Book 4 - Chapter 20 (Parts 1-5)
The relationship between church and state has a long and complicated history. Calvin, as a leader in Geneva, was concerned with how the scriptures sorted out this relationship. He begins by stating that this chapter is the place to say something about government that “…pertains only to the establishment of civil justice and outward morality…and…although this seems alien to the spiritual doctrine of faith which I have undertaken to discuss, what follows will show that I am right in joining them…” (pg. 1485).
Summary: Calvin believes that God has established an order by which human beings ought to organize their civic lives so that piety (true faith) can flourish. Unfortunately there are competing forces that put this order at risk. And unless these forces are dealt with, piety is at risk. He puts it this way, “…insane and barbarous men furiously strive to overturn this divinely established order; while on the other side, the flatterers of princes, immoderately praising their power, do not hesitate to set them against the rule of God himself. Unless both these evils are checked, purity of faith will perish” (pg. 1486). Having stated the problem (competing claims between freedom and law), he wants to be clear that secular power and religious power “…are things completely distinct” (pg. 1486) and that “…spiritual freedom can exist along with civil bondage” (pg. 1486). In other words, Christian can live “freely” under the laws of a civil society and thus there is no need for a theocracy, where the church runs the state.
Even so, Calvin believes that the civil government is responsible “…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 according to civil righteousness, to reconcile us to one another, and to promote general peace and tranquility” (pg. 1487). This is not the American ideal of separation of church and state. Instead it is a hybrid in which the state enforces laws that protect the life and liberty of the people, while at the same time it “…prevents idolatry, sacrilege against God’s name, blasphemies against his truth, and other public offenses against religion from arising and spreading among the people” (pg. 1488). Calvin wants to be clear however, that he does not give “…to civil government the duty of rightly establishing religion…” (pg. 1488).
Calvin’s views on the providence of God (meaning God directs all things in heaven and on earth), can be clearly seen in his view that people obey their civil leaders. They should because those leaders “…have a mandate from God, have been invested with divine authority, and are wholly God’s representatives…” (pg. 1489). He bases this statement on Paul’s letter to the Romans where the Apostle makes clear that there are “…no powers except those ordained by God [Romans 13:1]” (pg. 1490). Because of this, he rejects anarchy on the one hand while on the other hand encouraging rulers to “…submit to Christ the power with which they have been invested…” (pg. 1490) and to remember that because “…they are vicars of God, they should watch with all care, earnestness and diligence, to represent in themselves to men, some image of divine providence, protection, goodness, benevolence, and justice.” (pg. 1491).
Reflections: After college, I served for two years in the Philippines as a Peace Corps Volunteer. This was during the time when Ferdinand Marcos was ruling the nation under martial law. Everyone knew that he was enriching himself and his family and those who opposed him disappeared. One Sunday I visited a church where the guest preacher, an American, preached a fiery sermon about how all Filipinos were commanded by God to be completely obedient to Marcos, because he was God’s anointed. When I tried to catch him after the service and ask about government corruption, he became angry and said he never answered questions about his sermons. I knew in that moment, that he knew, that he could never justify what Marcos was doing, but was too wed to his theology (and to power and the powerful) to admit it.
The relationship between church and state has a long and complicated history. Calvin, as a leader in Geneva, was concerned with how the scriptures sorted out this relationship. In the previous article, we learned that Calvin believes that governments should not establish religion, yet should protect religion and public morals, and that all governments are God ordained. He makes this clear when he states that when people rail against those in power “...they do not just reject the magistrate but they cast off God that he might not reign over them” (pg. 1492).
Summary: Calvin begins this section with an examination of the various forms of government. He admits that trying to decide on an appropriate form of government “…admits of no simple solution but requires deliberation…and if you compare the forms of government among themselves apart from circumstances, it is not easy to distinguish which one of them excels in usefulness…” (pg. 1493). That having been said, Calvin states that a “…system compounded of aristocracy and democracy, far excels all others; not indeed of itself but because it is very rare for kings to so control themselves…or for them to be endowed with such great keenness and prudence, that each knows how much is enough. Therefore, men’s fault or failing causes it to be safer and more bearable for a number to exercise government, so that they may help one another, teach and admonish one another; and if one asserts himself unfairly there may be…censors and masters to retrain his willfulness” (pg. 1493-94). Calvin even takes this one step farther, when he states that “…magistrates ought to apply themselves with the highest diligence to prevent…freedom…from being in any way diminished” (pg. 1494).
Where this leaves his readers however, is in a quandary. It does so because on the one hand Calvin believes in freedom (which he enjoys) while at the same time he argues that God has put repressive regimes in place. He even goes so far as to declare that people should not try to change their government (because it was God ordained) even when those countries have great inequality. People in those nations, where people are not free, are to show themselves “…compliant and obedient to whomever God sets over...” (pg. 1495) them.
