|John Calvin Speaking at the Council of Geneva 1549|
A Maligned Social Reformer
John Calvin’s theology was forged in the cauldron of social conflict. Although Calvin as an exile in Geneva would have cherished his new found freedom from the tyranny of the king of France and from deadly attacks launched by militant Catholics, no one can downplay the trauma of his social dislocation after fleeing from France. For Calvin, theological reflection in exile became a desperate intellectual mechanism to secure a sense of harmony and well-being for one who was now a stranger in a strange land. Calvin’s plight was exacerbated by the fact that Geneva, his new ‘home,’ was a city of contentious factions competing for power as the city groped for ways to maintain order and security after breaking away from the Duke of Savoy in 1535. One may say that for both Calvin as an alienated exile and for the Genevans, finding the right balance between their precious freedom and preserving their precarious social order assumed an existential intensity.
Calvin had to contend with Genevan citizens who jealously guarded their newfound freedom (the Libertines) and resolutely rejected any semblance of social regulation which they regarded as a regress to the old oppressive order. He forcefully opposed the Anabaptists to prevent irresponsible libertarianism which would result in lawlessness and endless disputes. Finally, Calvin had running battles with the civil authorities of Geneva – the elected Council and its liaison committee working with the pastors (the Consistory) – to limit the jurisdiction of civil authorities in the ordering of church life. The danger of recurring authoritarianism from civil authorities encroaching into the life of the church was real. It was only too tempting for the authorities in the xenophobic and conspiracy laden atmosphere of Geneva to implement repressive measures that would only undermine the nascent democratic freedom of its citizens.
The task given to Calvin to supervise and implement Christian doctrine and practice in Geneva was one fraught with dangers, but it offered him an unprecedented opportunity to develop a social theology that would maintain an equipoise between the social extremism of lawless libertarians on the one hand and despotic authoritarianism on the other. Nevertheless, Calvin’s theology reflects these tensions and ambiguities as he struggled unceasingly to maintain a dynamic equilibrium between order and freedom. Calvin first grounds his theology on the grace of Christ and its necessary consequence of freedom (Inst. 3.19) /1/ before he addresses the problem of oppressive laws and tyranny (Inst. 4. 10). He then elaborates on the external means or aids by which God invites us into the society of Christ and upholds us as we engage with wider society (Inst. 4. 20).
Calvin as an Oppressive Enemy of Freedom
In discharging his task as a social reformer in Geneva, Calvin has suffered from much bad press. Liberal scholarship commonly depicts him as an intolerant leader who ruled Geneva with an iron hand, or worse, an arch-inquisitor evidenced by his readiness to arrest, put on trial and dispatch Servetus to be burned to death. Roland Bainton even declared that “If Calvin ever wrote anything in favor of religious liberty it was a typographical error.”/2/
In reality it was the civil authorities, the elected Council [and sometimes, the Consistory] which exercised power in Geneva. Indeed, Calvin’s ongoing challenge was to preserve social space for the church and protect it from encroachment by powerful and intrusive civil authorities so that church members could enjoy freedom to practice their faith. To be effective, Calvin was forced to develop a comprehensive and coherent social vision that would enable believers to be in the world but not of the world.
Theological Foundations of Calvin’s Social Vision
Calvin’s theology is first of all a “world-formative faith.”/3/ In contrast to some medieval monastic traditions, Calvin stresses that the world is a theatre for God’s glory and represents his endowment for men’s welfare: “The whole order of this world is arranged and established for the purpose of conducing to the comfort and happiness of man” (Commentary Psalm 8:6). These creation orders serve as a clear and constant reminder of God’s goodness. Given the utter reliability of God and his creation orders, man can count on the orders for his welfare. Thus, Calvin declares “that men are rightly under the power of God, so that he should everywhere be acknowledged as king, is confirmed by the order of creation (creationis ordine) itself; for the providence of God is openly reflected on the face of the whole earth” (Commentary Psalm 24:2).
For Calvin, the pre-eminent mark of creation order is the civic order itself: “Political order is called the assembly of God for although the divine glory shone forth in every part of the world, yet when lawful government flourishes among men it is reflected therefrom with preeminent lustre” (Commentary Psalm 82:1). Furthermore, God has appointed rulers to administer public affairs in a just and orderly manner since it is when justice prevails that human society coheres (Commentary Psalm 82:5). God’s will for a well-ordered society is set forth clearly: “How much God is pleased with government and the well constituted order of all things; how great a privilege it is to have it well preserved among us…When these fall, civilization itself falls along with them” (Commentary Psalm 24:12).
