Mr. Huisken, a member of Grandville Protestant Reformed Church, is registrar at Hope College, in Holland, Michigan.
Calvin’s main treatise on civil government is found in Book IV, Chapter 20 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Since Chapter 20 constitutes the final chapter in his Institutes, it is considered by many to be strategically placed—a culmination of his teaching on what it means to be Christian in this world, the consequence of his theology. Whether this is indeed true we will leave for the Calvin scholars to argue, but what we do know is that Calvin gives prominence in his Institutes to this topic. For several reasons. Certainly Calvin’s time in history forced him to think about the state. He witnessed the tyranny of the pope who claimed both temporal and spiritual power. He lived at a time when kings and rulers openly persecuted the followers of the reformation (consider the introduction to his Institutes, his letter to Francis I where he pleads the cause of the Reformed in France). He himself was educated as a lawyer. His first published work was on Seneca’s De Clementia, a work considered to be a dissertation on political science. He knew law and government. And added to his experience with governments and law and the Romish Church was the turmoil created by the Anabaptists within the reformation movement. These folks seized upon their newly found liberty and declared themselves to be free of all rule and government. Calvin knew well the history of this movement. The fiasco in Munster where the Anabaptists were holed up in the city waiting for the parousia, but who in the end were defeated by the government forces, occurred as his Institutes were in press.
So Calvin’s concern with civil government was indeed natural. But what I hope we will see is that it was more than that. Calvin saw government as both necessary and essential. Government was ordained of God to serve His purpose.
As is typical of Calvin’s thought, however, one needs to have a global view of his thinking in order to arrive at an understanding of the concept he is writing about. One has to understand, or at least have some sense of, the context of Calvin’s thinking on the topic at hand. Calvin was logical and systematic in his writing. HisInstitutes especially reflect this fact. Thus, when Calvin opens Book IV of the Institutes with the words
Now, since we have established above that man is under a twofold government, and since we have elsewhere discussed at sufficient length the kind that reside in the soul of inner man and pertains to eternal life (Book III Chapters 1-19A) this is the place to say something about the other kind, which pertains only to the establishment of civil justice and outward morality.
you know that words such as now and since andabove are going to force you into going back to get the “lay-of-the-land” with regard to Calvin’s concept of the state. We need to know where this concept of civil government fits in Calvin’s thinking if we are to begin to have an understanding of it.
If we take this approach, then, in working toward an understanding of what Calvin believes the state to be, an understanding of Calvin’s organization of theInstitutes will be of help here in determining that sense of logical sequence in Calvin’s thinking. What will happen, in fact, is that by setting Calvin’s thoughts on the state in the context of his Institutes, his beliefs concerning the state will naturally unfold. (Ford Lewis Battles’ Analysis of the Institutes of the Christian Religion is very helpful here since it gives theInstitutes in outline form;) The organization of theInstitutes proceeds as. follows: Books I and II give the dogmatic loci of theology and christology, Book III is soteriology, and Book IV ecclesiology. Calvin moves in Books I-III from God and Christ and salvation—that which makes God and Christ internal—to Book IV which title begins with “The External Means . . . .” And, to Calvin, these means are the two kinds of government referred to above, the government of the church through its offices and the government of the individual and society through the magistrate and civil government, both of which according to the rest of Calvin’s title for Book IV are “Means and Aids By Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Jesus Christ and Holds Us Therein.”
Thus it can be argued, as many do, that Calvin’s final chapter of the Institutes, Chapter 20 on civil government, is in a real sense a necessary consequence of all that went before. Given all the theologizing that went before, Calvin now sees to it that these truths will be maintained in the church and in society. All these truths of God and Jesus Christ are to be upheld and regulated by the two kinds of government mentioned above: 1) church government which deals with the things of the inner man and 2) civil government, the necessary corollary, which concerns the outward deportment of men.
Further, Calvin is at pains to point out that these two kinds of government are not at variance; they are not antithetical, but complementary. This idea is important here if we are to understand Calvin’s concept of the state. For these governments both point to the Lordship of Jesus Christ over man’s life—both his inner and outer man are to recognize and believe and live in that consciousness. In order to get hold of this idea, one needs to recognize at the outset that overreaching all of Calvin’s consideration of civil government is not first of all whether Calvin proposes a republic or a monarchy as the best kind of government, or even whether the Christian is obligated to obey the government (that will all naturally follow), but his belief in the authority of the Word of God and the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all of life. Some make a crucial mistake and insist that Calvin be made the father of modern democracy (cf., for example, Boettner), and they make that the central teaching of Calvin on the state. It certainly can be argued that Calvin preferred democracy (he despised most kings, it seems), but it would be a mistake if this is what we get out of Calvin’s teaching on the state. Calvin was indeed concerned with the types of government, and his preference was for a republican form of government; but the point of Calvin is that “who governs” is not the sine qua non for right and legitimate government, but how one governs and what one does as ruler is central. Wilhelm Niesel, in his book The Theology of Calvin, puts it correctly when he states that
Calvin regards the state as fulfilling its appointed role in the service of Christ’s dominion. When he speaks of secular government, he is not concerned about the state as such, nor even about the Christian state; but about Christ and about the significance which the civil power has for our life in fellowship with this Lord.
