Calvin's Defense of Politics

Institutes of the Christian Religion
Book IV, Chap. XX

  1. Lawfulness of War.

11. On the right of the government to wage war

As it is sometimes necessary for kings and states to take up arms in order to execute public vengeance, the reason assigned furnishes us with the means of estimating how far the wars which are thus undertaken are lawful. For if power has been given them to maintain the tranquillity of their subjects, repress the seditious movements of the turbulent, assist those who are violently oppressed, and animadvert on crimes, can they use it more opportunely than in repressing the fury of him who disturbs both the ease of individuals and the common tranquillity of all; who excites seditious tumult, and perpetrates acts of violent oppression and gross wrongs? If it becomes them to be the guardians and maintainers of the laws, they must repress the attempts of all alike by whose criminal conduct the discipline of the laws is impaired. Nay, if they justly punish those robbers whose injuries have been inflicted only on a few, will they allow the whole country to be robbed and devastated with impunity? Since it makes no difference whether it is by a king or by the lowest of the people that a hostile and devastating inroad is made into a district over which they have no authority, all alike are to be regarded and punished as robbers. Natural equity and duty, therefore, demand that princes be armed not only to repress private crimes by judicial inflictions, but to defend the subjects committed to their guardianship whenever they are hostilely assailed. Such even the Holy Spirit, in many passages of Scripture, declares to be lawful.


Having discussed capital punishment, Calvin now tackles the issue of war. Let us answer Calvin in the opposite order in which we answered his arguments on capital punishment. Even if we grant that it is just to "declare war," where does the Bible say that only the Civil Magistrate may do so? Didn't Abraham "wage war?" (Genesis 14)  Why can't we abolish the State if we feel that its efforts at national defense are inefficient or corrupt?

The Private Production of Defense

Calvin reasons that since it's OK to punish a robber, it's OK to punish a whole bunch of robbers at the same time. Unfortunately, "war" in the modern age is not neat. Christian ethics demands that we consider the scenario in which Jones robs Smith and Smith "punishes" Jones by bombing everyone in Jones' neighborhood.

If Osama bombs Smith, is Smith's magistrate justified in bombing Osama's neighborhood if Osama got his bomb from Smith's magistrate? What if Smith's magistrate has a long track record of creating "enemies" from which it claims to protect Smith?

Have we learned anything from history about what causes wars? Is there any connection between the growth of government and the growth of wars?

Yes, and Yes Definitely.

We are convinced that if Calvin could see the carnage from today's machines of war, he would re-evaluate his position.