The Need for Collegial Governing Mainstay or a Senate
Moses’ layered scheme, advised by his father in law in Exodus 18 seemed to Calvin and his disciples to be republicanism. Commenting on a similar passage in Deuteronomy 1:14-16, Calvin stated: “Hence it more plainly appears that those who were to preside in judgment were not appointed only by the will of Moses, but elected by the votes of the people. And this is the most desirable kind of liberty, that we should not be compelled to obey every person who may be tyrannically put over our heads; but which allows of election, so that no one should rule except he be approved by us. Moreover, this is further confirmed in the next verse, wherein Moses recounts that he awaited the consent of the people, and that nothing was attempted which did not please them all.”
Calvin’s sermon on 1 Samuel 8, one of the most widely expounded political passages in Scripture, provides more insight into his political matrix. His 1561 exposition discusses the dangers of monarchy, the need for proper limitation of government, and the place of divine Sovereignty over human governments. It is an example of Calvinism at its best, carefully balancing individual liberty and proper government.
Calvin began his sermon on 1 Samuel 8 by asserting that the people of Israel were not required to elect a king. Warning against hierarchical “plundering and robbery,” Calvin reasoned that “the Lord does not give kings the right to use their power to subject the people to tyranny. Indeed, when the liberty to resist tyranny seems to be taken away by princes who have taken over, one can justly ask this question: since kings and princes are bound by covenant to the people, . . . if they break faith and usurp tyrannical power by which they allow themselves everything they want: is it not possible for the people to consider together taking measures in order to remedy the evil?”
Calvin preached that “there are limits prescribed by God to their power, within which they ought to be satisfied: namely, to work for the common good and to govern and direct the people in truest fairness and justice; not to be puffed up with their own importance, but to remember that they also are subjects of God.” Leaders were always to keep in mind the purpose (i. e., the glory of God) for which they had been providentially appointed.
Calvin viewed Samuel warning citizens about “the royal domination they will have to bear, and that their necks will have to be patiently submitted to his yoke.” Calvin inferred something very significant from this: that intervening magistrates, not citizens themselves, should seek to correct abuses and tyranny. His doctrine was that “there are legitimate remedies against such tyranny, such as when there are other magistrates and official institutions to whom the care of the republic is committed, who will be able to restrict the prince to his proper authority so that if the prince attempts wrong action, they may hold him down.” He counseled that, if the intervening magistrates did not free the people from tyranny, perhaps the people were being disciplined by God’s providence.
Even though Calvin was more permissive of monarchy than most of his successors, his calls to submit to the governor were not without limit. God established magistrates properly “for the use of the people and the benefit of the republic.” Accordingly, royal powers were circumscribed “not to undertake war rashly, nor ambitiously to increase their wealth; nor are they to govern their subjects on the basis of personal opinion or lust for whatever they want.” Kings had authority only insofar as they met the conditions of God’s covenant. Accordingly, he proclaimed from the pulpit of St. Peter’s Cathedral, “[S]ubjects are under the authority of kings; but at the same time, kings must care about the public welfare so they can discharge the duties prescribed to them by God with good counsel and mature deliberation.”
Anticipating the later teaching of Beza and Knox, Calvin taught in this sermon that lawful obedience to a ruler “does not mean that it is ever legitimate for princes to abuse them willfully. . . . This authority is therefore not placed in the hands of kings to be used indiscriminately and absolutely.” In an early statement of limitations on political power, he stated that private property was not “placed under the power and will of kings.” Kings, too, were to obey the laws, lest they convince themselves that they may do anything they wish. Rather, rulers should employ “all their ingenuity for the welfare of their subjects,” considering themselves bound by God’s law. Calvin had the foresight to explain that magistrates were instituted to be “ministers and servants of God and the people.”
This Genevan beacon, whose sermonic ideas later reached the shores of America, enumerated the ways kings abuse their power from the Samuel narrative, and he distinguished a tyrant from a legitimate prince in these words: “a tyrant rules only by his own will and lust, whereas legitimate magistrates rule by counsel and by reason so as to determine how to bring about the greatest public welfare and benefit.” Calvin decried the oppressive custom of government servants “taking part in the plundering to enrich themselves off the poor.” A revival of that restraint at any Inauguration would bode well.
In this sermon, Calvin forewarned about the price associated with hierarchical government and warned that if political consequences resulted from poor political choices, perhaps that was an instance of God’s judging a nation. Calvin did not call for rebellion, as Knox later did. However, similar sermons, along with reactions to the real depravity witnessed in the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, demanded that Calvinistic political theory progress to the next level and more directly address the propriety of resistance to oppressive government.
Explanatory Note: ‘ephors’ were super-delegates and trusted wise leaders, who were drawn upon to prevent raw populism or democratism from prevailing. Why, these may sound like ‘electors’ in the US constitution.
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.
 Quotations are from the translation of Calvin’s Sermon on 1 Samuel 8 by Douglas Kelly. Copyright: Calvin Studies Colloquium (Davidson, NC: Davidson College Presbyterian Church, 1982), Charles Raynal and John Leith, eds.