John Calvin on War, Diplomacy, Defense, and Alliances

After some positive feedback from my previous post on C.H. Spurgeon and his prayers in regard to war, I decided to offer up excerpts from others on war, foreign policy, and related items. Today, we look at a few excerpts from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. These excerpts are found in Book 4, Chapter 20, “On Civil Government”:

11. As it is sometimes necessary for kings and states to take up arms in order to execute public vengeance, the reason assigned furnishes us with the means of estimating how far the wars which are thus undertaken are lawful. For if power has been given them to maintain the tranquillity of their subjects, repress the seditious movements of the turbulent, assist those who are violently oppressed, and animadvert on crimes, can they use it more opportunely than in repressing the fury of him who disturbs both the ease of individuals and the common tranquillity of all; who excites seditious tumult, and perpetrates acts of violent oppression and gross wrongs? If it becomes them to be the guardians and maintainers of the laws, they must repress the attempts of all alike by whose criminal conduct the discipline of the laws is impaired. Nay, if they justly punish those robbers whose injuries have been inflicted only on a few, will they allow the whole country to be robbed and devastated with impunity? Since it makes no difference whether it is by a king or by the lowest of the people that a hostile and devastating inroad is made into a district over which they have no authority, all alike are to be regarded and punished as robbers. Natural equity and duty, therefore, demand that princes be armed not only to repress private crimes by judicial inflictions, but to defend the subjects committed to their guardianship whenever they are hostilely assailed. Such even the Holy Spirit, in many passages of Scripture, declares to be lawful.[1]

Calvin, in this previous excerpt, essentially presents what is understood as the “just war” policy that emanates from Augustine and Aquinas. Here is a brief definition of “just war”:

war, just Theory of war which seeks to define when and how war should be waged by Christian rulers and their armies. It was first formulated by Augustine and later developed by Aquinas. According to the theory, a just war can be undertaken only if three conditions are met: (1) It is defensive and is waged for the common good and in defense of the peace of the realm. (2) It is charitable and waged in a spirit of benevolence and magnanimity toward the vanquished. (3) It is waged for a lawful purpose or goal.[2]

Here’s some context surrounding Augustine’s thesis:

Augustine developed his theory in response to a Roman general who asked if he should lead his troops into battle or retire to a monastery. Augustine responded by bringing together the views of a number of classical thinkers such as Plato and Cicero and giving them a Christian emphasis. He argued that wars should be fought to reestablish peace and secure justice. War must be waged under a legitimate leader and be prompted by Christian love. Killing and love are not incompatible, as killing requires a bodily or external act, while loving is an inner emotion. Moreover, Augustine taught that a just war must be conducted in an upstanding way. There should be no unnecessary violence; destruction must be kept to a minimum.[3]

Additionally,

Augustine also provided the basis for the traditional Christian view of a “just” war, which both Catholics and most Protestants have shared in common ever since. “For it is the wrong-doing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars; and this wrong-doing even though it gives rise to no war would still be a matter of grief to man because it is man’s wrong-doing.”27 He adds, “it is therefore with the desire for peace that wars are waged. . . . And hence it is obvious that peace is the end sought by war. For every man seeks peace by waging war; but no man seeks war by waging peace.”28 [4]

Calvin employs a minore ad maius (lesser to greater) reasoning, stating that if lawful government is just in punishing individual wrongdoers in the land, then they would most certainly be just in dealing with collective groups of people or a nation that unlawfully enters into a territory that is not their own. Only when “hostilely assailed,” can a prince exercise the authority of the sword. Elsewhere, Calvin states that taxes are lawful in keeping with the maintenance of a proper defense.

Calvin also adds:

For (to use the words of Augustine) “if Christian discipline condemned all wars, when the soldiers asked counsel as to the way of salvation, they would have been told to cast away their arms, and withdraw altogether from military service. Whereas it was said, (Luke 3:14,) Concuss no one, do injury to no one, be contented with your pay. Those whom he orders to be contented with their pay he certainly does not forbid to serve,” (August. Ep. v. ad Marcell.) But all magistrates must here be particularly cautious not to give way, in the slightest degree, to their passions. Or rather, whether punishments are to be inflicted, they must not be borne headlong by anger, nor hurried away by hatred, nor burn with implacable severity; they must, as Augustine says, (De Civit. Dei, Lib. v. cap. 24,) “even pity a common nature in him in whom they punish an individual fault;” or whether they have to take up arms against an enemy, that is, an armed robber, they must not readily catch at the opportunity, nay, they must not take it when offered, unless compelled by the strongest necessity. For if we are to do far more than that heathen demanded, who wished war to appear as desired peace, assuredly all other means must be tried before having recourse to arms. In fine, in both cases, they must not allow themselves to be carried away by any private feeling, but be guided solely by regard for the public. Acting otherwise, they wickedly abuse their power which was given them, not for their own advantage, but for the good and service of others. On this right of war depends the right of garrisons, leagues, and other civil munitions. By garrisons, I mean those which are stationed in states for defence of the frontiers; by leagues, the alliances which are made by neighbouring princes, on the ground that if any disturbance arise within their territories, they will mutually assist each other, and combine their forces to repel the common enemies of the human race; under civil munitions I include every thing pertaining to the military art.[5]

