6 July 2006 - Thursday

Thomas Aquinas on the right to resist

I think the one New Testament passage that has caused the most trouble for Christian political philosophers -- especially those who spend much time on the dangers of tyranny -- over the centuries, is Romans 13:1-7. These verses, addressed to a persecuted Christian minority in the first century, seem to command absolute submission to earthly rulers:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (ESV)
Many theologians have interpreted this as requiring Christians to submit to every governing official in every particular, refusing to obey only when commanded to commit a sin. Of course, this interpretation prohibits any form of organized resistance or revolution. This view is still influential; I have occasionally heard evangelical Christians discuss anxiously whether the American War for Independence was a violation of Romans 13. (I hasten to add that the War for Independence is nevertheless very popular among American evangelicals.)

Thomas Aquinas also addressed the questions raised by this passage. I think we can see how a medieval analysis like his, reconciling classical political theory with the New Testament, could be important to later Christian revolutionaries. In the 1500s, in fact, some of the more radical Protestants resorted to arguments the scholastics had been using for centuries, as an alternative to the original and highly inconvenient Lutheran condemnation of popular resistance. I am not even slightly qualified to analyze scholastic thought, but I'm going to try anyway.

In his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (book 2, dist. 44, quest. 2, art. 2), Thomas takes due note of the command in Romans 13. But he writes that this biblical injunction applies not to just anyone with coercive power, but only to authorities that meet certain conditions and thus actually derive their power from God. (That is, he defines Paul's "authorities" so that Romans 13:2a is a tautology.) He helpfully offers an explanation of factors that may render an earthly ruler illegitimate:

But, as we have already said, authority may fail to derive from God for two reasons: either because of the way in which authority has been obtained, or in consequence of the use which is made of it.

There are two ways in which the first case may occur. Either because of a defect in the person, if he is unworthy; or because of some defect in the way itself by which power was acquired, if, for example, through violence, or simony or some other illegal method. The first defect is not such as to impede the acquisition of legitimate authority; and since authority derives always, from a formal point of view, from God (and it is this which produces the duty of obedience), their subjects are always obliged to obey such superiors, however unworthy they may be. But the second defect prevents the establishment of any just authority: for whoever possesses himself of power by violence does not truly become lord or master. Therefore it is permissible, when occasion offers, for a person to reject such authority; except in the case that it subsequently became legitimate, either through public consent or through the intervention of higher authority.

With regard to the abuse of authority, this also may come about in two ways. First, when what is ordered by an authority is opposed to the object for which that authority was constituted (if, for example, some sinful action is commanded or one which is contrary to virtue, when it is precisely for the protection and fostering of virtue that authority is instituted). In such a case, not only is there no obligation to obey the authority, but one is obliged to disobey it, as did the holy martyrs who suffered death rather than obey the impious commands of tyrants. Secondly, when those who bear such authority command things which exceed the competence of such authority; as, for example, when a master demands payment from a servant which the latter is not bound to make, and other similar cases. In this instance the subject is free to obey or disobey.

To clarify Thomas' discussion, I have prepared a simple flowchart. In my chart, the various questions and their answers lead, eventually, to a determination either that disobedience is permissible or that it is sinful. (One of the questions, the one asking whether disobedience would cause more problems than it would solve, technically comes from several other places in Thomas Aquinas' works. However, I believe the qualification is consistent with the passage quoted above.)

Anyway, I find it interesting that this passage does not make any clear distinction between the right to disobey passively and the right to resist actively. This stands out to me, of course, because that distinction has been vitally important to some other Christian theorists. On the contrary, Thomas here conflates disobedience and revolution. He asserts that rulership obtained through violence is illegitimate: "it is permissible, when occasion offers, for a person to reject such authority," and furthermore (citing the story of Julius Caesar a few sentences after the passage quoted above), "in such a case, one who liberates his country by killing a tyrant is to be praised and rewarded." Thomas certainly does not go out of his way to differentiate between tyrannicide and less drastic forms of disobedience.

This is because the key question for him is simply whether a particular ruler is legitimate -- that is, whether the ruler is actually a ruler under the meaning of Romans 13. If a ruler is legitimate, then Christians must obey (to the extent that the ruler's commands are also legitimate); if not, they may disobey without violating Scripture. Because Thomas reads classical theory into the text, furthermore, illegitimacy and tyranny are closely related ideas in his system. His central concern is not to detail exceptions to God's command, but rather to justify the belief that tyranny is not covered by Romans 13 at all. He does this in part to reconcile Romans 13 with other New Testament passages that seem to him to guarantee liberty to baptized Christians (such as Matthew 17:26).

Taken together with other writings by Thomas, this passage implies that only rulers who actually protect the good of the people are legitimate in God's eyes. Thomas later wrote elsewhere that "the welfare of the community" is the reason for a ruler's authority (Summa Theologica quest. 42, art. 2; cf. De Regimine Principum book 1, ch. 15). A reader might be forgiven for inferring, therefore, that to make commands contrary to the public welfare is to make commands contrary to "the object for which that authority was constituted" -- which, according to the text at hand, nullifies such commands' legitimacy. So rule harmful to the community is not rule at all. In such cases, disobedience may even be a moral obligation.

Also interesting is the implication that, at least in some cases, popular consent is the means by which divine authority is conferred upon a temporal ruler. In the event of usurpation, Thomas writes, the usurper need not be obeyed as God's representative -- unless a higher temporal ruler or public approval later establishes that authority as legitimate. So while the express consent of the governed may not be necessary to establish a proper (God-given) government, it is not an entirely irrelevant concept, either.

My quotations come from the translation of J.G. Dawson, in Aquinas: Selected Political Writings (edited by A.P. D'Entrèves, 1959). I have added paragraph breaks.

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