A colleague asked me about Michael Horton’s claim that John Calvin referred to “Christendom”—the idea that Christianity should prevail in all aspects of society—as a “contrived empire.” “Did Calvin really say that?” because, “I can’t find it anywhere.” So, I set out to see what Horton said that Calvin said, and whether Calvin really said it. All Christendom was at stake.
Indeed Horton makes this claim. He writes, “Opposing what he called the ‘contrived empire’ of Christendom, Calvin says that we must recognize that we are ‘under a two-fold government. . . .’”
And indeed, Horton appears to hold this claim very dear, for he has repeated it in many publications: it’s in his Introduction to Covenant Theology (p. 125)1 ), an article “In Praise of Profanity: A Theological Defense of the Secular” (p. 259)2 ), a Christianity Today article “The Only ‘Christian Nation’”3 , a Ligonier article “A Tale of Two Kingdoms,” other interviews and articles4 , and probably other places as well, for example, his seminary classroom.
In fact, since this article was first published on August 4, 2011, and the reprinted in my eBook, Inglorious Kingdoms, Michael Horton has still continued repeating it, for example in his book Calvin on the Christian Life (see p. 215), despite the fact that the claim, as we shall review below, is thoroughly repudiated.
In one place, Horton expresses this claim in the broadest terms. In answering an interview question of whether the Reformers ever intended to “transform culture,” he replies flatly, “No.” He explains, “I think it’s important to remember that that was not the Reformation’s aim. Christendom had already tried that at an earlier time, and Calvin called it the ‘contrived’ empire.’” From this we can see that by “Christendom” Horton means a broad view in which Christianity transforms all aspects of culture, or applies God’s Word to every area of life, and that Horton means to say Calvin utterly rejected this view of Christian living as a “contrived empire.”
Is this really what Calvin said?
What Calvin really said
Unfortunately, Dr. Horton has misrepresented Calvin here—both in Calvin’s use of the phrase and in his view of Christian society in general. Let’s look at what Calvin really said.
Calvin does indeed use the phrase “contrived empire”: in his Institutes, 4.11.13, in Battles’ translation. But Horton is quite wrong: Calvin in no sense applies this to “Christendom,” and certainly not to the broader sense of the term. Rather, Calvin’s argument in both the immediate and larger context actually supports, rather strongly, a view of Christendom.
The “contrived empire” to which Calvin refers is not “Christendom,” but rather the fraudulent papal empire purported by the so-called “Donation of Constantine” (DoC). Calvin explicitly refers to this by name in the two previous sections, 11 and 12, of chapter 11. He then refers to it as “this contrived empire” in section 13. “This” specific “empire” to which Calvin actually refers was “contrived” not because the ideal of Christian law, Christian rulers, or Christian society is contrived (Horton’s position), but because the document of the DoC was itself literally a forgery. This was exposed by Lorenzo Valla in 1440, and became widely known. Calvin knew of the forgery, and refers by name to Valla in section 12. Thus he calls this particular, historically-bound, purported province of the Pope a “contrived empire”—for it literally was forged. He makes no such reference to the idea of Christendom in general. Horton apparently misread Calvin, and as a result has made a rather stunning error in application. The question is, why does he now persist in this error since it has been made public for over five years now?
We should also note that Battles’ rendering of “contrived” is not necessarily helpful to the modern popular reader. Battles uses the Latin of 1559 for the base text, in which the phrase is “commentitium hoc imperium.” The older English translation by Beveridge renders it “fictitious empire,” which is probably better. “Forged empire” I think would get the point across best, for Calvin is alluding to a forged document on which a false claim to empire was made, and thus making a double-entendre of the idea of forgery. But Battles always checked his translation of the Latin against Calvin’s own 1560 French translation, and the French has “Empire controuvé.” Thus Battles used an English word that appeared equivalent, “contrived.” But I don’t know that this is truly equivalent, especially considering the nuances in usage over the past 500 years.
Calvin’s meaning is also apparent from the fact that the rest of the very sentence in which that phrase appears alludes to a specific historical time frame: “But if anyone should ask at what time this contrived empire began to rise up, not yet five hundred years have passed since the pontiffs were still in subjection to the princes and no pontiff was created apart from the emperor’s authority.” Calvin would of course decry the emperor’s usurpation of ordinations as much as the reverse, but his point here is to dispel the notion that the ancient church would allow bishops to seize the power of the sword. And he points back 500 years in the historical record to make this point.
