John Calvin and the Civil Magistrate (Part 3)
Proceeding through Calvin's Institutes of Religion "On Civil Magistrate" brings us to what form of government is best. Calvin is not lacking in words here so I will try to let him speak while interjecting some limited insights.
"Monarchy is prone to tyranny. In an aristocracy, again, the tendency is not less to the faction of a few, while in popular ascendancy there is the strongest tendency to sedition." (Inst 4.20.8)
There are no perfect systems. They each have potential flaws due to the sinfulness of man. Ultimately, Calvin supports aristocracy since "Owing, therefore, to the vices or defects of men, it is safer and more tolerable when several bear rule." For many throughout the history of the United States, this would have seemed very strange. But over the past many decades the shift in "the magistrate" (aka the popular ascendancy/the people) has lead to a dramatic cultural split between those trying to uphold the principals and purposes of the magistrate as Calvin would define it. The magistrate is to,
"give themselves to promote religion, to maintain the worship of God, and to take care that sacred ordinances be observed with due reverence...also...to prevent men from abandoning themselves to brutal filthiness or flagitious conduct" (Commentary on 1 Timothy 2:2)
It should be safe to agree that the current voting populous of the USA is not of one mind on these issues. Voting records, court decisions, and public opinion as dictated by the new media is quite telling. Calvin will "willingly admit that there is no kind of government happier than where liberty is framed with becoming moderation" (Inst 4.20.8) but liberty does not extend beyond the responsibilities given by God.
So what is one to do in such a state where they desire a different form of government? Calvin answers clearly, "should those to whom the Lord has assigned one form of government, take it upon them anxiously to long for a change, the wish would not only be foolish and superfluous, but very pernicious" (Inst 4.20.8). Frankly, I have to chuckle when reading this because the entire history of the USA is built upon this "foolish and superfluous" type of thought. Presuming Calvin did not have a time-cultural change of thought, he would have denounced the American Revolution as a scam. How can one "found a Christian nation" when they are working in direct contradiction to the word of God?
Calvin retains words for us today too — "whatever be the form which he has appointed in the places in which we live, our duty is to obey and submit" (Inst 4.20.8). Important to this is that bearing down in voting is not subversive to the civil magistrate. It is in fact, the government form that has been granted to us. The Libertarian movement which wish to decentralize government power is fully entitled to do so by the very rules the government has in place. I believe Calvin would rightly nod his head since Christians are not focused on changing the form of government but its size and strength (never denying that they should be obeyed).