Home | Downloads | About CWI | Donate | Site Map | Contact
Covenant Worldview Institute Home




Calvin's Covenantal Pronomianism

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Calvinism in America Today

In America the recent revival of Calvinism as a comprehensive world-view, including a social philosophy grounded in the sovereignty of God, was provoked especially by the work of Cornelius Van Til. Drawing from Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and many others in the Dutch tradition, Van Til developed a Calvinistic epistemology consistent with the radical Biblicism [1] demanded by a Sola Scriptura theology. [2] Van Til clarified, as no one else before him, the fundamental antithesis of Christian and non-Christian thought. He undermined the "natural law" and "common grace" compromises with unregenerate thought and left Calvinists with nothing but the Bible to which to appeal for ultimate epistemological authority. And in so doing, Van Til insisted he was being faithful to Calvin's thought, while developing it further.

But Van Til did not apply his Biblicist epistemology to the "social and political spheres" where the damage of Roussellian thought was the greatest. Not until 1973 with the publication of R. J. Rushdoony's The Institutes of Biblical Law was there an attempt at a Biblical social philosophy that uncompromisingly denied the validity of natural law. [3] Since then over 100 volumes have been published elaborating the details of Calvinistic social philosophy from a "theonomic" perspective. Led by Rushdoony, Gary North, Greg Bahnsen, James Jordan, and Gary Demar, theonomic authors have expounded the Mosaic law with a fullness of application to modern society never before seen in Church history.

Never seen before, that is, except in Calvin's sermons on Deuteronomy. Calvin himself, in 200 sermons on Deuteronomy which, in the English translation, fill 1247 pages of two 65-line columns of small print, expounded and applied the Mosaic law to his own day in a truly "theonomic" fashion. Not even the loquacious Puritans equaled the usually concise Calvin for fulness of exposition of the law of Moses. Calvin's sermons are as broad in their scope as the law of Moses itself, embracing a whole range of moral, political, and social issues from style of clothing to capital punishment and war.

The writings of the theonomic authors represent a rebirth of Calvinistic social philosophy because they imitate Calvin in applying the law of the God to modern man. Calvin himself, as well as his French, English, Dutch, and Scottish followers certainly regarded the law of Moses as relevant for the modern world, as is evidenced in their confessions and creeds. [4] Later Calvinists did not, however, follow Calvin in giving detailed exposition of the whole law, but confined themselves almost entirely to the ten commandments.

This does not mean, however, that they were "anti-theonomic." Far from it. James Jordan's survey of Calvinistic authors from the time of the Reformation to the 19th century Southern Presbyterians Robert L. Dabney and James H. Thornwell demonstrates that many of the most important thinkers in Calvinist history held a pronomian view. [5] Beginning with Martin Bucer's pronomian stance, [6] Jordan establishes that men such as Bullinger, [7] the Lollards, [8] the English Reformers, John Hooper, Hugh Latimer, and Thomas Becon, John Knox, [9] Thomas Cartwright, [10] Johannes Wollebius, [11] George Gillespie, [12] John Owen, [13] John Cotton, [14] Thomas Ridgeley, [15] and Robert L. Dabney regarded the law of Moses as a source of wisdom for modern society. Their views vary. Few, if any, of them are as theonomic as the modern American theologians I have referred to above. But their general pronomianism can be viewed as an undeveloped form of what is now appearing in America.

Not all of Calvin's modern descendants, however, share this enthusiasm for the law of Moses. American Calvinists are divided over the issue of God's law. Some discern in Calvin the basis for promoting a "natural law" social philosophy and criticize the pronomian Calvinists for their Biblicism. A critique of theonomy published in 1990 by the combined faculties of both the Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) and Westminster Theological Seminary in California included articles fundamentally critical of the whole idea of a theonomic social philosophy. It also contained articles that were relatively sympathetic. One of the articles was even written by an author who must be regarded as one of the most sophisticated exponents of pronomian Calvinistic social philosophy, Vern Poythress, author of The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses.

