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Response to the Review of Calvin's Doctrine of the State

Mark J. Larson

One wonders if Richard Gamble read the same book that Richard Muller poured over in detail. Gamble regards Calvin's Doctrine of the State as "being rather sketchy and oddly repetitive." Muller—the P. J. Zondervan Professor of Historical Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, the recent president of the Calvin Studies Society, and the author of The Unaccommodated Calvin—describes the same volume as offering "a careful and balanced account of Calvin's views on church-state relations and of warfare in the early modern era."

Gamble wishes that I had written a different book, one in which "Calvin's doctrine of the state" is viewed "in light of his larger theology of the Christian's primary identity not as a citizen of an earthly kingdom but as a pilgrim and sojourner in a strange land." Muller, on the other hand, expresses appreciation for the proper context, the one that really mattered to Calvin. As Muller states, "Of particular importance is Larson's account of Calvin's place in the development of modern just-war theory, in which Calvin is shown to have integrated his views on just war into his approach to the rule and responsibilities of the magistrate."

The proper exegesis of Calvin is not, as Gamble suggests, to place Calvin's doctrine of the state "in tension with other parts of his theology." It is, as Muller recognizes, to place Calvin's doctrine of war within the context of his doctrine of the state.

As noted in Calvin's Doctrine of the State, the teaching of Calvin on parliamentary resistance had a connection to the Dutch Rebellion against the Spanish King Philip II, who persecuted Protestants in the Netherlands. His teaching also influenced the English Civil War in the decision of the Puritans to go to war against the Cavaliers. Gamble seems surprised that a linkage exists between Calvin's teaching on parliamentary resistance and the American Revolution, often referred to as the Presbyterian Rebellion. Yet numerous writers have elaborated upon this very thing—including Calvin specialists, such as, Robert Kingdon in "Calvin's Socio-Political Legacy: Collective Government, Resistance to Tyranny, Discipline," in The Legacy of John Calvin (2000); Gregg Singer in John Calvin: His Roots and Fruits (1989); Douglas Kelly, in The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World: The Influence of Calvin on Five Governments from the 16th through the 18th Centuries (1992); and many others.

There is no question that all writers are interested in strengthening their arguments. Advice from other scholars is highly valued. This is why I submitted Calvin's Doctrine of the State to five Calvin scholars for scrutiny before seeking publication. The work benefited from their helpful criticisms and suggestions, although I bear full responsibility for any deficiencies that may remain.

Gamble himself offers three suggestions, which he contends "would have strengthened the book's argument considerably."

In the first place, he affirms that "clear definitions of both theocracy and holy war" needed to be mapped out. Did he overlook the statement on page 1 that "the term theocracy refers to a state which is governed by the clergy"? Did he miss the example of a theocratic government provided on page 19, "the Jewish state" in the ghetto with "the rabbi" as its head and "its constitution the Bible of Moses (Torah), and its laws, the Talmud and later rabbinic commentaries"? This indeed is the entire point of chapter 1: Geneva was not a theocracy due to the fact that the ministers "had a limited, spiritual jurisdiction, while the magistrates retained their civil authority in the Republic" (4).

There is also the claim that the volume does not provide a clear definition of holy war. Did the reviewer skip over the definition provided on page 41? "Holy war differs from just war on this very matter of whether the war is prosecuted with humanity and restraint or not. In the just war there will be respect toward prisoners, the sparing of noncombatants, and the restraint of violence 'within the limits of military necessity.' Holy war is just the opposite; 'the war shall be prosecuted unsparingly.' " Did he bypass the statement on page 48? "Holy war entailed ... 'indiscriminate and promiscuous slaughter, making no distinction of age or sex, but including alike women and children, the aged and the decrepit' "? The specific examples of holy war that are cited in chapter 3 include the annihilation of Canaanites by Israel under Joshua (44-48), the slaughter of Christians by the Ottoman Turks under Suleyman (43-44), and the massacre of Catholics by the Roundheads under Cromwell (41-43, 50).

Gamble's second suggestion is as follows: "The standard views of Calvin that he seeks to refute needed a fair and adequate hearing. Aside from a few comments confined largely to footnotes, Larson never sets forth the best of his opponents' arguments. If these scholars have misconstrued the evidence, then these failings need to be exposed and corrected in some detail." It is true that Calvin's Doctrine of the State does not engage in a full-scale refutation of the views of Bainton, Churchill, and George in their contention that Calvin advocated holy war. There was no need for such a thing due to the fact that this had already been accomplished in my essay "The Holy War Trajectory among the Reformed: From Zurich to England," Reformation and Renaissance Review 8.1 (2006): 7-27. In this article, the position of Roland Bainton is carefully examined and thoroughly refuted. When a position is established in Calvin scholarship in 2006, it does not need to be reestablished in 2009.

Gamble's third recommendation again relates to the kind of book that I should have written: "Larson ought to have distinguished between political institutions as they exist on paper and the behavior of real men within those institutions. It is not enough, say, to show what Geneva's Ecclesiastical Ordinances prescribed and forbade. More telling is how pastors and magistrates actually wielded power within that system day by day."

The reviewer believes, in other words, that I ought to have written a social history of the Republic of Geneva, thereby presenting the actual interactions of church and state at the time of the Reformation. This, however, has already been done by numerous scholars—perhaps most notably by Robert Kingdon in numerous essays and books, particularly in Adultery and Divorce in Calvin's Geneva (1995). The real need in Calvin scholarship in connection with the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth was for a new book on Calvin's teaching on church-state relations. Thus I chose to write a piece in historical theology and political theory, rather than a social history.

I would suggest, however, that a reading of my volume followed by a reading of Kingdon will demonstrate that Calvin's doctrine of the state was not merely abstract theory. It was in fact played out by real people in the real world of sixteenth-century Geneva.

Mark J. Larson is pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Fairlawn, New Jersey. Ordained Servant, December 2009.

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