This article throws light upon the three main political ideas of Calvin. The political ideas are: 1. Reformation 2. State and State-Church Relation 3. Passive Obedience or Non-Resistance.
Political Idea # 1. Reformation:
Reformation movement under the leadership of Luther could not make any remarkable headway. The French leader John Calvin injected a new lease of life into Reformation and made the movement more vigorous and widespread.
He gave it a logical character and the political doctrine of the Reformation is more discernible. John Calvin was a lawyer by profession.
He was a generation later than Luther. Luther married an ex-nun, Calvin the widow of an Anabaptist; and the difference is symbolic. The problem was not the overthrow of a papacy, but the construction of new modes of power.
Luther rested much upon the doctrine of priesthood of the laity and derived part of his practical programme from the doctrine. Calvin recognized that the doctrine was in scriptures and emphasized the theoretical consequences. There was little that was democratic in Calvin’s ideal. He did not recognize the individual interpretation of the scriptures.
The purpose of Calvin was to give a comprehensive exposition of Christian faith. He wanted to bring church, papacy and all Christian people under the umbrella of law.
The crucial fact was that Calvinism, especially in France and Scotland, was in opposition to governments which it had practically no chance to convert or capture.
Calvinism in its initial form lacked all leaning towards liberalism, constitutionalism and representative principles.
Political Idea # 2. State and State-Church Relation:
The principal work of John Calvin is Institutes of Christian Religion and this contains his political ideas.
The interesting aspect of Calvin’s political thought is that he did not discuss political ideas in a methodical way. His main interest was religion and in the course of analysing religion and its relation with the state and other political organization he mentioned some political concepts—particularly state and its rulers—and this invited some political concepts. From this approach of Calvin scholars have suggested few ideas about his political philosophy.
In the Institutes he makes the following observation:
Man is under two kinds of government, one spiritual, by which the conscience is formed to piety and the service of God; the other political by which a man is instructed in the duties of humanity and civility, which are to be observed in an intercourse with mankind…the former species of government pertains to the life of the soul, and that the latter relates to the concerns of the present state, not only to the provision of food and clothing, but to the enactment of laws to regulate man’s life among his neighbours, by the rules of holiness, integrity and sobriety.
The former has its seat in the interior of the mind whilst latter only directs the external conduct: one may be termed spiritual kingdom, the other a political kingdom.
Calvin admits that the spiritual and political kingdom—though different from each other—exist side by side. The functions of the two kingdoms are different and there is justification behind each function. This may be called separation of power and functions.
The spiritual kingdom will not interfere with the secular world, but the latter has something of the spiritual world to do. The spiritual government deals with the inward activities of individuals.
The functions of the civil government include the assurance of physical existence of men through the preservation of law, order, property and liberty. The primary concern of the civil or political government is to ensure the realization of physical needs and life of the common people.
It is the duty of the civil government to support and encourage the worship of God, to preserve the pure doctrine of religion, to defend the constitution of the church, to regulate the lives of people in a manner requisite for the society of men, form our manner of civil justice, to promote our concord with each other, and to establish general peace and tranquillity. The civil government will have its own laws which will deal with the external behaviour of the individuals.
The civil law will punish the blasphemy idolatry and calumnies. The state (or government) will ensure that a public form of worship may exist among Christians and humanity among men.
The civil government will thus discharge double functions—one spiritual and the other secular. Though Calvin admits the separate existence of two governments and to some extent the separate functions of each government, ultimately he has suggested that the civil government has definitely certain amount of responsibility towards the discharge of several functions which fall within the domain of religion.
He has clarified his stand in the following way:
Calvin says that some people think that the duty of the magistrate is confined entirely to the administration of justice as if God has appointed him to settle secular controversies and he has nothing to do with religion and God.
Calvin thinks that this is an erroneous conception about the functions of the magistrate. A magistrate cannot disregard what is of greater importance.
This greater important thing is religion. He must see that individuals are religious-minded and they are properly worshipping God. He has further said, “in describing the office of the magistrates in this treatise, my design is not so much as to instruct magistrates themselves …we see that they are constituted the protectors and vindicators of the public innocence, modesty, probity and tranquillity whose sole objective it ought to be to promote the common peace and security of all.”
