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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 101. The Civil Government.


On civil government see Institutes, IV. ch. XX., De politica administratione (in Tholuck’s ed. II. 475–496).


Calvin discusses the nature and function of Civil Government at length, and with the ability and wisdom of a statesman, in the last chapter of his Institutes.

He holds that the Church is consistent with all forms of government and social conditions, even with civil servitude (1 Cor. 7:21). But some kind of government is as necessary to mankind in this world as bread and water, light and air; and it is far more excellent, since it protects life and property, maintains law and order, and enables men to live peaceably together, and to pursue their several avocations.

As to the different forms of government, Calvin discusses the merits of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. All are compatible with Christianity and command our obedience. All have their advantages and dangers. Monarchy easily degenerates into despotism, aristocracy into oligarchy or the faction of a few, democracy into mobocracy and sedition. He gives the preference to a mixture of aristocracy and democracy. He infused a more aristocratic spirit into the democratic Republic of Geneva, and saw a precedent in the government of Moses with seventy elders elected from the wisest and best of the people. It is safer, he thinks, for the government to be in the hands of many than of one, for they may afford each other assistance, and restrain arrogance and ambition.

Civil government is of divine origin. "All power is ordained of God" (Rom. 13:1). "By me kings reign, and princes decree justice" (Prov. 8:15). The magistrates are called "gods "(Ps. 82:1, 6; a passage indorsed by Christ, John 10:35), because they are invested with God’s authority and act as his vicegerents. "Civil magistracy is not only holy and legitimate, but far the most sacred and honorable in human life." Submission to lawful government is the duty of every citizen. To resist it, is to set at naught the ordinance of God (Rom. 13:3, 4; comp. Tit. 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13, 14). Paul admonishes Timothy that in the public congregation "supplication, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings be made for kings and for all that are in high places; that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and gravity" (1 Tim. 2:1, 2). We must obey and pray even for bad rulers, and endure in patience and humility till God exercises his judgment. The punishment of evildoers belongs only to God and to the magistrates. Sometimes God punishes the people by wicked rulers, and punishes these by other bad rulers. We, as individuals, must suffer rather than rebel. Only in one case are we required to disobey,—when the civil ruler commands us to do anything against the will of God and against our conscience. Then, we must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).668668    He concludes his Institutes with this sentence: "Since this edict has been proclaimed by that celestial herald, Peter, ’we must obey God rather than men,’ let us console ourselves with this thought, that we truly perform the obedience which God requires of us, when we suffer anything rather than deviate from piety. And that our hearts may not fail us, Paul stimulates us with another consideration: that Christ has redeemed us at the immense price which our redemption cost him, that we may not be submissive to the corrupt desires of men, much less be slaves to their impiety " (1 Cor. 7:23).

Calvin was thus a strong upholder of authority in the State. He did not advise or encourage the active resistance of the Huguenots at the beginning of the civil wars in France, although he gave a tacit consent.

Calvin extended the authority and duty of civil government to both Tables of the Law. He assigns to it, in Christian society, the office,—"to cherish and support the external worship of God, to preserve the true doctrine of religion, to defend the constitution of the Church, and to regulate our lives in a manner requisite for the social welfare." He proves this view from the Old Testament, and quotes the passage in Isaiah 49:23, that "kings shall be nursing-fathers and queens nursing-mothers" to the Church. He refers to the examples of Moses, Joshua and the Judges, David, Josiah, and Hezekiah.

Here is the critical point where religious persecution by the State comes in as an inevitable consequence. Offences against the Church are offences against the State, and vice versa, and deserve punishment by fines, imprisonment, exile, and, if necessary, by death. On this ground the execution of Servetus and other heretics was justified by all who held the same theory; fortunately, it has no support whatever in the New Testament, but is directly contrary to the spirit of the gospel.

Geneva, after the emancipation from the power of the bishop and the duke of Savoy, was a self-governing Republic under the protection of Bern and the Swiss Confederacy. The civil government assumed the episcopal power, and exercised it first in favor, then against, and at last permanently for the Reformation.

The Republic was composed of all citizens of age, who met annually in general assembly (conseil général), usually in St. Peter’s, under the sounding of bells, and trumpets, for the ratification of laws and the election of officers. The administrative power was lodged in four Syndics; the legislative power in two Councils, the Council of Sixty, and the Council of Two Hundred. The former existed since 1457; the latter was instituted in 1526, after the alliance with Freiburg and Bern, in imitation of the Constitution of these and other Swiss cities. The Sixty were by right members of the Council of Two Hundred. In 1530 the Two Hundred assumed the right to elect the ordinary or little Council of Twenty-Five, who were a part of the two other Councils and had previously been elected by the Syndics. The real power lay in the hands of the Syndics and the little Council of Twenty-five, which formed an oligarchy with legislative, executive, and judicial functions.

