Category Archives: Reformed Worldview

The Reformation versus the Post-Reformation?

For quite a while it was customary for historians, theologians, and preachers to bewail the post-Reformation as a sort of regrettable appendix to the glory-days of Calvin and Luther.  I certainly encountered this way of thinking in my theological training.  I was taught that the Reformation was a glorious return to the Word of God, but immediately after the Reformation “scholasticism” negated many of its great gains.  Moreover, it was alleged that many of the problems in Reformed theology in the last 200 years can be traced back to this scoundrel, “scholasticism.”  It ruined almost everything.  “Scholastic” thus became a loaded, pejorative term.  If you heard a Reformed minister or theologian describing someone as “scholastic,” you knew that they were one of the bad guys in theology.

All this came to mind again as I was reading Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Crossway, 2004).  I have much appreciation for the book’s overall argument.  Pearcey believes we need to recover the idea of a Christian worldview and I fully agree.  However, I do take issue with some of her historical analysis.

In chapter 2 she describes how medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas formulated a view of creation that involved a nature-grace dualism.  It is a two-storied view of reality.  The Reformation, however, overcame it.  Writes Pearcey, “The Reformers sought a return to a unified field of knowledge, where divine revelation is the light illuminating all areas of study” (page 81).  Thus, away with dividing life into secular vs. sacred.  All of life is one before the face of God.  We are called into this world to live all of life according to Scripture.

A major historical problem appears when Pearcey posits this Reformation perspective against that of the post-Reformation.  This paragraph illustrates the issue:

Despite all this, the Reformers’ emphatic rejection of the nature/grace dualism was not enough to overcome an age-old pattern of thought.  The problem was that they failed to craft a philosophical vocabulary to express their new theological insights.  Thus they did not give their followers any tools to defend those insights against philosophical attack — or to create an alternative to the dualistic philosophy of scholasticism.  As a result, the successors of Luther and Calvin went right back to teaching scholasticism in the Protestant universities, using Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics as the basis of their systems — and thus dualistic thinking continued to affect all the Christian traditions. (page 82)

Where to begin in discussing this?  First I wonder: why would it have been necessary for the “Reformers” (this is a broad term) to craft a philosophical vocabulary to express their new theological insights?  From my reading of Calvin, to take but one Reformer, he was quite able to adapt the existing theological/philosophical vocabulary of his day in order to express himself.  For example, in his discussion on providence in the Institutes (1.16.9) he writes about absolute necessity (necessitas consequentis) and consequent necessity (necessitas consequentiae).  Why would there be a need to create a new vocabulary?  The existing vocabulary was already quite rich.  Why would a new vocabulary have to be crafted to repel philosophical attacks or to create an alternative to dualistic philosophy?  I fail to see how all this follows.  My non sequitur alarm bells are ringing.

But more significantly, note Pearcey’s own vocabulary:  “the dualistic philosophy of scholasticism” and “teaching scholasticism in the Protestant universities.”  She assumes that scholasticism is something with a definite content, including Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics as its basis.  Scholasticism was taught in universities, she says.  But nowhere does she precisely outline the content of this “scholasticism.”  She does not indicate whether she’s speaking of theology, philosophy, or any another field of study.  Moreover, nowhere does she indicate whether or if this post-Reformation scholasticism differed from pre-Reformation scholasticism in any way.  But she is quite sure that it was a bad development because it ensured that dualistic thinking would be harboured in Protestantism for some time to come.  The broad generalizations here raise these and more questions.

Here’s the nub of the problem:  scholasticism was a method of teaching.  As a teaching method, it was especially marked by the use of careful definitions, distinctions, and argumentative techniques.  It was a method used across the spectrum to convey different systems with widely differing theological content.  There were Roman Catholic scholastic theologians, as well as Lutherans and Reformed.  The scholastic teaching method was used both in the classroom and in writing.  However, there are examples of theologians often identified as scholastic writing books that are not at all scholastic.  Some of the best post-Reformation works on Christian piety and experience come from men who spent much of their time in the academy using the scholastic method.   A friend (an expert in this area) pointed me to Antoine de Chandieu.  This Huguenot theologian used the scholastic method in various works, but he also wrote a collection of meditations on Psalm 32.  I might point out too, that though it sometimes happened, it was considered bad form to take the scholastic method into the pulpit.  It was meant for the university context, not the church.  Readers wanting to look into this more should have a look at this book.

