Calvin's Political Theology (Book Review)

A book review for Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church by Matthew J. Tuininga.

calvin's political theology

Calvin’s Political Theology by Matthew Tuininga is the next book in my quest to trace the theological roots of modern economic thought. John Calvin, the great reformer of Geneva, is not typically associated with economic philosophy. Yet historians have located in Calvin the roots of the Enlightenment which paved the way for thinkers like John Milton, John Locke, John Adams, and James Madison. Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, indeed traces the spirit of capitalism to Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. Calvin is therefore as relevant for understanding economic history as any theologian I can think of, and a great place to start.

In Calvin’s Political Theology, Dr. Tuininga makes the case that Calvin’s political thought stems from his two kingdoms theology. There is the secular, temporal kingdom of the present age and there is the coming eschatological kingdom of Christ. Christ reigns supreme in both kingdoms but the two kingdoms are distinguished by their temporary versus eternal nature. The secular kingdom is temporal, fallen, and passing away. The coming spiritual kingdom will be perfect and eternal. Because of this distinction, God ordains the ministers of each kingdom to focus on different matters, and when matters overlap to deal with them in different ways.

The Church and the Civil Magistrate

Calvin’s two kingdoms theology is perhaps most visible in his distinction between the roles and responsibilities of the civil magistrate and the roles and responsibilities of the church. For his day, Calvin was a moderate proponent of the separation of church and state (more precisely, of the independence of the church from the state). In this, he differed from contemporaries like Zwingli, who advocated no separation, and from the more radical Anabaptists who pushed complete separatism.

Instead, Calvin envisioned a society in which the civil government would hold authority over secular, temporal matters and the church would hold authority over spiritual, eternal matters. What distinguished a secular from a spiritual matter? According to Calvin, secular matters concerned the outward behavior of man toward fellow man, whereas spiritual matters concerned the inward regeneration of the soul, which itself would also lead to outwards acts of love and charity.

Therefore, in order that none of us may stumble on that stone, let us first consider that there is a twofold government in man: one aspect is spiritual, whereby the conscience is instructed in piety and in reverencing God; the second is political, whereby man is educated for the duties of humanity and citizenship that must be maintained among men. These are usually called the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘temporal’ jurisdiction by which is meant that the former sort of government pertains to the life of the soul, while the latter has to do with the concerns of the present life – not only with food and clothing but with laying down laws whereby a man may live his life among other men holily, honorably, temperately. For the former resides in the inner mind, while the latter regulates only outward behavior.

Institutes 3.19.15

To make the distinction practical, consider the case of theft. Civil authorities will make laws against theft. These laws are meant to regulate outward behavior so that people may live together peaceably. To put a more theological spin on it, these laws serve as restraints against outward sin. They are part of God’s common grace so that we may live tolerably in the present age. Yet the law cannot make a man righteous. The sins that motivate theft—whether greed, envy, or laziness—still condemn us before God, whether we steal or not. Neither can the law make a sinful act moral. Even if theft were legal, that would not make it right, nor would it make a thief righteous before God. The civil magistrate, therefore, has no authority over the soul. Its purpose is to regulate outward behavior so that men can live together harmoniously. As Tuininga puts it:

Political authorities can maintain a degree of outward justice, but they have no spiritual power. They cannot actually make people just.

The church, by contrast, is given the authority to care for a man’s soul and to bind a Christian’s conscience. According to Calvin, it does so by the preaching of the God’s word, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline:

The first task of the bishop’s office is to teach the people from God’s word. The second and next is to administer the sacraments. The third is to admonish and exhort, also to correct those who sin and to keep the people under holy discipline.

Institutes 4.7.23

In the case of theft, therefore, the role of the church is to preach against it, to discipline those who have engaged in it, to restore those who have repented of it, and most of all to bring sinners to Christ. Of course, for Calvin the authority of the church extended only as far as scripture revealed. In criticizing the papacy, Calvin wrote:

This, then, is the difference. Our opponents locate the authority of the church outside of God’s word; but we insist that it be attached to the word, and do not allow it to be separated from it.

Institutes 4.8.13

Moreover, Calvin did not believe that the church had the authority to wield the sword in enforcement of discipline. That task belonged to the civil magistrate:

For the church does not have the right of the sword to punish or compel, not the authority to force; not imprisonment, nor the other punishments which the magistrate commonly inflicts. Then [in the church], it is not a question of punishing the sinner against his will, but of the sinner professing his repentance in a voluntary chastisement. The two conceptions are very different. The church does not assume what is proper to the magistrate; nor can the magistrate execute what is carried out by the church.

Institutes 4.11.3

To Calvin, the physical punishments of the law could not produce true repentance or inward righteousness. They were therefore not for the church to execute. Likewise, the right of excommunication and other means of discipline with the aim of restoration belonged to the church and not to civil government. Tuininga puts it this way:

For Calvin, [church] discipline was first and foremost a means of grace, not a means of civil punishment or social control.

Exegetical Basis

The exegetical basis for Calvin’s political theology is wide and varied. One could devote an entire book to exploring it (as indeed Tuininga has). For this review, it suffices to discuss a few important texts.

For Calvin, the role of the civil magistrate in regulating outward behavior by coercive force is rooted in Romans 13:1-7.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

Romans 13:1-7

It is clearly seen in Romans 13 that civil authorities “bear the sword” as “avengers of God’s wrath.” They are therefore God’s chosen instruments to enforce outward order and to punish wrongdoers. Moreover, Christians, though free in spirit, are called to submit to the civil authorities as a matter of love towards neighbor. Immediately following Romans 13:1-7 we find this passage:

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Romans 13:8-10

Of course, Calvin fully understood the capacity of civil magistrates to abuse their authority. Indeed, he (and the apostle Paul, and perhaps all humans) lived in an age where the abuse of authority was rampant. And he did develop a theory of just resistance against civil authorities. But for Calvin, the general rule was for Christians to obey and honor the civil authorities, even under conditions of harsh and unjust treatment, as a matter of love and peace towards their neighbors.

As to the limits of church authority over secular matters, including its lack of authority to bear the sword, Calvin cites both scripture and tradition:

If in this matter we seek the authority of Christ, there can be no doubt that he intended to debar the ministers of the word from civil domination and worldly power when he said, “The princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you” (Mt. 20:25,26). For he intimates not only that the office of pastor is distinct from the office of prince, but that the things differ so widely that they cannot be united in the same individual… This has in all ages been observed in the Church. Never did any bishop, so long as any true appearance of a church remained, think of usurping the right of the sword: so that, in the age of Ambrose, it was a common proverb, that emperors longed more for the priesthood than priests for imperial power. For the expression which he afterwards adds was fixed in all minds, Palaces belong to the emperor, churches to the priest.

Institutes 4.11.8

To be clear, Calvin was not a political liberal in the modern sense. He believed in severe punishments for things that are commonplace today, like adultery. He even believed in capital punishment for public blasphemy, as in the case of Servetus. Calvin saw blasphemy as a matter of public order, within the rights of the civil government to punish, though he rejected any attempts to convert heathens by force as he did not believe conversion could be physically coerced.

Calvin, therefore, saw a clear separation between the church and the state. It was the jurisdiction of civil magistrates to craft laws pertaining to temporal matters and to enforce them, by the sword if need be. The role of the church was to be a prophetic voice, calling the civil authorities to make just laws, and holding Christians accountable to a higher standard, above and beyond what the civil law could enforce. Calvin indeed had a high view of the church’s calling to proclaim truth to civil authorities:

All who are chosen to the office of teaching cannot faithfully discharge their duty except they boldly and with intrepid spirit dare to reprove both kings and queens; for the word of God is not to be restricted to the common people or men in humble life, but it subjects to itself all, from the least to the greatest.

Calvin, Commentary on Jeremiah 13:18

The Mosaic Law

What about the Law of Moses? Christians sometimes struggle to explain why we appear to “pick and choose” which of the Mosaic laws to obey. Here, Tuininga offers a helpful explanation of Calvin’s theology. Like many others, Calvin distinguishes between moral, ceremonial, and judicial laws. From Tuininga:

He defines the moral law as the “true and eternal rule of righteousness, prescribed for men of all nations and times, who wish to conform their lives to God’s will.” He defines the ceremonial law as “the tutelage of the Jews, with which it seemed good to the Lord to train this people, as it were, in their childhood, until the fullness of time [i.e., Christ] should come.” The judicial law is the law of civil government that “imparted definite formulas of equity and justice, by which they [the Jews] might live together blamelessly and peaceably.”

According to Calvin, civil governments should universally seek to reflect God’s moral law in their polity. On the other hand, the form that specific laws take may vary with time and place. Take theft, for example. The Torah prescribes specific penalties for theft, but these penalties may not be appropriate for all societies and circumstances. The specific penalties for theft prescribed in the Torah are not binding in every time and place, but the moral law that theft is wrong and should be punished is.

