Calvin and Social Justice

One of the most interesting aspects of Calvin’s ideas is his view on the nature of politics and the best form of government. I’ve discussed in previous blog posts about Christianity and the origins of democracy the comparatively democratic nature of Calvin’s Geneva and the influence this had in the development of European and American democracy. I’ve done a little bit more reading since then, and feel that there is some more that could be said. In his consideration of the nature of politics and the forms of government and the state, Calvin believed that every nation should be free to create for itself the form of government that best suited it, and considered that it was a sign of God’s grace and benevolence that different nations had different forms of government. Nevertheless, he believed that good government should be based on Christian moral foundations, and caritas, love. He also felt that it should acknowledge human equality in the sense that it recognised that everyone had an innate value and that those in authority were tempted to abuse their positions. After his return to Geneva in 1541, the Small Council formed a committee to draw up a constitution for the church, which introduced greater lay participation in church government. When dealing with disputes within the church, he insisted on treating and punishing everyone similarly, regardless of their wealth or fame. He also felt that everyone, even the poorest, should be able to call on the law and the magistrates to act against injustice against them, as civil magistrates had been appointed by God for humanity’s benefit and the just defence of their interests.

He also did not believe in hereditary monarchy, as he felt that, because of their elevated personal status, kings felt themselves separate and above the rest of humanity. Furthermore, as only they possessed political power, they had extreme difficulty restraining themselves and acting only for justice. He considered the best form of government to be a mixture of aristocracy and democracy, as it was safer for a number of people to rule rather than a single individual. When government was held by a group, the various people composing it could act to help, instruct and admonish each other, and, if one person was tempted to abuse their power, they could be held back by the others. However, Calvin nevertheless recognised, following St. Paul, that the kingdom of God did not reside in human laws and institutions. 1

He also attempted through his preaching to promote a more ethical society where the poor would not be exploited and deprived of their property by the wealthier members of society. He was extremely critical of the exploitation of the poor by the rich, and felt that many of them had gained their wealth at the expense of their poorer citizens. In these instances, believers should assist the poor while being wary of committing any wrong themselves. He felt that believers should not only not steal or exploit others themselves, but should act when they saw others being treated unjustly, as if they failed to act against injustice and oppression, they became implicated in them. Thus, Calvin stated that

‘(L)et none of us think that it is only lawful for us to guard what we have, rather, as the principle of charity exhorts us, let us see that we preserve and procure our neighbor’s property as much as our … (and) that we should always aspire towards that celestial heritage, knowing that therein we shall possess the fullness of all goods in perfection’. 2

Thus, while it took many centuries for modern democracy to emerge in Europe and America, Calvin’s Geneva was a strong influence in the development of democratic ideas through Calvin’s belief in the human equality before God, his belief that the best form of government was a mixture of democracy and aristocracy, rather than monarchy, and his concern to protect the interests and property of the poor against exploitation by the wealthy, ideals that continue to be expressed and influence contemporary views and discussion of the nature of democracy, even if the influence of Calvin, along with other political theorists and philosophers, is not always recognised.

1. See William R. Stevenson, JR., ‘Calvin and Political Issues’ in Donald K. McKim, ed., The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), pp. 179-80.

2. Benjamin W. Farley, ed. and trans., John Calvin’s Sermons on the Ten Commandments (Grand Rapids, Baker 1980), pp. 200-1, cited in D. Devries, ‘Calvin’s Preaching’, in Donald K. McKim, The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin (Cambridge, CUP 2004), p. 116.

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16 Responses to “Calvin and Social Justice”

  1. Kent Says:

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  2. Calvin and Social Justice | Says:

    […] original here:  Calvin and Social Justice The Return of the Prodigal Son: Social Justice and Churches of ChristThe paradigms of […]

  3. Murray66 Says:

    So what we are missing here in America is a bit of Aristocracy? But how would we create a House of Lords when we have no Lords or Ladies? My work with such diverse portions of our population has me concerned about our democracy as well. We have so many people in this country who have no intelligence and no desire to change. I fear that this has resulted in our most recent election of unqualified leadership.

  4. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    That is interesting, BR.

