Calvin’s Institutes: A Primer for Militants?

PT Through History

Parts of the world tremble again at religiously inspired revolutionary activity. Too easily do we forget that very similar forms of such activity have appeared in earlier periods of time, even if the content was somewhat different. Thus, in the nineteenth century, the socialists organised, while the anarchists threw bombs and carried out assassinations. And in the sixteenth century, Thomas Müntzer and the Peasants organised and theologised for the revolution, while the Anabaptists were seen as the extremists, the terrorists who had to be eliminated.

Parts of the world tremble again at religiously inspired revolutionary activity. It may be a well-organised movement with long-term goals or it may involve random acts of violence to strike terror into the lives of everyday people. As for organisation, we may think of Al-Qaeda or perhaps ‘Islamic State’, while individual acts of terror conjure up most recently Charlie Hebdo in Paris, or the Lindt Café in Sydney.

Too easily do we forget that very similar forms of such activity have appeared in earlier periods of time, even if the content was somewhat different. Thus, in the nineteenth century, the socialists organised, while the anarchists threw bombs and carried out assassinations. And in the sixteenth century, Thomas Müntzer and the Peasants organised and theologised for the revolution, while the Anabaptists were seen as the extremists, the terrorists who had to be eliminated.

Münster, Batenburgers and Placards

I would like to suggest that Calvin too may well have veered in this direction, especially in light of a section of Institutes of the Christian Religion (3.6-10). Before considering this material, let me briefly set the scene. As Calvin set out to spread the word of the Institutes, the Münster Revolution had deeply shaken the burghers of Europe. Despite its relatively brief flourishing, from February 1534 until June 1535, Münster had shown the face of revolutionary Christianity once again. For some, this meant a revelation of the face of the devil, while for others it provided a vision of the New Jerusalem. After the defeat at Münster, radical Anabaptist squads continued to roam the northern Netherlands, slaughtering ‘infidels’ and appropriating their property. As one leader was captured and burnt at the stake, another would arise – Jan van Batenburg, Cornelis Appelman, Johan Willemsz …. They were able to continue into the 1580s, until eventually the bands faded away or were absorbed by other groups of Anabaptists.

But let us backtrack to the 1530s, for another event had shaken the powers that be. This was the Affaire des Placards in France. During the night of 17 October, 1534, someone managed to elude the palace guards at Amboise and plaster a poster on the door of the bedchamber of King Francis I. The king was, understandably, somewhat perturbed at the thought of a nocturnal visitor scampering about the palace while the royal snores rang out. But the content of the poster caused even more alarm, for the message was clearly anti-Roman Catholic: no one apart from Christ is the mediator; the mass and the doctrine of transubstantiation were abuses, contrary to the Lord’s Supper, which should be understood in terms of commemoration (a Zwinglian approach).[1] Similar posters also appeared elsewhere in Paris, and in the provincial cities of Blois, Rouen, Tours and Orléans. The upshot: The mini-Reform of King Francis came to an end and Protestants were no longer welcome. Many fled France if they were fortunate enough to escape arrest and execution.

Towards a Primer

In this context, Calvin deploys a tried but tested approach: we are not like those terrorists, the Anabaptist revolutionaries and suicide squads, or even those who plaster threatening posters on royal doors. We don’t seek to disrupt the peace, smash up law and order, overthrow the divinely appointed government, or even depose of the king. No, we are the moderates, the ones with reason and perhaps even God on our side. Listen to us and not to those radicals.

So let us listen a little to what Calvin does propose and see if he really is a moderate. In chapters 6-10 of book 3 of the Institutes, he presents some guidelines for the ‘conduct of life’ (rationem vitae formandae). They are meant to provide a ready checklist, drawn from the Bible, for the regenerated life of the believer. These are, of course, unattainable by our own effort, but must be instilled by the grace of God.

1. Commitment to the cause, not in terms ‘of the tongue but of the inmost heart’. Anything that one does should not be done for the sake of appearance but for the inner intention.

