John Calvin and the Mosaic Civil and Judicial Laws

John Calvin

Today I’ll share one last excerpt from the Reformation Church History course.  This is a topic relating to John Calvin that I’ve been studying since my university years.  I was originally motivated to study it because of debates about theonomy in the CanRCs in northern Alberta.  Theonomy is a view in Christian ethics which states that the moral/civil law of the Old Testament is exhaustively and perpetually binding upon civil magistrates.  There is some overlap between that view and what John Calvin taught, but there are also some significant differences.  Some of those differences relate to the context, others to principles.  In what you’ll read below, I don’t deal with the question of the relationship of Calvin’s views to contemporary expressions of theonomy.  This is merely intended to be descriptive of the approach Calvin took.


Calvin was not only a theologian, but also a Christian political philosopher.  He gave a lot of thought to the shape of Christian politics in the Genevan context.  One of the most interesting aspects of his political philosophy is the way in which he worked with the Mosaic civil and judicial laws.  I want to look closer at this, especially since we are always interested in applying our Reformed faith to every area of life as well.  How did Calvin try to apply Scripture to some of the political questions of his day?  To narrow our focus, we’ll concentrate on the theory side.  We’ve already briefly looked at some of the practical outworking of this with the Servetus case.  But our focus here is going to be on what Calvin put forth in theory as being the ideal for which Christians in his context should strive.

Before we can get into this in more detail, we need to understand that Calvin’s views on this are coloured by his understanding of the relevance of the Ten Commandments for politics.  Calvin believed that both tables of the Law were to be enforced by civil governments.  This is reflected in the French or Gallican Confession of 1559, which Calvin helped to draft.  That confession said that God “has put the sword into the hands of magistrates to suppress crimes against the first as well as the second table of the Commandments of God.”  The question we’re looking at relates to Calvin’s view of the further exposition of the Decalogue in the civil and judicial laws of the Pentateuch.

We should also remember the three uses of the moral law in Reformed theology.  We’re speaking here about the second use of the law, the political use (usus politicus).   According to this distinction, magistrates are expected to turn to the Scriptures when formulating laws for a nation.  The question we’re looking at relates to Calvin’s application of the usus politicus and particularly whether he included the Mosaic civil and judicial laws in that use of the law.

We’ll now look at some of Calvin’s work on this subject.  We’ll begin with his commentary on the last four books of Moses.  Calvin was convinced that there was much to learn from the Mosaic penal sanctions.  We see this in his comments on Deut. 13:15 where God commands the Israelites to destroy cities which have turned to idol worship.  Calvin writes, “let us learn from the severity of this law how detestable is the crime of setting up false and spurious modes of worship.”[1]  We can learn from this Mosaic sanction that as Christians we need to hate idolatry just like God does.

Calvin made a similar comment on Deut. 7:25, where God commands his people to burn idols with fire.  However, he adds some nuance.  Calvin remarked that “this was a political precept, and only given temporarily to the ancient people; yet we gather from it how detestable idolatry is…”[2]  Here he speaks about the ordinance as being temporary in some sense, yet still retaining relevance for believers today.  It does that by telling us how much we should hate idolatry.

What we can say is that Calvin believed that the general equity of ordinances like Deut. 7:25 were eternally binding and useful, also for contemporary governments.  In other words, each civil and judicial law in the Pentateuch has a kernel of abiding relevance.  That kernel is connected by Calvin with the law of God that is written on the hearts of all human beings, the natural law.[3]  This concept of general equity is essential for understanding Calvin’s approach.

