Still 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
Perhaps provocatively for Christians living in Western nations, particularly if educated in a way that magnifies personal liberties as the sine qua non of a good and proper governmental system, Calvin goes on from his earlier comments (see previous posts in this series) to repeat a theme found in his comments on Romans 13, that Christians should beware a seditious sort of skepticism about the legitimacy of the civil government:
…obedience is due to all who rule, because they have been raised to that honour not by chance, but by God’s providence. For many are wont to inquire too scrupulously by what right power has been attained; but we ought to be satisfied with this alone, that power is possessed and exercised…As Peter referred especially to the Roman Emperor, it was necessary to add this admonition; for it is certain that the Romans through unjust means rather than in a legitimate way penetrated into Asia and subdued these countries.1Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles: The First Epistle of Peter, trans. the Rev. John Owen (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1999), p. 81.
One fascinating aspect of these thoughts is that we often quite rightly view Calvin, or at least, the broad system of thought that flowed from his work, “Calvinism,” as substantially undergirding the post-Reformation development of civil liberties and restrictions on government power. Quite right. But the thoughts above demand that we ensure our conception of Calvin’s ideas is not tainted either by later developments or by our own personal political predilections. In other words, Calvin was not Patrick Henry (or at least, not the Patrick Henry most people remember from grade school Social Studies classes) – and the comparisons and contrasts between the two might prove quite useful for us.
But Calvin is not finished explaining the Christian’s duty generally to obey even unjust magistrates:
Besides, the Caesars, who then reigned, had possessed themselves of the monarchy by tyrannical force. Hence Peter as it were forbids these things to be controverted, for he shews that subjects ought to obey their rulers without hesitation, because they are not made eminent, unless elevated by God’s hand…He designates every kind of magistrates, as though he had said, that there is no kind of government to which we ought not to submit….they rule by the command of God, and are sent by him. It hence follows (as Paul also teaches us) that they resist God , who do not obediently submit to a power ordained by him.2Ibid., pp. 81-82
- What might we discover about our own personal political predilections if we run them through the sieve of Calvin’s invocation of God’s providence with respect to unjust rulers?
- Calvin doesn’t say, full stop, that it doesn’t matter by what right a given political power has been obtained by a ruler. What he says is that Christians ought not to inquire too scrupulously into this matter. How might we unpack the adverb phrase too scrupulously? What criteria would constitute sufficient inquiry into the right of an authority, and what limitations should we consider setting on our inquiries?