Rounding Out Calvin’s Advice

Calvin’s discussion of Romans 13 began by explaining that all civil power originates with the sovereign God—not with man, as later secular schemes suggested. He then discussed the role of civil government and the duty of the Christian to submit to that government except in extreme circumstances. The civil government was given, wrote Calvin, to prevent the damage of human sinfulness. Albeit restraining, it was a gracious institution for society. Calvin, it should be remembered, believed that any government was better than no government at all: “further, some kind of government, however deformed and corrupt it may be, is still better and more beneficial than anarchy.”[1]

In sum, however, he concluded: “Now this passage confirms what I have already said, that we ought to obey kings and governors, whoever they may be, not because we are constrained, but because it is a service acceptable to God; for he will have them not only to be feared, but also honored by a voluntary respect.”[2] In addition, his comments called for magistrates to protect religion and public decency (“endeavor to promote religion and to regulate morals by wholesome discipline”[3]).

TAXATION: He recommended prudent limits, arguing that taxes should only support public necessity; for “to impose them upon the common folk without cause is tyrannical extortion” (4:20, 13). Obedience was a Christian duty in this area; however, princes were not to indulge in “waste and expensive luxury,” lest they earn God’s displeasure. Excessive taxation was alluded to in his comment later: “Others drain the common people of their money, and afterward lavish it on insane largesse” (4:20, 24).

Calvin’s discussion of governmental largesse led him to acknowledge the common reaction that called oppressive governors “tyrants” (4:20, 24). Still he warned that the mere existence of some over-taxation or misappropriation was not the same as divine warrant to overthrow the tyrant.

Calvin believed that both politics and providence were operative; indeed, he suggested that the Kingdom of God was already present, albeit not completely realized: “For spiritual government, indeed, is already initiating in us upon earth certain beginnings of the Heavenly Kingdom, and in this mortal and fleeting life affords a certain forecast of an immortal and incorruptible blessedness” (4:20, 2). He advised, “Let no man be disturbed that I now commit to civil government the duty of rightly establishing religion” (4:20, 3). Few of his contemporaries would be greatly disturbed by such a statement, since it was the common notion of Calvin’s time for government to uphold religion. Calvin acknowledged this: “All have confessed that no government can be happily established unless piety is the first concern” (4:20, 9). He also stated that the civil magistrate should care for both tables of the law (4:20, 9). Later conflicts between church and state, however, would beg for re-evaluations of this maxim. Furthermore, he included a limitation for his theory, i. e., that no administration was permitted to tailor the worship of God to their own imaginations nor prohibit the practice of true religion (4:20, 3).

Lest, however, we brand Calvin a theocrat (cf. his comments from The Ecclesiastical Ordinances), his comments on a gospel passage (John 18:36) in which Jesus stated that his servants did not strive for enforcement of an earthly kingdom may reassure. His view of the separation of jurisdictions, enunciated in the mid-sixteenth century, is still helpful. Discussing the conditions under which it is appropriate to defend “the kingdom of Christ by arms,” Calvin wrote:

[T]hough godly kings defend the kingdom of Christ by the sword, still it is done in a different manner from that in which worldly kingdoms are wont to be defended; for the kingdom of Christ, being spiritual must be founded on the doctrine and power of the Spirit. In the same manner, too, its edification is promoted; for neither the laws and edicts of men, nor the punishments inflicted by them, enter into the consciences. . . . It results, however, from the depravity of the world that the kingdom of Christ is strengthened more by the blood of the martyrs than by the aid of arms.[4]

For Calvin, serving in civil government could be “the most sacred and by far the most honorable of all callings in the whole life of mortal men” (4:20, 4). He wrote that if civil rulers properly understood their callings, that is, “that they are occupied not with profane affairs or those alien to a servant of God, but with a most holy office, since they are serving as God’s deputies” (4:20, 6), they would serve with more equity. Echoing Aristotle’s morphology of the state and its tendency toward deterioration from monarchy to tyranny and from democracy to anarchy, Calvin advocated “a system compounded of aristocracy and democracy” (4:20, 8). He also saw a legitimate place for checks and balances, realizing the need for “censors and masters to restrain his [the monarch’s] willfulness” (4:20, 8). This week’s Inaugural may remind us of those checks and balances.

Calvin did not teach that the Mosaic Law was to be in force everywhere (4:20, 16). Since Calvin is seldom accused of laxness, his own comments must be taken seriously. So taken, they do not call for disavowal of the equitable principles of the Old Testament judicial law but merely for the adaptation of nonessential and nonmoral aspects. It was, as Calvin realized, possible to maintain the applicability of God’s law while not necessarily advocating all the cultural specifics of the original Hebrew code. Some of his political descendants would adhere to this notion more than others.

Specific Themes that were Frequently Repeated

Several themes are repeated enough in the primary writings to form the core of a political creed. Not only in the ideas that were denounced but also in the concepts advocated, the following were clear, Protestant articles of political belief.

  1. Republicanism, in contrast to monarchy or pure democracy, was ordained by God, and those nations that pleased him would guarantee such decentralized government as that exemplified in Exodus 18.
  2. OT passages provided the basis for a judicial system, complete with review and appeal. The OT Law was enduring in its validity, even serving to describe capital offenses and to be useful (esp. Ex. 21-23) for primitive law-codes.
  3. Checks and balances to partially thwart human depravity were necessary, and rulers were to be under law.
  4. Rulers were expected to meet biblical qualifications for righteous kings or for “senators” in Exodus 18. Accordingly, all human governments were judged by transcendent moral norms.
  5. The covenant, as an instrument from God, could be used constructively to provide an abiding basis for moral/political cohesion.



