Monday, January 19, 2009

Calvin and government- checks and balances

January 19
Calvin and Democracy
“The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone…Select capable men from all the people- men who fear God , trustworthy people who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times. , but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.” (Exodus 18:19-23)

Calvin: I will not deny that aristocracy, or a system compounded of aristocracy and democracy far excels all others: not indeed of itself, but because it is very rare for kings so to control themselves that their will never disagrees with what is just and right; or for them to have been endowed with such great keenness and prudence, that each knows how much is enough. Therefore men’s fault or failing causes it to be safer and more bearable for a number to exercise government, so that they may help one another, teach and admonish one another; and, if one asserts himself unfairly there may be a number of censors and masters to restrain his willfulness. This has both been proved by experience , and also the Lord confirmed it by his authority when he ordained among the Israelites an aristocracy bordering on democracy. (Ex. 18:13-26; Dt. 1:9-17).” (Inst. IV. 20.8).

There is much debate on Calvin’s influence on government. Calvin obviously prefers a type of republican government where more than one person rules, and there are checks and balances. It is important he wrote this in a time of ferment among the feudal and monarchical systems of his day. The Duke of Savoy and the bishop had control of Geneva in the past. It was only when the Duke and bishop were unseated from control of Geneva that Calvin was able to do his work. No doubt Calvin was influenced by the Swiss councils and their way of governing by many. Calvin was a strong believer in checks and balances because of a deep sense he had of our natural selfishness. Calvin was not an idealist, but was very realistic of government’s limitations and tendency to make mistakes. He himself, remember, was exiled by the government. The King in France, Francis I, was constantly waffling between persecuting the Protestants and allowing them a place at the table. Yet, Calvin was most influenced by the Old Testament’s idea of elders and the advantage of having many different viewpoints collaborating and balancing together.
It is important in the secular world we live in, to not lose perspective on why there is a necessity for checks and balances in government. Our sin keeps us from seeing things clearly and without selfishness. Our finitude keeps us from governing the world as individuals (so even Moses was told by his father-in-law that he needed help before he wore himself out). There is no doubt Calvin’s thinking influenced John Locke in England and The Presbyterian signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Witherspoon, taught John Adams and influenced him. Calvin’s main concern was not government. But he did speak to government as playing an important role in our lives. He devoted the very last chapter of his Institutes to the civil government. Frankly, I applaud Obama’s saying that he wants to surround himself with people of diverse opinions so that he will be able to hear all sides and look at things from different angles. My hopes and prayers are that he will head their advice, but also head the advice of scripture.

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