Posted by: Michael Dewalt | October 16, 2008

Calvin’s Political Theology in Other Works

(Posted by David Hall)

Geneva’s premier reformer, though, was more than the sum of precise theology. He was also an able commentator and communicator. Driven by the need to record biblical insights for posterity, Calvin composed commentaries on most biblical books. His commentaries contained practical discussions as well as doctrinal treatises, expounding on subjects ranging from human relationships to work ethic concerns. Several parts of Calvin’s commentaries develop certain significant themes more broadly than either his sermons or The Institutes permitted. Representative samples, concentrating on several key texts (Exodus 18, 1 Samuel 8, Daniel 6), along with other illuminating glosses, are provided below in order to present a more rounded vignette of Calvin’s thought.

Old Testament Texts

In his comments on Genesis 49, he noted: “In order to make the distinction between a legitimate government and tyranny, I acknowledge that counselors were joined with the king, who should administer public affairs in a just and orderly manner.”  Calvin also expressed his approval of classical republican traditions: “In as much as God had given them the use of the franchise, the best way to preserve their liberty for ever was by main-taining a condition of rough equality, lest a few persons of immense wealth should op-press the general body. Since, therefore, the rich, if they had been permitted constantly to increase their wealth, would have tyrannized over the rest, God put a restraint on immod-erate power by means of this law.”
Calvin’s resistance theory is further exhibited in his commentary on the rebellion of the Hebrew midwives.  He characterized any obedience to the murderous command of Pharaoh as “preposterously unwise,” a detestable effrontery, and ill-conceived in its attempt to “gratify the transitory kings of earth” while taking “no account of God.”  Most clear in that context, Calvin wrote that God did not delegate his rights to princes, “as if every earthly power, which exalts itself against heaven, ought not rather most justly to be made to give way.”

Exodus 18

Calvin’s commentary on Exodus 18 displays his appreciation for the robust Hebrew con-tributions to republicanism.  In between Nimrod  and Moses, the notion of a republic vanished or seemed unknown. Calvin realized that all that the Israelites had known for four centuries was the monarchical rule by Pharaohs. Thus, the republican-type plan sug-gested by Jethro appears as an innovation that did not originate in the mind of man, thought Calvin.

Rather than commending either a democracy or a monarchy, Jethro advised Moses and the people to select a plurality of prudent representative leaders (Exodus 18:21).  Moses instituted a graduated series of administrations with greater and lesser magistrates, and Calvin asserted that the earliest Hebrew republican government devolved from the divine mind long before the Golden Age of Greco-Roman governance, the Enlighten-ment, or other modern revolutions.

The early federal scheme adopted in Exodus 18 seemed, to Calvin and his followers (as it had to Aquinas and Machiavelli), to be republicanism. Commenting on a similar passage in Deuteronomy 1:14-16, Calvin stated: “Hence it more plainly appears that those who were to preside in judgment were not appointed only by the will of Moses, but elected by the votes of the people. And this is the most desirable kind of liberty, that we should not be compelled to obey every person who may be tyrannically put over our heads; but which allows of election, so that no one should rule except he be approved by us. And this is further confirmed in the next verse, wherein Moses recounts that he awaited the consent of the people, and that nothing was attempted which did not please them all.” Thus, Calvin viewed the Hebrew Republic as being led by elected representa-tives, who ruled by the consent of the governed.

Later, Calvinist Johannes Althusius (1557-1638) agreed, writing: “I consider that no polity from the beginning of the world has been more wisely and perfectly constructed than the polity of the Jews.” Part of what he believed was unimprovable was an early form of republican-federal government. As Doumergue noted, Calvin was the “founder of stable and powerful democracies, a defender not of ‘egalitarianism,’ but of ‘equality before the law.’”  Whether Calvin was the founder of modern democratic governments or not, as Doumergue suggested, his sermons on these passages from the Pentateuch il-lustrated God’s inestimable gift to the Jewish commonwealth, specifically the “freedom to elect judges and magistrates.”

A century after Calvin, Samuel Rutherford used this same Mosaic pattern in his 1644 Lex Rex to argue for a republican form of civil polity. Indeed, most of the Reformation era political tracts (e.g., those by Calvin, Beza, Bucer, Knox, Buchanan, Ponet, Althusius, etc.) devoted extensive commentary to the Old Testament patterns of government. These reformers viewed Old Testament precedents as applicable to the politics of their own settings, and these same ideas were drawn upon later by an American tradition that nourished its founders. Ideas, like those that Calvin espoused, furthered these arguments and western political discourse.

