This week’s post was inspired by a recent book review on the site.

On Secular Authority by Luther and Calvin is a very intriguing and thought-provoking text that addresses two basic questions:

1. For Christians, what role should secular government play in our lives?

2. Should we be obedient to God, the State, or both?

Notably, the scriptures in the Bible always remain the same, but the interpretations of those who read them differ. This point is particularly relevant today since many political and religious demagogues use the Bible as a means to justify their proposals and actions.

On Secular Authority provides two insightful perspectives on the role of civil government in a Christian’s life and allows you to think and form your own opinion.

The answers to the above questions are provided through select passages from the writings of two well-renowned theologians: Martin Luther (a German monk who spearheaded the Protestant Reformation) and John Calvin (a French minister and the father of Calvinism).

In short, both men recognized the authority, necessity, and explicit distinctions between divine and secular authority. Both also recognized that the former reigns supreme and that the Christian’s primary allegiance is to God and not the State. That being said, both had divergent interpretations as what that actually means for the Christian in secular society.

Calvin viewed secular authority as an extension of divine authority, and thus, all owe their allegiance to the former since the latter preordained it. This applies to good regimes and even to evil, unjust regimes, which Calvin supposed are institutions implemented by God to punish iniquities in general. He said, “Those who govern for the public good are true examples and signs of his goodness; those who govern unjustly and intemperately have been raised up by him to punish the iniquity of people.” He further states that the respect of authority extends to the wives and children of unjust men, who were put there under divine command and thus must be respected.

Calvin’s concept of princes and magistrates as infallible is taken to an absurd extreme when he posited, “Taxes of various kinds are the legitimate revenue of princes. They should empty them in the main to defray the public expenses they incur by virtue of their office, but they may also use them to maintain the splendor of their households, a thing linked in a certain way to the dignity of the high office they bear.” Many people nowadays would have a very hard time taking being taxed seriously so that their local elected official could spend millions for the “splendor” of his mansion.

Generally, Calvin had a more optimistic view of mankind and believed that the government should be used as a tool to mold the hearts of men into more upright, righteous people. He said that “civil government has its appointed end … to cherish and protect the outward worship of God, to defend sound doctrine of 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 with one another, and to promote general peace and tranquility.” Note the use of proactive verbs to highlight the functions of control: “defend,” “adjust,” “form,” and “promote.”

Luther, on the other hand, had a more pessimistic view of humanity and divided humans into two groups: the believers and the nonbelievers. He thought the former group to be in the minority, and among them, the people who actually acted as they should are few and far between. Accordingly, he suggested that the State exists not to play such an aggressive role in society and should only punish evil (a more negative formulation) when it happens, cognizant that without some form of secular organization, the evil that men are predisposed to do would run amok. Luther thought Christians didn’t essentially need secular authority because if they lived according to divine law, there would be no need to obey the subordinate powers that be. However, he still contended that Christians, for the sake of others and to lead by example, ought to obey secular laws when not in contradiction to the scriptures.

Luther’s writings warned not to “[reduce] Christ’s commands to mere ‘counsels’ for [the rulers’] sake.” He also stated that “God Almighty has driven our princes mad: they really think they can command their subjects whatever they like and do with them as they please. And their subjects are just as deluded, and believe (wrongly) that they must obey them in all things.” In short, Luther concluded that the purpose of secular authority could be summarized quite succinctly: “to punish the wicked and to protect the just.”

Luther deviated from Calvin in that he realized that the righteousness of individuals is not inherent in works; the only thing that matters is a person’s inward form or heart condition, which can only be evaluated by God. Hence, any attempt to make people more perfect by telling them what and what not to do is a futile exercise. Free will entails the freedom to choose both wisely and poorly, and anyone who is inhibited in their free choice can therefore not freely choose God.

Consequently, Luther had much to say against paternalism and any attempt by the State or the church to impose its beliefs, and therefore prescribe behavior, on others. He says, “No one can or should lay down commandments for the soul, except those who can point it on the way to heaven. But no human being can do that; only God … For no human being can kill the soul or bring it to life, or lead it to heaven or hell … [How] can a human being see, know, judge and change hearts? That is reserved for God alone … And therefore it is impossible and futile to command or coerce someone to believe this or that.” One of his most powerful assertions is “now if [even] the Church, the spiritual government, only rules over matters that are public and open, by what right does secular authority, in its folly, presume to judge a thing as secret, spiritual, hidden as faith?” Luther concluded that the written law is a product of reason, and therefore, one should never keep reason imprisoned by its subordinate.

I believe what Luther and Calvin realized is that a potential to live in a perfect society here on earth exists, yet as a function of our tainted nature, that potential can never be realized. Luther seemed to have accepted this fact and strove to work with what we have, while Calvin apparently had grander and stronger aspirations.

In the end, human beings will always be incapable of loving one another perfectly, and therefore, our struggle for perfect justice, order, and against evil will, at best, always be less than ideal. Hence, we cannot aim or try to live in a perfect world, but we can attempt to navigate the imperfect realm in which we dwell. This is a topic Reinhold Niebuhr has written many fruitful essays on during his impressive career as a theologian. At some time, we must all reconcile with the fact that the prescription of my own ideal for you portends the archetype of a master-slave relationship; this archetype persists regardless of the intent of the prescription. And such a nuisance will not cease (and often is fueled by moral validation) until the master successfully whips the inner core of the slave into shape. Paternalism demotes the recipient of “redemption,” “humanitarian aid,” or “moral crusades” into something more like an object to be molded instead of a respected, conscious, and free-willed person. Until we all realize that the imposition of one’s will upon another not only disregards them but also turns us into agents of dehumanization, there will be no escaping from the precarious paradigm of the master and the slave and all the oppression that it entails.


Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal

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Posted in Opinion, Politics, Religion
  1. Kendrick says:

    The book mentioned gives a small lens into both men’s vast library of writings. It gives the highlights but by no means is comprehensive. Luther, for instance, was notoriously anti-Semitic, and Calvin (a lawyer) dove so deep into his idea of a civil society that he developed schedules for workers in different trades in his ideal city.

  2. Tom says:

    “In the end, human beings will always be incapable of loving one another perfectly, and therefore, our struggle for perfect justice, order, and against evil will, at best, always be less than ideal.”

    True, and most people think evil is something that can actually be defeated. If it could, that battle would have been fought and won long ago.

  3. FreeEverything says:

    all of these religious demagogues in some way try to impose their view of a perfect world but the world doesn’t want their perfection, they just want to go about their business.

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