We see this principle at work elsewhere in his commentary on the Pentateuch.  For example, let’s look at what he says about Lev. 18:6, a law concerning incest.  Calvin argues that the equity of this law is still binding on everyone regardless of the fact that it was originally set down as a political ordinance for the nation of Israel.  He argues that the essence of this law is common knowledge to all people and it has been implanted in the hearts of all people, so that they can tell the difference between good and evil.  Calvin writes, “…it must be borne in mind that whatever is prescribed here is deduced from the source of rectitude itself, and from the natural feelings implanted in us by him…Wherefore I do not see that, under the pretext of its being a political law, the purity of nature is to be abolished.”[4]

As another example, we can consider how Calvin handled the laws of the Old Testament concerning usury.  As you may know, the Mosaic laws prohibited Israelites from exacting interest on loans to one another.  In the middle of the sixteenth century, most of Europe followed the same approach, at least in principle.[5]  It was illegal in many locales for people to issue loans on interest.  Geneva became a well-known exception – this was largely because of the teaching of Calvin on such texts as Exodus 22:25.  This text explicitly commanded the Israelites to take no interest from one another.  One might think that Calvin’s conclusion would be that the Christian citizens of Geneva should go and do likewise.  But, surprisingly, he goes in a different direction.

Calvin concluded that Exodus 22:25 was simply a part of the political constitution of Israel and was no longer binding upon modern states.  However, he did qualify his remarks.  He stated, that “usury is not now unlawful, except insofar as it contravenes equity and brotherly union.”[6]  Psalm 15 also mentions usury and Calvin comments on it there too.  He says that the aim of this law was “that men should not cruelly oppress the poor” and he maintains that the principle of justice for the poor is what remains binding today.  He says, “…that we should keep ourselves from plundering and devouring the poor who are in distress and want.”[7]  Calvin could see no biblical objection to the taking of interest in general.  The principle of these Mosaic laws was simply that the poor should not be taken advantage of.

Calvin has been described as a pioneer in his treatment of usury.[8]  Apparently he was among the first, or perhaps even the first to reach this kind of interpretation of the Mosaic law concerning usury.  In contrast to Romanist theologians and political philosophers, Calvin applied the principle of equity to legal texts and that was what made all the difference.

We can find more examples of this in Calvin’s sermons, especially in his sermons on the book of Deuteronomy.  Calvin preached 200 sermons on Deuteronomy between March of 1555 and July of 1556.  These sermons would have been preached during the weekday services.  For our purposes, we’re going to just consider a few points relating to our topic.

First of all, what does Calvin do with Deuteronomy 21:18-21, a passage which speaks about the son who will not listen to his father and mother?  In his 123rd sermon on Deuteronomy (preached on December 31, 1555), Calvin clearly says that he advocates the execution of rebellious and unreformable teenagers.  He insists that it is a magistrate’s responsibility to punish such wrongdoers with capital punishment.  After all, all those who rebel against parents are also rebelling against God.  By enforcing this law with the threat of capital punishment, they are also securing the honour of God.  Calvin understood the equity of this passage to involve a one-to-one application.  Rebellious teenagers were to be executed in Israel – rebellious teenagers should be executed in Geneva.  Did that actually happen?  I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think so.  Calvin did not always get his way in Geneva.

It’s also worth noting what Calvin did with Deuteronomy 27:17.  The verse pronounces a curse on anyone who would move his neighbour’s boundary marker.  Calvin recognizes that this text speaks to a specifically Jewish situation.  His listeners in Geneva did not have boundary markers as many of the Jews in Israel did.  It would have been impossible to draw a straight line between Israel and Geneva.  Instead, he pursues the equity of this commandment.  From this part of the law “God intended to show that it was necessary for us to observe equity and uprightness in dealing with one another.”[9]  There is no surprise there.  People should treat each other fairly.

But Calvin does not stop there.  He uses Deut. 27:17 to speak to a modern problem:  counterfeiting.  Like moving boundary markers, counterfeiting is a form of injustice and dishonesty, cheating one’s neighbour.  Calvin not only condemns it, but says that it must be punished with death.  Oftentimes Calvin draws his penology from the Mosaic standards, but here he deviates from that.  There is no place in the Bible that stipulates death as a punishment for counterfeiting or using false measures.  Part of the solution here is that Calvin did believe that different nations are allowed to use varying severity in punishing certain crimes.  I’ll have more on that in a moment when we look at the Institutes.  Moreover, and this is the other part of the solution, I think Calvin was being descriptive here in this sermon rather than prescriptive.  He was describing what the punishment for counterfeiting was in Geneva and elsewhere in Europe.  It was common in Early Modern Europe for counterfeiting to be punished with the death penalty and Calvin is simply speaking of that reality.  But it is a reality of which he approves and in so doing, he does go beyond what the Bible says.