I Samuel 8

Calvin’s sermon on 1 Samuel 8, one of the most widely expounded political passages in Scripture, provides more insight into his political matrix. His 1561 exposition discusses the dangers of monarchy, the need for proper limitation of government, and the place of divine Sovereignty over human governments. It is an example of Calvinism at its best, carefully balancing individual liberty and proper government.
Calvin began his sermon on 1 Samuel 8  by asserting that the people of Israel were not required to elect a king. Warning against hierarchical “plundering and robbery,” Cal-vin reasoned that “the Lord does not give kings the right to use their power to subject the people to tyranny. Indeed, when the liberty to resist tyranny seems to be taken away by princes who have taken over, one can justly ask this question: since kings and princes are bound by covenant to the people, . . . if they break faith and usurp tyrannical power by which they allow themselves everything they want: is it not possible for the people to consider together taking measures in order to remedy the evil?”

Calvin preached that “there are limits prescribed by God to their power, within which they ought to be satisfied: namely, to work for the common good and to govern and direct the people in truest fairness and justice; not to be puffed up with their own importance, but to remember that they also are subjects of God.” Leaders were always to keep in mind the purpose (i. e., the glory of God) for which they had been providentially ap-pointed.

Calvin viewed Samuel warning citizens about “the royal domination they will have to bear, and that their necks will have to be patiently submitted to his yoke.” Calvin inferred something very significant from this: that intervening magistrates, not citizens them-selves, should seek to correct abuses and tyranny. His doctrine was that “there are legiti-mate remedies against such tyranny, such as when there are other magistrates and official institutions to whom the care of the republic is committed, who will be able to restrict the prince to his proper authority so that if the prince attempts wrong action, they may hold him down.” He counseled that, if the intervening magistrates did not free the people from tyranny, perhaps the people were being disciplined by God’s providence.

Even though Calvin was more permissive of monarchy than most of his successors, his calls to submit to the governor were not without limit. God established magistrates properly “for the use of the people and the benefit of the republic.” Accordingly, royal powers were circumscribed “not to undertake war rashly, nor ambitiously to increase their wealth; nor are they to govern their subjects on the basis of personal opinion or lust for whatever they want.” Kings had authority only insofar as they met the conditions of God’s covenant. Accordingly, he proclaimed from the pulpit of St. Peter’s, “[S]ubjects are under the authority of kings; but at the same time, kings must care about the public welfare so they can discharge the duties prescribed to them by God with good counsel and mature deliberation.”

Anticipating the later teaching of Beza and Knox, Calvin taught in this sermon that lawful obedience to a ruler “does not mean that it is ever legitimate for princes to abuse them willfully. . . . This authority is therefore not placed in the hands of kings to be used indiscriminately and absolutely.” In an early statement of limitations on political power, he stated that private property was not “placed under the power and will of kings.” Kings, too, were to obey the laws, lest they convince themselves that they may do anything they wish. Rather, rulers should employ “all their ingenuity for the welfare of their subjects,” considering themselves bound by God’s law. Calvin had the foresight to explain that magistrates were instituted to be “ministers and servants of God and the people.”

This Genevan beacon, whose sermonic ideas later reached the shores of America, enumerated the ways kings abuse their power from the Samuel narrative, and he distin-guished a tyrant from a legitimate prince in these words: “a tyrant rules only by his own will and lust, whereas legitimate magistrates rule by counsel and by reason so as to de-termine how to bring about the greatest public welfare and benefit.” Calvin decried the oppressive custom of government servants “taking part in the plundering to enrich them-selves off the poor.”

In this sermon, Calvin forewarned about the price associated with hierarchical gov-ernment and warned that if political consequences resulted from poor political choices, perhaps that was an instance of God’s judging a nation. Calvin did not call for rebellion, as Knox later did. However, similar sermons, along with reactions to the real depravity witnessed in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, demanded that Calvinistic political theory progress to the next level and more directly address the propriety of resistance to oppressive government.

Daniel 6

Although some theologians claim to see discrepancies between Calvin’s early thought in The Institutes and his later commentaries and sermons on the matter of resistance, a review of his commentary on Daniel 6:21-23 reveals no radical discontinuity. Admittedly, certain events, such as the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre,  forced development and clarification within the Calvinistic political tradition, but Calvin’s own view about the legitimacy of reforming bad government need not be considered internally inconsistent.

