I kicked around a couple of titles for this final blog on the Institutes: God Be Praised vs Kiss the Son. Kiss the Son obviously won out, so let me explain.
God Be Praised had at least three things going for it. In the first place, thankfulness is always becoming since it is only by God’s grace that we go from one day to the next. Beginning any project is one thing, but finishing it is another. Thanks be to Him who sustained us throughout the year so that we were able to complete this richly rewarding reading assignment! Second, Calvin ended the Institutes with God Be Praised, and I was tempted to borrow that phrase as a tip of the hat to him. Third, I think God Be Praised does a decent job summarizing the legitimate role of all governments as Calvin has laid it out for us here.
But I picked Kiss the Son because Psalm 2 kept coming to mind as I read through chapter 20 of the Institutes, and I think the admonition therein more succinctly states the accountability and only proper response of all governing entities toward King Jesus:
Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Psa. 2:10-12, ESV)
If that quote makes anyone nervous, let’s establish something up front: Calvin was not a theonomist (nor am I)! Calvin’s position on that subject is clear enough (4:10.14), so don’t get tripped up by the double use of the negative:
For there are some who deny that any commonwealth is rightly framed which neglects the law of Moses, and is ruled by the common law of nations. How perilous and seditious these views are, let others see: for me it is enough to demonstrate that they are stupid and false. We must attend to the well known division which distributes the whole law of God, as promulgated by Moses, into the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial law, and we must attend to each of these parts, in order to understand how far they do, or do not, pertain to us.
By way of a slight digression, the orthodox view is that the moral law (the Ten Commandments) is still binding, but the ceremonial and civil laws of Israel are not. Theonomy (which may literally be defined as the rule of God through his law) holds that the civil laws are also equally binding on all nations in perpetuity. Theonomists are fond of pointing out that the civil laws in the Old Testament were merely extensions of the moral law, and as such are applicable today as they ever were to all nations and rulers. The major flaw in such an assertion lies in its failure to take into account the contextualization of the civil laws as they were given to Israel (Calvin noted this contextualization as well, see last sentences of 4.20.16). Space will not permit me to give a critique of theonomy, so I refer the interested reader to acquire and read Theonomy: A Reformed Critique.
Now that we have theonomy out of the picture, we need to be clear about something else. Although Calvin was not a proponent of theonomy, he still thought government had a role to play in maintaining the right worship of God, in keeping with the first table of the moral law. And he also saw the responsibility of government to uphold the second table of the law by doing everything according to the law of love (4.20.15):
The moral law, then (to begin with it), being contained under two heads, the one of which simply enjoins us to worship God with pure faith and piety, the other to embrace men with sincere affection, is the true and eternal rule of righteousness prescribed to the men of all nations and of all times, who would frame their life agreeably to the will of God. For his eternal and immutable will is, that we are all to worship him and mutually love one another. . . . But if it is true that each nation has been left at liberty to enact the laws which it judges to be beneficial, still these are always to be tested by the rule of charity, so that while they vary in form, they must proceed on the same principle. Those barbarous and savage laws, for instance, which conferred honour on thieves, allowed the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, and other things even fouler and more absurd, I do not think entitled to be considered as laws, since they are not only altogether abhorrent to justice, but to humanity and civilised life.
We may take a few other observations from our study of this final chapter of the Institutes. One is that Calvin was not a proponent of principled pluralism or secularism as a form of government either. Another is that Calvin was not a proponent of sedition or insurrection where bad or undesirable forms of government existed. He exhorted men to obey and suffer under a wicked ruler rather than revolt (4.20.31). At the end of the day he was no ivory-tower theologian theorizing on the best form of civil government, always pining for it to come along (i.e., waiting on the world to change!). He condemned such speculation as an idle pastime (and in the following one may detect the seed thoughts for western democracies):
And certainly it were a very idle occupation for private men to discuss what would be the best form of polity in the place where they live, seeing these deliberations cannot have any influence in determining any public matter. Then the thing itself could not be defined absolutely without rashness, since the nature of the discussion depends on circumstances. And if you compare the different states with each other, without regard to circumstances, it is not easy to determine which of these has the advantage in point of utility, so equal are the terms on which they meet. Monarchy is prone to tyranny. In an aristocracy, again, the tendency is not less to the faction of a few, while in popular ascendancy there is the strongest tendency to sedition. When these three forms of government, of which philosophers treat, are considered in themselves, I, for my part, am far from denying that the form which greatly surpasses the others is aristocracy, either pure or modified by popular government, not indeed in itself, but because it very rarely happens that kings so rule themselves as never to dissent from what is just and right, or are possessed of so much acuteness and prudence as always to see correctly. Owing, therefore, to the vices or defects of men, it is safer and more tolerable when several bear rule, that they may thus mutually assist, instruct, and admonish each other, and should any one be disposed to go too far, the others are censors and masters to curb his excess.”
So if anyone’s interest has been piqued by this deep subject of God and politics, I recommend another resource: God and Politics: Four Views on the Reformation of Civil Government. Appendix B therein lists twelve points of agreement among the four views, of which I will share seven in light of Psalm 2 (finally getting to it):
- The Word of God is authoritative.
- The ascended Christ is King over all creation.
- God requires civil officials to conduct their offices as His servants, ruling justly and recognizing the dignity of all persons as created in His image.
- Christians should resolutely resist the secularizing of society, as we presently see it, for example, in humanistic state education and disrespect for unborn life.
- Christians should obey and promote biblical precepts in political life, including its institutions and policies.
- To promote the goals in  and , Christians should develop strong families, churches, and organizations.
- Persuasion, not violence, is the only legitimate means to form and correct the civic mind in favor of a biblical position on issues or to obtain religious conversions.
We do well during this season of advent, as well as year round, to remind ourselves that King Jesus rules and reigns over all. The wisest course of action for kings and plebes everywhere in this life is to kiss the Son, and take refuge in Him, lest He be angry, and ye perish in the way.
Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:
Dec. 14: 4.20.2 – 4.20.7
Dec. 15: 4.20.8 – 4.20.11
Dec. 16: 4.20.12 – 4.20.18
Dec. 17: 4.20.19 – 4.20.26
Dec. 18: 4.20.274 – 4.20.32