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Christian History Home > 1986 > Issue 12 > John Calvin: One of the Fathers of Modern Democracy

John Calvin: One of the Fathers of Modern Democracy
W. STANFORD REID Dr. W. Stanford Reid is Emeritus Professor University of Guelph in Canada | posted 10/01/1986 12:00AM

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Over the years, various theories have arisen concerning John Calvin’s political views. Some have viewed him as a virtual dictator, “the pope of Geneva.” Others have felt he was a master of dissimulation who always got his own dictatorial views across by subtle means. Yet others have suggested that he was one of the founders of modern democracy. Which view, if any, is correct?

To understand Calvin’s views on political government, one must understand the political context of his day. Democratic forms of government were on the decline. Even those countries which had tended towards more democratic forms of government (e.g., the Estates General in France, Parliament in England and Scotland, and the Imperial Diet in the Holy Roman Empire) were reversing that trend. Democratic institutions still existed, but any power which they possessed had been largely taken away by the absolute monarchs. These rulers sought to imitate and practice the ideas set forth in Niccolo Machiavelli’s (1469–1527) famous book, The Prince. Machiavelli advised princes on how to achieve absolute power.

The claims of the worldly princes were challenged by the popes, who viewed themselves as the spiritual rulers of the world. As the representatives of Christ, the popes asserted their right, not only to persecute those who disagreed with the Roman Catholic Church, but even to depose monarchs who refused to obey their orders. (Pius V asserted this right when he decreed that Elizabeth be deposed from the throne of England.) Democracy had few supporters in places of power in the early sixteenth century.

One must also take into account Calvin’s own background and training. The son of a Picard lawyer, he was at first destined for the priesthood. But his father, after a conflict with the local bishop, ordered Calvin to leave Paris, where he had been studying, and go to Orleans to study law. It was not long before he heard that one of the innovative humanist lawyers, Andre Alciat from Italy, was teaching at Bourges. While Calvin apparently did not like him personally, he learned much from him, particularly the new ways of studying and analyzing historical legal sources. This fit well with the training which he had already received in Paris, so that Calvin’s training prepared him to be both a humanist scholar and a lawyer.

Probably even more important was the fact that, during his studies at Bourges, he seems to have accepted the teachings of the new religious movement which we know as the Reformation. By this time, Luther’s teachings had spread widely, even in France. There was also the reforming activity of Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich and the Anabaptists in Switzerland and Germany. Calvin undoubtedly had some knowledge of their beliefs early in his Christian experience. His acquaintance with their views certainly increased as the years passed.

All these various influences entered into Calvin’s political thinking, whether he agreed with them or not. Luther thought of the ruler as being supreme over the church in all such worldly matters as property and even organization, but he insisted that this authority stopped at the foot of the pulpit. Zwingli, on the other hand, allowed the civil ruler nearly total control over the church. In contrast to all, the Anabaptists would have nothing to do with the civil authorities. The responsibilities of the civil government, the Anabaptist said, were limited to non-Christians. True Christians did not require civil supervision, since they already obeyed God’s law. By the time the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion appeared in 1536, Calvin had considerable knowledge of these varying views, as well as those of classical writers such as Seneca and Cicero. He also probably knew the works of Jean de Terre Rouge (c. 1418) and Claude de Seyssel (c. 1519), who had written works stressing the limitations of royal absolutism.

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