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John Calvin and Holy Resistance

John Calvin does not always receive the best press outside of Reformed circles. He is often portrayed as an archconservative and an ideological father of capitalism. Most recently, the topic of Calvinism returned to mainstream debate when Betsy DeVos was nominated Secretary of Education by Donald Trump. As a Politico report in January 2017 demonstrated, journalists were quick to associate DeVos’ political conservatism with the Calvinism of the Christian Reformed Church denomination. This association is also situated within a larger move to reduce Calvin to Max Weber’s thesis in The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism which showed Calvinism’s contribution to capitalist ethics and economic success.

What if there is actually more to Calvin’s thought than these one-dimensional associations?

In this view, Calvin is not only associated with DeVos’ educational policies but also with Trump’s persona of being a successful businessman. Yet, even if there are historical links between Calvinism and the rise of capitalism, what if there is actually more to Calvin’s thought than these one-dimensional associations? What if John Calvin’s thought is also a potential source for radical political resistance?

It is easy to skip the preface. I have typically flipped over the preface while reading Calvin’s Institutes. Yet, in his book Political Grace, theologian Roland Boer highlights an intriguing passage in the preface that has stuck with me. I read it, re-read it in conjunction with the very end of the Institutes, and it gave me an entirely new impression of Calvin. Here is the passage:

So that no one may think we are wrongly complaining of these things, you can be our witness, most noble King, with how many lying slanders it is daily traduced in your presence. It is as if this doctrine looked to no other end than to wrest the scepters from the hands of kings, to cast down all courts and judgements, to subvert all orders and civil governments, to disrupt the peace and quiet of the people, to abolish all laws, to scatter all lordships and possessions—in short, to turn everything upside down! (Prefatory Address to King Francis I of France).

Calvin is complaining to King Francis I that his doctrine (i.e. the Reformed faith) is being misconstrued by critics. He is falsely portrayed as a revolutionary. His theology is getting blamed for undermining governments and social orders. As Calvin says, the critics make it seem as if he is turning everything upside down. Of course, Calvin dismisses these charges and attempts to ingratiate himself to the king. But why did Calvin feel so compelled to shoot down these charges?

The very last section of the Institutes may provide the clues necessary to understand this perplexing preface. Up until this point in the chapter, Calvin has been talking about how God ordains rulers and how obedience is owed to them. He considers the reality of bad rulers and how the Bible prioritizes the sovereignty of God in placing and deposing them. So far, no hint of radical resistance to political authority. But at the very end of the chapter, Calvin pivots to say the following:

But in that obedience which we have shown to be due the authority of rulers, we are always to make this exception, indeed, to observe it as primary, that such obedience is never to lead us away from obedience to him, to whose will the desires of all ought to yield, to whose majesty scepters ought to be submitted.  And how absurd would it be that in satisfying men you should incur the displeasure of him for whose sake you obey men he has opened his sacred mouth, must alone be heard, before all and above all men; next to him we are subject to those men who are in authority over us, but only in him. If they command anything against him, let it go unesteemed (IV. xx. 32). 

Calvin develops an exception which he actually considers to be primary. If obedience to a king ever leads us away from God, or if the ruler commands something contrary to God, then civil disobedience is more faithful than civil obedience. And Calvin uses strong language to describe this. He talks about God’s authority, “to whose majesty scepters ought to be submitted.” This language is eerily reminiscent of the preface. There, Calvin tries to chase away accusations that, “…this doctrine looked to no other end than to wrest the scepters from the hands of kings.” Yet, the overall direction of Calvin’s theology clearly relativizes human authority and makes room for radical political resistance to the present order in allegiance to a higher order.

Throughout the Institutes, Calvin wavers and backs down from the radically democratic implications of his theology. He ends up preferring a version of aristocracy. Explaining this would require a longer series of posts. Nevertheless, his theology does relativize human rulers and create holy space for civil disobedience. This aspect of his thought can function as a powerful antidote to our contemporary political malaise.

Any president or political party, no matter how powerful and ruthless, is not above God.

Any president or political party, no matter how powerful and ruthless, is not above God. And if such a ruler asks the public to go against the core teachings of the Gospel which include the love of neighbor and this entire world, then there must be holy resistance. This is part of Calvin’s thought.

Perhaps one of the best modern examples of this legacy is found in the Barmen Declaration. Written by a group of Protestant Christians—including the Reformed theologian Karl Barth—in Germany during the rise of the Nazis, it embodies the impulses that Calvin set in motion at the very end of the Institutes:

Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.

We reject the false doctrine that the Church could and should recognize as a source of its proclamation, beyond and besides this one Word of God, yet other events, powers, historic figures and truths as God's revelation (Barmen Declaration, Article 1).

This article from Barmen relativizes any human earthly authority that gets in the way of hearing and obeying God. One can hear clear echoes of Calvin’s words when he says: “[God] has opened his sacred mouth, must alone be heard, before all and above all men; next to him we are subject to those men who are in authority over us, but only in him” (IV. xx. 32).

For some, this John Calvin who inspires holy resistance might sound entirely unfamiliar. But he is there, if you look close enough and decide to take a bold step. 

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