(Note: This is a brief compilation of Calvin’s last chapter in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. I do not endorse or ascribe to all of his beliefs. However, it is important to note Calvin’s influence in Reformed theology.)
In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, in Chapter XX on “Civil Government,” Calvin makes the statement, “Let no man be disturbed that I now commit to civil government the duty of rightly establishing religion, which I seem above to put outside of human decision.” He continues,
“For when I approve of a civil administration that aims to prevent the true religion which is continual in God’s law from being openly and with public sacrilege violated and defiled with impunity, I do not here, any more than before, allow men to make laws according to their own decision concerning religion and the worship of God.”
Calvin also notes that “their [the disciples] ministry is not like kingdoms, in which one is pre-eminent above the rest.” He encourages mutual submission among Christians as well as to the king or ruler, who is expressly ordained by God, regardless of “The coercive nature of the magistry.” Concerning the proper form(s) of government, Calvin states,
“The fall from kingdom to tyranny is easy; but it is not much more difficult to fall from the rule of the best men to the faction of a few; yet it is easiest of all to fall from popular rule to sedition…For if the three forms of government which the philosophies discuss be considered in themselves, I will not deny that aristocracy, or a system compounded of aristocracy and democracy, far excels all others…Therefore…if one asserts himself unfairly, there may be a number of censors and masters to restrain his willfulness.”
He then notes God’s ordination of aristocratic/democratic-style judges over the people until “he should bring forward the image of Christ in David.” Moreover, the structure of the institutions varies based on the culture and circumstances: “For as elements cohere only in unequal proportion, so countries are best held together according to their own particular inequality” (i.e. diversity). Nevertheless, we, as servants and heirs and ambassadors in and for Christ, are to obey and remain “compliant…to whomever he sets over the places we live.”
Of anarchy, Calvin writes, “the Sacred History places anarchies among things evil: because there is no king in Israel, each men did as he pleased (Judg. 21:25).” He continues saying, “For during the reign of Nerva it was not without reason said: it is indeed bad to live under a prince with whom nothing is permitted; but much worse under one by whom everything is allowed.”
Calvin’s pro-war stance isn’t unbridled or fueled by an eager Old-Testament-ish type of perversion to conjure up young men (and, perhaps, women) to fight in a new emergent crusade. Rather, it is founded upon the notion that magistrates, ordained or elected, should and, if they consciously serve under the banner of Christ, must defend their subjects. Calvin notes “that an express declaration of this matter is not to be sought in the writings of the apostles; for the purpose is not to fashion a civil government, but to the spiritual kingdom of Christ.”
Of taxes, Calvin concedes “that tributes and taxes are the lawful revenues of princes, which they may chiefly use to meet the public expenses of their office.” “But,” Calvin continues, “he does so in such a way that princes themselves will in turn remember their revenues are not so much for their private chests as the treasuries of the entire people (Rom. 13:6).” However, “to impose them upon the common folk without cause is tyrannical extortion.”
Calvin attempts to distinguish moral, ceremonial, and judicial laws. He sums up the entirety of the laws under the “precepts of love.” He draws this effectual command from Matthew 22:34-40:
“But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’”
Basically, Calvin echoes the Apostle Paul—“For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23)—while trumping faithful actions, intents, and purposes with Christ-like love (1 Cor. 13:13). While Jewish law and tradition “show[ed] the truth of those things which then have foreshadowed in figures,” though Calvin permits “every nation is left free to make such laws as it foresees to be profitable for itself,” if they do not proceed from Christ-like love (e.g. “honor to thieves…promiscuous intercourse,” etc.), “they are abhorrent not only to all justice, but also to humanity and gentleness.” Though Calvin explicitly denounces any government who calls evil good and good evil (Isa. 5:20), he does not advocate for Mosaic theocracy—or any theocracy for that matter. He justifies this veering away from this crude and archaic system by 1) understanding that God’s love is not only “engraved upon the minds of men”—that is, natural—but also transcendent and 2) Christ’s fulfillment in the cross as the official initiation of the New Covenant and will aforementioned in the Old Testament (Heb. 8, 9:16-18; Jer. 31).
