The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate in the 21st Century West

It’s a truism at this point to note that the relationship in the western world between religious doctrine and political theory has become quite tense and uncertain. This is particularly true when we consider the past 3-5 years. As more and more nations have adopted same-sex marriage as the law of the land, this has had the knockdown effect of creating all sorts of questions about religious liberty, the legal status of churches, the legal status of other Christian institutions, etc.

One of the consequences of this is that some Christians are beginning to ask more basic questions about Christian political thought as they try to identify ideas that might replace those which have been ascendant for the past 35 years. Young Catholics are beginning to talk more seriously about integralism while older Catholic writers are attacking classical liberalism as the source of our contemporary woes.

Historic Protestant thought has resources of its own to help us navigate these issues. One of these ideas, which is particularly concerned with how Christians should respond to unjust laws or the unjust use of power, is known as the doctrine of the lesser magistrate. Davenant Fellow Alex Mason, a PhD candidate in theological ethics at the University of Aberdeen, explains it well:

(The doctrine of the lesser magistrate) is a unique Christian theory of resistance to authority which was first detailed in Magdeburg Confession of 1550. This doctrine teaches that when a ruler has become an incorrigible tyrant (within a very limited set of criteria), he has abdicated his claim to legitimacy. Consequently, those magistrates with lesser authority under him may defy and resist the illegitimate magistrate (and his unjust laws) for the sake of protecting others. For the embattled Protestant Reformation, the Magdeburg Confession became the embodiment of a theology of resistance allowing not only for a right to resist in certain circumstances, but a duty.

Alex Mason, a recipient  of the 2017 Davenant Fellowship, has spent much of his time as a graduate student studying this particular doctrine and trying to discern how it might be applied in our contemporary context.

My goal is for this work to be a service and an aid to the Church as we navigate a political era fraught with numerous theological pitfalls on either side. As long as post-modern secularism continues to gain strength in the West, the grave errors of the Enlightenment will continue to color the spectrum of our political discourse.

Even though little of our fractious political dynamic would’ve shocked Christians at various times throughout history, it is largely unfamiliar to modern Western Christians, many of whom have a sub-Christian understanding of submission and resistance. I do not believe the political upheavals of the West will subside anytime soon, which means the Christian witness on this subject is increasingly needed.

We must initiate a resourcement of Scripturally-attuned political theology and ethics, drawn from the deep, rich well of the Reformation. My project seeks to look back into a time when our Christian forebears wrestled with similar problems but developed unfamiliar theo-political answers. We would do well to understand and heed their example. Wherever the Church’s understanding of submission and resistance has conformed to a pattern of unbiblical thinking, we must strive to renew and reorient in light of Scripture’s teachings. I would count it a success if the work I am doing here in Aberdeen is in some small way helpful to that task, and I will always be grateful to the Davenant Institute for its gracious support of my efforts over the past year.

Though we are not offering the Davenant Fellowship at this time, we’re pleased to see Mason working on this important doctrine in Protestant political thought. This is the sort of work that is desperately needed in the western church as we enter a time of political uncertainty.

Discover the Roots of Reformed Theology

The Bishops are blind. It is up to us to open their eyes.

By Tim Enloe

Most of us are very familiar with the Reformers’ polemics against the episcopate of their day, but it’s just as important to be familiar with long-standing pre-Reformation critiques of it. For it is there that we can find a major illustration of why it is wrong to claim that the Protestants were the heretics, rebels, and innovators who ripped to shreds the seamless robe of Christ and departed from “the ancient and constant faith of the universal church.” Read more…

Chronological Snobbery and the Christian Faith

In a recent post at Reformation21, Guy Waters argues that a “Presbytery does possess the power to instruct one of its members or licentiates not to teach a difference that the court has determined an exception.” I agree. Interestingly, I can’t imagine this being an issue in the early modern period.

Why You Should Care About Peter Martyr Vermigli


By Brad Littlejohn

When I was thinking about my master’s thesis and planned doctoral research, a senior scholar in the field of political theology quipped, “The trick to any historical dissertation is to try and dig up some neglected third-rate thinker and try to pass him off as a second-rate thinker.” And although he was at least half-joking, it has struck me since that this is an apt summary for how most of even the thoughtful reading public is likely to think of most exercises in historical resourcement.

Out trots the scholar enthusiastically brandishing a heap of manuscripts, and exclaims, “Hey, have you ever heard of so-and-so? You’ve really been missing out on this neglected genius!” The onlookers, unimpressed, are liable to retort, “If he’s such a genius, why has he been so neglected?” We tend to operate with an implicit Darwinian cynicism when it comes to the history of ideas—if someone or something has been consigned to the dustbin of history, there’s probably, we suspect, a good reason for it. At the very least, we figure, theology seems to be doing just fine without the contributions of this neglected genius, so he can’t be all that important.

There are of course any number of holes in this train of reasoning, which probably become obvious enough simply by making these implicit musings explicit. But let’s focus on the last one. Is it really the case that our theology today is “doing just fine”? A glance around in most any direction suggests otherwise. And I would suggest that one of the key reasons is that we seem to have lost the ability to pursue dialectical clarity and biblical saturation at the same time. Some quarters of the contemporary church are saturated in Scripture; they live and breathe Bible. They can rattle off Bible verses for any topic you might want, or else they’re tuned-in to the deep typologies and literary motifs of Scripture. But when you ask for a clear and crisp systematic explanation of what Christians ought to believe on some doctrine or other, you are apt to get, at best, an answer heavy on rhetorical hand-waving and light on clarity, or at worst, an indignant rejection of the premise that Bible people should feel the need for such narrow dogmatic precision.

And in part you cannot blame them, for in some cases this reaction is an allergic one, developed in response to narrow dogmatism of the worst sort, a dry and dusty love of logic-chopping that masquerades as theology, but would be equally happy doing Kantian philosophy—an empty shell of systematic theology that has been deprived of the beating heart of a love for the Bible. Read more…