If you had to summarize Calvin’s teaching on resisting tyrants it would be: don’t. Even as his Protestant compatriots, the Huguenots, faced persecution and he fled France to Geneva, Calvin was firmly on the side of maintaining political order. He credited himself with the fact that France did not, at least in his lifetime, descend into civil war. “It is not necessary for me to relate how strenuously I have hitherto endeavored to cut off all occasion for tumult; . . . And I think it is owing to my carefulness that private persons have not transgressed beyond their bounds.”[1]

Yet, a few hundred years later, one of Calvin’s most celebrated disciples, Abraham Kuyper, could say that ‘The fanatic for Calvinism is a fanatic for liberty.’[2] How do we explain these two claims? How has the teaching of a man who abjured political resistance become celebrated as the fountainhead of a movement for political liberty?

It is a significant question for two reasons. First, it is commonly assumed by secular people that liberty is best served by eliminating religions and the religious.One popular story about human freedom is that it sits on a see-saw with religious commitment so that if one goes up, the other must come down. Western societies, we are told, became more free as they cast off religious belief and embraced the clear air of rationality. But is that story correct? Should the political liberty that so many of us celebrate be credited to belief or skepticism? In what kind of soil does liberty grow? Could it be that a thoroughly religious perspective is the catalyst for freedom? If freedom and rationality are intertwined, and no doubt they are, then neither will be threatened by taking an honest look at the relationship between religious belief, particularly Calvinist belief, and political liberty to see if the secular assumptions stand up to scrutiny.

The second layer of significance is for contemporary heirs of Calvin. Should we be advocates for freedom? And what really is freedom, anyway? Given the chaos that characterises much of our society, we might think that more freedom is the last thing we need. Isn’t it unconstrained liberty that has wreaked so much damage upon families, communities and souls? Isn’t freedom the cause taken up by the libertine and the irresponsible? But if it is true, as Kuyper claims, that Calvinism and liberty go together then perhaps that account needs to be revisited? Doubtless, Kuyper’s analysis is just one way of assessing the political inheritance of Calvinism, and Calvinism is but one stream of Reformed theology. Nevertheless, engaging Kuyper’s account can help us see how Calvinistic theology and political liberty can intersect in ways that may seem counter-intuitive today.

History

Calvin, it is true, was against private resistance to tyrants. But the key word is ‘private’. While Calvin did not believe that just anyone could oppose a tyrant, he did think that ‘lesser magistrates’, appointed by God, had an equal responsibility for the health of the state. He writes that,

I am so far from forbidding them to withstand…the fierce licentiousness of kings that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance.[3]

This idea would ferment in the political thought of his successors. After the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572, it became an area of intense reflection. The anonymous 1579 tract, Vindiciae Contra Tyranos, defended the Huguenots taking up arms against the French king.[4] The Vindiciae argues that kings and magistrates are appointed by God for the sake of the people. They are there to serve the nation, not the other way round. Most radically, the Vindiciae, taking its cue from 2 Kings 11:17[5], argues that it is in fact the people who appoint kings. The Vindiciae states,

We have showed before that it is God that does appoint kings…now we say that the people establish kings…God would have it done in this manner, to the end that the kings should acknowledge that after God they hold their power and sovereignty from the people.[6]

This would become a key idea in British political thought in the seventeenth-century and helps explain why it was a Presbyterian dominated parliament that took up arms against Charles I.

Fundamentally, kings did not have a divine right to rule over their subjects, but a divine obligation to govern according to law. If that obligation was not discharged, then their office was forfeit since kings are appointed by God, through the people, and therefore, under the law. The law was not merely whatever the king decided at any one moment, but the steady, time-honoured, result of deliberation on God’s law expressed in Scripture and nature. Thus, the Vindiciae claims, ‘He who prefers the commonwealth applies himself to God’s ordinances, but he who leans to the king’s fancies instead of law prefers brutish sensuality…’[7] The lawfulness of the King’s statues, therefore, did not depend simply on whether they processed through the correct procedures, still less whether they reflected the wishes of the King, but whether they were consonant with the law written by God in nature and thus served the good of the people.

