Let me start by saying what this is not about. It is not another debugging of the idea that there existed theocracies anywhere in the world, be it Geneva under Calvin, Scotland under Knox or the Pilgrim Father’s in America. I do not believe they thought that they had a theocracy; it is what others have put onto them. Few in the Reformed tradition including conservative Calvinists want to actually establish a theocracy today.
I believe the commonly cited examples of theocracy never really were experiments in being one in a meaningful way. I have read enough about the real power politics of Geneva during Calvin’s time to know firstly that the appearance of absolute power to God or to Calvin is a later projection. Take the simple fact that Calvin was never a citizen of Geneva. Imagine an absolute ruler who was not even a citizen. Nor was Calvin above the normal pettiness of human beings. I am not talking Servetus here, his enemies have made too big a play of that from the facts. Indeed it could be argued that Servetus’ mistake was to think Calvin was more in control of Geneva than he was. Calvin’s failure to save Servetus was a case of political necessity; for Calvin to save Servetus would have given his enemies, even more, grounds to attempt to destabilise Geneva than if Servetus was tried by the magistrates. If Geneva was destabilised then Calvin would not be able to save Servetus anyway. Rather there is evidence of small minded pettiness in his judgements at the Consistory (Church) courts such as not giving a pay rise to those who had argued with him previously. Geneva under Calvin from Calvin himself down remained a city with toxic power politics. Calvin’s big achievement was remaining alive in such a brew. If that is true of Geneva, then I suspect it is true of Scotland (the evidence I have read supports this) and the Pilgrim Fathers (I have little acquaintance with the evidence there).
Rather I want to look at the change in the conceptualisation of government made to the approach to social justice. Before Calvin, there was Aquinas with a model of government where the chance of something being good was matched with the chance of something being bad. So you reformed government according to tradeoffs. Under Aquinas Democracy is both least potential good and least potential bad while a monarchy had the most potential good and potential bad. Calvin seems to sweep that aside and proposes a way of organising the Church and state that is acceptable. My recall of reading it is that even he thought of it as one of the acceptable solutions to the problem, not the only solution and as such one of the ways churches could be acceptable to God. Notice Calvin’s focus is very much of the church, the state is a side issue. It does, however, suggest that the way a state is governed can be more or less acceptable to God. Thus the questions come can you reform institutions Church or State so that they are more or less in accordance with the will of God. It starts an idea, that is that you can make the worldly structures such that they reflect the will of Heaven. This is not the same as they are ordained from Heaven and the result is almost the opposite.
This has a profound effect on the way the Reformed behave. Let’s get this clear. All churches engage in both charitable works and issues around social justice. There is nothing special here about the fact that the Reformed are engaged in both. What does strike one when dealing with the Reformed is the amount of effort and energy that goes into considering the ways structures reflect issues of social justice. The dominance within Reformed circles of the idea that society needs to be reformed this is regardless of whether these structures are faith based, community-based, or state based. There is a political activists agenda running under the surface that says society could and should reflect the agenda we see as God’s. To put it bluntly, our tedious worrying over structures and forms is in large due to seeing these as a way to get things right for God.
It can be a blessing. The ideas of checks and balances, the keeping of detailed records for trials and such have strong connections with the Reformed tradition. The New England Puritans for the first and none other than John Calvin for the second. On the other hand, it can lead to exceeding officiousness. We tend to forget that people exist as individuals in their own right and while we can shape the structures of society to promote general well being, we need to be careful that we do not overreach. That is, in the end, we cannot force people to be good and respect their integrity. Goodness, if it is worth anything, has to come from the desire within a person rather than enforced from the outside.