Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Frazer Replies on the Calvinist Resisters

Gregg Frazer sends along the below note that pertains to this post and its ensuing discussion in the comments on the followers of John Calvin who promoted "resistance" to unjust governments.


By submitting some of what Calvin said, I was not saying – or even suggesting – that Calvin is the only or final word on Reformed theology.  I just thought it logical and helpful in response to a post entitled “The Problem with Calvinist Resistance Theory: John Calvin Himself” to hear from John Calvin himself.  No?   I would be the last person to recognize any pope.

Furthermore, as Mr. Van Dyke notes, “the American Revolution was largely led by ‘Calvinists’”; therefore, in a blog about American Creation, Calvinist thought seems to be more to the point than that of others.

Re Calvin’s 1560 sermon on Melchizedek that Mark references: Calvin’s suggestion that Abraham saved his people via a “special vocation” from God was not a “more radical” approach to this question.  Mark did not mention that in the sermon, Calvin maintains that “it is absolutely forbidden to any private individual to take up arms” because this would “despoil God of his honor and right.”  He goes on to say that “private individuals must absolutely abstain from all violence” and therefore must “have the courage to suffer when it pleases God to cast them down.”

It is also not a new approach for Calvin.  In the Institutes (24 years earlier), Calvin recognizes that God “sometimes raises up avengers from amongst his servants, designated and commanded by Him to punish the tyranny of vicious men and to deliver the oppressed from their wretched calamities; at other times He turns the frenzy of men who intended something quite different to the same end” [this latter part being what he sometimes calls God’s use of “the instrumentality of the wicked” – i.e. God taking men’s evil actions/desires and using them to fulfill His plan (e.g. Genesis 50:20 and, for that matter, the crucifixion of Christ)].

Lest someone get the wrong idea that he’s advocating people deciding on their own to rebel, Calvin explains:

“[These avengers} were summoned to punish these crimes by a lawful calling from God; they did not in the least violate the majesty with which kings are endowed by divine ordinance when they took up arms against kings.

"Armed by heaven, they subjugated a lesser power by a greater, in just the same way that kings are entitled to punish their own officials.  The latter [frenzied men who rebelled on their own], by contrast, did God’s work without knowing it, for all that they intended to do was commit crimes [emphasis mine].  All the same, it was the hand of God that directed them do His bidding.”  [Institutes, Book 4, chap. 20, section 30]

He follows that immediately with: “it was the Lord who by these instruments carried out His just purpose.  …  As for us, however, let us take the greatest possible care never to hold in contempt, or trespass upon, that plenitude of authority of magistrates … even when it is exercised by individuals who are wholly unworthy of it and who do their best to defile it by their wickedness.”  That is immediately followed by the quote under #31 in my previous comment which explains that punishment of tyrants is God’s work – not ours.  That explains the Abraham example and many others – God removes tyrants, sometimes using human efforts, sometimes not.  Sometimes He uses special deliverers that He appoints, sometimes he simply uses the evil efforts of men/the people.  None of that justifies or supports self-determined action by individuals or bodies of people.

He concludes with: “we are not to imagine that it is we ourselves who have been called upon to inflict it. All that has been assigned to us is to obey and suffer.”  Calvin’s conclusion about suffering in the Melchizedek sermon and his conclusion about suffering here points to an important difference between what Calvin and Calvinists say and emphasize.   Many of the Calvinists have lost the biblical notion of suffering, which is an important part of apostolic – and Calvin’s – teaching.

Because of an unwillingness to recognize that we might have to suffer in order to be obedient to God, some take Calvin’s instruction that we might have to disobey as instruction to rebel.  In the book of Daniel, for example, Calvin comments on two circumstances in which believers had to disobey the king in order to be obedient to God.  Mark’s quote from Calvin’s Daniel commentary is in the context of Dan. 6:22 in which Daniel tells the king that God honored him and protected him from the lions in the lions den because Daniel had “committed no crime” against the king [Calvin puts that in italics to emphasize it].  Calvin says: “It is clear that the Prophet had violated the king’s edict. Why, then, does he not ingenuously confess this? Nay, why does he contend that he has not transgressed against the king? Because he conducted himself with fidelity in all his duties, he could free himself from every calumny … as if he had despised the king’s sovereignty.”  Calvin is noting that Daniel did not challenge the king’s authority, just one command.  He proved it through his subjection to punishment. Calvin also notes that Daniel prayed for the king’s welfare from the den!  He did not seek to remove himself from subjection to the king – quite the contrary.

