In Romans 13:4, Paul calls the magistrate a “minister of God” (KJV), a Dei…minister (Vulg.); the ESV translates the relevant phrase as “God’s servant.”
Calvin agrees, echoing the language of the Vulgate in the Institutes’ prefatory address to King Francis and adding that the magistrate should acknowledge such to be the case:
“Siquidem et verum regem haec cogitatio facit, agnoscere se in regni administratione Dei ministrum.”1
“The characteristic of a true sovereign is, to acknowledge that, in the administration of his kingdom, he is a minister of God.” 2
Calvin in fact thinks this to be the case to such an extent that any other kind of rule is latrocinium, “robbery”:
“Nec iam regnum ille, sed latrocinium exercet, qui non in hoc regnet ut Dei gloriae servat.”
“He who does not make his reign subservient to the divine glory, acts the part not of a king, but a robber.”
How can this be? This would make it seem as though Calvin considers such government to be illegitimate, which would make obedience to it optional, or even forbidden. But clearly this is not what Calvin thinks, for he elsewhere writes that private citizens owe obedience even to wicked tyrants (see Institutes 4.20). Still, while such a government might be part of God’s secret providence for private citizens, Calvin seems evidently to have believed that, objectively considered vis-a-vis the revealed will of God, a magistrate that does not acknowledge his subservience to God is still in some sense “robbery,” insofar as it takes from God the glory due to him for his absolute and higher sovereignty over the affairs of men (higher, that is, than the magistrate’s sovereignty over the affairs of men). That is to say, withholding such an acknowledgement would put man in the place of God–a usurpation for which that man would one day have to give an account.
So, while there may be a sense in which such a regime is “legitimate,” lawful, from the point of view of those who owe it obedience, it nevertheless labors under the heavy burden of trying to live against the grain of reality; and so, in the natural course of things as revealed in Scripture, Calvin thinks, it will not be long for this world. The deception that is in place at the top will eventually filter down; call it “trickle-down foolishness.” An administration of this kind will in time collapse under its own vacuous weight.
“Porro fallitur qui diuturnam prosperitatem exspectat eius regni, quod Dei sceptro, hoc est, sancto eius verbo, non regitur: quando coeleste oraculum excidere non potest, quo edictum est, dissipatum iri populum defecerit prophetia (Prov. 29, 18).”
“He, moreover, deceives himself who anticipates long prosperity to any kingdom which is not ruled by the sceptre of God, that is, by his divine word. For the heavenly oracle is infallible which has declared, that “where there is no vision the people perish” (Prov. 29:18).”
It would be worthwhile to discuss further what Calvin means here by claiming that human kingdoms should be ruled by God’s “divine word,” since he elsewhere explicitly rejects instituting the Mosaic administration in post-Israelite polities. The answer to this question–the role of the “divine word” for civil government–would provide some clarity as to how Calvin can be both non-theonomic and yet find a place for the Word of God in the so-called “public square”: for without its own Shem and Japheth, Calvin seems to think, the nakedness of the public square will be exposed to humiliation and disintegration.