    Now, the kings of Europe once held the “divine right of kings” as hailing from Paul’s prescription that even secular government was ordained by God, and all should obey upon the “sword” upon even pain of death in order to maintain order.

    Now I agree in overall principle, but the problem here is that minus kings we have just secularist polititions. That’s OK, and even secular governance is still effective in maintaining rights and protecting us from others with diverse views that ordinarily might fall upon us in oppression.
    But there are problems, as you know.

    What would Calvin say, you think, on two things:

    “divine right of kings” as translated from Scripture to the effect that Paul could justify even bestial lordship behaviors and control (so I’m guessing was the justification for monarchical rule)

    Second, when governments of todays violate individual rights?

  5. Ilíon Says:

    The New Englanders, famous for their direct-democracy Town Meeting, were Calvinists (before they were Unitarian heretics), were they not?

  6. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the comments, guys.

    Hi Murray! In writing about Calvin’s conception of the ideal constitution for a state, I actually wasn’t trying to make any political points regarding the best form of government, except that in an age when monarchical government was considered normal, and society was strongly hierarchical with political and economic power very much in the hands of the aristocracy, Calvin was remarkable for his egalitarianism and his belief that democracy had a place in government. As I mentioned in my previous posts on the Christian origins of democracy in the 16th century, many of the great Anglican churchmen also considered that Britain had the best constitution because it combined aristocracy with democracy. I certainly wasn’t trying to argue that America should follow Britain and have an Upper House based on hereditary privilege or appointment by the governing head of state. There is some similarity between the Senate in America and the House of Lords over here in that both are intended to act as constitutional checks on the power of the Lower House and the government, so in that sense the American constitution does possess the most important feature and function of the House of Lords without restricting membership to a feudal elite.

    As for the problems of democracy in America posed by people with very fixed political views that they are not willing to change, one of the problems of democracy is that it can produce popular, but not necessarily good, government. People can elect popular leaders, who then govern badly with damaging or otherwise harmful policies. However, with democracy the people in government are still accountable to the citizens they represent, who have the opportunity of voting them out of power at the next election and who should have the constitutional and legal right to mount objections to bad policies, poor government and abuse of power before then. In this way even bad politicians and heads of state have to recognise the power of the people.

    In the world’s tyrannies and dictatorships, however, there are no checks on the power of the head of state and their ministers, and the result is often massive corruption and systematic oppression and brutality against the state’s own citizens, as occurred in the Nazi, Fascist and Communist dictatorships and in the various one-party states around the world today.

    My own particular fear is that of a general decline in interest in politics and government in the West. In recent decades in Europe and America the number of people turning out to vote has been declining. In Britain it got to the point where at one election, the turnout was lower than at any point after the Second World War. In fact, I’ve got a feeling that it was only just higher than elections in the 1920s and 1930s. In America I got the impression that the last elections under George W. the turnout was actually much higher than usual, though this was probably due to the immense controversy and debate caused by the War on Terror and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Furthermore, the number of people joining political parties in Britain seems to be declining, which I find extremely worrying.

    For democracy to flourish, people need to take an active interest in it. The most basic expression of this is that people actually need to go to the polling station to vote. My fear is that, beyond people just voting according to their received views and inclinations, without necessarily thinking too much about the issues or regard for the possible harmful consequences of their electoral decisions, there’s an even greater danger that by simply not voting and not joining political parties, politics in the West will simply degenerate to the point where effective government and administration is held by unelected, managerial elites. They might govern efficiently and effectively, but they won’t be accountable to anyone except those who appoint and finance them, and it’s unlikely they’ll govern in the best interests of the public.

    Beyond that I think there’s a real need for political commentators and journalists who are able to get people interested in politics and develop an ability to criticise parties and policies, beyond the immediate problems of corruption. Politics by its very nature is frequently boring – it’s most often about very dry issues like the state of the economy, balance of payments, productivity and public consumption. These issues are vitally important, but not nearly as interesting as the ‘human interest’ stories in the news or the sports pages. Yet for democracy – for popular government – to continue, people need to take an interest in these issues, and be able to get the government to respond to their concerns genuinely, rather than feeling that they are simply reacting to another issue simply to gain popularity, rather than any sense of genuine concern for the electorate.

