Calvin 3: The Christian Duty of Obedience and Resistance

One thing this series of blogs has tried to do is put into historical perspective the actions and views of the various writers. In the case of Calvin, the situation in which he wrote profoundly impacted his views on a number of issues.

To begin with, Calvin was raised in, and left in danger because of his religious views, the France of his day—an absolute Roman Catholic monarchy. France, Spain, and most of the rest of Europe were ruled by monarchs of one form or another. Above all these monarchs, there was an entity known as the Holy Roman Empire, a weak and eventually to disappear “High Kingship.” [1] Even in Calvin’s day, the empire was a weak. Nevertheless, in the time of Calvin, the Holy Roman Emperor was the protector of the Roman Catholic faith and hostile to the Reformation and reformers. Luther, Calvin and others were from time to time in personal danger from the Catholic princes of Europe and the Holy Roman Emperor.

Second, having left France, Calvin ended up in Switzerland, which like Germany was divided up into both Catholic and Protestant areas. The threat of persecution was a real possibility, since the political winds could easily change. As a citizen of Geneva, Calvin lived near France, and thus had to consider the potential for a French invasion. Geneva was open to the Reformation, but this openness was not a sure thing for most of Calvin’s time there.

Third, Calvin was familiar with the dangers associated with the Radical Reformation. In Germany and Switzerland, the Reformation, begun as an attempt to purify the church not to radically change it. However, in some cases the Reformation took a different, more dangerous, and sometimes violent turn. Radical violence was sometimes fomented by an expectation of an early end to history and return of Christ. Sometimes, it involved a resistance against all earthly authority. Often, it involved unbalanced leaders who lacked practical wisdom or theological training and who led their adherents into error. In Germany the princes of combined to forcibly put down some radical reformers and many people died. Calvin, like Luther before him, was appalled by the Radical Reformers, which contributed to his lack of sympathy for Michael Servetus and his unitarian brand of reform. In any case, this political theology is formed by this history.

Christians and the Courts

In Calvin’s day, as in our own, there were misunderstanding as to whether, and to what extent, Christians can or should avail themselves of secular courts of law. According to Calvin, Christians are entitled to use the courts of law, and indeed ought to do so in order to prevent the evil of private vengeance. It is not appropriate, therefore, for a Christian to quote Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians to avoid a litigious spirit and of suing one another without restraint as forbidding their use of public courts where appropriate (4.20.21). Once again, Calvin places his emphasis on love, reminding readers that whatever Christians do they must do in love, and anything done apart from love is suspect from a Christian perspective (4.20.19). It would never be appropriate for a Christian to use the courts to secure vengeance or an unjust result.

As to civil matters, Christians clearly are not acting properly if they do not submit a valid claim to the decision of the courts, for to do otherwise is to invite private vengeance and violence. The same is true of criminal matters. So long as a litigant is motivated by the desire for justice and not by a desire for revenge or resentment over a private injury, there is nothing to forbid Christians (or anyone else) from availing themselves of the judicial system (4.20.19). Thus, Christian, like everyone else, may defend their rights in a court of law, so long as the defense of their rights is done without rancor, passion, a desire for revenge, malice or other improper motive (4.20.19).

Thus, the act of defending justice and seeking equity is blameless and should not be prohibited to Christians or others; however, Christians do have a special duty to behave in the proper manner:

For this must be a set principle for all Christians: That a lawsuit however just, can never be rightly prosecuted by any man, unless he treats his adversary with the same love and good will as if the business under controversy were already amicably settled and composed (4.20.18).

The fact that such a spirit is largely absent from litigants in Calvin’s day as in our own does not detract from the desirability of just and orderly behavior by those who use the court system, and especially by Christians.

According to Calvin, a willingness to submit to public judicial process is not contrary to Christ’s in junction to “turn the other cheek.” Christians ought to bear with slanders and injustice, forgiving others for malice and deceit and a variety of wrongs, displaying that spiritual composure that identifies a follower of Christ (4.20.20). This characteristic of Christians does not, however, prevent them from defending rights and property:

Yet, this equity and moderateness of their minds will not prevent them from using the help of the magistrate in preserving their own possessions, while maintaining friendliness toward their enemies; or zealous for public welfare, from demanding the punishment of a guilty and pestilent man, who, they know, can be changed only by death (4.20.20).

Duty of Obedience to Rulers

The first duty of citizens is to honor the office of those appointed by human agents and God to exercise public authority, including legislatures, magistrates, and courts of law (4.20.22). It is important, Calvin believes, for Christians to remember that public officials are not merely a necessary evil, but an accommodation of grace by God to the human need of leadership and governance. From the duty to honor their follows a duty of obedience to those with magisterial authority:

From this also something else follows: that, with hearts inclined to reverence their rulers, the subjects should prove their obedience toward them, whether by obeying their proclamations, or by paying taxes, or by undertaking public offices and burdens which pertain to the common defense, or by executing any other command of theirs (4.20.23).

