The Reading Room
The Institutes of the Christian Religion and Calvin’s Lasting Reforms
It is so common for major, innovative thinkers to suffer at the hands of their states that it is almost a trope in the history of politics and theology. Socrates was tried and executed for impiety, Aristotle was accused of impiety (but fled rather than face trial and death), Machiavelli was tortured and exiled, and the list goes on.
To this storied list, add John Calvin: first a Frenchman, then a refugee from Catholic persecution, then a Genevan resident, then expelled from Geneva during a period of theological controversy. Finally, as the colloquial moniker “Calvin’s Geneva” would suggest, an invited resident who returned to the city with well-laid plans for influential reforms.
His reforms were so effective that their effects were still being felt two hundred years later, when Rousseau, likewise an exiled Genevan, would say in his treatise on The Social Contract that Calvin was a founder and reformer of laws in the vein of Sparta’s famed Lycurgus. Those who consider Calvin only as a theologian, Rousseau argued, fail to appreciate the scale and scope of his genius. How serious Rousseau’s praise of Calvin was is debatable; Calvin’s longstanding mark on history, however, is not.
Prior to his triumphant return to Geneva, Calvin published his landmark work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. While it appeared in several forms and was revised extensively over the years, the teachings remained consistent: Calvin professed a faith he believed to be ancient and pure, uncorrupted by the man-made traditions of the Roman Catholic church. Calvin was a student in the humanist tradition, a scholar of both law and classics at the University of Paris. His classical training provided the tools necessary to read and translate the earliest writings of the Christian church. In those writings, Calvin believed he found doctrines that conflicted with those taught by the Roman Catholic Church, which claimed faithful descent from those earliest Christians and their teachings. Drawing on his Catholic background and education, quoting heavily from the Church Fathers, and condemning what he saw as Catholic heresy, Calvin laid out a system of doctrine and a plan of church and civil government that remains influential to this day in “Reformed” Protestant traditions.
In service of the Genevan reforms, Calvin spearheaded changes in the church constitution of Geneva. This constitution was completed quite quickly, two years before the city itself even had a formal constitution. The Ecclesiastical Ordinances created a church that was geographically limited in scope, which thus never developed into the system of interwoven presbyteries like the Calvinistic churches in other reforming states like Scotland. Nevertheless, the Ordinances proved influential, a model and a precedent for the basic forms of Calvinistic church government for churches throughout Europe, including in France.
The Ordinances established a four-office system of government, with offices of pastor, teacher, elder, and deacon. The election of pastors and teachers was submitted to approval by the city council of Geneva, and the teachers served a more general educational role in the civic and religious life of the city. A part of these widespread reforms was the establishment of the Academy of Geneva in 1559, where these teachers provided a free, public school that served for both general education and a seminary for French church leaders in the Reformed tradition. Here, Calvin’s constitution and reforms proved influential elsewhere in the reforming world, such as in Scotland where John Knox led efforts to establish civilly funded schools in parishes throughout the country.
But Calvin’s theology was not limited to the narrow confines of the church walls. Instead, he extended his inquiry into what we might call political theology, where the teachings of the Christian faith intersect with the practical political matters of the day. Surely someone witnessing (and arguably participating in) the use of politics to enforce orthodoxy could not neglect the topic of politics entirely, and Calvin gives it a thorough and famous treatment. Most prominently, Calvin articulates an early, limited version of what is called the “doctrine of the lesser magistrate.” This “doctrine” teaches that the authority of the civil magistrate is limited, that it is possible for a legitimate authority to perform illegitimate actions, or perhaps to eventually even functionally abdicate their legitimacy through abuse of the authority of their office.
To be clear, Calvin’s primary emphasis in his chapter on civil government, Chapter XX of the Fourth Book of his Institutes, is on the duty of submission to authorities. The authorities that exist have been established by God, so says St. Paul in the Letter to the Romans. Calvin concurs and encourages his readers to be subject to those authorities, even to many of their abuses, as God may use those abuses to their benefit. Nevertheless, Calvin argues that there are certain systems of government where subsidiary authorities are given the power to act as a check on unruly and vicious princes. These subsidiary authorities may, as parts of the civil magistrate, use their authority to resist the tyranny of even a legitimately appointed ruler.
Calvin was not the originator nor the sole defender of a doctrine of resistance, which took various forms, many much stronger than Calvin’s own. Despite this, his defense of a kind of limited check on the magistrate was surely influential on his intellectual descendants in Scottish Presbyterianism, whose own defense and practice of the right of resistance against tyranny became even more salient in the 17th century. It is in treatises such as Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex that the limits of the magistrate’s delegated authority, and the mechanism by which that authority is granted, acknowledged, and potentially revoked is given detail within the Reformed tradition that Calvin pioneered. It is in a political theological context shaped by Calvin’s Institutes that Scottish Presbyterian resistance to the crown is articulated and defended.
In other words, it is difficult to fully understand those landmark parts of early modern history, the wars of religion, the English Civil War, and even the early settling of the Massachusetts colonies by English separatists, without understanding the influence of Calvin’s political theology on the Protestant church more generally. Alongside Rousseau, contemporary educators can recommend the study of Calvin to those even outside Christianity who seek a better understanding of the political and theological controversies in background of both historical events and classic works in the study of politics.