Posts Tagged ‘Erasmus’

Christianity and the Origins of Democracy – the Sixteenth Century: Part 4

August 13, 2008

View of John Knox that Princes and the People themselves have a Right and Duty to Depose an Unjust Monarch Preventing the Establishment of True Religion

In his view of the relationship between the king and his subjects, Calvin allowed that unjust rulers could be deposed by the inferior magistrates, but stressed the subject’s duty to obey established authority, even when it was corrupt. John Knox, however, believed that the aristocracy and the estates also had their authority granted by God, and so had the right and duty to defend the innocent, punish criminals and establish proper religion. If the monarch refused to allow religion to be reformed, and the true faith to be established, then it was the duty of the aristocracy and the estates to depose them. If the aristocracy and estates refused to do this, then it was the duty of the people themselves to reform the church, a view he addressed directly to the people themselves in his Letter to the Commonalty. This view, that the people themselves had the right and duty to rebel against their social superiors when they were unjust and prevented the proper establishment of true religion, was immensely radical in an age when government and politics was viewed as the exclusive activity of princes and aristocrats, to whom the masses of ordinary people should be loyal and obey, but who were otherwise excluded from government and their political participation was viewed with suspicion and distrust.

View of Goodman that Kings Owed their Power to the People, and so can Depose Unjust Monarchs

Knox was not alone in his views, however. The English Calvinist, Christopher Goodman, stated in his book, How Superior Powers ought to be obeyed of their subjects; wherein they may lawfully by God’s word be disobeyed and resisted, published in Geneva in 1558 that kings owed their power and their authority to their acceptance as kings by their people, and that ordinarily they should be respected. Like Knox, he also believed that the aristocracy was ordained by God to defend their nation’s true religion, laws and prosperity and to act to limit and restrain the king’s power. Kings were also God’s subjects, and like everyone else they were obliged to work to the best of their ability in their vocation. If they abused their position, they could be deposed and punished. This was not just the duty of the aristocracy, but also of ordinary people, who are required to reform the church if the king and aristocracy refuse to do so.

View of Ponet that God Established Government for Human Welfare, but Form of the Government Left to Humanity to Decide

Another Protestant exile from the reign of Mary Tudor in England, John Ponet, also believed in and expounded the right of the subjects themselves to overthrow an oppressive monarch. Ponet had been bishop of Rochester and Winchester during the Reign of Edward VI before he sought refuge in Strasbourg after Mary’s accession, publishing his treatise on government, A Shorte Treatise of Politicke Power in 1556. Unlike Mariana and Buchanan, for example, who believed that government arose out of humanity’s natural inclination for company and co-operation, or the need for protection from aggression when in the primeval phase of human existence, Ponet believed that humanity was too corrupt to govern itself through reason. He attributed the belief that it was possible to the ancient pagans, and considered that history demonstrated that they had been wrong. Ponet believed that human actions should be guided by divine law, which is the law of nature. However, humans did not obey law unless coerced, and so God had created political power for humanity’s benefit, granting humanity the power to legislate for itself and enforce such legislation with appropriate punishment, including execution. God did not, however, specify which form of government humans were to adopt. That was left to humanity itself. God did not grant authority to only one individual, but to the community, as a co-operative association based on the reciprocal need of each individual for every other. It was the community that maintained justice and general welfare.

View that Best Form of Government Mixed Government of Monarchy, Aristocracy and Democracy, and that Power of Monarch Limited by Constitution and God’s Law

Ponet did not believe that any people could sensibly give unlimited power to a prince, and so considered the best form of government to be a mixed constitution where sovereignty was shared between the prince and a parliamentary assembly. England, France and Germany were all ruled by this form of government. Even those monarchs who ruled without a parliamentary assembly were subject to constitutional limits to their authority. They were bound by God’s law, and so could only legislate on relatively unimportant matters. Furthermore, Ponet urged that people should not automatically accept legislation that was merely human in origin. Laws must be considered and obeyed on their own merits, and not because of the authority of the people who had passed them. While people owed kings their love and loyalty, their first loyalty was to God, then their country and only afterwards to the monarch. He regarded princes as merely members of the commonwealth, which could exist without them. He stated that princes were liable unjustly to seize their subject’s property as their own, alter the coinage and raise taxes, political conduct that Ponet declared to be mere brigandage. They did not hold of themselves their kingdom, but simply had it in stewardship. Under the law of nature, people had the right to depose and execute oppressive rulers and tyrants, and so the community had the ability to withdraw the authority it had granted to the prince. While this should be done by the community as a whole, private assassination was justified in some circumstances.