Calvin next turns to the role of government in protecting religion. He believes that “...no government can be happily established unless piety is the first concern; and that those laws are preposterous which neglect God’s right and provide only for men…also holy kings are greatly praised in scripture because they restored the worship of God…or took care of religion that under them it might flourish pure and unblemished” (pg. 1495). He continues by stating that rulers are “…ordained protectors and vindicators of public innocence, modesty, decency and tranquility, and that their sole endeavor should be to provide for the common safety and peace of all” (pg. 1496). For Calvin, providing for the safety of all, includes the right to inflict the death penalty and the defense of the innocent. “The Lawgiver himself puts into the hand of his ministers a sword…to avenge, at the Lord’s command the afflictions of the pious (in this case the affliction of murder)” (pg. 1497) and “should they (the magistrates) sheath their swords…while men wickedly slaughter and massacre, they will become guilty of great impiety” (pg. 1498). Calvin sums it up this way. “Yet it is necessary for the magistrate to pay attention to both, lest by excessive severity he either harm more than heal; or, by …affection of clemency, fall into the cruelest gentleness…” (pg. 1499).
Reflections: During my years in ministry I have had church members who have been for the death penalty and against it. Each called upon scripture to prove their point. Each used statistics in the same fashion. Even though I have had good friends and church members murdered, I believe that taking the life of the murderer, when life imprisonment is available, ought not to be the Christian choice. By so doing I don’t believe that we would fall into “the cruelest gentleness” but would instead show that we are people of love and mercy.
The relationship between church and state has a long and complicated history. Calvin, as a leader in Geneva, was concerned with how the scriptures sorted out this relationship. In the previous articles, we learned that Calvin believes that governments should not establish religion, yet should protect religion and public morals, and that all governments are God ordained, that the best government has a balance of power between multiple people, that the government should protect freedoms and that the government has the right to exercise the death penalty.
Summary: Calvin begins this section by examining the right of governments to wage war. “But kings and people must sometimes take up arms to execute such public vengeance (meaning for the killing and oppression of innocent people). On this basis, we may judge wars lawful which are so undertaken” (pg. 1499). Calvin lists other reasons for war including preserving tranquility, restraining sedition, helping the oppressed, punishing evil deeds, defending laws or invasion by “a king or the lowest of folk...” (pg. 1499).
Though they have the power to wage war, Calvin warns magistrates that they are to restrain themselves as much as possible in such endeavors. They are “...to guard particularly against giving vent to their passions even in the slightest degree. Rather, if they have to punish, let them not be carried away with headlong anger, or be seized with hatred, or burn with severity. Let them also (as Augustine says) have pity on the common nature in the one whose special fault they are punishing” (pg. 1500). Calvin also instructs magistrates and kings to try everything they can “…before recourse is had to arms” (pg. 1501). One last note on this section is that nations have the right to garrison troops in various places to protect the nation.
The next issue Calvin takes up is taxes. He believes that it is appropriate for government to levy, collect and use them. “Lastly, I also wish to add this, that tributes and taxes are the lawful revenue of princes, which they may chiefly use to meet the public expense of their office; yet they may similarly use them for the magnificence of their household, which is joined, so to speak, with the dignity of the authority they exercise...” (pg. 1501). Nonetheless, princes are to “remember that their revenues are not so much for their private chests (but are) the treasuries of the entire people…which cannot be squandered…without manifest injustice” (pg. 1501). Finally, he offers this observation. “…to impose them (taxes) upon the common folks without cause is tyrannical extortion” (pg. 1501).
Calvin moves from taxes to the law. He sees three kinds of law in the scriptures; moral, ceremonial and judicial. The moral law comes under two headings, which command “…us to worship God with pure faith and piety; the other, to embrace men with sincere affection” (pg. 1503). The ceremonial law was the “…tutelage of the Jews, with which it seemed good to the Lord to train his people...until the fullness of time should come…” (pg. 1503). The judicial law which was “…given to civil government, imparted certain formulas of equity and justice by which they might live together blamelessly and peacefully” (pg. 1503). Calvin’s understanding of law then is that nations are free to make their own sets of laws as long as those laws “reflect the law of love” (pg. 1503).
Reflections: Over my lifetime I have watched as our nation struggled with the decision to go to war. Should we engage the Taliban after 9/11? Should we invade Iraq because they may have weapons of mass destruction? Should we engage in conflicts in Syria or North Korea? The problem is that there has been very little clarity as to what is the right choice. To do nothing endangers people. To wage war endangers still other people. Calvin’s comments remind us that this wrestling with war is nothing new. What is helpful for me from his comments are that we are to restrain ourselves as much as possible and remember to have pity on those we oppose.
