Blog 244: 4.20.27 - 4.20.32

Paul Helm

Calvin's sensitivity to the different circumstances in which people live lead him to flip-flop, or at least to be somewhat ambivalent in his attitude to the magistrate. Citing the case of Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 27), Scripture requires obedience to bad kings, and even to pray for the well being of the country of exile (Jer.29). No doubt Calvin has his own city of exile, Geneva, in mind.  But should not rulers, who also have responsibilities, be kept on track? Yes, but not by ourselves, but by Almighty God.  This leads to discussion of the vexed question of civil disobedience. Calvin is strongly in favour of civil compliance, no doubt with the Peasants Wars and Munster in the back of his mind. But yet....the Lord sometime raises up avengers....'Let the princes hear and be afraid'.

What of those of his readers who are not princes, 'private individuals'? To them no command 'has been given been given except to obey and suffer...' (1518) There are two further checks upon a wicked ruler, however. First, if there are magistrates of the people, senates and parliaments, they are appointed to restrain kingly misrule. 'I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk...they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God's ordinance'. (4.20.31) Secondly, however wicked the prince to whom obedience is due, we are not to obey men rather than God. If rulers command anything against the King of Kings, 'let it go unesteemed'. Let the ordinary folk beware of false modesty. Their courage must not grow faint. On this rather ominous note Calvin brings his great work, the Institutes, to a close.

God be praised.