Where a Christian believes a ruler has acted mistakenly, and their ordinances require some kind of amendment, they should not raise a tumult or create trouble, but work diligently to resolve the problem peacefully and within the law (4.20.23). Here we see a beginning of Calvin’s attitude towards any kind of resistance. In the first instance, Christians should work in love within whatever political system they find themselves to resolve public wrongs without violence.

The duty of Christians to obey laws does not pertain only to laws passed by just and righteous rulers, but also to rulers who do not act wisely or with justice towards those they lead (4.20.24). According to Calvin, it is the example of nearly all ages of human history that rulers have acted without care, lazily, corruptly, and without compassion draining the people of their money and livelihoods (4.20.24). While such magistrates are a disgrace to the offices they hold, Christians are to give such rulers the dignity and respect the authority of the offices they hold (4.20.25). Here we see a second principle of obedience: Even bad rulers hold their offices from God and are due the respect of their office (Exodus 22:28; Ecclesiastes 10:20; Romans 13:1-7).

Beyond corrupt, lazy, and incompetent rulers, there are also wicked rulers, which God periodically allows to gain power and oppress their people (4.20.25). They too are to be obeyed:

But if we look to God’s Word, it will lead us further. We are not only subject to the authority of princes who perform their office uprightly and faithfully as they ought, but also to the authority of all who, by whatever means, have got control of affairs even though they perform not a whit of the prince’s office (4.20.25).

 Christians are subject such underserving princes just as they are subject to those who are deserving of the honor of their office (4.20.25). From time to time such rulers are raised up to punish public wickedness or otherwise accomplish the purposes of God, and the Bible is full of examples, from Pharaoh to Nebuchadnezzar. Christians are to obey bad rulers just as they obey good rulers (4.20.26). Nebuchadnezzar is used by Calvin as a case in point of a foolish, vain, violent, and unwise ruler whom God placed over the Jewish people, and through Daniel was used by God for his purposes and to display his glory (4.20.26-27).

This is the final, and perhaps most controversial, of Calvin’s points. Clearly, one thing that Christians should consider is whether a bad ruler is a judgement of God to which the church must submit in humility and endure. Second, it is not always wise or possible to resist a ruler, a situation with which Calvin was familiar. In our day, we are accustomed to democratic freedoms and may not be as sympathetic as we should be with Christian groups who have had to submit to wicked rulers to survive. Overt resistance is not always either wise or possible.

Resistance Against Edicts that Violate Conscience and Duty to God

As the preceding clearly reveals, Calvin was extremely reluctant to justify disobedience to established rulers. He was familiar with the damage the Radical Reformation had done in Germany and the way in which even well-meaning radical reformers had damaged the cause of the Reformation in fruitless revolt against authorities. Nevertheless, at the end of the Institutes Calvin does find some room for disobedience under the caption “Obedience to man must not become disobedience to God” (4.20.32). Obedience to earthly rulers must not be such that it leads to disobedience to God, for public officials are subject to God and own obedience to God. Where Christ has spoken, “he alone must be heard” (4.20.32).

Clearly, in this passage, Calvin has in mind the kind of passive resistance that the early church demonstrated, when Christians sometimes refused to deny Christ and paid for their refusal with their lives. He has in mind the resistance that figures in Scripture demonstrated, particularly the resistance Jesus demonstrated before the Sanhedrin and Pilate, a resistance that did not revolt against authority but instead accepted the injustice of authority in faithfulness to God.

This view of a right to resist flows from the commandment of love. Christians are commanded to love their neighbor has themselves, but prior to that commandment is the command to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:27a). The love of God takes precedence over any earthly love, and so where the two loves become estranged, the Christian must choose the love of God and accept the consequences.

From Resistance to a Right of Revolution

The right of passive resistance was as far as Calvin himself would go in his direct writings, but his followers would look at the implications of listening to Christ alone and reach different conclusions. Other thinkers influenced by his theology, as well as the contract theory of law, reached conclusion the conclusion that there might be a right to revolt against magistrates who abused or neglected their responsibilities as leaders.

In the first place, Calvinism itself originated in the free states of Switzerland and spread most easily to free states. In such a situation, the idea that the citizens had duties to magistrates led easily to the reverse idea: Rulers had duties to their subjects. Secondly, within a short period of time, the notion of society being formed by a social contract between governments and their subjects became popular, as did “covenant theology,” which is a direct outgrowth of Calvinism.

The idea of a social contract has implicit within it the idea that the rulers and subjects are each bound by the contract. While Hobbes and others tried to suggest that the social contract could not be voided by subjects, this is not the most natural interpretation of a contract theory. Nearly everyone is directly or indirectly aware that contracts can be broken and if broken, contracts are either void or some kind of redress is due the injured party. The merger between covenant theology and the theory of a social contract was nearly certain to end with some kind of a right of revolution.

Thus, as Calvinism developed, it tended to include within its political ideas the notion that some revolutions were in fact necessary and permitted to Christians. It is not likely that Calvin himself would have agreed given his restraint as to such a right in the Institutes. [2] His emphasis on the Christian duty of love would have mitigated against such a result. The Christian duty to love is not dependent upon whether and to what extent the beloved is worthy.

