Why John Calvin refused to model government after the kingdom of God or of Israel

There are many Christians who think that as the kingdom of God progressively unfolds in this world it will transform our culture at every level, all the way up to the highest levels of government. For these Christians, and they fall all along the political spectrum from the right to the left, government is itself part of the kingdom of God, and should be governed according to Christian principles, whether those principles are those of Jesus in the New Testament, or whether they are the laws of Moses in the Old.

This does not bother me so much. After all, there will always be divisions among Christians, and we do need to work through these issues. What I am concerned with here is the attempt that people make to claim John Calvin as support for this sort of project. Protestant Liberalism claimed Calvin for the social gospel long ago, and H. Richard Niebuhr cemented Calvin’s place in our minds when he made him a poster-boy for transformationalism in his Christ and Culture.

A simple consideration of Calvin’s discussion of civil government in the final edition of the Instititutes, however, demonstrates just how misguided is this reading of Calvin. Calvin discusses civil government at the very end of the Institiutes, in Chapter 20 of Book 4, and he only does so after specifying that the political kingdom needs to be carefully distinguished from the spiritual kingdom of Christ. Even then, however, he feels the need to explain to his readers why he is discussing politics at all. And when he does so, he admits that the main reason why he is addressing civil government is to respond to those who think that government must conform to the New Testament standard of the kingdom of God, or that it has unlimited power. Calvin writes,

For although this topic seems by nature alien to the spiritual doctrine of faith which I have undertaken to discuss, what follows will show that I am right in joining them, in fact, that necessity compels me to do so. This is especially true since, from one side, insane and barbarous men (i.e., the Anabaptists who taught that Christians could not serve as magistrates or soldiers) furiously strive to overturn this divinely established order; while, on the other side, the flatterers of princes, immoderately praising their power, do not hesitate to set them against the rule of God himself. Unless both these evils are checked, purity of faith will perish. (4.20.1)

Calvin goes on to again explain the two kingdoms doctrine, and the way in which it distinguishes between Christ’s spiritual kingdom and civil government, and throughout much of the chapter he explains why the Anabaptists are wrong to confuse the two. In one particular statement that should make any transformationalist shudder he writes, “it makes no difference what your condition among men may be or under what nation’s laws you life, since the Kingdom of Christ does not at all consist in these things.” (4.20.1)

Now those of you readers who think government should follow the Mosaic Law may be noticing at this point that nothing I have said here refutes the argument that Calvin thought government should rule by the Torah. And the fact is, Calvin constantly uses the Old Testament and the laws of Moses to make arguments about what government should or should not do. I do not deny that.

But the reality is that Calvin did not believe the laws of Moses or the nature of Israel was a binding example on Christian civil governments, and he only used the Old Testament insofar as he believed it testified to the demands of natural law. When he defended the obligation of government to advance the true religion, for instance, he was just as likely to invoke the example of Plato or Cicero as he was Moses or David. Again, if you are one of those people who worries when Christian political theologians rely on Enlightenment philosophers to make certain arguments, it is worth asking, why was Calvin allowed to use Plato, but I cannot use John Locke?

The proof for this interpretation of Calvin appears in section 14 of Chapter 20 when Calvin turns to the laws with which “a Christian state ought to be governed.” Yet he immediately declares that no one should expect a long treatise on this subject and that Calvin is only going to present the bare minimum. In fact, he writes, he would have preferred not to discuss the issue at all, and the only reason he is going to do so is to refute those who think that government should be administered according to the laws of Moses.

I would have preferred to pass over this matter in utter silence if I were not aware that here many dangerously go astray. For there are some who deny that a commonwealth is duly framed which neglects the political system of Moses, and is ruled by the common laws of nations. Let other men consider how perilous and seditious this notion is; it will be enough for me to have proved it false and foolish. (4.20.14)

To be sure, Calvin did not think the law of Moses was irrelevant for modern nations. He viewed the civil and judicial laws of Israel as specific “formulas of equity and justice,” the formulas of which were unique to Israel but which reflected natural law insofar as they represented timeless truths of equity and justice. And as Calvin writes,

It is a fact that the law of God which we call the moral law is nothing else than a testimony of natural law and of that conscience which God has engraved upon the minds of men. Consequently, the entire scheme of this equity of which we are now speaking has been prescribed in it. Hence, this equity alone must be the goal and rule and limit of all laws. Whatever laws shall be framed to that rule, directed to that goal, bound by that limit, there is no reason why we should disapprove of them, howsoever they may differ from the Jewish law, or among themselves. (4.20.16)

For Calvin, in short, the standard for government is natural law, not the kingdom of Christ or the Mosaic Law. And that is why even when Calvin defended the argument that government should enforce the true religion he relied primarily on arguments from philosophy and nature rather than on Scripture (see especially 4.20.9).

The result is that we should follow Calvin’s example, not necessarily his conclusions. Calvin believed, with Plato and virtually everyone before Christianity invented the idea of the secular, that government was inseparable from true religion. Now insofar as natural law and the idea of the secular are inherently Christian ideas I agree with Calvin. But along with most philosophers and theologians of our day, who disagree with the belief of most philosophers and theologians of Plato’s and Calvin’s days that natural law demands that government enforce true religion, it would seem to me that Calvin was wrong in his conclusions. Scripture and natural law are our authorities, I would remind you, not Calvin and Plato.

Those who think we are to imitate our forefathers in what they did rather than in the method they told us to follow may have a problem with this use of Calvin. That’s fair enough. But whatever you think about whether or not government should punish Jews, Muslims, atheists, and the various Christian denominations you disagree with, don’t try to pretend Calvin thought that politics was kingdom activity, or that it should be organized after the manner of Israel. He wasn’t on your side.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 13, 2012, in Calvin, Law, Politics, The Secular, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Why John Calvin refused to model government after the kingdom of God or of Israel.

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