do, for you judge not for man but for the LORD. (2 Chronicles 19:6),” and “For with the measure you use it shall be measured back to you (Luke 6:38).” Always consider your accountability to God and persevere in doing what is right. God does not tolerate sin; He does not prefer one person over another; He is not pleased with bribery.

We have spoken of God, but we have more to say about lawmakers and human governors.

[ Chapter Two is next: “Do rulers have absolute power over the ones ruled? [LA]]