Pearcey also argues that post-Reformation scholasticism used “Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics as the basis of their systems.”  This raises questions too.  Are we talking about theology?  What do you mean by “basis”?  What do you mean by “system”?  What time period are we discussing exactly?  Let’s say we’re talking theology, so systems of theology.  Let’s say by “basis,” Pearcey means the foundations, what it’s based on.  To be even more specific, let’s say we’re talking about the period of early orthodoxy (1565-1640).  Let’s then take one of the preeminent handbooks of Reformed theology from this period, the 1625 Leiden Synopsis.  What was the basis of the Leiden Synopsis?  “We shall commence our disputations with Scripture, since it, being divinely inspired, is the principle for the most sacred Theology, its source of proof, and its means of instruction.”  Scripture is the principle, the basis (or to use the technical term, principium cognoscendi).  Nothing about Aristotle.  From my reading of post-Reformation Reformed theology, this is typical not exceptional.

Contrary to what Pearcey and others have argued, the post-Reformation did not negate the gains of the Reformation — it built on them.  Or to put it in other terms, there is more continuity between the Reformation and post-Reformation than has sometimes been recognized.  So where does that leave Pearcey’s attempt to explain the continuing prevalence of dualistic philosophy?  I reckon she has to find another explanation.  Perhaps the cause has more to do with something as simple as the innate human proclivity to double-mindedness.

 


SSM Not the Real Issue

If you’re just tuning in, Australia is in the midst of an enormous national discussion on marriage.  Today ballots are being sent to all eligible Australian voters asking whether marriage should be redefined to include same-sex couples.  Voters are to tick the “Yes” or “No” box and then mail it back to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, who will announce a result on November 15.  The debate about this matter has been robust but also, sadly, at times uncivil.

Christians need to realize something important about this debate.  The real issue is not marriage.  The abandonment of the traditional view of marriage is just a symptom of a far deeper problem in Australian society (and Western society as a whole).  What we are witnessing is a clash of worldviews.  There is a worldview informed by the Bible, and then there are a host of unbelieving worldviews lined up against that worldview.  It’s not just about one issue — dig a little deeper and you’ll find that there is disagreement about many more things.  In fact, there’s disagreement on almost every fundamental thing.

So what is a worldview?  It’s simply the way one views the world.  It’s a complete package of beliefs about all kinds of important things.  For example, a worldview includes how you perceive history:  does it have a beginning and an end?  Is there someone in control of it?  A worldview includes how you think about ethics or morality:  are there absolute moral standards?  How does one define them?  A worldview includes how you think about God:  is there a personal God, a Creator distinct from his creation yet involved with it?  It involves how you regard humanity:  are we distinct from animals or to be included with them as simply more evolved animals?  It involves all those things, and far more.

The foundation for a Christian worldview is in Proverbs 3:6, “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”  The Christian’s worldview starts with wisely acknowledging God and what he says in his Word as public, objective truth.  All unbelieving worldviews start with the human being as an autonomous agent — you’re a law unto yourself.  It’s the Satanic lie told to Eve in the Garden of Eden:  you don’t need God.  You make up your own mind as to what is true and good.  These completely different foundations mean that these worldviews typically go in completely different, usually antithetical, directions.

The Christian believes that there is a personal Triune God and he is not silent.  He has revealed himself in the inspired, infallible, and inerrant Scriptures of the Old and New Testament.  Unbelieving worldviews are at best skeptical about such a God and the possibility of trustworthy revelation from him.  Christians believe that morality is directly connected to the character of this Triune God.  What is right and wrong is defined by his very nature as revealed in the Bible.  Unbelieving worldviews can be dogmatic about right and wrong too, but ultimately morality is defined either by the whim of the individual or of society — there is no firm foundation for absolute right and wrong.  Christians believe that human beings are creatures.  We were created by God in his image, and therefore all human beings ought to be treated with dignity and respect.  Unbelieving worldviews simply regard human beings as another species in the animal kingdom.  Yes, more highly evolved, but not essentially as of more worth than any of the other animals.  Ironically, despite that view, unbelievers can be quite insistent on human rights, but that kind of talk is just writing cheques that their worldview can’t cash.  Christians also believe that human beings today are fallen creatures, rebels against the Creator who notices rebellion and will punish it.  People need the redemption, healing, and forgiveness available in Jesus Christ.  Unbelieving worldviews maintain that we are all essentially good and getting better.  There’s definitely no need for divine intervention or rescue, because there is no ultimate justice.

