Calvin's Defense of Politics

Institutes of the Christian Religion
Book III, Chapter XIX

15. Therefore, lest this prove a stumbling-block to any, let us observe that in man government is twofold: the one spiritual, by which the conscience is trained to piety and divine worship; the other civil, by which the individual is instructed in those duties which, as men and citizens, we are bold to performs (see Book 4, chap. 10, sec. 3-6.) To these two forms are commonly given the not inappropriate names of spiritual and temporal jurisdiction, intimating that the former species has reference to the life of the soul, while the latter relates to matters of the present life, not only to food and clothing, but to the enacting of laws which require a man to live among his fellows purely honorably, and modestly. The former has its seat within the soul, the latter only regulates the external conduct. We may call the one the spiritual, the other the civil kingdom. Now, these two, as we have divided them, are always to be viewed apart from each other. When the one is considered, we should call off our minds, and not allow them to think of the other. For there exists in man a kind of two worlds, over which different kings and different laws can preside. 

     By attending to this distinction, we will not erroneously transfer the doctrine of the gospel concerning spiritual liberty to civil order, as if in regard to external government Christians were less subject to human laws, because their consciences are unbound before God, as if they were exempted from all carnal service, because in regard to the Spirit they are free. 

     Again because even in those constitutions which seem to relate to the spiritual kingdom, there may be some delusion, it is necessary to distinguish between those which are to be held legitimate as being agreeable to the Word of God, and those, on the other hand, which ought to have no place among the pious. We shall elsewhere have an opportunity of speaking of civil government, (see Book 4, chap. 20.) For the present, also, I defer speaking of ecclesiastical laws, because that subject will be more fully discussed in the Fourth Book when we come to treat of the Power of the Church. (see Book 4, chap. 10-11.) 

Is there any Christian alive today who believes that God does not want private schools, but only the civil government to educate people in the duties of humanity and citizenship which keep society orderly? Would it be sinful to cut all government appropriations for education and rely solely on capitalist entrepreneurs and voluntary associations to set up schools and training centers which would inculcate Christian morality in practical ways that apply to every area of life?

Is it really possible to separate "spiritual" concerns from those moral questions which affect "temporal" areas of life such as business, production and acquisition of groceries and clothing and other household items, education, media, entertainment, etc.? Is the economic and social life of man really just "external?" Is is even possible to view the practical requirements of life, as expressed in the Ten Commandments, as somehow separate from "civil government?" Can society prosper if God reigns in our hearts, minds, actions, commerce, recreation, etc., but not in the State? Did the Soviet Union succeed by relegating religion to the private realm and allowing secularism to run free in the civil government?

Calvin believed that purifying the institutional church was more important the purifying the State. He believed ecclesiastical rituals to be a big deal, and felt that "Christian Liberty" required Protestants to disobey the dictates of church officials when they prescribed modes of worship which were not explicitly prescribed by Scripture.

Calvin did not believe that citizens had the same rights against the State as parishioners had against the Church. And to justify his emphasis on liturgy, he relied on the doctrine of "two governments." 

     We would thus conclude the present discussion. The question, as I have said, though not very obscure, or perplexing in itself, occasions difficulty to many, because they do not distinguish with sufficient accuracy between what is called the external forum, and the forum of conscience. What increases the difficulty is, that Paul commands us to obey the magistrate, "not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake," (Rom. 13: 1, 5.) Whence it follows that civil laws also bind the conscience. Were this so, then what we said a little ago, and are still to say of spiritual governments would fall.  Church rituals infringe on the "conscience," says Calvin, and so cannot be obeyed if contrary to Scripture. But doesn't the State also infringe on conscience? Shouldn't it be disobeyed as quickly as the Church?

     To solve this difficulty, the first thing of importance is to understand what is meant by conscience. The definition must be sought in the etymology of the word. For as men, when they apprehend the knowledge of things by the mind and intellects are said to know, and hence arises the term knowledge or science, so when they have a sense of the divine justice added as a witness which allows them not to conceal their sins, but drags them forward as culprits to the bar of God, that sense is called conscience. For it stands as it were between God and man, not suffering man to suppress what he knows in himself; but following him on even to conviction. It is this that Paul means when he says, "Their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing, or else excusing one another," (Rom. 2: 15.) Simple knowledge may exist in man, as it were shut up; therefore this sense, which hales man before the bar of God, is set over him as a kind of sentinel to observe and spy out all his secrets, that nothing may remain buried in darkness. Hence the ancient proverb, Conscience is a thousand witnesses. For the same reason Peter also employs the expression, "the answer of a good conscience," (1 Pet. 3: 21,) for tranquility of mind; when persuaded of the grace of Christ, we boldly present ourselves before God. And the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says, that we have "no more conscience of sins," (Heb. 10: 2,) that we are held as freed or acquitted, so that sin no longer accuses us. 

Calvin attempts to prove that we may disobey the Church when it prescribes idolatrous worship, but not disobey the State so quickly, based on the meaning of the word "conscience." But the word applies just as readily to political contexts as to liturgical ones.








In context, Peter is talking about our relationships with outsiders, notably with the State (1 Peter 2:13ff.).



16. Wherefore, as works have respect to men, so conscience bears reference to God, a good conscience being nothing else than inward integrity of heart. In this sense Paul says that "the end of the commandment is charity, out of a pure heart, and of a good consciences and of faith unfeigned" (1 Tim. 1: 5.) He afterwards, in the same chapter, shows how much it differs from intellect when he speaks of "holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away, have made shipwreck," (1 Tim. 1: 19.) For by these words he intimates, that it is a lively inclination to serve God, a sincere desire to live in piety and holiness. 

     Sometimes, indeed, it is even extended to men, as when Paul testifies, "Herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offense toward God, and toward men," (Acts 24: 16.) He speaks thus, because the fruits of a good conscience go forth and reach even to men. But, as I have said, properly speaking, it refers to God only. 

     Hence a law is said to bind the conscience, because it simply binds the individual, without looking at men, or taking any account of them. For example, God not only commands us to keep our mind chaste and pure from lust, but prohibits all external lasciviousness or obscenity of language. My conscience is subjected to the observance of this law, though there were not another man in the world, and he who violates it sins not only by setting a bad example to his brethren, but stands convicted in his conscience before God. 



In context, Paul is talking to Timothy about the law, notably as applied by the State. Later in that chapter, Paul speaks of his acts in conjunction with the execution of Stephen (Acts 7) and other Christians, actions which are arguably more civil than ecclesiastical.

Shouldn't civil magistrates have a "lively inclination to serve God?"

This statement about conscience was made by Paul in the course of a trial before the governor. But Calvin insists the freedom of conscience applies primarily to the ecclesiastical sphere, and does not justify civil disobedience. His argument is less than persuasive.



     The same rule does not hold in things indifferent. We ought to abstain from every thing that produces offense, but with a free conscience. Thus Paul, speaking of meat consecrated to idols, says, "If any man say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that showed it, and for conscience sake:" "Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other," (1 Cor. 10: 28, 29.) A believer, after being previously admonished, would sin were he still to eat meat so offered. But though abstinence, on his part, is necessary, in respect of a brother, as it is prescribed by God, still he ceases not to retain liberty of conscience. We see how the law, while binding the external act, leaves the conscience unbound. See more analysis of the doctrine of conscience here.