John Calvin and the Civil Magistrate (Part 1)
In response to personal discussions on Civil Government, Law, and Christian participation, I have decided to blog through John Calvin's last chapter of The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Today will be an introduction to the chapter Calvin entitled "On Civil Government." There are valuable things to be learned from this subject. The first obvious element is the spiritual nature Calvin provides to role of the civil government,
The former, in some measure, begins the heavenly kingdom in us, even now upon earth, and in this mortal and evanescent life commences immortal and incorruptible blessedness, while to the latter it is assigned, so long as we live among men, to foster and maintain the external worship of God, to defend sound doctrine and the condition of the Church, to adapt our conduct to human society, to form our manners to civil justice, to conciliate us to each other, to cherish common peace and tranquillity. All these I confess to be superfluous, if the kingdom of God, as it now exists within us, extinguishes the present life. But if it is the will of God that while we aspire to true piety we are pilgrims upon the earth, and if such pilgrimage stands in need of such aids, those who take them away from man rob him of his humanity. (4.20.2)
Here one will quickly detect that for Calvin the civil government works as an aid to the Christian. Almost perhaps as a second tier sacrament (I know Calvin would not use that language and is probably rolling in his grave). This emphasis might be shocking until one understands the kind of government of which that Calvin speaks. For Calvin civil government should "maintain the external worship of God" while "defend[ing] sound doctrine and the condition of the Church." One cannot blame for Calvin for thinking simplistically in an almost exclusively Christian world. But these thoughts seem a little naive in present day America. Nonetheless, Calvin attributes to the civil government the status of "aid" to "pilgrims upon the earth." This is no small corner of Calvin's thought.
Calvin concludes the section by exposing the falsity of the church becoming a law unto herself. He states plainly the church cannot suffice as a law unto itself — "they stupidly imagine her to be such as she never can be found in the community of men." This is not to confuse the church with the state. But Calvin stresses the necessity of both in society for very separate roles. With both being established by God it was pertinent for Calvin to defend the validity of the civil government.
If "it is perfect barbarism to think of exterminating it [the civil government]" (4.20.3) as the Anabaptists thought to do, then Christians themselves should seek to influence and help the civil government to the best of their ability. This is especially true in a democratic nation. This is compounded by Calvin's assertion that it is the civil governments responsibility "that no idolatry, no blasphemy against the name of God, no calumnies against his truth, nor other offences to religion, break out and be disseminated among the people; that the public quiet be not disturbed, that every man’s property be kept secure, that men may carry on innocent commerce with each other, that honesty and modesty be cultivated; in short, that a public form of religion may exist among Christians, and humanity among men."
This might be a stunning position for the giant of the Reformation. Calvin himself anticipated this when he says "Let no one be surprised that I now attribute the task of constituting religion aright to human polity." So we must be patient in hearing Calvin on the role of the magistrate, the law, and the obedience of the people. I will take a look at the magistrate next time.