Calvin And Theocracy Teaching

When we think of a theocracy, we usually think of a political system, governed
and legislated by a religious body with religious beliefs. For the most part
this is true. Historically, theocratic governments have successfully existed
throughout the world, from ancient Egypt to modern Middle-Eastern Islamic
states. For centuries even the Christian Church enjoyed a theocratic diversity
which encompassed most of the civilized world. As well, the unprecedented spread
of Islam has seeded new theocracies at a tremendous rate. Most theocratic
governments had one thing in common, however; their political ideologies did not
just originate from the church, they were the church. Church leaders were the
political leaders. Typically, a strong theocracy was one with a superior church
hierarchy in which the political system was deeply entrenched. But not all
theocratic structures were intended to be this way. In Chapter XX of his
masterpiece The Institutes on Christian Piety, John Calvin logically outlined
his view of a theocracy. Consistent with his scripture-based reasoning, Calvin
eloquently described how civil and ecclesiastical governments were different,
yet uniquely related. In his classic reformation style, Calvin metaphorically
compared Catholic to Protestant theology by framing his theocracy not on the
church as the government, but rather he separated civil government from
spiritual government into a divinely ordained, segregated Protestant theocracy.

Subtlety expressed and masterfully executed, Chapter XX is dripping with
figurative language, suggesting that Calvin went to great lengths to insure that
his distaste for the Catholic papacy would not go unnoticed. The first third of

Chapter XX concentrates on the duties and responsibilities of the magistrate.

This after two opening sections which clearly divide government into two parts,
and then claim these parts not to be antithetical. Indeed such a preamble is
necessary since the remainder of the document is to be a separation, yet
cross-self-reliance on these parts. Calvin made no attempt to separate local,
regional, or national magistracy. In fact, most of the scripture references are

Old Testament passages which refer to either the kings of Judah, or other
post-king patriarchs. The main focus on the magistrate "is that they have a
mandate from God, have been invested with divine authority, and are wholly

God’s representatives." In addition, God has "entrusted to them" the
authority "of exercising judgement not for man but for God." This sounds
very theocratic. However, no where did Calvin mention the source of this divine
position to be the church. Rather he asserted, quoting Psalms 2:12, that the
magistrate should "kiss the Son of God" yet not lay aside their authority.

With this he follows, "By these words he entrusts the condition of the church
to their protection and care." Calvin clearly separates the church from
directly engaging in the politics related to the office of the magistrate. By
assigning to the church the responsibility of caring for the magistrate, Calvin
allows the church to be associated with government while not actually becoming
part of the government, as his Catholic adversaries did. Beyond divine
appointment, however, Calvin also outlines the duties of the magistrate in a way
which uniquely joins the government to God. Calvin continued his blend of civil
and spiritual government through a discourse on the duties of the magistrate,
issues of war, and the levying of taxes. On the duties of the magistrate, for
example, he returns to the question of divine appointment. "And that their
sole endeavor" Calvin asserts "should be to provide for the common safety
and peace of all." Continuing, he states that, "in administering punishment,
[the magistrate] does nothing by himself, but carries out the very judgements of

God ." In this, Calvin begins to solidify his argument concerning the divine
nature of the magistracy. It is no coincidence, however, that he includes no
reference which joins the magistrate to the corporate church. Supported by
additional references to Old Testament kings, Calvin implies that it is
inappropriate for the magistrate to be a church leader, in that King David, for
example, had priests dedicated to occupying those positions. On the topic of
war, Calvin makes his position crystal clear. "But kings and people" Calvin
states, "must sometimes take up arms to execute such public vengeance."

Calvin views war as a "lawful" undertaking, as long as the magistrate
follows some fundamental Godly guidelines, namely restraint and humanity. On
restraint, Calvin warns the magistrate against, "giving vent to their
passions, even in the slightest degree, not giving in to headlong anger, or
be[ing] seized with hatred." In a continuing effort to weave into his
discourse his dislike for the papacy, Calvin follows with a reference to, "the
heathen philosopher" who attempts to