Sunday, December 9, 2012

Calvin's Institutes, Prefatory Address


I have decided to read Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin. Because it is so long and so varied in content (Calvin is setting forth systematically his theological beliefs on everything), I've decided to write a bit of commentary on each chapter, or possibly two related chapters together, rather than write a book review a year or more from now when I've finished the book.

In my edition of Institutes, the first chapter is the address Calvin wrote to Francis I of France to explain what Calvin and his followers believed. Calvin believed that if the king had correct information, he would stop the persecution of French Protestants. I'm not sure how much Calvin's writings helped the plight of the persecuted, but his short book grew over the years and the revisions into one of the foremost works of early Protestant theology and the originator of Reformed theology.

On the Dangers of Majority Rule

To make every thing yield to custom would be to do the greatest injustice. Were the judgments of mankind correct, custom would be regulated by the good. But it is often far otherwise in point of fact; for, whatever the many are seen to do, forthwith obtains the force of custom. But human affairs have scarcely ever been so happily constituted as that the better course pleased the greater number. Hence the private vices of the multitude have generally resulted in public error, or rather that common consent in vice which these worthy men would have to be law. (Institutes xxviii)

When I read this section of the address, I though Calvin's arguments sounded like something I'd read before. After a bit of thought, and the help of Google, I came up with this:

Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that [...] the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority. (129-130)

Any guesses as to the source? Yep, good old James Madison, writing in Federalist #10. Calvin and Madison both understood that humans by nature seek out others of similar opinion on a given subject and that groups of likeminded individuals often seek to force their likemindedness on everybody else, even at the expense of truth or justice (or possibly the American way :)). They differ on the particulars of their respective arguments, though. In Institutes, Calvin addresses the danger of letting human custom rather than God dictate religious belief and practice. Madison, in Federalist #10, addresses the dangers of factionalism in a small, democratic country.

Interestingly, the two men also differ on the solution to the problem. Madison argues that even religious beliefs will not prevent power from going to people's heads, and so the people of New York need to ratify the Constitution. No ulterior motive in castigating majority rule here, folks! Still, I agree with Madison that even committed Christians can be corrupted by power, particularly since majority peer pressure is so strong. (Federalist 133)

Calvin, on the other hand, argues that by turning to the Word of God and by standing up for what it says, the worst of majority rule may be averted. He says that a true belief in God does influence how those in the majority lead others. (Institutes xxviii)

Works Cited:
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveridge. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009.

Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. The Federalist: The Famous Papers on the Principles of American Government. Edited by Benjamin F. Wright. New York: MetroBooks, 2002.

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