Demands for Religious Toleration for Roman Catholics and Protestants by Edwin Sandys in England

Apart from the ability of the subject or citizen to take part in the process of making political decision, one of the great pillars of modern democracy is freedom of conscience. While both Roman Catholics and Protestants in the Sixteenth century generally wished to suppress each others’ religions through force, there was also a profound desire amongst many Christians for unity and toleration in Christendom. Edwin Sandys, a son of the Archbishop of York and pupil of Richard Hooker, in his A Relation of the State of Religion, criticised the intolerance of both Roman Catholics and Protestants. Both Roman Catholics and Protestants were Christians, and shared the same fundamental beliefs and doctrines that were the essence of Christianity. The doctrinal points that divided them could never be decided for certain. Thus, he felt, that Roman Catholics and Protestants should respect each other, and that the unity of Christendom could be restored through the establishment of a European church based on the Christian doctrines held by both Roman Catholic and Protestant. This was to be done either by a general council, which would impose its authority on the Pope and other participants in the controversy, or by the princes, though he did not feel that they could be trusted to put this into action. In order to put an end to religious disunity and conflict, Sandys wished to prohibit the claims to superiority by the various sects and faiths in Christendom. Instead of persecuting the various Christian sects, governments should instead force them to respect each other. He did not, however, believe that anti-Christian opinions should be tolerated, and so did not advocate modern concepts of secular democracy.

Demands for Toleration of Roman Catholics and Protestants in France by Politiques

The Politiques in France had expressed similar views rather earlier. They were mostly Roman Catholics, but also some Protestants, who regarded with horror the devastation, caused by the Wars of Religion, and felt that the only way to save France from further carnage and destruction was through negotiation and peace with the Huguenots. A 1574 pamphlet described the suffering inflicted on all classes in France by the War, and called for the Huguenots to join a states-general to bring about peace and save France from further destruction. Other pamphlets noted the moral damage the wars had caused, and the way they had discredited Christianity as a whole. The Huguenot writer La Noue declared that the wars had created a million libertines and Epicureans, while other writers stated that religious persecution had not suppressed heresy, but created only atheists. They argued strongly that the only way for states to survive and prosper was by tolerating two religions, and that the state should be above any specific religion. They also strongly argued that the existence of two religions in a country did not necessarily produce civil conflict or disunity, a point of view shared by Henry of Navarre himself. The Politiques were extremely sceptical about the claims of the Churches to possess the sole religious truth, but believed strongly that Roman Catholics and Protestants shared the same, basic, fundamental points of Christian doctrine. Thus the toleration of both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism did not threaten the Christian nature of civil society, which was based on the fundamental Christian principles held in common by both Roman Catholic and Protestant. In 1590 the pamphlet Le Pacifique attempted to demonstrate the agreement between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism on fundamental doctrinal points in the form of a dialogue between a Roman Catholic and Protestant, who discover that the share the same basic Christian beliefs.

Demands for Religious Toleration by Sebastien Castillion

Similar views on toleration were held and strongly argued by the humanist Sebastien Castellion and Giacomo Contio, or Acontius. In his De Haereticis an sint persequandi of 1542-5, possibly written with a little assistance from Lelio Sozini, who held Unitarian views, and Martin Borrhee, and his Contra libellum Calvini, written in response to Calvin’s participation in the execution of Michael Servetus for heresy in Geneva, De Arte Dubitandi, the Four Dialogues of 1578, and the Conseil a la France desolee of 1562, Castellion argued for religious toleration. In the De Haereticis he attempted to support his arguments by quotations from some of the early Church Fathers and contemporary theologians and religious authorities such as Luther, Erasmus and Calvin himself. He considered that because there were points of doctrine that could not be decided for certain, all that could be required of people is that they attempt to understand the Word of God and follow it according to their conscience. Castellion felt that Christianity consisted in the knowledge that Christ was the Son of God and that his teachings were divine. He did not believe that religion lay in either ceremonies or beliefs that people could not understand, and firmly stated that Scripture did not support the persecution of those of different religious opinions. One defended religion not by killing for it, but by suffering death. He did, however, believe that the government had the right to punish those who denied the resurrection, the immortality of the soul and the authority of the government, though they should not be executed.

Demands for Complete Freedom of Conscience by Acontius

Acontius was a military engineer who had been employed by Pescara in Milan and Queen Elizabeth in England. In his Strategematum Satanae of 1565 he argued that most people formed their beliefs without the guidance of either reason or God, simply accepting tradition or the opinions of the mass of people around them. They are intolerant of others, partly because they cannot bear to accept that their beliefs may be wrong. He argued that religious controversy and wars were Satan’s way of causing trouble and destruction on Earth. He believed that there were a few basic beliefs necessary for salvation, but that most of Christian doctrine was simply speculation without any real value. He argued that only those doctrines that affected human conduct on Earth had any value. Magistrates had no power to punish heresy, not just because they had no power themselves to do so, but also because there was so much difference in opinion between the Churches on what was heretical that they too had little authority to make such decisions. He believed that there should be absolute freedom of religion, and that people came to the truth through doubt and free inquiry and discussion. For Acontius, those who undoubtedly possessed extremely heretical doctrines should be punished merely with excommunication, which should be a source of regret rather than anger and hatred.

