John Calvin. This is the man that stands next to Martin Luther as being the main leader of the Reformation. Today if someone speaks of Reformed Theology, he or she is referring to the teachings of Calvin, not Luther. That’s how influential Calvin’s teachings were and still are. Calvin was French, and much younger than Luther. He wasn’t even ten years old when Luther nailed his theses to the church door in Wittenberg. He also took a similar, but opposite, route to education than Luther. Luther started out to be a lawyer, but ended a priest. Calvin began his studies to be ordained, but switched to studying law, though he never went on to practice law after finishing his studies. His magnum opus is his systematic theology book, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, which underwent five editions before it was completed. Though I can’t find it being a confessional text for any Reformed denominations, it is a work that still holds much authority in their circles. From this text, I will discuss an excerpt of his writing on “Church and State.”
The following is an excerpt from The Institutes of the Christian Religion Book 4, Chapter 20, Sections 22, 23, and 32:
“The first duty of subjects towards their rulers, is to entertain the most honorable views of their office, recognizing it as a delegated jurisdiction from God, and on that account receiving and reverencing them as the ministers and ambassadors of God….
I speak not of the men as if the mask of dignity could cloak folly, or cowardice, or cruelty, or wicked or flagitious manners, and thus acquire for vice the praise of virtue; but I say that the station itself is deserving of honor and reverence, and that those who rule should, in respect of their office, be held by us in esteem and veneration.
From this, a second consequence is, that we must with ready minds prove our obedience to them, whether in complying with edicts, or in paying tribute, or in undertaking public offices and burdens, which relate to the common defense, or in executing any other orders…
But in that obedience which we hold to be due to the commands of rulers, we must always make the exception, nay, must be particularly careful that it is not incompatible with obedience to Him to whose will the wishes of all kings should be subject, to whose decrees their commands must yield, to whose majesty their sceptres must bow. And, indeed, how preposterous were it, in pleasing men, to incur the offence of Him for whose sake you obey men! The Lord, therefore, is King of kings. When he opens his sacred mouth, he alone is to be heard, instead of all and above all. We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against Him let us not pay the least regard to it, nor be moved by all the dignity which they possess as magistrates—a dignity to which no injury is done when it is subordinated to the special and truly supreme power of God.”
Calvin is writing to address the question of what the relationship should be between the Church and the State. At Calvin’s time of writing, the two institutions are being unbound from one another in Western civilization. Such rapid disconnect left many questions for the leaders of congregations and for laypeople on what their role was now to the State. Questions such as, “If the Church is no longer married to the State due to the ramifications of the Reformation, do Christians still owe any allegiance to the State, or just to the Church?” were common place. Though Calvin wasn’t directly writing to the Christians who found themselves under the rule of the Islamic Turks, such a position wasn’t entirely implausible or completely out of mind for many 16th century Christians after the end of the Crusades just a couple of centuries before the start of the Reformation.
The answer Calvin gives to this question is that a subject’s first duty to his magistrate is to honor his office, recognizing that his authority to rule and govern is directly established by God. If this is the first disposition a subject has of his governing ruler, then the appropriate response would be to honor the person holding that established office of authority as being a minister and representative of God. He makes clear that the honor doesn’t go to the particular man in the office on account of that man’s virtue, because the man will almost certainly fall short of deserving such high honor, first because he’s a sinner, but also since the maxim “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” does ring true so often throughout history. Instead, the honor goes to the man in response to the honor due to the office the man holds. The response that should then follow from respecting the man by respecting the office he holds is that subjects will in turn be obedient to the lord’s decrees and properly pay any taxes required and aid in any offices of the common defense that arise to be necessary for the common good.
Such a calling to submit to all rulers is challenging to the core. Bending the knee to orders from leaders that sided with Rome would be a tough pill to swallow for a Christian of the Reformation in Calvin’s day. Or, if a Christian submitted to a Muslim ruler that believer’s allegiance to Christ and his Church could be questioned, raising doubt for that person’s salvation. Calvin knew these questions and objections would follow his plea to revere and respect the rulers of men, so he provided the following solution: only be obedient to a ruler insofar as that obedience does not cause one to be disobedient to the God who placed that ruler in the office of authority. If the command of a ruler goes against the command of the one who put him in the position to rule, let the law go unfollowed, in fact break it without hesitation, since the rule of God trumps the rule of men.
Speaking of one authority trumping the authority of another, we should consider the presidency of Donald Trump in America. Applying Calvin’s teachings to President Trump, offering reverence to him and holding him in high respect, doesn’t mean a Christian must agree with his “America First” policies, or ignore his numerous divorces, or approve of his (at times) vulgar language or his speech that has been interpreted to be racist, Islamophobic, or misogynistic, or condone his frequent ad hominem arguments and late night tweets. The Christian response to Trump’s presidency should be the same as that given to other presidents of America, a life of submission, as long as one isn’t required to go against God’s law through any of the president’s executive orders or signed bills. The Christian should recognize that President Trump is their president and wish him to be successful in his calling and offer him the grace afforded to all men through Jesus Christ. The Christian should also pray for President Trump, asking that God give him wisdom and capabilities to fulfill the high calling and duties of the office he holds with humility. In closing, it is apparent that Calvin’s teachings in regard to the State and the Church are a difficult calling for the subjects, as much as for the man in authority to fulfill the calling God has given him.