  7. beastrabban Says:

    Wakefield – you’re right that European political theory in the Middle Ages and early modern period – 16th to 18th centuries – viewed monarchies as divinely ordained by God. Medieval political theory considered that the subject did indeed have the right to rebel against an oppressive monarch. In the 16th century, however, European political theory stated that the subject should obey the monarch, even when they were a tyrant or otherwise governed badly. Calvin himself stated that subjects should not rebel against unjust monarchs, as all monarchs, even tyrants, were ordained by God to correct human sins. For him, an unjust monarch would act to punish the wicked, while the righteous would be purified through enduring and suffering through their reign. He did, however, believe that where a nation’s constitution had established subordinate magistrates who had the constitutional power to restrain an unjust or tyrannical monarch, they should do so. However, he did not believe that Christians should obey a monarch who commanded them to act against the tenets of the Christian faith.

  8. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Ilion – you’re absolutely right that one of the foundations of American democracy was the 17th and 18th century town meetings, established by the Puritan settlers in New England. It was also partly the result of the 18th century evangelical revival and the Puritan insistence that everyone was responsible for their own salvation, and so had a duty to search the scriptures diligently and act according to their own conscience. During the British Civil War/ War of the Three Kingdoms between Charles I and parliament, the Puritans sided with parliament against the Crown because of the Puritan stress on the individual conscience against the Crown’s insistence on obedience to the established Church and the rights and privileges of the aristocracy.

    In America, the evangelical revival similarly stressed the right of individuals to search the scriptures for God’s salvation for themselves, so that ordinary working and middle-class Americans founded their own churches in opposition to the governing, aristocratic elite, who were largely Anglicans. A number of historians consider that it was the experience of ordinary Americans in discussing religion for themselves and providing for their own religious needs that created the intellectual independence that allowed them to challenge British government and suzerainty.

  9. beastrabban Says:

    Calvin wasn’t really interested in discussing constitutional details. However, he did believe that, as all kings ultimately held their power from God, so those rulers who governed badly against the will of the Almighty would be overthrown by Him. He also stressed the importance of moderatio – moderation – in government, in that the power of the state should be limited and the rights of individuals respected. My own opinion is that while Calvin would argue that contemporary Christians have a duty to obey a secular government in that all magisterates are established by the Almighty, he would strongly criticise any government that went beyond the limits of its power an any attempt to force Christians to act against their consciences in matters that specifically affected religious doctrine or observance, including such matters as abortion.

    The Anglo-American conception of government and society is based to a large part on the philosophy of John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government . Locke, when he was Commissioner of Trade, drafted the constitution of one of the American colonies. He believed that God created people free and equal, and everyone had the right to life, liberty and property. Governments were established in antiquity through a social contract between the members of the early human society in order to protect and guarantee their rights, and settle disputes. When the government infringed the people’s rights, or did not provide the conditions by which the people were able to enjoy them, then the people had the ability to remove the government. While the establishment of government meant that people had surrendered some of their rights to the king or other governing authority, people still retained some of their natural rights themselves, such as the right to defend themselves against violent attack, or protect third parties. Now Roman Catholic political theorists tend to be very critical of Locke because they feel that it can lead to Libertarianism and a denial of the right of society to establish and enforce moral standards, particularly in sexual morality. Nevertheless, Locke’s conception of government certainly seems to provide for the right of the individual to resist any attack on their rights by the governing authorities.

  10. Ilíon Says:

    Well, Locke straight-up does entail the unbalanced, and thus unsustainable, absolute individualism which is libertarianism.

  11. Murray66 Says:

    Beast you are of course correct that a general apathy towards politics exists. The exposure of the Watergate scandal in this country seems to be the tipping point toward a general distrust of “The Government”. The problem I see is the prevalent idea that “The Government” is somehow a separate entity. This is why I believe the recent bailouts were so popular. The false sense that “The Government” will save us. People don’t seem to realize that we are the government. I’m fairly sure that enough of my taxes went towards bailout money that 1) GM owes me a new car and 2) AIG should insure it for life. I jest but this dissassociation with government is, I fear, an extremely slippery slope.

