July 4, 2015

John Calvin on the American Revolution

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, finished 217 years before the American War for Independence, John Calvin wrote a chapter on the concept of Civil Government and how Christians should think and behave with respect towards government authority.

In this chapter, he explains from numerous teachings of Scripture that believers are to be obedient to the authorities that God, by his Providence, has placed over them. Civil governments are instituted by God and designed for the good of people, and the institution should be respected as such. He argues forcefully that this principle even applies to unjust governments, and should guide Christian behavior even under severe tyranny.

Christian citizens are to leave vengeance to God and not to revolt against established authorities to right injustice, but instead should look to the Lord for deliverance and mercy, which he will often bring through the course of events.

The one exception to this nearly absolute injunction is in the case where the reigning authority mandates something which God has forbidden  or prohibits something which God has commanded. In that case, it is our duty to obey God rather than the unlawful command of the government, suffering whatever consequences may come as a result. Even in this case, however, we are not to attempt to overthrow or replace this government, but simply to obey God above it.

According to Calvin, all popular uprisings of people against their government would appear to violate these scriptural dictates. He summarizes by saying that "if the correction of unbridled despotism is the Lord's to avenge, let us not at once think that it is not entrusted to us, to whom no command has been given except to obey and suffer."

So, what would Calvin say of the American Revolution? On the surface, it would seem that the colonial revolt against imperial rule would be forbidden on the basis of these principles. However, in the next paragraph, he adds a clarification that adds a whole new dimension to the discussion:
"I am speaking all the while of private individuals. For if there are now any magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings…I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God's ordinance."
In other words, while private individuals have no place opposing the tyranny of unjust rulers, lesser authorities within a government, whose responsibility is to protect and govern the citizens, are not only authorized but obliged to resist the oppression of their subjects by the higher authority. Failure to do so would be an abdication of the responsibility placed on them by God.

It is this last scenario - the lesser magistrate opposing the unjust greater magistrate - that I think applies to the situation surrounding the American Revolution. Rather than an insurrection of citizens against their government (a la the French Revolution), the lawful authorities of the 13 states recognized the tyranny of the British government and acted on behalf of their subjects to free them from that oppression.

This is certainly a debatable perspective, but is the only way I see that the American Revolution could be understood to cohere with biblical principles regarding government.