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Calvin, the King and Civil Disobedience

By Joe Boot/ January 8, 2021

Topic  Christianity

By any informed estimation, John Calvin was a great man used by the Lord in many remarkable ways, whose systematic recovery of biblical faith made him the outstanding theologian of the Reformation era. The Institutes of the Christian Religion is a veritable monument to God’s grace and faithfulness in the life of Calvin and one of the most pivotal contributions in the history of Christian theology. Because religion is the fundamental motive-force moving every aspect of cultural life, it was impossible that the fruit of this recovery of biblical faith could be sequestered within the life of the institutional church or limited to the science of theology. The reality and power of the God and gospel proclaimed by Calvin and others at the Reformation shook the nations and steadily transformed Western civilization.

Calvin himself clearly understood the obligations that God had laid upon human political authorities in response to that Word of God and he made them clear to the King of France – professing Calvinists especially should take note:

Your duty, most serene Prince, is, not to shut either your ears or mind against a cause involving such mighty interests as these: how the glory of God is to be maintained on the earth inviolate, how the truth of God is to preserve its dignity, how the Kingdom of Christ is to continue amongst us compact and secure. The cause is worthy of your ear, worthy of your investigation, worthy of your throne. The characteristic of a true sovereign is, to acknowledge that, in the administration of his kingdom, he is a minister of God. He who does not make his reign subservient to the divine glory, acts the part not of a king, but a robber. He, moreover, deceives himself who anticipates long prosperity to any kingdom which is not ruled by the sceptre of God, that is, by his divine word. For the heavenly oracle is infallible which has declared, that “where there is no vision the people perish” (Prov. 29:18).[1]

Much has been said in this disruptive and troubling season involving the unprecedented and indefinite lockdown of the churches about not only the biblical, but also the historic reformed position on the role of the civil magistrate and the relationship between church and state. It is therefore interesting and deserving of further attention to be reminded that Calvin begins his landmark Institutes with a lengthy prefatory address to “His most Christian majesty, the most mighty and illustrious monarch, Francis, king of the French.” Calvin continues that although he did not at first intend to present the Institutes to Francis,

… when I perceived that the fury of certain bad men had risen to such a height in your realm, that there was no place in it for sound doctrine, I thought it might be of service if I were in the same work both to give instruction to my countrymen, and also lay before your Majesty a Confession, from which you may learn what the doctrine is that so inflames the rage of those madmen who are this day, with fire and sword, troubling your kingdom.[2]

The Institutes is a masterful survey of Christian doctrine – but it is not doctrine in scientific abstraction from the real world of human culture. The last chapter of the fourth and final book deals with the matter of civil government, and the final section of that chapter – the very last words other than a postscript of one hundred summative aphorisms – runs as follows:

But in that obedience which we hold to be due to the commands of rulers, we must always make the exception, nay, must be particularly careful that it is not incompatible with obedience to Him to whose will the wishes of all kings should be subject, to whose majesty their sceptres must bow. And, indeed, how preposterous were it, in pleasing men, to incur the offence of Him for whose sake you obey men! The Lord, therefore, is King of kings. When he opens his sacred mouth, he alone is to be heard, instead of all and above all. We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against Him let us not pay the least regard to it, nor be moved by all the dignity which they possess as magistrates—a dignity to which no injury is done when it is subordinated to the special and truly supreme power of God. On this ground Daniel denies that he had sinned in any respect against the king when he refused to obey his impious decree (Dan. 6:22), because the king had exceeded his limits, and not only been injurious to men, but, by raising his horn against God, had virtually abrogated his own power.

On the other hand, the Israelites are condemned for having too readily obeyed the impious edict of the king. For, when Jeroboam made the golden calf, they forsook the temple of God, and, in submissiveness to him, revolted to the new superstitions (1 Kings 12:28). With the same facility posterity had bowed before the decrees of their kings. For this they are severely upbraided by the Prophet (Hosea 5:11). So far is the praise of modesty from being due to that pretence by which flattering courtiers cloak themselves, and deceive the simple, when they deny the lawfulness of declining anything imposed by their kings, as if the Lord had resigned his own rights to mortals by appointing them to rule over their fellows, or as if earthly power were diminished when it is subjected to its author, before whom even the principalities of heaven tremble as suppliants. I know the imminent peril to which subjects expose themselves by this firmness, kings being most indignant when they are contemned. As Solomon says, “The wrath of a king is as messengers of death” (Prov. 16:14).

But since Peter, one of heaven’s heralds, has published the edict “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), let us console ourselves with the thought, that we are rendering the obedience which the Lord requires, when we endure anything rather than turn aside from piety. And that our courage may not fail, Paul stimulates us by the additional consideration (1 Cor. 7:23), that we were redeemed by Christ at the great price which our redemption cost him, in order that we might not yield a slavish obedience to the depraved wishes of men, far less do homage to their impiety.[3]

In our cultural moment, this admonition – Calvin’s final exhortation to the church in the Institutes – ought to be taken as seriously as his powerful exposition of the mode of obtaining the grace of Christ.

Calvin was a great man, but he was only a man with feet of clay like the rest of us and as prone to mistakes and errors as we are. That is why a slavish devotion to the thought of any man, be they pastor, epidemiologist, historian or theologian should be avoided as a form of idolatry. The final test, as Calvin himself knew and taught, must always be the Word of God, “To the law and the testimony! If they speak not according to this word, for them there is no daybreak” (Is. 8:20). What better place to conclude than with that very Word?

“But as for Me, I have installed My King
Upon Zion, My holy mountain.”

“I will announce the decree of the Lord:
He said to Me, ‘You are My Son,
Today I have fathered You.
Ask it of Me, and I will certainly give the nations as Your inheritance,
And the ends of the earth as Your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron,
You shall shatter them like earthenware.’”

Now then, you kings, use insight;
Let yourselves be instructed, you judges of the earth.
Serve the Lord with reverence
And rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son, that He not be angry and you perish on the way,
For His wrath may be kindled quickly.
How blessed are all who take refuge in Him! (Ps. 2:6-12)

… he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Eph. 1:20-23)

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1953, (Prefatory address).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. (4.20.32)