I am beginning to think that it's a good idea to read Calvin along with the political philosophers. I can think of a very good reason for this. Calvin is reliant on traditional political distinctions that go back as far as St. Augustine, at least. These same ideas can be found in the seminal works of modern political philosophy. Calvin's thought is thus a bridge between the medieval world and modernity. At this point in the history of Western Civilization we are situated at a good vantage point to evaluate the consequences of these ideas as they have played themselves out.
Sociologist Steve Bruce has written a study on the impact of egalitarian and liberal democracy on religious practice entitled God is Dead: Secularization in the West. The cover of the paperback I bought shows an old stone church that has been converted into a discount warehouse for carpets. The facade of the church is plastered with signs advertising "Mike's Carpet Stores." Twenty feet away from the entrance, cars buzz by on their way to wherever modern people are in a hurry to go.
I can provide a personal anecdote to emphasize the point. A few years ago, my job took me to historic Santa Barbara on the California coast, a few hours north of Los Angeles. On my way walking through the downtown district, I happened upon an old Baptist church building built in 1928. Normally taking an interest in older church buildings, I was shocked to read the name of the church on the signboard in front. It read: "The Church of Skatan." The old church had been converted into a skateboarding retail shop!
On its website, the Gray and Gray Architects firm informs us that, "Working with a very creative owner, we were able to respect the traditional feeling of the church and capture the independent spirit of the skateboarder."
Certainly Calvin would be appalled about either of these new uses for old church buildings. So, what does modern day church desecration have to do with Augustine, Calvin and political philosophy? Simply this: Augustine and Calvin are part of an intellectual trajectory that has ultimately led to the relegation of religion to disembodied spirituality. Of course, they both believed in the institutional Church and sacraments, contributing greatly to our understanding, yet valuable insights can host the pathogens of error.
Let's consider how Calvin comments on our Lord's teaching on the occasion of his being questioned about tribute to Caesar. This conversation between Jesus and some Pharisaic disciples is recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels and is set in the exact same context.
The conversation took place in the closing stage of Jesus' prophetic ministry, in the days after his triumphant entrance into David's city. According to Mark's account(11:12ff.), on the day after riding into the city to the acclaim of the crowds, Jesus cursed a fig tree he found bearing no fruit. Then he entered into the Temple and violently drove out the money changers. Subsequently, Jesus began telling parables about the wickedness of Israel's leadership and the disinheritance of national Israel. All three Synoptics record the Parable of the Tenants, while only Matthew records the parables of the Two Sons and the Wedding Banquet at this place, which are both variations on the same theme.
Antagonized by Jesus' condemning words against them, the rabbis and chief priests began to seek ways to arrest him. So they pursued the tactic of trying to trick Jesus into saying something that would bring the wrath of the Roman authorities on his head. And so, because Jesus was claiming that he was the Messiah and anouncing the arrival of his kingdom, the Pharisees sought to demonstrate that Jesus was inciting rebellion against Caesar.
Their ruse took the form of asking Jesus if taxes should be paid to Caesar or not:
Jesus, perceiving their wickedness, saith, "Why do you tempt me, hypocrites? Show me the tribute money." And they presented to him a denarius. And he saith to them, "Whose is this image and inscription?" They say to him, "Caesar's." Then said he to them, "Render therefore to Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and to God the things which are God's."
Commenting on this passage, Calvin writes,
"Christ's reply does not leave the matter open, but contains full instruction on the question which had been proposed. It lays down a clear distinction between spiritual and civil government, in order to inform us that outward subjection does not prevent us from having within us a conscience free in the sight of God. For Christ intended to refute the error of those who did not think that they would be the people of God, unless they were free from every yoke of human authority. In like manner, Paul earnestly insists on this point, that they ought not the less to look upon themselves as serving God alone, if they obey human laws, if they pay tribute, and bend the neck to bear other burdens, (Romans 13:7.) In short, Christ declares that it is no violation of the authority of God, or any injury done to his service, if, in respect of outward government, the Jews obey the Romans."
Here, Calvin brings the traditional civil/spiritual distinction to bear, as if the Pharisees were asking Jesus how God's providential rule could possibly coexist with the rule of pagan Rome. Calvin shows that he misunderstands the issue when he so cavalierly glosses over the question of Roman tyranny, which was a grief to even the most spiritual Jew.
The Pharisees were not asking whether Israel's subservience to Caesar was inconsistent with God's providential rule over the world. They were fully aware that God had allowed the Babylonian exile and many other judgments to fall on their nation. Rather, they were challenging Jesus, in light of his messianic claims, to come out and openly call for revolt against Rome. Disbelieving in the validity of Jesus' claims, the Pharisees were hoping to precipitate a confrontation between Jesus and the Roman authorities.
