Posted by: Michael Dewalt | October 27, 2008

Calvin’s Thought Disseminated Through his Political Disciples

(Posted by David Hall)

It is frequently though inappropriately implied that Calvin wished to unite church and state. In fact, he persistently advocated a difference of jurisdiction as noted above. Francois Wendel has corroborated that neither church nor state was to be annexed or collapsed into one another formally. This distinction or separation of jurisdictions “was the fountain of the entire edifice. Each of these autonomous powers, State and Church, was conceived as issuing from the Divine Will.”Wendel recognized that Calvin advocated the complementarity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers, even if many modern interpreters do not sense his preservation of that key distinction. Moreover, Douglas Kelly suggests that this distinction, even with a close cooperation between Church and State, was an important factor in the diffusion of Calvinism.Calvin himself stated the relationship succinctly in a 1538 letter: “As the magistrate ought by punishment and physical restraint to cleanse the church of offenses, so the minister of the Word should help the magistrate in order that fewer may sin. Their responsibilities should be so joined that each helps rather than impedes the other.” Calvin did not merge church and state into a theocratic monster. He had no desire to advance the Reformation’s political tradition on the back of coercion. Instead, Calvin wished to energize the church to become a world-changing community.

Calvinists developed a knack for distilling theo-political thought. Theodore Beza, for example, wrote widely on political theory. His 1574 The Rights of the Magistrates became a classic supporting republicanism and limited submission to governors. Although Calvin and Beza had discouraged rebellion before Calvin’s death, even recommending support of existing rulers if at all possible, with the treacherous slaughter and virtual extinction of Reformed religion in France, Beza led efforts to reassess that formulation. The result was a tradition that included the likes of Knox, Viret, Ponet, and others. Beza’s argument to normalize resistance to evil governments on biblical bases transformed Calvinist political theory.

After beginning with a historical review his The Rights of Magistrates argued for a circumscribed resistance to tyrannical rulers. Organizing his work around ten questions, he affirmed that scriptural obedience did not categorically deny revolution in some cases. Toward the end of this tract, he articulated three “axioms” to clarify conditions warranting armed resistance: “(1) That the tyranny must be undisguised and notorious; (2) That the recourse should not be had to arms before all other remedies have been tried; (3) Nor yet before the question has been thoroughly examined, not only as to what is permissible, but also as to what is expedient, lest the remedies prove more hazardous than the very disease.”

From the Hebrew monarchy in the Old Testament, Beza, like Calvin, also induced the existence of popular election. Moreover, Beza championed a double-covenant idea, similar to later Protestant tracts. In what amounted to a sweeping survey of the history of Western civilization, Beza found support for resistance to tyranny not only in Swiss republicanism, but also in the political histories of Denmark, England, Scotland, Poland, Sweden, Venice, Spain, France, and the Roman Empire itself. It is difficult to imagine a more informed or comprehensive history of resistance. The case Beza made was compelling.

Other Calvinistic disciples like Christopher Goodman, a Genevan exile with John Knox and William Whittingham, authored a systematic defense of ideas close to Knox’s heart in 1558: How Superior Powers Ought To Be Obeyed By Their Subjects: And Wherein They May Lawfully By God’s Word Be Disobeyed And Resisted.Arguing against custom and negligence as twin sisters of error, Goodman, Knox and Whittingham united (on January 1, 1558, from Geneva) to declare: “Obedience is necessary where God is glorified, but if God is dishonored, your obedience is abominable in the sight of God, be it never so beautiful in man’s eyes. . . . [W]hen it [Scripture] commands us to obey God, we must disobey man to the contrary: for no man can serve two masters. . . . [O]bedience to God’s Laws by disobeying man’s wicked laws is very commendable, but to disobey God for any duty to man is all together damnable.”

Goodman (with Knox’s hardy concurrence) argued that had the apostles obeyed the government when it prohibited their free exercise of religion, “the foundation of the Church should have been shaken, and the whole assembly discouraged.” Based on that historical precedent, Goodman awarded both power and discretion to the people (prefiguring explicit formulations of “the consent of the governed”) as he wrote: “the residue of the common people, seeing their superiors of all degrees and estates, by whom they should be governed with godly laws, and to whom they ought to obey in the fear of God only, thus cowardly forsake their obedience to God” if they fail to resist a tyrant. Thus, Goodman insisted that “to obey man in anything contrary to God, or His precepts though he be in highest authority, or never so orderly called there unto is no obedience at all, but disobedience.”

Whether conscious of its revolutionary implications or not, Goodman was pioneering a new concept that would achieve wide currency centuries later: “the election of princes and kings.” Rulers who are “elected” can of course be recalled or “unelected.” Picking up on the growing swell of a Reformation chorus, Goodman essentially denied that kingship was hereditary. He succinctly stated, “Obedience is to hear God rather than man, and to resist man rather than God.” Moreover, he proclaimed, “there is no obedience against God, which in His judgment is not manifest rebellion.” Resistance to wicked kings is not rebellion. It is difficult not to see the seeds of Thomas Jefferson’s motto, “Rebellion To Tyrants is Obedience to God,” in Goodman’s Calvinistic manifesto.