Calvin is responding to Ana-Baptist arguments that it is unlawful for a Christian to be employed by the magistrate in the vocation of defense. Calvin appeals to Augustine, who appealed to Scripture. Calvin is obviously influenced by Augustine and cites him accordingly.

Note Calvin’s concern that magistrates not seek to exact vengeance from some personal need for vindication or other unjust cause, but that restraint should guide vengeance so as to provide some measure of repentance or changing the course of one’s actions, “unless compelled by the strongest necessity.”

The last section, mentioning “garrisons, leagues, and other civil munitions” as that which the right of war depends, essentially ties the lawful employment of the armed forces to some act or decree from the magistrate. As for alliances, Calvin is not prescribing such per se, but simply acknowledging that certain neighboring provinces may share a common enemy that requires the armed forces to function in unison for any hope to combat the more powerful enemy. This would still be viewed as a wart of defense, because the malevolent actions of the intruder are expressed in the invasion of a neighboring alliance and failure to act would lead to the destruction of one’s own province in due time. This is not preemptive war, or an act of aggression, but rather an alliance based on mutual concern for the peace of their territories.

What About Today?

Globalization has created new challenges for countries in regards to lawful defense and just war. Whereas Calvin assumed that alliances would exist among peaceful territorial neighbors, globalization and the technological advancements in warfare has created alliances between countries on different continents. For example, South Korea is an ally to the United States of America. If China and North Korea were to attack South Korea, we would be compelled to act even when our territory is not threatened. Alliances aren’t so much territorial today as they are ideological. Even WWII necessitated that we be attacked on our territory before we were compelled to enter into an alliance with other nations and employ our forces. The Vietnam war? –  not so much. The Iraq war under George H.W. Bush? – compelled to act in good faith with an international alliance that determined the territorial expansion of Iraq was unjust. Iraq II? – based on evidence that weapons of mass destruction were present and that terrorists would use such technologies to attack us. Afghanistan? – the mission was to get Osama Bin Laden, as well as punish a nation that allegedly harbored terrorists. You can see that with each successive war, the line is blurred and redrawn.

I sympathize with the new challenges of globalization, ideological alliances with like-minded countries, our national interests now being tied to trade with other countries, and the new unlawful warfare that is not carried out by decrees of magistrates, but rather by collectivist groups and terrorists who have no ends to their terror other than the destruction of a nation. There is obviously more complexity than my intentions in this post.

As for what Calvin would think of our foreign policy and recent “wars,” I can’t conclusively say, but I do offer the following thoughts:

  1. Calvin would encourage diplomacy before war.
  2. While Calvin allowed for several administrations of government – monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy – it is safe to say that Calvin would support a lawful declaration of war with whatever respective administration is adopted in a particular country. For us, the executive branch must have a declaration of war from the congressional branch of government, though the commander in chief is granted some discretionary power when compelled by the strongest necessity in the face of an imminent attack.
  3. Calvin would support taxes as the proper revenue for employing garrisons. With increasing costs and technological advancements in the arms race, I wonder what Calvin would view as adequate defense. Again, the imperative is on defense, not offense. Bearing the strongest sword would deter the evil with inferior swords – one could argue.


[1] Calvin, J., & Beveridge, H. (1845). Vol. 3: Institutes of the Christian religion (533–534). Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society.

[2] Kurian, G. T. (2001). Nelson’s new Christian dictionary: The authoritative resource on the Christian world. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[3] Feinberg, J. S., & Feinberg, P. D. (1993). Ethics for a Brave new world (347). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

27  Augustine, City of God 19.7.

28  Ibid.

[4] Geisler, N. L., & MacKenzie, R. E. (1995). Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and differences (122). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[5] Calvin, J., & Beveridge, H. (1845). Vol. 3: Institutes of the Christian religion (534–535). Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society.

© 2012, Rick Hogaboam. All rights reserved.

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