Saturday, December 17, 2011

John Calvin (1509-1564): On Civil Government

Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion is mainly a rebuttal and correction due to the various errors he sees.  Thus, we could argue that the work is essentially reactionary, although the same could be said of almost all philosophy and theology, and indeed of all the thoughts of man.  This section is a reaction to the Anabaptists.  A most curious accusation develops right away, that the Anabaptists believed that they alone were spiritual enough to administer their own government:

"Accordingly, they think that nothing will be safe until the whole world is changed into a new form, when there will be neither courts, nor laws, nor magistrates, nor anything of the kind to interfere, as they suppose, with their liberty. But he who knows to distinguish between the body and the soul, between the present fleeting life and that which is future and eternal, will have no difficulty in understanding that the spiritual kingdom of Christ and civil government are things very widely separated." - Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, Chapter 20.

This part of the discussions seems more than a little bit ironic as we consider the discussions of  Separation of Church and State as phrased by Jefferson in his discussions with the Danbury Baptists.  Calvin spills a lot of ink arguing for the need of Christians not only to obey civil government, but to give honor to the offices of that government.

"The first duty of subjects towards their rulers, is to entertain the most honourable views of their office, recognising it as a delegated jurisdiction from God, and on that account receiving and reverencing them as the ministers and ambassadors of God."

As for types of government, Calvin mentions the classical three types: Monarchy, Aristocracy, Democracy. His preference seems to be some sort of Aristocracy:

"I, for my part, am far from denying that the form which greatly surpasses the others is aristocracy, either pure or modified by popular government, not indeed in itself, but because it very rarely happens that kings so rule themselves as never to dissent from what is just and right, or are possessed of so much acuteness and prudence as always to see correctly. Owing, therefore, to the vices or defects of men, it is safer and more tolerable when several bear rule, that they may thus mutually assist, instruct, and admonish each other, and should any one be disposed to go too far, the others are censors and masters to curb his excess."

Then there is Calvin's argument for Liberty, for which I am now tending to view that our modern notions probably derive from him, albeit he undoubtedly learned these notions from the classical Greeks:

"And as I willingly admit that there is no kind of government happier than where liberty is framed with becoming moderation, and duly constituted so as to be durable, so I deem those very happy who are permitted to enjoy that form, and I admit that they do nothing at variance with their duty when they strenuously and constantly labour to preserve and maintain it."

With that I have reached the end of Calvin's massive work, although I now must go back and listen to a few sections from book III that I skipped.

No comments: