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Calvin And Theocracy Teaching

When we think of a theocracy, we usually think of a political system, governed
and legislated by a religious body with religious beliefs. For the most part
this is true. Historically, theocratic governments have successfully existed
throughout the world, from ancient Egypt to modern Middle-Eastern Islamic
states. For centuries even the Christian Church enjoyed a theocratic diversity
which encompassed most of the civilized world. As well, the unprecedented spread
of Islam has seeded new theocracies at a tremendous rate. Most theocratic
governments had one thing in common, however; their political ideologies did not
just originate from the church, they were the church. Church leaders were the
political leaders. Typically, a strong theocracy was one with a superior church
hierarchy in which the political system was deeply entrenched. But not all
theocratic structures were intended to be this way. In Chapter XX of his
masterpiece The Institutes on Christian Piety, John Calvin logically outlined
his view of a theocracy. Consistent with his scripture-based reasoning, Calvin
eloquently described how civil and ecclesiastical governments were different,
yet uniquely related. In his classic reformation style, Calvin metaphorically
compared Catholic to Protestant theology by framing his theocracy not on the
church as the government, but rather he separated civil government from
spiritual government into a divinely ordained, segregated Protestant theocracy.

Subtlety expressed and masterfully executed, Chapter XX is dripping with
figurative language, suggesting that Calvin went to great lengths to insure that
his distaste for the Catholic papacy would not go unnoticed. The first third of
Chapter XX concentrates on the duties and responsibilities of the magistrate.

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This after two opening sections which clearly divide government into two parts,
and then claim these parts not to be antithetical. Indeed such a preamble is
necessary since the remainder of the document is to be a separation, yet
cross-self-reliance on these parts. Calvin made no attempt to separate local,
regional, or national magistracy. In fact, most of the scripture references are
Old Testament passages which refer to either the kings of Judah, or other
post-king patriarchs. The main focus on the magistrate “is that they have a
mandate from God, have been invested with divine authority, and are wholly
God’s representatives.” In addition, God has “entrusted to them” the
authority “of exercising judgement not for man but for God.” This sounds
very theocratic. However, no where did Calvin mention the source of this divine
position to be the church. Rather he asserted, quoting Psalms 2:12, that the
magistrate should “kiss the Son of God” yet not lay aside their authority.

With this he follows, “By these words he entrusts the condition of the church
to their protection and care.” Calvin clearly separates the church from
directly engaging in the politics related to the office of the magistrate. By
assigning to the church the responsibility of caring for the magistrate, Calvin
allows the church to be associated with government while not actually becoming
part of the government, as his Catholic adversaries did. Beyond divine
appointment, however, Calvin also outlines the duties of the magistrate in a way
which uniquely joins the government to God. Calvin continued his blend of civil
and spiritual government through a discourse on the duties of the magistrate,
issues of war, and the levying of taxes. On the duties of the magistrate, for
example, he returns to the question of divine appointment. “And that their
sole endeavor” Calvin asserts “should be to provide for the common safety
and peace of all.” Continuing, he states that, “in administering punishment,
[the magistrate] does nothing by himself, but carries out the very judgements of
God .” In this, Calvin begins to solidify his argument concerning the divine
nature of the magistracy. It is no coincidence, however, that he includes no
reference which joins the magistrate to the corporate church. Supported by
additional references to Old Testament kings, Calvin implies that it is
inappropriate for the magistrate to be a church leader, in that King David, for
example, had priests dedicated to occupying those positions. On the topic of
war, Calvin makes his position crystal clear. “But kings and people” Calvin
states, “must sometimes take up arms to execute such public vengeance.”
Calvin views war as a “lawful” undertaking, as long as the magistrate
follows some fundamental Godly guidelines, namely restraint and humanity. On
restraint, Calvin warns the magistrate against, “giving vent to their
passions, even in the slightest degree, not giving in to headlong anger, or
be[ing] seized with hatred.” In a continuing effort to weave into his
discourse his dislike for the papacy, Calvin follows with a reference to, “the
heathen philosopher” who attempts to wage war prematurely, rather than trying
everything else first. War, for Calvin, is a final recourse. The only
philosophers Calvin had in view were those philosophers of religion which
embodied Catholic theocracies. With respect to levying tribute, Calvin pulls an
unusual shift which is very inconsistent with his frequently repeated emphasis
on humble living. Calvin asserts that the government has the God given authority
to lay and collect taxes. This comes as no surprise, considering the abundant
scripture which supports such a claim. What is quite astonishing though, is his
use of the Old Testament Prophets and Kings as, “portrayals of the spiritual
Kingdom of Christ.” Calvin frequently describes these kings, especially King
David, as metaphorical types of Christ, or perhaps even figures of the New
Testament church. This symbolism, however, is always within the strict context
of Christian piety, and never ventures into the arena of personal, worldly
satisfaction. Yet this section gives allowance for the magistracy to live
lavishly, since, “he seeks the pattern for a picture from a lawful human
kingdom.” Calvin then justifies his opinion by implying that a ruler’s only
possessions are those which came from the people. “Their revenues are not so
much their private chests as the treasuries of the entire people.” This is, of
course, in sharp contrast to the generously lined bursaries of the
papacy?those repositories exclusively owned by the Catholic church. Calvin
next shifts to issues of law, including its correct and incorrect usage, and the
application of this law within his uniquely framed theocracy. He begins buy
distinguishing law as moral, ceremonial, and judicial. Moral law is twofold,
“which commands us to worship God with pure faith and piety, [and] to embrace
men with sincere affection.” Ceremonial law was, “the tutelage of the Jews.

