Calvin's Defense of Politics

Institutes of the Christian Religion
Book IV, Chap. XX

  1. The office of Magistrates approved by God.
    1. They are called Gods.
    2. They are ordained by the wisdom of God. Examples of pious Magistrates.
  In the previous section, Calvin told us he would examine the three features of Civil Government: The Magistrate, the Laws, and the People. Here he examines the first.

4. The magistracy is ordained by God

With regard to the function of magistrates, the Lord has not only declared that he approves and is pleased with it, but, moreover has strongly recommended it to us by the very honourable titles which he has conferred upon it. To mention a few. 

Calvin says that "the State" is ethically justified because it is described with honorable titles. It is also described with dishonorable titles. The logic is precarious here. 

Slave owners are given titles of honor in Scripture: "Masters" (Colossians 4:1), and slaves are commanded to honor their masters:

Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor,
1 Timothy 6:1 

Would Calvin condemn those who peacefully and non-violently attempt to eliminate slavery? But Calvin is saying that because God honors politicians with honorable titles, it would be wrong to vote them out of office. 

In fact, the purpose of the honorable rhetoric is to keep politicians from sinning, not to prevent the people from assuming their responsibilities and eliminating superfluous bureaucrats. Study the Functions of Biblical Rhetoric. Calvin does not prove his point with this line of argumentation.

When those who bear the office of magistrate are called gods, let no one suppose that there is little weight in that appellation. It is thereby intimated that they have a commission from God, that they are invested with divine authority and, in fact, represent the person of God, as whose substitutes they in a manner act. This is not a quibble of mine, but is the interpretation of Christ. "If Scriptures" says He, "called them gods to whom the word of God came."  They are called "gods."

Here is the passage. Christ is not saying that it was good to have "gods," He was saying that since they were called "gods" it wasn't blasphemous to call Himself the Son of God. The reasoning does not point us toward the ethical legitimacy of the State. The Jews were playing word games; Jesus reduces their argument to absurdity.

Consider also the fact that the pagan magistrates were called "gods." In fact, they were called "gods" (which Calvin says is a title of honor) even when they were thoroughly dishonorable (Psalm 82:1-6).

If it can be argued that calling magistrates "gods" is an honor to the magistrate, it can also be argued that in the history of Israel -- the failure of their heads of households to be Godly patriarchs like Abraham, and their desire for a king -- God's placement of "gods" over them to regulate their slave-like lives was hardly an honor to the People. They were, in a sense, false gods.

We agree with Calvin that God is sovereign, but God was sovereign in the choice of Judas Iscariot to deny Christ; that does not make Judas a man of honor, or his "office" something toward which we should aspire.

What is this but that the business was committed to them by God to serve him in their office, and (as Moses and Jehoshaphat said to the judges whom they were appointing over each of the cities of Judah) to exercise judgement, not for man, but for God?  Why did Moses have to appoint judges? Because of the failure of the people. The appointment of these officers was remedial, not normative. Yet as long as the people rebelled, the rulers were held to high standards. 

Paul tells those who own slaves:

Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
Colossians 4:1 

Christ is our Master, and slaves have a "master." Therefore slavery is good, and those trying to eliminate slavery are, as Calvin puts it, "insane and barbarous men [who] furiously strive to overturn this divinely established order" (IV.20.1) Everything Calvin says about the titles of politicians can be applied to the owners of slaves. But nobody reading this webpage would agree with Calvin that those who seek to abolish slavery are guilty of "outrageous barbarity" (IV.20.3) or "devilish arrogance" (IV.20.5). Slaves and masters have duties as long as slavery exists, and citizens and kings have duties as long as monarchy exists. But the desire to eliminate monarchy -- and ultimately even "democracy" -- is not prohibited by Biblical Law. This point is really not addressed by Calvin, or (as far as we can tell) any other commentator.

To the same effect Wisdom affirms, by the mouth of Solomon, "By me kings reigns and princes decree Justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, even all the judges of the earth," (Prov. 8: 15, 16.) For it is just as if it had been said, that it is not owing to human perverseness that supreme power on earth is lodged in kings and other governors, but by Divine Providence, and the holy decree of Him to whom it has seemed good so to govern the affairs of men, since he is present, and also presides in enacting laws and exercising judicial equity.  This exposition of Proverbs is below Calvin's usual high standards. The entire history of Israel testifies to the fact that it was indeed "human perverseness" that forced God to appoint gods over the people. If they had been faithful, this never would have happened. Wisdom, speaking in Proverbs 8, is not contradicting our interpretation of Biblical history, but is simply saying that those who are in positions of political power ought not to abuse their position, but should move themselves and their subjects continually closer to God's norm. (It should be recalled that Calvin dedicated his Institutes to that great libertarian defender of religious freedom, the king of France, and specifically intended to re-direct French persecution of Protestants onto the backs of the Anabaptists. The Institutes therefore sometimes shifts from careful exegesis to political propaganda, particularly in this section on the State.)
This Paul also plainly teaches when he enumerates offices of rule among the gifts of God, which, distributed variously, according to the measure of grace, ought to be employed by the servants of Christ for the edification of the Church, (Rom. 12: 8.) In that place, however, he is properly speaking of the senate of grave men who were appointed in the primitive Church to take charge of public discipline. The gift of "ruling" does not justify the existence of the State. "Ruling" would still exist in a state-less Anarcho-Theocracy:
  • Rom 12:8 Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness.
  • 1 Timothy 3:4-5 He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way-- {5} for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God's church? 
  • Titus 3:8 This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men.
  • 1 Thessalonias 5:12 But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you;
  • 1 Timothy 3:12 Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.
  • 1 Tim 5:17 Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.
  • Titus 3:14 And let people learn to devote themselves to good works in order to meet urgent needs, so that they may not be unproductive.

All of this "ruling" will still go on after Christians abolish the State.

This office, in the Epistle to the Corinthians he calls "kuberneseis", governments, (1 Cor. 12: 28.) Still, as we see that civil power has the same end in view, there can be no doubt that he is recommending every kind of just government.
  • 1 Corinthians 12:28 And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.

This is the only time in the New Testament this word occurs. Matthew Poole says, "Who the apostle means by helps, and by governments, is very hard to determine."

Does this word justify putting people in prison who will not surrender their property to the IRS? Does it justify bombs and machine guns? -- Even when these actions are universally approved and called "just" by political scientists?

He speaks much more clearly when he comes to a proper discussion of the subject. For he says that "there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God;" that rulers are the ministers of God, "not a terror to good works, but to the evil," (Rom. 13: 1, 3.) To this we may add the examples of saints, some of whom held the offices of kings, as David, Josiah, and Hezekiah; others of governors, as Joseph and Daniel; others of civil magistrates among a free people, as Moses, Joshua and the Judges. Their functions were expressly approved by the Lord. Wherefore no man can doubt that civil authority is in the sight of God, not only sacred and lawful, but the most sacred and by far the most honourable, of all stations in mortal life.

We are slowly growing out of the belief that "politician" is honorable. Few today want their children to grow up to be politicians. We have discussed Calvin's comments on Romans 13. As for his examples of saints:
  • David, Josiah, and Hezekiah were among the few kings who weren't clearly evil, and it must be remembered that they held an office the creation of which represented the rejection of God.
  • Joseph and Daniel were both kidnapped. If I were kidnapped and forced into servitude, I would do the best job I could (Ephesians 6:5-6). 
  • Moses, Joshua, and the Judges existed before Israel moved from a stateless patriarchal society to a political one. "Anarchy" existed under the Judges. Every Christian should be a Moses, a Joshua and a judge.