Calvin: On Government

It’s our last week with Calvin! I was going to write something about his views on infant baptism (he likes it), but I don’t really care that much – if you want to read it, it’s Book 4, Chapter 16, and you can find an online copy over here. Instead, we’re going to round off by talking about Calvin on the government. In Book 4, Chapter 20, the final chapter of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin talks about the Anabaptists, who apparently were resisting the idea of civil government. If we’re all spiritual creatures, why should we submit to earthly rulers? Calvin resolves this issue with the pretty familiar trick of bringing civil government under the auspices of God’s divine plan. He actually goes a bit further, asserting that “no polity can be successfully established unless piety be its first care” (4.20.9). Not only is civil government part of God’s plan, it’s impossible to have a society unless it’s centered around religion. Reminds me of that Dennehy guy, who argued that you can’t have a democratic society unless it’s Christian.

So according to Calvin, civil government very specifically operates as a sort of protective infrastructure, preserving and defending religion. The government’s goal is “that no idolatry, no blasphemy against the name of God, no calumnies against His truth, nor other offenses to religion, break out and be disseminated among the people; that the public quiet not be disturbed, that every man’s property be kept secure, that men may carry on innocent commerce with each other, that honesty and modesty be cultivated; in short, that a public form of religion may exist among Christians, and humanity among men” (s3). There are two halves to that sentence, and they’re both fascinating. In the first half, Calvin says that the role of the government is to fend off “offenses to religion,” which is part of that protective infrastructure thing. In the second half, he describes property ownership and commerce as public forms of religion, which – hmm.

Throughout this chapter, Calvin’s overarching point is that you have to obey civil authorities. They were all put in place by God, they’re meant to be there, and you have to do what they say. If they ask you to disobey God, you don’t have to listen to them, because they should obviously still be subordinated to God, because He’s the one who put them there – it’s all shit we’ve heard before, either from Luther, or from Calvin when he was telling us about why abusive husbands are actually great. There is actually a potential point of difference here, by the by – Calvin sees the state as defending the structures of religion from blasphemy, while Luther describes the state as something that Christians have surpassed, as a stop-gap to keep the plebeian non-Christians in check. Anyway, that’s not what I want to talk about today.

When Calvin goes around talking about obedience to the state, the ordained-ness of authority – it’s obviously not something that really sticks with us today. But I don’t just want to dismiss it. It’s something that feels like it would make a lot of sense under a monarchic structure. The monarch is born into their position – it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that they were ordained by God. They’ve won a very particular lottery of birthright. None of us get to choose who we’re born to – we’re just born, and we get given our parents, and we get given our inheritance, whether cultural, psychological, economic, whatever. And that’s just what we have to deal with. So I understand how people saw divine purpose in the lottery of birthright. I understand how divine purpose could be attributed to the monarchy or the civil government – they got their authority because of the lottery, and God controls the lottery, so God must have wanted them there. I also, now, appreciate Calvin’s ideas around free will a lot more. It probably doesn’t seem like free will exists when you can’t pick your parents, or the basic socioeconomic class that you’re born into, or the personality and competence of the people born into authority over you. A lot of Calvin’s thought here speaks quite strongly to the fact that your birthright is completely out of your control, and I appreciate it a lot more when I view it through that lens.

In turn, I wonder if the reason why Calvin’s thought isn’t compelling to us these days is because we exist in a different social and political situation. We vote for our political leaders. We have a responsibility, collectively, to choose the people who govern us. They aren’t born into it, they’re elected to it. We can note the ways in which that’s not actually true, the ways in which the lottery of birthright continues to govern who can and who can’t get access to political power – but even then, we’re complaining about how society doesn’t fully work in the way that we want or expect. We’re angry about political inequality because it’s a betrayal of the egalitarian principles that we all hold. In that instance, our theology grows out of our environment. It’s historical, contextual, contingent.

This sort of conversation often turns into a chicken and egg debate – is Calvin’s theology a thin cover justifying the political power structures of his time, or was it an attempt to make sense of the world that he inherited? Is it theology shaped by political circumstance, or is it shaping political circumstance, reinforcing and buttressing the authority of the powerful? The other question, I guess, is how much of Calvin we’re even able to access any more. If this historical circumstance gives meaning and sense to what Calvin’s saying, how much else are we missing? What’s left of the spirit of Calvin’s thought nearly five hundred years later? Throughout this series, I’ve been pretty free about calling Calvin an asshole. In part, that’s a comment on Calvinists. The Institutes, as read today, read like they were written by an asshole. Partly Calvin does seem like an asshole, but his ideas also read like they would appeal to assholes today. So when I call Calvin an asshole, I’m at least partly talking about how his ideas fit into our contemporary discourse. I think that’s maybe why I shifted gears, started focusing on some of the historical resonances that his ideas have. It’s a more interesting project than six months of name-calling. Plus, you know, benefit of the doubt and all. Sometimes it’s hard to understand people without fully understanding their context. For now, we’ll leave Calvin here. Leave him to his rest, without our nagging and prodding from the other side of a half-millennium gulf.

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