Calvin 3: The Christian Duty of Obedience and Resistance

One thing this series of blogs has tried to do is put into historical perspective the actions and views of the various writers. In the case of Calvin, the situation in which he wrote profoundly impacted his views on a number of issues.

To begin with, Calvin was raised in, and left in danger because of his religious views, the France of his day—an absolute Roman Catholic monarchy. France, Spain, and most of the rest of Europe were ruled by monarchs of one form or another. Above all these monarchs, there was an entity known as the Holy Roman Empire, a weak and eventually to disappear “High Kingship.” [1] Even in Calvin’s day, the empire was a weak. Nevertheless, in the time of Calvin, the Holy Roman Emperor was the protector of the Roman Catholic faith and hostile to the Reformation and reformers. Luther, Calvin and others were from time to time in personal danger from the Catholic princes of Europe and the Holy Roman Emperor.

Second, having left France, Calvin ended up in Switzerland, which like Germany was divided up into both Catholic and Protestant areas. The threat of persecution was a real possibility, since the political winds could easily change. As a citizen of Geneva, Calvin lived near France, and thus had to consider the potential for a French invasion. Geneva was open to the Reformation, but this openness was not a sure thing for most of Calvin’s time there.

Third, Calvin was familiar with the dangers associated with the Radical Reformation. In Germany and Switzerland, the Reformation, begun as an attempt to purify the church not to radically change it. However, in some cases the Reformation took a different, more dangerous, and sometimes violent turn. Radical violence was sometimes fomented by an expectation of an early end to history and return of Christ. Sometimes, it involved a resistance against all earthly authority. Often, it involved unbalanced leaders who lacked practical wisdom or theological training and who led their adherents into error. In Germany the princes of combined to forcibly put down some radical reformers and many people died. Calvin, like Luther before him, was appalled by the Radical Reformers, which contributed to his lack of sympathy for Michael Servetus and his unitarian brand of reform. In any case, this political theology is formed by this history.

Christians and the Courts

In Calvin’s day, as in our own, there were misunderstanding as to whether, and to what extent, Christians can or should avail themselves of secular courts of law. According to Calvin, Christians are entitled to use the courts of law, and indeed ought to do so in order to prevent the evil of private vengeance. It is not appropriate, therefore, for a Christian to quote Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians to avoid a litigious spirit and of suing one another without restraint as forbidding their use of public courts where appropriate (4.20.21). Once again, Calvin places his emphasis on love, reminding readers that whatever Christians do they must do in love, and anything done apart from love is suspect from a Christian perspective (4.20.19). It would never be appropriate for a Christian to use the courts to secure vengeance or an unjust result.

As to civil matters, Christians clearly are not acting properly if they do not submit a valid claim to the decision of the courts, for to do otherwise is to invite private vengeance and violence. The same is true of criminal matters. So long as a litigant is motivated by the desire for justice and not by a desire for revenge or resentment over a private injury, there is nothing to forbid Christians (or anyone else) from availing themselves of the judicial system (4.20.19). Thus, Christian, like everyone else, may defend their rights in a court of law, so long as the defense of their rights is done without rancor, passion, a desire for revenge, malice or other improper motive (4.20.19).

Thus, the act of defending justice and seeking equity is blameless and should not be prohibited to Christians or others; however, Christians do have a special duty to behave in the proper manner:

For this must be a set principle for all Christians: That a lawsuit however just, can never be rightly prosecuted by any man, unless he treats his adversary with the same love and good will as if the business under controversy were already amicably settled and composed (4.20.18).

The fact that such a spirit is largely absent from litigants in Calvin’s day as in our own does not detract from the desirability of just and orderly behavior by those who use the court system, and especially by Christians.

According to Calvin, a willingness to submit to public judicial process is not contrary to Christ’s in junction to “turn the other cheek.” Christians ought to bear with slanders and injustice, forgiving others for malice and deceit and a variety of wrongs, displaying that spiritual composure that identifies a follower of Christ (4.20.20). This characteristic of Christians does not, however, prevent them from defending rights and property:

Yet, this equity and moderateness of their minds will not prevent them from using the help of the magistrate in preserving their own possessions, while maintaining friendliness toward their enemies; or zealous for public welfare, from demanding the punishment of a guilty and pestilent man, who, they know, can be changed only by death (4.20.20).

Duty of Obedience to Rulers

The first duty of citizens is to honor the office of those appointed by human agents and God to exercise public authority, including legislatures, magistrates, and courts of law (4.20.22). It is important, Calvin believes, for Christians to remember that public officials are not merely a necessary evil, but an accommodation of grace by God to the human need of leadership and governance. From the duty to honor their follows a duty of obedience to those with magisterial authority:

From this also something else follows: that, with hearts inclined to reverence their rulers, the subjects should prove their obedience toward them, whether by obeying their proclamations, or by paying taxes, or by undertaking public offices and burdens which pertain to the common defense, or by executing any other command of theirs (4.20.23).

Where a Christian believes a ruler has acted mistakenly, and their ordinances require some kind of amendment, they should not raise a tumult or create trouble, but work diligently to resolve the problem peacefully and within the law (4.20.23). Here we see a beginning of Calvin’s attitude towards any kind of resistance. In the first instance, Christians should work in love within whatever political system they find themselves to resolve public wrongs without violence.

