Posted by: Michael M. Dewalt | October 21, 2008

Calvin’s Political Theology in Other Works

(Posted by David Hall)

New Testament Passages

Calvin’s doctrine of contingency, i.e., that governors should be supported contingent upon their ruling as divinely instituted, was also manifest in his explanation of Acts 4:19-20. He stated that, regardless of titles employed, we should only obey officials “upon this condition, if they lead us not away from obeying God.”  Commenting a chapter later, he summarized: “Therefore, we must obey rulers so far that the commandment not be bro-ken.”  His balance is displayed in a related comment: “If a magistrate do his duty as he ought, a man shall in vain say that he is contrary to God. . . . We must obey God’s minis-ters and officers if we will obey him.” However, if rulers lead away from obedience to God, they are dishonorable and “darken his glory.” Using a parallel analogy, should a fa-ther order something unlawful in the home, he forfeits honor and “is nothing else but a man.” Similarly, “[I]f a king or ruler or magistrate becomes so lofty that he diminishes the honor and authority of God, he is but a man. . . . For he who goes beyond his bounds in his office must be despoiled of his honor, lest, under a color or visor, he deceive.”

Commenting on Jesus’ teaching to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” Calvin stated that obedience to a poor magistrate did not “prevent us from having within us a conscience free in the sight of God,” and also concluded this: “[T]hose who destroy political order are rebellious against God, and therefore, that obe-dience to princes and magistrates is always joined to the worship and fear of God; but that on the other hand, if princes claim any part of the authority of God, we ought not to obey them any farther than can be done without offending God.”

Even in view of the later New Testament teaching to “fear God, honor the king,” cer-tain priorities must not be forgotten. Calvin commented: “The fear of God ought to pre-cede, that kings may obtain their authority. For if any one begins his reverence of an earthly prince by rejecting that of God, he will act preposterously, since this is a complete perversion of the order of nature.” Calvin noted that, “earthly kings lay aside all their power when they rise up against God, and are unworthy of being reckoned in the number of mankind.” Rather than fulfilling unjust laws, although care in this determination was commended as well, the Geneva reformer advised the following: “We ought rather utterly to defy than to obey them whenever they are so restive and wish to spoil God of his rights, and, as it were, to seize upon his throne and draw him down from heaven.”

Romans 13

Calvin’s discussion of Romans 13 began by explaining that all civil power originates with the sovereign God—not with man, as later secular schemes suggested. He then discussed the role of civil government and the duty of the Christian to submit to that government except in extreme circumstances. The civil government was given, wrote Calvin, to prevent the damage of human sinfulness. Albeit restraining, it was a gracious institution for society. Calvin, it should be remembered, believed that any government was better than no government at all: “further, some kind of government, however deformed and corrupt it may be, is still better and more beneficial than anarchy.”

In sum, however, he concluded: “Now this passage confirms what I have already said, that we ought to obey kings and governors, whoever they may be, not because we are constrained, but because it is a service acceptable to God; for he will have them not only to be feared, but also honored by a voluntary respect.”  In addition, his comments called for magistrates to protect religion and public decency (“endeavor to promote religion and to regulate morals by wholesome discipline” ).

Calvin called for ethical and religious considerations to be included in good government, argued for republicanism on an authoritative basis, pleaded with believers to exemplify virtue and be submissive as a norm, and paved the way for later political developments by stating that the governor could be resisted under certain conditions. His disciples later augmented and expanded the conditions under which such revolution was acceptable.

With the scriptural survey above, Harro Hopfl’s recognition of the signatures of po-litical Calvinism may be appreciated:

•    Calvin detested rulers who acted as if their will made right (sic volo sic iubeo).
•    Because no single individual possessed “power and breadth of vision enough to gov-ern” unilaterally, a council was needed.
•    Even in a monarchy, a council was required.
•    Tyranny was exhibited in a ruler’s unwillingness to tolerate restraint or live within the law. Any ruler should be sub Deo et sub lege (under God and under law).

Hopfl views Calvin’s notion of order as necessitating law. Law then required enforce-ment, and different agencies with differing gifts and tools must each “adhere to his sta-tion and perform its duties willingly.” Hopfl’s summary is worth repeating:

There is an unmistakable preference for an aristocratic form with popular admixtures of sorts, and for small territorial units. Monarchy is explicitly rejected for ecclesiastical pol-ity on scriptural grounds; in civil polity no such outright rejection was possible because of the earlier parti pris in favor of the divine authorization of all forms of government and Calvin’s almost inflexible opposition to political resistance. Nonetheless, the animus against monarchs is clear enough, and civil monarchy remains a discrepant and disturbing element in an otherwise carefully synchronized arrangement of mutual constraints.

With the foregoing review of Calvin’s own teaching, let us briefly illustrate how it grew and expanded.

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