A couple of weeks ago, while speaking to a fellow student, I mentioned the presentation on John Calvin I am preparing and asked him whether he had ever heard about Calvin. He replied that as a student of history of course he would know about Calvin’s historical importance. In this context, he mainly associated this name with Switzerland and, more specifically, with the Reformation and Calvinism. In other words, he primarily linked the name to a religious topic. My fellow student’s answer was not wrong, but the question is: can John Calvin be simply reduced to his influence on religious matters?
John Calvin (French: Jean Cauvin) was born in 1509 in Noyon, in northern France. During his childhood he was influenced by the Roman Catholic Church. In that regard, he would regularly take part in processions and revere relics. During his religious upbringing, Calvin attended the local cathedral school where he learned the basics of Latin. Later, in 1523, his father sent him to Paris where he was to continue his education. Initially, Calvin studied at the Collège de la Marche. However, after a few months he changed to the Collège de Montaigu where he graduated as Magister Artium. Although his father originally had planned to have his son educated in theology, he decided that Calvin should study law. After having finished his study of law in Orléans and Bourges in 1532, he returned to Paris in order to deepen his humanist studies. There, he turned to the Reformation. Later, ín 1535, he left France for Basel, after many Protestants had been executed as a result of the Affair of the Placards, which was an anti-Catholic incident. While on a sojourn in Geneva, Calvin was contacted by Guillaume Farel. He asked for Calvin’s help to enforce the Reformation in Geneva. In 1536, he published a “Confession de la Foy” together with Farel.
In this work it is stated that the rule of monarchs as well as that of officials and magistrates is in line with God’s will. Furthermore, they claimed that rulers are God’s assistants and representatives on earth which have to safeguard the community and the people. As for the people, they are supposed to be obedient to their rulers, as long as their measures are compatible with their religious beliefs. This indicates that, according to Calvin’s ideas, ordinary people, nevertheless, should reject secular laws that contradict God’s law. Yet, this can only be applied to a specific law which means that Calvin did not advocate a general right of resistance against the state as a whole. Otherwise, they were not to interfere in politics.
Now the question is how John Calvin imagined a state. In his opinion, the origin of states can be traced to a divine plan but also to the inherent potential of human beings. In this instance, it is recognizable that he also incorporated ancient ideas in his philosophy. In this context, Aristotle, Plato and Cicero can be mentioned as well. Still, religious argumentation is prevalent. Hence, in Calvin’s opinion, the purpose of a state is to make sure that God is worshipped by the people since, after the Fall of Man, mankind became tainted. Only secondary to this point is the regulation of human communal life. In regards to a program of a government, Calvin used the Bible as a source for his ideas. In political terms, ancient Israel was interesting to him. An example would be the rule of judges. This directly leads to Calvin’s views of how a state can be ruled. He differentiated between three possible systems, namely popular government, monarchy and aristocracy. The latter means “rule of the best” and corresponds to the rule of judges. Calvin said that all these systems have inherent flaws. Therefore, he favoured an attenuated form of aristocracy. This means he recommended a system in which several capable people are in charge for a limited amount of time. Calvinism is sometimes considered to be a movement that has been promotive towards the development of democracy, in its modern sense.
Admittedly, this thought is disputed and often denied by historians. In his 2011 paper “Calvin und die Demokratie”, historian Michael Beintker holds the opinion that Calvin was not a democrat, but he states that his ideas resemble rudiments of democracy. Beintker further elaborates that it is possible to say that in the course of the emergence of democracies in North America and Europe conditions were created which were in line with Calvin’s ideas.
An example would be John Calvin’s advocacy for the separation of secular and spiritual affairs in terms of the jurisdiction each branch is assigned. What does that mean? The community is to be guarded with political or secular means. In other words, violence can be used in order to maintain order and to defend the community against foreign enemies. While politics is concerned with law and its observance, the church is responsible for the human soul and has to refrain from violence. Therefore, ecclesiastical influence is restricted to the proclamation of the gospel and the administration within the church. Still, according to Calvin, secular and religious influences both have their raison d’être since in the end both can be traced back to God’s power. Thus, political power would be exercised by people who ultimately fulfill God’s work. In such a context, it is disputed whether one can apply the term “doctrine of the two kingdoms” to Calvin’s conception of the relationship between state and church. Calvin also took a stand for the equal status of all people in front of the secular law. On a related note, he advocated freedom. This, inter alia, means that people should be free from a monarch’s despotism. Such an inherent flaw of a monarchy is to be counteracted by the delegates of the estates. Another example would be Calvin’s idea of how the church as an institution can be organised. He envisioned decentralised structures and no strict hierarchy. Furthermore, elections were to be hold.
Consequently, John Calvin’s field of research is not restricted to him having been a reformer. Having studied law, he developed his own imagination of a state which was, albeit, affected by the Bible. His advocacy for the separation of secular and spiritual authority is one aspect that matches basic aspects of modern states, if we study his theory applied to the Western experience. These two jurisdictions were, however, not clear-cut. What can also be considered a modern conception, is the equal treatment of all people in front of the secular law. The freedom of people from a monarch’s despotism and the democratic-seeming, decentralised organisation of the church are two additional examples. Nevertheless, as stated above, John Calvin probably did not influence the birth of democracies in North America or Europe. Still, he had progressive ideas for his time and this underlines his historical importance.
Beintker, Michael: Calvin und die Demokratie, in Hofheinz, Marco/Lienemann, Wolfgang/Sallmann, Martin (eds.): Calvins Erben. Beiträge zur Wirkungsgeschichte Johann Calvins, Göttingen (et al.) 2011, pp. 360-374.
Bildheim, Stefan: Calvinistische Staatstheorien. Historische Fallstudien zur Präsenz monarchomachischer Denkstrukturen im Mitteleuropa der Frühen Neuzeit, Frankfurt am Main 2001.
Bohn, Jochen: Der Mensch im calvinischen Staat. Göttliche Weltordnung und politischer Beruf, Bonn 1995.
Britz, Dolf: Politik und soziales Leben, in Selderhuis, Herman (ed.): Calvin Handbuch, Tübingen 2008, pp. 431-442.
Rohloff, Reiner: Johannes Calvin. Leben, Werk, Wirkung, Göttingen (et al.) 2011.
Scholl, Hans: Der Geist der Gesetze – Die politische Dimension der Theologie Calvins dargestellt besonders an seiner Auseinandersetzung mit den Täufern, in Opitz, Peter (ed.): Calvin im Kontext der Schweizer Reformation. Historische und theologische Beiträge zur Calvinforschung, Zürich 2003, pp. 93-125.
Vahle, Hermann: Calvinismus und Demokratie im Spiegel der Forschung, in Selderhuis, Herman J. (ed.): Johannes Calvin. Neue Wege der Forschung, Darmstadt 2010, pp. 203- 232.