Contribution of Christian Humanists to Education and their Stress on Tolerance and Dialogue rather than Conflict

Another fundamental pillar of democracy is the belief in the value of education, and that a just society and good government must be based on informed, educated opinion. In this area too the Christian humanists of the 16th century made a profound contribution. Erasmus believed that humans could be assisted to become good as they possessed free will, though this free will itself had to be aided in its turn by God’s grace. The human will could be directed towards goodness through religious devotion and learning. For Erasmus, if princes were educated according to humanist principles, the result would be a good society where princes ruled justly and, following Christ, established peace instead of war. As a result, he and other humanists, such as John Colet in England, established schools and academies. Their influence on the aristocracy was profound. Although their political ideas of a just society was Utopian, their idea of an educated aristocracy informed by humanist culture nearly became reality, so that after the mid-sixteenth century even minor members of the nobility had libraries showing a wide variety of interests. 26 Moreover, Erasmus and his followers, although entirely orthodox Roman Catholics, stressed the importance of dialogue, toleration and the importance of settling matters peacefully, rather than resorting to force. Their stress on God’s love for humanity, rather than His judgement of their actions, influenced Reginald Pole, Contarini, Castellion and the Socinians, and his advocacy of a tolerant Christianity was immensely popular in Spain, especially amongst the Conversos, whose ancestors had converted to Christianity from Judaism to avoid expulsion and persecution. 27


Both View that Power of the Monarch Absolute and that Royal Power Limited by the Constitution and Sovereignty of the People existed in Sixteenth Century

Thus, although much of the political theory of the sixteenth century stressed the absolute power of the monarch and the duty of their subjects to obey them, there were also other political views, held and defended by both Roman Catholics and Protestants across Europe, that stressed instead the constitutional limits on monarchical power, the importance and role in government of representative assemblies and right and even duty of subjects to resist and depose unjust rulers. Political theorists, theologians and philosophers in England, Scotland, France, Geneva and Switzerland considered that governments had been established for the benefit of their peoples, not the rulers’, that societies and governments were based on contracts and covenants between their members, rulers and the Almighty, and that monarchs owed their power not to any personal virtue, but because the community delegated it to them. The power of the monarch was limited by the law of God and natural law. Princes and parliaments acted as constitutional checks to monarchs to prevent oppression, and who were also representatives of the community and so had a duty to protect their ancient rights. If kings exceeded the bounds of their authority or failed to establish true religion, they could be overthrown by the aristocracy and other leading governmental officials and institutions, or even by private citizens. These views were based on medieval political theory, contemporary interpretation of Scripture and the necessity amongst Roman Catholics and Protestants wishing to defend their religion and defeat and destroy their opponents of finding theoretical support for their resistance to persecution, oppression or the authorities’ failure to maintain the true faith.

Sixteenth Century also Period of Demonds for Religious Toleration, and Improvements in Education

Alongside these demands for political freedom were criticisms of both Roman Catholics and Protestants for their intolerance, and demands for an end to religious persecution and freedom of conscience amongst a very few individual political theorists. Furthermore, the Christian humanist belief that the human will could be formed and directed towards goodness through education led to the foundation of schools and libraries, and an attitude of tolerance and dialogue rather than violent coercion.

Influence of Demands for Constitutional Limits to Monarchy and Participation in Government of People and Representative Assemblies and Religious Toleration Limited in 16th Century, but had strong Influence in 17th Century England

The impact of these ideas was limited, however. Although princes in Poland, Hungary and elsewhere granted toleration to various Christian denominations and sects, this did not necessarily prevent them from acquiring increasing power over their tenants’ lives and properties, so that during the 16th century serfdom increased. In western Europe, in France, Germany and Spain political power became increasingly centralised in the monarch and representative institutions, such as the estates, declined in importance, eventually to produce the absolutist monarchies of the 18th century. Nevertheless, these doctrines continued to have an effect. The Vindiciae, although largely abandoned by the Huguenots shortly after its publication, influenced contemporary Dutch political ideas and considerably influenced English political theories in the 17th century. 28 Castellion’s demands for religious toleration influenced the radical theologian, Dirck Volckentzoon Coornhert. In turn, he influenced Arminius, who otherwise strongly opposed and argued against his theology. Arminius’ religious views strongly influenced British theology and political theories in the 17th century, during the British Civil War/ War of the Three Kingdoms. In England although it was not noticed at the time, claims such as Thomas Smith’s that it was parliament that really represented every individual in the country pointed towards the Civil War in the next century. 29 Thus, while Europe generally became more authoritarian following the sixteenth century, nevertheless the political theories stressing the constitutional limits on monarchical governments and the role of representative assemblies influenced the Netherlands and Britain, creating the ideas for greater religious and political freedom that were to appear in the 17th century and which found practical expression in the British Civil War/ War of the Three Kingdoms and the development of modern, political theories like John Locke’s.


  1. Koenigsberger and Mosse, Sixteenth Century, pp. 104-5.
  2. Koenigsberger and Mosse, Sixteenth Century, pp. 105-6.
  3. Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 331.
  4. Allen, History of Political Thought, p. 268.