Daniel had to obey God rather than the king – i.e. he had to disobey the king’s specific command that required him to disobey God – but he did not go the step further of refusing submission to the king by rebelling against his authority.  Daniel did not challenge the authority of the king; he challenged the legitimacy of a specific command of the king that would “spoil God of His rights” and was intended to place Darius above God.  Daniel disobeyed a specific command, but neither organized rebellion nor countenanced it – and neither did Calvin.  Daniel remained subject to Darius by taking the punishment; he did not deny that Darius had the right to punish him. When Calvin speaks of resisting, it is resisting edicts and commands – not rulers.

In Mark’s quote from the Daniel commentary, Calvin is advocating disobedience (in the “one exception to that obedience which … is due to the commands of rulers” [Institutes, Book 4, chap. 20, section 32]) but not rebellion. For Calvin, this is the one exception to the rule of obedience – there is no proper “broader reading” if he recognizes only one exception.  Those rulers who “rise up against God” are removed by God – not the people – in Calvin’s economy.

Likewise with Shadrach, Meschach, and Abed-nego in chapter 3 of the book of Daniel.  They had to disobey Nebuchadnezzar because he demanded false worship from them, but they did not organize or support rebellion.  They remained in subjection to Nebuchadnezzar by taking the punishment and going into the fiery furnace.  In each case – the lions den and the fiery furnace – God honored their obedience to Him and their subjection to Nebuchadnezzar (which, by the way, God Himself had specifically commanded the exiles to do in Jeremiah 27: 1-12).

The end result in each case – as well as other cases in the Bible of required disobedience, but continued subjection – was that God was glorified (Dan. 3:29; 4:1-3; & 6:25-27) and those who put themselves in a position of suffering in order to obey God, but remained subject to earthly authority, were blessed: (Dan. 3:30 & 6:28).   Is it likely that God would have been glorified by these kings if God’s people had launched a rebellion?  Calvin actually makes this very point, saying that Daniel understood that this “arose from God’s wishing to testify by a certain and clear proof his approval of that worship for which Daniel had contended even to death” and in the case of the three young men, “thus the greatness of His [God’s] power is acknowledged.” He emphasizes that Nebuchadnezzar learned from this experience that it was not his place to claim authority to be worshiped.

If there was a rebellion, the only lessons learned by these kings – and by those who’ve read the book of Daniel for centuries – would be about power politics.  It might as well have been written by Machiavelli.

Calvin also emphasizes that the three men did not leave the furnace until the king commanded them to do so “because God had issued no command.”  Calvin stresses that they waited for the king to command them; that is because they remained subject to him despite all that had happened and there was no command from God one way or the other that might supersede the king’s command.

In Calvin’s discussion of chapter 4 of the book of Daniel, he says the following concerning Daniel and Belteshazzar:

“he wished so horrible a punishment to be turned away from the person of the king; for although he might deservedly have detested him, yet he reverenced the power divinely assigned to him. Let us learn, therefore, from the Prophet’s example, to pray for blessings on our enemies who desire to destroy us, and especially for tyrants if it please God to subject us to their lust; for although they are unworthy of any of the feelings of humanity, yet we must modestly bear their yoke, because they could not be our governors without God’s permission; and not only for wrath, as Paul admonishes us, but for conscience’ sake (Rom. xiii.5), otherwise we should not only rebel against them, but against God Himself.”

Mark is right that Calvin did not embrace “passive obedience” in a universal sense (because he recognized one exception), but wrong on the other half of the phrase: Calvin did embrace “unconditional submission,” as did Paul (Rom. 13:1-2), Peter (I Peter 2:13-14, 20-23), and Jesus (John 19:11).  “Subjection/submission” [hupotasso] and “obedience” [peitharcheo] are different words both in Greek and in English.

