Calvin’s Political Theology Revisited

Honest Reformation Scholarship Leads to an Unmistakable Conclusion

Published co-incidentally with our friends at The North American Anglican

What does it look like when a defender of pluralistic liberalism critiques Christian nationalism (i.e., Christendom) without resorting to charges of racism, kinism, and so forth? Sober criticism of this sort has been scarce in the year since Stephen Wolfe’s book on Christian nationalism was published. As it so happens, though, an attempt at serious engagement was made several years prior to the book’s release. This effort took the form of a book titled Calvin’s Political Theology, authored by Matthew J. Tuininga, currently Associate Professor of Christian Ethics and the History of Christianity at Calvin Theological Seminary. Tuininga makes his objective clear from the beginning:

[Calvin’s political theological perspective] offers us the theological resources to reject the ideal of Christendom, in which all citizens are expected to worship and live as Christians, on the one hand, and to affirm the value of political liberalism and principled Christian participation in pluralistic democratic societies, on the other.1

The reaffirmation of liberalism is necessary in our time, he continues, because “prominent Christian pastors and theologians, not to mention liberal philosophers, are questioning the compatibility of orthodox Christianity with political liberalism.2 Against this skeptical attitude, Tuininga believes that “Christians cannot afford to reject liberal politics if we are to take seriously the command to love and serve our neighbors.”3 His discussion of Calvin’s political theology is therefore meant to bolster contemporary liberalism, even as he recognizes that “Calvin was no liberal.”4

That said, it would be difficult for me to name another book that undercuts its own stated purpose so spectacularly as this one. To begin with, Tuininga acknowledges that most or all of the major Reformers other than Calvin believed, contrary to modern liberalism, that “government is obligated to make the truth, the honor of God, and the care of religion its chief concern.”5 Martin Luther, whatever comments he made in his earlier career, ultimately “[defended] the obligation of secular authorities to suppress…heresy, blasphemy, and sedition.”6 Likewise, Philip Melanchthon came to hold that “magistrates were obligated to enforce both tables of the Ten Commandments for the purpose of maintaining the glory of God.”7 Ulrich Zwingli “endorsed the need for the magistrate to suppress those who disturbed the church by preaching or practicing false doctrine.”8 Martin Bucer “argued that the magistrate is to preserve public order by establishing peace and godliness,” with the corollary that “false teaching should be punished with the sword.”9 Finally, Heinrich Bullinger maintained that “civil government could require outward obedience to the covenant, using capital punishment to free the commonwealth of false teachers, blasphemers, adulterers, or other offenders.”10

The fact that many prominent Reformers favored magisterial care of religion, as Tuininga demonstrates, would be enough on its own to seriously undermine any contemporary effort to baptize modern liberalism, but he further grants that Calvin, rather than departing from the other Reformers on this question, was in full accord with them. Calvin “explicitly presupposed the existence and legitimacy of Christendom.”11 He “maintained that civil government has a responsibility to protect the true religion against public offenses, enforcing outward obedience to the moral law summarized in both tables of the Ten Commandments.”12 In particular, Calvin thought it appropriate for the government to punish “whoredom and adultery, drunkenness, and blaspheming of the name of God,”13 among other things. Most famously, he “supported the death penalty for individuals guilty of notorious heresy,”14 as exemplified by his role in the execution of Michael Servetus. All of this is supported by Tuininga with copious citations from Calvin’s entire corpus, including letters, sermons, and biblical commentaries as well as various editions of his Institutes.

In light of this evidence, it is natural to wonder how a Christian proponent of modern liberalism such as Tuininga might argue that we should disregard the example of Calvin and the other Reformers, to say nothing of the wider Christian tradition. Tuininga’s justification for dismissing Calvin on this point is that his support for magisterial care of religion is primarily rooted in natural law. As he puts it, “Calvin’s arguments rely more on his interpretation of reason, experience, the laws of nations, and classic philosophy than they do on his exegesis of scripture (or even his use of the Old Testament).”15 Tuininga defends this move on the grounds that “Calvin himself distinguished between the authority of arguments drawn from natural reason (which could be challenged and rejected) and the authority of scripture (which, if interpreted correctly, could not be rejected).”16 Here Tuininga sounds a great deal like some critics of Wolfe’s book, a number of whom have objected that it relies too much on natural reason rather than Scripture. To give a couple of examples, Andrew T. Walker writes that “Wolfe may assert that ‘the government has the duty to promote true religion,’ but he never argues that point from the Bible from any clear command. It’s just assumed.”17 Similarly, Wyatt Graham says “Christian Nationalism needs more Bible.”18

