Calvin’s Terrible Argument Against Religious Liberty

I’ve noted before that Calvin used Plato and other philosophers to defend his claim that magistrates should suppress false religion. In addition to the last chapter of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, one of the places in which Calvin makes this argument explicitly is in his commentary on the judicial supplements to the first commandment, ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ It is here that he addresses the Torah’s numerous stipulations that false teachers, idolaters, and witches are to be put to death. This work was published in 1563, well after Calvin’s approval of the execution of Servetus (in 1553) had swelled to a major international and theological controversy. It is obvious that he writes with that controversy in mind.

Calvin was well aware that the Torah’s call for capital punishment for false teachers is an insufficient basis for a Christian nation in the 16th Century to do the same. He affirmed that Christians are not under the law except as a guide to charity; the Torah’s political laws only bind other nations insofar as they reflect general principles of equity or of natural law. He knew therefore that if he was to defend the suppression of false religion he had to produce an argument supported by natural law and by Scriptural teaching on the nature of the kingdom of Christ (not simply about Israel).

It is quite telling, however, that Calvin’s first and most basic argument is not derived from Scripture but from Plato’s Laws. It is as if he knows that his exegetical argument against religious liberty is remarkably thin, and that he must therefore clear the air by showing that he has the consensus of philosophers – even non-Christian philosophers – on his side. He writes,

For Plato also begins from hence, when he lays down the legitimate constitution of a republic and calls the fear of God the preface of all laws; nor has any profane author ever existed who has not confessed that this is the principal part of a well-constituted state, that all with one consent should reverence and worship God. In this respect, indeed, the wisdom of men was at fault, that they deemed that any religion which they might prefer was to be sanctioned by laws and punishments; yet the principle was a just one, that the whole system of law is perverted if the cultivation of piety is ignored by it.

From this statement it is clear that Calvin saw the defense of religious liberty (he would not have called it such, of course) as arising from Christian sources rather than from pagan ones. Yet he turns this important fact not into a basis for defending religious liberty, but into a reason for opposing it.

What is particularly striking about his argument is that as a rule Calvin had very little confidence in magistrates. He declares over and over in his writings that even those kings and princes who claim to be Christian are usually guided more by their own ambition than by a zeal for God’s righteousness. Virtually none in the history of the world have had the genuine interests of the church at heart. Yet Calvin’s solution for this problem is not to call for the state to remove itself from spiritual affairs, but to insist that it get religion right. One is reminded if the claim made in the late 20th Century by some Marxists, to the effect that the problem is not with Marxism, but simply with the fact that true Marxism has never been tried.

Of course, Calvin does offer the typical qualifications. Magistrates should only suppress false religion if the truth of God’s word as revealed in Scripture has been publicly acknowledged among the people. There can be no use of coercion on doubtful matters.

It must then be remembered that the crime of impiety would not otherwise merit punishment, unless the religion had not only been received by public consent and the suffrages of the people, but, being supported also by sure and indisputable proofs, should place its truth above the reach of doubt.

On this basis it would be difficult for Calvin to insist on the state’s suppression of religious liberty in 21st Century America (though this is small comfort for those who are concerned about the ultimate intentions of the Christian right).

Calvin also agrees with the later Enlightenment argument that the truth is strong enough to stand on its own feet and does not need the protection of the sword. But his appeal is not for the sake of the preservation of the truth, but to the will and glory of God.

God might indeed do without the assistance of the sword in defending religion, but such is not his will… Pardon shall never be extended to poisoners, by whom the body alone is injured, and shall it be sport to deliver souls to eternal destruction? Finally, the magistracy, if its own authority be assailed, shall take severe vengeance upon that contempt; and shall it suffer the profanation of God’s holy name to be unavenged?

Here Calvin returns to a comment he often makes in these sorts of contexts. Though our reason and sentiment may object to a particular command, God has pronounced his will and we must abide by it.

But what about the objection, derived from the two kingdoms doctrine, that in the spiritual kingdom of Christ the Torah’s stipulation about God’s will for the punishment of false teachers has no place? Calvin is well aware of this theological argument, the argument that most Christians (including myself) would use today to defend religious liberty. Yes, he was a product of his time; but that doesn’t mean he didn’t think through the issues clearly. He writes,

But it is questioned whether the law pertains to the kingdom of Christ, which is spiritual and distinct from all earthly dominion. And there are some men, not otherwise ill-disposed, to whom it appears that our condition under the gospel is different from that of the ancient people under the law, not only because the kingdom of Christ is not of this world, but because Christ was unwilling that the beginnings of his kingdom should be aided by the sword. But, when human judges consecrate their work to the promotion of Christ’s kingdom, I deny that on that account its nature is changed. For although it was Christ’s will that his gospel should be proclaimed by his disciples in opposition to the power of the whole world … he did not impose on himself an eternal law that he should never bring kings under his subjection.

In short, Calvin views the obligation of magistrates to use the sword to suppress false religion not as a function of their role in the kingdom of Christ (whether Israel or the church) but as a function of their secular vocation. He now turns to the passages in Scripture that he thinks decisively establish his case, two from the Old Testament and (only one!) from the New. He invokes Psalm 2, which calls kings to “kiss the Son,” and Isaiah 49:23, which declares that at the coming of Christ kings will become “nursing fathers of the church.” Despite his oft-repeated reminder that such prophecies should be interpreted analogically, as describing the spiritual kingdom of Christ in language that would have made sense to people familiar with the temporal and earthly kingdom of Israel, in these cases he jettisons all such exegetical principles.

Yet his argument from the New Testament is the most tenuous of all. He cites Paul’s instruction to Timothy that Christians are to pray for all people, including kings and those in authority over them, in order that “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Timothy 2:2). He insists that this passage calls magistrates to protect godliness by using the sword to suppress open ungodliness. In hindsight it is obvious that 1 Timothy 2:2 teaches no such thing. At best it might be said that Paul’s instructions imply that the magistrate should protect the religious liberty of Christians. The text says nothing at all about what the magistrate should do about other religious groups. Calvin was reading his own political convictions into the text. He surely acted sincerely, but his interpretation bears the mark of theological desperation rather than of the careful exegetical work for which Calvin was rightly so famous. He knew that the apparent teaching of the New Testament weighed heavily against his argument. He had to find something to show that his interpretation of the implications of natural law and of prophecy was affirmed in its pages.

Reformed folks sometimes want to defend Calvin for his views on religious liberty, pointing out that his position was no different from that of the other great theologians of Christendom. That is fair up to a point, particularly relative to those who want to judge Calvin as somehow uniquely tyrannical. He was a product of his time, as we are of ours. But in the interest of honesty and our Christian witness, it is necessary to affirm openly that Calvin was wrong, and that he was wrong not because he was not modern, but because he abandoned his own theological and exegetical principles. The biggest problem with the soft hagiography that defends Calvin is not the way it handles the execution of Servetus, but the way it ignores just how flawed was Calvin’s theological reasoning on religious liberty and politics. It is with this theological issue that we must come to grips if we are to clarify our own confession regarding religion and politics.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

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

Posted on April 5, 2013, in Calvin, Law, Religious Liberty, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Calvin’s Terrible Argument Against Religious Liberty.

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