Calvin’s Disdain for Civil Disobedience

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John Calvin is one of the most famous Reformation theologians of the 1500s.[footnoteRef:0] One of his most celebrated works is the “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” a book impeccable in its Christian theology and a manual for Reformed Protestants. A topic not widely associated with Calvin is politics; however, he offers a unique perspective on government and the elements that bind it together in his chapter “On Civil Government.” In this paper, I will be discussing Calvin’s disdain for civil disobedience, especially in light of tyrannical rulers.

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I will be primarily pulling from two main sources: Calvin’s “Institutes” and Jonathan McIntosh’s unpublished work “Your Reasoning is Stupid.” Furthermore, I will be critiquing Calvin on his political philosophy, specifically drawing conclusions from his own work that appear to contradict itself. John Calvin’s political thought is incoherent because he disregards a king’s rise to power, his views on civil disobedience contradict his definition of government, and he misinterprets Scripture.[0:

In Book 4 Chapter 20, “On Civil Government”, Calvin begins by describing how “man is under a twofold government” – the physical (civil) and spiritual. This is the perspective Calvin adopts when approaching politics; a natural and biblical perspective. He draws conclusions based on the natural order of things, as well as the Bible. Calvin is convinced government is a natural institution, just as Aristotle establishes the naturalness of the husband-wife community in his “Politics”, “that is a union formed, not of deliberate purpose…[but] the natural desire to leave behind an image.”[footnoteRef:2] Like Aristotle, Calvin crafts a natural argument for government, saying, “and of natural ruler and subject, that both may be preserved.”[footnoteRef:3] Essentially, he suggests that it is natural to have a leader and a follower. For Calvin, government “prevents the public peace from being disturbed; it provides that each man may keep his property safe and sound; that honesty and modesty may be preserved among men.”[footnoteRef:4] Calvin clearly enunciates the benefits of government: protecting religion, advocating tranquility, safeguarding private property, and “maintaining a public form of religion among Christians and humanity among men.”[footnoteRef:5] He saw the purpose of government as being to create order and peace. Calvin seems to disregard all of this.

Considering the government’s main role of maintaining peace and fostering order among its citizens, Calvin appears to overlook how a king ascends to kingship, which unveils his first contradiction. In his chapter, “On Civil Government”, Calvin discusses the origins of magistrates and rulers, stating that “it has not come about by human perversity that the authority over all things on earth is in the hands of kings and other rulers, but by divine providence and holy ordinance.”[footnoteRef:6] Essentially, Calvin posits that all kings and rulers hold power because they have been ordained by God.

This is true. Moreover, Calvin concludes that no man may take away that power simply because he has been ordained by God and the one thing setting him apart is his power. This is the problem. The question then arises: how do kings come into power? Calvin writes, “Let us not doubt that we ought to serve him to whom it is evident that the kingdom has been given. And when the Lord advances any man to kingly rank, he attests to us his determination that he would have him reign.”[footnoteRef:7] It seems that Calvin doesn’t care how a man comes into power; the fact that he is in power is evidence enough that he should be. Therefore, if this is Calvin’s position, if one man were to usurp the king and crown himself the new king, it wouldn’t matter to Calvin.

A king is defined by his power. Here, Calvin is undermining his own political foundation: man is governed by two governments; rulers are ordained by God, and they must create peace among the people. He has blurred the line and fused his two governments into one — his theology is overtaking his politics. He did this when he implied that the only determinant of who should be in power is who has the power. If being a king means having power, Calvin must reevaluate what it truly means to be a king. He needs to consider the methods used to achieve kingship. According to Calvin’s theory, any man could overrun a ruler, seize his crown, and nothing would appear out of the ordinary. Ultimately, Calvin places a disproportionate value on the divine ordination of rulers and pays insufficient attention to the means by which these rulers come to power. Power should not be the sole indicator of a rightful king.

Given all of this, why would Calvin object to civil disobedience? Calvin opposes civil disobedience because he believes, “if they commit some fault, they are not only wrongdoers whom they wickedly trouble, but are also insulting toward God himself..”{footnoteRef:8] In other words, if you disobey the king, you are disobeying God. It is because Calvin believes that the method by which a ruler comes to power is irrelevant and we should blindly follow, that his argument falls flat. Although Calvin acknowledges that there is a time and place to disobey a king — if he commands the people to disobey God — he draws a line between instances in which disobedience to the ruler is justified and those in which it is not. If Calvin believes that it’s unjust to rebel against tyrants or oppressors, then under what circumstances is disobedience acceptable? Calvin says, “We are subject to the men who rule over us, but only in the Lord. If they command anything against him, let us not pay the slightest regard to it.”[footnoteRef:9] It seems we may only disobey the king if he requires us to disobey God.

