Calvins Unique Theocracy

Table of Content

When we think about a theocracy, we generally imagine a political system governed and legislated by a religious body with religious beliefs. This is mostly accurate throughout history, as theocratic governments have existed successfully worldwide, from ancient Egypt to modern Middle-Eastern Islamic states. Even the Christian Church had a theocratic diversity for centuries, spanning most of the civilized world. Islam’s rapid spread has also led to the establishment of new theocracies. However, the common thread among most theocratic governments was that their political ideologies originated from and were embodied by the church; church leaders acted as political leaders. Typically, a strong theocracy had a hierarchical church structure deeply rooted in the political system. Nevertheless, not all theocratic structures were intended in this manner. In Chapter XX of his renowned work, “The Institutes on Christian Piety,” John Calvin logically outlined his perspective on a theocracy. Calvin eloquently described how civil and ecclesiastical governments were distinct yet intricately connected. Using metaphorical comparisons between Catholic and Protestant theology, Calvin’s divinely ordained Protestant theocracy separates civil and spiritual government, departing from the concept of the church as the governing body.Chapter XX is filled with intricate and skillful use of figurative language, indicating Calvin’s dedication to ensuring that his strong dislike for the Catholic papacy is evident.

The initial third of Chapter XX focuses on the responsibilities and duties of the magistrate. This comes after two introductory sections that clearly divide the government into two parts, asserting that these parts are not contradictory. Such an introduction is necessary since the rest of the document will discuss a separation, yet a mutual reliance, on these parts. Calvin did not make an effort to distinguish between local, regional, or national magistracy. In fact, most of the scripture references provided are passages from the Old Testament that pertain to either the kings of Judah or other post-king patriarchs. The primary emphasis on the magistrate is that they have a mandate from God, have been given divine authority, and serve as representatives of God himself. Additionally, God has entrusted them with the authority to exercise judgment not for man but for God. This appears to be a highly theocratic notion. However, Calvin does not mention anywhere in his writing that the church is the source of this divine position. Instead, he asserts, quoting Psalms 2:12, that the magistrate should “kiss the Son of God” without relinquishing their authority. Following this, he states, “By these words he entrusts the condition of the church to their protection and care.” It is evident that Calvin clearly differentiates between the church and direct involvement in the political affairs related to the magistrate’s office.Calvin enables the church to maintain a connection with government without integrating its functions, unlike the Catholic adversaries who merge them. Additionally, Calvin links the government to God by specifying the magistrate’s responsibilities alongside divine appointment.

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Calvin furthered his combination of civil and spiritual government by discussing the responsibilities of the magistrate, matters of war, and the collection of taxes. Regarding the duties of the magistrate, Calvin revisits the concept of divine appointment, emphasizing that their primary goal should be to ensure the safety and peaceful coexistence of all individuals. He goes on to explain that when administering punishment, the magistrate is not acting on their own accord but rather carrying out God’s judgments. This gradually strengthens Calvin’s argument about the divine nature of the magistracy. Notably, Calvin purposely omits any reference linking the magistrate to the corporate church. Drawing on examples from the Old Testament, he suggests that it is inappropriate for the magistrate to assume a leadership role within the church. Calvin points out that King David had priests specifically dedicated to such positions.

Calvin asserts a clear stance on war, stating that kings and people may sometimes resort to armed conflict for the purpose of public retribution. He deems war to be permissible if the ruler adheres to certain essential divine principles, specifically exercising self-control and showing humanity. In terms of restraint, Calvin advises against completely surrendering to impulsive anger or nurturing hatred. Furthermore, Calvin takes the opportunity to express his aversion towards the papacy by referencing a “heathen philosopher” who impatiently advocates for war without considering alternative options. According to Calvin, war should only be pursued as a last resort. It is important to note that Calvin’s reference to philosophers solely pertains to those associated with Catholic theocracies.

Calvin’s perspective on levying tribute is quite contradictory to his usual emphasis on living humbly. He believes that the government has divine authority to impose and collect taxes, which is supported by various scriptures. What is surprising, however, is his interpretation of the Old Testament Prophets and Kings as representations of the spiritual Kingdom of Christ. Particularly, King David is often described metaphorically as a type of Christ or a figure of the New Testament church. Nevertheless, this symbolism is always discussed within the context of Christian piety and does not extend to personal or worldly satisfaction. However, Calvin does allow for magistrates to live luxuriously, as they are seeking inspiration from a legitimate earthly kingdom. To support this notion, Calvin suggests that a ruler’s possessions actually belong to the people, as their revenues serve as treasuries for the entire population. This contrasts sharply with the opulent wealth of the Catholic church and its exclusively owned bursaries.

Calvin discusses various aspects of law and its application within his unique theocracy. He distinguishes between moral, ceremonial, and judicial law. Moral law consists of worshiping God and showing sincere affection towards others. Ceremonial law served as a guide for the Jews and revealed the truth behind symbolic figures. Judicial law provided guidelines for living peacefully and justly. However, these characteristics lack the strength found in other theocratic systems. In contrast, Catholicism, without The Church as a foundation, allows individual desires to undermine legal systems. Calvin argues that only the Catholic church has the potential to corrupt an otherwise sensible and well-structured legal system.