Calvin expected his commentary on the Old Testament Daniel  to become a handbook for princes. His belief that “the throne of [God’s] sceptre is nothing else but the doctrine of the gospel” shows that God’s conquest was not to be one of physical coercion. Meanwhile, not only were governors limited, but they were also expected to be virtuous, avoiding pride, bridling their lusts, and supporting piety. Whenever rulers and governors did not “willingly submit to the yoke of Christ,” societal turbulence ensued. Calvin’s commentary also decried corrupt judges who only gratified their own appetites.

Except for a few comments (e.g., on Daniel 6:22), Calvin consistently discouraged rebellion unless sound reasons demanded it and legitimate measures were employed. Both Luther and his understudy, Philip Melanchthon (whom Calvin knew from his Strasbourg exile), allowed resistance to the superior magistrate to be carried out by the inferior magistrate in a Roman Catholic Establishment.  This Lutheran claim was applicable, in their view, if a superior magistrate “undertook by force to restore popish idolatry and to suppress or exterminate the pure teaching of the Holy Gospel. . . . Then the lower godfearing magistrate may defend himself and his subjects.”  Thus, tyrants were to be removed by the intermediating magistrates.

Calvin taught similarly that princes “who are not free agents though being under the tyranny of others, if they permit themselves to be overcome contrary to their conscience, lay aside all their authority and are drawn aside in all directions by the will of their subjects.”  Calvin’s frequent disparagement of ungodly kings in his sermons on Job and Deuteronomy in 1554 to 55 and in his lectures on Daniel in 1561 indicate that he was not, in principle, a monarchist. Accordingly, the distinctive Calvinistic contribution was phrased: “Men’s vices and inadequacies make it safer and better that the many hold sway. In this way may rulers help each other, teach and admonish one another, and if one asserts himself unfairly, they may act in concert to censure, repressing his willfulness.”

Calvin’s commentary on Daniel 6  virtually enshrines all the major principles con-tained in the Institutes, yielding a consistency to be reckoned. Calvin displayed his suspi-cion of aggregate power in that commentary, to wit: “In the palaces of kings we often see men of brutal dispositions holding high rank, and we need not go back to history for this.” Of the low and contemptible character of some rulers, he wrote, “But now kings think of nothing else than preferring their own panders, buffoons, and flatterers; while they praise none but men of low character.”

Calvin also alluded to the necessity for fixed laws and universal norms, warning that “many are necessarily injured, and no private interest is stable unless the law be without variation; besides, when there is a liberty of changing laws, license succeeds in place of justice. For those who possess the supreme power, if corrupted by gifts, promulgate first one edict and then another. Thus justice cannot flourish where change in the laws allows of so much license.” Of the need for resistance against a totalitarian power that wrongly attempts to command the conscience, Calvin noted that “Daniel could not obey the edict [making public prayer a crime] without committing an atrocious insult against God and declining from piety.”

Calvin most clearly articulated his doctrine of contingent submission to the governor in his gloss on Daniel 6:22. Daniel, he wrote, “was not so bound to the king of the Persians when he [the king] claimed for himself as a god what ought not to be offered to him.” Earthly regimes were “constituted by God, only on the condition that he deprives himself of nothing, but shines forth alone, and all magistrates must be set in regular order and every authority in existence must be subject to his glory.” Daniel did not err when he disobeyed an illegitimate request from the king. As to duty, Calvin commented on this verse: “For earthly princes lay aside their power when they rise up against God, and are unworthy to be reckoned among the number of mankind. We ought, rather, utterly defy them than to obey them.”

Commenting on Micah 5:5, Calvin suggested that rulers should be elected, interpreting the Hebrew word for “shepherds” as synonymous with “rulers.” He asserted: “In this especially consists the best condition of the people, when they can choose, by common consent, their own shepherds; for when any one by force usurps the supreme power, it is tyranny. And when men become kings by hereditary right, it seems not consistent with liberty. We shall then set up for ourselves princes, says the Prophet: that is, the Lord will not only give breathing time to his Church, and will also cause that she may set up a fixed and well-ordered government, and that by the common consent of all.”  This election by common suffrage is advocated elsewhere when Calvin recognized, “it is tyrannous if any one man appoint or make ministers at his pleasure.” Election by members adequately balanced the mean between tyranny and chaotic liberty.
These examples illustrate both the fullness of Calvin’s commentary on political subjects as well as illuminating certain nuances of his theory that extend beyond the Institutes.


  1. [...] David Hall has an essay on Calvin’s Political Theology [...]

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