Sunday, November 7, 2010

Calvin on Civil Government

At last, a conclusion to Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. It's been ten months in finishing, but it has certainly given me an education in Reformation doctrine from the 16th century. If nothing else, reading this enormous work has forced me to listen to the voice of the past, and it has challenged me to rethink my modern assumptions about the way things are.

Nothing could more perfectly illustrate this point than the last chapter of Calvin's work, "Civil Government." It is, of course, appropriate to be talking about this right after an election. However, what I found as I read this chapter was that every other part of Calvin felt more or less familiar except for this part. Based on this experience, it seems to me that modern Christians have kept alive every controversial theological issue except those related to the social order. For if we stop and ponder for a second, I think we will have to agree that without too much trouble we can find in America today Christians with every possible opinion on predestination or infant baptism, and yet you will be hard pressed to find a single American Christian who does not accept liberal democracy as the best form of government. I have my own suspicions about why this is, but I ought to save that for another time. Let's see what Calvin has to say.

The first thing Calvin must address is the nature and purpose of government. I don't really like what he has to say here because I'm not fully capable of understanding it on his terms, but here is what he says:
"But whoever knows how to distinguish between body and soul, between this present fleeting life and the future eternal life, will without difficulty know that Christ's spiritual Kingdom and the civil jurisdiction are things completely distinct."
This sounds to my modern ears like Calvin is saying that God gets your soul, the government gets the rest of you. This would be the post-enlightenment version of government, I suppose. That's really not what he's saying, which becomes a little clearer in the very next section, where he says,
"Yet this distinction does not lead us to consider the whole nature of government a thing polluted, which has nothing to do with Christian men."
He goes on to criticize certain "fanatics" who think Christians should not be subject to any human government, because we are under Christ. He says this view assumes a kind of perfection among Christians that is nowhere realized. Thus Calvin is once again opposing perfectionism, which is one of the most characteristic features of Calvin's thought. Government for him is not spiritual, but it is a foretaste of the spiritual kingdom. It is invariably flawed and will never, in this life, live up to its true purpose, but it has a place of real dignity in the Christian life.

Now as to what Calvin thinks government should be responsible for, here is a remarkable paragraph from Section 3 which I simply have to reproduce in full in order to get the full effect:
But there will be a more appropriate place to speak of the practice of civil government. Now we only wish it to be understood that to think of doing away with it is outrageous barbarity. Its function among men is no less than that of bread, water, sun, and air; indeed, its place of honor is far more excellent. For it does not merely see to it, as all these serve to do, that men breathe, eat, drink, and are kept warm, even though it surely embraces all these activities when it provides for their living together. It does not, I repeat, look to this only, but also prevents idolatry, sacrilege against God's name, blasphemies against his truth, and other public offenses against religion from arising and spreading among the people; it prevents the public peace from being disturbed; it provides that each man may keep his property safe and sound; that men may carry on blameless intercourse among themselves; that honesty and modesty may be preserved among men. In short, it provides that a public manifestation of religion may exist among Christians, and that humanity be maintained among men.
Try dropping that one into a modern day political conversation.

Calvin divides up the remainder of the chapter into talking about the three parts of the social order: the magistrate, the laws, and the people governed by them.

Calvin takes a high view of the magistrate--which again will astonish modern readers, though perhaps not so much if we remember when Calvin was writing. The magistracy is ordained by God, and the magistrate is to be respected and obeyed by all Christians. Magistrates are those who enact divine justice. Thus, for instance, Calvin has this justification for the death penalty:
But here a seemingly hard and difficult question arises: if the law of God forbids all Christians to kill, and the prophet prophesies concerning God's holy mountain (the church0 that in it men shall not afflict or hurt [Isa. 11:9; 65:25]--how can magistrates be pious men and shedders of blood at the same time?

Yet if we understand that the magistrate in administering punishments does nothing by himself, but carries out the very judgments of God, we shall not be hampered by this scruple. The law of the Lord forbids killing; but, that murderers may not go unpunished, the Lawgiver himself puts into the hand of his ministers a sword to be drawn against all murderers. It is not for the pious to afflict and hurt; yet to avenge, at the Lord's command, the afflictions of the pious is not to hurt or to afflict.
Calvin similarly justifies wars fought for the sake of justice. "But," he says, "it is the duty of all magistrates here to guard particularly against giving vent to their passions even in the slightest degree." He thus treats violence as a necessity in order to counter injustice, but it must be treated with special reverence.

One interesting comment about the magistrate: Calvin says, in Section 13,
"I also wish to add this, that tributes and taxes are the lawful revenues of princes, which they may chiefly use to meet the public expenses 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.


These considerations do not encourage princes to waste and expensive luxury, as there is surely no need to add fuel to their cupidity, already too much kindled of itself. But as it is very necessary that, whatever they venture, they should venture with a pure conscience before God, they must be taught how much is lawful for them, that they may not in impious self-confidence come under God's displeasure. And this doctrine is not superfluous for private individuals in order that they should not let themselves rashly and shamelessly decry any expenses of princes, even if these exceed the common expenditures of the citizens."
Oh, how it grates against our egalitarianism! But then again, even we have to admit there is some necessity in paying politicians and showering them with luxury. Our own office of president isn't so unlike royalty, after all, though at least he is democratically elected.