When it comes to marriage, Christians come at this from within this total worldview package.  Marriage is included in our total way of looking at the world, a worldview based on God’s revelation in the Bible.  We believe in creation — that God created the first man and the first woman and brought them together in marriage.  He instituted marriage as a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman.  We believe that some things are right and other things are wrong — and it’s not determined by how we feel or what society thinks.  There is an absolute standard for morality that’s been given to humanity in the Bible.  You see, it’s not just a different view of who should be allowed to get married.  We inhabit totally different ways of looking at the world.  If there’s to be a way forward, we have to find a way to identify and discuss those different worldviews.

But how?  Let me make a couple of brief suggestions.

One is that believers be up front about why they stand where they do.  We need to make it clear that we think as we do because we’re Christians and because we have a worldview based on what the Bible teaches.  If unbelievers dig deeper, they’ll find that we have all kinds of disagreeable beliefs about God, humanity, history, biology, ethics — and they’re all part of who we are as Christians.  For us to deny any one part of that package is to deny the whole.  It’s the whole package which gives us a coherent and consistent worldview.

Another suggestion is that we ought to learn the art of asking the types of questions that expose unbelieving worldviews as bankrupt.  For example, when we hear someone talk about “marriage equality” as a human right, then let’s talk about human rights.  Let’s ask where human rights come from, whether they’re absolute, who defines them, why it should be regarded as evil if someone violates them, etc.  We need to ask the questions in such a way that the unbeliever, with his or her answers, is brought to the inevitable conclusion.  For help in learning how to do this effectively, I highly recommend Tactics, by Gregory Koukl (see my review here).

Our ultimate goal is not to win a debate about same-sex “marriage.”  Ultimately, our goal is to persuade people to the Christian faith, to be God’s instruments to lead them to Christ.  We want the unbelievers in our lives to see that their worldview is a vain fantasy that can’t account for the way the world really is.  We want them to flee their destructive fantasies and get into the real world where there is a real God who really reveals himself in the Bible, and who really sent his Son to redeem us from our foolishness.

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh.  For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.  We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…”  — 2 Corinthians 10:3-5

 


Mockingjay and Reformed Political Theory

Mockingjay

At the moment, the third installment of the Hunger Games series continues to dominate box office sales.  Mockingjay (Part 1) continues the story of Katniss Everdeen as she struggles against the tyrannical Capitol.  I have written about the first installment before, providing the (tongue-in-cheek) “definitive Christian review.”  The latest installment provides even more food for thought.  In fact, Mockingjay provides a powerful illustration of a particular aspect of Reformed political theory.

It has to do with resistance against tyrants.  We can take John Calvin as an example of the theory in writing.  Part of the fourth book of Calvin’s Institutes is taken up with how Christians should view the state.  Calvin also lays out the responsibilities of magistrates.  Almost at the very end, he deals with the question of what should be done with tyrannical rulers.  If you have a king who is sadistic, unjust, a persecutor, and a lover of almost every evil, should a Christian just take it?  Is there no recourse for believers?  Can they revolt?  Calvin’s answer (in Institutes 4.20.31) is that there is a proper and God-honouring way to resist and overthrow tyranny, but it still involves God-given authority.  Calvin’s position is that lower magistrates not only can, but must do what they can to overthrow tyrannical higher rulers.  Says Calvin,

…I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance.

In other words, lower magistrates are actually obliged to resist tyranny and overthrow it if necessary.

A classic illustration of this is found in the Dutch Revolt.  During the mid-sixteenth century, the Spanish were in control of what we today call the Netherlands and Belgium.  The Spanish were tyrannical to a fault.  They were brutally oppressive, especially towards Reformed believers.  However, Reformed folk did not take it passively.  There was a strong resistance movement and it was led by lower magistrates from across the Low Countries.  Men like William of Orange resisted the Spanish and made war against them.  Eventually, these efforts were successful and freedom was secured, at least in the northern part of the Low Countries.  Were the Dutch wrong to rebel against the Spanish?  No, it was not a rebellion in the sense of overthrowing authority.  Instead, it was lawfully constituted authorities leading a lawful revolt against godless tyranny.