Following Calvin’s teaching but predating the final edition of the Institutes, in good Calvinistic style, John Ponet delineated when tyrannicide itself would be legitimate: either if the tyrant was an overt criminal or when lower-level political officials became involved. With a passionate style, Ponet’s Short Treatise (1556) argued for the following:

· The people could hold a ruler, who was to be viewed as the servant of citizens, accountable.

· Overthrow, even if forceful, was permitted under certain conditions.

· The basis for just governance was transcendental as well as universal.

· Government was to be limited in scope and in force.

· Authority was to be diffused among various spheres, not concentrated in one office.

· Checks and balances, via ephors or tribunes, were necessary.

These and other tenets of Calvinism would become standard fare in lands where the Reformed faith spread. The ideas (1) that God is the Superior Governor, (2) that man is a fallen sinner, and (3) that law, fixed constitutions, and decentralization of power are all necessary to limit human aggression became the signature of Calvinism in political forums. Later Hotman, Daneau and Althusius expanded these themes as the tradition developed.

Most knowledgeable historians spot a definite evolution in political theology from Calvin’s early disciples (Knox, Goodman, Ponet) to his later disciples (Beza, Hotman, Danaeus). Two major lynchpins, however, changed after the 1570s: (a) submission was limited and (b) representation was absolute. These dynamics began to be publicized from pulpits and academies.

By the early seventeenth century, a new tradition was congealing. A summary from a Dartmouth historian Herbert Foster about a century ago noted the following as hallmarks of Calvin’s political legacy, and most are exhibited by the works of his closest disciples referenced above:

(1) The absolute sovereignty of God entailed that universal human rights (or Beza’s “fundamental law”) should be protected and must not be surrendered to the whim of tyranny.

(2) These fundamental laws, which were always compatible with God’s law, are the basis of whatever public liberties we enjoy.

(3) Mutual covenants, as taught by Beza, Hotman, and the Vindiciae, between rulers and God and between rulers and subjects were binding and necessary.

(4) As Ponet, Knox, and Goodman taught, the sovereignty of the people flows logically from the mutual obligations of the covenants above.

(5) The representatives of the people, not the people themselves, are the first line of defense against tyranny.

I have summarized the five points of political Calvinism slightly differently, referring to:

Depravity as a perennial human variable to be accommodated;
Accountability for leaders provided via a collegium;
Republicanism as the preferred form of government;
Constitutionalism needed to restrain both the rulers and the ruled; and
Limited government, beginning with the family, as foundational.
The resulting mnemonic device, DARCL (though not as convenient as TULIP), seems a more apt summary if placed in the context of the political writings of Calvin’s disciples.

The evolution was real, it was philosophically significant, it was politically revolutionary, and it would last for centuries, providing a true turning point in history. Whether one agrees with all of Calvin’s theology or not, the subsequent altered terrain is clear. And Calvin, whether it is in his Institutes, or in his commentaries and sermons, stood at the font of a new, or renewed, political tradition.

There is abundant evidence that Goodman, Ponet, Beza, and Knox all had discussions with Viret, who also likely discussed these notions with Calvin. Noting that his Remonstrances aux Fideles (1547) was published a full generation before the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and his 1561 The World and the Empire was available (and unrefuted by Calvin) more than a decade before that tragic event, it may be that an older theory was correct after all-namely that the Calvinist and Huguenot resisters did not merely react in the throes of crisis and then recast their theory after the fact. They had precedents and a history of understanding the propriety of resistance under certain conditions even before Calvin’s death.

That being the case, Calvin’s commentaries fit into a consistent paradigm, and the reason that Calvin devoted no more attention to explicit development of resistance theory is best understood as a combination of two important facts: (1) resistance theory based on priority of commandments was a philosophical given during Calvin’s day, needing little further proof; and (2) with the tensions of the times, Calvin did not want to stoke revolutionary fervor unnecessarily, nor did he wish to attract royalist criticism from France and elsewhere for espousing anarchical views. The later works of Beza and Hotman, as well as the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos in the 1570s, thus, were not radical departures from the previous tradition that spanned from Farel to Viret to Calvin; rather, they were applications of the same seminal principles. Or as Robert Linder puts it: after 1547, anyone “looking for an ideology to justify revolution could have found many choice and useful ideas in the writings of Peter Viret.” The result, as one non-Protestant scholar put it, is that “in the political domain, Calvinist ideas are at the origin of the revolution which from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries gave birth and growth to the parliamentary democracies of Anglo-Saxon type.”

Few, if any, post-canonical theologians made broader societal impact than Calvin on the public square. Interestingly, everywhere Calvinism spread, so did its views of both respecting government and limiting it. Calvinism, in fact, “placed a solid barrier in the path of the spread of absolutism” and helped make the world safer from tyrants. Furthermore, Karl Holl claimed that even though ancestors of human rights were found in the Middle Ages, nonetheless, their “formal acceptance into political theory is not completed until this period [Calvin's day] and only under the impact of religion. . . . The acceptance of universal human rights into the constitution was, however, not just the modification of a single point; it included in itself the transformation of the whole concept of the state.” Calvin’s pen, particularly through the Institutes, and personal genius spawned that revolution.


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