Posted by: davidwhall | October 9, 2008

Calvin’s Institutes: Blueprint for Civil Government

Calvin’s political thought found in The Institutes of the Christian Religion is, even by critics, still credited with immense political impact. Asserting that the state was not merely a necessary evil for Calvin, Karl Holl recognized that Calvinism, even more than Luther-anism, provided a theological basis to oppose unjust governments.  Everywhere Calvinism spread, so did its impulse to limit government. Later Calvinist Prime Minister of the Neth-erlands Abraham Kuyper summarized the essence of Calvin’s theocentric emphasis :

It is therefore a political faith which may be summarily expressed in these three theses: 1. God only, and never any creature, is possessed of sovereign rights, in the destiny of nations, because God alone created them, maintains them by his Almighty power, and rules them by his ordinances. 2. Sin has, in the realm of politics, broken down the direct government of God, and therefore the exercise of authority, for the purpose of government, has subsequently been invested in men, as a mechanical remedy. And 3. In whatever form this authority may reveal itself, man never possesses power over his fellow man in any other way than by the authority which descends upon him from the majesty of God.

Calvinism, Kuyper continued, “protests against State omni-competence, against the horrible conception that no right exists above and beyond existing laws, and against the pride of absolutism, which recognizes no constitutional rights.” Calvinism “built a dam across the absolutistic stream, not by appealing to popular force, nor to the hallucination of human greatness, but by deducing those rights and liberties of social life from the same source from which the high authority of government flows, even the absolute sovereignty of God.”
Such thoughts are indeed contained in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion,  which underwent considerable evolution between editions. The original 1536 edition composed in Basle  combined the chapter on civil government with Calvin’s treatment of Christian liberty and ecclesiastical power. Calvin believed that civil government was the second part of a two-fold government, properly chartered to “establish civil justice and outward morality (4:20, 1).
Calvin’s major sections addressed these topics:

(1)  the magistrate, who is “the protector and guardian of the laws” (4:20, 3);
(2)  the laws, which provide objectivity for governors; and
(3) the people—an early statement of the contract theory later rightly associated with Ponet, Beza, the Vindiciae, Buchanan, and Althusius.

Calvin believed that civil government supplied an example of how God had compassionately provided for mankind; the sphere of human government, thus, was a gracious token for human culture much like the law itself. The task of the civil ruler was to ensure “that a public manifestation of religion may exist among Christians, and that humanity be maintained among men.” If no civil government existed or if depraved men perceived that they could go “scot-free (4:20, 2),” they surely would opt for sin and society would deteriorate into chaos. On one occasion, Calvin likened such anarchy to living “pell-mell, like rats in straw.”  He argued that God does not bid persons to “lay aside their authority and retire to private life, but submit to Christ the power with which they have been invested, that he alone may tower over all.” Calvin believed that “powers are from God, not as pestilence, and famine, and wars, and other visitations for sin, are said to be from him; but because he has appointed them for the legitimate and just government of the world. For though tyrannies and unjust exercise of power, as they are full of disorder, are not an ordained government; yet the right of government is ordained by God for the well-being of mankind.”

Calvin, in marked contrast to the Anabaptists of his day, recognized service in a political office as entirely appropriate, even going so far as to speak of civil service as the most sacred and honorable of human callings. Calvin referred to these civil rulers favorably as “vicars of God,” (4:20, 6), “the highest gift of [God’s] beneficence to preserve the safety of men” (4:20, 25), and as “ordained protectors and vindicators of public innocence, modesty, decency, and tranquility [whose] sole endeavor should be to provide for the common safety and peace of all” (4:20, 9). Calvinism, thus, did not inspire an inherently negative view of civil government. Elsewhere he stated that the appointed goal of the civil government was “to cherish and protect the outward worship of God, to defend sound doctrine of piety and the position of the church, to adjust our life to the society of men, to form our social behavior to civil righteousness, to reconcile us with one another, and to promote general peace and tranquillity” (4:20, 2). By early 1553 he had summoned the magistrates of Geneva to be “the vindicators, not the destroyers, of sacred laws.”  The use of the sword was the necessary corollary to human depravity. Civil magistrates were to be honored as superiors in keeping with the commandment to honor one’s superiors. Even evil rulers kept God’s law to some degree, and disobedience was justified only in response to actions contrary to God’s law. The task of civil government according to Calvin’s commentary on Romans was prescribed as follows:

Magistrates may hence learn what their vocation is, for they are not to rule for their own interest, but for the public good; nor are they endued with unbridled power, but what is restricted to the well-being of their subjects; in short, they are responsible to God and to men in the exercise of their power. For as they are deputed by God and do his business, they must give an account to him: and then the ministration which God has committed to them has a regard to the subjects, they are therefore debtors to them.

