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The Doctrine of Active Resistance in the Sixteenth Century

The Doctrine of Active Resistance in the Sixteenth Century

By Horie Hirofumi

専修大学社会科学研究所月報, No.575 (2011)

Introduction:  Resistance to established authority, whether civil or ecclesiastical, and the struggle between church and state marks every path from Pope Gregory VII (Hildebrand) and his encounter with the German Emperor to John Knox’s famous interview with Mary, Queen of Scots. Over the five centuries from Becket’s quarrel to Knox’s protest one can see that resistance to monarchy is an integral part of European history. As one enters the fourteenth century one sees a Dante Alighieri in Florence and Marsilius from Padua circumscribing political authority.

Sixteenth century theologians faced political decisions as both Protestant and Catholic explored the limits of obedience to secular and religious authorities. St. Paul’s admonition to the Roman congregation stated in the famous thirteenth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans that every soul should be obedient to the existing powers ‘for conscience sake’. This article will explore the late medieval sources and the sixteenth century context of Continental Reformation theologians’ response to that agony of conscience. In the mid-1980s, historians such as Quentin Skinner of Cambridge revised the assumption that Luther’s theology somehow prevented resistance to the state.

Throughout the Middle Ages church and state were two coordinate powers, that the two biblical swords of Luke 22:38 were ‘potestates distinctae’, that ‘sacerdotium’ and ‘imperium’ were two independent spheres instituted by God Himself. This doctrine therefore claimed for the temporal power an inherent authority not derived from ecclesiastical canons. Church and state were distinct societies, the former being concerned with man’s supernatural well-being and his attainment of his last end, the latter with man’s temporal well-being. Each of them, church and state, is a ‘perfect’ society, namely, a self-sufficing society, possessing in itself all the means required for attaining its end. But it is obvious that in practice a harmony of two powers is inherently unstable, and the disputes between Papacy and Empire, church and state, loom large on the stage of medieval history. To make the matter more complicated, the Emperor claimed he was by divine and human law possessed of the ‘imperium mundi’, by virtue whereof all peoples and kings of the earth were subject to him. Had he jurisdictional powers and authority over the kings of the various kingdoms constituting the Holy Roman Empire, or were the heads of the kingdoms equal in their legal and political status to that of the Emperor? When Clement V issued his famous bull (decretal) Pastoralis cura, he succinctly gave formal expression to a current of political thought which political thinkers had entertained for some time. With this bull the political supremacy of the Holy Roman Empire over kingdoms was formally repudiated by the curia. This significant legislative work affirmed principles of due process and the limits of an Emperor’s power by repudiating the claim of the Emperor Henry VII to universal jurisdiction.

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