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This article examines the meaning and role of conscience in the political theology of John Calvin. It argues that the focus in Calvin scholarship on whether conscience makes political order possible without the aid of scripture is misplaced. Although Calvin views conscience as a providential gift that restrains evil to some degree, he puts forth this claim only as part of his defence of God's right to punish all humans eternally. Conscience, that is, renders humans 'inexcusable' before God. Thus, to ask whether conscience makes political order possible in and of itself is to ask a question with which Calvin does not concern himself. Doing so obscures the real significance of conscience for Calvin's political theory: conscience as the starting point for the construction of a Christian polity. The torments of conscience prompt individuals to seek relief, driving them to Christ for salvation and forgiveness of their sins. This, in turn, leads them to submit willingly to the 'external aids' or 'outward helps' of the church and civil government in order to live just and virtuous lives.
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Keywords: John Calvin; Reformation political thought; conscience; early modern political thought; freedom of conscience; natural law; political theology; religion and politics

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Political Science, Gustavus Adolphus College, 800 W. College Ave., Saint Peter, MN 56082, USA., Email:

Publication date: 2003-01-01

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