One more thing to look at in the sermons on Deuteronomy is the definition of incest.  When he preached on Deuteronomy 27:20-22, he stated his belief that the definition of incest had to come from the Bible, both from Deuteronomy and from the applicable passages in Leviticus 18 and 20.  For Calvin, the standards for human sexuality are to be derived from the equity of God’s Word and when it came to incest the equity meant a one-to-one correlation between Israel and Geneva.  The civil laws regarding sexuality expressed principles from God’s created order and were therefore considered by Calvin to be perpetually binding.  He would have regarded them as then also binding on contemporary civil magistrates.

Now we move on to consider what he says in the Institutes about this subject.  As mentioned earlier, the first edition of the Institutes was published in 1536.  That edition already included a small section on how Christians are to view their political leaders and their calling if they are involved in politics.  Munster and its revolutionary Anabaptists loomed in the background.  That had happened very recently, two years earlier, in 1534.  Calvin was making a case for a Protestant political philosophy quite distinct from that of the revolutionary Anabaptists.  The Institutes were dedicated to Francis I and Calvin hoped that Francis (or least some well-placed people in his palace) would read this and have their minds put at ease about the Reformers.  By 1559, Calvin had greatly expanded these portions of the book and we’ll only consider what he says in that final and definitive edition.

In Book 4, Calvin considers the punishments appropriate for certain crimes.  He did not believe it necessary for all nations to punish murder, adultery, theft, and false witness in the same ways.  Yes, on the basis of Genesis 9:6, he did insist on capital punishment for murder, but he allowed for varying means by which that punishment could be carried out.  In some cases, it might be necessary to punish murderers with horrific and painful deaths in order to make an example of them.  However, murder is an exceptional case because of stipulations that precede the Mosaic judicial and civil laws given to Israel.   But when it came to theft, the principle of lex talionis (an eye for an eye) did not need to be universally applied.  The important thing for Calvin is that nations actually do punish these crimes in some way.  When it came to adultery, Calvin wrote in 4.20.16 that “against adulterers some nations levy severer, others lighter punishments.”[10]  Calvin is fine with that.  The important thing is that adultery be punished.  Yes, Calvin himself advocated the death penalty for adultery, but he recognized that there could be other options.  He says that it is neither necessary nor expedient for all peoples to use the same manner of punishment.  Calvin writes that “every nation is left free to make such laws as it foresees to be profitable.”[11]

This is an important point.  For crimes committed against one’s neighbour, the Mosaic penalties hold no abiding validity for magistrates today.  Calvin spoke about this as the law “which was never enacted for us.”[12]  The commands given by God for the punishment of infractions against the second table of the Law are no longer binding for civil magistrates – “For,” says Calvin, “the Lord through the hand of Moses did not give that law to be proclaimed among all nations and to be in force everywhere.”[13]  The penalties pertaining to the second table are applicable and binding in comprehensive scope only for Old Testament Israel, for the people and nation for whom these laws were originally enacted.

This was in contrast to some of the Anabaptists.  Some of them taught that civil governments were not to be respected if they did not enforce the Mosaic penalties pertaining to the second table of the Law.  They went further and said that armed rebellion was warranted against such governments.  This was part of what happened in Munster in 1534.  Men like Mathijs and Beukels believed that they constituted a new Mosaic theocracy and they had the responsibility to enforce Mosaic law in its entirety.  These revolutionary Anabaptists are in the background of this discussion.  This is clear when Calvin makes this comment in 4.20.14:

I would have preferred to pass over this matter in utter silence if I were not aware that here many dangerously go astray.  For there are some who deny that a commonwealth is duly framed which neglects the political system of Moses, and is ruled by the common laws of nations.  Let other men consider how perilous and seditious this notion is; it will be enough for me to have proved it false and foolish.[14]

Calvin was clearly attempting to distinguish the political philosophy of the Reform movement from that of the revolutionary Anabaptists.  In the process he gives us his thoughts about how far Christians should go in seeking the foundations of political precepts in the laws of Moses.  The key principle, as we have seen, is equity.