Niesel (op. cit.), again, correctly analyzes Calvin’s thought when he writes:
In the fourth book of the Institutes Calvin treated of the Church, the Word, and the Sacraments, and he now proposes to show that among these “outward aids or instruments by which God calls us to and maintains us in communion with Christ”, the secular government also belongs. The latter is not the same things as the spiritual reign of Christ; but neither does it function merely in juxtaposition with it, but it exists for the good of those who in this perishable world belong to Christ and His eternal kingdom. There can be no decisive separation between state and church because the state has the same Lord as the church. Christ as the Head of His church is also precisely the Lord of this world. The fundamental section containing those reflections which Calvin devotes to the subject of civil government in his Institutes received therefore in the first edition the title: “The civil order is necessary for the well-being of the church.”
Calvin sets forth this basic idea already in the introduction to his Institutes, his “Letter to Francis I,” when he asserts that all rulers rule rightly if they acknowledge themselves to be “the ministers of God.” Those who rule according to the Word of God rule rightly. As Niesel observes, “Calvin teaches that when the glory of God is not the end of government, there is no legitimate sovereignty, but usurpation.”
Calvin further solidifies this idea of government being the minister of God when he argues that civil government has its origin in God, and its institution is by God. It is not something which has been derived by a society’s sense of the need for governance, as secular anthropologists would have us believe; but government, rightly conceived, is that which recognizes that its right to rule is given by God. Says Calvin (Institutes, IV, 4):
It has not come about by human perversity that the authority over all things on earth is in the hands of kings and other rulers, but by divine providence and holy ordinances. For God was pleased so to rule the affairs of men, inasmuch as he is present with them and also presides over the making of laws and exercising of equity in courts of justice.
Calvin believes with Paul in Romans 13:1 that power is an ordinance of God and that there are no powers except those ordained by God.
Good government, then, according to Calvin, will recognize where its authority comes from, will rule according to the Word of God, will recognize itself as God’s servant doing God’s will in ruling over the matters of men and society.
But we must see, further, that church and state, although distinguished by Calvin, are necessarily connected. The church gives instruction to the state as to what it must be and how it must behave; the state must see to it that the church is preserved in order that the pure gospel may be preached.
This idea becomes even clearer when Calvin speaks of the tasks of the state. Says Calvin (Institutes, IV, 20, 2):
. . . Civil government has as its appointed end. . . to cherish and protect the outward worship of God, to defend sound doctrine of piety and the position of the church, to adjust our life to the society of men, to form our social behavior to civil righteousness, to reconcile us with one another, and to promote general peace and tranquility.
This is not to say, however, that civil government does not have a secular duty. It does. But this duty is subordinate (Institutes, IV, 20, 3).
Its function among men is no less than that of bread, water, sun, and air; . . . indeed its place of honor is far more excellent. For it does not merely see to it. . . that men breathe, eat, drink, and are kept warm, even though it surely embraces all these activities . . . but it also prevents idolatry, sacrilege against God’s name, blasphemies against his truths and other public offenses against religion from arising and spreading among the people; it prevents the public peace from being disturbed; it provides that each man may keep his property safe and sound; that men may carry on blameless intercourse among themselves; that honesty and modesty may be preserved among men. In short, it provides that a public institution of religion may exist among Christians, and that humanity be maintained among men.
The task of government, then, has two aspects. Niesel (op. cit.) sums it when he says that “Peace in a country is threatened when God is not worshipped and His commands are not heeded, and the public worship of God is imperiled when strife prevails among men.” It is the task of the state to see to both tables of the law. The state is obligated to protect the pure preaching of the word lest “idolatry, sacrilege . . . blasphemies,” arise. And further, government must create an environment where the church can prosper. “They (magistrates) are ordained protectors and vindicators and public innocence, decency, and tranquility, and that their sole endeavor should be to provide for the common safety and peace of all” (Institutes, IV, 20, 9).
But Calvin warns about intermingling church and state. Conscience (Book III, 19) is man’s connection with God and His law and is the preview of the church. Conscience belongs to the inner man. No human law may bind that conscience. The state, as emphasized above, governs the outer man. Maintain that distinction, argues Calvin, and there will be no problems between church and state.
Such is Calvin’s concept of the state. Much can yet be written (and has) about Calvin’s idea of war and taxes and revolution. But that all follows from his idea of the state. I refer you to Book IV, Chapter 20 of theInstitutes if you are inclined to pursue these topics—it’s all there.