Continuing to discuss 1 Peter 2:13-15: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. – 1 Peter 2:13-15
Calvin continues on to the phrase “to every authority instituted by man” (in the translation below, rendered as “to every ordinance of man”):
…God the maker of the world has not left the human race in a state of confusion, that they might live after the manner of beasts, but as it were in a building regularly formed, and divided into several compartments. And it is called a human ordination, not because it has been invented by man, but because a mode of living, well arranged and duly ordered, is peculiar to men.1Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles: The First Epistle of Peter, trans. the Rev. John Owen (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1999), p. 80
Calvin is here not just expounding on the words of Scripture, but demonstrating his acquaintance with and acceptance of the classical political tradition’s idea that human beings, as speaking beings, are “political animals,” made to associate with others and so requiring systems of justice to ensure smooth relations and good order for all.
It is particularly interesting that he glosses Peter’s words “to every ordinance of man” not to nearly nothing, as is common in many Christian circles that derogate all extra-biblical claims, but as an acknowledgement of an activity that naturally flows from being human, as created by God.
For further thought:
- In the Modern world (our own world), politics is generally thought of as a mere power game, an artificial system that is sort of the “prize” for whichever faction can manage to win elections. How does Calvin’s exposition above challenge our view of politics? Can we adequately defend our view of politics against his?
- Calvin, being a Reformation thinker, certainly held to the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura. But it seems that his extensive comments about civil government drawn from 1 Peter 2 (and Romans 13) entail a rather different understanding of the sola than seems to be common in Reformation heirs today. How might it be that Calvin can consistently advocate sola Scriptura and yet at the same time make such significant allowances for extra-biblical authority as exercised by secular civil rulers?