Calvin did not change these fundamental institutions of the Republic, but he infused into them a Christian and disciplinary spirit, and improved the legislation. He was appointed, together with the Syndics Roset, Porral, and Balard, to draw up a new code of laws, as early as Nov. 1, 1541.669669    Reg. du Conseil, in Annal. vol. XXI. 287. Comp. vol. X. Pars I. 125 He devoted much time to this work, and paid attention even to the minutest details concerning the administration of justice, the city police, the military, the firemen, the watchmen on the tower, and the like.670670    In the Grand Ducal Library of Gotha are preserved several drafts of Calvin, in his own handwriting, on the various departments of civil government, especially the reform of judicial proceedings. They are published in Opera, X. Pars I. 125-146. "Nicht ohne Bewunderung," says Kampschulte (I. 416), "sehen wir in ihnen den gelehrten Verfasser der Institution selbst den untergeordneten Fragen der städtischen Verwaltung und Polizei seine Aufmerksamkeit zuwenden. Da finden wir ausführliche Instructionen für den Bauaufseher, Anordnungen für den Fall einer Feuersbrunst, Anweisungen für den Aufseher des städtischen Geschützwesens, Verhaltungsregeln sogar für den Nachtwächter, für die Ketten-, Thor-, und Thurmhüter."

The city showed her gratitude by presenting him with "a cask of old wine" for these extra services.671671    "Resoluz quil luy soyt donnéung bossot de vin vieulx de celluy de l’hospital." Registre du Conseil, Nov. 17, 1542, quoted in Annal. vol. XXI. 305, and in Opera, X. P. 1. 125.

Many of his regulations continued in legal force down to the eighteenth century.

Calvin was consulted in all important affairs of the State, and his advice was usually followed; but he never occupied a political or civil office. He was not even a citizen of Geneva till 1559 (eighteen years after his second arrival), and never appeared before the Councils except when some ecclesiastical question was debated, or when his advice was asked. It is a mistake, therefore, to call him the head of the Republic, except in a purely intellectual and moral sense.

The code of laws was revised with the aid of Calvin by his friend, Germain Colladon (1510–1594), an eminent juris-consult and member of a distinguished family of French refugees who settled at Geneva. The revised code was begun in 1560, and published in 1568.672672    On the Colladon family see La France Protestante, IV. 510 sqq. (second ed. by Bordier). Another distinguished member was Nicolas Colladon, who published a Life of Calvin in 1565, and succeeded him in the chair of theology in 1566.

Among the laws of Geneva we mention a press law, the oldest in Switzerland, dated Feb. 15, 1560. Laws against the freedom of the press existed before, especially in Spain. Alexander VI., a Spaniard, issued a bull in 1501, instructing the German prelates to exercise a close supervision over printers. Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic established a censorship which prohibited, under severe penalties, the printing, importation, and sale of any book that had not previously passed an examination and obtained a license. Rome adopted the same policy. Other countries, Protestant as well as Roman Catholic, followed the example. In Russia, the severest restrictions of the press are still in force.

The press law of Geneva was comparatively moderate. It put the press under the supervision of three prudent and experienced men, to be appointed by the government. These men have authority to appoint able and trustworthy printers, to examine every book before it is printed, to prevent popish, heretical, and infidel publications, to protect the publisher against piracy; but Bibles, catechisms, prayers, and psalms may be printed by all publishers; new translations of the Scriptures are privileged in the first edition.673673    The Spanish censorship was applied to the vernacular versions of the Bible, the works of Erasmus, all Protestant books, the Mystics and Illuminati, the Molinists and Quietists. The natural consequence of this tyranny was the decadence of intellectual and literary activity. See H. C. Lea, Chapters from the Religious History of Spain connected with the Inquisition, Philadelphia, 1890.

The censorship of the press continued in Geneva till the eighteenth century. In 1600 the Council forbade the printing of the essays of Montaigne; in 1763 Rousseau’s Emile was condemned to be burned.

It should be noted, however, that under the influence of Calvin Geneva became one of the most important places of publication. The famous Robert Stephen (Etienne, 1503–1559), being censured by the Sorbonne of Paris, settled in Geneva after the death of his father, Henri, as a professed Protestant, and printed there two editions of the Hebrew Bible, and an edition of the Greek Testament, with the Vulgate and Erasmian versions, in 1551, which for the first time contains the versicular division of the text according to our present usage. To him we owe the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae (third ed. 1543, in 4 vols.), and to his son, Henri, the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (1572, 4 vols.). Beza published several editions of his Greek Testament in Geneva (1565–1598), which were chiefly used by King James’ translators. In the same city appeared the English version of the New Testament by Whittingham, 1557; then of the whole Bible, 1560. This is the so-called "Geneva Bible," or "Breeches Bible" (from the rendering of Gen. 3:7), which was for a long time the most popular English version, and passed through about two hundred editions from 1560 to 1630.674674    The Bibles in the Caxton Exhibition, London, 1878, p. 95. Geneva has well maintained its literary reputation to this day.



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