Whatever the exact historical details, by the time of the American revolution, most Americans believed that there was a right of revolution and that King George III had violated the social contract by his policies towards the colonies. The Declaration of Independence is filled with reasons its writers believed justified the American Revolution because of the wrongs inflicted by the British king. While Calvin himself is not the direct source of this view, the development of his theology, particularly in England, laid some of the groundwork for the political view that rulers who abused their powers can be overthrown.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The Holy Roman Empire officially terminated on August 6, 1806, when the last emperor, Francis II of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine,  abdicated his throne and released his subjects from any further obligation.

[2] Almost every student of Calvin sooner or later hears a professor speak the words, “Calvin was not always as much a Calvinist as his followers.” This is often true.

2. Calvin on Law

The last blog introduced Calvin as a political thinker and dealt with the powers and responsibilities of the magistrate in public life. For Calvin, the magistrate is the embodiment of the laws of a polity, and is the active element that ensures its active success (4.20.14). [1] If the magistrate is the embodiment of a polity, its laws are the sinews, the glue that holds a political unit together. Magistrates have a duty to enact just laws, and citizens a duty of obedience to those laws, even laws with which they disagree or which are imposed by rulers who act in an immoral and oppressive way. For Calvin, only when laws and rulers interfere with the worship and obedience that Christians owe God does a limited right of passive resistance apply. The duty of obedience and the right of resistance will be dealt with next week. This week, we look at Calvin and the laws of a society. In my view, this is one of the most important blogs I have done because of the essentially relational view of law Calvin takes.

Distinguishing Between Ceremonial, Judicial, and Moral Laws of Israel

In Calvin’s day, as in our own, there were those who believed that the laws of the state ought to mirror the laws instituted by Moses, a view that Calvin regards as false and foolish (4.20.14). In responding to this error, Calvin begins his analysis of law with the commonly recognized distinction between (i) the ceremonial laws of Israel, (ii) its judicial laws, and (iii) the moral law found in the Old and New Testaments. These three aspects of Old Testament law must be carefully distinguished and are differing importance to those interested in human social life. 

The ceremonial law was enacted to create a holy and set-apart people of God. The people of Israel were chosen by God to be different from the surrounding nations. From a Christian perspective, this separation was for the tutelage of the Jewish people as they prepared for the Messiah. The ceremonial law contained the outline of a religious system, involving festivals, and a sacrificial system, appropriate for a stage in human development when sacrifices to the gods was commonly practiced. This ceremonial law was an important preparation for the revelation of Christ, but could be and has been abrogated without loss. 

The moral law stands upon another footing and cannot be abrogated by human beings. The moral law is founded upon the rational nature of human beings created in the image of God and summarized by the Great Commandment, which is given in Mark in the following way: 

“The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29b-31, NKJV). [2]

This commandment of love stands at the root of the moral law and is a perpetual “natural” law designed to provide a structure for all of human life (4.20.15). In the language I have been using in these blogs, the moral law, which is an outgrowth of the law of love, is founded upon the self-giving love and relational wholeness that exists within the Trinity and which is embedded in the nature of creation as a relational whole. We give the name “love” to this relational wholeness that leads to peace (shalom) and human thriving. [3] The object of this moral law is to enable human beings to navigate life successfully.

Natural law as “Sophio-Agapic”

In this view, which I term “Sophio-Agapic,” natural law derives from the hidden wisdom through which God created the world and the self-giving love by which God creates and sustains the universe. Because God is wise, there is embedded in God’s creation an order. Because God is essentially relational, the universe reflects at every level a relationality that is foundational and which is reflected in the human capacity for love. [4] Implicit in the kind of wise relationality that underlies human society is the notion that humans must have both order and freedom to thrive. It is the search for wise relationships that drives human beings to create systems of law to ensure public peace and order, and it is the desire for loving relationships that drive human beings to freedom-in-relationship. This sophio-agapic relationality is the foundation of what we term “natural law.”

It is important to reflect upon the difference that a relational, sophio-agapic theory of natural law makes to morality and law. Often, natural law theorists focus upon the moral content of natural law (murder is wrong) without proper consideration of the relational foundation of that rule in the desire for human harmony and peace (murder is antithetical to human striving and shalom). A focus on the relational foundation of law in love allows a recognition that all law, including moral law, rests upon something deeper than law itself—on the love and wholeness for which human beings were created. This is an important insight for our society in order for it to exit the period of decay and polarization in which we find ourselves. 

Public Law as Contextual

The moral or natural law is not sufficient to organize any particular society. For there to be social order, there must be a system of public law. The specific laws of Israel were given to them so that they could live together peacefully under the conditions of the ancient world in which they lived. Once again, the judicial law of Israel was not eternal and could be abrogated in order to accommodate a different people and culture (4.20.15). Thus, the specifics of the judicial law of Israel are not binding upon other societies and may be changed to meet different social circumstances as human history unfolds.

