In Reply to Jeff Sessions Citing Paul

“But in that obedience which we hold to be due to the commands of rulers, we must always make the exception, nay, must be particularly careful that it is not incompatible with obedience to Him to whose will the wishes of all kings should be subject, to whose decrees their commands must yield, to whose majesty their scepters must bow. And indeed, how preposterous were it, in pleasing men, to incur the offense of Him for whose sake you obey men! We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against Him let us not pay the least regard to it, nor be moved by all the dignity which they possess as magistrates–a dignity to which no injury is done when it is subordinated to the special and truly supreme power of God. On this ground Daniel denies that he had sinned in any respect against the king when he refused to obey his impious decree, (Dan. 6.22) because the king had exceeded his limits, and not only been injurious to men but, by raising his horn against God, had virtually abrogated his own power. On the other hand, the Israelites are condemned for having too readily obeyed the impious edict of the king. For, when Jeroboam made the golden calf, they forsook the temple of God, and in submissiveness to him, revolted to new superstitions (1 Kings 12.28). With the same facility posterity had bowed before the decrees of their kings. For this they are severely upbraided by the Prophet (Hosea. 5.11). So far is the praise of modesty from being due to that pretense by which flattering courtiers cloak themselves and deceive the simple, when they deny the lawfulness of declining anything imposed by their kings, as if the Lord had resigned his own rights to mortals by appointing them to rule over their fellows, or as if earthy power diminished when it is subjected to its author, before whom even the principalities of heaven tremble as suppliants. I know the imminent peril to which subjects expose themselves by this firmness, kings being most indignant when they are contemned. As Solomon says, “The wrath of a king is as messengers of death” (Prov. 16.14). But since Peter, one of heaven’s heralds, has published the edict, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5.29), let us console ourselves with the thought, that we are rendering the obedience which the Lord requires, when we endure anything rather than turn aside from piety. And that our courage may not fail, Paul stimulates us by the additional considerations (1 Cor. 7.23), that we are redeemed by Christ at the great price which our redemption cost him, in order that we might not yield a slavish obedience to the depraved wishes of men, far less do homage to their impiety.”

So ends the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which John Calvin dedicated to King Francis I of France in 1536. Calvin championed the separation of church and state. His Geneva, with its democracy and focus on literacy, directly informed the Pilgrims, who then deeply influenced the establishment of the United States.

(Originally posted June 15, 2018)

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