Posted by: Michael M. Dewalt | October 6, 2008

Calvin on Human Government and the State

With the US election less than 30 days away, perhaps a voice from the past may provide some wisdom. John Calvin wrote broadly and perceptively on the topic. We invite our readers to benefit from his insight.

(written by David Hall)

Compared to the heft of its international and multi-generational influence, John Calvin’s commentary on political matters in his magnum opus is relatively diminutive. However, seldom have so few words inspired so much political impact. While many latter theologi-ans would scarcely brave a comment on matters of state in a systematic theology text, John Calvin (1509-1564) addressed political topics without trepidation. The resulting 40 pages of discussion on the civil government in the Institutes would blaze a trail for others.
Numerous scholars have traced Calvin’s political ideas.  Among the various evalua-tions, Douglas Kelly identifies the “sober Calvinian assessment of fallen man’s propen-sity to seize, increase, and abuse power for personal ends rather than for the welfare of the many.” He further explains: “Governmental principles for consent of the governed, and separation and balance of powers are all logical consequences of a most serious and Calvinian view of the biblical doctrine of the fall of man.”  Although historian Franklin Palm mistakenly classified Calvin as “wholly medieval” and as favoring an “aristocratic theocracy in which he was dictator,” nevertheless, he recognized Calvin’s contribution as “emphasizing the supremacy of God and the right of resistance to all other authority . . . [H]e did much to curb the powers of kings and to increase the authority of the elected representatives of the people.”  Further, Palm noticed Calvin’s belief in the “right of the individual to remove the magistrate who disobeys the word of God. . . . Consequently, he justified many revolutionary leaders in their belief that God gave them the right to oppose tyranny.”

Recently, John Witte, Jr., has noted how, “Calvin developed arresting new teachings on authority and liberty, duties and rights, and church and state that have had an enduring influence on Protestant lands.” As a result of its adaptability, this “rendered early modern Calvinism one of the driving engines of Western constitutionalism. A number of our bed-rock Western understandings of civil and political rights, social and confessional plural-ism, federalism and social contract, and more owe a great deal to Calvinist theological and political reforms.”

The final chapter of the Institutes is also, in some ways, the culmination of a tradition. It followed decades of Renaissance thought and sat perched atop centuries of Medieval and scholastic theological reflection on political principles. Calvin was not alone in ad-dressing these matters; in fact, it was not uncharacteristic for leading theologians of the period to expound on matters of state. However, the subsequent expansion and replication of his thought by his followers virtually created a new trajectory of political discourse. It is no exaggeration to observe that before Calvin, certain political principles were viewed as radical; while after him, they became widely acceptable.

Any proper analysis of Calvin’s political thought should begin with his discussion in the Institutes; however, an accurate understanding of Calvin will also take into account his other writings and, importantly, the manner in which his disciples codified his teach-ings into a school of political thought. The elaboration below thus highlights his other commentaries and the concerted effort of many other orchestra members—Peter Viret, Christopher Goodman, John Ponet, Theodore Beza, among others—but first one should acquaint himself with the maestro’s score.

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