However, it is rather odd that Tuininga draws attention (repeatedly) to Calvin’s reliance on reason and natural law on this point—as if this were sufficient cause to reject Calvin’s argument—considering that at the end of the book, Tuininga promotes the use of natural law as a form of “public reason” by which Christians can engage in the public square: “Calvin’s emphasis on natural law, as a basis for political reasoning that is universal in its scope and accessibility, offers Christians their own form of public reason: a means by which they can participate in moral and political arguments without preaching at nonbelievers or requiring a confession of Christ as a basis for discussion.”19 If natural law is a legitimate foundation for politics, then it is no objection to say that Calvin’s support for magisterial care of religion is primarily founded in natural law. Furthermore, in affirming the use of natural law as a form of public reason, Tuininga criticizes the impulse to make the Bible a “blueprint” for contemporary politics: “The true focus of scripture is the covenantal and eschatological fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ, the very word of God incarnate. Thus the church should be wary of moving from a proclamation of the word of God to an authoritative proclamation of policy or politics based on the use of proof-texts.”20 This makes it even odder still that Tuininga seems to require such a proof text before he will accept the propriety of magisterial care of religion.

The charitable inference to draw here, rather than simply declaring him inconsistent, is that Tuininga does not think magisterial care of religion is really part of the natural law. But he never makes a case for why this is so. Instead, he points to more recent thinkers and Christians at large who disagree with the notion that magisterial care of religion is good and salutary:

Why give Greek and Roman philosophers more weight than Locke or [Jeffrey] Stout, whose political reflections take religious pluralism into account? If the experience of medieval Christians taught them that unity in religion is required for public peace, the experience of the religious wars of the seventeenth century and the ideological wars of the twentieth have convinced many contemporary Christians of the opposite. If it was once assumed that the alliance of religion and power increased the credibility of faith among the masses, scholars since Alexis de Tocqueville have observed that in educated, democratic societies it is the separation of church and state that works to the advantage of religion. Communitarian political theologians can still make their case that a morally vacuous liberalism needs Christianity, but for many Christians it is just as clear that Christianity flourishes best in the context of a liberal commitment to basic human and civil rights. For such Christians the claim that natural law calls government to care for religion is a hard sell.21

In short, says Tuininga, Calvin’s belief in magisterial care of religion was simply a product of its time rather than an unchanging principle of natural law—we know better now. Calvin may have “failed to follow the logic of his own two kingdoms theology to its own logical political conclusion,”22 but we can succeed where he failed: we should “defend the right to religious liberty based on the creation of human beings in the image of God.”23 More broadly, we should draw upon the political theology of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine rather than his “practical politics”24—of which Calvin’s support for magisterial care of religion, we are told, is a part—and seek to live well within liberal democracy because it is the system of government we have:

Democracy demands our fidelity at least to the degree that it has been providentially ordained by God as the established governing institution (Romans 13). As citizens of a pluralistic democracy, we are called to make sense of our political responsibilities and possibilities in light of the particular officials, bureaucracies, courts, traditions, procedures, laws, privileges and rights ‒ in short, the political system ‒ that we have, regardless, of our measure of agreement with them.25

Much more could be said about Tuininga’s discussion, but for the sake of brevity, I will confine myself to a few points. First, to cite differing conclusions of more recent times, without demonstrating who has the better claim to truth and why, is a non-argument akin to what C. S. Lewis termed “chronological snobbery.” It demonstrates nothing to say that some who came after the Reformers favored what became known as liberalism rather than magisterial care of religion. Moreover, to reiterate, Tuininga’s repeated observation that Calvin’s support for magisterial care of religion is rooted primarily in natural law rather than the Bible is an ineffective critique in light of his own affirmation of natural law as a foundation for politics. Second, Tuininga takes for granted, as many do even now, that we still inhabit a truly liberal system. I will not rehearse the litany of evidence to the contrary, available to anyone who has eyes to see. Suffice to say that contemporary proponents of modern liberalism are in no position to assume its ongoing health as a given. If anything, it increasingly appears the only question is whether we will have pro-Christian illiberalism or anti-Christian illiberalism. Finally, while the appeal to natural law as a means of establishing political consensus within modern liberalism has echoed among Christian scholars for the past thirty years or so, such consensus has never materialized. Indeed, one of the chief advocates for what we might call natural law liberalism, David VanDrunen—acknowledged by Tuininga as a special influence on him26—has belatedly recognized that natural law arguments are least likely to make sense precisely to those who are most in need of the truth such arguments seek to convey:

