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Calvin and Resisting Civil Magistrates – Wrong!

 

My evening since church has been spoiled. I continued to read in Institutes, Book IV, Chapter XX. Here, more clearly than anywhere I have seen it in a founder, is a horrendous error. Write to me no more of the "impeccable Calvin." He stumbles at the interface of civil government with the individual and church, as continental European Christians ever have been wont to do. He is a God-forsaking pacifist in this section. If the minions of the civil magistrate enter your home to plunder it, to rape your daughter and your wife, and to "slaughter the innocent," you have NO personal recourse at the moment, under Calvin. This is to be found in Section 24. "... they [unjust rulers] have been raised up by him to punish the wickedness of the people; that all equally have been endowed with that holy majesty with which he has invested lawful power." The "Scripture reckons all such calamities among God's curses."

 

So, when the minions of Caesar are wreaking their havoc on your household, you are to comfort yourself as you stand in the corner with a confession that you are in a wicked nation and this is naught but just desserts."

 

Calvin confused power with authority. He confused God's executive will with His moral will. Even in the politically uproarious times in which he lived, there was still active some residual restraint from centuries of Christianity, which it seems he did not notice, but in the benefit of which he lived. So are we in America today.  God's curse includes venomous snakebites. By analogy, Calvin would hold that we may not resist the snake or his venom. God's curse includes hurricanes. By his logic, it is resisting God's executive will to build stout houses away from the beach. A hurricane and a snake are in God's executive will. God's moral will for us is to resist, amend, and ameliorate His executive will when it damages life, property, His holiness, etc. It is specious to imagine that our action somehow sets us against God. His argument reeks of an unlimited divine sovereignty in rulers.

 

Calvin has supposed that a profound respect and grasp of our "vertical" relationship with God will suffice for all of our "horizontal" relationships in a fallen world. Just know that God is doing something, and you may not resist it lest you be found to be resisting God. You may pray (vertical), and you may hope that a lesser magistrate will resist the ruler. But, "... let us not at once think that it is entrusted to us, to whom no command has been given except to obey and suffer." Methinks that this is the regulative principle of worship extended essentially to all of life. In worship, yes, if it is not commanded, it is forbidden. But in life, if it is not forbidden, it is okay, though it may not be wise. The relationship between a ruler and the ruled is a horizontal relationship and he has let the vertical origin of it capture all the rule of it. Here, indeed, may be the chief clue to what is ailing Re

formed preaching. The fixation with the noumena, with the things in the heavenlies, with things in the future state, and of our relationship with God has conveniently been separated from the difficulties of application on the earth. Concern with all of these noumenous things is foundational, essential, but incomplete if not applied in the physical world. Calvin's applicatory ethic here stinks; it smells to high heaven. It certainly simplifies ethics. So long as you know that God is doing something, just submit. Since everything that happens is in God's executive will, then passive submission is to do nothing about everything. Activism is presumptions. If a ruler has power, ipso facto he has authority, per Calvin, and must not be resisted. No wonder reformed Christians don't resist evil. We've had God's sovereignty so hammered into us along with man's ultimate incapacity that we have settled into a proximate ethical passivity. It is no wonder I leave the

 

pew every Sunday frustrated because I've heard zero about what is expected of me. I am quite certain that nothing I can do will save me, but have no idea what I should do now that I am saved. The pulpit is not interested in the latter.

 

At the end, in the very last section of the book, Calvin smooths it all over with "Obedience to man must not become disobedience to God." Thanks a lot! Is it obedience to God to stand aside while my family is assailed by the ruler, or obedience to God to interpose myself between the assailant and my family, not passively but using a weapon? How safe it is to explain things only in the abstract; how you can homiletically leave your hearers and readers in the lurch, sure to feel guilty as though there IS a type of testing for which God has made no way of escape except to sin.

 

The footnotes in my version of the Institutes copiously include classical (pagan) Greek and Roman authors: Catullus, Ovid, Homer, Xenophon, and Cicero. Coupling this observation (which is not primarily mine) with his trumping of revealed moral and civil law by the natural law, and Calvin seems to be here basing his interpretive system on anything but the Scripture -- on natural law and classical humanists. Maybe I should recommend this reading to my hard-nosed Libertarian friends. They love natural law.

 

Surely, no man is perfect and it does not undo all the good which Calvin did. He was a man who, like all of us, was not able to completely transcend his time and its thought forms. But it is a caution lest we elevate a man's words above Scripture and conscience. I fear more than ever that this kind of inordinate elevation of Calvin and other worthies is what has gradually taken root in "Reformed" seminaries through many decades. It gushes from our pulpits.

 

Ed's Response

 

I am not sure that you have read Calvin accurately. What he says could be read as (1) not acting as individuals against the wrongs that government is inflicting on others, e.g., murderous and rapine acts against a neighbor or in another province whom you do not know well and may deserve the state's wrath. (2) Becoming a vigilante as individual or as a group to counter government wrongs. I am not convinced that he would not justify self-defense of the invasion of one's family.

