By David Hall

Calvin’s First, Very Augustinian Point: Human Imperfection Requires Order

Professor Harro Hopfl identifies the following three signatures of political Calvinism that would be timely if part of network coverage of the Inauguration of the new President:

  • Calvin detested as much as anything rulers who acted as if their will made right (sic volo sic iubeo).
  • Because no single individual possessed “power and breadth of vision enough to govern” unilaterally, a council was needed. Even in a monarchy, a council was required.
  • Tyranny was exhibited in a ruler’s unwillingness to tolerate restraint or live within the law. Any ruler should be sub Deo et sub lege (under God and under law).[1]

These limitations on the ruling class shaped the resulting political practices approved by Calvinists. Hopfl views Calvin’s notion of order as necessitating law. Law next required enforcement, and different agencies with differing gifts and tools must each “adhere to his station and perform its duties willingly.” Hopfl’s summary is worth repeating:

There is an unmistakable preference for an aristocratic form with popular admixtures of sorts, and for small territorial units. Monarchy is explicitly rejected for ecclesiastical polity on scriptural grounds; in civil polity no such outright rejection was possible because of the earlier parti pris in favor of the divine authorization of all forms of government and Calvin’s almost inflexible opposition to political resistance. Nonetheless, the animus against monarchs is clear enough, and civil monarchy remains a discrepant and disturbing element in an otherwise carefully synchronized arrangement of mutual constraints.[2]

Calvin was balanced in his views of government. He called for ethical and religious considerations to be included in good government, argued for republicanism on an authoritative basis, pleaded with believers to exemplify virtue and be submissive as a norm, and paved the way for later political developments by stating that the governor could be resisted under certain conditions. His disciples later augmented and expanded the conditions under which such revolution was acceptable. The first point of political Calvinism concerns the limits of human goodness, trumpeted earlier by Augustine and other realists.

  1. Depravity and why a Governor should heed it

Depravity is that trajectory of sin, both inward and outward, to violate others. Human beings, if good and fully perfect, would need no restraints. The need for restraint, however, is precisely as Calvin and Madison both expressed it above: Because we are not angels. Human imperfection, thus, requires order and restraint. That, various governments provide. Further, Calvin did not anticipate a utopia but called for depravity to be reckoned in various areas.

Calvin acknowledged that, at times, divine providence was satisfied in the overthrowing of wicked rulers (4:20, 30), but he still preferred to allow the Lord to correct unbridled despotism. Calvin urged believers to consider that through prayer God might change the hearts of rulers (4:20, 29). Concerning revolution, he advocated a peaceful, incremental revolution via the intermediate magistrates: 

For if there are now any magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings (as in ancient times the ephors . . .), I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance. (4:20, 31)

The obvious exception to any of these rules, however, was that persons were not only free but also obligated to resist the magistrate who compelled ungodly activity. Calvin taught not only that there were exceptions to the above considerations but also that obedience to God was primary: “[O]bedience [to a ruler] is never to lead us away from obedience to Him” (4:20, 32), a good illustration of qualified absolutism.[3] He reasoned: “How absurd would it be that in satisfying men you should incur the displeasure of him for whose sake you obey men themselves!” (4:20, 32) Still, this argument is balanced with Calvin’s conclusion that we should “comfort ourselves with the thought that we are rendering that obedience which the Lord requires when we suffer anything rather than turn aside from piety” (4:20, 32).

The other aspect of Calvin’s argument that resistance was appropriate under certain conditions was his argument from relative authorities. In this contention, he maintained that a lower authority (an elder, a father, or a magistrate) could not contradict the rule or norms of a higher authority. Calvin expressed it: “As if God had made over his right to mortal men, giving them the rule over man-kind! Or as if earthly power were diminished when it is subjected to its Author” (4:20, 32). A blend of necessary factors, then, determined if revolution was in order. The following factors were necessary: (a) a tyrant, who exceeded his divinely charted boundaries; (b) a tyrant, who in so doing, contradicted some other divine mandate; (c) and lower magistrates to bring constitutional correction.

Calvin’s Chief Lieutenant (Beza) Deepens the Channel

Calvinists developed a knack for distilling and propagating 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. Western republics, celebrated by Inaugurations like America’s, drew from the well of Calvin’s disciples. 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.[4] Human arrogance, rooted in depravity, necessitated such.

After beginning with a historical review, Beza’s 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.”[5]

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.

Most of Calvin’s protégés espoused similar theorems. That being the case, Calvin’s writings 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 were not radical departures from the previous tradition that spanned from Farel to Viret to Calvin.

We can gain enormous insights into the Constitution itself within that context, as a covenant blossoming from roots extending from Geneva and from antiquity as far back as the Old and New Testaments. Concepts cogently articulated in The Federalist Papers had a lasting influence on the population. In Federalist #55, Madison spoke of an innate human propensity to harm (a “degree of depravity”) that required an institutional distrust. Checks and balances were required to limit the “infirmities and depravities” of man. John Jay warned similarly against the “folly and wickedness of mankind.” Jefferson himself echoed this uniquely Calvinistic theme: “Free government is founded on jealousy, not in confidence; it is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind those we are obligated to trust with power. In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in man but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.”[6]

The early American suspicion of man’s perfectibility helped, according to Charles Dunn, “lead them to create a government in which the people directly elected only the members of the House of Representatives, with membership in the Senate, the Courts and the president being indirectly elected by the people.”[7] Religion in general, and the Protestantism flowing from the European Reformation in particular, was intertwined with the earliest acts and documents of America, from the colonial founding and also in the founding documents from 1776 to 1789.


Note: all quotes are from sources as noted. The only fictitious elements in these diary posts are to treat these as letters from John Calvin.

[1] Harro Hopfl, The Christian Polity of John Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 112, 162, 164, 165, 166.

[2] Harro Hopfl, The Christian Polity of John Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 171. In this and other sections, Hopfl notes “a very clear but imperfect homology” between church government and civil polity in Calvin.

[3] “Qualified absolutism” is the term I use in Savior or Servant: Putting Government in Its Place (Oak Ridge, TN: Kuyper Institute, 1996). See also Ralph Keen, “The Limits of Power and Obedience in the Later Calvin,” Calvin Theological Journal, vol. 27, no. 2 (Nov. 1992), 252-277, for a good harmonization between the earlier and later statements by Calvin on the propriety of resistance. Although Calvin is sometimes accused of shifting toward a more republican posture, as if influenced by Beza, Keen summarizes: “It is simply necessary to recognize that the position is not pro-monarchical in itself (that is, as a political doctrine) but pro-monarchical in the theological sense of being an endorsement of the divine presence in governments.” Ibid., 259.

[4] The summaries of Beza and Goodman below are taken, in part, from my The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003), chapters 4-5.

[5] For a good summary of these ideas, see Patrick S. Poole, “The Development of the Reformational Doctrine of Resistance in the Sixteenth Century,” web-posted at:;~pspoole/Defense.htm.

[6] Cited in Charles W. Dunn, ed., American Political Theology (New York: Prager, 1984), 12. Note the similarity of phrase to Rutherford’s admonition to chain the ruler.

[7] Charles W. Dunn, ed., American Political Theology (New York: Prager, 1984), 12.


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