. . and show[ed] the truth of those things which then were foreshadowed in
figures.” The judicial law, “imparted certain formulas of equity and
justice, by which they might live together blamelessly and peaceably.” These
three characteristics of law lack the fortitude found in similar systems of
theocracy. In Catholicism, without The Church as the foundation of government,
legal systems, however prudent, loose their credibility to individual wants and
desires. Calvin conversely maintains that only the Catholic church possesses the
attributes to corrupt an otherwise sensible, threefold legal structure.

Continuing with his thesis on law, Calvin focuses on the believers proper use of
the established legal system. He does not specifically forbid Christians to
engage in legal disputes. Calvin does, however, qualify this litigation by
saying, “if one is permitted to go to law with a brother, one is not therewith
allowed to hate him, or be seized with a mad desire to harm him, or hound him
relentlessly.” Rather, Calvin asserts that the “principle for all Christians
[is] that a law suit, however just, can never be rightly prosecuted by any man,
unless he treat his adversary with the same love and good will as if the
business under controversy were already amicably settled and composed.” Though
he admits this is a rare, almost impossible occurrence, Calvin quickly and
tactfully follows with the reassertion that, “all Christians are forbidden to
desire revenge”–a useful way to remind his readers of the vengeful attitudes
which so often accompany Catholic theocracies. To conclude his section on law,
Calvin summarizes with a very poignant statement which contains strong
anti-Catholic overtones. Believers are not prevented from “using the help of
the magistrate in preserving their own possessions, while maintaining
friendliness toward their enemies.” Calvin new well that those governments
under the control of the Catholic Church expect their subjects to not only give
up much of their material wealth, but also consider their enemies as under the
control of the evil one, and treat them as you would the devil. Since the
magistrate, to Calvin, is ordained by God, his divine position is sufficient to
insure only God-willing legal protection, along with a Christian attitude of
piety. In his final section, Calvin addresses the attitude and behavior of the
people, sighting deference and obedience, and relying heavily on Jeremiah’s
account of King Nebuchadnezzar. On deference, Calvin classifies reverence for
the office of the magistrate as, “the first duty of subjects . . .” With
this, though, they, “should obey ?not only because of wrath,’ . . . but
because they are showing obedience to God himself when they give it to them;
since the ruler’s power is from God.” Continuing with obedience, Calvin
implores the people to intercede with prayer and supplication on behalf of the
magistrate, following with the suggestion to commit all matters, “to the
judgement of the magistrate, whose hand alone is free.” It is no accident that
Calvin brings together deference and obedience. These are two mandates which
rank high on the list of important matters for the papacy. But Calvin’s
theocracy, unlike those under Catholic rule, places the focus of these two
particulars directly on God, whereas a Cathlo-theocratic system is concerned
exclusively with papal compliance. With respect to Nebuchadnezzar, Calvin uses a
God designed allegory which is framed by Jeremiah’s account of the fall of
Judah, and their captivity in Babylon. The premise is that God, being the