 

But those may be nuances that we cannot deal with particularly by email, and would require more reading of Calvin in his commentaries than I care to give time to.

 

Then, there is the consequence of action against the state. On the one hand, you may be inviting more harm than would otherwise occur. I remember in the movie "The Patriot" when the son was killed in front of the father. Had he reacted in the instant; his whole family would have died. But with forbearance, he was able to inflict far more harm on the state by fighting with the lesser magistrate. I believe that I could not resist trying to defend my wife/daughter, if she were being raped or a son being killed. But what would they do to the rest of my family, if I resisted?

 

On the other hand, some opportunities may be presented by expectation.  Solzhenitsyn lamented that they, as families, did not resist enough.  Perhaps, if one or more soldiers/agents were killed at each household, the attrition in numbers or moral might have turned the tide.

 

Difficult questions in a difficult world. 

 

Hilton's Response

 

As I have continued reading the Institutes on this matter, I am convinced that I have not at all misread Calvin.  It is indeed too much for e-mail, but just notice the form of his argumentation.  He argues from circumstances alone (situational ethics, literally).  He blows off O.T. scripture as binding in N.T. times, explicitly.  He has nothing but circumstantial reasoning illuminated (?) by the likes of Plato. 

 

Surely, circumstances are an important consideration, as per John Frame's model.  In the movie you cited, the circumstances at the moment rightfully determined and restrained the Patriot's actions.  It is entirely other, however, to make it a principle that, irrespective of the circumstances, the Patriot had no command from God to defend his family.  Calvin does that.

 

I now will formally state Terrell's Principle on Reformed Theology's View of the Church and the Civil Magistrate:

 

NOBODY HAS EVER GOTTEN IT RIGHT, BUT LEAST OF ALL HAVE EUROPEAN REFORMERS, ESPECIALLY THOSE ON THE CONTINENT, KUYPER BEING AN EXCEPTION.

Another Issue of Church and State... and Calvin

I have an absolutely perfect example of my concern over the inflamed junction between state and Church, delivered to me by none other than that red-dog Republican, Joel Belz.  In case you don't get World (I don't recommend it, of course), I will quote liberally from the latest editorial in which he chastises conservative organizations and individuals who want Obama to fail.  He holds that the concern that Obama is not a natural born citizen, as the Constitution requires, must be motivated by the desire that Obama fail.  (Some think Obama was born in Kenya and he has yet to produce a valid U.S. birth certificate.) 

 

"So, instead of quietly thanking God for a peaceful election and an apparently tranquil transfer of power -- and then getting on with the monumental tasks before us -- some of these folks won't be satisfied until they can prove that the Obama presidency itself is illicit.  'In what sense,' one Indiana subscriber asks me in an email, 'am I biblically responsible to be subject to a man who unconstitutionally calls himself my president?'

 

"Which makes me wonder: Did Nero have to produce a Roman Empire birth certificate before there was binding force to Paul's instruction in Romans 13?  He's pretty straightforward: 'Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. ...  It's the risk to the republic if we set millions of folks over against each other such technicalities.  Do folks have any sense at all how devastating to orderliness it might be for a challenge to the legitimacy of Obama's presidency to gain even minimal traction?" 

 

Belz is entirely in accord with John Calvin here.  Situational/ consequential ethics.  I suspect Belz is quite correct that riots would ensue if Obama's presidency were declared invalid on Constitutional grounds.  He would also line up with Calvin in equating de facto power holding with the de jure authority to hold the power.  He wants a government of men, not of laws.  Might makes right.  Like Calvin, he has a morbid dread of disorder ( who no doubt remembered the Peasant's Revolt of Luther's time) and a cavalier disinterest in liberty.  On the rule of how many tyrants have people, including uninstructed Christians, reasoned exactly the same.  Pol Pot held power, no doubt.  Mao Tse Tung held power, "from the muzzle of a gun," as he said.  Hitler brought order  --  the order of a man  -- not of a limiting constitution.  These men all waded in blood. 

 

If Scripture interprets Scripture, why have we Protestants absolutized the power of the civil ruler and balked at the power of a Pope?  Why is the power of parents limited?  We rip Romans 13: 1-7 right out of Scriptural context and sanction any behavior whatsoever by a ruler, just because he has power.  It seems to me that even within the text of that one passage we have a definition of a properly authorized ruler -- one who punishes evildoers and rewards those who do good.  Those who egregiously, persistently, irreparably do the opposite have surrendered their proper authority.  How many of the Christian founders of this nation are thus condemned by Calvin and Belz? 

 

If Belz wants order, he'd do well to consider how disdain even for man's law, let alone God's law, will produce both disorder and slavery. 

 

 


 

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