“Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers. Fear God. Honor the king. Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are harsh.” – 1 Peter 2:16-18
Freedom is at the best of times a controversial issue, since it is the mid-point between one end of the spectrum, slavery, and the other end of the spectrum, licentiousness. Calvin’s comments on this part of 1 Peter 2, the liberty of the Christian citizen, are well-worth considering reflectively:
…For as men are naturally ingenious in laying hold on what may be for their advantage, many, at the commencement of the Gospel, thought themselves free to live only for themselves. This doting opinion, then, is what Peter corrects; and he briefly shews how much the liberty of Christians differed from unbridled licentiousness. And, in the first place, he denies that there is any veil or pretext for wickedness, by which he intimates, that there is no liberty given us to hurt our neighbours, or to do any harm to others. True liberty, then, is that which harms or injures no one.1Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles: The First Epistle of Peter, trans. the Rev. John Owen (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1999), p. 84.
Note that liberty is, right from the start, constrained by the principle that we must not harm our neighbors or anyone else. In the first part of the clause on Christian liberty, Calvin says that actions we may take in the name of liberty are merely pretexts for wickedness if by so doing we harm our neighbors or others.
Calvin continues on the phrases about honoring God and the ruler:
This is a summary of what is gone before; for he intimates that God is not feared, nor their just right rendered to men, except civil order prevails among us, and magistrates retain their authority…This word [honor] conveys no other idea to me, than that a regard ought to be had for all, since we ought to cultivate, as far as we can, peace and friendship with all; there is, indeed, nothing more adverse to concord than contempt.2Ibid., p. 85.
Politics as friendship: this is a very old idea, though not one most of us Moderns are acquainted with, since our understanding of politics proceeds from 17th century ideas about a “state of nature” in which radically free individuals find that they require an artificial civil arrangement so as to preserve their own individual rights, thus presupposing that by nature all humans are enemies of each other. To think of politics as being based on friendship would, therefore, be fairly revolutionary in our times.
On the clause Fear God, Calvin writes:
…[Peter] means that honour paid to kings proceeds from the fear of God and the love of man; and that, therefore, it ought to be connected with them, as though he had said, “Whosoever fears God, loves his brethren and the whole human race as he ought, and will also give honour to kings.” But at the same time, he expressly mentions the king, because that form of government was more than any other disliked; and under it other forms are included.3Ibid., pp. 85-86.
To wind this post (and this series) down, Calvin comments on the clause, Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are harsh. this way:
…Though as to the duty of servants to obey their masters, it is wholly a matter of conscience; if, however, they are unjustly treated, as to themselves, they ought not to resist authority. Whatever, then, masters may be, there is no excuse for servants for not faithfully obeying them. For when a superior abuses his power, he must indeed hereafter render an account to God, yet he does not for the present lose his right. For this law is laid on servants, that they are to serve their masters, though they may be unworthy.4Ibid., pp. 86-87.
In these remarks Calvin parallels Stoic writers, some of whom taught that for a person rightly taught and rightly thinking, slavery could only affect the body. Real freedom, some Stoics said – and Calvin here agrees – can paradoxically coexist with a condition of bodily subjection to even a gross tyranny.
- Liberty is this: Do no harm to neighbors or anyone else. Prohibitions on performing some actions always imply positive duties to perform other actions. What specific positive duties might be implied by the negative imperatives Calvin states?
- Related to #1, in our culture, “harm someone” seems frequently limited in thought and discussion to physical harm. What other ways might we harm someone, and so to avoid those, what would we have to do?
- In his remarks on honor, Calvin implies that civil order per se is a matter of cultivating peace and friendship. What challenges to our own political thinking does the idea that it should be based on friendship raise?