The duty of Christians to obey laws does not pertain only to laws passed by just and righteous rulers, but also to rulers who do not act wisely or with justice towards those they lead (4.20.24). According to Calvin, it is the example of nearly all ages of human history that rulers have acted without care, lazily, corruptly, and without compassion draining the people of their money and livelihoods (4.20.24). While such magistrates are a disgrace to the offices they hold, Christians are to give such rulers the dignity and respect the authority of the offices they hold (4.20.25). Here we see a second principle of obedience: Even bad rulers hold their offices from God and are due the respect of their office (Exodus 22:28; Ecclesiastes 10:20; Romans 13:1-7).

Beyond corrupt, lazy, and incompetent rulers, there are also wicked rulers, which God periodically allows to gain power and oppress their people (4.20.25). They too are to be obeyed:

But if we look to God’s Word, it will lead us further. We are not only subject to the authority of princes who perform their office uprightly and faithfully as they ought, but also to the authority of all who, by whatever means, have got control of affairs even though they perform not a whit of the prince’s office (4.20.25).

 Christians are subject such underserving princes just as they are subject to those who are deserving of the honor of their office (4.20.25). From time to time such rulers are raised up to punish public wickedness or otherwise accomplish the purposes of God, and the Bible is full of examples, from Pharaoh to Nebuchadnezzar. Christians are to obey bad rulers just as they obey good rulers (4.20.26). Nebuchadnezzar is used by Calvin as a case in point of a foolish, vain, violent, and unwise ruler whom God placed over the Jewish people, and through Daniel was used by God for his purposes and to display his glory (4.20.26-27).

This is the final, and perhaps most controversial, of Calvin’s points. Clearly, one thing that Christians should consider is whether a bad ruler is a judgement of God to which the church must submit in humility and endure. Second, it is not always wise or possible to resist a ruler, a situation with which Calvin was familiar. In our day, we are accustomed to democratic freedoms and may not be as sympathetic as we should be with Christian groups who have had to submit to wicked rulers to survive. Overt resistance is not always either wise or possible.

Resistance Against Edicts that Violate Conscience and Duty to God

As the preceding clearly reveals, Calvin was extremely reluctant to justify disobedience to established rulers. He was familiar with the damage the Radical Reformation had done in Germany and the way in which even well-meaning radical reformers had damaged the cause of the Reformation in fruitless revolt against authorities. Nevertheless, at the end of the Institutes Calvin does find some room for disobedience under the caption “Obedience to man must not become disobedience to God” (4.20.32). Obedience to earthly rulers must not be such that it leads to disobedience to God, for public officials are subject to God and own obedience to God. Where Christ has spoken, “he alone must be heard” (4.20.32).

Clearly, in this passage, Calvin has in mind the kind of passive resistance that the early church demonstrated, when Christians sometimes refused to deny Christ and paid for their refusal with their lives. He has in mind the resistance that figures in Scripture demonstrated, particularly the resistance Jesus demonstrated before the Sanhedrin and Pilate, a resistance that did not revolt against authority but instead accepted the injustice of authority in faithfulness to God.

This view of a right to resist flows from the commandment of love. Christians are commanded to love their neighbor has themselves, but prior to that commandment is the command to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:27a). The love of God takes precedence over any earthly love, and so where the two loves become estranged, the Christian must choose the love of God and accept the consequences.

From Resistance to a Right of Revolution

The right of passive resistance was as far as Calvin himself would go in his direct writings, but his followers would look at the implications of listening to Christ alone and reach different conclusions. Other thinkers influenced by his theology, as well as the contract theory of law, reached conclusion the conclusion that there might be a right to revolt against magistrates who abused or neglected their responsibilities as leaders.

In the first place, Calvinism itself originated in the free states of Switzerland and spread most easily to free states. In such a situation, the idea that the citizens had duties to magistrates led easily to the reverse idea: Rulers had duties to their subjects. Secondly, within a short period of time, the notion of society being formed by a social contract between governments and their subjects became popular, as did “covenant theology,” which is a direct outgrowth of Calvinism.

The idea of a social contract has implicit within it the idea that the rulers and subjects are each bound by the contract. While Hobbes and others tried to suggest that the social contract could not be voided by subjects, this is not the most natural interpretation of a contract theory. Nearly everyone is directly or indirectly aware that contracts can be broken and if broken, contracts are either void or some kind of redress is due the injured party. The merger between covenant theology and the theory of a social contract was nearly certain to end with some kind of a right of revolution.

Thus, as Calvinism developed, it tended to include within its political ideas the notion that some revolutions were in fact necessary and permitted to Christians. It is not likely that Calvin himself would have agreed given his restraint as to such a right in the Institutes. [2] His emphasis on the Christian duty of love would have mitigated against such a result. The Christian duty to love is not dependent upon whether and to what extent the beloved is worthy.

Whatever the exact historical details, by the time of the American revolution, most Americans believed that there was a right of revolution and that King George III had violated the social contract by his policies towards the colonies. The Declaration of Independence is filled with reasons its writers believed justified the American Revolution because of the wrongs inflicted by the British king. While Calvin himself is not the direct source of this view, the development of his theology, particularly in England, laid some of the groundwork for the political view that rulers who abused their powers can be overthrown.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The Holy Roman Empire officially terminated on August 6, 1806, when the last emperor, Francis II of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine,  abdicated his throne and released his subjects from any further obligation.

[2] Almost every student of Calvin sooner or later hears a professor speak the words, “Calvin was not always as much a Calvinist as his followers.” This is often true.

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