By what principle can Calvin claim this distinction? In what Tuininga describes as one of Calvin’s “most groundbreaking and enduring moral arguments”, Calvin argues that the Torah’s prohibition against usury does not bind on modern nations. For in the Torah, it was permitted to charge interest to Gentiles but not to Jews, a distinction that “the spiritual law does not admit,” since the “wall of partition is broken down.” The prohibition against usury must therefore have been a civil law specific to the polity of the Mosaic covenant, and not a law binding on all nations. The moral law which binds is instead that of charity—that a lender should not seek to exploit a borrower for unjust gain.

In addition, Calvin argues from the law of Moses that civil laws may sometimes allow that which is immoral, as an accommodation to the hardness of men’s hearts, in an effort to preserve a greater moral good. This is most clearly revealed in Jesus’s teaching on divorce (Mt 19:1-9):

Because of the hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.

Matthew 19:8-9

Here is Calvin:

He did not lay down a law about divorce so as to give them the seal of approbation, but as the wickedness of men could not be restrained in any other way, he applied what was the most admissible remedy, that the husband should at least attest the chastity of his wife. For the law was made solely for the protection of women, that they might not suffer any disgrace after they had been unjustly rejected. Hence we infer that it was rather a punishment inflicted on the husbands than an indulgence or permission fitted to inflame their lust.

Calvin, Commentary on Matthew 19:7

Strictly speaking, the law of Moses did not permit divorce in the sense of endorsing it, but rather sought to regulate it because otherwise greater injustices would result. Civil law, therefore, can allow but regulate immoral behaviors (without approving them) in order to prevent greater injustice from happening. History attests to the greater injustices that can result from overly prohibitive laws against vice. Calvin is careful, however, to warn magistrates not to use this principle as an excuse to pass unjust laws.

It is clear, then, that Calvin did not affirm the whole Mosaic law to be normative for Christians. Rather, it was a civic document designed specifically for God’s chosen people in that time and place, for a specific purpose. Although God’s moral will is also revealed in it, many of its specific details are accommodative of man’s fallen nature and therefore neither binding nor expected to be present in the coming eschatological kingdom.

Calvin in a Plural Society

What resources does Calvin’s theology offer to Christians who live in today’s pluralistic society? According to Tuininga, Calvin offers Christians a firm foundation for embracing political liberalism (in the classical sense of the term) and helpful guidance for our roles and responsibilities within the political order. The following paragraphs well summarize Tuininga’s views:

The point here is not to laud moral and political relativism but to remind Christians of the impressive moral health of contemporary societies while putting the moral failures of such societies in theological perspective. Political liberalism embraces the fundamental rights of the poor, women, and ethnic and religious minorities, rights that Christians should wholeheartedly affirm and promote as requirements of natural law. Liberalism tends to be less admirable in its dismissive attitude toward justice in sexuality and marriage, with deplorable results for children, including the unborn, but also for women and men. Christians should work to heighten moral sensitivities in such areas, building consensus for better laws. But that is precisely the point: They should work to build consensus rather than seek to override moral pluralism with brute political force, so undermining the publicly recognized moral authority of the law itself. It is possible for the law to demand too much of persons, thus causing more harm than good. Where it is necessary, compromise is often not the sign of moral weakness but of moral integrity. It can reflect a recognition of the limits of law that arises from the virtues of prudence and love rather than from a merely self-serving pragmatism.

To be sure, sometimes government falls below even a minimum standard of justice. When government acts with blatant injustice, Christians and the church must respond vigorously. When public officials take innocent life, oppress the poor, praise immorality, suppress the worship of God, or prevent the speaking of truth, the church must condemn such injustice. (Mis)interpretations of the two kingdoms theology that require political passivity on the part of the church, such as that which was advocated by certain German Christians in Nazi Germany or by some southern churches during the days of racial segregation, are at most an abhorrent distortion of Calvin’s (and Luther’s) political theology. They ignore the church’s obligation to preach the word of God and to discipline Christians guilty of flagrant injustice. Their protests of innocence not withstanding, they de facto aligned the church with injustice. The church must recognize the limits of secular political institutions, but in its teaching and discipline it can never compromise its obligation to proclaim the word of Christ… It is when the church faithfully proclaims that the love and justice of God require care for the poor and oppressed, for instance, that it calls societies to judgment.

I think this is an important book. It was important for my own spiritual, theological, and political development. In modern American society, embroiled as it is in political turmoil and endless culture wars, it is vitally important for Christians to develop a solid, biblically informed political theology. At the very least, it may help Christians of different political persuasions to find common ground, and it may help us articulate our views better to a secular audience. It may even lessen the anxiety we have about living in an increasingly pluralistic society, to see that our concerns are echoed in history, and yet Christians have always found a way to live faithfully, anchored by their hope in Christ.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in sharpening their understanding of Christian public engagement.

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