Summary: First, Calvin spends some time dealing with the concept of law and equity. Equity for Calvin, though not specifically defined, seems to be a combination of fairness and justice. He believes that all laws should “press toward the same goal of equity…hence equity alone must be the goal and rule and limit of all laws” (pg. 1504). This is so because laws are supposed to reflect God’s will for humanity, which is always fair or equitable. Equity is possible for humanity because it can be found in natural law which, according to Calvin, God has engraved on the consciences of human beings. One example of this natural law/equity at work is that “…we see how, with such diversity, all laws tend to the same end. For, together with one voice, they pronounce punishment against those crimes which God’s eternal law has condemned, namely murder, theft, adultery and false witness” (pg. 1504-1505). In other words, God’s equity/fairness/justice has been hard wired into people, and so they come to the same conclusions about the same crimes.
Second, Calvin tells his readers that they use the law courts, but only within certain parameters. He notes that even though scripture appears to discourage Christians from going to court, the Apostle Paul “…clearly testifies to the contrary that the magistrate is a minister of God for our good [Romans 13:4]. By this we understand that he has been so ordained by God, that, defended by his hand…against the wrongdoing and injustices of evil men, we may live a quiet and serene life” (pg. 1506). With that having been said, Calvin warns that even though Christians can go to court, they are “…not…allowed to hate him (the opponent), or be seized with a mad desire to harm him, or hound him relentlessly” (pg. 1506) and “…they are to treat their adversary “with the same love and good will as if the business under controversy were already amicably settled” (pg. 1507).
Third, Christians are to endure insults, but at the same time they are to defend the public interest. Calvin writes, that “…Christians ought to be the kind of men born to bear slanders and injuries, open to the malice, deceits, and mockeries of wicked men…and should have complete spiritual composure” (pg. 1508). Even so, Christians can use the magistrate and the courts in “...preserving their own possessions, while maintaining friendliness toward their enemies” (pg. 1508). He sums it up in this way. “…love will give every man the best counsel…” (pg. 1509).
Reflections: It has been painful over the years to watch members of my congregations to be cheated out of what was rightfully theirs and then to be forced to go to court against people they trusted and cared for. They wrestled with whether, as Christians, this was the right course of action. My advice was not only to do what they believed Christ was calling them to do, but to remember that by going to court they were seeking what was rightfully theirs and nothing more. This was fair and just, which is part of God’s natural law.
Summary: First, Calvin speaks of deference towards persons in positions of authority. Calvin, believes that all persons in authority have been put there by God, and so people ought to “…esteem and reverence them as ministers and representatives of God” (pg. 1510). What he makes clear though is that this esteem and reverence is not for the person, who might be foolish, slothful or cruel, but it is given to the office which “…itself is worthy of such honor and reverence…” (pg. 1510).
Second, Christians are to obey those in authority. Calvin writes, “From this something else follows: that with hearts inclined to revere their rulers, subjects should prove their obedience towards them, whether by obeying their proclamations, or by paying taxes…or by executing any other commands of theirs” (pg. 1510). This deference and obedience for Calvin does not allow people to become politically involved in seeking office. Instead, people were supposed to wait upon the authorities to call them to higher service. Obedience is even supposed to be offered to the unjust magistrate. “We are not only subject to the authority of princes who perform their office toward us uprightly…but also the authority of all who…have got control of affairs, even though they perform not a whit of the prince’s office” (pg. 1512). This obedience is due not only because God placed all princes in their positions of power, but because God might be using those unjust princes to punish the people for their sins; a position, by the way, for which Calvin was widely assailed.
Third, it is not for the subjects to unseat an unjust ruler, but only God. Calvin’s view of the relationship between rulers and ruled, beyond the fact that God places all rulers in their positions of power, is that of parents (rulers) and children (subjects). Thus, just as children have no right to overthrow their parents, subjects have not right to overthrow their rulers. Our only hope is “to implore the Lord’s help, in whose hands are the hearts of kings” (pg. 1517). Even so, Calvin warns rulers that God will bring them down if they do not rule as they ought, including through magistrates of the people who have been “appointed to restrain the willfulness of the kings” (pg. 1519). Calvin even encourages these magistrates to protect the lowly common folk from the evils of kings when kings have betrayed “…the freedom of the people” (pg. 1519). Finally, for Calvin, obedience has its limits; those limits are when obedience to a king, violates our obedience to God. This is not allowed because “We must obey God and not men” (pg. 1521).
Reflections: One of the things that I have learned about my family is that I have ancestors from both Connecticut and Georgia who fought for the colonies in the American Revolution. I wish I could ask them why they, as Christians decided to take up arms and risk everything against the authorities in Great Britain. Perhaps it was because they believed that the King had overstepped his authority. Perhaps they believed that God was calling them to seek greater freedom. Regardless of their reasons, they stepped outside of Calvin’s teachings and fought for their own self-determination. And I am grateful that they did. For because of their efforts, we have become a nation in which all are free to worship, speak and live as we choose. And so I close with Calvin’s final words in the Institutes, “God Be Praised.”