Calvin did not consider the civil order superfluous. He was profoundly aware of the reality of human waywardness. Since human beings in their natural state have anarchic tendencies, God has installed rulers and magistrates to exercise power to protect the social order. As such, a good government is an exemplar of God’s common grace. Civil government does not merely see to it “that men breathe, eat, drink, and are kept warm”; it 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.” In short, “it provides that a public manifestation of religion may exist among Christians, and that humanity be maintained among men” (Inst. 4.20.3).
Nevertheless, Calvin was painfully aware that such orders have also fallen along with man. Society is ever threatened by a dissolution into chaos and abuse. In particular, the failure and abuse of political power can be most distressing. Calvin saw the courts of the princes as nests wherein ambition, hypocrisy, flattery and servility flourished (Commentary Isaiah 32:1). He often exposed the neglect of justice due to corrupt judges. Calvin’s vexation is clear when, despite his generally cautious writings, heaped judgment on those in power: “Why is it that kings and princes seem to want to put their foot on the whole world’s throat?” He repeats his indictment: “We know, of course, how insatiable are the desires of kings; they imagine they can do what they like.” And again: “The willfulness and pride of kings could scarcely be repressed by any constraints” (Commentary Harmony of the Law Deut. 17:16). Calvin testified in his own day that the kings even deemed subjection to the reign of Christ an intolerable diminution of their rightful authority (Gospel Harmony CTS, 3:276). Thus, his agreement with the biting humour of Luther/Augustine who expressed the view that great kingdoms are after all great robberies (Commentary Genesis 10: 11).
Calvin as a Social Conservative
Still, it cannot be denied that Calvin at heart was a social conservative who advocated esteem, submission and veneration towards government. This becomes clear in his comment on Romans 13:1-4, “Let every person be subject to the government authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been constituted by God. Those who resist will incur judgment…[The ruler] is God’s servant for your good.” Civil government is vital to maintaining order because fallen human nature is unruly.
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. For you may find some who very respectfully yield themselves to their magistrates and desire somebody whom they can obey, because they know that such is expedient for public welfare; nevertheless, they regard magistrates only as a kind of necessary evil…By this he means that subjects should be led not by fear alone of princes and rulers to remain in subjection under them (as they commonly yield to an armed enemy who sees that vengeance is promptly taken if they resist), but because they are showing obedience to God himself when they give it to them; since the rulers’ power is from God. I am not discussing the men themselves, as if a mask of dignity covered foolishness, or sloth, or cruelty, as well as wicked morals full of infamous deeds, and thus acquired for vices the praise of virtues; but I say that the order itself is worthy of such honor and reverence that those who are rulers are esteemed among us, and receive reverence out of respect for their lordship. (Inst. 4.20.22)
As a conservative, Calvin polemicized against the Anabaptists, political radicals and anarchists who in his view, conflate the spiritual and the temporal as they seek to overthrow the existing political order and replace it with a holy society. Calvin writes: “they therefore think that nothing will be safe until the whole world is changed into a new form, when there will be neither courts, nor laws, nor magistrates, nor anything which in their opinion restricts their freedom” (Inst. 4.20.1).
Calvin seeks to avoid the troubling excesses that arise when Christians confuse the spiritual and the temporal orders. Some Christians withdraw from the troubling conflicts in the world and seek refuge in spiritual escapism. Others consider themselves solely accountable to a higher spiritual order. As such, they disregard man’s laws and social sanctions as they only answer to the God’s law. Both escapism and lawlessness are problematic for Calvin (see Inst. 4.20.2).
1. Unless otherwise stated, all references to the John Calvin’s Institutes (1559) are from Calvin Institute of the Christian Religion 2 vols. Ed John T. McNeill; Tr. Ford Lewis Battles (Westminster, 1960).
2. Roland Bainton declared that the Reformation at the outset brought no gain for religious liberty. The reverse was the case particularly under Calvin, “the arch-inquisitor of Protestantism” and “dictator of Geneva”. Bainton added, “If Calvin ever wrote anything in favor of religious liberty…it was a typographical error.” See John Witte, The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (Cambridge UP, 2008), pp. 10-12.
3. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace (Eerdmans, 1983).
Part 2/4- John Calvin on the Necessity of Civil Government
Part 3/4- John Calvin’s Response When Civil Government Turns Bad
Part 4/4- God’s Providence, Freedom and the Limits of Revolutionary Activism