sovereign ruler of all, alone executes judgement. Calvin says this judgement
often comes in the form of a wicked ruler. “Yet, we need not labor to prove
that a wicked king is the Lord’s wrath upon the earth.” In this, Calvin
allows for the chastisement of His chosen people within the legal framework of a
governmental system. This is absolutely essential if God’s people are to
respect and revere their ruler. The metaphor comes into clear view as Calvin,
surprisingly, explains his position. “When we hear that a king has been
ordained by god, let us at once call to mind those heavenly edicts with regard
to honoring and fearing a king; then we shall not hesitate to hold a most wicked
tyrant in the place where the Lord has designed to set him.” More directly,
Calvin quotes, ” ‘ . . . And it shall be that any nation and kingdom that
will not serve the king of Babylon, I [God] shall visit that nation with sword,
famine, and pestilence . . . Therefore, serve the king of Babylon and
live.'” This may seem odd, in that Calvin so strongly opposes adherence to
the whims of any Catholic theocracy. The oddity is false though, in that the
Catholic church, according to Calvin, is not from God. The Nebuchadnezzar
parallel is, without question, one which indicates a divinely appointed (and
curiously non-religious) ruler, though wicked he may be. Divine leadership
demands allegiance? depraved leadership does not. John Calvin’s Institutes
are truly a masterful work of literature. Chapter XX on Civil Government is no
exception to this. Logic, coupled with his well placed allegorical parallels,
give this document a credibility beyond reproach. In his attempt to draw
comparisons of the blasphemous theocracies found under Catholic rule, to a more
Biblical and Godly form of government, Calvin successfully ties together the
benefits of ?his theocracy’ with the handicaps of the Catholic system
thereby creating a system whose entire focus is on God. A universal consensus
will never be reached on Calvin’s doctrines and ideologies. His history is
plagued with conflict and tension. Thankfully, though, John Calvin was able to
overcome tremendous obstacles and wrote extensively on those very subjects which
entangled him the most; for without the work of John Calvin, our perspective on
many important issues of the Christian faith would remain abstract at best.

NOTES Dillenberger, John ed., John Calvin. Selections from His Writings. (Garden
City: Anchor Books, 1971), 472 – 506 In virtually all of Jon Calvin’s writings
he emphasizes his strong dislike toward the Catholic Church. Dillenberger,
Calvin, Section 4., 476 Ibid. Ibid., Section 5., 477 The church as the
government was, to Calvin, deplorable. Dillenberger, Calvin, Sections 8 – 13.,
480 – 488 Ibid. Section 9., 483 Ibid. Section 10., 483 Ibid. Section 11., 485
Ibid. Section 12., 487 Religious leaders were commonly known as Philosophers of
Religion. Calvin’s life, as well as his writing, exemplified humility.

Dillenberger, Calvin, Section 13., 487 – 488 Ibid. Ibid., Section 15., 489
Ibid., Section 17., 492 Ibid., Section 18., 493 Ibid., Section 20., 495 Ibid.,
Section 22., 496 Ibid., Section 23., 497 Ibid., Section 25., 499 Ibid., Section
26., 500 Ibid., Section 27., 501 Calvin never condoned allegiance to leadership
which was clearly not the will of God.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Dillenberger, John ed., John Calvin. Selections from His Writings.

Garden City: Anchor Books, 1971, 472 – 506


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