John Calvin’s Response When Civil Government Turns Bad – Calvin’s Social Theology. Part 3/4

Calvin Refusing The Lord’s Supper To The Libertines, In St. peter’s cathedral, Geneva.

John Calvin’s Reformation in Context – Calvin’s Social Theology. Part 1/4
John Calvin on the Necessity of Civil Government – Calvin’s Social Theology. Part 2/4

Inevitably, tension can arise between the church and the civil order, especially when kings and magistrates abuse their power and the state poses obstacles to genuine holiness. How should the church respond? Should the church meekly comply, or engage in passive resistance or even actively rebel to overthrow an oppressive government? In response to such tension, Calvin’s political realism is evident.

But it is the example of all ages that some princes are careless about all those things to which they ought to have given heed, and, far from all care, lazily take their pleasure. Others, intent upon their own business, put up for sales laws, privileges, judgments, and letters of favor. Others drain the common people of their money, and afterward lavish it on insane largesse. Still others exercise sheer robbery, plundering houses, raping virgins and matrons, and slaughtering the innocent. Consequently, many cannot be persuaded that they ought to recognize these as princes and to obey their authority as far as possible. (Inst. 4.20.4)

Matters become worse when magistrates who are regarded as guardians of peace, protectors of righteousness and avengers of the innocence and who are appointed as minsters of God “to praise the good, and punish the evil regarded fail their duty to praise the good and punish the evil (1 Peter 2:14 Vg). Thus, they also do not recognize as ruler him whose dignity and authority Scripture commends to us. Indeed, this inborn feeling has always been in the minds of men to hate and curse tyrants as much as to love and venerate lawful kings.” (Inst. 4.20.4)

In a letter to the King of France, Calvin himself writes, “Now, that king who in ruling over his realm does not serve God’s glory exercises not kingly rule but brigandage.” /1/ Still, given his political conservatism, Calvin insists that Christians should neither rebel nor contemplate deposing rulers who fail to discharge their duties but rather, submit to them since they derive their power from God:

Those who, unmoved by so many testimonies of Scriptures, dare rail against this holy ministry, as a thing abhorrent to Christian religion and piety – what else do they do but revile God himself, whose ministry cannot be reproached without dishonour to himself? And these folk do reject magistrates, but cast off God that he may not reign over them. /2/

In his discussion in Inst. 4.20.23 Calvin parades a string of classical texts that call for obedience: “Be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work” (Tit. 3:1), “Submit yourselves to the king, as supreme; or unto governors (1Peter 2:13) and make supplications, prayers, intercessions for kings, and for all that are in authority (1 Tim. 2:1-2).”

Calvin reaffirms his convictions in his comment on Romans 13:1:

The reason why we ought to be subject to magistrates is that they have been appointed by God’s ordination. If it is the will of God to govern the world in this manner, anyone who despises His power is striving to overturn the order of God, and is therefore resisting God Himself, since to despise the providence of the One who is the Author of civil government (juris politici) is to wage war against him. (Commentary Romans 13:1, cf. 1 Timothy 2:2)

Calvin exhorts his readers not to submit grudgingly but to think most honourably of the magistrate’s office and to take care not to attack the office pointlessly. He even counsels soul searching for those contemplating rebellion in case their suffering was a case of God using a bad ruler to punish them for their sins.

For despite the Lord’s testimony that the magistrate’s office is the highest gift of his beneficence to preserve the safety of men, and despite his appointment of bounds to the magistrates—he still declares at the same time that whoever they may be, they have their authority solely from him. Indeed, he says that those who rule for the public benefit are true patterns and evidences of this beneficence of his; that they who rule unjustly and incompetently have been raised up by him to punish the wickedness of the people; that all equally have been endowed with that holy majesty with which he has invested lawful power. (Inst. 4.20.25)

Calvin bolsters his case with additional examples from the Book of Daniel and 1 Samuel (Inst. 4.20.26-27). However, it should also be noted that Calvin also provides clear exceptions to the rule for obedience to rulers.

But in that obedience which we have shown to be due the authority of rulers, we are always to make this exception, indeed, to observe it as primary, that such obedience is never to lead us away from obedience to him, to whose will the desires of all kings ought to be subject, to whose decrees all their commands ought to yield, to whose majesty their scepters ought to be submitted. And how absurd would it be that in satisfying men you should incur the displeasure of him for whose sake you obey men themselves! 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 against him, let it go Unesteemed. 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. On this consideration, Daniel denies that he has committed any offense against the king when he has not obeyed his impious edict [Dan. 6:22-23, Vg.]. For the king had 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. (Inst. 4.20.32)

Obedience within the limits of God’s law
In general, even if rulers should turn out to be oppressive and unjust, Calvin recommends “passive resistance” while awaiting God’s vindication. Calvin assures the faithful that their patient endurance will not be in vain as God wrath will eventually be directed against unjust rulers – “Before His face all kings shall fall and be crushed, and all the judges of the earth, that have not kissed his anointed [Ps. 2:10-11], and all those who have written unjust laws to oppress the poor in judgment and to do violence to the cause of the lowly, to prey upon widows and rob the fatherless” (Inst. 4.20.29).

