Limited Government, Beginning with the Family

Although some theologians claim to see discrepancies between Calvin’s early thought in The Institutes and his later commentaries and sermons on the matter of resistance, a review of his commentary on Daniel 6:21-23 reveals no radical discontinuity. Admittedly, certain events, such as the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre,[1] forced development and clarification within the Calvinistic political tradition, but Calvin’s own view about the legitimacy of reforming bad government need not be considered internally inconsistent.

Calvin expected his commentary on the Old Testament Daniel[2] to become a handbook for princes. His belief that “the throne of [God’s] sceptre is nothing else but the doctrine of the gospel” shows that God’s conquest was not to be one of physical coercion. Meanwhile, not only were governors limited, but they were also expected to be virtuous, avoiding pride, bridling their lusts, and supporting piety. Whenever rulers and governors did not “willingly submit to the yoke of Christ,” societal turbulence ensued. Calvin’s commentary also decried corrupt judges who only gratified their own appetites.

Except for a few comments (e. g., on Daniel 6:22), Calvin consistently discouraged rebellion, however, except in extraordinary circumstances. Calvin (like Lutheran leaders) taught similarly that princes “who are not free agents though being under the tyranny of others, if they permit themselves to be overcome contrary to their conscience, lay aside all their authority and are drawn aside in all directions by the will of their subjects.”[3] Calvin’s frequent disparagement of ungodly kings in his sermons on Job and Deuteronomy in 1554 to 55 and in his lectures on Daniel in 1561 indicate that he was not, in principle, a monarchist. Accordingly, the distinctive Calvinistic contribution was phrased: “Men’s vices and inadequacies make it safer and better that the many hold sway. In this way may rulers help each other, teach and admonish one another, and if one asserts himself unfairly, they may act in concert to censure, repressing his willfulness.”[4]

Calvin’s commentary on Daniel 6[5] virtually enshrines all the major principles contained in the Institutes, yielding a consistency to be reckoned. Calvin displayed his suspicion of aggregate power in that commentary, to wit: “In the palaces of kings we often see men of brutal dispositions holding high rank, and we need not go back to history for this.” Of the low and contemptible character of some rulers, he wrote, “But now kings think of nothing else than preferring their own panders, buffoons, and flatterers; while they praise none but men of low character.”

Calvin also alluded to the necessity for fixed laws and universal norms, warning that “many are necessarily injured, and no private interest is stable unless the law be without variation; besides, when there is a liberty of changing laws, license succeeds in place of justice. For those who possess the supreme power, if corrupted by gifts, promulgate first one edict and then another. Thus justice cannot flourish where change in the laws allows of so much license.” Of the need for resistance against a totalitarian power that wrongly attempts to command the conscience, Calvin noted that “Daniel could not obey the edict [making public prayer a crime] without committing an atrocious insult against God and declining from piety.”

Calvin most clearly articulated his doctrine of contingent submission to the governor in his gloss on Daniel 6:22. Daniel, he wrote, “was not so bound to the king of the Persians when he [the king] claimed for himself as a god what ought not to be offered to him.” Earthly regimes were “constituted by God, only on the condition that he deprives himself of nothing, but shines forth alone, and all magistrates must be set in regular order and every authority in existence must be subject to his glory.” Daniel did not err when he disobeyed an illegitimate request from the king. As to duty, Calvin commented on this verse: “For earthly princes lay aside their power when they rise up against God, and are unworthy to be reckoned among the number of mankind. We ought, rather, utterly defy them than to obey them.” Neither the State nor the Governor was above the law.

Calvin’s doctrine of contingency, i. e., that governors should be supported contingent upon their ruling as divinely instituted, was also manifest in his explanation of Acts 4:19-20. He stated that, regardless of titles employed, we should only obey officials “upon this condition, if they lead us not away from obeying God.”[6] Commenting a chapter later, he summarized: “Therefore, we must obey rulers so far that the commandment not be broken.”[7] His balance is displayed in a related comment: “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.” However, if rulers lead away from obedience to God, they are dishonorable and “darken his glory.” Using a parallel analogy, should a father order something unlawful in the home, he forfeits honor and “is nothing else but a man.” Similarly, “[I]f a king or ruler or magistrate becomes so lofty that he diminishes the honor and authority of God, he is but a man. . . . For he who goes beyond his bounds in his office must be despoiled of his honor, lest, under a color or visor, he deceive.”[8]

Commenting on Jesus’ teaching to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” Calvin stated that obedience to a poor magistrate did not “prevent us from having within us a conscience free in the sight of God,” and also concluded this: “[T]hose who destroy political order are rebellious against God, and therefore, that obedience to princes and magistrates is always joined to the worship and fear of God; but that on the other hand, if princes claim any part of the authority of God, we ought not to obey them any farther than can be done without offending God.”

Even in view of the later New Testament teaching to “fear God, honor the king,” certain priorities must not be forgotten. Calvin commented: “The fear of God ought to precede, that kings may obtain their authority. For if any one begins his reverence of an earthly prince by rejecting that of God, he will act preposterously, since this is a complete perversion of the order of nature.” Calvin noted that, “earthly kings lay aside all their power when they rise up against God, and are unworthy of being reckoned in the number of mankind.” Rather than fulfilling unjust laws, although care in this determination was commended as well, the Geneva reformer advised the following: “We ought rather utterly to defy than to obey them whenever they are so restive and wish to spoil God of his rights, and, as it were, to seize upon his throne and draw him down from heaven.”


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 more on this historically significant event see chapter 4 in my The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003).

[2] References are to Calvin’s Commentary on Daniel (Grand Rapids: Baker Bookhouse, 1979), vol. xii, lxiv-lxxv.

[3] John Calvin, “Commentaries on Daniel,” On God and Political Duty (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956), 100-101.

[4]John Calvin, Institutes, 4.20.8.

[5] References are to Calvin’s Commentary on Daniel (Grand Rapids: Baker Bookhouse, 1979), vol. xii, 350-387.

[6] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on Acts, vol. xviii, 178.

[7] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on Acts, vol. xviii, 214.

[8] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on Acts, vol. xviii, 215.


David Hall


On YouTube

The Story of Scripture

Reformed Resources

New audio from James Boice

Find Out More

Register for the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology