By David Hall

Calvin’s Second Counsel: Leaders Responsible to the Constitution or Accountability

In a phrase that would become incendiary, Calvin noted that not only kings but also “people must sometimes take up arms to execute public vengeance” (4:20, 11). The same basis for waging war was also used both to justify revolution and to put down sedition. If the magistrates were to punish private evildoers, then they could certainly punish mobs and protect the country from an external foe (4:20, 11). Regardless of class, the noble governor was to protect the people equally from robbers or invaders. If he did not, he would be considered a robber and worthy of censure. It is no accident that the celebration of our American Inauguration is surrounded by other leaders and multiple appeals to “protect and defend” an objective constitution that is not merely subject to the whims of a single, powerful leader.

In his comments on Genesis 49, Calvin noted: “In order to make the distinction between a legitimate government and tyranny, I acknowledge that counselors were joined with the king, who should administer public affairs in a just and orderly manner.”[1] Calvin also expressed his approval of classical republican traditions: “In as much as God had given them the use of the franchise, the best way to preserve their liberty for ever was by maintaining a condition of rough equality, lest a few persons of immense wealth should oppress the general body. Since, therefore, the rich, if they had been permitted constantly to increase their wealth, would have tyrannized over the rest, God put a restraint on immoderate power by means of this law.”[2]

In several places, the French Reformer’s repudiation of dictatorial rule is seen. Calvin’s theory of accountability is further exhibited in his commentary on the rebellion of the Hebrew midwives.[3] He characterized any obedience to the murderous command of Pharaoh as “preposterously unwise,” a detestable effrontery, and ill-conceived in its attempt to “gratify the transitory kings of earth” while taking “no account of God.”[4] Most clear in that context, Calvin wrote that God did not delegate his rights to princes, “as if every earthly power, which exalts itself against heaven, ought not rather most justly to be made to give way.”

Commenting on Micah 5:5, Calvin suggested that rulers should be elected, interpreting the Hebrew word for “shepherds” as synonymous with “rulers.” He asserted: “In this especially consists the best condition of the people, when they can choose, by common consent, their own shepherds; for when any one by force usurps the supreme power, it is tyranny. And when men become kings by hereditary right, it seems not consistent with liberty. We shall then set up for ourselves princes, says the Prophet: that is, the Lord will not only give breathing time to his Church, and will also cause that she may set up a fixed and well-ordered government, and that by the common consent of all.”[5] This election by common suffrage is advocated elsewhere when Calvin recognized, “it is tyrannous if any one man appoint or make ministers at his pleasure.” Election by members adequately balanced the mean between tyranny and chaotic liberty.[6]

In all governmental spheres, Calvin warned against monarcy, the rule by one. To circumscribe that tendency, at least partially, Calvin called for elections by the citizens, representatives to hold leaders to constitutions, and inefficient government in order to slow down the train of self-rule.

As Emile Doumergue noted, Calvin was the “founder of stable and powerful democracies, a defender not of ‘egalitarianism,’ but of ‘equality before the law.’”[7] This week’s American Inaugural is a celebration of those tenets. Whether Calvin was the founder of modern democratic governments or not, as Doumergue suggested, his sermons on various passages from the Pentateuch illustrated God’s inestimable gift to the Jewish commonwealth, specifically the “freedom to elect judges and magistrates.” One way to view Calvin’s political thought is to summarize it as advocating:

  • A distrust of human goodness that requires accountability. Governors, affected by depravity, like anyone else have standards, qualifications, and expectations to meet.
  • A multiplicity of counselors to make decisions. No single person sits atop a ruling triangle.
  • Local leaders are to be elected with the consent of the governed; no external hierarchy or imposition of rulers without consent.
  • Diversified authority from representatives who act in accord with constitution
  • The possibility of review from lower rungs of administration provides checks-and-balances for governors.

These ideological hallmarks epitomize Calvinistic governance wherever it occurs. Readers might wish to pray for such civic renewal at this Inaugural.


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), 162.

[2]John Calvin, Harmony of Moses (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1843-59), vol. 3, 154. See chap. 1 above for the Geneva Bible’s glosses on this.

[3] James Smylie notes that King James VI did not approve of the Geneva Bible’s note on Exodus 1, seeing all too clearly that the Marian exiles in Geneva felt quite free to recommend resistance. See James H. Smylie, “America’s Political Covenants, the Bible, and Calvinists,” Journal of Presbyterian History 75:3 (Fall 1997), 156, 163. The marginal note on Exodus 1:19 of the 1560 Geneva Bible reads: “Their disobedience her[e]in was lawful, but their dissembling evil.”

[4] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on Exodus (Grand Rapids: Baker Bookhouse, 1979), vol. ii, 33.

[5] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on Micah (Grand Rapids: Baker Bookhouse, 1979), vol. xiv, 309-310.

[6] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Bookhouse, 1979), vol. xviii, 233.

[7] Cited by Ralph C. Hancock, Calvin and the Foundation of Modern Politics, 66.


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