2. Self-denial, for we are not our own masters, but belong to God. Indeed, as Romans puts it, the duty of believers is ‘to present their bodies to God as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to him’ (12:1). Since we belong to God, we should live and die for him. This provides the correct basis for a sense of one’s unworthiness, and for approaching and helping others.

3. Sobriety. The immediate effect of sobriety is obviously on ourselves, since we should not be guided by the passions of the flesh and worldly desires for fame and fortune. Further consequences of self-denial follow. These include:

4. Humility. Our reliance on God makes us all too aware of our own shortcomings. ‘Thus, nothing will remain in us to puff us up; but there will be much occasions to be cast down’. This leads to a far better way of relating to others: ‘we are bidden to esteem and regard whatever gifts of God we see in others that we may honor those in whom they reside’.

5. Mutual charity. ‘Scripture … warns us that whatever benefits we obtain from the Lord have been entrusted to us on this condition: that they be applied to the common good of the Church’. And what is the common good? The ‘liberal and kindly sharing of them with others’. The only limit to such a communism of goods (Acts 2) is the end of one’s resources and the rule of love.

6. Endurance. Self-denial enables one to bear even the worst adversity, for which the model is Christ.  ‘Whomever the Lord has adopted and deemed worthy of his fellowship ought to prepare themselves for a hard, toilsome and unquiet life, crammed with many and various kinds of evil’. Such endurance leads to:

a. Trust. We learn that God’s power ‘alone makes us stand fast under the weight of afflictions’, so that we ‘rest with a trustful heart in God’.

b. Patience. Since we have been given ‘the most excellent gift’ of patience, God puts it to use through tribulations.

c. Obedience. Enduring suffering is nothing less than a training in obedience.

d. Consolation. This one is a little trickier, for the cheerfulness in suffering can only be true cheerfulness if it is wounded by sorrow, bitterness, pain and grief, for then may one rest in the consolation of God.

e. Hope, which is based on the fact that God, ‘by performing what he has promised, establishes his truth for the time to come’.

All of these lead to the final two items:

7. Focus on the future life. Our approach to this life should be involve both contempt for all its shortcomings and gratitude for what God has given us. Ultimately, our gaze should be on the life to come. ‘If heaven is our homeland, what else is the earth but our place of exile?’

8. Fearlessness in the face of death. The fear of death is a ‘very great perversity’. Many are those who boast themselves Christian and yet are gripped by a great fear of death. Instead, they should have a ‘desire for it’. Indeed, ‘no one has made progress in the school of Christ who does not joyfully await the day of death and final resurrection’.

This guide for a militant life can of course be read in a number of ways. Max Weber used it as the basis for his argument that such a life was an excellent training in the disciplines and work cycles in capitalist production. Others prefer to read them metaphorically, where the sufferings in question and the anticipation of death actually refer to the difficulties in finding time during a busy day for the spiritual life.

I suggest that they also may be read as a primer for a militant life. Commitment to the cause, eschewing private gain, self-denial for the sake of God and others, endurance in the face of suffering and adversity, patience, hope – these are the virtues of the militant band. Add to these a focus on the life to come and a fearless anticipation of death and you have as good a handbook as you can find for a militant collective. Indeed, Marxists from Engels to Badiou have argued that the early Christians were militant, revolutionary bands. In Calvin’s case, he may not have been as far as he thought from the placard wielders, or even from the followers of Thomas Müntzer, the Münster Revolutionaries, and the bands of Jan van Batenburg. And I would suggest that many militant Muslim groups today would by and large agree with Calvin’s primer.

Is there a difference? I suggest it boils down to one: the conditions under which violence against others is justified.

[1] It began with, ‘Genuine articles on the horrific, great and insupportable abuses of the papal mass, invented directly contrary to the Holy Supper of our Lord, sole mediator and sole savior Jesus Christ’. The French reads, ‘Articles véritables sur les horribles, grands et importables [sic, i.e. insupportables] abuz de la messe papale, inventée directement contre la Sainte Cène de notre Seigneur, seul médiateur et seul Sauveur Jésus-Christ’ (Berthoud 1973, 287).

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