For a third post, 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 turns to the phrase, “who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” His opening remark here directs our attention away from the sound and fury of merely factional policy debates, which mostly serve only to distort genuinely political thinking, and back instead to the very purpose for political authority in the first place:
This is the second reason why it behooves us reverently to regard and to respect civil authority, and that is, because it has been appointed by the Lord for the common good of mankind; for we must be extremely barbarous and brutal, if the public good is not regarded by us. This, then, in short, is what Peter means, that since God keeps the world in order by the ministry of magistrates, all they who despise their authority are enemies to mankind.1Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles: The First Epistle of Peter, trans. the Rev. John Owen (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1999), p. 82.
Let’s connect this thought to his remarks on human ordinances in the previous post of this series. It’s crucial to grasp that for Calvin, talking not just about Scripture, but also reflecting the lengthy Western (classical) political tradition in Christian garb, civil government is not a merely artificial construction, to be “willed” into or out of relevance at our own pleasure.
Rather, civil government per se is natural to mankind made in God’s image, and since we are made in God’s image, we must realize that to reject civil authority per se, let alone to simply disobey it at our own will, is essentially to mark ourselves enemies to mankind. He continues:
It may, however, be objected here and said, that kings and magistrates often abuse their power, and exercise tyrannical cruelty rather than justice. Such were almost all the magistrates, when this Epistle was written. To this I answer, that tyrants and those like them, do not produce such effects by their abuse, but that the ordinance of God ever remains in force, as the institution of marriage is not subverted though the wife and the husband were to act in a way not becoming to them. However, therefore, men may go astray, yet the end fixed by God cannot be changed.2Ibid., pp. 82-83.
We want to ask, what is that end fixed by God? Calvin’s answer:
…My reply is this, that government established by God ought to be so highly valued by us, as to honour even tyrants when in power…there has never been a tyranny, (nor can one be imagined,) however cruel and unbridled, in which some portion of equity has not appeared; and further, some kind of government, however deformed and corrupt it may be, is still better and more beneficial than anarchy.3Ibid., p. 83
- What reflections our own political experience can we draw from Calvin’s argument that despising civil authority makes a person an enemy to mankind? Why would he use such strong rhetoric? What might be a counter-argument?
- God keeps the world “in order” by the ministry of magistrates. How would accepting this alter contemporary understanding of politics? What would it mean for times when we ourselves do not understand how some instance of magisterial authority is indeed upholding order?
- Abuse of power does not delegitimize power per se, nor does it necessarily delegitimize the one abusing it. What might be a counter-argument to Calvin here?
- In terms of God’s providence, what do you think about Calvin’s view that at the very least, even a corrupt and tyrannical government is better than no government at all?