Some provisional thoughts from studying John Calvin’s life

  • The French Evangelicals were initially protected by Francis I against persecution from the provincial parlemonts. There was no reason at all for Calvin to associate republicanism with safety for Protestantism and monarchy with persecution of Protestantism.
  • And, in any case, Calvin had no problem respecting monarchs. The Institutes was written to Francis I, and the Bible said lots of good things about hereditary kings.
  • Nor did Calvin invent a doctrine of “interposition.” It was already there. Medieval Europeans knew how to overthrow tyrants and had done so. Frederic the Wise didn’t have Calvin to tell him he should protect Luther and he didn’t need Calvin to tell him so. He already knew he had the right and duty to resist higher magistrates when they attempted evil.
  • Calvin’s belief that local congregations should “choose” their pastors means exactly nothing about how rulers should be chosen to run a commonwealth. Oddly, people who insist that Calvin was jus divinum seem to want to also claim that his view of church polity dictated his view of how the commonwealth should be ruled. (I use quotation marks because it is not clear how the congregation was to determine its own will in calling a pastor.)
  • Historically, the idea that government should be “by consent” has never dictated democratic or republican procedures. The point is not that governments should be run by popularity contest, but that the people have the right to overthrow tyrants and establish just rulers, including new dynasties. Even Thomas Jefferson, as late as the declaration, uses the phrase to justify revolution, not the establishment of democracy as the only legitimate form of government. So Calvin’s traditional medieval belief in the right of the people with lesser magistrates to overthrow tyrants does not mean he was a father of democratic governance.
  • Ironically, France became an enemy of Protestantism because the kings had already resisted the Papacy. That success made the Pope an assett to support the pretensions of the monarchy. What would be the point of gaining concessions from the Pope to rule the French churches if the Reformation gave them back to the Bible?
  • When one is measuring Calvin’s place in the trajectory of history, one might bear in mind that, historically, the rise of representative legislatures has coincided with the extinction of resistance to civil government.

    … But as American interest in England’s “revolution principles” increased, those ideas slowly retreated into obsolescence for the most influential Englishmen. It was symptomatic of this change that Sir William Blackstone tried to explain away Locke’s fundamental assertion that “there remains… inherent in the people supreme power to remove or alter the legislative, when they find the legislative act contrary to the trust reposed in them.” However just this may be “in theory,” the jurist wrote in early editions of his Commentaries on the Law of England, “we cannot adopt it, nor argue from it, under any dispensation or government at present actually existing.” His statements reflected the effect of a century of complex change in England. Blackstone had to reconcile traditional English notions of limited government with his more modern belief that “so long … as the English constitution lasts … the power of parliament is absolute and without control. He did this, in effect, by resigning revolutionary beliefs to the purer realm of philosophy, denying that the people in real life had the right to resist a legislative power that abust its trust–denying, in effect, the notion that public officials ipso facto surrendered legal authority by violating their trust. For Blackstone and many other contemporary Englishmen, that conception had become otiose by the mid-eighteenth century. Parliament had, in effect, replaced the people as the repository of sovereignty (source).

    So it simply does not make sense to claim that preaching the right to resist is the same as preaching for government by popularly elected officers.


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