Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Right of Rebellion (32)

With this whole Divine Right of Kings, or magistrates, theme, what has always struck me is how this seems to exclude the right of the people to defend themselves from attacks from unjust governments. This is because Calvin sees all rights and responsibilities as extending directly from God and not as Political Philosophers of the enlightenment were beginning to hypothesize, by consent of the governed. For this reason, it would seem that a people must tolerate any atrocity perpetrated by its leadership.

Calvin seems to say this in the following quote. "We owe this attitude of reverence and therefore of piety toward all our rulers in the highest degree, whatever they may be like." (Institutes, 4.20.29) He advocates this for the people at large, and I think this makes sense in the context of Calvin's own system and with the whole idea that we live in two worlds, the Kingdom of God and this Earthly Realm. Claire addresses the idea of how much depravity within the government is beyond toleration.

And yet, two sections later, Calvin seems to make an about-face. When speaking of other members of a government, Calvin writes, "I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common-folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because 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)

I think this is very much in line with the "Two World's" notion as well. Private citizens do not have a right of rebellion, but sub-magistrates have been appointed by God, in effect, at least partly, to restrain the arbitrariness of monarchical rule. It almost feels as though Calvin is cobbling together some kind of balance of power theory, that checks and balances within the government itself ought to carry out God's will should this be the overthrow of the monarch. Even so, I think this statement from Calvin could be used to justify almost any rebellion, if those in rebellion could at least get some filing clerk to support it.

My question is, "What would Clavin have thought of the American Revolution?" Yae or Nae?


  1. Good question, Calvin could have gone either way, depending on what he saw in the circumstances.
    I noticed when reading this section, that when citing Scripture Calvin 'translates' differently for instance when writing about our obedience in 4.20.23, Calvin shares Peter's comment in 1Peter 2:13-14 "Be subject to every human creature" (or rather as I translate it, ordinance)... My thought is that Calvin is very self-assured about the way in which is sees things and interprets them. The way in which Calvin calls us to obedience (I think) makes it very difficult to know when to oblige the powers in place and when to uphold our personal non-violent beliefs.

  2. Interestingly, I believe Presbyterians were very much behind the revolution. Nevertheless, I think Calvin may have thought "taxation without representation" an insufficient grievance for the use of force.

  3. Presbyterians were mostly for the Revolution, but I think that had as much to do with many of them being Scottish (and thus leery of England) as with them being Calvinists. Huguenots, too, sided with the colonists--but so did France. It would be impossible to disentangle theology and nationalism for either group.