Gratitude for Government: Calvin contra Contempt for Civil Authority

In Calvin's estimation, the Christian life is properly one of constant gratitude. Gratitude bears fruit in holiness -- we can and should say "thank you" to God with our lives as well as our lips. The root of gratitude is constant and careful attention to God's remarkable gifts to us in spite of our creaturely finitude and culpability both for Adam's sin and our own. God's greatest gift to us, of course, is Jesus Christ, to whom we are joined by the power of the Spirit as the basis of our forgiveness, renewal in the divine image, and restoration to fellowship with the Triune God. But God has given other gifts to us -- gifts that are common to believers and unbelievers alike, but should no less be noted and appreciated.

Government is one such gift. Any reflection upon civil government which does not ultimately lead to gratitude (and therefore greater holiness) is faulty by Calvin's standard. Thus he introduces the subject of human government in his Institutes by observing: "It is of no slight importance to us to know how lovingly God has provided in this respect for mankind, that greater zeal for piety may flourish in us to attest our gratefulness."

It is, importantly, not government in abstracto that should lead us to "gratefulness" but government in concreto. To put a finer edge on this point: it is this government -- this president, this congress, this parliament, this prime minister, this monarch, this mayor, etc. -- that should properly catapult us into a posture of prayerful gratitude before God. Calvin has little interest, in fact, in government in the abstract. Thus he dismisses debates/conversations about the "best kind of government" (whether monarchy, oligarchy, or democracy) as an "idle pastime" for persons who have no real influence upon the particular form of government where they live. He proceeds, ironically, to spend some time considering the advantages and disadvantages (and there are both) of each "kind" of government, but concludes the matter by highlighting the superfluity of even his own words: "All these things are needlessly spoken to those for whom the will of the Lord is enough. For if it has seemed good to him to set kings over kingdoms, senates or municipal officers over free cities, it is our duty to show ourselves compliant and obedient to whomever he sets over the places where we live" (emphasis mine). What really matters, in other words, is not what government would be best, but what government you've been given. That is the government to which you must submit; that, by the same token, is the government for which you should offer thanks, with both your lips and your life, to God.

Why should government inspire gratitude in us? Most obviously, of course, there is (or are) the benefits that accrue to us from the existence of government per se. These benefits pertain to the individual, the family, and the Christian church. Government preserves the "public peace" and "provides that each man may keep his property safe and sound." Countless families will sit down this evening to sup together in relative safety because their governments -- by virtue of exact laws enacted and enforced -- safeguard that privilege and joy. Government, moreover, prevents "public offenses against religion," and so -- without assuming any functions of the church -- creates safe space for the church to be the church. Countless ecclesiastical families will sit down to hear God's Word proclaimed and (ideally) to Sup Together this Sunday in relative safety because their specific governments -- by virtue of exact laws enacted and enforced -- safeguard that privilege and joy. Therein lies cause for gratitude.

There is further cause for gratitude in recognizing the giftedness which permits sinful human beings to devise, implement, and perfect government per se. Fallen human beings, in Calvin's understanding, make poor work of discerning anything true about God and his ways (apart from special revelation and saving grace). But they manage remarkably well, in his view, when they devote themselves to such human subjects and endeavors as "government, household management, all mechanical skills, and the liberal arts." Devising and implementing good government, then, is not a matter of poring over Scripture to discover a blueprint for some specific form of government or specific laws and penalties, but one of putting to good use "universal impressions" that "exist in all men's minds" of "a certain civic fair dealing and order," and constructing specific laws on the basis of that natural law which God has imprinted on every human heart.

Those who would insist upon discovering a biblical model of government and its laws are, in Calvin's words, both seditious (turbulentus) and stupid (stolidus). More to the point here, they fail to properly appreciate the gifts which God has given even (or especially) to unbelievers, gifts which allow unbelievers to craft good governments. Thus they fail to properly appreciate the giver of all good gifts. "We ought not to forget," Calvin writes, "those most excellent benefits of the divine Spirit, which he distributes to whomever he will, for the common good of mankind." Indeed "if we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth" -- including truth about good governmental theory and practice -- "we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God" (emphasis mine). These comments from Calvin's Institutes form the proper backdrop for understanding Calvin's claim in his Genesis commentary that "astronomy, ...philosophy, medicine, and the order of civil government" are sciences which have been perfected not, principally, by Christians, but by "the heathen" on the basis of those "excellent gifts of the Spirit [which have been] diffused through the whole human race." In sum, then, recognizing mankind's capabilities to create and carry on good governments, however diverse those governments might be in specific form, is a matter of admiring and giving thanks to God for "the riches of his favor which he has bestowed" on mankind in toto.

Calvin is not naïve. He's well aware that governments are prone to abuse the power they've been providentially given. Such abuse never provides license for private citizens to actively resist or disobey government. Christians must, of course, obey God rather than man when God and man impose contradictory obligations. Such obedience to God might create martyrs; it should never create militia with revolutionary aims. But Calvin provides no avenue of escape from governmental orders which do not directly contradict divine mandates. If a government orders its citizens to walk on one foot for one hour per day, Christian citizens will hop to it. If legally imposed "tributes and taxes" -- the "lawful revenue of princes" -- become a form of (supposed) "tyrannical extortion," Christians citizens will continue to ante up.

The simple fact that lawful authority can be abused serves as a sufficient reminder that gratitude is not the only legitimate sentiment that civil government might properly inspire in her subjects. But, if Calvin is right, it should be one such sentiment, perhaps even the most dominant one. Moreover, whatever other sentiments gratitude might properly make peace with in our posture towards the government(s) we find ourselves living under, I seriously doubt that contempt is one of them. I suspect that many of us need some reproving on this score.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.