Calvin's Defense of Politics

Institutes of the Christian Religion
Book IV, Chap. XX

  1. Objection that the lawfulness of War is not taught in Scripture. Answer.

12. Restraint and humanity in war

But if it is objected that in the New Testament there is no passage or example teaching that war is lawful for Christians, I answer, first, that the reason for carrying on war, which anciently existed, still exists in the present day, and that, on the other hand, there is no ground for debarring, magistrates from the defence of those under them; And, secondly, that in the Apostolical writings we are not to look for a distinct exposition of those matters, their object being not to form a civil polity but to establish the spiritual kingdom of Christ; lastly, that there also it is indicated, in passing, that our Saviour, by his advent, made no change in this respect. 


It is not necessary to look to "the New Testament" for a validation of the power of warmaking. The Old Testament is the Word of God, and if an unchanging God said that warmaking was not a sin in the Old Testament, it is still not a sin. (This is the insight of "Theonomy.")

For (to use the words of Augustine) "if Christian discipline condemned all wars, when the soldiers asked counsel as to the way of salvation, they would have been told to cast away their arms, and withdraw altogether from military service. Whereas it was said, (Luke 3: 14,) Concuss no one, do injury to no one, be contented with your pay. Those who he orders to be contented with their pay he certainly does not forbid to serve," (August. Ep. 5 ad Marcell.) This is not good logic: "If Christian discipline condemned slavery, then when slaves asked for advice they would have been told to escape from their masters. But they were told to be content with their wages. So slavery cannot be condemned."

The fact is, the soldiers were told to do no violence. Strange thing to tell someone in the violence business.

But all magistrates must here be particularly cautious not to give way, in the slightest degree, to their passions. Or rather, whether punishments are to be inflicted, they must not be borne headlong by anger, nor hurried away by hatred, nor burn with implacable severity; they must, as Augustine says, (De Civil. Dei, Lib. 5 cap. 24,) "even pity a common nature in him in whom they punish an individual fault;" or whether they have to take up arms against an enemy, that is, an armed robber, they must not readily catch at the opportunity, nay, they must not take it when offered, unless compelled by the strongest necessity. For if we are to do far more than that heathen demanded who wished war to appear as desired peace, assuredly all other means must be tried before having recourse to arms. In fine, in both cases, they must not allow themselves to be carried away by any private feeling, but be guided solely by regard for the public. Acting otherwise, they wickedly abuse their power which was given them, not for their own advantage, but for the good and service of others.

Again, Calvin gives good advice for magistrates in his day. Nobody can disagree that violence must not be hastily pursued.

Stronger advice is needed for nations that make their living by trading weapons of mass destruction.





There is good reason to believe that most wars in the 20th century were not justified even by Calvin's logic. We are involved in military actions in Afghanistan for the benefit of oil companies, not "the public defense."

On this right of war depends the right of garrisons, leagues, and other civil munitions. By garrisons, I mean those which are stationed in states for defence of the frontiers; by leagues, the alliances which are made by neighbouring princess on the ground that if any disturbance arise within their territories, they will mutually assist each other, and combine their forces to repel the common enemies of the human race; under civil munitions I include every thing pertaining to the military art. The Bible says our citizenship is in heaven. What would Christ say about Magistrate Jones, amassing garrisons on his border with Magistrate Smith, who is also amassing garrisons on his border with Magistrate Jones? Are they both justified? Magistrate Jones claims the right to confiscate the wealth of his citizens, but denies this right to Magistrate Smith, hence Magistrate Jones' "protection" of his citizens from Magistrate Smith. On what grounds?

This is a critical point, not to be overlooked. Caesar did not have legitimate rule over Israel. He was a conqueror, a usurper, and a tyrant. He had no Biblical right to set up occupation forces in Israel. No political scientist since 1776 would call his occupation "legitimate." It was evil. But Jesus says "resist not evil" (Matthew 5:39). Paul says "resist not." By contrast, Calvin and the modern world speak of "garrisons, leagues, and other civil munitions."

"Resist not" does not negate "evil." We are not to resist (use violence against) illegitimate government. 

This goes for individuals as well as nations. If nation X threatens to invade nation Y, and change nation Y's system of government to that of nation X, why is this worth killing over? Israel had been invaded by Caesar, and occupation forces stationed throughout the nation. It was religious idolatry and political tyranny. But Paul said not to resist it. It was still evil, and God would hold Caesar accountable for his political sins. But Jesus said "put away your sword."