Calvin's Defense of Politics


Institutes of the Christian Religion
Book IV, Chap. XX

OF CIVIL GOVERNMENT

  1. The answer confirmed. Discourse reduced to three heads,
    1. Of Laws.
    2. Of Magistrates.
    3. Of the People.
Calvin's Institutes (pink column)
Our analysis (green column)
(Necessity and divine sanction of civil government, 3-7)
3. The chief tasks and burdens of civil government
In this section Calvin merely summarizes what he will discuss in the next few sections, but he also makes some significant claims.
But we shall have a fitter opportunity of speaking of the use of civil government. All we wish to be understood at present is, that it is perfect barbarism to think of exterminating it.
"Perfect" doesn't fit Calvin's argument. Many people reading this webpage already agree that government has no legitimate place in redistributing wealth from rich to poor. It is "barbarism" to think of eliminating this aspect of civil government? How about delivery of first-class mail? Is it "barbarism" to think of eliminating this aspect of civil government? There is a very long list of State actions which most thinking people agree should be eliminated. Eventually we come down to one or two functions: "punishment of criminals" and "national defense." The philosophical, economic, and political arguments put forth by anarcho-capitalist scholars might not be persuasive or even correct, but they are not "barbaric," and certainly not "perfect barbarism." Calvin is much too strong.
Its use among men being not less than that of bread and water, light and air, while its dignity is much more excellent. 
Wow! The State is as necessary to human beings as food and oxygen!? As necessary as the sun? This is called politico-centrism. This is certainly a view which can be proven from the writings of Aristotle, but not from the Hebrew-Christian Bible.
Its object is not merely, like those things, to enable men to breathe, eat, drink, and be warmed, (though it certainly includes all these, while it enables them to live together;) this, I say, is not its only object, but it is 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; 
Here is a re-assertion of a principle which is uppermost in Calvin's mind, and was a central feature of Reformed thought in its early years, and is now almost completely repudiated among all but a hard-core of Reformed thinkers. If Calvin is wrong about the necessity of the State protecting the purity of the church through civil prosecution of blasphemy and idolatry, and this is one of the most important items on his agenda for the State, it is all the more likely that his entire agenda is misguided.
it prevents the public peace from being disturbed, that every man's property be kept secure, 
Keep in mind that the State does not "prevent" anything from happening, strictly speaking; it only "punishes" (takes vengeance) against violators of property and the peace after they commit their infractions. There is only one thing that prevents crime, and the modern state will not endorse or promote it. More here.
[it provides] that men may carry on innocent commerce with each other, 
The greatest obstruction to commerce and prosperity is the State. Perhaps a third of all human action is now consumed with answering the call of regulation. "The Commerce Clause" is actually an anti-commerce clause. And the rewards of what little commerce is allowed to transpire is taxed at tyrannical rates. If this sounds like the mad ravings of a "right-wing extremist," one need only read the Declaration of Independence and its litany of complaints against Britain, and reflect on the fact that contemporary governments exceed those abuses by several orders of magnitude, to realize that the great threat in our day is not "extremism," but apathy ("moderation"). 
that honesty and modesty be cultivated;
That the State is the only way a society can cultivate honesty and modesty can be refuted in two words: Bill Clinton. Again, we refer the reader to the Founding Fathers.
 in short, that a public form of religion may exist among Christians, and humanity among men.
Throughout the world, and throughout history, the greatest threat to public religion has been "the State." It becomes less of a threat the less powerful it becomes. The State dehumanizes us all.
Let no one be surprised that I now attribute the task of constituting religion aright to human polity, though I seem above to have placed it beyond the will of man, since I no more than formerly allow men at pleasure to enact laws concerning religion and the worship of God, when I approve of civil order which is directed to this end, viz., to prevent the true religion, which is contained in the law of God, from being with impunity openly violated and polluted by public blasphemy.
Calvin again emphasizes a point which is vital to his argument and moves him passionately, and has been repudiated by all but a fringe minority in our day. Zwingli held Calvin's view. When he concluded that the Romish Mass was idolatry, his Reformed colleagues in Zurich agreed. But when they began preparing to celebrate the sacraments in a Biblical (Protestant) manner, Zwingli blocked their moves, declaring that they could not celebrate a non-idolatrous sacrament unless the Civil Magistrate gave its permission. The Swiss Anabaptists were then born. The State cannot prevent blasphemy; it can only penalize it after the fact. Here is how a stateless society would deter blasphemy.
But the reader, by the help of a perspicuous arrangement, will better understand what view is to be taken of the whole order of civil government, if we treat of each of its parts separately. Now these are three: 
The Magistrate, who is president and guardian of the laws; 
the Laws, according to which he governs; 
and the People, who are governed by the laws, and obey the magistrate. 
Let us consider then, 
first, What is the function of the magistrate? Is it a lawful calling approved by God? What is the nature of his duty? What the extent of his power? 
Secondly, What are the laws by which Christian polity is to be regulated?. 
And, lastly, What is the use of laws as regards the people? And, What obedience is due to the magistrate?
Calvin breaks these down in subsequent installments.

 


continued