John Calvin was a French theologian, pastor and reformer in Geneva during the Protestant Reformation. He was a principal figure in the development of the system of Christian theology later called Calvinism, including its doctrines of predestination and of God’s absolute sovereignty in the salvation of the human soul from death and eternal damnation. Calvinist doctrines were influenced by and elaborated upon the Augustinian and other Christian traditions. Various Congregational, Reformed and Presbyterian churches, which look to Calvin as the chief expositor of their beliefs, have spread throughout the world.
The greatest of the reformers, from the point of view of contribution to political thought, was John Calvin (1509-1564) Trained as a lawyer, Calvin gave to the reformed religion a comprehensive and logical system of doctrine, characteristically French in its clarity and detachment, comparable to that worked out by St. Thomas Aquinas for the Roman Catholic Church.
John Calvin disapproved of the individual interpretation of the Scriptures and he feared the revolutionary social doctrines that accompanied the Reformation. He aimed to give a complete and harmonious exposition of the Christian faith, based upon a legal conception of order and authority.
He tried to bring thought and will, his own life and the lives of others, church and state, into subjection to law. The Mosaic code exerted a strong influence on Calvin’s conception of a well-ordered commonwealth, both in its general theocratic character and in the details of its provisions.
John Calvin rejected the Zwinglian idea that church and state should be united in a single system. Calvin taught that the secular and spiritual spheres of government were wholly distinct. He believed that the church should be organized in accordance with its peculiar needs, with final authority in each congregation vested in a body of elders, and that it should limit its activities to spiritual concerns. The state, he held, was equally essential, and should care for the bodily needs of its members, should preserve order and property, and should especially promote piety and religion.
Since the primary function of the state was to promote public worship and further the interests of religion, Calvin held that every Christian was bound to support the state in these purposes. It became a religious duty to obey the government, and no private individual had the right to resist the state.
At the same time, Calvin taught that recognized governmental bodies, such as the representative assemblies of the estates, might restrain tyrannical kings, and that Christians might lawfully take up arms, under authorized leaders, to overthrow usurpation.
Besides, subjects were permitted to disregard the will of the king if his laws were contrary to the commands of God. In these teachings were found some basis for the resistance to established government which the followers of Calvin later exerted.
In general, however, Calvin taught that government should be obeyed. The emphasis which Luther had placed upon the individual conscience had proved to be a more radical factor of disintegration than had been expected, and Calvin found it necessary to lay stress upon the necessity of civil government, the authority of law, and the degree to which obedience to magistrates was required of Christians.
Calvin favored an authoritative attitude and disbelieved in freedom. He had a great contempt for the mob, and preferred an aristocratic form of government. His point of view was that of a strong ruler who dislikes obstacles to a uniform and regulated system.
At Geneva, where Calvin settled after his expulsion from France, and where he was given virtually dictatorial powers of government, he attempted to put into practice his theocratic and aristocratic ideas of government. He found it impracticable, however, within the small limits of the city, to separate ecclesiastical and political authority in accordance with his doctrines.
The moral code was made the basis of law, an ascetic form of life was enjoined by severe penalties, and the secular authority was made the instrument of the ecclesiastical council. A self-perpetuating oligarchy controlled both church and state, the minutest details of life were regulated under a rigorous system of Puritanism, and dissenting ideas were crushed out, even to the extent of the death penalty for heresy.
The ideas of Calvin were accepted more widely than those of the other reformers. Protestantism in France, Holland, Scotland, and England followed Calvinistic models. In the work of these followers, and mainly because of conditions in the countries concerned, authority was resisted and the doctrines of Calvin became associated with the growth of liberty.
It is interesting to note that while Luther had a real love of freedom, his work promoted despotism. Frightened by the peasants revolt and by the excesses of the An a baptists, Luther fell back upon the temporal princes, and became associated with the state religion of an all-powerful secular authority.
Calvin, whose own motives were those of authority and order, and whose principles were not based upon any ideal of individual liberty, became associated, through his followers,with modern democracy and freedom.
The chief reason for this fact was that the doctrines of Calvin were adopted by those who formed persecuted minorities in their states and who, accordingly, offered resistance to their oppressors. In the Netherlands and in France, Calvinism was involved in a struggle against tyranny and needed a theoretical basis for its opposition. In England, Calvinism was the doctrine of,a minority whose determination not to be suppressed kept liberty alive.
It was the struggle for existence of the Calvinistic sects that compelled them to put forward a theory of government that placed limits upon absolute authority. Opposed in theory to secular interference in religious matters, the Calvinists became the champions of modern liberty when their doctrines were attacked by the monarchs under whom they lived.
In France, the Netherlands, Scotland, and England, they worked out theories by which God’s elect should be secure in their rights and privileges, definite limits should be placed upon royal authority, and both ruler and subject should be controlled by a higher law.
While Luther and Zwingli tended to subordinate church to state, permitted the civil rulers to decide questions of doctrine and ceremony, and made their religion the official worship of the state, Calvin drew a clear boundary line between church and state, and would not surrender the peculiar functions of the church to the civil authority.
Wherever Calvinism was planted, therefore, it had no scruples about resisting civil rulers who attempted to interfere in matters of religion and conscience. This distinction led ultimately to both civil and religious freedom. It prevented the state from extending its powers into religious matters and from acting as the executor of ecclesiastical laws. It authorized Calvinistic minorities to resist the efforts of the civil authorities to compel them to conform to a uniform state worship.
Calvinism also promoted political liberty because of the republican character of its church organization. The body of the congregation took responsible part in the selection of the clergy, and laymen shared power with the ministers. Especially in countries where Calvinism encountered the hostility of the state, the democratic tendencies of the system developed. Men, accustomed to self-government in church affairs, claimed similar privileges in political affairs. In the New England colonies this idea became especially important.