Calvin's Defense of Politics

Institutes of the Christian Religion
Book IV, Chap. XX

  1. Of the duty of Magistrates. Their first care the preservation of the Christian religion and true piety. This proved.

9. Concern for both Tables of the Law

The duty of magistrates, its nature, as described by the word of God, and the things in which it consists, I will here indicate in passing. That it extends to both tables of the law, did Scripture not teach, we might learn from profane writers, for no man has discoursed of the duty of magistrates, the enacting of laws, and the common weal, without beginning with religion and divine worship. Thus all have confessed that no polity can be successfully established unless piety be its first care, and that those laws are absurd which disregard the rights of God, and consult only for men. Seeing then that among philosophers religion holds the first place, and that the same thing has always been observed with the universal consent of nations, Christian princes and magistrates may be ashamed of their heartlessness if they make it not their care. We have already shown that this office is specially assigned them by God, and indeed it is right that they exert themselves in asserting and defending the honour of Him whose vicegerents they are, and by whose favour they rule.


Calvin does not believe in the modern concept of "separation of church and state," and neither do we. We believe in the elimination of church and state. Very few people in our day believe the State should have anything to say about religion. This is a very modern idea. It cannot be consistently maintained. Calvin is correct in his claim that no pre-Enlightenment empire believed in the separation of religion and state. Only recently has the State been removed from discussions of worship and liturgy, and even then there was never a thought that the laws would not be based on true religion. There is tension, if not schizophrenia, in the modern position. Every law is based on a religion. Separation of church and state -- where "church" means "religion" or "God" -- is impossible. Christians should join Calvin in opposing this anti-Christian idea. More here.

Hence in Scripture holy kings are especially praised for restoring the worship of God when corrupted or overthrown, or for taking care that religion flourished under them in purity and safety. On the other hand, the sacred history sets down anarchy among the vices, when it states that there was no king in Israel, and, therefore, every one did as he pleased, (Judges 21: 25.) But worship forced by the guns of the State violates the principle of liberty which Calvin just discussed. The government should not be telling people how to worship God. On the other hand, when the government tells people that they cannot steal, rape or kill, the government is imposing a religion. The government's social security program adminsters that which the Bible calls "pure religion" (James 1:27)
This rebukes the folly of those who would neglect the care of divine things, and devote themselves merely to the administration of justice among men; as if God had appointed rulers in his own name to decide earthly controversies, and omitted what was of far greater moment, his own pure worship as prescribed by his law. Such views are adopted by turbulent men, who, in their eagerness to make all kinds of innovations with impunity, would fain get rid of all the vindicators of violated piety. America's Founding Fathers -- every single person who signed the Constitution -- believed the government should endorse and promote the true religion. The modern Supreme Court denies this. The only answer to the problems raised in court is the complete decentralization of power, which we call "Anarcho-Theocracy."

True religion is not liturgy, but obedience to God's Law in every area of life.

In regard to the second table of the law, Jeremiah addresses rulers, "Thus saith the Lord, Execute ye judgement and righteousness, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor: and do no wrong, do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow, neither shed innocent blood," (Jer. 22: 3.) To the same effect is the exhortation in the Psalm, "Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy; rid them out of the hand of the wicked," (Psalm 82: 3, 4.) Moses also declared to the princes whom he had substituted for himself, "Hear the causes between your brethren, and judge righteously between every man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him. Ye shall not respect persons in judgement; but ye shall hear the small as well as the great: ye shall not be afraid of the face of man, for the judgement is God's," (Deut. 1: 16.) I pass over such passages as these, "He shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt;" "neither shall he multiply wives to himself; neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold;" "he shall write him a copy of this law in a book;" "and it shall be with him and he shall read therein all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God;" "that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren," (Deut. 17: 16-20.) In here explaining the duties of magistrates, my exposition is intended not so much for the instruction of magistrates themselves, as to teach others why there are magistrates, and to what end they have been appointed by God. We say, therefore, that they are the ordained guardians and vindicators of public innocence, modesty, honour, and tranquillity, so that it should be their only study to provide for the common peace and safety. Of these things David declares that he will set an example when he shall have ascended the throne. "A froward heart shall depart from me: I will not know a wicked person. Whoso privily slandereth his neighbour, him will I cut off: him that has an high look and a proud heart will not I suffer. Mine eyes shall be upon the faithful of the land, that they may dwell with me: he that walketh in a perfect way, he shall serve me," (Psalm 101: 4-6.)




If you see your neighbor in peril, and you do nothing, you violate these commands. To say that these commands can only be obeyed by the State is ludicrous.




Why does Calvin say nothing about texts like these?




But what Calvin needs to prove is that magistrates have a divinely-announced monopoly on these duties; that it would be sinful to abolish the magistrate and commit ourselves to decentralized obedience to these commands.

But as rulers cannot do this unless they protect the good against the injuries of the bad, and give aid and protection to the oppressed, they are armed with power to curb manifest evildoers and criminals, by whose misconduct the public tranquillity is disturbed or harassed. For we have full experience of the truth of Solon's saying, that all public matters depend on reward and punishment; that where these are wanting, the whole discipline of states totters and falls to pieces. For in the minds of many the love of equity and justice grows cold, if due honour be not paid to virtue, and the licentiousness of the wicked cannot be restrained, without strict discipline and the infliction of punishment. The two things are comprehended by the prophet when he enjoins kings and other rulers to execute "judgment and righteousness," (Jer. 21: 12; 22: 3.) It is righteousness (justice) to take charge at the innocent, to defend and avenge them, and set them free: it is judgment to withstand the audacity of the wicked, to repress their violence and punish their faults.  


America's Founding Fathers, though familiar with Solon and pagans like him, brought a different perspective to America's society. They believed that true religion alone could keep society from falling to pieces, and that the State could never be powerful enough, and use the sword enough, to keep society orderly if religion were suppressed or ignored. More here.

Modern forms of punishment certainly do not make saints out of criminals, and punishment in Calvin's day was no better.

Calvin does not here give us warrant for replacing the machinery of the state with the machinery of freedom.