We see the same thing happening in Mockingjay (Part 1).  President Snow and the Capitol are clearly tyrannical.  They oppress the districts and exact tribute from them (human tributes who serve for the entertainment of the Capitol).  But there is a revolt underway and it takes place under the auspices of District 13.  District 13 was thought by many to have been obliterated.  It turns out that the district still exists and has a strong internal government led by President Coin.  President Coin is leading the revolt against the Capitol.  Consequently, from a Reformed perspective, the revolt portrayed in Mockingjay is a lawful endeavour.  In fact, President Coin is doing what she is obliged to do.  It would be wrong for her not to revolt against the Capitol.  I doubt Mockingjay intends to illustrate “Calvinist resistance theory,” but it does so nonetheless, at least to a certain degree.  To illustrate it fully, the characters involved would have to commit their cause to God and seek to carry it out for his glory.  Regrettably, the world of Katniss Everdeen, even in District 13, is a godless and unbelieving society.  All there is in the world portrayed is the horizontal plane.   Therefore, the illustration only works to a point.

Tyranny is always a threat.  We would be naive if we thought that we or our descendants will never be faced with it again.  If we should come to live under the jackboot of some oppressive, tyrannical power, how should we respond?  Because of our history, Reformed believers have given extensive thought to this question and we have an answer readily at hand.  We should never passively accept tyranny, but at the same time we must never reject authority.  This is why it is crucially important for Christians to be involved in politics.  We need believing people in positions of authority, not only for the influence they bear now, but also for the leadership they can provide if and when tyranny must be resisted and overthrown.


A Special Sort of Unbelief

Recently many concerns have been expressed about the direction of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  Our sister churches were entertaining a proposal regarding women in office and this caused alarm and dismay with many of us.  This proposal was only the most recent in a string of disturbing events, books, statements to media, and articles.  Many fervent prayers have been offered up for our sister churches, praying that God would lead them in the right direction.  My purpose in this article is not to comment on the Dutch situation as such.  Rather, I want us to consider where we’re at.  Sometimes our Dutch brothers and sisters can be heard saying things like, “You just wait 10 or 15 years.  Then you’ll see things our way.  The immigrant churches are always lagging behind, but they will catch up.”  Could there be some truth to this?  For example, could the seeds for something like women in office have already been planted and permitted to grow among us?

Looking Back

Back in the early 1990s, I was a student at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.  The Gateway was the student newspaper and a prominent writer there was an up and coming law student named Ezra Levant.  Perhaps partly through his influence, The Gateway was remarkably open to publishing a variety of perspectives, including openly Christian ones.  Homosexuality was a hot topic for discussion already in those days and I wrote something for The Gateway presenting the biblical perspective.  This was published and I was not dragged before a human rights commission.

However, what I wrote did stir up a response from a group on campus, the Student Christian Movement (SCM).  The students involved with SCM were mostly affiliated with the United Church, though perhaps there were some Anglicans and others as well.  SCM wrote something for The Gateway arguing that the perspective I expressed was not representative of all Christians.  They affirmed that many Christians have no problem with homosexual behaviour and see it as a healthy form of human sexuality.  They offered a pamphlet to interested readers that would explain their position further.  I took them up on this offer.  Let me share some quotes from that pamphlet:

While the Bible obviously is familiar with homosexual relations, it seems to know little about homosexuality as such; this may be one of the reasons why homosexual acts are condemned as wilful transgressions of God’s orders for God’s people.

At best, the story of Sodom is very slim evidence for the notion that homosexuality is considered a ‘sin’ in the Bible.

Today we know a great deal more about the motives behind people’s actions than did the biblical writers.  Economics and psychology have given us insights into behaviour that Paul did not have.

…homosexuality is no ‘sin’ unless it becomes a false god…human sexuality is sinful only if it stands in the way of love and justice.

Essentially, the SCM pamphlet said, “Yes, we know what the Bible says, but we know more than the biblical writers and so we can readily accommodate homosexuality in our ethical beliefs.”

I wrote a response to this pamphlet.  I argued that the Bible itself claims to be the inspired and inerrant Word of God, not merely the religious or ethical views of human biblical writers which you can take or leave. Therefore, the Bible has to be our starting point and we have to take the Bible seriously on its own terms.  Scripture is quite clear about the sinful nature of homosexual practice.  For instance, the SCM pamphlet argued that the great evil in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was the fact that they were so inhospitable.  That position conveniently ignores the clear teaching of Scripture in Jude 7.  That leaves readers with three options:  you can accept that clear teaching, you can pervert it to fit your own agenda, or you can argue that the biblical writers were ignorant.  SCM’s approach was a blend of the latter two options, depending on what was convenient.  In the end, however, one can only say that this was a sort of unbelief when it came to the text of the Bible.

