Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Chapter 32: One Nation under God?

One nation under God

            Calvin in the  very last chapter of his Institutes deals with government and how it reflects both God’s plan for humanity and the human need for organization.  He begins by describing the twofold government that rules humanity.   This is the spiritual kingdom and the civil government. The spiritual kingdom is embedded in God’s law as love and faith.     Those who follow God’s law therefore do not need  secular law.  This is “superfluous, if God’s Kingdom, such as it is now among us, wipes out the present life.” (4.20.2) Yet, humans, in their fallen nature need law in order to provide a platform for the practice of Christian freedom. (4.20.1) A system of laws and lawgivers needs to be in place for humans to provide them with a safe and just environment to live. 

            The government consists of three parts of government which Calvin defines and expanded.  These include the magistrate, the laws and the people.  All three parts of the government are under the umbrella of God to provide for “divine providence, protection, goodness, benevolence, and justice” of the people (4.20.6) Humans have the responsibility to follow the magistrates as they are ordained by God to provide for and sustain the people.  Likewise, humans are to trust in the laws of the civil government to be a basis of equity and justice.  Finally, Christians are to uphold the duly elected officials that can and do act as representatives of God.  It is the duty of this body of elected officials to resist the tyranny of an evil ruler.  They are to stand up against “the fierce licentiousness of kings, that if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk… they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance” (4.20.31)
            The last chapter on civil government draws out the two-pronged nature of Calvin’s theology.  On the one hand, there is the realm of faith where God’s people live responsibly as they understand God’s providence, love one another and uphold God’s creation.  On the other hand, there is the practical, earthly nature of Calvin’s theology where he has to explain how humans interact on this earth and how they can function practically.  The assumption here is that there are secrets or mysteries of God that humans simply can not comprehend, so they have to function within their limited capacity using what they can know about God to live as God’s people.  The chapter on civil government is therefore a provocative ending, as it is the most complete understanding of the functioning of earthly humans and provides a cyclical end to the opening chapters on the innate knowledge of God.  It is in this chapter that Calvin speaks with confidence of providence and the innate goodness of the role of magistrates in God’s plan, and, yet, he has to confront fallen humanity, even in this last chapter.  In the last sentence he writes, “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.”
            In response to Lane’s question, I want to refer to my observation above that since God ordains all, then God must be the instigator of action against an oppressive leader and that we should use the godly ordained civil offices to “restrain the willfulness of kings.” (4.20.31) God, however, provides the means to overturn the evil of individual magistrates by calling given individuals to this role.  These are individuals called to this task.  (4.20.31 note 54)  They are to “deliver his people” from oppression but otherwise, individual subjects are to endure the cruelty until God intervenes. 

My question is:  Calvin’s theology assumes God’s providence is at work.  What happens if a majority of the people in the state do not believe in God?  Pledge of Allegiance - Under God?  


  1. Christy, I love how you used the image of money in your post with "In God We Trust," when, as you note, many people use money that don't believe in God. I think it has been easier for people to ignore what is written on money because they don't speak it aloud with groups of people facing a flag. I do think that God's providence is at work, with or without the people's approval or understanding or even belief. The question, however, is whether mixing church and state on money is the best way to spread the Word?

  2. When I think of "In God we trust" I don't really consider it a tool for evangelism. There are many in our land who do not subscribe to the Christian faith. This phrase was placed on currency in a time when a higher number of our citizens considered themselves to be Christians. Just a question... I wonder how much of an impact that phrase really has on people's lives unless is brought to the forefront by the media? I agree with Calvin's dual approach of a Christian / faith component and the civil component, recognizing the fallenness of humanity. However I struggle with the idea that we must wait on God to deal with the corrupt officials.

  3. Great post Christy! I am a bit torn here. I do adhere to the concept of God's providence for humankind. I have no doubt of his omniscience and omnipotence;however, like Rick, I don't think God expects us to sit on our hands in the face of injustice. And yes, God's providence is enacted with or without our consent or acknowlegment.

  4. If a majority of people in the states don't believe in God any more that will not change God's providence upon the country. We as believers need to do our do diligence to strive to put God first in our lives. God will always provide on the just and unjust. We have to give praise in all seasons.

  5. If Calvin had written the Institutes just for Geneva, he would have been able to assume that most people were Christians (insofar as humans can ever know who is among the elect). But writing in Latin and starting with an address to the king of France indicates that Calvin expected a larger audience--and, given his dire view of the Catholic Church, he would have expected a lot of non-Christians as well. Put differently, Calvin's ideal body politic would have consisted of godly folk, but he wrote into a more mixed context. The impiety of many contemporary Americans seems unlikely to have shocked him or caused him to change his message significantly.