Calvin on Republicanism—no, not the Party!

Rather than commending either a democracy or a monarchy, Jethro advised Moses and the people to select a plurality of prudent representative leaders (Exodus 18:21).[1] Moses instituted a graduated series of administrations with greater and lesser magistrates, and Calvin asserted that the earliest Hebrew republican government devolved from the divine mind long before the Golden Age of Greco-Roman governance, the Enlightenment, or other modern revolutions.

The early federal scheme adopted in Exodus 18 seemed, to Calvin and his followers (as it had to Aquinas and Machiavelli), to be republicanism. Thus, Calvin viewed the Hebrew Republic as an early instance of being ruled by the consent of the governed.

Later, Calvinist Johannes Althusius agreed, seeing an early form of republican-federal government in Exodus 18. Certainly, it would be a stretch to claim that Calvin was THE pioneer of a modern democratic ethos; however, his writings and sermons on these passages from the Pentateuch illustrated God’s inestimable gift to the Jewish commonwealth, specifically the “freedom to elect judges and magistrates.” Most of the disciples of Calvin and Beza provided ample commentary on numerous Old Testament passages that, in their opinion, provided general (if not specific) guidance for the shaping of particular governments. These various Old Testament precedents, thought most Reformers, were transferable to the politics of their own settings. Many of these same precedents were drawn upon later Protestants in many governments. The seeds sown by Calvin, still worth celebrating this week, blossomed amidst the western political discourse.

Calvin’s exegesis of Acts 4-5 and the household codes (haustafeln) exhibits the customary hierarchical argument. Calvin’s associates and disciples altered the exegesis of the “house code” passages in the Pauline epistles to provide an ideological buttress for unqualified submission to authorities in general. Despite the strong impulse toward order and authority, the political tradition of Calvin’s followers transformed political thought in a key sector: subordinates were no longer expected to submit without qualification to monarchical sway.

One can hardly ignore this in view of explicit comments such as these below:

  • On Acts 4:9 [1560!], “Undoubtedly Peter layeth tyranny to the charge of the priests and the scribes . . .”
  • On Acts 4:19, “. . . but because they do abuse their authority, the apostles say flatly that they are not to be obeyed. . . . [also that obedience to ‘unlawful government of the church is contrary to God.’] . . . Therefore, by what title soever men be called, yet must we hear them only upon this condition, if they lead us not away from obeying God.  .  .  . We must obey princes and others which are in authority, yet so that they rob not God of his right and authority. If we must observe such modesty in politic [civil] government, it ought to be of far more force in the spiritual government of the church.”
  • On Acts 5:29, note Calvin’s full comments: “When this sentence taketh place, there we ought rather to obey God than men. . . . Therefore, we must obey rulers so far that the commandment of God be not broken. . . . If a magistrate do his duty as he ought, a man shall in vain say that he is contrary to God . . . we must obey God’s ministers and officers if we will obey him; But so soon as rulers do lead us away from the obedience of God, because they strive against God with sacrilegious boldness their pride must be abated that God may be above all in authority. . . . Therefore, if a father, being not content with his own estate, do essay to take from God the chief honor of a father, he is nothing else but a man. If a king, or ruler, or magistrate, so become so lofty that he diminisheth the honor and authority of God, he is but a man. We must think also of pastors. For he which goeth beyond his bounds of his office (because he setteth himself against God) must be despoiled of his honor, lest under a color of visor he deceive.” From there Calvin also compares usurpation in the ecclesiastical sphere as outside the will of God.
  • On Eph. 5:21, “I do not except even kings and governors, whose very authority is held for the service of the community (emphasis added). It is highly proper that all should be exhorted to be subject to each other in their turn.”
  • Later on Eph. 6:1, Calvin limits the obedience of children to parents as follows: “Hence it follows that parents are to be obeyed so far only as it is consistent with piety to God, which comes first in order. If the command of God is the rule by which the submission of children is to be regulated, it would be foolish to suppose that the performance of this duty could lead away from God himself.”
  • On Colossians 3:18 Calvin warns that if husbands are not loving, “they abuse their authority in the way of tyranny.” On the next house law, children appear to be commanded to obey without exception. Calvin spies the problem if something is commanded that is unlawful and asks, however, if they should “obey without reservation?” His answer is that such would be “worse than unreasonable that the authority of men should prevail at the expense of neglecting God. I answer, that here, too, we must understand as implied what he expresses elsewhere (Eph. 5:1) “in the Lord.” He then argues that “in all things” refers to adiaphora, prohibiting parents from exercising “immoderate harshness.” The duty to submit is not merely, Calvin taught, when one agrees with the authority; however, the authority may forfeit his right. Similarly, on 4:1, Calvin says that masters must not think that they are bound by no law but that they also are subject to the authority of God.

One chief result of this exegesis was that the deck was cleared of its erstwhile monarchical bias. As such, burgeoning republics would draw upon the commentaries of Calvin’s children to embolden his grandchildren toward republicanism and dispersed power in several spheres. This reputable exegesis substituted republics for tyrants.

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] For an example of early American exposition on the character needed for office holders, complete with a discussion similar to Calvin’s on this Exodus passage, see Simeon Howard’s 1780 Election Sermon (Sermons for Election Days, David W. Hall, ed. (Oak Ridge, TN: Kuyper Institute, 2002). Charles Chauncy addressed the requisite character of civil rulers in his 1747 election day sermon (contained in Election Day Sermons [Oak Ridge, TN: Kuyper Institute, 1996], 143-168. T. H. Breen provides one of the most thorough studies of American expectations for civil rulers in The Character of the Good Ruler: A Study of Puritan Political Ideas in New England, 1630-1730 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1970).


David Hall