Calvin in defense of Christendom
Also contrary to Horton’s contrived representation, in the very next section, 14, Calvin actually speaks in defense of “Christendom.” He laments the papal usurpations for having “troubled” and “nearly destroyed it”—the “it” being Christendom. In other words, it would be a bad thing if Christendom were to be destroyed. Rather, Christendom is a thing to be preserved and advanced in Calvin’s view, but the papal abuses almost brought it down. Calvin goes on to make the historical context very specific. He narrows the “not yet five hundred years” by this statement:
about 130 years ago they [the popes] reduced the city itself (at that time free) to their control, until they came into the authority they hold today; and for some two hundred years they have so troubled Christendom in their efforts to hold or increase that authority . . . that they have nearly destroyed it.
The word “Christendom” here is Battles’ translation of the text, which actually says “christianum orbem” in Calvin’s Latin, and is more literally translated “Christian world.” In other words, during the 1300s, by trying to usurp the civil sword throughout the whole part of the world that was dominated by Christianity, the Pope almost destroyed the whole society.
Horton never mentions this very narrow historical context, despite the fact that it appears explicitly in Calvin’s preceding sections—twice on the facing page—and is explained in a lengthy footnote by the editor (John T. McNeill) on the very same page. Calvin even refers to the DoC by name again at the end of the very section (on the next page) from which the quoted phrase is taken, but Horton still says nothing of it. He also never footnotes it (thus no one can check his usage without the difficulty of tracking down the phrase somewhere in Calvin’s dozens of volumes), despite using the argument repeatedly in many publications.
Had Horton been more careful, he would have noted that other parts of the same chapter 11 actually uphold the “Christendom” view in which rulers should govern as Christians—in submission to Christian discipline, according to God’s Word, and for the sustenance of God’s covenant people. In section 4 of chapter 11, Calvin argues that while the clergy should not bear the power of the sword (agreed), the magistrate should nevertheless subject himself to the law and discipline of the church. He writes that
the magistrate, if he is godly, will not want to exempt himself from the common subjection of God’s children. It is by no means the least significant part of this for him to subject himself to the church, which judges according to God’s Word—so far ought he to be from setting that judgment aside!
He then quotes Ambrose: “For what is more honorable than for the emperor to be called a son of the church? For a good emperor is within the church, not over the church.”
Calvin returns to this theme as his final thought at the end of chapter 11 (section 16). For the very reason that the church itself has no power of coercion, it is even more pressing that the magistrates subject themselves to Christianity and support it by the civil power they rightfully possess, for “it is the duty of godly kings and princes to sustain religion by law, edicts, and judgments.”
Contrary to what Horton contrives it to say, Calvin’s teaching here actually supports “Christendom” rather than refuting it. Simply reading Calvin’s context shows us who is really involved in a contrivance. Horton has more in common with the ancient forgers of documents than with Calvin’s view of society.
So did Horton even read the whole chapter? Did he read it carefully? If not he needs to go back, reread, and then amend his misrepresentation of Calvin in a half-dozen or more public statements. If so, then he has some explaining to do as to why he so often presents Calvin as deriding something he actually supported. Would this not be a false witness? Or just a repeated mistake? I await the clarification.
I’ve been waiting five years.
I would counsel those interested to reread the entire 11th chapter of book 4 in order fully to understand Calvin’s context: the limits of ecclesiastical jurisdiction. This, Calvin argues, had been greatly abused by the Roman Church since at least the 1200s. He rehearses the gradual slide of the Roman church into full usurpation of the civil magistrate’s sword, starting originally with local bishops here and there abusing their practice of private arbitration, then seeking more and more power, then land, then full civil power; then eventually the Pope claimed it for all of the lands alleged by the DoC (most of the Mediterranean world).
Calvin, however, nowhere says anything against the Gospel transforming culture, or Christians impacting and transforming every area of life, and he certainly never argues that rulers should not submit to Christ and his Church. Calvin’s point is simply that the church should not control the sword, but he would hardly say that therefore the sword has no obligation to submit to the gospel and God’s law. He does not criticize the idea of Christendom. Indeed, just the opposite—Calvin wants to restore Christendom to a proper balance of powers.
Students interested in Calvin’s views on the subject would be wise to read Calvin very carefully, and Horton even more carefully.
(Get this essay and many more like it in Inglorious Kingdoms: Saving the Public Square from the Tyrannies of Bad Theology.)
(Cover art by Bertram Poole Art.)