According to Old Testament prophecy, the presence of Messiah meant the presence of the Kingdom. And the Jews understood that the Kingdom was to be inaugurated by a great event of national deliverance from oppression. This deliverance had not taken place, and so Jesus could not be the Messiah (acording to the faulty thinking of the Pharisees).
In his response to the Pharisees Jesus was saying something much more than that civil authority was distinct from God's spiritual rule: he was saying that Caesar's rule was fully compatible with the presence of the Messianic Kingdom.
A further inference we may draw (though admittedly not in view in this particular teaching of Christ's) is that the Roman emperor, as emperor, was an earthly agent of Messianic rule. Certainly involved with this was Jesus' assertion that his was a heavenly throne, a throne higher than any throne on earth (Matt. 22:44; 23:22; 26:64). Jesus was to ascend to a place of superintendance over Caesar, not a place of irrelevance to earthly politics.
At this point in my understanding of the Jewish leaders' response to Jesus, I can identify three basic reasons for their rejection of his claims: 1) He was exposing their hypocrisy, 2) He was making no moves to overthrow the Roman yoke (which they wanted but thought he was incapable of doing) and, 3) He claimed divine prerogatives that belonged only to God.
Even today, there are many who argue that Jesus cannot be ruling redemptively over the nations. He is only ruling spiritually in our hearts, because the present political state of affairs is incompatible with the blessedness of the messianic age. To this way of thinking, in order for the messianic reign to be actual, Caesar's reign must necessarily diminish proportionately.
A related charge is that Christ cannot now be reigning redemptively because of all the violence and injustice in the world. This was also a mistake the Pharisees made. The problem is that we are in a hurry and want everything accomplished all at once. However, God is not like us. He is patient and longsuffering, not willing that any should perish, but intending that the whole world should be saved (2 Peter 3:9; Jn. 3:16,17). We have already seen the Church pass through great trials over these last two thousand years. She has not been overthrown, but has overcome. Who knows what progress may yet be made in the aeons before Christ returns? Is the arm of the Lord shortened?
Jesus as much as said that Caesar is the earthly protector of Messiah's Kingdom on earth. St. Paul says this in Rom. 13:7. This is why he writes to Timothy that he should pray for "kings and all in authority" to establish peaceful conditions so that the Church can carry out its godly and holy vocation. This is pleasing to God who "wants all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim. 2:1-7). Why else would the apostle speak as he did of the universal scope of redemption (v.6) in the same breath that he exhorts Timothy to pray for kings and all authorities?
The Jewish leaders wanted all the political benefits of Messiah's reign without desiring the change of heart requisite to inherit the Kingdom. They wanted all the glory without the work of righteousness. They made this clear in the confrontation with Jesus over the source of his authority (Matt. 21:23-27; Mk. 11:27-33; Lk. 20:1-8). Jesus was acting in a very public way, performing symbolic actions of judgment and denouncing the Jewish leaders through parables and explicit condemnations. When the chief priests and elders confronted him to demand proof of his authority, Jesus responded with a question:
"I also will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I in like wise will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men?" And they reasoned with themselves, saying, "If we shall say, From heaven; he will say unto us, Why did ye not then believe him?" But if we shall say, Of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet." And they answered Jesus, and said, "We cannot tell." And he said unto them,"Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things."
John the Baptist came with a baptism of repentance. He anounced the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God. However, his ministry was not recognized by the elders of Israel, who did not believe his message, and who wanted to maintain their privelaged place. Likewise, they also did not believe Jesus.
As a consequence, the Kingdom was taken away from the Jews and given to a people (the Gentiles) who would produce its fruit (Matt. 21:43). In the phase of the Kingdom known as the "times of the Gentiles" (Lk. 21:24), Caesar has figured prominently, as every book of Church history attests.
Scripture and history agree that church and state perform complementary functions, both being instruments of Christ's mediatorial reign. As Calvin writes, "civil government has as its appointed end... to cherish and protect the outward worship of God, to defend sound doctrine and piety and the position of the church, to adjust our life to the society of men, to form our social behavior to civil righteousness, to reconcile us to one another, and to promote general peace and tranquillity" (Inst., IV. xx. 2.).
What Scripture makes plain is that Caesar is a vicar of Jesus' messianic reign. His specific task in this age is to establish the political conditions necessary for the peace and growth of the Church, which is the historical body of God's people on their pilgrimage to the New Jerusalem.
[Note: This is about the third--now final--revision I've made to this post, originally entitled "Calvin on Spiritual and Civil Government." I apologize for any confusion I may have caused my loyal readers. ;-) 6/21/06]