Thus, the result of a proper understanding the differences in the ceremonial, moral, and judicial law of Israel is that the nations of the world are free to craft their own laws so long as they are respectful of the law of love that stands beneath and is the foundation of all law. Thus, “…every nation is left free to make such laws as it foresees to be profitable to itself. Yet, these must be in conformity to that perpetual law of love, so that they indeed vary in form by have the same purpose” (4.20.15, emphasis added). This standard of love means that barbarous laws that would give honor to thieves, justify murder, or permit savagery are to be condemned. [5] All laws have as their purpose the creation of a just and loving social order.

Because laws are intended to create and maintain the relational wholeness of a particular society, Calvin sees equity, that is the giving of each person and group his or her due, as the foundational way in which love is worked out in any concrete set of laws. Thus, the law of love is the foundation of “natural law,” which is the moral law of God and is engraved on the human conscience (4.20.16). [6] This does not require that modern people believe that every single insight of the ancients as to the nature and character of the natural, moral law were in fact correct.

Any law framed so as to create equity is to be approved of irrespective of whether it differs from Jewish public law. This is an important insight, for it allows a progressive understanding of human law throughout human history and the accommodation of the laws of a society to the circumstances of that particular society. 

For example, Calvin notes that, even where societies universally condemn an action, such as stealing, there can be differing penalties for the violation of that law, and the Old Testament penalties are not binding upon any particular society. Thus, some societies treat various crimes more or less seriously and throughout history differing penalties have been thought just for the same crime. This is to be seen as an accommodation of a particular society to its own circumstances (4.20.16).

This view leaves human actors with space within which to adapt their society’s laws to specific economic, geographic, cultural, and other circumstances which differ from time to time and place to place. For Calvin, society is not an entity decreed to have only one set of laws based upon one culture’s reading of the Bible, the revelation of God, and circumstances. Instead, different societies are free to experiment and to create their own laws, subject always to the kind of relational wholeness that would be called “equity” that results in social peace.

To say that societies are free to experiment is not to say that there are no guiding principles to be followed in the search for equity. For example, laws that would be destructive of social peace, of equity among citizens, of the family upon which society rests, of the ability of people to have productive work and earn a living, etc. would all be suspect from this perspective. Underneath all of the possible guiding principles, there is one supreme guiding principle, the law of love, and any law that ignores this guiding principle is suspect. 


I have found Calvin’s insights not only consistent with an older, organic view of society and law, but also consistent with a constructive post-modern view of human nature and society as rationally evolving in accordance with a deep desire for community built into both the universe and human nature itself. This evolution means that each society must adapt and construct itself, hopefully adapting to new conditions under the constraints of the “Law of Love” that sits at the foundation of all human community, from the nuclear family to the modern state.

Every society of whatever kind or nature has a status quo and a set of social relationships that have evolved over time. In enacting new laws, leaders have a need to respect the existing set of social relationships and gradually make changes. This principle of gradual change is important in maintaining the legitimacy of governments and the social support any government needs to survive. One of the unfortunate consequences of the American preoccupation with “nation building” in the Middle East has been a set of policies that initially ignored the existing fundamentally tribal nature of the societies in question. In any situation, there are limits to productive change, however valuable it might be over the long run.

I invite readers to consider whether or not some of the problems of our society stem from the loss of a sense of community bound together by a kind of social love that seeks equity for all citizens, whether of our particular party, race, sex, or social group. In addition, I invite readers to consider whether the difficulty we have in maintaining true freedom of expression and development of people and groups is not related to a distinctly modern notion that “might makes right” and that history is merely the unfolding of the search of social groups for power. If love sits at the foundation of society, then this view is surely incorrect.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion Volumes 1 & 2, ed. John McNeill. trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960). All quotations are from this version of the Institutes in the form: book.chapter.section).

[2] The Great Commandment is found in all three of the synoptic Gospels, Matthew 22:35–40, Mark 12:28–34, and Luke 10:27. It is implicit in the “new commandment” that John records, “To love one another” (John 15:9-12).

[3] In prior blogs, I have distinguished self-giving love, erotic or desire-based love the brotherly love of siblings and friends, affection of neighbors and loved ones, and political love that binds a culture together. All these loves are derivative of the transcendent, self-giving love of God.

[4] See, John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1985) for an orthodox look at relationality as constitutive of persons.

[5] This is an area within which Christians and non-Christians may see substantial disagreement. For Calvin, laws protecting marriage, etc. reflect the law of love. One might presume that laws forbidding practices like abortion might have been included in this catalogue of laws that violate the command of love. While not minimizing the extent of debate about this foundation of law in love, I think that Calvin has made a valuable contribution to public debate by considering that all laws should work to cement the social bonds of a society in relational wholeness and peace.

[6]  I term use the term “Sophio-Agapic,” to describe that relational wholeness that finds its completion in God and in the transcendent justice towards which human beings strive. As indicated in the main text, this “sophio-agapic” relationality is the foundation of what we term “natural law.” Sophia refers to the wisdom of God, and agape to the self-giving love of God.