Calvin believed that both politics and providence were operative; indeed, he suggested that the Kingdom of God was already present, albeit not completely realized: “For spiritual government, indeed, is already initiating in us upon earth certain beginnings of the Heavenly Kingdom, and in this mortal and fleeting life affords a certain forecast of an immortal and incorruptible blessedness” (4:20, 2). He advised, “Let no man be disturbed that I now commit to civil government the duty of rightly establishing religion” (4:20, 3). Few would be greatly disturbed by such a statement, since it was the common notion of Calvin’s time for government to uphold religion. Calvin acknowledged this: “All have confessed that no government can be happily established unless piety is the first concern” (4:20, 9). He also stated that the civil magistrate should care for both tables of the law (4:20, 9). Later conflicts between church and state, however, would beg for re-evaluations of this maxim. Furthermore, he included a limitation for his theory, i.e., that no administration was permitted to tailor the worship of God to their own imaginations nor prohibit the practice of true religion (4:20, 3).

Lest, however, we brand Calvin a theocrat, his comments on a gospel passage (John 18:36) in which Jesus stated that his servants did not strive for enforcement of an earthly kingdom may reassure. His view of the separation of jurisdictions, enunciated in the mid-sixteenth century, is still helpful. Discussing the conditions under which it is appropriate to defend “the kingdom of Christ by arms,” Calvin wrote:

[T]hough godly kings defend the kingdom of Christ by the sword, still it is done in a different manner from that in which worldly kingdoms are wont to be defended; for the kingdom of Christ, being spiritual must be founded on the doctrine and power of the Spirit. In the same manner, too, its edification is promoted; for neither the laws and edicts of men, nor the punishments inflicted by them, enter into the consciences. . . . It results, however, from the depravity of the world that the kingdom of Christ is strengthened more by the blood of the martyrs than by the aid of arms.

For Calvin, serving in civil government could be “the most sacred and by far the most honorable of all callings in the whole life of mortal men” (4:20, 4). He wrote that if civil rulers properly understood their callings, that is, “that they are occupied not with profane affairs or those alien to a servant of God, but with a most holy office, since they are serving as God’s deputies” (4:20, 6), they would serve with more equity. Echoing Aristotle’s morphology of the state and its tendency toward deterioration from monarchy to tyranny and from democracy to anarchy, Calvin advocated “a system compounded of aristocracy and democracy” (4:20, 8). He also saw a legitimate place for checks and balances, realizing the need for “censors and masters to restrain his [the monarch’s] willfulness” (4:20, 8).

The civil magistrate did not act on his own, but “carries out the very judgments of God” (4:20, 10) in bearing the sword to punish lawbreakers. Calvin even cited King David as condoning the destruction of the wicked in the land as an example of the right to wage war. But, far from legitimating vengeance, violence, or undue cruelty, the magistrate was to avoid both exorbitant severity and “superstitious affectation of clemency.” Alluding to the proverb from Seneca, Calvin concurred, “It is indeed bad to live under a prince with whom nothing is permitted; but much worse under one by whom everything is allowed” (4:20, 10). He argued: “Now if their [rulers’] true righteousness is to pursue the guilty and the impious with drawn sword, should they sheathe their sword and keep their hands clean of blood, while abandoned men wickedly range about with slaughter and massacre, they will become guilty of the greatest impiety, far indeed from winning praise for their goodness and righteousness thereby!” (4:20, 10)

In a phrase that would become incendiary, Calvin noted that not only kings but also “people must sometimes take up arms to execute public vengeance” (4:20, 11). The same basis for waging war was also used both to justify revolution and to put down sedition. If the magistrates were to punish private evildoers, then they could certainly punish mobs and protect the country from an external foe (4:20, 11). Regardless of class, the noble governor was to protect the people equally from robbers or invaders. If he did not, he would be considered a robber and worthy of censure. Calvin rested his logic that the governor has the right to wage war, as he saw it, on “both natural equity and the nature of the office” (4:20, 11). If additional grounds were needed to refute pacifism, Calvin would argue that governors could still defend their subjects, an exclusively New Testament basis was not necessary, and that Christ did not compel soldiers to resign (4:20, 12).

That Calvin gave attention to a far-ranging set of civic concerns is evidenced by his discussion of the magistrate’s right to tax in The Institutes. He recommended prudent limits, arguing that taxes should only support public necessity; for “to impose them upon the common folk without cause is tyrannical extortion” (4:20, 13). Obedience was a Christian duty in this area; however, princes were not to indulge in “waste and expensive luxury,” lest they earn God’s displeasure. Excessive taxation was alluded to in his comment later: “Others drain the common people of their money, and afterward lavish it on insane largesse” (4:20, 24).

Another major topic of discussion for Calvin is the use of the Old Testament judicial law, which Calvin called “the silent magistrate.” In a proper republic, laws were “the stoutest sinews of the commonwealth” (4:20, 14). Not as theocratic as some might expect, Calvin affirmed that just as the OT ceremonial laws (laws regulating ritual and diet, not viewed as permanent like the moral law; cf. Calvin’s own definitions of this tripartite taxonomy in 4:20, 15) had been “abrogated while piety remained safe and unharmed, so too, when these judicial laws were taken away, the perpetual duties and precepts of love could still remain” (4:20, 15). He admitted that different nations were free to make laws as they saw best, but with this qualification: “Yet these must be in conformity to that perpetual rule of love, so that they indeed vary in form but have the same purpose” (4:20, 15). And while some of his own day thought that a commonwealth could only be “duly framed” if it included a theonomic approach, Calvin called that idea “perilous,” “seditious,” “false and foolish” (4:20, 14).

