Blog 241: 4.20.8 - 4.20.11

Paul Helm

Calvin here shows two things - his concern about the dangers of tyrannical government, and also his apparently relaxed attitude regarding forms of political government. You may say that he derives the possible forms from the ancient world, but in fact as a matter of logic there are only thee - rule by a king, by a few, or by all. Calvin rules out rule by everyone. (Note that in these remarks about government, and those that follow, he is concerned to avoid any suggestion of sympathy with the excesses of the left wing of the Reformation.) About government, provided that it is not 'popular', he is somewhat contextual in his approach. Different cultures find themselves with different forms of government, and there is nothing wrong with that. Yet he reasons in favour of an aristocracy, and some of what he says seems at places to foreshadow the more formal arrangement of 'checks and balances' that is characteristic of eighteenth-century government in the United States, Great Britain and elsewhere. 'Therefore, men's fault or failing causes it to be safer and more bearable for a number to exercise government, so that they may help one another, teach and admonish one another; and, if one asserts himself unfairly, there may be a number of censors and masters to restrain his willfulness'. (1493-4)

It would be wrong to think that Calvin's references to 'freedom' herald that of modern democratic society. For there are clear limits to freedom of expression and of worship.