The Political Theology of John Calvin 1

Readers who know that I am a Presbyterian pastor may have wondered why I skipped Calvin during our chronological look at political theology from Augustine through Luther. At the time, I did not know what to say. Frankly, after dealing with Luther, I needed a break from a theological look at political philosophy. Since we are now at the time to look at Jean-Jacque Rousseau, also a Genevan, it occurred to me that this is a good time to look at Calvin as a political theologian and practitioner. Therefore, for the next two weeks, I am going to look at John Calvin as a political thinker. [1]

John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-1564), was a Frenchman who spent most of his professional life in Switzerland, deeply influencing both the Reformed areas of Switzerland and the thinking of intellectuals all over Europe. His major work, Institutes of the Christian Religion was first published in 1536, and was revised and enlarged until shortly before his death. [2] Originally trained as a lawyer, Calvin became a Protestant in 1530. Forced to flee France, he ended up in Geneva, Switzerland, where he remained for the rest of his life, except for a short time of exile. He never became a priest or ordained cleric.

Upon his return from exile in 1541, Calvin embarked upon an amazing career, preaching, teaching, educating pastors from all over Europe (including the founder of the Presbyterian form of government, John Knox), instituting reform of the doctrine and practice of the Genevan churches, and reforming the life and morals of the city. During his lifetime, he reorganized the doctrine and liturgy of the Genevan church, wrote the Genevan Catechism, created a psalter and wrote hymns, wrote commentaries of most of the Bible, and created a school in Geneva that influenced all of Europe. While never a political leader of Geneva, he influenced the leadership of the city in many ways. 

Consistent with the idea that actions invoke reactions, Calvin faced substantial opposition to his ideas. A group referred to as the “Libertines,” consisting of some of the wealthiest families in Geneva, opposed his moral and political innovations. This opposition, sometimes in the majority, continued for most of Calvin’s ministry.

The most famous and difficult of Calvin’s political involvements in Geneva relates to the conviction and death of Michael Servetus, a unitarian thinker condemned to death by the consistory of Geneva. Scholars differ as to whether and how seriously Calvin was involved in the death, but it is clear that he accepted the conviction and condemnation to burning at the stake. (It is important to note that the conviction of Servetus for heresy was sought not just be Genevans and Protestants, but also by Roman Catholics because of his denial of several important doctrines of the faith, most importantly, the Trinity.) This event was consistent with the practice of the day, but today we would find it horrific that a person would be executed for his religious views, however obnoxious.

In 1558, Calvin became ill with a fever that weakened him and began in a decline that ended with his death in 1564. He did not want to die before completing the last edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which he finished in 1559. He died on May 27, 1564, at the age of 59. At his own request, he was buried in an unmarked grave.

Outline of Calvin’s Political Thought

Calvin’s training was as a lawyer, and his first book was on the Roman legal thinker, Seneca. He was well read in the classics, as well as being a Biblical scholar and theologian. His classical training is evident in his views on politics. Calvin was not primarily a political theologian, but a biblical expositor and systematic theologian. It is clear, however, that Calvin was familiar with and approved the classic notion of separation of powers, and mixed government in which the common people and the aristocracy both received some kind of protections. 

Two Kingdoms. Calvin, like Martin Luther and other reformers, was a disciple of St. Augustine, and he espouses a version of the Augustine’s “Two Kingdom’s Doctrine,” just as did Luther. [3] His first defense of the Two Kingdoms idea is found near the end of his discussion of Christian freedom in order to make clear that the freedom of a Christian does not involve freedom from the supervision of the state. At the end of this section of the Institutes, he says:

Therefore, in order that none of us may stumble on that stone, let us 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 “temporal” jurisdiction (not improper terms) by which is meant that the former sort of government pertains to the life of the soul, while the latter has to do with concerns of the present life—not only with food and clothing but with laying down laws whereby man may live is life among other men holily, honorably, and temperately (3.19.15).

This is important for understanding Calvin. Many of his detractors and admirers, left and right accuse Calvin of seeking a “theocracy.” This is an unfortunate charge, inconsistent with his fundamental view that the kingdom of God and the various kingdoms of this world are two different kinds of kingdoms. While Calvin lived before the modern notion of a secular/sacred distinction, he accepted that the rule of any existing social order (the kingdom of this world) was different from the rule of Christ (the kingdom of God). As we shall see, he did not believe that the entirety of the Old Testament law was appropriate for the Geneva of his day, but that laws were to be adapted to the necessities of the time and society in which they are enacted. While the two kingdoms were separate things, they were intertwined, and secular rulers had duties to the church and religious leaders had duties to the state.

Implications of the Fall. Some of the most important political implications of Calvin’s theology flow from his view of human nature. Calvin believed that human beings are fallen and infected with sin. As a result, in the political arena as well as other areas of life, human beings are inevitably tempted to misuse power. Both those in power and those seeking power need limitations on their ability to misuse the rights and powers given them. This is particularly true of inflamed mobs, with which Calvin was familiar. Thus, Calvin was a proponent of the kind of mixed government of checks and balances of the type exemplified in the United States Constitution.