John Calvin stood at the beginning of modernity, and his ideas and actions would change history forever. Others—today, though mainly forgotten voices—have previously recognized the influence of Calvin in many areas, not the least of which is civil governance. The highly respected nineteenth-century Harvard historian George Bancroft was one of many who earlier asserted that Calvin’s ideas buttressed liberty’s cause. He and others noted the influence of this thought on the development of various freedoms in Western Europe and America.[5] From his viewpoint in the middle of the nineteenth century, Bancroft estimated that Calvin was at the head of the column of modern republican legislators and was responsible for elevating the culture of Geneva into “the impregnable fortress of popular liberty, the fertile seed-plot of democracy.”[6] Bancroft even credited the free institutions of America as derived “chiefly from Calvinism through the medium of Puritanism.” Moreover, he traced the living legacy of Calvin among the Plymouth pilgrims, the Huguenot settlers of South Carolina, and the Dutch colonists in Manhattan, concluding that to understand the origin of American liberty, one must grasp the influence of this early Calvinism. Bancroft esteemed Calvin as one of the premier republican pioneers, claiming that zealous Calvinists were, “the fanatics for liberty” and the tillers for “the undying principles of democratic liberty.”[7]

John Calvin is known primarily as a churchman, pastor, and theologian, but he also contributed much to theories of societal governance. Numerous scholars have traced Calvin’s civic contributions.[8] Among the various contributions, Douglas Kelly identifies the “sober Calvinian assessment of fallen man’s propensity to seize, increase, and abuse power for personal ends rather than for the welfare of the many.” He explains: “Governmental principles for consent of the governed, and separation and balance of powers are all logical consequences of a most serious and Calvinian view of the biblical doctrine of the fall of man.”[9] Although historian Franklin Palm mistakenly classified Calvin as “wholly medieval” and as favoring an “aristocratic theocracy in which he was dictator,” nevertheless, he recognized Calvin’s contribution as “emphasizing the supremacy of God and the right of resistance to all other authority . . . [H]e did much to curb the powers of kings and to increase the authority of the elected representatives of the people.”[10] Further, Palm noticed Calvin’s belief in the “right of the individual to remove the magistrate who disobeys the word of God. . . . Consequently, he justified many revolutionary leaders in their belief that God gave them the right to oppose tyranny.”

Recently, John Witte, Jr., has noted how, “Calvin developed arresting new teachings on authority and liberty, duties and rights, and church and state that have had an enduring influence on Protestant lands.” As a result of its adaptability, this “rendered early modern Calvinism one of the driving engines of Western constitutionalism. A number of our bedrock Western understandings of civil and political rights, social and confessional pluralism, federalism and social contract, and more owe a great deal to Calvinist theological and political reforms.”[11]

As America inaugurates its 45th president, perhaps some observations from our first vice president and 2nd president are worthwhile. John Adams’ explanation for the cause of the American Revolution is worth hearing. Adams believed that the important revolution occurred “before the war commenced.” It was, he said, “the Revolution in the [12]minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.” What he referred to was that American Christians no longer recognized a hereditary claim to their obedience regardless of the behavior of rulers. Romans 13 was not interpreted unconditionally any longer, and “when they saw those powers renouncing all the principles of authority” and trending toward tyranny, Americans enshrined the Reformation mottoes that resistance to tyrants was a religious and civic duty. That “radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections” of Americans, said Adams, “was the real American Revolution,” long before the first musket was fired.


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] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on I Peter (Grand Rapids: Baker Bookhouse, 1979), vol. xxii, 83. He also commented on Romans: “there can then be no tyranny which does not in some respects assist in consolidating the society of men.” John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker Bookhouse, 1979), vol. xix, 480.

[2] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker Bookhouse, 1979), vol. xix, 483.

[3] See his comments on 1 Timothy 2:2.

[4] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on John (Grand Rapids: Baker Bookhouse, 1979), vol. xviii, 210.

[5] See Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (1910, rpr. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), vol. viii, 264.

[6] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (1910, rpr. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), vol. viii, 522.

[7] Cited in Robert M. Kingdon, Calvin and Calvinism: Sources of Democracy (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1970), xiii. The original citation is George Bancroft, History of the United States of America (Boston, 1853), I, 464.

[8] Among the scholars 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); Ralph C. Hancock, Calvin and The Foundations of Modern Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 62-81, provides an excellent summary of Calvin’s political thought from The Institutes; John T. McNeill, “Calvin and Civil Government,” in Donald McKim, ed., Readings in Calvin’s Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984); Collected Papers of Herbert D. Foster (privately printed, 1929); Calvinism and the Political Order, George L. Hunt, ed., . . .. McNeill article on . . . ; 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).

[9] Douglas Kelly, The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World, 18.

[10] Franklin Charles Palm, Calvinism and the Religious Wars, 32.

[11] John Witte, Jr., The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 2.

[12] “John Adams and Religion,” This Day in Presbyterian History (


David Hall