One might conclude, if he reads John Calvin’s political theology selectively (especially the passages on obedience to the magistrate howsoever despotic he may be), that the disciplinarian master of Geneva (sic) doesn’t do much more than make citizens into toadies for tyrants.
That’s not quite the case, however, as is well known from his doctrine of the “lesser magistrate.”1 But that Calvin allows some space for opposition to the magistrate’s injustice is also clear from his exegesis of John the Baptist’s rebuke of Herod in his Harmony of the Gospels commentary:
Ignorance of history has led many persons into a fruitless debate; “Have I a right to marry the woman who was formerly married to my brother?” Though the modesty of nature recoils from such a marriage, 357 yet John condemns the rape still more than the incest; for it was by violence or by stratagem 358 that Herod had deprived his brother of his lawful wife: and otherwise it would have been less lawful for him to marry his niece than to marry his brother’s widow. There cannot be a doubt, that a crime so flagrant was universally blamed. But others loaded Herod with their curses in his absence. John alone comes into his presence, and reproves him boldly to his face, if by any means he may be brought to repentance. Hence we learn with what unshaken fortitude the servants of God ought to be armed when they have to do with princes; for in almost every court hypocrisy and servile flattery are prevalent; and the ears of princes, having been accustomed to this smooth language, do not tolerate any voice which reproves their vices with any severity. But as a prophet of God ought not to overlook so shocking a crime, John steps forward, though a disagreeable and unwelcome adviser, and, rather than fail in his duty, scruples not to incur the frown of the tyrant, even though he knew Herod to be so strongly held by the snares of the prostitute, that he could scarcely be moved from his purpose.
But Mark glances only at what prevented Herod from yielding immediately to the entreaties of the prostitute; for Herodias would have wished that, as soon as John was thrown into prison, he should be privately executed. Herod, on the contrary, reverenced the holy man, so far as even to comply willingly with his advises: Herod feared John Now the fear which is here mentioned, was not a dread arising from a mistaken opinion, as we dread those who have obtained some authority over us, though we reckon them to be unworthy of the honor. But this fear was a voluntary respect; for Herod was convinced that he was a holy man and a faithful servant of God, and therefore did not dare to despise him. 360 And this deserves our attention; for though John knew by experience that it was, in many respects, advantageous for him to have some share in the good wishes of the tetrarch, 361 yet he was not afraid to offend him, when he could find no other way of securing that favor, than by wickedly conniving at a known and disgraceful crime. He might indeed have protested that he did not at all consult his private interests, and that he had no other object in view than the public advantage; for it is certain that he requested nothing from motives of ambition 362 but that Herod yielded to his holy counsels, which had a reference to the lawful administration of the kingdom. But as he perceives that he has no right to accept this kind of compensation, 363 which would procure for him some kind offices by betraying the truth, he chooses rather to turn a friend into an enemy than to encourage, by flattery or silence, an evil which he is laid under the necessity of reproving with severity.
John has thus, by his example, furnished an undoubted rule for pious teachers, not to wink at the faults of princes, so as to purchase their favor at this price, how advantageous soever that favor might appear to be to the public interests. 364 In Herod, on the other hand, the Spirit of God exhibits, as in a mirror, how frequently it happens that those who do not sincerely worship God are nevertheless willing, in some measure, to obey His commands, provided that He will grant them some indulgence or abatement. But whenever they are hard pressed, they throw off the yoke, and break out not only into obstinacy, but into rage. There is no reason, therefore, why they who comply with many sound advises should be well satisfied with themselves, till they have learned to yield and surrender themselves unreservedly to God.
A couple of things stand out. (1) The “servants of God” may rebuke the magistrate for violation not simply of “what the Bible says,” but also for violation of the law of nature (in this case, even for private violation of the law of nature in one’s own conduct). (2) The goal of such rebuke is repentance. (3) It is easier to flatter or be silent, particularly under the pretense that one can “do more good” by maintaining a place at the table and being respectable in the eyes of one’s superiors. Obviously room must be made for prudence here; Calvin only insists that silence not be kept–and certainly that approval not be given–in order to “purchase…favor” at the price of that silence or approval. One must not be a flatterer or tickler of ears. (4) John is to serve as an example for “pious teachers.” (5) Herod is a speculum principis and shows the various ways in which the magistrate might relate to God. Even an impious magistrate might show some restraint and deference toward God as long as God is kind toward him. But when he is cut to the quick, he will lash out in fury. Thus, what such a magistrate needs to do (again) is to repent (though Calvin would not think this some sort of magic charm that ipso facto enables the magistrate to steer the ship of state aright). (6) Opposition of the kind given by John the Baptist will often have a cost, even a grievous one.
What can we conclude? For Calvin, the confrontation between John the Baptist and Herod is not an aberration in redemptive history; it is rather exemplary. It indicates a kind of parrhesia that ought to obtain as a possibility in the face of even the most cruel tyrant. Subjection to such a person does not void the moral agency of the subjected, who, if given the opportunity, may issue even stinging rebukes.
Why? Justice is not the servant of the prince, but vice versa. As Cicero says in On the Laws, “what is just is based, not on opinion, but on nature” (1.28); “[i]t is insane to suppose that [virtues and vices] are matters of opinion and not grounded in nature” (1.45); and if communities pass “harmful and pernicious measures,” these measures “come no closer to the name of laws than if a gang of criminals agreed to make some rules” (2.13). Regardless of the power differential existing between the magistrate and the magister, all are subject to the same justice; and Calvin finds in this passage a mirror of each.
- For a fruitful investigation of this idea in Calvin and of its afterlife in later writers, see Andrew Fulford’s essay in For the Healing of the Nations.