As for Mark’s claim that Calvin sanctioned and encouraged “resistance by lesser magistrates” and “active resistance to tyrants,” I would very much like to see the evidence for that – maybe just a few citations.  I have not found any such evidence in my study, but more importantly, Cambridge scholar Quentin Skinner says that “Calvin never alludes to the concept of inferior magistrates in this (Book 4, chap. 20) or any other discussion about political resistance ….”

Rather, Calvin speaks of “popular magistrates” [populares magistratus] – a particular type of inferior magistrate that is appointed for the specific purpose of “moderating the power of kings” on behalf of the people.  They are established with constitutional/system power to restrain kings from within the system of government.  There is no indication of any use of force or rebellion or anything outside of the workings of the system. So that he would not be misunderstood, Calvin gave three carefully chosen examples: the ephors of the Spartans, the tribunes of Rome, and the demarchs of the Athenians. Each of these bears out this description.

Calvin says “It may be” that such magistrates are established in a regime and “if” such magistrates are so established, they should act according to “their duty” for which they have taken an “oath.”  There are lesser/inferior magistrates in every regime, but there are not always (or even often) magistrates such as this who are established within the system to restrain the monarch.  And there is no talk of violent overthrow or rebellion or anything beyond “duty” for which such officers have sworn an “oath.”  The historical examples that he provides illustrate this point, but are too often ignored.

If this refers to all inferior/lesser magistrates, why does Calvin preface his remarks with conditional terms such as “it may be” and “if”?  And why doesn’t he call them simply “inferior” or “lesser” magistrates?  Why the specific terms if he means any/all?

I agree with Mark’s implied explanation that this strain of political thought emerged because of certain people’s experience with suffering and death at the hands of tyrants – as opposed to having a biblical basis and being biblical truth that would make personal experience irrelevant (as per the thousands of martyrs in the early church and throughout church history to the present day – including the apostles and Jesus).  John Knox is at least honest enough to admit that he changed his view of the subject because of the suffering of his friends.

In one sense, I agree with Mark’s Clintonesque “what difference does it make now?” paragraph.  The latter part of the claim is clearly true.  And clearly, this part of the Reformed tradition did not begin and end with John Calvin, as he did not subscribe to it; so we agree on that.  It did not begin or end with him.

Here’s the rub: to say that there was a Reformed tradition – in some circles – that justified “active resistance” (your polite codeword for “rebellion”) is demonstrably true.  As per Mark’s request, I’ll say: they were wrong.

To say that it was that tradition instead of what the participants actually cited and claimed that inspired/motivated the bulk of those who engaged in the American Revolution is highly debatable.  Also highly debatable, as I’ve attempted to show here, is the notion that Calvin is responsible for this anti-biblical notion.  Someone needs to defend Calvin’s honor.  If I’ve done an inadequate job here, I apologize to Calvin.



Tom Van Dyke said...

It seems to me the relevant question here is whether Calvin was argued against his "successor" Beza and the entire chain of "Reformed Resistance Theory" writers, just as Gregg does here.

And if so, to what effect, how influential?

It seems to me that without evidence to that effect, this entire post is not only academic, but an exercise in theology, not history. On this subject the Institutes are irrelevant to the Founding history's text; it is merely a footnote.

[C]learly, this part of the Reformed tradition did not begin and end with John Calvin, as he did not subscribe to it; so we agree on that. It did not begin or end with him.

Here’s the rub: to say that there was a Reformed tradition – in some circles – that justified “active resistance” (your polite codeword for “rebellion”) is demonstrably true. As per Mark’s request, I’ll say: they were wrong.

Mark David Hall said...

Gregg and Andrew Seidel apparently went to the same school of biblical exegesis. He writes:

“The Christian bible stands directly opposed to the Declaration’s central ideas” and, after quoting Romans 13, he asserts that “Paul could not have been clearer. Rulers, like King George III, must be obeyed as a matter of conscience.” Andrew Seidel, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American (New York: Sterling, 2019), 59-60.

Almost every Reformed writer who addressed this subject disagreed. So did the American patriots.