It may be admitted that Calvin’s counsel of passive resistance can be seen as a call to unconditional and unnecessary subservience by modern citizens who have witnessed the overthrow of tyrannical regimes in modern revolutions. However, critics should bear in mind that “private citizens” in Calvin’s time had no experience in social activism, and movements of protest and rebellion had tended to end up in chaos and destruction. The negative consequences of the ill-fated rebellions led by German peasants whom Luther riled against must have been fresh in Calvin’s mind when he gave his general counsel for passive resistance and called for trust in the justice of divine providence.

However, different circumstances could have persuaded Calvin to allow for exceptions to his general counsel. Tension and threats against the Hugenots in France was already simmering when Calvin wrote in the Institutes in 1559, “But in that obedience which we have shown to be due the authority of rulers, we are always to make this exception, indeed, to observe it as primary, that such obedience is never to lead us away from obedience to him, to whose will the desires of all kings ought to be subject, to whose decrees all commands ought to yield, to whose majesty their scepters ought to be submitted.” (Inst. 4.20.32)

Two years later, Calvin wrote in his commentary on Daniel’s disregard of the Persian king’s decree against praying to his own God, in anticipation of the persecution and widespread killing of the Hugenots Calvinists which broke out in the French Religious War in March 1562: “But Daniel was not so bound to the king of the Persians when he claimed for himself as a god what ought not to be offered to him… we must remember that passage of Peter, “Fear God, honor the king.” (Commentary 1Pet 2:17.) Here, Calvin added a somewhat unguarded remark:

The fear of God ought to precede, that kings may obtain their authority…For earthly princes lay aside all their power when they rise against God and are unworthy of being reckoned in the number of mankind [hominum numero]. We ought rather utterly to defy them than to obey them whenever they are so restive and wish to spoil God of his rights, as it were, to seize upon his throne and draw him from heaven. (Commentary Daniel 6:22) [Actually the Latin reads: one conspuere oportet in ipsorum capite – “to spit on their heads” rather than obey them]. /3/

Under such circumstances, Calvin advocates that the conscience of the godly be released from having to obey an unjust ruler. Thus, he feels that Daniel correctly denied that he had committed any offence against the king when he disobeyed the king’s impious edict. The conclusion follows accordingly:

So let us faithfully pay to princes the tributes which are due to them, let us be ready to give them all civil obedience; but if, being not content with their degree, they go about to pluck out of our hands the fear and worship of God, there is no cause why any should say that we despise them, because we make more account of the power and majesty of God. (Commentary Acts 17:7; cf. Commentary Jeremiah 1:9).

In short, Calvin opens the door to justifiable resistance against an oppressive order in the name of utmost loyalty to God. However, resistance should not be equated with rebellion to overthrow rulers. Calvin expresses reservation over the possibility of common people or private citizens actively rebelling against unjust civil authorities since mobs by nature are uncontrollable and destructive. Instead, he openly and strongly urges magistrates to actively oppose ungodly rulers.

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 licentiousness of kings, that if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation betray the freedom of the people, of which they know they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinances. (Inst. 4.20.21)

Here are revealed his goodness, his power, and his providence. For sometimes he raises up open avengers (vindices) from among his servants, and arms them with his command to punish (poenas sumant) the wicked government and deliver (eximant) his people, oppressed in unjust ways, from miserable calamity. Sometimes he directs to this end the rage of men with other intentions and other endeavors…For the first kind of men, when they had been sent by God’s lawful calling to carry out such acts, in taking up arms against (arma sumendo) kings, did not at all violate that majesty which is implanted in kings by God’s ordination; but, armed from heaven, they subdued (coercebant) the lesser power with the greater, just as it is lawful for kings to punish (animadvertere) their subordinates. But the latter kind of men, although they were directed by God’s hand whither he pleased, and executed his work unwittingly, yet planned in their minds to do nothing but an evil act. (Inst. 4.20.30). /4/

Unresolved Tensions
One wonders if Calvin was being unnecessarily cautious when he restricted the duty of active resistance to the magistrates. Perhaps this was due to his political realism given the historical circumstances, but it obscures the political consequences of his concept of God’s new order as one that involves the contribution of every individual, and his eschatological ideal of the kingdom of God with its abolishment of distinctions of order and degrees of honour: “Hence as the world will have an end, so also will government, and magistracy, and laws, and distinctions of ranks, and different orders of dignities, and everything of that nature. There will be no more any distinction between servant and master, between king and peasant, between magistrate and private citizen.” (Commentary 1Corinthians 15:24).