 John Weatherspoon, a member of the Second Continental Congress and delegate to the New Jersey state convention that ratified the Constitution, was a Calvinist, Presbyterian minister and strong proponent of limited government and checks and balances. Through Witherspoon and his own reading, James Madison, the principle author of the Constitution, was also influenced to prefer a limited government with many checks and balances on the people who occupied positions of influence. At least one legal scholar has argued that the Calvinist emphasis on human limitations resulted in an attempt to create a system that would render human sin less likely to result in oppression rather than the illusory attempt to create a new human being less susceptible to sin and oppression. This is an insight that contemporary leaders might ponder.

Forms of Government. As one trained in the classics, Calvin is familiar with the division of governments into monarchies, aristocracies, and democracies. As a citizen of Geneva, he saw the importance of democratic representation, something lacking in his native Franc. Nevertheless, he recognized that the precise nature of government must be adapted to the circumstances of a particular society (4.20.8). In Calvin’s personal view, aristocracy or a government combining elements of aristocracy and democracy are the best forms of government (4.20.8).

Magistrates, Laws and Citizens. Calvin divides his discussion of Civil Government into a discussion of the duties and roles of public officials, public laws, and the citizens. In so doing, he outlines his own views of government (4.20.3). Although the majority of his analysis deals with the powers and responsibilities of magistrates, he has important things to say about laws and the duties of citizens. This week, I will deal with the powers of public officials. Next week, I will deal with law and the duties of citizens.

Magistrates. In Calvin’s view, public officials have their offices as part of a mandate from God for the coordination and ordering of human life (4.20.4). They are God’s representatives and have therefore a duty to steward the powers and responsibilities they have been given and for such stewardship they will be responsible (4.20.5). As stewards, they are to be prudent, gentle, self-controlled, diligent, and benevolent servants of God (4.20.5). As stewards of responsibilities and powers given by God, they are not to ignore the fact that sound government rests upon spiritual and moral foundations that are beyond the power of magistrates to ignore (4.20.9). [4]

Magistrates possess the power of coercion and are responsible for its wise and restrained use (4.20.7). In point of fact, public officials cannot perform their important functions without the power of conversion, which must be used wisely, but used nonetheless:

But since they cannot perform this unless they defend good men from the wrongs of the wicked, and give aid and protection to the oppressed, they have also been armed with power with which severely to coerce the open malefactors and criminals by whose wickedness the public peace is troubled or disturbed (4.20.9).

Private citizens cannot object to this power for public officials are responsible for the orderly and just administration of justice and the public peace. (4.20.10).

The power to protect the public peace extends to the power to wage war:

For if power has been given them to preserve the tranquility of their dominions, to restrain the seditious stirrings of restless men, to help those forcibly oppressed, to punish evil deeds—can they use it more opportunely than to check the fury of one how disturbs both the repose of private individuals and the common tranquility of all…? (4.20.11).

Notwithstanding the need for war, magistrates are responsible to wage war in a human and restrained way (4.20.12). In particular, in waging war, leaders must not give way to their passions in such a way as to act unjustly (4.20.12). [5] Thus, Calvin says:

But it is the duty of all magistrates here to guard particularly against giving vent to their passions even in the slightest degree. Rather, if they have to punish, let them not be carried away with headlong anger, or be seized with hatred or burn with implacable severity. … Or if they must arm themselves against the enemy, that is, the armed robber, let them not lightly seek occasion to do so; indeed, let them not accept the occasion with offered, unless they are driven to it by extreme necessity (4.20.12).

In reaching this conclusion, Calvin warns that if even pagans (Cicero) knew that war should not be entered into except with a view towards peace, then Christian rulers should use arms as a last resort (4.20.12).

Finally, Calvin deals with the right of public officials to exact taxes and duties to finance public life. While public officials must be prudent and self-controlled, they are still empowered to perform certain important tasks, and as such they must be able to finance them (4.20.13). They should, however, always remember that the public treasury is not their private chest to raid at will, but the treasury of the people for which they are stewards (4.20.13). This does not mean that public officials do not have expenses and outlays that would not be available to private citizens (4.20.13). The magnificence of a government will be reflected in public expenditures. However, when public officials waste the public treasury or live in excessive luxury, they are no longer good stewards of the wealth that has been entrusted to them for the public good. 


As in so many areas, Calvin is a mediator. In theology he sought a middle position between Roman Catholicism of his day and the radical reformers. The same is true in his political theology. He seeks a middle ground between the proponents of the “Radical Reformation” with their idealistic and other-worldly proposals and no reformation of public life at all. His version of the Two Kingdom’s doctrine is less absolute than Luther’s and includes a duty of public officials to improve the lot of citizens. He was inclined to view the church as gradually improving human society in such a way that the church and institutions influenced by the church would gradually bring into being the Kingdom of God. In this sense, he might be termed a “Post-Millennial” political thinker.

