Calvin's Defense of Politics

Institutes of the Christian Religion
Book IV, Chap. XX

  1. Last part of the whole work, relating to the institution of Civil Government. The consideration of it necessary,
    1. To refute the Anabaptists.
    2. To refute the flatterers of princes.
    3. To excite our gratitude to God.
    Civil government not opposed to Christian liberty. Civil government to be distinguished from the spiritual kingdom of Christ.

(How civil and spiritual government are related, 1-3)
    1. Differences betweeen spiritual and civil government

     Having shown above that there is a twofold government in man, and having fully considered the one which, placed in the soul or inward man, relates to eternal life, we are here called to say something of the other, which pertains only to civil institutions and the external regulation of manners.

More important to Calvin than political reform was liturgical reform (see Carlos Eire, War Against the Idols, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986). He was an impassioned opponent of Romish imposition of non-Biblical forms of worship which laid burdens on the conscience in opposition to the Gospel. The Reformers believed they were obligated to disobey the unScriptural liturgical requirements of the Church. The Westminster Confession of Faith, chap. xx, explains that 

under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected;[7] 

As a result, 

II. God alone is Lord of the conscience,[10] and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship.[11] So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience:[12] and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.[13]

 But if the Mass of Roman Church could not be allowed to bind the Christian conscience, how could the State be allowed to do so? This is the dilemma Calvin here attempts to resolve. He resolves it in the State's favor. Thus, Zwingli told his fellow reformers in Zurich that the Mass was "idolatry," but would not allow Reformed Churches to celebrate a non-papal sacrament until after permission was gained from the Civil Magistrate. His refusal to disobey the State gave birth to the Swiss Anabaptists, whose position on the relationship between State and Sacraments would eventually be accepted by all evangelical churches. 

     For although this subject seems from its nature to be unconnected with the spiritual doctrine of faith, which I have undertaken to treat, it will appear, as we proceed, that I have properly connected them, nay, that I am under the necessity of doing so, especially while, on the one hand, frantic and barbarous men are furiously endeavouring to overturn the order established by God, and, on the other, the flatterers of princess extolling their power without measure, hesitate not to oppose it to the government of God. Unless we meet both extremes, the purity of the faith will perish. We may add, that it in no small degree concerns us to know how kindly God has here consulted for the human race, that pious zeal may the more strongly urge us to testify our gratitude.

Seeing that the State has always been a source of injustice, the Biblical doctrine of the State was questioned by non-Christian anarchists and non-Christian statists like Nicolo Machiavelli.  Calvin describes two positions: some propose to do away with the State altogether, while others continue to support corrupt princes, and enforce the State's "positive law" above the Law of God. Anarcho-Calvinists clearly join Calvin in opposing the statism of the positivists. They do not believe, however, that "the purity of the faith will perish" if a group of people are not allowed to call themselves "the State" and confiscate the property of others and kill their enemies.

And first, before entering on the subject itself, it is necessary to attend to the distinction which we formerly laid down, (Book 3 Chap. 19 sec. 16;, et supra, Chap. 10:,) lest, as often happens to many, we imprudently confound these two things, the nature of which is altogether different. For some, on hearing that liberty is promised in the gospel, a liberty which acknowledges no king and no magistrate among men, but looks to Christ alone, think that they can receive no benefit from their liberty so long as they see any power placed over them. Accordingly, they 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 of the kind to interfere, as they suppose, with their liberty. But he who knows to distinguish between the body and the soul, between the present fleeting life and that which is future and eternal, will have no difficulty in understanding that the spiritual kingdom of Christ and civil government are things very widely separated.  Here Calvin discusses the issue of "Christian Liberty" which we describe above.



"The liberty of the gospel" can still be enjoyed by one who is the chattel slave of another, or who lives in a communist dictatorship. Violent revolution cannot be condoned. But communist dictators are still violating God's Law, and should repent. The problem is not that MY liberty is infringed by the statist, but that the politician violates God's Law by stealing and murdering.

Seeing, therefore, it is a Jewish vanity to seek and include the kingdom of Christ under the elements of this world, let us, considering, as Scripture clearly teaches, that the blessings which we derive from Christ are spiritual, remember to confine the liberty which is promised and offered to us in him within its proper limits. For why is it that the very same apostle which bids us "stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not again entangled with the yoke of bondage," (Gal. 5: l,) in another passage forbids slaves to be solicitous about their state, (1 Cor. 7: 21,) unless it be that spiritual liberty is perfectly compatible with civil servitude? In this sense the following passages are to be understood: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female," (Gal. 3: 28.) Again:" There is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all and in all," (Col. 3: 11.) It is thus intimated that it matters not what your condition is among men, nor under what laws you live, since in them the kingdom of Christ does not at all consist. Calvin succumbs to dangerous neo-platonic thinking here. As postmillennialists, we believe that the Gospel includes the promise of political blessings, not just "spiritual" (i.e., non-physical) blessings (Deut 28). This position is vindicated in that Calvinist nations have more political freedom than Catholic nations, who in turn have more political freedom that atheistic and pagan nations. 

This freedom comes about not because Christians rebel against princes, but because princes become Christians and leave office (encouraged to do so, of course, by their Christian subjects, who encourage politicians to repent [Mark 10:42-45], and no longer clamor for the "benefits" of the welfare-warfare State).