Topic: John Calvin's Constitutional Theology

Presenter: Constance Lee, PhD candidate, UQ School of Law

Advisors: Prof Nicholas Aroney, Dr Jonathan Crowe

Time: 11-11.30am, 22 May 2020

Zoom link 


The continuity between John Calvin’s (1509-64) natural law theory and the constitutional tradition of limited government is often overlooked. To many of his critics, Calvin’s political theology translates more closely to a theocracy than a constitutional form of government. With such scepticism in mind, this thesis aims to engage with Calvin's natural law theory on its own terms to explore what authority it provides for constitutionalism.

It begins by exploring his teachings on "Providence" as the foundational framework by which all his other concepts are understood. By imputing a medieval way of thinking (in universalities) which was uncharacteristic of Calvin’s writings, critics have broken the obvious link between Calvin’s theology and political theory. In this context, this thesis argues that Calvin’s dialectical method of interpretation engages in thinking of themes and doctrines in terms of binaries and complements, with the effect of shifting the focus from distorted descriptive realities of power to the normative foundations of legitimate authority.

Through this hermeneutic paradigm, the first half of the thesis follows closely the logical structure of Calvin’sInstitutes of the Christian Religion (1559) to examine the ontological bases of his natural law theory. By viewing the conscience as the product of the covenantal relationship between God and fallible humans, Calvin accounts for both the need and ability to pursue a higher plane of virtue.

The second half of the thesis goes on to examine how Calvin’s ontology supports the idea of universal human duty, for both ruler and the ruled, to a higher legitimating norm. Holding these parallelisms in contention, this thesis argues that the central pillars of constitutional philosophy such as the 'rule of law,' ‘the separation of powers’ and ‘federalism’ are continuous with Calvin’s theology.