Theology

Was this just historical happenstance? Is there any organic connection between the ideas of the Vindiciae and Reformed theology or were the Huguenots simply using whatever arguments came to hand for their political purposes? In the third of his 1898 ‘Lectures on Calvinism’ Abraham Kuyper provides a conceptual model of the connection between the theology and politics of Calvinism. Calvinist political theory, he says can be summarised in three points,

1. God only– and never any creature–is possessed of sovereign rights…2. Sin has, in the realm of politics, broken down the direct government of God, and therefore the exercise of authority for the purpose of government, has subsequently been invested in men, as a mechanical remedy. And 3. In whatever form this authority may reveal itself, man never possesses power over his fellow-man in any other way than by an authority which descends upon him from the majesty of God.[8]

This Calvinist conception of sovereignty can be contrasted with two other theories:

That of the Popular-sovereignty, as it has been antitheistically proclaimed at Paris in 1789; and that of State-sovereignty, as it has of late been developed by the historico-pantheistic school of Germany.

First, Kuyper deals with the French revolution which he sees as the embodiment of the theory of ‘popular sovereignty.’ He explains,

The French Revolution ignores God. It opposes God…The sovereign God is dethroned and man with his free will is placed on the vacant seat. It is the will of man which determines all things. All power, all authority proceeds from man.[9]

Here we have the roots of contemporary atheistic libertarianism where the goal of all political action is to remove any constraint, whether familial, communal or legal, from the individual will in the name of ‘freedom’. Of course, no Calvinist, or other stripe of Christian, can be a ‘fanatic’ for this kind of purported liberty since Christianity teaches that the human will is fundamentally disordered and needs discipline; from parents, teachers, the state and ultimately from God, to reshape it back towards to truly good.

Kuyper, though, identifies another counter-point to the Calvinist idea of political power which, though less familiar, is more pervasive today. He calls it ‘state-sovereignty’ and finds its roots in the obscure philosophy of German idealism. Kuyper explains,

Now it was to be not the sovereignty of the people, but the Sovereignty of the State, a product of Germanic philosophical pantheism. Ideas are incarnated in the reality, and among these the idea of the State was the highest, the richest, the most perfect idea of the relation between man and man… in whatever form this mystical being of the State revealed itself, the idea remained supreme: the State shortly asserted its sovereignty and for every member of the State it remained the touchstone of wisdom to give way to this State-apotheosis.[10]

In German idealism,[11] the highest kind of existence is human consciousness. Not the human consciousness of an atomised individual but the consciousness of the entire human race in its organic whole. Where was this consciousness expressed? In the state. For the state is the highest expression of human solidarity. Thus, for this school of philosophy, the state is the vehicle of history and of freedom. For freedom is not found in the individual resisting the diktats of state control but in giving the fullest expression to the corporate will of the people embodied in the state.

What is the problem with that? After all, don’t Christians believe that humanity is a unity? Don’t we believe in the rights of the community as well as the individual? The problem, Kuyper explains, is that in this conception, the state bursts its bounds and becomes its own standard and end.

Thus all transcendent right in God, to which the oppressed lifted up his face, fails (sic) away…The law is right, not because its contents are in harmony with the eternal principles of right, but because it is law. If on the morrow it fixes the very opposite, this also must be right…That which exists is good, because it exists; and it is no longer the will of God, of Him Who created us and knows us, but it becomes the ever-changing will of the State, which, having no one above itself, actually becomes God, and has to decide how our life and our existence shall be.[12]

Once the state becomes the receptacle of all human hopes and ambition, whatever it does must be right; for what higher standard is there? Shorn of a transcendent realm, there is no place from which to hold the state to account because it has become, quite literally, a law unto itself. Of course, those likely to lose out in such circumstances are the oppressed, who now no longer have a standard to which they can call the powerful to abide.

Kuyper’s warnings would become tragically realised in the twentieth century. Yet, our contemporary moment also appears much more informed by German idealism than by Calvinism. In a world where shared meaning has fallen away, where neither the church nor the factory or even the pub provide a shared reference point for community, the state steps into the breach. Government, as Toby says in The West Wing, becomes the only place where nobody gets left behind. And, of course, a state invested with such significance will find it hard to resist the temptation, if it resists at all, to interfere with more and more areas of life: all with the best possible intentions.

In contrast, Kupyer argues, the Calvinist conception places clear boundaries on the state’s sphere of action relative to other areas of life. He goes on,

Bound by its own mandate. therefore, the government may neither ignore nor modify nor disrupt the divine mandate, under which these social spheres stand… Neither the life of science nor of art, nor of agriculture, nor of industry, nor of commerce, nor of navigation, nor of the family, nor of human relationship may be coerced to suit itself to the grace of the government. The State may never become an octopus, which stifles the whole of life.[13]

Conclusion

Kuyper gives us an incisive analysis of why it is that a theology of the unlimited sovereignty of God would lead to a limited conception of the sovereignty of the state. Likewise, he shows why it is that a philosophy that posits no power higher than the human will leads, in the end, not to anarchic freedom, but to a suffocating and pervasive state power.

