D. Eric Williams Online

Toward a Christian Society 2
© 06.13.07 By D. Eric Williams

Discussions concerning the Christian Society invariably turn to an examination of the faults of our forefathers rather than their positive contributions. Thus rather than attempt to discern the mind behind the requirement that all legislators make a credible profession of the Christian faith1 (as found in our eighteenth century state constitutions), modern opponents simply label the founding fathers as "Christian tyrants."

Nonetheless, the fact remains that the freedoms we enjoy today find their roots in the thoroughgoing Christian world view of those who came before us. It was the Protestant Reformation that sowed the seeds of liberty, representative government and the concept of separate spheres of authority for Church and State. And, as incredible as it may seem to his detractors, it is John Calvin to whom the greatest debt of freedom is owed.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom of modern Evangelicalism, Calvin was not a power hungry despot who ruled Geneva with an iron fist. Truly, "Calvin was not fond of power"2 and in fact never held any political office. Indeed he was not even a citizen of Geneva for most of the time that he lived there. Instead, he was a pastor: baptizing, performing weddings and funerals and preaching nearly every day of the week. As a pastor he taught that the civil government was under the authority of God. In Geneva that meant that the council (a republican form of government created by election and allowing for dissent), was ultimately beholden to God not the people. But, again, Calvin "held no public office, could neither arrest nor punish any citizen, appoint nor dismiss any official. To argue that his eloquence and logic constituted tyranny is to invent a new standard."3 Moreover, throughout his stay at Geneva the council included members of the libertine party who strongly opposed nearly everything Calvin stood for.

What Calvin did accomplish was the creation of a wall of protection around the Church. Rather than act as an arm of the political power, Calvin believed that the Church was separate, with its own special area of jurisdiction. He taught that,

there is a twofold government in man: one aspect is spiritual, whereby the conscience is instructed in piety and in reverencing God; the second is political whereby man is educated for the duties of humanity and citizenship that must be maintained among men. ...Christ's spiritual Kingdom and the civil jurisdiction are things completely distinct.4

Thus rather than use the power of the civil government to legislate the kingdom of God, Calvin sought to ensure that such a thing would not happen. His concern was that the freedom of the Church not be compromised by the intrusion of the Prince. Oft times the modern mind is confused simply because there are areas of life we consider off limits to the civil ruler that were understood to be within his domain in the sixteenth century. For instance, heresy - as defined by the Church - was considered a civil crime and dealt with by the civil courts. It was also understood that the civil power had the responsibility to maintain an environment well-disposed toward the Christian religion. In another place Calvin says that the civil government has the responsibility to,

foster and maintain the external worship of God, to defend sound doctrine and the condition of the Church, to adapt our conduct to human society, to form our manners to civil justice, to conciliate us to each other, to cherish common peace and tranquillity5

It is important to note that the various nations which made up sixteenth century Europe were not held together by nationalistic patriotism but by common religious belief. Hence Spain's climb to dominance only after it had "cleansed" its borders of Jews and Moors in 1492. To the degree that we impose our twenty-first century sensibilities on the sixteenth century mind we will fail to understand it. This is not to say that we should seek a wholesale return to the conditions of 1550 Geneva; it is merely a reminder that there is much we may learn from our fore-bearers even while we recognize the peculiarities of their day.

For example, the execution of heretics by the state was an accepted practice throughout the Christian world in 1550. We may well recoil at the thought; yet even today there are sincere Christians who disagree on the propriety of the death penalty for murder (more on this next week). I imagine there is even less agreement concerning the imposition of death for the crime of rape; yet there are seven of these united states which retain capital punishment for the crime.6 In addition, the federal government imposes the death penalty for murder, espionage, treason and trafficking in large quantities of drugs.7 Death for treason in twenty-first century America is not unlike death for heresy in sixteenth century Spain. In either case capital punishment is proscribed for a crime that cuts at the very foundations of the commonwealth.

Yet, the execution of Servetus "holds a special status in anti-Calvin legends."8 Servetus (born Miguel Serveto in Navarre Spain in 1509 or 1511), was a well educated and notorious heretic. He wrote extensively - and convincingly - against the doctrine of the trinity and especially against the deity of Jesus Christ. Long before he came to Geneva in 1553 he had been condemned to death by the Roman Inquisition.9 It is unclear why he made his way to the city of Calvin, but within a month his presence was discovered and he found himself in prison. Charges were brought by Calvin's secretary (who under Genevan law was required to remain in prison along with the accused until he could provide proofs of the accusation), and Servetus was eventually brought to trial. The council of Geneva wrote to "Swiss churches and cites" in an effort to "base a decision on an international consensus" and by October 18, 1553 replies arrived from the Swiss cities, all condemning Servetus.10 He was sentenced to death by burning, although Calvin pled for a more merciful execution. Even then the Genevan council ignored Calvin.

Like all of us, John Calvin was human and his acceptance of the death penalty for heresy must be seen in light of his times. To discard all that is connected to the name of Calvin because of this one incident is foolish - indeed it is impossible. The fact is modern Evangelicalism is built upon the doctrines that Calvin "rediscovered" and systemized in his Institutes, commentaries and other writings. Moreover, this nation would be very different than it is today had it not been for the teaching of Calvin. The Pilgrims and Puritans who laid the cultural, political and religious foundations of this great land were thoroughly Calvinistic in doctrine as were the men of political and religious influence during our country's revolutionary period.11 They understood that neither the Church nor the State could bind man's conscience. At the same time they recognized that the civil magistrate was under the authority of God and as His minister had the duty to govern well;

God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates, to be, under Him, over the people, for His own glory, and the public good: and, to this end, hath armed them with the power of the sword, for the defense and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evil doers,12

a statement very similar to that of John Calvin.

Thus, we come back to our central idea: the Christian Society. It is not brought about by an imposition of religion on the part of the Church nor the State but by the simple obedience of God's people. As each of us strives to bring our sphere of influence under the Lordship of Christ, the kingdom of God is realized.

Yet, just how far are we to go in our effort to walk even as Jesus walked? Specifically, how should a Christian politician govern? In other words, to what extent should the Christian magistrate allow his Christian beliefs to impact others through legislative action? Join me again next week as we continue to discuss the Christian Society and politics.

Until then...


1. See http://dewms.com/constitutions/constitutionsindex.php

2. Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Culture, (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2000), 34. Barzun is certainly no friend of John Calvin.

3. Otto Scott, The Great Christian Revolution: How Christianity Transformed the World, (Windsor: The Reformer Library, 1994), 57.

4. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeil, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), III.xix.15 and IV.xx.1

5. Calvin, Institutes, IV.xx.2

6. See, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment and http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php?&did=2347

7. http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php?scid=29&did=192

8. Scott, Christian Revolution, 62.

9. S. M. Houghton, Sketches From Church History, (Carlisle: the Banner Of Truth Trust, 1980), 108.

10. Scott, Christian Revolution, 70.

11. Russell Kirk, The Roots Of American Order, (Washington DC: Regnery Gateway, 1991).

12. The Westminster Confession Of Fatih, 23:1

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