Now, although Calvin has a very high view of the magistrate, it's important to recognize what he says about the potential diversity of different forms of government. He says, in Section 8,
"[I]f you compare the forms of government among themselves apart from the circumstances, it is not easy to distinguish which one of them excels in usefulness, for they contend on such equal terms. 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 philosophers discuss be considered in themselves, I will not deny that aristocracy, or a system compounded of aristocracy and democracy, far excels all others: not indeed of itself, but because it is very rare for kings so to control themselves that their will never disagrees with what is just and right; or for them to have been endowed with such great keenness and prudence, that each knows how much is enough."
Here indeed appears to be a seed of liberal thought (in the classical sense). Two remarkable things here. One, Calvin does not think dogmatically about the form of government; it is a thing that must be tested by actual experience. Two, Calvin is tolerant of diverse forms of government. It is also important to mention that at least a few times in this chapter Calvin stresses the value of freedom as a political ideal. What does this mean for us? Well, only that the history of political thought is more interesting and more complicated than I knew.

On laws, Calvin has some interesting things to say. He takes the time to distinguish between moral, ceremonial, and judicial laws in the Old Testament, for the sake of arguing that the government is not required to follow all the same laws as prescribed in the Old Testament. Moral laws ought to be followed at all times in every place, but the other two types are variable depending on specific circumstances.

The other interesting topic Calvin deals with in relation to laws is that of litigation. He does not forbid Christians to use the legal process, but he insists that it must be done in love, and not out of selfish interests. In Section 18 he writes of a Christian involved in litigation, "He should rather be prepared to yield his own and suffer anything than be carried away with enmity toward his adversary." In Section 21 he deals with the passage in 1 Corinthians in which Paul condemns a litigious spirit. Calvin denies that Paul is here condemning all litigation entirely, but he does affirm the severe warnings that Paul gives against bad litigation.

Finally, Calvin has some striking things to say about the people who are to be subject to the magistrate. He begins Section 22 with,
"The first duty of subjects toward their magistrates is to think most honorably of their office, which they recognize as a jurisdiction bestowed by God, and on that account to esteem and reverence them as ministers and representatives of God."
And Calvin means be sincere, not just obeying outwardly. Once again, how he grates against our egalitarian sensibilities!

It gets worse. Calvin spends several sections justifying how we should not only submit in obedience to our government, but we should even submit to bad government. He cites as justification the numerous examples of wicked kings in the Bible who were nevertheless ordained by God to rule over the people. As the title of Section 29 goes, "It is not the part of subjects but of God to vindicate the right." I gotta be honest, these eight sections are pretty rough.

But after Calvin has said all of that, he issues a warning to those in authority.
"For if there are now any magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings..., I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce and 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." (Sec. 31)
And finally, the last section of the chapter (Sec. 32), and of the entire work, is an exhortation to Christians always to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). He says, "And here let us not be concerned about all that dignity which the magistrates possess; for no harm is done to it when it is humbled before that singular and truly supreme power of God." Thus while Calvin has spent several sections telling us how we ought to submit to human authorities, so now he ends with a call to courageous defiance of authority, when it is necessary.
"And that our courage may not grow faint, Paul pricks us with another goad: That we have been redeemed by Christ at so great a price as our redemptioin cost him, so that we should not enslave ourselves to the wicked desires of men--much less be subject to their impiety [1 Cor. 7:23]."
As a tag line, the Institutes end with the words, "God be praised."

As I reflect on Calvin's views, I confess that my distance from him in history creates a difficult for me in truly understanding his view of the State. It is more natural for me in my setting to view power as somewhat arbitrary, and for that reason it is a little difficult to talk about the State in terms of divine sanction. Nevertheless, I think most of Calvin's discussion of the State is fairly well translatable into terms that would be perfectly acceptable and familiar to modern people. Ultimately, I don't think he ever really gets much into particulars; he is far from actually developing a political theory. The principles he does present us are principles of moderation: don't seek anarchy, don't seek after violent revolution, respect the coercive power of the State wherever it is strictly necessary. I can agree with that much.

Should the State establish true religion? Well, that's a really interesting question now, isn't it? That's so far removed from our modern political discussions that it hardly seems bringing up. We have forbidden establishing a religion in this country because we value freedom. Yet for Calvin, true religion is precisely the source of freedom. Is there anything we can learn from this? Perhaps; I certainly can't hash it all out at the moment.

It's been fun reading and blogging through the Institutes. I think I'm going to have one more blog post on it, to summarize my overall reaction to Calvin--now that I've actually read him. If you really hate Calvin or Calvinism, I hope these blog posts help you to see what he actually said. I hope you find, as I have, that his views on many things were truly remarkable, and that he always displayed a sincere love for Christ and for humanity. Yet I'm sure you will find, as I have, that many things he says are atrocious and hard to swallow. At least he lays it out for people to deal with; he doesn't mince words.

And if you are a Calvinist, you should probably know what Calvin says, too. Most "Calvinists" I have talked to probably care about less than half of what Calvin actually wrote. For instance, what if Calvin had become known more for his ecclesiology than for his soteriology? That is, what if we cared more about Calvin's view of the Church than we did about Calvin's view of predestination and justification? There are many layers to this man's theology, and it's been fascinating actually exploring them all.

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