For natural law arguments to be sound, they must tap into the store of wisdom without which the natural law is incomprehensible. Yet that store of wisdom is attractive only to those who have been acculturated in its ways and have gained the perception of the world it provides. Those not duly acculturated, bereft of this perception, lack the wherewithal to appreciate the persuasiveness of such arguments. People who set themselves up against the norms of the natural law are not able to see the world in ways that make sense of them. They are foolish. And Proverbs emphasizes that it is very difficult to make headway arguing with foolish people, who ridicule and scoff (15:12; 21:24). It often may not be worth trying (23:9; 26:4).27

In sum, Tuininga, in spite of himself, does more to shore up the idea of Christendom than modern liberalism. His meticulous sourcing of Calvin and the other Reformers’ commitment to magisterial care of religion—and, by extension, illiberalism—gives us good reason to consider it anew as a viable political-philosophical approach. What is more, his attempts to uphold modern liberalism in the face of these weighty historical precedents amount to little more than an appeal to currency. If Tuininga’s book represents what critics of Christendom have to offer at their most sober, it is little wonder that so many of them are quick to defame their opponents and thereby short-circuit the discussion entirely.

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Show 27 footnotes
  1. Matthew J. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church: Christ’s Two Kingdoms (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 1.
  2. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 4.
  3. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 7.
  4. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 2.
  5. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 2.
  6. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 37.
  7. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 40.
  8. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 44.
  9. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 57.
  10. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 54.
  11. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 3.
  12. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 228.
  13. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 253.
  14. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 251.
  15. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 21.
  16. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 4.
  17. Andrew T. Walker, “Book Review: The Case for Christian Nationalism, by Stephen Wolfe,” 9Marks, 9 December 2022,
  18. Wyatt Graham, “Stephen Wolfe’s Christian Nationalism: A Review,” Wyatt Graham, 26 November 2022,
  19. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 371.
  20. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 373.
  21. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 366, italics original.
  22. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 368. Compare David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 82‒93.
  23. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 368.
  24. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 3.
  25. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 362.
  26. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, viii.
  27. David VanDrunen, Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2020), 149.
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James Clark

James Clark is the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Front Porch Republic, Journal of Classical Theology, and Evangelical Quarterly, as well as other publications.

8 thoughts on “Calvin’s Political Theology Revisited

  1. Fascinating read, James! I especially enjoyed the last section pointing out that those who are least likely to accept natural law arguments are the ones most in need of hearing them.

    I have heard some popular proponents of Neo-Calvinism, such as N. Gray Sutanto, claim that natural law arguments simply don’t work or don’t apply in non-Western cultures, therefore we need a pluralist, liberal political philosophy to guide us.

    I found Jackson Waters’ article ( very insightful on this subject, but I would love to see the contrasts between Neo-Calvinist political philosophy, classical liberalism, and common sense/natural law further fleshed out by American Reformer. Hope to see more to come!

  2. It saddens me to see the search for power and delusions of grandeur which is so evident in articles that call for the return of a horrid past in the name of Christianity. For the bad fruits of Christendom are evident to most and are witnessed to by its yougest children: Critical Theory and Post Modernism. It seems to me that any implementation of Christendom will likely be done in either a dark, stealth manner or in a call to arms. And we should think about what either way does to the reputation of the Gospel.

    We should note something about Calvin and the other reformers. They are not our canon. They have provided important guidance, especially regarding understanding the Godhead and Soteriology. But in terms of how society and the state should operate, we need to consider context and the times of their teachings–something that the articles here seem to refuse to do.

    Many of us religiously conservative Christians from the Reformed traditions believe that we can deduce everything about life using those traditions as a starting point. And that is arrogance that yields self-delusions on our part. But more importantly, what is left behind are the Scriptures. For some who call for a return to Christendom seem to believe that the Scriptures are no longer needed once we appeal to our Reformed traditions. From there, too many of us seem ready to lay burdens on unbelievers which they cannot bear. And what ends do too many of us seem to want to reach but the satisfaction of obtaining power to rule over others–from which, perhaps, many of the writers of our Reformed traditions suffered before us.

    1. Can I ask what your ideal scenario is for government? If not a Christian government, then what? Do you honestly look around at the world today and like what you see?

      1. Dylan,
        Yes, and thank you for asking. I am looking at the world, both past and present, and see little difference between what you fear the most from a secular government than from the governments in the European nations and US when Christendom reigned.

        Politically, I would be classified as being a political liberalism here. But I hasten to add that some western nations have been doing a better job at that the US ever has. Also, though I prefer political liberalism, I don’t believe that there is an ideal form of government. The world is fallen. And each form of government has tradeoffs. And that history points tot the fact that a true democracy, not just majority rule, poses the least threat to the reputation of the Gospel than any form of government that springs from Christendom. In addition, a true democracy seems to best support Jesus’s prohibition of ‘lording it over others.’