  12. beastrabban Says:

    I wasn’t thinking particularly about Watergate when I wrote the above comment about the growing apathy towards government and politics, Murray, but unfortunately, you’re absolutely right. Sociologists and political scientists have compiled a set of statistics that demonstrate just how disastrous the Watergate scandal was for the confidence of ordinary Americans in their government. The American public’s trust in their government took a severe knock with the Kennedy assassination, and it fell disastrously after Watergate. A number of sceptical commentators on the UFO scene consider that it was the massive disillusionment caused by those two events together that partly produced the fears and tales about secret government pacts with malign aliens that appeared a few years ago as part of the mythology of alien abductees.

    As for the government bailouts, something very similar has happened over here in Britain. The government has spent billions giving money to support the banks, though I haven’t heard of any of the remaining manufacturing industries being given money. There’s also been a lot of criticism of it as well, as some of the banks after being given these massive amounts of government funds simply carried on as normal and refused to pass the monies on further down the financial chain and supply the credit needed to get the economy going again. This was made worse by some of heads of the banks responsible for the collapse of their companies awarding themselves vast pay rises of millions of pounds just as the British public had to nationalise their banks to keep them afloat.

    At the moment over here there’s a huge scandal over MPs’ expenses. Basically, a number of extremely important MPs from all the major political parties have been caught trying to get the state to pay for things, which have very little or absolutely nothing to do with their work in parliament. They’ve been caught getting expenses for second homes, which they’ve then sold at a profit for themselves, and getting the public to pay for household items like bathplugs, new curtains and so on. It’s got to the point where, on the news tonight, the three major political parties – Labour, Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats – have apologised to the British public. Gordon Brown has stated that he intends to set up an independent body to scrutinise MP’s expenses and recommend changes. It’s left an awful lot of people over here quite upset at the way politicians seem to feel they can simply use the public and the tax moneys granted to them for their own personal gain.

    Having said that, a few years ago when the administration of the former Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, seemed dominated by corruption, there was an article in the Financial Times stating that politics on both sides of the Atlantic was now actually cleaner, and much less corrupt than it had ever been. It only seemed more corrupt because the deference the press had for politicians in past decades, which prevented them from exposing some of the corrupt dealings of MPs, Congressmen and Senators, had gone, and so more of it was being put in print. However, there’s still the danger that people will be put off politics completely because of these latest scandals. I like the comment about General Motors owing you a new car – I think there are a number of people over here who would say the same thing about our banks!:)

  13. beastrabban Says:

    Regarding John Locke and Libertarianism, Ilion – as I said, a lot of Roman Catholic philosophers have criticised him for providing the basis for contemporary libertarianism. However, Locke did believe in the rule of law, majority decision as the basis for government action and popular sovereignty – and provided the intellectual support for them at a time in British history when they were not completely accepted and it had been feared that representative government was under threat from a powerful, absolute monarchy.

  14. Ilíon Says:

    Actually, the American system *requires* that the citizens be eternally suspicious of the government; that’s an intentional design feature.

  15. Ilíon Says:

    Perhaps I spoke too strongly in saying “Locke straight up.” Perhaps better would have been “Locke as emphasized.”

    But, anyway, what I was trying to get at is that the Catholic critics of Locke are not entirely wrong.

  16. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Ilion – yeah, you can see the Roman Catholic’s point in their criticism of Locke. As for suspicion of the government being an integral part of the American Constitution, I’ve got a feeling that comes from certain strands of British political philosophy, quite apart from the old maxim ‘the price of freedom is eternal vigilance’. In the fifteenth century, the English constitutional theorist Sir John Fortescue stated that the feudal anarchy in England showed that the English were, in fact, freer than the French, who were subject to extremely heavy royal taxation and oppressive control by the Crown, and this suspicion of possible oppression and excessive control by the state continued into the 17th and 18th centuries. Also, many of the groups that founded America did so because they were fleeing religious persecution from the state, with the most famous of these being the Pilgrim Fathers.

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