When we think of a theocracy, we usually think of a political system, governed and legislated by a religious body with religious beliefs. For the most part this is true. Historically, theocratic governments have successfully existed throughout the world, from ancient Egypt to modern Middle-Eastern Islamic states. For centuries even the Christian Church enjoyed a theocratic diversity which encompassed most of the civilized world. As well, the unprecedented spread of Islam has seeded new theocracies at a tremendous rate. Most theocratic governments had one thing in common, however; their political ideologies did not just originate from the church, they were the church.
Church leaders were the political leaders. Typically, a strong theocracy was one with a superior church hierarchy in which the political system was deeply entrenched. But not all theocratic structures were intended to be this way. In Chapter XX of his masterpiece The Institutes on Christian Piety, John Calvin logically outlined his view of a theocracy. Consistent with his scripture-based reasoning, Calvin eloquently described how civil and ecclesiastical governments were different, yet uniquely related.
In his classic reformation style, Calvin metaphorically compared Catholic to Protestant theology by framing his theocracy not on the church as the government, but rather he separated civil government from spiritual government into a divinely ordained, segregated Protestant theocracy. Subtlety expressed and masterfully executed, Chapter XX is dripping with figurative language, suggesting that Calvin went to great lengths to insure that his distaste for the Catholic papacy would not go unnoticed.
The first third of Chapter XX concentrates on the duties and responsibilities of the magistrate. This after two opening sections which clearly divide government into two parts, and then claim these parts not to be antithetical. Indeed such a preamble is necessary since the remainder of the document is to be a separation, yet cross-self-reliance on these parts. Calvin made no attempt to separate local, regional, or national magistracy. In fact, most of the scripture references are Old Testament passages which refer to either the kings of Judah, or other post-king patriarchs. The main focus on the magistrate “is that they have a mandate from God, have been invested with divine authority, and are wholly God’s representatives.” In addition, God has “entrusted to them” the authority “of exercising judgement not for man but for God.” This sounds very theocratic. However, no where did Calvin mention the source of this divine position to be the church. Rather he asserted, quoting Psalms 2:12, that the magistrate should “kiss the Son of God” yet not lay aside their authority. With this he follows, “By these words he entrusts the condition of the church to their protection and care.” Calvin clearly separates the church from directly engaging in the politics related to the office of the magistrate. By assigning to the church the responsibility of caring for the magistrate, Calvin allows the church to be associated with government while not actually becoming part of the government, as his Catholic adversaries did. Beyond divine appointment, however, Calvin also outlines the duties of the magistrate in a way which uniquely joins the government to God.
Calvin continued his blend of civil and spiritual government through a discourse on the duties of the magistrate, issues of war, and the levying of taxes. On the duties of the magistrate, for example, he returns to the question of divine appointment. “And that their sole endeavor” Calvin asserts “should be to provide for the common safety and peace of all.” Continuing, he states that, “in administering punishment, [the magistrate] does nothing by himself, but carries out the very judgements of God .” In this, Calvin begins to solidify his argument concerning the divine nature of the magistracy. It is no coincidence, however, that he includes no reference which joins the magistrate to the corporate church. Supported by additional references to Old Testament kings, Calvin implies that it is inappropriate for the magistrate to be a church leader, in that King David, for example, had priests dedicated to occupying those positions.
On the topic of war, Calvin makes his position crystal clear. “But kings and people” Calvin states, “must sometimes take up arms to execute such public vengeance.” Calvin views war as a “lawful” undertaking, as long as the magistrate follows some fundamental Godly guidelines, namely restraint and humanity. On restraint, Calvin warns the magistrate against, “giving vent to their passions, even in the slightest degree, not giving in to headlong anger, or be[ing] seized with hatred.” In a continuing effort to weave into his discourse his dislike for the papacy, Calvin follows with a reference to, “the heathen philosopher” who attempts to wage war prematurely, rather than trying everything else first. War, for Calvin, is a final recourse. The only philosophers Calvin had in view were those philosophers of religion which embodied Catholic theocracies.
With respect to levying tribute, Calvin pulls an unusual shift which is very inconsistent with his frequently repeated emphasis on humble living. Calvin asserts that the government has the God given authority to lay and collect taxes. This comes as no surprise, considering the abundant scripture which supports such a claim. What is quite astonishing though, is his use of the Old Testament Prophets and Kings as, “portrayals of the spiritual Kingdom of Christ.” Calvin frequently describes these kings, especially King David, as metaphorical types of Christ, or perhaps even figures of the New Testament church. This symbolism, however, is always within the strict context of Christian piety, and never ventures into the arena of personal, worldly satisfaction. Yet this section gives allowance for the magistracy to live lavishly, since, “he seeks the pattern for a picture from a lawful human kingdom.” Calvin then justifies his opinion by implying that a ruler’s only possessions are those which came from the people. “Their revenues are not so much their private chests as the treasuries of the entire people.” This is, of course, in sharp contrast to the generously lined bursaries of the papacy—those repositories exclusively owned by the Catholic church.
Calvin next shifts to issues of law, including its correct and incorrect usage, and the application of this law within his uniquely framed theocracy. He begins buy distinguishing law as moral, ceremonial, and judicial. Moral law is twofold, “which commands us to worship God with pure faith and piety, [and] to embrace men with sincere affection.” Ceremonial law was, “the tutelage of the Jews . . . and show[ed] the truth of those things which then were foreshadowed in figures.” The judicial law, “imparted certain formulas of equity and justice, by which they might live together blamelessly and peaceably.” These three characteristics of law lack the fortitude found in similar systems of theocracy. In Catholicism, without The Church as the foundation of government, legal systems, however prudent, loose their credibility to individual wants and desires. Calvin conversely maintains that only the Catholic church possesses the attributes to corrupt an otherwise sensible, threefold legal structure.
