By David Hall

Introduction to Calvin’s Texts for an Inaugural

Of course, I did not espouse a democracy or a Presidency in my lifetime. My disciples teased out the logic, however, of my thought and reached new positions. If one wishes to hear the early Calvinist principles, one would need to look to two sets of texts:

  1. Text Corpus #1: Calvin himself, in his final edition of the Institutes (1559) is actually little changed from his first edition (1536) on this topic. And in his final chapter (of the McNeill/Battles edition), he provides seed principles for government that is limited, limited by the divine charter for nation-states.
  1. Text Corpus #2: The other main set of texts that lend advice, however, come from Calvin’s disciples (Beza in 1574, the Vindiciae (1579), Francogallia (1572) by Francois Hotman, and works by Christopher Goodman, John Ponet, Peter Martyr and others). These saw up-close-and-personal the abuses of murderous governments, in the persecution-extermination of the French Huguenots. Moreover, these tracts by Calvin’s disciples fueled a political tradition that led to the founding of the American Republic.

Compared to the heft of its international and multi-generational influence, John Calvin’s commentary on political matters in his magnum opus is relatively diminutive. However, seldom have so few words inspired so much political impact. While many latter theologians would scarcely brave a comment on matters of state in a systematic theology text, John Calvin (1509-1564) addressed political topics without trepidation. The resulting 40 pages of discussion on the civil government in the Institutes would blaze a trail for others. Thankfully, many treatises have already assessed his contribution to this key area of human culture.[1]

The concluding chapter of the Institutes is also, in some ways, the culmination of a tradition. It followed decades of Renaissance thought and sat perched atop centuries of Medieval and scholastic theological reflection on political principles. Calvin was not alone in addressing these matters; in fact, it was not uncharacteristic for leading theologians of the period to expound on matters of state. However, the subsequent expansion and replication of his thought by his followers virtually created a new trajectory of political discourse. It is no exaggeration to observe that before Calvin, certain political principles were viewed as radical; while after him, they became widely acceptable.

Any proper analysis of Calvin’s political thought should begin with his discussion in the Institutes; however, an accurate understanding of Calvin will also take into account his other writings and, importantly, the manner in which his disciples codified his teachings into a school of political thought. The elaboration below thus highlights his other commentaries and the concerted effort of many other orchestra members—Peter Viret, Christopher Goodman, John Ponet, Theodore Beza, among others—but first one should acquaint himself with the maestro’s scor.

Calvin’s Institutes: Blueprint for Civil Government

Calvin’s political thought found in The Institutes of the Christian Religion is, even by critics, still credited with immense political impact. Asserting that the state was not merely a necessary evil for Calvin, Karl Holl recognized that Calvinism, even more than Lutheranism, provided a theological basis to oppose unjust governments.[2] Everywhere Calvinism spread, so did its impulse to limit government. Later Dutch Calvinist Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper summarized the essence of Calvin’s theocentric emphasis[3]:

It is therefore a political faith which may be summarily expressed in these three theses: 1. God only, and never any creature, is possessed of sovereign rights, in the destiny of nations, because God alone created them, maintains them by his Almighty power, and rules them by his ordinances. 2. Sin has, in the realm of politics, broken down the direct government of God, and therefore the exercise of authority, for the purpose of government, has subsequently been invested in men, as a mechanical remedy. And 3. In whatever form this authority may reveal itself, man never possesses power over his fellow man in any other way than by the authority which descends upon him from the majesty of God.[4]

Any Inaugural might wish to remind itself of those platforms. Calvinism, Kuyper continued, “protests against State omni-competence, against the horrible conception that no right exists above and beyond existing laws, and against the pride of absolutism, which recognizes no constitutional rights.” Calvinism “built a dam across the absolutistic stream, not by appealing to popular force, nor to the hallucination of human greatness, but by deducing those rights and liberties of social life from the same source from which the high authority of government flows, even the absolute sovereignty of God.”[5]

Such thoughts are indeed contained in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion,[6] which underwent considerable evolution between editions. The original 1536 edition composed in Basle[7] combined the chapter on civil government with Calvin’s treatment of Christian liberty and ecclesiastical power. Calvin believed that civil government was the second part of a two-fold government, properly chartered to “establish civil justice and outward morality (4:20, 1).