Calvin taught, however, that even if all the specifics and particulars of the Mosaic judicial law were not binding, the moral principle within each command continued. The moral law,  which Calvin viewed as nothing other than a “testimony of natural law” and conscience (4:20, 16), was never abrogated, contrary to the ceremonial and judicial codes: “Consequently, the entire scheme of this equity of which we are now speaking has been prescribed in it. Hence, this equity alone must be the goal and rule and limit of all laws. Whatever laws shall be framed to that rule, directed to that goal, bound by that limit, there is no reason why we should disapprove of them, howsoever they may differ from the Jewish law or among themselves” (4:20, 16). Notwithstanding, Calvin did not teach that the Mosaic Law was to be in force everywhere (4:20, 16). Since Calvin is seldom accused of laxness, his own comments must be taken seriously. So taken, they do not call for disavowal of the equitable principles of the Old Testament judicial law but merely for the adaptation of nonessential and nonmoral aspects. It was, as Calvin realized, possible to maintain the applicability of God’s law while not necessarily advocating all the cultural specifics of the original Hebrew code. Some of his political descendants would adhere to this notion more than others.

Derivative of the proper understanding of laws and the magistracy, Calvin acknowledged that Christians could certainly avail themselves to public courts (4:20, 17). Access to legal process was not evil in itself, and the right to sue was a logical corollary of Calvin’s refutation of pacifism, this time applied to the personal right to defend property legally. However, Calvin warned against greed, revenge, and (4:20, 18 through 21) an excessive reliance on litigation. Typical of his ethic, he recommended moderation, sometimes taking an economic loss, and to summarize: “love will give every man the best counsel” (4:20, 21).

In his third section, Calvin enumerated the duties of the Christian citizen, beginning with a call to honor the office as established by God as the first duty. Moreover, subjects should prove their obedience by paying taxes, obeying proclamations, and serving to protect the nation. Furthermore, Calvin warned Christians not to intrude excessively into the authority of the magistrate as long as he honored the office (4:20, 23).

Calvin’s discussion of governmental largesse led him to acknowledge the common reaction that called oppressive governors “tyrants” (4:20, 24). Still he warned that the mere existence of some over-taxation or misappropriation was not the same as divine warrant to overthrow the tyrant. There was still a scriptural priority on submitting to the governors who “have their sole authority from him” (4:20, 25). Moreover, Calvin devoted several sections (26-29), relying heavily upon narratives in Daniel and Jeremiah, to discussing how God’s providence presumptively called for submission to civil rulers.

However, despite such clarion calls to submit to the civil ruler, in some cases the lesser magistrates were justified in overturning a wicked ruler. That, however, was not to be carried out merely by private individuals. His argument, which was drawn upon by his disciples, was that rulers (whether in home, church, or civil spheres) also had obligations. The abuse of such obligations could negate their authority and relegate them to tyrant status.

Calvin acknowledged that, at times, divine providence was satisfied in the overthrowing of wicked rulers (4:20, 30), but he still preferred to allow the Lord to correct unbridled despotism. Calvin urged believers to consider that through prayer God might change the hearts of rulers (4:20, 29). Concerning revolution, he advocated a peaceful, incremental revolution via the intermediate magistrates:

For if there are now any magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings (as in ancient times the ephors . . .), I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance. (4:20, 31)

The obvious exception to any of these rules, however, was that persons were not only free but also obligated to resist the magistrate who compelled ungodly activity. Calvin taught not only that there were exceptions to the above considerations but also that obedience to God was primary: “[O]bedience [to a ruler] is never to lead us away from obedience to Him” (4:20, 32), a good illustration of qualified absolutism.  He reasoned: “How absurd would it be that in satisfying men you should incur the displeasure of him for whose sake you obey men themselves!” (4:20, 32) Still, this argument is balanced with Calvin’s conclusion that we should “comfort ourselves with the thought that we are rendering that obedience which the Lord requires when we suffer anything rather than turn aside from piety” (4:20, 32).

The other aspect of Calvin’s argument that resistance was appropriate under certain conditions was his argument from relative authorities. In this contention, he maintained that a lower authority (an elder, a father, or a magistrate) could not contradict the rule or norms of a higher authority. Calvin expressed it: “As if God had made over his right to mortal men, giving them the rule over mankind! Or as if earthly power were diminished when it is subjected to its Author” (4:20, 32). A blend of necessary factors, then, determined if revolution was in order. The following factors were necessary: (a) a tyrant, who exceeded his divinely charted boundaries; (b) a tyrant, who in so doing, contradicted some other divine mandate; (c) and lower magistrates to bring constitutional correction.


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