We live in a time where human self-expression has been lauded as the highest possible political cause and we see the wreckage that has created both in the practices of unfettered rapine capitalism and the empty degradation of sexual libertinism. But we also see, in the last two years in particular, that this is precisely the environment where overweening state power is not just possible but welcomed. When God is absent, where else do we have to turn to calm our fears, secure our safety and provide us wisdom? As Kuyper says, both ‘popular-sovereignty’ and ‘state-sovereignty’ are the same theory, the theory that there is no God.

Calvinism, like all other faithful kinds of Christianity, states a different truth. There is a God and He is neither me nor the state. Both the human will and the state are dethroned from the dais of the universe and instead called to serve one who is higher, holier and wiser than them. This is no slavery for it allows us, private citizen or otherwise, the freedom to recognise and embrace our createdness and limitations. The individual and the state that refuse to recognise their limitations are in the same category: lawlessness. Lawless in that they refuse to recognise an authority above themselves. That God’s authority over the individual is often mediated through the state does not mean that the state cannot itself become lawless. When this happens it must be opposed for the sake of the law by the people the state is constituted to serve. Political Calvinism, then, is no more than the ancient Christian insight that there is another king than Caesar and in that confession is the beginning of liberty.

Footnotes

  1. John Calvin, Dedication of the Commentary on Daniel, (https://ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom24/calcom24.iv.html) cited in Matthew J. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church: Christ’s Two Kingdoms (Cambridge, 2017), 354.
  2. Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism: The Stone Lectures of 1898, 66. Found at: https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/kuyper/Lectures%20on%20Calvinism%20-%20Abraham%20Kuyper.pdf (this version is, frustratingly, unpaginated, so page numbers refer to the page of the PDF document itself)
  3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. by John Thomas MacNeill, trans. by Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia, 1960), 4.20.8.
  4. For more on this see David P. Henreckson, The Immortal Commonwealth: Covenant, Community, and Political Resistance in Early Reformed Thought, 1st edn (Cambridge, 2019) <https://www.cambridge.org/core/product/identifier/9781108556378/type/book> [accessed 3 February 2022].
  5. ‘And Jehoiada made a covenant between the Lord and the king and the people, that they should be the Lord’s people; between the king also and the people.’ 2 Kings 11:17 (NIV)
  6. Stephen Junius Brutus, Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos: Of the Lawful Power of the Prince Over the People, and of the People Over the Prince, Being a Treatise, trans. by William Walker, Christian Heritage Series (Moscow, Idaho, 2020), 73.
  7. Brutus, Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, 99.
  8. Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism: The Stone Lectures of 1898, 73.
  9. Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 75.
  10. Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 76.
  11. Kuyper does not specify which German Idealist he has in mind but one suspects Hegel’s philosophy is in view.
  12. Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 76.
  13. Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 83.
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Posted by Graham Shearer

Graham Shearer is a PhD student in systematic theology at Union Theological College in Belfast, where he lives with his wife, Katherine, and their three children.

3 Comments

  1. Those who would laud Calvin’s views of government and liberty must first deal with history. Calvin’s Geneva was anything but free. And the question is, how well does Calvin’s Geneva measure up to the New Testament teaching on government’s roles and liberty? For it wasn’t just the death of Servetus in whom Calvin had a hand, it was the deaths of women accused of being involved in witchcraft. Who else suffered unfairly from Geneva’s laws during Calvin’s time there?

    I understand Kuyper’s reverence for Calvin and thus his association of liberty with him. Calvin was a hero to Kuyper and liberty was a social good and thus it would be natural for Kuyper, and others, to associate the two together. But was such an association made because of hero worship? Again, history does not give a pleasant verdict on Calvin’s idea of government to those who greatly admire Calvin.

    We, as Christians, need to stand more on the side of history than we do on Calvin in our hero worship of him. It’s not that Calvin hasn’t made significant contributions to understanding the Scriptures, he certainly did. But it is that his contributions are not in the area of understanding liberty and government. To see things otherwise will only hurt the reputation to the Gospel in the eyes who hear us proclaim that we are Christians.

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