The division of American Calvinists into two groups, or, perhaps better, two tendencies, was evidenced at a conference on a Calvinistic approach to politics held in June of 1987. Representatives from the four major political positions within the Reformed community -- theonomy, principled pluralism, Christian America, and national confession -- came together for the "Consultation on the Biblical Role of Civil government." What was especially interesting about the debate held between representatives of the various views was that it turned out that the four views reduced themselves to two -- theonomy, broadly defined, versus principled pluralism. Greg Bahnsen, the strictest representative of the theonomic position, observed, "Both H. B. Harrington (for the national confession position) and Kevin L. Clauson (for the Christian America position) have replied to my essay in a way that indicates that their perspectives agree essentially with the theonomic viewpoint." [16] Thus, it seems that we can divide Calvinists in America into two rather broadly defined tendencies, one favoring the law of Moses as applicable to the modern world, the other favoring a more vague and general standard of social and political philosophy.

Which direction should we turn? That depends on how we understand the Scriptures primarily. But we may also ask the question, what is the essence of Calvinism? If Calvinism is what Warfield says it is, believing in God "without reserve," "determined that God shall be God" to one "in all his thinking, feeling, willing -- in the entire compass of his life-activities, intellectual, moral, spiritual, throughout all his individual, social, religious relations," [17] then it would seem that we are led to confess also that "Calvinism is nothing but Biblicism." [18] For only in the Bible can we learn God's will for "the entire compass" of life. The question is which of these two tendencies fulfills the demands of Sola Scriptura.

In this paper we seek to understand the position of Calvin. But Calvin's position is complex on anyone's reading and cannot be understood from the Institutes alone, or even from the Institutes plus commentaries. Puritan scholar Perry Miller's opinion, for example, that Calvin's theology was significantly different from that of the later Calvinists, was based in part on comparing Calvin's Institutes with Puritan sermons. Everett Emerson, objecting to Miller's approach, argues that a comparison of Calvin's sermons with the sermons of the Puritans demonstrates that Calvin is not at all very different from his heirs. On the issue of applying God's law to the modern world also, it seems that Calvin's immediate heirs were close to Calvin's position, but his more recent descendants have misunderstood his fundamental position and actually moved away not only from Calvin himself, but from the genius of Calvinism as a theological system. From Calvin's Biblicism some of his would-be-heirs have shifted to natural law, or what would seem to be virtually equivalent -- a vague affirmation of Biblical authority that cannot be tied down to details. [19] This is, I believe, a fundamental distortion of Calvinistic theology, one that cripples Calvinistic attempts to speak to the social and political problems of modern man.

To argue this point we must consider the issue of natural law in Calvin's judicial thinking, Calvin's view of the covenant, and his approach to the law of Moses, in particular the question of the judicial law of Moses. Since the material in the Institutes is well known, we will concentrate on Calvin's Harmony of the Law of Moses and his Sermons on Deuteronomy to elucidate the general principles and truths he states in the Institutes.


[1] For some Calvinists today, such as John R. Muether, former librarian at Westminster Theological Seminary, "biblicism" is a term of derogation. He criticizes theonomy for sharing "with contemporary evangelicalism a biblicist hermeneutic that depreciates the role of general revelation and insists on using the Bible as though it were a textbook for all of life." "The Theonomic Attraction," in Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, eds. William S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academie, 1990), p. 254.

His view stands in remarkable contrast to that of John Monsma, who Gary Demar describes as an early (pre-Van Tillian) advocate of world-and-life view Calvinism, who declared: "Calvinism is nothing but Biblicism." John Clover Monsma, What Calvinism Has Done for America (Chicago: Rand McNally & Co., 1919), p. 141, quoted in Gary Demar, "Theonomy and Calvinism's Judicial Theology" in Theonomy: An Informed Response, ed. Gary North (Tyler, Tex.: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), p. 27. When all is said and done, what else could Sola Scriptura mean?

[2] See, for example: Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969).

[3] Actually, Rushdoony's Politics of Guilt and Pity provided a Calvinistic critique of modern politics a few years before the Institutes were published and Rushdoony's other writings dealt with many of the issues that appear in the institutes. See: R. J. Rushdoony, Politics of Guilt and Pity (1970; reprint, Fairfax, V.I.: Thoburn Press, 1978).

[4] Meredith Kline, an opponent of theonomy, wrote, "At the same time it must be said that Chalcedon [R. J. Rushdoony's Christian "think-tank"] is not without roots in respectable ecclesiastical tradition. It is in fact a revival of certain teachings contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith -- at least in the Confession's original formulations." From, "Comments on an Old-New Error," Westminster Theological Journal, XLI (Fall 1978), p. 173, quoted in Gary North, Westminster's Confession: The Abandonment of Van Til's Legacy (Tyler, Tex.: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), p. 99.

