Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 2.13-16

1 Peter 2.13-16

[13] Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, [14] or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. [15] For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of the foolish. [16] Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.



The material in Calvin’s comment on these verses can be divided easily into two themes, the former being dominant and the latter appearing toward the end: civil government and Christian freedom.

Civil Government

Calvin’s teaching on civil government was the biggest hang-up that I had when I first began studying his theology a few years ago. But, as I have studied his understanding further, my worries have been largely set aside. This is not a wholesale endorsement, and there are ways to go about framing these questions in different ways than Calvin does, but no one should simply bypass Calvin’s position on these matters.

The heart of Calvin’s position is that “obedience is due to all who rule, because they have been raised to that honour not by chance, but by God’s providence.” Most people are generally fine with this as far as it goes, but a question soon arises: “What about when the ruler is ‘evil’ to greater or lesser degrees?” This is where Calvin’s position gets uncomfortable for most people (especially for Americans and our national pride in wanting to defend the rectitude of the political and military rebellion that established our independent existence). He affirms that “government established by God ought to be so highly valued by us, as to honour even tyrants when in power.”

Aside from the argument from God’s providence, Calvin offers one very practical reason for this affirmation, namely, that “some kind of government, however deformed and corrupt it may be, is still better and more beneficial than anarchy.” For Calvin, the very existence of government is a restraint for sin precisely because it involves the imposition of order (even if a vastly deformed order) on what would otherwise be the self-serving chaos of sin.

This brings us to an interesting twist in Calvin’s treatment of this passage. While the TNIV tells us to submit ourselves to “every human authority,” Calvin translates this as submission to “every ordinance of man.” This could be taken in two ways. First, it could refer to all laws made by human beings. This could become problematic if laws are made forbidding the proper worship of God. Calvin certainly does not want to say that we are to submit our freedom of conscience to laws made by human beings. Luckily, he does not have to go in that direction, because he has another way of interpreting this passage. Second, this phrase could refer to the “mode of living, well arranged and duly ordered…peculiar to men.” That is, this phrase refers to the order established by God for the purpose of the flourishing of human society. This, I would argue, is at the heart of why Calvin prefers government to anarchy.

But, enough digression. What of Calvin’s affirmation that we should obey even tyrannical governments? There are no outs for us in Calvin’s comment on this passage, but there is one in his treatment in the Institutes of the Christian Religion. After Calvin goes through his discussion of the need to obey and honor even tyrants, he adds this vital paragraph (this is the second to last paragraph in Book 4, and thus in the entire Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.20.31):
“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.”
That is, lesser magistrates may and must stand up to more powerful magistrates, or, lesser nobility may and must stand up to the higher levels of nobility, or, one branch of government may and must stand up to another branch of government. What this boils down to is that, although we must obey even tyrants, we are also morally obligated to resist those same tyrants by any and all lawful means. We can't be sure, but I imagine that Calvin might (on a good day) include unlawful but non-violent means as well.

Christian Freedom

I have written about freedom in the past. Calvin takes it up at the end of him comments on this passage. His position is somewhat dialectic: “those are free who serve God”, and “it is a free servitude, and a serving freedom.” The freedom that comes with being a Christian is not a freedom to be arbitrarily self-seeking. Rather, it is freedom from sin and for obedience to God and love of the neighbor. This requires that we exercise moderation, an important theme in Calvin’s treatment of this subject in the Institutes of the Christian Religion (3.19). As Calvin concludes in this section of his commentary:
“[I]ndeed, our consciences become free; but this prevents us not to serve God, who requires us also to be subject to men.”


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