“…where hearts are filled wit malice, corrupted by envy, inflamed with wrath, breathing revenge, finally so inflamed with desire for contention, that love is somewhat impaired in them, the court action of even the most just cause cannot but be impious.”
Concerning court hearings and litigations, Calvin notes the magistrates, judges, and officers as “ministers of God for our God” (Rom. 13:4) while maintaining the courts’ credibility even under the authority of an unjust ruler. He appeals to Paul’s arguments before Caesar, his appellation and Roman citizenship, and his legal cooperation.
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
As Paul stood before Caesar, I can’t help but imagine his thoughts. He stands before Caesar as Christ stood before the Sanhedrin. Because Christ was silent before the shearers (Isa. 53:7), we may boldly proclaim that which “angels long to look” (1 Pet. 1:12) and approach with confidence the throne of grace (Heb. 4:16) as redeemed heirs (Rom. 8:17), ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20), friends (Jas. 2:23), and sons of God (Rom. 8:14, 9:26; Gal. 3:26).
Calvin notes the utmost respect, “deference,” one should have toward their ruler since they are a representative of God. Though some in the congregation “regard magistrates only as a kind of necessary evil,” he raises the standard by using the Apostle Peter’s words—“honor the king”—as well as the Apostle Paul’s and Solomon’s, both holding high esteem for the magistrates.
Furthermore, he bids Christians to refrain from political involvement so the our witness may not be tainted. We are to “not raise a tumult…put their hands to the task.” However, he doesn’t negate voting, as it is allowed in more civilized societies.
However, he is not ignorant of the depravity of man affecting common peoples as well as rulers. He continues, “But we have so far been describing a magistrate who truly is what he is called, that is, a father of his country…and…shepherd of his people, guardian of peace, protector of righteousness, and avenger of innocence.” Though Calvin condemns tyrants and their salacious and greedy endeavors, he implores Christians to revere him in the same manner one would revere the greatest of kings. This is not to approve of wrongdoing but rather to show the love of Christ that many more would be saved. Moreover, he concludes, in accordance with the Scriptures, that “a wicked king is the Lord’s wrath upon the earth (Job 34:30…Hos. 13:1; Isa. 3:4, 10:5; Deut. 28:29).”
Pointing to King Nebuchadnezzar, though he was indeed an “abominable and cruel tyrant,” the Lord called him “my servant” (Jer. 27:5-8, 17). Likewise, David, while evading the traps and devices of King Saul, said, “My soul has spared you; and I have said, ‘I shall not put forth my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord’s anointed” (1 Sam. 24:11).
Calvin submits that those subjected to princes displaying avarice or wanton behavior should, with humility, continue to minister to the Lord, which is to minister to the authority of God. For vengeance is not ours. God will restore all things in the end and the evil princes shall be “crushed” before the face of God.
God reigns over both rebellion and the institution of government. Calvin alludes to Moses and the Judges—all of which were used under the direction of the Lord to liberate the people of Israel. Furthermore, he also uses foreign armies to do his bidding.
In the same manner, Calvin commends the restraints put upon kings, emperors, and other sorts of rulers by extolling the persons enforcing law as well as the law’s just nature and impartiality. Those who refuse to oppose “the fierce licentiousness of kings” are disobeying God by not caring for the common good, or welfare, of the people.
In the conclusion of his exhaustive voluminous expositions, Calvin writes,
“The Lord, therefore, is the King of kings, who, when he has opened his sacred mouth, must alone be heard, before all and above all men; next to him we are subject to those men who are in authority over us, but only in him. If they command anything again him, let it go unesteemed.”
Following in the footsteps of Daniel, it is not offensive to a ruler’s ordination and God-given authority to disobey an “…impious edict. For the king has exceeded his limits, and had not only been a wrongdoer against men, but, in lifting up his horns against God, had himself abrogated his power.”