Calvin continues his discussion on law, focusing on how believers should use the legal system. He clarifies that Christians are not prohibited from engaging in legal disputes but adds that if they do, they should not harbor hatred towards their opponent or seek to harm them. Instead, Calvin emphasizes that all Christians should approach lawsuits with love and good will, treating their adversary as if the matter had already been resolved amicably. He acknowledges that this is a challenging standard to meet but quickly reminds his readers that revenge is forbidden for all Christians. In wrapping up his thoughts on law, Calvin makes a poignant statement with strong undertones against Catholic theocracies.According to Calvin, believers are allowed to seek assistance from the government to safeguard their possessions, while still being kind to their enemies. However, Calvin acknowledged that governments influenced by the Catholic Church required their subjects to give up their material wealth and view their enemies as being controlled by evil. These governments expected people to treat their enemies as they would the devil. For Calvin, the magistrate holds a position ordained by God and is capable of providing legal protection guided by God’s will, combined with a Christian attitude of piety.

In the concluding section, Calvin discusses the attitude and conduct of people, emphasizing deference and obedience. He heavily relies on Jeremiah’s account of King Nebuchadnezzar. Calvin classifies reverence for the magistrate’s office as the “primary obligation of subjects.” However, he stresses that obedience should not be based solely on fear but also on the recognition of obedience to God since the ruler’s authority comes from God. Calvin encourages people to pray and supplicate for their rulers while suggesting that all matters should be entrusted to the magistrate’s judgement. The connection between deference and obedience is not accidental. These are two essential principles in papal governance. However, Calvin’s theocracy directs the focus of these principles towards God, whereas a Catholic theocratic system primarily focuses on papal compliance.

Calvin uses a God-designed allegory in relation to Nebuchadnezzar as described in Jeremiah’s account of the fall of Judah and their captivity in Babylon. He asserts that God, as the sovereign ruler, is the only one who executes judgment. Calvin further explains that this judgment often takes the form of a wicked ruler. He believes that it is unnecessary to argue that a wicked king serves as the Lord’s wrath upon the earth. In acknowledging this, Calvin allows for the discipline of God’s chosen people within a governmental system, highlighting its importance for their respect and reverence towards their ruler. Calvin surprisingly declares that when we recognize that a king has been ordained by God, we should immediately recall the heavenly commandments regarding honoring and fearing a king, which should lead us to accept even a wicked tyrant as placed by the Lord. He quotes, “And it shall be that any nation and kingdom that will not serve the king of Babylon, I [God] shall visit that nation with sword, famine, and pestilence…Therefore, serve the king of Babylon and live.” Calvin acknowledges that his fervent opposition to adhering to any Catholic theocracy may appear contradictory to his position. However, he clarifies that according to him, the Catholic church is not of God.The Nebuchadnezzar analogy highlights a leader who is both divinely chosen and surprisingly secular, despite being wicked. While divine leadership requires loyalty, corrupt leadership does not.

John Calvin’s Institutes are an outstanding literary work, including Chapter XX on Civil Government. The logic and allegorical parallels used by Calvin contribute to the unquestionable credibility of this document. Calvin successfully contrasts the blasphemous theocracies of Catholic rule with a more biblical and godly form of government, thereby emphasizing the advantages of his theocracy while highlighting the limitations of the Catholic system. Calvin’s doctrines and ideologies will always be subject to differing opinions. His history is marked by conflict and tension. However, despite numerous obstacles, John Calvin extensively wrote about the very subjects that troubled him the most. Without his work, our understanding of essential Christian faith issues would remain theoretical.

Dillenberger, John ed., John Calvin. Selections from His Writings. (Garden City: Anchor Books,

In his writings, Jon Calvin consistently expresses his strong aversion to the Catholic religion.

Dillenberger, Calvin, Section 4., 476

Calvin found the church’s role as the government to be highly unfavorable.

Dillenberger, Calvin, Sections 8 – 13., 480 – 488

According to the text Ibid. Section 11., 485

Ibid. Section 12., 487

Religious leaders were often referred to as Philosophers of Religion.

Calvin’s life and writing reflected humility.

Dillenberger, Calvin, Section 13., 487 – 488

Ibid., Section 15., 489

Ibid., Section 17., 492

Ibid., Section 18., 493

Ibid., Section 20., 495

Ibid., Section 22., 496

Section 23 of Ibid is cited as 497.

Ibid., Section 25., 499

Ibid., Section 26., 500

The reference to Section 27, 501 in Ibid. is enclosed in paragraph tags:

Ibid., Section 27., 501


Calvin never approved of following leaders who were clearly against God’s will.


Dillenberger, John ed., John Calvin. Selections from His Writings. Garden City: Anchor Books, 1971, 472 – 506

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