To this end Calvin vindicates for the civil authorities the right to inflict capital punishment, to carry on war and to raise money by taxation. The magistrate will punish the vice and reward the virtue. This he must follow simultaneously; otherwise he will not be able to maintain discipline in the society.
Calvin rejected the Zwinglian concept of amalgamation of state and church, and on this ground he dissociated himself from Zwingli. Calvin and his supporters strongly opposed the union of church and state in England. The reason was not that the state would be independent of the church. It was otherwise.
He wanted to see the independence of the church. In spiritual affairs, the church would be allowed to discharge its duties freely. It would set its own stand aids and decide the principles according to the rules of the scriptures.
The secular authority would have no say in the spiritual questions. It will create an external atmosphere in which people will get full freedom for exercising religious rights and duties. Calvinism “stood for the primacy and independence of spiritual authority and the use of secular power to give effect to its judgments about orthodoxy and moral discipline”.
At Geneva, Calvin attempted to put into practice his theocratic and aristocratic ideas of government. But immediately he was faced with several problems. He could not separate the ecclesiastical authority from a secular one according to his own conviction and concept.
The moral code was made the basis of law, an ascetic form of life was enjoined by severe penalties and the secular authority was made the instrument of ecclesiastical council.
Political Idea # 3. Passive Obedience or Non-Resistance:
The theory of passive obedience or non-resistance occupies a very important place in Calvinistic thought system.
In the Institutes he says:
The first duty of the subjects towards their magistrates is to entertain the most honourable sentiments of their function, which they know to be a jurisdiction delegated to them from God and on that account to esteem and reverence them as God’s ministers and vicegerents… Because the obedience which is rendered to princes and magistrates rendered to God, from whom they have received their authority.
The point Calvin emphasizes here is that since the princes and magistrates are representatives of God on earth and their function is to carry out the order of God and translate his wishes into reality, it is a must for all citizens to comply with them in all respects and by doing this they will show honour and reverence not to magistrates but to God. Further, God has not given them any power to judge the activities of magistrates and princes.
Elsewhere Calvin writes:
Even an individual of the worst character, one most unworthy of all honour, if invested with public authority, receives the illustrious divine power which the Lord by his word devolved on the ministers of his justice and judgment, and accordingly…in so far as public obedience is concerned, he is to be held in the same honour and reverence as the best of kings…it is not in our province to remedy the evils of the princes and magistrates and that nothing remains for us but to implore the aid of the Lord.
If we go through the observations of Calvin we shall find that he did not recognize people’s right to criticize the principles and functions of the princes because this does not fall within their jurisdiction.
Even, they cannot withdraw their obligation to the princes. It is the duty of the subjects to perform their duty and carry out what the princes say. Needless to say that Calvin announced this dictum exclusively in the background of religion.
The administrators of the civil government are simply the representatives or nominees of God. And again; We will never entertain the seditious thought that a king is to be treated according to his deserts, and that we are not bound to act the part of the good subjects to him who does not in turn act the part of a king to us.
The men who furiously strive to overturn the divinely established order of government are, according to Calvin, the insane and barbarous men. He has compared the disobedience with insanity and barbarity.
He also calls it outrageous barbarity. The disobedient persons are also fanatics. To disobey an ordinance of God is really an insane and barbarous act. Only fanatics can venture to do it. How a prince rules and in what way he rules that is immaterial.
All these are indicators of the fact that Calvin viewed and judged everything in the perspective and light of theology.
From the above passage it is obvious that Calvin had no interest in the desirability or non-desirability of the functions of civil authority and the acceptability and non-acceptability of these function by the people.
The simple fact is that people will unhesitatingly endorse the functions of authority and carry out the orders. He conceives in Aristotelian vein that a system compounded of aristocracy and democracy far excels all others.
In this connection Calvin brings the point to our attention that there are various forms of magistracy. But there is no material difference between these forms, because all the forms are regarded as ordained by God.
As to the limit to the power of kings Calvin does not recognize any right of the people. Their only duty is to surrender to the authority of the king. The power of the ruler is limited by the law of God. This fundamental concept must be accepted by all.
“Calvin favoured an authoritative attitude and disbelieved in freedom. He had a great contempt for the mob and preferred an aristocratic form of government. His point of view was that of a strong ruler and a uniform system of government”.