Calvin’s major sections addressed these topics:

(1) the magistrate, who is “the protector and guardian of the laws” (4:20, 3);

(2) the laws, which provide objectivity for governors; and

(3) the people—an early statement of the contract theory later rightly associated with Ponet, Beza, the Vindiciae, Buchanan, and Althusius.[8]

Calvin believed that civil government supplied an example of how God had compassionately provided for mankind; the sphere of human government, thus, was a gracious token for human culture much like the law itself. The task of the civil ruler was to ensure “that a public manifestation of religion may exist among Christians, and that humanity be maintained among men.” If no civil government existed or if depraved men perceived that they could go “scot-free (4:20, 2),” they surely would opt for sin and society would deteriorate into chaos. On one occasion, Calvin likened such anarchy to living “pell-mell, like rats in straw.” He argued that God does not bid persons to “lay aside their authority and retire to private life, but submit to Christ the power with which they have been invested, that he alone may tower over all.” Calvin believed that “powers are from God, not as pestilence, and famine, and wars, and other visitations for sin, are said to be from him; but because he has appointed them for the legitimate and just government of the world. For though tyrannies and unjust exercise of power, as they are full of disorder, are not an ordained government; yet the right of government is ordained by God for the well-being of mankind.”[9]

However, after his final edition of the Institutes (1559), in the final 5 years of his life, he made numerous comments that provide a launching pad for modern republics.

Now, following that introductory bibliographic excursion, below will follow my 5 points of advice for any government—and those which have instituted these have provided much of the liberty and stability that is most admired.

Calvin, of course, was not alone. With a passionate style, Ponet’s 1556 Short Treatise on Political Power argued for the following, which ideas might be recalled at an Inauguration:

  • The people could hold a ruler, who was to be viewed as the servant of citizens, accountable.
  • Overthrow, even if forceful, was permitted under certain conditions.
  • The basis for just governance was transcendental as well as universal.
  • Government was to be limited in scope and in force.
  • Authority was to be diffused among various spheres, not concentrated in one office.
  • Checks and balances, via ephors or tribunes, were necessary.

These and other tenets of Calvinism would become standard fare in lands where the Reformed faith spread.[10] The ideas (1) that God is the Superior Governor, (2) that man is a fallen sinner, and (3) that law, fixed constitutions, and decentralization of power are all necessary delimiters of human aggression became the signature of Calvinism in political forums. Later Hotman, Daneau and Althusius expanded these themes as the tradition developed.


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] Among the scholars who have set their hand to explicating Calvin’s political thought and impact are: Harro Hopfl, The Christian Polity of John Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982); Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought: The Age of Reformation, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978); Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (1898, rpr. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953); Robert Kingdon, Calvin and Calvinism: Sources of Democracy (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1970); Ralph C. Hancock, Calvin and The Foundations of Modern Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989 [pp. 62-81]); John Witte, Jr., The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); John T. McNeill, “Calvin and Civil Government,” in Donald McKim, ed., Readings in Calvin’s Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984); Herbert D. Foster, Collected Papers of Herbert D. Foster (privately printed, 1929); John T. McNeill, “John Calvin on Civil Government,” Calvinism and the Political Order, George L. Hunt, ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965); Douglas Kelly, The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1992); Franklin Charles Palm, Calvinism and the Religious Wars (New York: Henry Hold and Company, 1932); Karl Holl, The Cultural Significance of the Reformation (Cleveland: Meridian, 1959); and Keith L. Griffin, Revolution and Religion: American Revolutionary War and the Reformed Clergy (New York: Paragon House, 1994).

[2] Karl Holl, The Cultural Significance of the Reformation (Cleveland: Meridian, 1959), 65-66.

[3] Ralph C. Hancock, Calvin and The Foundations of Modern Politics, asserts that the Protestant Reformation was “an essentially modern movement that in some way laid the foundations for our modern openness.”

[4] Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (1898, rpr. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), 85.

[5] Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (1898, rpr. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), 85.

[6] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John T. McNeill, ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960). Unless otherwise referenced, all quotations in this section from The Institutes, Book IV, chapter xx, are from this edition.

[7] Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought: The Age of Reformation, vol. 2, 192, suggests that by 1559 Calvin had begun to change his views, permitting at least a discussion of the propriety of active resistance.

[8] A more detailed outline of Calvin’s chapter on civil government for students is below:

20:1-2              Separation of governments

20:3-8              Tasks of Magistrates

                          Ordination of Magistrates

20:9-13            The Magistrates’ Prerogatives and Duties

20:14-16         The Rule of Law

20:17-21         Courts

20:22-29         Obedience and Deference from citizens

20:30-32         Constitutional Mechanisms

[9] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker Bookhouse, 1979), vol. xix, 479.

[10] Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought: The Age of Reformation, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 221-224, provides a helpful comparison of the thought of Ponet and Christopher Goodman.


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