Calvin’s Political Theology

John Calvin’s influence extends deep in the subtle fabric of the West. His political theology, eventually termed “Sphere Sovereignty,” by the neo-Calvinist Abraham Kuyper, is unique among two erroneous and extreme views.

This essay traces Calvin’s view of the source, and thus limit, of government authority, in contrast to Popular Sovereignty and Royal Sovereignty. 

The deistic (or atheistic) view of John Locke and Rousseau argues that all authority comes directly from the people, thus making the People supreme. By contrast, the Hobbesian view made the Prince, a god

However, Calvin’s via media understood actual contracts to rest upon a relationship between Prince and People whereby the Prince’s authority was derived directly from God, and thus, paradoxically, limiting the Prince. The Magisterial Reformer’s nuanced articulation was developed by the Burkean Protestants centuries later:

Those who destroy political order are rebellious against God, and therefore, that obedience to princes and magistrates is always joined to the worship and fear of God; but that on the other hand, if princes claim any part of the authority of God, we ought not to obey them any farther than can be done without offending God.

The delicate balance of Calvin’s nascent Sphere Sovereignty is elaborated below.

Rejection of Royal Sovereignty

The absolute Sovereign alone is God; thus, “there are limits prescribed by God to their [prince’s] power, within which they ought to be satisfied,” and thus they are “to work for the common good and to govern…the people in truest fairness and justice; not…puffed up with their own importance, but to remember that they also are subjects of God.”

During the Middle Ages, princely power was understood as private, hence hereditary. The concept of the office and title as owned by the public and for the people was revived during the Renaissance, creating the public/private distinction we know today.

Therefore, no Prince may rule simply by his mere arbitrary pleasure, such as abusive taxation, for “to impose….upon the common folk without cause is tyrannical extortion.”

Demurring against hereditary monarchy, Calvin further suggested elections as a means against oppression, writing, “It is tyrannous if any one man appoint or make ministers at his pleasure.” Not the arbitrary will of a single man forced on the people, but wise governance in accord with the people’s nature, spirit, and will becomes the Prince. A “tyrant rules only by his own will and lust” for his own interest. But by contrast, godly and legitimate “magistrates rule by counsel and by reason so as to determine how to bring about the greatest public welfare and benefit.”

The will of God was the standard, not man’s willto rule against God’s moral code was to “darken his glory.”

When despotic rulers usurp power that belongs to God, or rule in their own interest aggressing against the people, the “lower godfearing magistrate may defend himself and his subjects.”

No Hobbesian view of the state; monarchical tyranny could never be supported by Calvin.

In Defense of Sphere Sovereignty

Despite Calvin’s rejection of Royal Sovereignty, he was a “defender not of ‘egalitarianism,’ but of ‘equality before the law.’” God demands that tyrants be limited, but Calvin was also aware, if only intuitively, of the danger of the tyranny of the masses. 

For example, John Calvin rejected the idea that some over-taxation of the people or even unjust misappropriation does not grant any divine warrant to overthrow the tyrant. “There was still a scriptural priority,” in Calvin’s view, according to David W. Hall, “on submitting to the governors who ‘have their sole authority from him’ (4.20.25)(emphasis added).”[1] 

Paul’s greatest expositor, in discussing Romans 13, began, according to David Hall, “by explaining that all civil power originates with the sovereign God—not with man, as later secular schemes suggested.”

Naturally, being a Renaissance humanist, the Genevan reformer gave his blessing upon ancient republican ideas: 

…the best way to preserve their liberty…was by maintaining a condition of rough equality, lest a few persons of immense wealth should oppress the general body…the rich, if they had been permitted constantly to increase their wealth, would have tyrannized over the rest, God put a restraint on immoderate power by means of [republicanism].

Yet, he rejected the later ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine, that the Prince is a mere instrument of the masses. Calvin condemned the idea of Princes who are “under the tyranny of others, if they permit themselves to be overcome contrary to their conscience, lay aside all their authority and are drawn aside in all directions by the will of their subjects.” In other words, rulers are not to be bare-naked tools of the people, a Burkean sentiment.

Princely rule is contingent not on the will of the people but on God. When we see the Prince working against God’s law, he thereby loses his magisterial authority. This was Calvin’s doctrine of contingency, a contract not between the Prince and the People, but between the Prince and God.

To summarize, we may turn to David W. Hall, who himself summarizes Calvin’s view, (to use the Kuyperian title) of Sphere Sovereignty:

The Calvinistic confession of the sovereignty of God holds good for all the world, is true for all nations, and is of force in all authority which man exercises over man…It is therefore a political faith which may be summarily expressed in these three theses: 

  1. God only, and never any creature, is possessed of sovereign rights, in the destiny of nations, because God alone created them, maintains them by his Almighty power, and rules them by his ordinances. 
  2. Sin has, in the realm of politics, broken down the direct government of God, and therefore the exercise of authority, for the purpose of government, has subsequently been invested in men, as a mechanical remedy.
  3. In whatever form this authority may reveal itself, man never possesses power over his fellow man in any other way than by the authority which descends upon him from the majesty of God.
Citations & References 1. David W. Hall, The Arrogance of the Modern: Historical Theology Held in Contempt. Oak Ridge, TN: Calvin Institute (1997).

Robert J. McPherson II

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Robert J. McPherson II is a graduate of RC Sproul’s Reformation Bible College with an honors degree in theology. He has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Buckingham; conducting research under the guidance of Sir Roger Scruton. His thesis is on personal responsibility and social justice.

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