The Political Theory of John Calvin -- By: G. Joseph Gatis

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 153:612 (Oct 1996)
Article: The Political Theory of John Calvin
Author: G. Joseph Gatis


The Political Theory of John Calvin

G. Joseph Gatis

[G. Joseph Gatis is an attorney and is currently a graduate student, primarily in First Amendment studies, at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.]

The well-known French reformer John Calvin advanced a doctrine of separation of church and state, not religion and state. Because God is sovereign, Calvin postulated that He should rule both church and state, since both are religious entities predicated on God’s authority, even though the two structures are distinct organizations. The state rules the church’s environs, maintaining domestic tranquility so that the church can execute its mission to evangelize and make disciples of all citizens. By fostering the maturity of its Christian flock, the church nurtures the state by producing model citizens; thus church and state are mutually inclined. The state is to have jurisdiction over temporal matters and the church is to have jurisdiction over doctrinal and spiritual matters, though both are to be religious. Theocracy and religiosity were fundamental to Calvin’s Reformed society, since he believed that the entire state should be ruled by God, draw its laws from God, and be devoted entirely to Him.1 Calvin’s political theory includes a distinction of church and state, checks and balances on power, the citizen’s submission to the state, and the state’s responsibility to God.

Calvin’s Theory of Church and State

Although church and state are to be distinct, Calvin said their spheres overlap. The church of Geneva was ruled by a representative body, the consistory. Nine pastors, elected by their several congregations, deliberated as men of the cloth; twelve elders and four syndics (executives), elected democratically by all church

members, represented the church. To hold any office, of course, a person had to be a church member in good standing. Voting was a right accorded on the basis of good standing within the church.

Ecclesiastical and political dimensions of the Genevan community interacted. Ecclesiastically, in the exercise of church discipline the consistory, nominated and elected by the church, could punish only by keeping people from the sacraments. If individuals were not sufficiently penitent, they were excommunicated, that is, kept from the sacraments (but still allowed to attend services) until they mended their ways.2 Politically, the impenitent were then remitted to the care of the small council. Three democratically elected bodies ruled the Genevan city-state—the two-hundred-member lower council, the council of sixty, and the co...

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