Before Calvin

What if critics of 2k had to think about the relationship between the church and magistrates before emperors got religion

“So long as a Protestant city council supports our guy, John Calvin, we forget about the problems of a religious magistrate? It’s our civil government. And so long as that Cadillac CTS that only gets 13.8 mpg is a comfortable ride to church, we forget about the price of gas or limits on fossil fuels? It’s our gas guzzler.”

 

What would happen if critics of 2k had to think about the relationship between the church and magistrates before emperors got religion (and who knows if they grasped Christianity for the right reasons)?

In the current issue of New Horizons, David VanDrunen explains where 2k reflection on the state starts — not in 1536 but in 33.

The apostolic church lived under civil magistrates who did not confess Christ and sometimes persecuted people who did. Yet New Testament texts such as Romans 13:1–7 and 1 Peter 2:13–17 taught that God had ordained civil magistrates and that believers ought to honor and submit to them.

Following the Roman emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the early fourth century, the status of Christians in society changed. The contemporary church historian Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History, described the Roman Empire under Constantine as the fulfillment of Old Testament texts prophesying that war would cease and the wicked would be cut off: Constantine was realizing Christ’s kingdom on earth. Shortly thereafter, Augustine (354–430) provided a much more modest view. In his City of God, Augustine described Christians as sojourners, on a pilgrimage in this world toward the heavenly city. He acknowledged that Christians should participate in their political communities, but he taught that all earthly rulers and empires are provisional, not to be confused with Christians’ eschatological hope.

In the fifth century, the “Christendom” model emerged. As described by Pope Gelasius I, there are “two powers” that exercise authority under God in this world: the emperor has authority over “temporal affairs” for the sake of “public order,” and the priest controls the sacraments and “spiritual activities,” toward the goal of “eternal life.” Priest and emperor should submit to one another in their proper spheres.

This model was helpful in important respects. It affirmed that civil governments are legitimate, ordained by God. It also taught that their jurisdiction is limited and subject to God’s authority.

But notice the problems:

First, it essentially wed the church to the state in a confessionally unified Christian society. The New Testament, however, never suggests that Christians should expect or seek such a society.

Second, the state was expected to enforce the church’s claims about doctrine and worship by punishing dissenters with the sword. This reality sat uncomfortably beside New Testament teaching that Christ’s gospel and kingdom do not advance by the weapons of this world. Many who sought to reform the church—such as John Hus in the fifteenth century—would meet untimely ends as victims of this church-state alliance.

So long as a Protestant city council supports our guy, John Calvin, we forget about the problems of a religious magistrate? It’s our civil government.

And so long as that Cadillac CTS that only gets 13.8 mpg is a comfortable ride to church, we forget about the price of gas or limits on fossil fuels? It’s our gas guzzler.

D.G. Hart is Visiting Professor of History at Hillsdale College in Michigan, and also serves as an elder for a new Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale. This article is used with permission.