    2. There are several sweeping statements and assumptions in this that are completely unsubstantiated by argument or evidence. Examples:

      -The “reputation of the Gospel” is of vital importance. This is weak and worldly thinking that has no trust in the sovereignty of God. Christians are to obey God and preach the fullness of the gospel – judgment, damnation, salvation in Christ, and whole-hearted obedience as a fruit of genuine repentance.
      -“Search for power and delusions of grandeur.” Names and examples?
      -“Implementation of Christianity done in dark, stealth manner or in a call to arms.” Once again, examples please?

      This comment is not so much for Curt as it is for other readers. I don’t care to argue back and forth, it usually is a waste of time. But with children being slaughtered in the womb, teenagers being chemically and physically mutilated by our “medical” system, rampant crime and degeneracy everywhere liberalism goes, ask this: how does Christian Nationalism even register on a reasonable Christian’s radar of things to fight against? And then to have pressing a concern about what God-haters would think about the gospel if Christians begin winning? I’ll spare you the angst – unbelievers already hate Christ and His children. The effect of comments like Curt’s is to discourage. Ignore those types. When their hand is forced, we’ll find out whose side they’re on. Don’t count on them for anything helpful in the meantime. All in for Christ, contra mundum.

      1. JC,
        Being concerned about the reputation of the Gospel is an apostolic concern, not a worldly one. It, in part, lies behind why we are to live Godly lives. We want people to praise God because of our actions, not curse Him as mentioned in Romans 2.

        Being concerned with the reputation of the Gospel doesn’t mean compromising on essential and clear doctrines to avoid criticisms. We can’t be concerned if people look down on the Gospel because of what it teaches. But we must be concerned if our actions causes people to unnecessarily look down on the Gospel. And since, as James says, we stumble in many ways, we all need to be constantly aware of how our words and actions cause people to unnecessarily look down on the Gospel regardless of what we write here.

        You want names and examples of those who are searching for power and have delusions of grandeur. Let’s start with any of us who think that we should rule over unbelievers with the restoration of Christendom. We have a monopoly on the Gospel, but not on what is necessary to share with unbelievers. We justify the desire to restore Christendom because we believe that our non-biblical heroes from the past tell us what we need to know to rule over our parts of the world. That those heroes, and us through them, have everything to teach unbelievers and nothing to learn from them regarding how the state and society must function. That we don’t need to view unbelievers as equal partners in determining how to live together because of our Reformed traditions. That our place of supremacy over unbelievers in this world justifies privileging Christianity, and ourselves, over unbelievers in sharing the world.

        In the meantime, though we might acknowledge the horrific religious wars and purges that occurred in Europe during Christendom, what we understate or are silent about is how, during Christendom in America, we also based on our nation on white, male supremacy as seen in our nation’s history of slavery, Jim Crow, the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans from the land, and the subjugation of women in society. And much of that was not just defended but also initiated by prominent Christians, even those from the Reformed traditions.

        Think about when the battle for equality started to change. That was during the Civil Rights Movement, a movement that saw few if any Reformed leaders taking any kind of significant role in the transition. Rather, you had those who accepted more liberal versions of Christianity, like Martin Luther King Jr., as well as unbelievers who were the leaders when the change began–a change that still needs to be completed. Think about how those who were prominent Christian leaders believed that whites were superior to blacks might have harmed the reputation of the Gospel. Then we can move on to other areas in which we have unnecessarily harmed the reputation of the Gospel.

        1. Curt, we’re all aware of the low-IQ anti-Christian propaganda that is disseminated in public schools. In fact, the government forcibly taxes me on my property to fund their efforts. I hope they’re at least cutting you a check for peddling it here.

          1. JG,
            Insults are not a rational response. You claimed that I am peddling stuff. Be specific, what did I write that you think is false? And btw, there are Reformed theologians who acknowledge the wrongful thinking and actions of people like Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, J. Gresham Machen. Their faults are historically documented. The Southern Presbyterian Church’s defense of Jim Crow is well documented.

            You also claimed that being concerned over the reputation of the Gospel is worldly thinking. But it was apostolic thinking. For example, Paul told the Corinthians to accept mistreatment from fellow Christians rather than bringing charges against them in public courts (see I Corinthians 6). I Peter 2:12 tells us to keep our behavior excellent so that despite the slander, people would praise God because of our actions. Paul chides the people in Romans 2 who claimed to know God but because of their sins caused people to speak against God.

            If people are offended by the content of the Gospel, there is nothing we should do about it. But if people are offended by the Gospel because of our actions, then we need to repent

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