Sunday, May 1, 2016

Calvin on Church & State – Render unto Caesar…?

Of the various topics we’ve covered this semester, this is the one where I have the hardest time following Calvin’s arguments.  Lane focuses his questions on the roles of rulers, and our corresponding obligations to be led (p. 170).  This seems like a helpful approach to the question of separating church and state.  Calvin, however, seems less willing to draw distinctions along Lane’s lines of civil obedience.  Rather, I see Calvin taking two different approaches. 

First, in 4.20.1-2, Calvin draws distinctions between earthly and heavenly kingdoms.  This is his separation move; he essentially limits humankind’s purview to civil leadership, exclusive of God’s Kingdom activity.  Lane quotes Calvin’s powerful phrase, “Jewish vanity” (p. 171) to describe the tradition of blending civil and religious rule. 

Next, Calvin cites scripture to justify our obligation to be led by our civic authorities.  His specific use of Nebuchadnezzar as an example of ordained civic leadership in 4.27 is his illustration of how God can ordain civic leadership to create particular outcomes.  This approach works in the context of Calvin’s strict predestination beliefs.  It is less effective if we believe that God really allows human agency.  I think about Israel’s demand for a king to be like the other nations in 1 Samuel.  Did God really not want a king for Israel, or was Samuel participating in God’s larger plan?  Maybe, ultimately, both?

I wonder if Calvin’s reasons for addressing this topic the ways he does have more to do with his political climate and personal concerns than solid scriptural basis.  Like much of this work, Calvin seems to be theologizing while preoccupied with the undue influence of the Catholic Church and the Anabaptists that bother him so.  By first drawing a distinction between church and state, then using scripture to prop up our obligation to civil obedience, Calvin is addressing both of his nemeses. 

My question for the class, then, is this:  If this approach is intentional – if Calvin reads what he needs to read into scripture to support his existing beliefs – then what caution do we need to take when basing a tradition largely on his interpretations?  Is Calvin’s work any less reliable with this suspicion in mind?

1 comment:

  1. You bring up a concerning topic, interpretation. Are we entering the Biblical World looking for validation of what we want? Or are our hearts and minds open?
    Presbyterian Polity speaks of the freedom of Conscience, Calvin writes on this too, [3.19.4] what I see as the key here for Calvin and I would whole heartedly agree is first the emptying of our (for Calvin our soul) 'spirit'(for me our wants). Only with our hearts cleansed, is there clarity to read the freedom there in our hearts, our conscience. In this way we can, in my opinion be led by this newness of heart. This ideas is what Calvin has written, but let us not forget Calvin was just a man, fighting unknown 'evils' attempting to right the wrongs he saw in the Church... I do think he found what he was looking for to reinforce his own thoughts. In answer to your question: I pray we clear our minds and cleanse our hearts before we delve into Scripture and theological premises.. Calvin's work is no less important nor is it less reliable, it is what it is... a manuscript written by an articulate, knowledgeable man who, despite his frailities brings much to consider. I don't think we need to agree with his premises to make his premises reliable... they were to him at the time and the place in which he wrote them.