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?