Wednesday, July 08, 2009

John Calvin and his Politics

There have been much misconceptions about John Calvin and his politics in the governance of Geneva. Richard Hooker in Reformation: John Calvin gives us some background

Geneva had been under the rule of the House of Savoy, but the Genevans successfully overthrew the Savoys and the local bishop-prince of Geneva in the waning years of the 1520's. The Genevans, however, unlike the citizens of Zurich, Bern, Basel, and other cities that became Protestant in the 1520's, were not German-speakers but primarily French-speakers. As such, they did not have close cultural ties with the reformed churches in Germany and Switzerland. The Protestant canton of Bern, however, was determined to see Protestantism spread throughout Switzerland. In 1533, Bern sent Protestant reformers to convert Geneva into a Protestant city; after considerable conflict, Geneva officially became Protestant in 1535.

Calvin, by now a successful lawyer, was invited to Geneva to build the new Reformed church. Calvin's efforts radically changed the face of Protestantism, for he directly addressed issues that early Reformers didn't know how or didn't want to answer.

His most important work involved the organization of church governance and the social organization of the church and the city. He was, in fact, the first major political thinker to model social organization entirely on biblical principles. At first his reforms did not go over well. He addressed the issue of church governance by creating leaders within the new church; he himself developed a catechism designed to impose doctrine on all the members of the church. He and Guillaume Farel (1489-1565) imposed a strict moral code on the citizens of Geneva; this moral code was derived from a literal reading of Christian scriptures. Naturally, the people of Geneva believed that they had thrown away one church only to see it replaced by an identical twin; in particular, they saw Calvin's reforms as imposing a new form of papacy on the people, only with different names and different people.

So the Genevans tossed him out. In early 1538, Calvin and the Protestant reformers were exiled from Geneva...

In 1540 a new crop of city officials in Geneva invited Calvin back to the city. As soon as he arrived he set about revolutionizing Genevan society. His most important innovation was the incorporation of the church into city government; he immediately helped to restructure municipal government so that clergy would be involved in municipal decisions, particularly in disciplining the populace. He imposed a hierarchy on the Genevan church and began a series of statute reforms to impose a strict and uncompromising moral code on the city.

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Another perspective is from Dr W. Stanford Reid, Emeritus Professor University of Guelph, Canada writing in John Calvin: One of the Fathers of Modern Democracy

According to Calvin, the church has a role to play with regard to the state. The church is responsible, Calvin believed, to set forth the biblical teaching concerning the state and its function. Yet, and this is basic to Calvin’s thought, the church is not to rule the state. Calvin believed in a theocracy, not an ecclesiocracy. Both the rulers of the church and the civil magistrates are directly responsible to God for their actions, but they do not rule over each other. The church may admonish the magistrate as to what God’s law says, but cannot determine how that law is to be applied in matters of civil jurisdiction. The magistrate may advise the church concerning matters relating to civil affairs, but cannot force the church to conform to civil rules in its teachings, worship, or government. In this, Calvin laid down very clearly the principle of the separation of the functions of church and state. They are related and mutually supportive, but also independent of each other. This means, if the state attempts to interfere in the operation of the church or seeks to restrict its spiritual work, the church has the right and duty to disobey, although it will have to suffer the consequences of such disobedience.

At the same time, Calvin believed that the church’s form of government was to be fundamentally democratic. In this way it served as a pattern for the state to imitate. He did not believe that ministers and other church officials should be imposed on the church by the civil government or by a small group of wealthy or aristocratic individuals. Instead, he believed that ministers, elders, and deacons should be appointed by the people of the church as a whole.

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Reid regards John Calvin as one of influential founders of modern democracy.

What do you think?


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