There is more one thing I want to point out from the Institutes.  Calvin emphasizes that a nation’s laws must not only watch over the relations between people, but also must aim towards upholding the honour of God.  At one point (4.20.9) he says that “those laws are preposterous which neglect God’s right and provide only for men.”[15]  For this reason, Calvin insisted that magistrates today have a calling to uphold the first table of the Law as much as the second.  He wrote (4.20.3) that it is the government’s responsibility to prevent and punish “idolatry, sacrilege against God’s Name, blasphemies against his truth, and other public offenses against religion.”[16]  Calvin does not say anything in the Institutes about the appropriate punishment for these offenses.  However, from other sources it is quite clear that he expected the most severe penalties to be used for crimes that were directly against God.

We can see this briefly by looking at a letter that Calvin wrote to Edward Seymour.  Seymour was the Duke of Somerset; he was the regent of England under Edward VI.  King Edward VI was just a boy, so Edward Seymour was for all intents and purposes the real authority in England.  Calvin wrote him a letter in 1548.  In this letter he argues that stiffer penalties must be given for crimes which are committed against the LORD, such as blasphemy.  He lamented the fact that adultery, drunkenness and other crimes were punished with severe penalties, but the honour of God was given little attention.  He implored Seymour to hold himself “charged, for the honour of God, to punish those crimes of which men are in the habit of making no very great account.”[17]  While it is true that Calvin does not specify the appropriate punishments, it is clear that he advocates the most severe penalty for crimes against the first table of the Law.  This obviously means death.  For Calvin, the general equity of the law demands this kind of response from a magistrate.

KEY POINTS:  Calvin had a nuanced view of the Mosaic civil and judicial laws.  His guiding principle was general equity – looking for the kernel that is universally applicable since it is written on the hearts of men.  The entire Law of God as summarized in the Decalogue remains in force for magistrates today, both the first and the second table.  However, the penalties attached to infractions of the second table can vary according to times and circumstances.  The important thing is that such infractions are punished.  When it comes to the first table, because God’s honour is at stake, Calvin maintained that the most severe penalties were appropriate.

[1] Calvin, Harmony of the Four Last Books of Moses (Vol. 2), 231.

[2] Calvin, Harmony of the Four Last Books of Moses (Vol. 2), 399.

[3] According to Jack Sawyer, for Calvin, equity is “Nothing else but the ethical principles embedded in the moral law of God which is itself but a testimony of the natural law which is written large in the conscience of every man.”  Sawyer, Moses and the Magistrate: Aspects of Calvin’s Political Theory in Contemporary Focus, 50.

[4] Calvin, Harmony (Vol. 3), 99-100.

[5] See Denys Hay, Europe in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (Second Edition) (New York: Longman Inc., 1966), 420-422.

[6] Calvin, Harmony (Vol. 3), 132.

[7] Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms (Vol. 1), 213.

[8] A. A. Van Schelven, Het Calvinisme gedurende zijn bloetijd, 53.

[9] Calvin, The Covenant Enforced, 44.

[10] Institutes (Vol. 2), 1504.

[11] Institutes (Vol. 2), 1505.

[12] Institutes (Vol. 2), 1505.

[13] Institutes (Vol. 2), 1505.

[14] Institutes (Vol. 2), 1502.

[15] Institutes (Vol. 2), 1495.

[16] Institutes (Vol. 2), 1488.

[17] Letters of John Calvin, 102.

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

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