[5] James Jordan, "Calvinism and the Judicial Law of Moses" in Gary North (ed.), Journal of Christian Reconstruction, vol 5, no. 2 (Winter 1978-79) pp. 17-48.

[6] Referring to the judicial law of Moses, Bucer, after explaining that the law of Moses does not apply to us directly in the way that it did to Israel, wrote: "whoever does not reckon that such commandments are to be conscientiously observed is certainly not attributing to God either supreme wisdom or a righteous care for our salvation." quoted in Ibid., p. 24.

[7] Bullinger also denies a simple and direct application of the law of Moses, but he affirms, "the substance of God's judicial laws is not taken away or abolished, but . . . the ordering and limitation of them is placed in the arbitrament of good Christian princes. . . ." He also regards the good laws of the ancient world as derived from the law of Moses. Ibid., p. 27.

[8] According to Jordan, "B. S. Capp has noted that the Lollards were strongly influenced in their social programs by the laws of Moses." Ibid., p. 29.

[9] Thomas M'Crie writes of Knox's debate with Maitland, " . . . both parties held that idolatry might justly be punished by death. Into this sentiment they were led in consequence of their having adopted the untenable opinion, that the judicial laws given to the Jewish nation were binding upon Christian nations, as to all offenses against the moral law." Ibid., p. 30.

[10] Cartwright insisted on the death penalty for "blasphemer, contemptuous and stubborn idolaters, murderers, adulterers, incestuous persons, as such like, which God by his judicial law hath commanded to be put to death . . ." Ibid., p. 30.

[11] "In those matters on which it [the political law of Moses] is in harmony with the moral law and with ordinary justice, it is binding on us." Ibid., p. 32.

[12] Gillespie, who was very influential at the Westminster Assembly, states clearly that the minister of the Gospel is required to teach the magistrate from the Bible how to make just laws. Ibid., p. 33.

[13] John Owen gave a rather exact statement of theonomy that differs very little, if at all, from that held by its modern American proponents: "Although the institutions and examples of the Old Testament, of the duty of magistrates in the things and about the worship of God, are not, in their whole latitude and extent, to be drawn into rules that should be obligatory to all magistrates now, under the administration of the gospel, -- and that because the magistrate was "custos, vindex, et administrator legis judicialis, et politiae Mosaicae," from which, as most think, we are freed; -- yet, doubtless, there is something moral in those institutions, which, being unclothed of their Judaical form, is still binding to all in the like kind, as to some analogy and proportion. Subduct from those administrations what was proper to, and lies upon the account of, the church and nation of the Jews, and what remains upon the general notion of a church and nation must be everlastingly binding." Ibid., p. 34.

[14] Jordan explains that "Cotton distinguished between the permanent judicials, which were appendages to the moral law, and temporary judicials, which were appendages to the ceremonial law." Ibid., p. 35.

[15] Ridgeley defines the types of judicial law that he regards as no longer binding and apparently regards the rest as still applicable. The editor of Ridgeley's Body of Divinity, John Wilson, comments: "Dr. Ridgeley is of the class who appeal to the enactments of the judicial law; and he even seems to maintain that these enactments, just in the state in which the were made for the Israelites, are still in force. . . . he quotes its [the judicial law's] provisions in the same manner, and with the same drift, as if they were precepts of the moral law." Ibid., p. 45.

[16] Greg L. Bahnsen, "The Theonomic Major Response" in God and Politics: Four Views on the Reformation of Civil Government, ed. by Gary Scott Smith (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1989), 234.

[17] Benjamin B. Warfield, Calvin and Augustine (1956; Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), pp. 288-89.

[18] John Clover Monsma, What Calvinism Has Done for America, p. 141.

[19] See Gordon J. Spykman, "The Principled Pluralist Position" in God and Politics, pp. 78-99 and Greg L. Bahnsen's critique of Schrotenboer's pluralism in the same volume, pp. 234-246.

[ Calvin's Covenantal Pronomianism Index | Introduction | Calvinism in America Today | Calvin on Natural Law | Calvin on the Covenant | Calvin on the Judicial Law of Moses (Part 1) | Calvin on the Judicial Law of Moses (Part Two) | Conclusion ]

 site design and maintenance
BERITH.ORG  —  Copyright © 1997 by Ralph Allan Smith.  All rights reserved.