Calvin's Institutes 4.20: Our Obedience to Civil Law & to God's Law.
By Claire Brettell
Throughout the twentieth chapter of the fourth book of the Institutes, Calvin stresses our need to be obedient to the civil principalities, powers and magistrates. Calvin shares a number of Scriptural verses which urge us toward obedience to the ordinances made and reverence to those individuals placed in public office, those who are rulers and those who are kings [4.20.23].
Romans 13:1-3 is an example of what Scripture in general asks us to do and why, "Let every soul, be subject to the higher powers… For he who resists authority, resists what God has ordained" and Paul also writes that we are "subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready for every good work" (Titus 3:1). Calvin deeply believes the greatest gift of benevolence and divine authority is given to those who hold civil positions, and that the providence of God lifts certain individuals into power for the purposes of Almighty God [4.20.4]. Calvin's words of what might have meant to be words of encouragement, "that even the most worthless kings have been appointed by the Lord" [4.20.27], to me may easily be misinterpreted. Especially when Calvin goes on to state that whoever they may be, upright and faithful or careless tyrants, their authority is through God and as such we should have an attitude of reverence, piety and obedience toward all our rulers [1512, 4:20.24]. What Calvin is saying is whether a ruler leads justly with protection for the people, or unjustly with punishment for the wicked, both cases are ordained by God [4.20.25].
To me these tyrannical leaders, who at one time may have been offered God's greatest gift of benevolence, have turned away from God's plan of protection through them, toward evil. Leaders such as these favor self-ingratiating lavish lifestyles, robbery, plundering, rape and slaughter of the innocent, and in my opinion are not to be followed let alone revered. While they might see their actions as their right because of their position, power and authority, and Calvin may see these actions as God's way to seek judgment against the wicked. I do not believe God plans, asks or gifts individuals with authority and power in the hope and with the plan that innocent lives are to be harmed. Although I do believe God can and often does use our failures for the Glory of the Kingdom, for me, this turn-about from protection to prosecution is the work and the will of the enemy which many fall victim to, leaders and non-leaders alike.
Calvin's all-inclusive sense of God's plan in all of civil leadership does fall away with the mention of God's goodness, power and providence being revealed by the way avengers are lifted as servants of God who arm themselves to punish wicked government and free the oppressed from unjust rulers [4.20.30]. Calvin also comments that those armed against notorious kings are "armed from heaven" and ordained by God [4.20.30]. And in the last section of his Institutes sub-titled "Obedience to humanity must not become disobedience to God" Calvin shares that just as we, as subjects to civil government, are asked to yield to civil rules and proclamations the leaders of civil government are asked to yield to the decrees of the Lord [1520, 4.20.32]. It is here that we are told that commands which exceed the limits of God's decrees are to be disregarded, just as we read in Acts 5:29, "We must obey God rather than men" and Paul's words from I Corinthians 7:23 remind us that, "We have been redeemed by Christ at so great a price as our redemption cost him, so that we should not enslave ourselves to the wicked desires of men-much less be subject to their impiety" [1521, 4.20.32].
What this reading shares for me is that we must always be reminded of the benevolence of God in the power and authority given to us in our daily lives, our ministry or leadership roles with close discernment.
Although I am somewhat comforted by the fact that for Calvin there are avenues of protection from rulers and magistrates who are intolerable, I am not clear where the line in the sand is for Calvin with regard to when we are to be patient and implore the Lord's help and when God is asking that we take up arms against unjust practices [bottom of page 1516 and top of 1517, 4.20.29].
At what time is it God's ordained commission that arms are taken up against authority or government? What are the clear markers for Calvin, and what are they for us?