Continuing with his thesis on law, Calvin focuses on the believers proper use of the established legal system. He does not specifically forbid Christians to engage in legal disputes. Calvin does, however, qualify this litigation by saying, “if one is permitted to go to law with a brother, one is not therewith allowed to hate him, or be seized with a mad desire to harm him, or hound him relentlessly.” Rather, Calvin asserts that the “principle for all Christians [is] that a law suit, however just, can never be rightly prosecuted by any man, unless he treat his adversary with the same love and good will as if the business under controversy were already amicably settled and composed.” Though he admits this is a rare, almost impossible occurrence, Calvin quickly and tactfully follows with the reassertion that, “all Christians are forbidden to desire revenge”–a useful way to remind his readers of the vengeful attitudes which so often accompany Catholic theocracies. To conclude his section on law, Calvin summarizes with a very poignant statement which contains strong anti-Catholic overtones. Believers are not prevented from “using the help of the magistrate in preserving their own possessions, while maintaining friendliness toward their enemies.” Calvin new well that those governments under the control of the Catholic Church expect their subjects to not only give up much of their material wealth, but also consider their enemies as under the control of the evil one, and treat them as you would the devil. Since the magistrate, to Calvin, is ordained by God, his divine position is sufficient to insure only God-willing legal protection, along with a Christian attitude of piety.
In his final section, Calvin addresses the attitude and behavior of the people, sighting deference and obedience, and relying heavily on Jeremiah’s account of King Nebuchadnezzar. On deference, Calvin classifies reverence for the office of the magistrate as, “the first duty of subjects . . .” With this, though, they, “should obey ‘not only because of wrath,’ . . . but because they are showing obedience to God himself when they give it to them; since the ruler’s power is from God.” Continuing with obedience, Calvin implores the people to intercede with prayer and supplication on behalf of the magistrate, following with the suggestion to commit all matters, “to the judgement of the magistrate, whose hand alone is free.” It is no accident that Calvin brings together deference and obedience. These are two mandates which rank high on the list of important matters for the papacy. But Calvin’s theocracy, unlike those under Catholic rule, places the focus of these two particulars directly on God, whereas a Cathlo-theocratic system is concerned exclusively with papal compliance.
With respect to Nebuchadnezzar, Calvin uses a God designed allegory which is framed by Jeremiah’s account of the fall of Judah, and their captivity in Babylon. The premise is that God, being the sovereign ruler of all, alone executes judgement. Calvin says this judgement often comes in the form of a wicked ruler. “Yet, we need not labor to prove that a wicked king is the Lord’s wrath upon the earth.” In this, Calvin allows for the chastisement of His chosen people within the legal framework of a governmental system. This is absolutely essential if God’s people are to respect and revere their ruler. The metaphor comes into clear view as Calvin, surprisingly, explains his position. “When we hear that a king has been ordained by god, let us at once call to mind those heavenly edicts with regard to honoring and fearing a king; then we shall not hesitate to hold a most wicked tyrant in the place where the Lord has designed to set him.” More directly, Calvin 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.’” This may seem odd, in that Calvin so strongly opposes adherence to the whims of any Catholic theocracy. The oddity is false though, in that the Catholic church, according to Calvin, is not from God. The Nebuchadnezzar parallel is, without question, one which indicates a divinely appointed (and curiously non-religious) ruler, though wicked he may be. Divine leadership demands allegiance— depraved leadership does not.
John Calvin’s Institutes are truly a masterful work of literature. Chapter XX on Civil Government is no exception to this. Logic, coupled with his well placed allegorical parallels, give this document a credibility beyond reproach. In his attempt to draw comparisons of the blasphemous theocracies found under Catholic rule, to a more Biblical and Godly form of government, Calvin successfully ties together the benefits of ‘his theocracy’ with the handicaps of the Catholic system thereby creating a system whose entire focus is on God. A universal consensus will never be reached on Calvin’s doctrines and ideologies. His history is plagued with conflict and tension. Thankfully, though, John Calvin was able to overcome tremendous obstacles and wrote extensively on those very subjects which entangled him the most; for without the work of John Calvin, our perspective on many important issues of the Christian faith would remain abstract at best.
Dillenberger, John ed., John Calvin. Selections from His Writings. (Garden City: Anchor Books,
In virtually all of Jon Calvin’s writings he emphasizes his strong dislike toward the Catholic
Dillenberger, Calvin, Section 4., 476
The church as the government was, to Calvin, deplorable.
Dillenberger, Calvin, Sections 8 – 13., 480 – 488
Ibid. Section 11., 485
Ibid. Section 12., 487
Religious leaders were commonly known as Philosophers of Religion.
Calvin’s life, as well as his writing, exemplified 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
Ibid., Section 23., 497
Ibid., Section 25., 499
Ibid., Section 26., 500
Ibid., Section 27., 501
Calvin never condoned allegiance to leadership which was clearly not the will of God.
Dillenberger, John ed., John Calvin. Selections from His Writings. Garden City:
Anchor Books, 1971, 472 – 506
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