Calvins Unique Theocracy

Calvins Unique Theocracy When we think of a theocracy, we usually think of a political system, governed and legislated by a religious body with religious beliefs. For the most part this is true. Historically, theocratic governments have successfully existed throughout the world, from ancient Egypt to modern Middle-Eastern Islamic states. For centuries even the Christian Church enjoyed a theocratic diversity which encompassed most of the civilized world. As well, the unprecedented spread of Islam has seeded new theocracies at a tremendous rate. Most theocratic governments had one thing in common, however; their political ideologies did not just originate from the church, they were the church.

Church leaders were the political leaders. Typically, a strong theocracy was one with a superior church hierarchy in which the political system was deeply entrenched. But not all theocratic structures were intended to be this way. In Chapter XX of his masterpiece The Institutes on Christian Piety, John Calvin logically outlined his view of a theocracy. Consistent with his scripture-based reasoning, Calvin eloquently described how civil and ecclesiastical governments were different, yet uniquely related.

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In his classic reformation style, Calvin metaphorically compared Catholic to Protestant theology by framing his theocracy not on the church as the government, but rather he separated civil government from spiritual government into a divinely ordained, segregated Protestant theocracy. Subtlety expressed and masterfully executed, Chapter XX is dripping with figurative language, suggesting that Calvin went to great lengths to insure that his distaste for the Catholic papacy would not go unnoticed. The first third of Chapter XX concentrates on the duties and responsibilities of the magistrate. This after two opening sections which clearly divide government into two parts, and then claim these parts not to be antithetical. Indeed such a preamble is necessary since the remainder of the document is to be a separation, yet cross-self-reliance on these parts. Calvin made no attempt to separate local, regional, or national magistracy.

In fact, most of the scripture references are Old Testament passages which refer to either the kings of Judah, or other post-king patriarchs. The main focus on the magistrate “is that they have a mandate from God, have been invested with divine authority, and are wholly Gods representatives.” In addition, God has “entrusted to them” the authority “of exercising judgement not for man but for God.” This sounds very theocratic. However, no where did Calvin mention the source of this divine position to be the church. Rather he asserted, quoting Psalms 2:12, that the magistrate should “kiss the Son of God” yet not lay aside their authority. With this he follows, “By these words he entrusts the condition of the church to their protection and care.” Calvin clearly separates the church from directly engaging in the politics related to the office of the magistrate.

By assigning to the church the responsibility of caring for the magistrate, Calvin allows the church to be associated with government while not actually becoming part of the government, as his Catholic adversaries did. Beyond divine appointment, however, Calvin also outlines the duties of the magistrate in a way which uniquely joins the government to God. Calvin continued his blend of civil and spiritual government through a discourse on the duties of the magistrate, issues of war, and the levying of taxes. On the duties of the magistrate, for example, he returns to the question of divine appointment. “And that their sole endeavor” Calvin asserts “should be to provide for the common safety and peace of all.” Continuing, he states that, “in administering punishment, [the magistrate] does nothing by himself, but carries out the very judgements of God .” In this, Calvin begins to solidify his argument concerning the divine nature of the magistracy.

It is no coincidence, however, that he includes no reference which joins the magistrate to the corporate church. Supported by additional references to Old Testament kings, Calvin implies that it is inappropriate for the magistrate to be a church leader, in that King David, for example, had priests dedicated to occupying those positions. On the topic of war, Calvin makes his position crystal clear. “But kings and people” Calvin states, “must sometimes take up arms to execute such public vengeance.” Calvin views war as a “lawful” undertaking, as long as the magistrate follows some fundamental Godly guidelines, namely restraint and humanity. On restraint, Calvin warns the magistrate against, “giving vent to their passions, even in the slightest degree, not giving in to headlong anger, or be[ing] seized with hatred.” In a continuing effort to weave into his discourse his dislike for the papacy, Calvin follows with a reference to, “the heathen philosopher” who attempts to wage war prematurely, rather than trying everything else first.

War, for Calvin, is a final recourse. The only philosophers Calvin had in view were those philosophers of religion which embodied Catholic theocracies. With respect to levying tribute, Calvin pulls an unusual shift which is very inconsistent with his frequently repeated emphasis on humble living. Calvin asserts that the government has the God given authority to lay and collect taxes. This comes as no surprise, considering the abundant scripture which supports such a claim.

What is quite astonishing though, is his use of the Old Testament Prophets and Kings as, “portrayals of the spiritual Kingdom of Christ.” Calvin frequently describes these kings, especially King David, as metaphorical types of Christ, or perhaps even figures of the New Testament church. This symbolism, however, is always within the strict context of Christian piety, and never ventures into the arena of personal, worldly satisfaction. Yet this section gives allowance for the magistracy to live lavishly, since, “he seeks the pattern for a picture from a lawful human kingdom.” Calvin then justifies his opinion by implying that a rulers only possessions are those which came from the people. “Their revenues are not so much their private chests as the treasuries of the entire people.” This is, of course, in sharp contrast to the generously lined bursaries of the papacythose repositories exclusively owned by the Catholic church. Calvin next shifts to issues of law, including its correct and incorrect usage, and the application of this law within his uniquely framed theocracy.

He begins buy distinguishing law as moral, ceremonial, and judicial. Moral law is twofold, “which commands us to worship God with pure faith and piety, [and] to embrace men with sincere affection.” Ceremonial law was, “the tutelage of the Jews . . . and show[ed] the truth of those things which then were foreshadowed in figures.” The judicial law, “impart …


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