Alongside his disdain for civil disobedience, Calvin addresses the types of rulers Christians should obey — specifically tyrants. Calvin encourages obedience to tyrants:

“…the human mind has always been not less to assail tyrants with hatred and execration, than to look up to just kings with love and veneration. But if we have respect to the word of God, it will lead us farther, and make us subject not only to the authority of those princes who honestly and faithfully perform their duty toward us, but to all princes…”

There are two problems with this argument. First, it contradicts Calvin’s original purpose of government, and second, he improperly uses the Bible to support his claim. In the former, Calvin goes against his own definition of the duties of governments, “to prevent public peace from being disturbed.”[footnoteRef:11] The definition of a tyrant, however, is “a cruel and oppressive ruler.”[footnoteRef:12] A tyrant is someone who exercises and creates disorder among his people and “causes discomfort by being excessive, intense, elaborate.”[footnoteRef:13] Yet Calvin, when he quotes 1 Samuel, distinctly says, “..To such a degree will kings indulge in tyranny, which it will not be for you to restrain. The only thing remaining for you will be to receive their commands, and be obedient to their words.”

The very definition of a tyrant and the oppressive power he exercises directly contradicts Calvin’s own purpose of a ruler in the first place. The latter issue—improper interpretation of the Bible—is from Calvin’s commentaries on Jeremiah and Romans. Calvin uses the example of Nebuchadnezzar in Jeremiah to attempt to prove why Christians need to be obedient to unjust and tyrannical rulers. Calvin quotes Jeremiah, “…and I give it to him who is pleasing in my eyes. Now, therefore, I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar…my servant…All the nations and great kings shall serve him… until the time of his own land comes.”

What Calvin does here is universalize this moment in history to apply to all situations, instead of contextualizing this instance for this time and place only. He does this as well in his commentary of Romans 13. George Buchanan put it another way, “Should anyone argue that bad princes [similar to Nero or Domitian] are likewise appointed by God, beware of the fallacy of this argument.… man of sound mind would dare to affirm that God is the author of human wickedness.”[footnoteRef:16] Buchanan continues to argue and urge his opponent (Maitland) not to misconstrue what Paul is talking about in Romans. Paul was writing for a specific time and for specific people. He goes on to argue that kings and rulers are not exempt from the authorities of the laws similar to citizens, “But, just as bishops are subject to kings with respect to the duties of the citizen, so ought kings submit to the spiritual correction of bishops.”

In sum, God may ordain kings, but He doesn’t ordain them to be evil, and those evil kings should still be under authorities. If we used Calvin’s same logic on other passages in the Bible, if we took it out of context, we would be reading the Bible not how it was intended. Take, for example, in Genesis when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham was faithful and brought his son onto the mountain, but God stopped him. If we applied Calvin’s logic to this, all fathers would be killing their sons. George Buchanan also argues, “…it would be at once pointed out that the slaying of Ahab was done by God’s command; and that a reward was promised and paid to the killer, also by divine command…should you appeal to the argument that all tyrants must be obeyed because God, through his prophet, in one instance, ordered his people to obey a tyrant, you will immediately be told in reply that all tyrants should be put to death because Ahab, at God’s command, was destroyed by one of the officers of his own army.”

George Buchanan, who, at the time, was arguing the logistics of how to interpret scripture, condemns his opponent for the very same issue Calvin has— not contextualizing events in the Bible. Thus, Calvin’s political philosophy falls flat because he failed to interpret the passages of scripture correctly. Instead of reading scripture in its own context, he read it to apply to all kings, of all times.

In conclusion, the reason Calvin’s political philosophy is incoherent is because of his contradiction about what a ruler is and why citizens must obey; as well as his failure to interpret scripture correctly. Calvin, while providing a detailed account of government, fails to make his thought coherent. In the end, Calvin does not leave his readers with a sound account of government, magistrates, and laws. Rather, he leaves a mess of contradictions through which the reader must sort. It’s not to say that all of Calvin’s works are discredited but rather that his theology got in the way of his politics.

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Calvin’s Disdain for Civil Disobedience. (2022, Aug 25). Retrieved from