Calvin should have been more consistent with his eschatological insight that the new social order is created by Christ, who through his Spirit distributes gifts to all men. Such gifts enable social activism to be pursued not merely by the political elite such as kings and magistrates, but also by ordinary/private citizens who may also initiate political praxis aimed at social change. Michael Walzer helpfully spells out the logic of Calvin’s insight:

The idea that specially designated and organised bands of men might play a creative part in the political world, destroying the established order and reconstructing society according to the Word of God or the plans of their fellows – this idea did not enter at all into the thought of Machiavelli, Luther or Bodin. In establishing the state, these three writers relied exclusively upon the prince…All other men remained as subjects, condemned to political passivity…it was the Calvinists who first switched the emphasis of political thought from the prince to the saint (or the band of saints) and then constructed a theoretical justification for independent political action… This is surely the most significant outcome of the Calvinistic theory of world activity, preceding in time any confusion of religious worldliness into economic order. /5/

Further, it is more difficult to draw limits to Calvin’s teaching that public duty must be guided by one’s conscience. Again, Walzer ably summarises the dilemma:

He (Calvin) linked private conscience to public duty in order to produce political activity. As a direct consequence of this, however, he could hardly avoid the admission that such dramatic forms of activity as tyrannicide and prophetic denunciation might well be conscientious and dutiful. Secular order was thus subject to disruption by conscientious men: it was a difficult, even an untenable, position for a theorist whose fundamental teaching was one of discipline and obedience. /6/

Not surprisingly, within a decade Calvin’s disciples had abandoned his refusal to sanction common people rebelling against constituted authorities. This became evident in the Huguenots crisis when the Protestants in France, acting in accordance with the demand of pietas rather than the demand of legality, took up arms to defend themselves in the face of persecuting authorities. Likewise, the English exiles under John Knox engaged in plotting against Queen Mary. /7/

Tensions will naturally arise from Calvin’s teaching of a close, albeit distinguishable, relationship between the civil order and spiritual order. But as Harro Hophl rightly points out, the conflict between the demands of pietas of right worship and pietas of obedience to secular authority ought not to have been placed on par with one another. The issue of priority must be clearly delineated. In addition, we may distinguish between Calvin’s more permanent valid social principles which flow from his theology and his contingent legal recommendations given to address specific historical circumstances. Given these caveats, we agree with Hophl’s conclusion that “Calvin’s political thought was not so bonded to his theology that a man might not detach the former without tearing the latter.” /8/

The potency of Calvin’s social theology should not be minimized, especially in its demythologizing of the unquestionable legitimacy of rulers. The validity of the law is no longer guaranteed through the unquestioned authority of the ruler; rather, its form and content are valid only insofar as they promote godly laws and restore order. It may be conceded that Calvin failed to apply fully his theological insights. Still, as Lord Acton rightly observed, “The secret of Calvin’s later influence is that he claimed for the Church more independence than he obtained” and by theological arguments “checked the reigning idea that nothing limits the power of the State.” /9/

Thomas G. Sanders concurs with this view:

Wherever Calvinism spread, it found means for combating the political absolutism that was enveloping Europe…Calvin did not seek the rapport between the Church and the state through a control of the state by the Church. He held rather that the Church should determine freely, without interference from political order, the dimensions of life directly concerned with religion. /10/



1. “Prefatory Preface to King Francis” in John McNeill, Institutes of Religion, Library Christian Classics (Westminster, 1960 & 2006), p. 12.
2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. 1536 Edition. Tr. Ford Lewis Battles (Eerdmans, 1986), p. 210.
3. Quoted in John McNeill, Institutes 4.20.32, p. 1519, n. 54. See also John McNeill, “Calvin and Civil Government” in Donald McKim ed. Readings in Calvin’s Theology (Baker, 1984), pp. 260-274.
4. Roland Boer, “What Shall We Do With Ungodly Rulers? On Calvin, Theology and Politics,” Australia eJournal of Theology 14 (2009), p. 12.
5. Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints, pp.1-2. W. F. Graham notes that to the Calvinist the real world to be taken seriously is not that of courtly princes but that of farmers, scholars, knights and clergymen: The Constructive Revolutionary: John Calvin and His Socio-Economic Impact (John Knox, 1971), p. 79.
6. Walzer, The Revolutionary of the Saints, p. 64.
7. Harro Hophl, The Christian Polity of John Calvin (Cambridge UP, 1982). For a historical account of the process. See Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought vol. 2 (Cambridge UP, 1978).
8. Hophl, ibid., p. 217.
9. Lord Acton, Lectures in Modern History (Fontana, 1960), pp. 134, 136. See also Francois Wendel, Calvin (Fontana, 1963), p.79.
10. Thomas G. Sanders, Protestant Conception of Church and State (New York, 1964), pp. 254-255.

NEXT POST: God’s Providence and the Limits of Revolutionary Activism – Calvin’s Social Theology. Part 4/4

John Calvin’s Reformation in Context – Calvin’s Social Theology. Part 1/4
John Calvin on the Necessity of Civil Government – Calvin’s Social Theology. Part 2/4


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