Calvin does believe that the Gospel has implications for public life, but does not believe that the freedom Christians enjoy in their spiritual relationship with God extends to an unworkable freedom from legitimate government. Next week, we will look at the role of law in public life and then at the duties of citizens to obey legitimate government and explore the way in which Calvin’s ideas also legitimate opposition to tyranny.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] For readers who would like a deep dive into Calvin as a Political theologian, Matthew J. Tuninga, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church: Christ’s Two Kingdoms (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[2] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion Volumes 1 & 2, ed. John McNeill. trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960). All quotations are from this version of the Institutes in the form: book.chapter.section).

[3] The legal scholar is Marc Hamilton. See, “The Calvinist Roots of American Social Order: Calvin, Witherspoon, and Madison” in The Journal of the Witherspoon Institute (April 13, 2017), downloaded March 7, 2021, at

[4] One of the most important gifts of Calvinism was an insistence found in Calvin and his interpreters that sound government rested on a foundation of personal morality. By the time of the American Revolution, via the preaching of pastors influenced by Calvin, it had become common place to believe that any democracy fundamentally rests on the virtue and morality of the citizens of the nation. Once again, contemporary Americans might ponder this insight.

[5] I have written elsewhere of the what might be called, “Just War Pacifism,” which I find in other religious traditions, for example Taoism. The idea, which Calvin seems to accept is that, while war is a permanent feature of human experience, it is also an evil to be avoided if at all possible. See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love rev. ed. (Cordova, TN: Booksurge, 2016).

A Quantum Influenced Approach to Leadership

Last week, I posted a blog on humility in leadership. This week, I want to explore another area of leadership–what modern physics might teach us. One of factors that underlies the struggles we face in many areas, including leadership, discipleship, and government has to do with the fundamental outlooks on reality that sit behind many of our social and institutional problems.

From Machine to Organism

What is sometimes called the Newtonian world view encourages a view of the world and human beings as essentially machines. There is force and there is matter. Originally, the founders of this world view placed God, in whom they believed, in the position of a Transcendental Watch Maker. God designed the watch. Then, God built the watch. God then left the watch to run itself. Famously, one of the proponents of the world view indicated that if he could no the position of every particle in the universe and the forces on it, the future could be mathematically calculated. No one believes this is true any more.

A Quantum world view encourages us to the the world as more like an organism than a machine. At a fundamental level, the world does not seem to consist of matter and energy. Matter is a form of energy. Even more mysteriously, fundamental particles seem to be ripples on a quantum field. There is both freedom and uncertainty in the emerging world view on both a fundamental level (quantum uncertainty) and everyday level (chaos theory).

Like and organism, the world is constantly changing and evolving: In other words, it is not at all like a watch that is designed once and for all,  built and then runs until it breaks. Instead the world  is constantly evolving in a creative process.

God, on this view, is no distant Divine Architect. God is a loving and wise participant in the ongoing process of an evolving universe. We are not fixed and determined creatures either. Human beings and human society are constantly changing over the course of our lives.

From Determinism to Freedom

As mentioned earlier, the world of Newton was a material world held together by forces. While the everyday world we observe and inhabit does have these kinds of qualities, and the impact of power and force cannot be underestimated in human organizations, underneath this world is a vast world of potentiality and freedom. It is also not “material” in any sense of the word. There is both freedom and order built into the universe. The world, human beings, and human organizations are characterized by both a level of determinism and of freedom. (Or, as I like to put it, I cannot be a professional basketball player, but I can get into shape and play a reasonable game of golf!). We do not have complete freedom in how to organize our lives or our social systems, but we do have freedom.

In addition, this freedom and immateriality that characterizes the subatomic world also characterizes our minds, which seem to operate something like a “quantum computer.” Moreover, the laws of mathematics and physics encourage us to understand that their is “noetic” world of mathematics and physical laws that exist outside of our minds and can be discovered and used by human beings. It is only a short jump from this notion to the notion that the world somehow prefers beauty, truth, goodness, justice and love. We live in a world that has ideal, moral, aesthetic, and ethical potential just as we live in a world with physical potential.

Application to Leadership

I have only a cursory understanding of quantum physics and of the other matters that I have briefly described above, but as a pastor and leader, I have tried to read some of the literature and adapt my teaching and leading to what a lay-person, with no real technical understanding can learn from those with such talents who write for lay-persons.

One night alone in my office pondering a particularly difficult and unpleasant decision, I wrote down the following as a way of guiding my thoughts:

  1. Every leader of an existing organization inherits the organization in an “initial state.” That initial state is comprised of every decision and action taken in the history of that organization and the complex organization that has emerged from that past. The entire past of an organization, the actualized facts of its prior existence, both create opportunities and limitations. Wise leaders do not make decisions or take actions radically unconnected to the past history and tradition of the organization. This is the “Principle of Evolutionary Historicity.”
  2. Past actions and decisions have consequences and provide both opportunities and restrictions on the future, and therefore, on what kind of decisions can or should be made. A wise leader attempts to understand as much of the past as possible, and especially that past which directly or indirectly opens up or limits the potential future. Even in a new organization, there are limits on the future and on the decisions and actions leaders can prudently  take. Humble and wise leaders do not attempt the impossible.  This is the “Principle of Organizational Opportunities and Limits.”
  3. A leader’s decisions or actions are not the only factors controlling the future of an organization. Organizations exist within a complex and interrelated political, social, and economic environment. All decisions and actions by all of the participants in any such complex system impact the future state of an organization or the impact  of an action. The decisions of others in the organization, leaders of related organizations, and a multitude of others can and will impact the future. These factors often dictate the most prudent future route for the organization, and counsel against radical action. This is the “Principle of Opportunities and Limits.”
  4. The future state of an organization involves chance (multiple possible futures and unforeseen events), necessity (those things that are structurally certain or nearly certain to happen), and the relational wholeness the leader intends to achieve (the goal of the leader). Because trhe future is and will be impacted by events over which a leader and organization have little or no control, things over which leaders have control, and the quality of our intentions and actions, there is always uncertainty in decision-making. This is the “Principle of Determinacy and Indeterminacy.”
  5. The potential for organizational wholeness and health is the area in which leaders can make the biggest impact in the organizations they lead. Good leaders inject wisdom, self-giving love (Agape), and peace (Shalom) into the organizations they lead. This is the “Principle of Positive Energy.”  There is a reverse possibility. Leaders that do not care for all participants and act unwisely and unlovingly, causing conflict and chaos inject negative energy into the organization causing decline This is the “Principle of Negative Energy.”
  6. Almost inevitably there are many potential outcomes to a decision or action (i.e., more than one potential future state of the organization). Seldom is there only one positive final state. Often there are many potential positive and negative outcomes. A good leader evaluates as many potential outcomes as possible before choosing a course of action. Of all possible outcomes, good leaders choose that outcome that has the greatest potential to maximize the adaptation of the organization to its environment over the relevant time period. This is the “Principle of Realistic Maximization.”
  7. As indicated above, good leaders inject positive energy (physical, mental, emotional, moral, and spiritual) into an organization as they make decisions, deploy resources, and guide the organization into the future. Positive energy is injected by the decisions made among available options, the character of the leader, and the actions taken. Wise leaders love the organization they lead, care deeply about all the persons and stakeholders of the organization, and wisely seek to see that the health of the organization as a whole is enhanced by any decision or action. Bad leaders can inject negative energy into the organization, which always results in future problems. IN making choices, good leaders choose to encourage factors that are positive for the group. This might be called the “Principle of Leadership Energy Prehension.” [1]
  8. Good leaders also identify and reject negative factors within and without the organization in making decisions. What is rejected as a potential action, decision, or future is just as important as what is decided and done. One duty of a leader is to minimize future negative factors in making any decision. This might be called the “Principle of Negative Leadership Prehension.”
  9. Because each new state of an organization will ultimately degenerate, leaders must constantly inject positive energy, in the form of wise and loving actions and decisions, into the organization in order to prevent decay. This means that leaders must maintain their own level of positive energy, and place limitations on their activities in order to assure that they can continue to function positively. Wise leaders retire from leadership when they can no longer do this. This is the “Principle of Positive Energy Reserve and Limits.”
  10. In order to function positively, leaders need to learn to meditate about problems bringing into consciousness as many of the decisions, facts, relationships, personalities, historic traditions, past actions, systematic responses, and other factors in the organization’s history as possible. One technique is to create a “Mental Matrix” of all the people, organizations, and social systems impacted by a decision or action to. Be taken and the likely response of other actors to the decision or action. This is the “Principle of Meditative Matrix Decision-making.”

Why Think About This?

At the very beginning of the series of blogs I have been writing on political philosophy and theology, I quoted a physicist on the proposition that many if not most people in positions of authority in the church, in private organizations, in government, and in business hold to an outdated world view that underestimates the inter-relatedness of things and the impact of human decisions. He ends saying,

As a consequence of this widely disseminated misinformation, “well informed” officials, administrators, legislators, judges, educators, and medical professionals who guide the development of our society are encouraged to shape our lives in ways predicated on known-to-be-false premises about “nature and nature’s laws”. [2]

I am convinced that the author is correct in these views. In this blog I have tried to seek a means by which leaders can productively use the insights of postmodern science to improve  decision- making and encourage leaders to a better form of decision-making. In the political sphere, which I have been examining recently, leaders need to adopt a strategy for leading our nation that avoids both the polarization and materialistic bias of many current leaders and policies. A more humble, historically and systematic sensitivity would go a long way towards improving both our political climate and the quality of decision-making by our leaders.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] I have used the term “prehension” from the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead instead of “decoherence” which is he actual term for the creation of a final state of a quantum system. My reason has to do with clarity. Whitehead uses the term “prehension” for the way in which an actual occasion incorporates or rejects potential influences in the emergence of an occasion. I think this is clearer. See, A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York, NY: Free Press, 1978).

[2] Henry P. Stapp, “Whitehead, James, and the Ontology of Quantum Theory” Mind & Matter Vol. 5(1) (2007 imprint), at 85.