The university environment was often hostile to an acceptance of the Bible as the Word of God.   That hostility was what led me to begin studying apologetics, the defense of the faith.  Through some study of the Christian Reconstruction movement, I had come across the name of Cornelius Van Til as a teacher of Reformed apologetics.  I read his book The Defense of the Faith and it blew me away.  He argued that any defense of Christianity has to start with the Word of God.  The inerrant Word must always be our foundation and starting place.  Early in my academic career, then, I became convinced that our Reformed faith requires us to honour the Word of God by putting it first in every field of study, whether apologetics or anything else.  To do otherwise is to betray our commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord of all wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3) – it would be a sort of unbelief.

This bit of biography illustrates where I’m coming from.  I have long been convinced that the Bible is the inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word of God that must be our starting place in any endeavour.  As Proverbs 3:5,6 puts it, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”  We acknowledge him by honouring his Word and giving it priority in everything!  As Psalm 36:9 says, “…in your light do we see light.”  It’s in the light of God’s Word that we find our way in any endeavour, including academic pursuits.  That has been my conviction and I have also sought to apply that conviction to issues like homosexuality.

Today

That conviction has been repeatedly challenged and it still is.  The thing that has changed is that the challenges no longer come from outside, but from within.  For example, I recently received an e-mail from a Dutch ministerial colleague.  He chided me for simply wanting to accept the plain teaching of Scripture regarding origins.  He expressed his surprise that a doctor of theology would simply urge people to believe what the Bible plainly teaches.  He argued that I need to take into account the conclusions of science as well.  After all, science has made it clear that the Bible cannot be taken at face value on questions pertaining to origins.  Moreover, many young people will not accept that answer, he told me.  They will turn away from the church if you tell them to just believe what the Bible says about this.  When I introduced him to the idea of simply believing and starting with the Word of God (as taught by Cornelius Van Til), he indicated that he had never heard of that concept before.  Sadly, he was not convinced.

Now we could say, “That’s not surprising, coming from the Netherlands.”  However, this allergy to starting with the Word of God exists among us in Canada as well and this is no secret.  We have those among us who are either open to theistic evolution or actually hold to some form of theistic evolution.  Theistic evolution is the idea that God used evolutionary processes to create human beings and other creatures.  This teaching exists among us.  It can only exist among us for the exact same reasons that the Student Christian Movement could hold that homosexual behaviour is not an abomination before God.  Either the text of Scripture is twisted to support the teaching, or the text of Scripture is dismissed as being ignorant of contemporary scientific knowledge.  Either way, what we have again is a special form of unbelief when it comes to the Word of God.  It’s a refusal to humbly come before the Word with faith and accept it at face value as the faithful and inerrant Word of our Father.  Something else is put before his Word.  This unbelief already exists among us in the Canadian Reformed Churches and it is the seed which, unless rooted up, will grow into other forms of heterodoxy.

Looking Ahead

This is my cri du coeur, my cry from the heart for the Canadian Reformed Churches.  I do not believe that what some of our Dutch brothers and sisters are sayings is necessarily true. I do not believe that it is inevitable that we will be entertaining women in office in the next decade or two.  It does not have to be that way.  But there are two very important things that need to firmly in place for such a development to be stymied.

First, we need to shore up the wide-spread conviction in our churches that the Word of God is to be our starting place in everything.  Members need to hold this conviction and grow in it.  Ministers and elders need to reinforce it among their congregations through teaching and preaching.  We need to maintain a high view of Scripture which includes a child-like faith in its plain and clear meaning, despite whatever unbelieving scholarship may introduce to shake our faith.  We must not be deceived into accepting that we are somehow intellectually lacking because we simply take the Scriptures at face value.

Second, careful vigilance is required with respect to our seminary.  At the moment, we have every reason to be confident in our seminary professors and their teaching.  We can be thankful to God for these faithful men who do have a high view of Scripture and who teach accordingly.  We need to pray that God would continue to keep them faithful.  They are only men and they need strength from above to remain steadfast.  Moreover, these particular men will not be there forever.  The time will come when they need to be replaced and they will need to be replaced with equally faithful men.  When you have a federational seminary, this is of the utmost importance.  Virtually all of our ministers take their theological training in Hamilton.  As a result, if that training is not sound, our churches will not be sound for long either.

Let me conclude with some words of Scripture my father-in-law would often quote.  We would often discuss developments in the Christian Reformed Church, especially relating to women in office and theistic evolution.  He would always say that we need to be humble and be on guard, because Scripture says, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” (1 Cor. 10:17).  There is no getting around the clear message of that text.


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.

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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.