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




Calvin's Covenantal Pronomianism

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Calvin on Natural Law

Defining Calvin's view of Old Testament law and modern society is paradoxically difficult. Who would expect that a man who was perhaps the most brilliant law student of the sixteenth century, studying under two of the most brilliant jurists of the age, Pierre de l'Estoile at the University of Orleans and Andrea Alciati at the University of Bourges, would not have a consistently expressed view of the Old Testament law, especially since Calvin is not only famous for the comprehensive logic of his theology but also for perspicacity of thought and expression? [1]

The paradox is further complicated by the facts that Calvin's position in Geneva forced him to consider issues of law and society in concrete real life situations; that Calvin's close friend Bucer, whose influence on Calvin was very important, expressed his opinions on the subject rather clearly; that Calvin addressed the subject of Old Testament law and the modern world directly, having been forced to consider the meaning of the Old Testament law for modern society in his controversies with the Anabaptists; that Calvin frequently dealt with the issue of Church and State, both theologically and practically; and, finally, that he wrote letters to civil magistrates, including even kings, to offer Christian advice on civil issues. If anyone in church history could speak lucidly on the law, we would expect that it should be Calvin.

But when we actually turn to Calvin's writings we are confronted with material which, according to Gary North, is contradictory. On the one hand, Calvin, in North's words, "declared a view of civil law that was clearly Scholastic" in his Institutes. [2] In this sense, he seems to be merely regurgitating the medieval approach he learned at law school under l'Estoile, whom he preferred to Alciati. On the other hand, North says, Calvin's Sermons on Deuteronomy clearly apply the law to the modern world with no apology. [3] This has resulted in two types of Calvinism in America today, those who follow Calvin's Institutes and those who follow his Sermons on Deuteronomy.

However, many Calvin scholars would deny that Calvin is contradictory. Westminster Seminary's W. Robert Godfrey, for example, asserts that Calvin's "approach to interpreting the law of Moses is the same in the Commentaries as in the Institutes." [4] Though Godfrey does not deal with Calvin's Sermons on Deuteronomy, his summary of Calvin's comments on the law seems to support his contention that Calvin is consistent, but he does not really tell us what position Calvin consistently holds. In some places Godfrey seems to endorse natural law. In others he seems to call for a strict "Biblicism." [5] On either Godfrey's or North's interpretation, however, Calvin's understanding of the judicial implications of the Mosaic law is complex.

Perhaps the most important statement in all of Calvin's writings for the anti-theonomic Calvinist is the following:

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. [6]

Calvin goes on to say:

Equity, because it is natural, cannot but be the same for all, and therefore, this same purpose ought to apply to all laws, whatever their object. . . .

It is a fact that the law of God which we call the moral law is nothing else than a testimony of natural law and of that conscience which God has engraved upon the minds of men. Consequently, the entire scheme of this equity of which we are now speaking has been prescribed in it. Hence, this equity alone must be the goal and rule and limit of all laws.

Whatever laws shall be framed to that rule, directed to that goal, bound by that limit, there is no reason why we should disapprove of them, howsoever they may differ from the Jewish law, or among themselves. . . .

There are ages that demand increasingly harsh penalties. If any disturbance occurs in a commonwealth, the evils that usually arise from it must be corrected by new ordinances. In time of war, in the clatter of arms, all humanness would disappear unless some uncommon fear of punishment were introduced. In drought, in pestilence, unless greater severity is used, everything will go to ruin. There are nations inclined to a particular vice, unless it be most sharply repressed. How malicious and hateful toward public welfare would a man be who is offended by such diversity, which is perfectly adapted to maintain the observance of God's law?

For the statement of some, that the law of God given through Moses is dishonored when it is abrogated and new laws preferred to it, is utterly vain. For others are not preferred to it when they are more approved, not by a simple comparison, but with regard to the condition of times, place, and nation; or when that law is abrogated which was never enacted for us. For the Lord through the hand of Moses did not give that law to be proclaimed among all nations and to be in force everywhere; but when he had taken the Jewish nation into his safekeeping, defense, and protection, he also willed to be a lawgiver especially to it; and -- as becomes a wise lawgiver -- he had a special concern for it in making its laws. [7]

Godfrey represents those Calvinists who regard these statements as definitive: "Calvin's strong words may have been inspired in part by the radical, violent Anabaptist theocracy at Munster (1534-1535), but he comes to his conclusion from a clear line of reasoning." [8] Godfrey summarizes Calvin's statement in these words:

The key distinction for Calvin between the moral and the ceremonial or judicial laws is that the moral law is unchangeable, whereas the ceremonial and judicial laws are changeable. Calvin summarizes the moral law as 'an unchangeable rule of right living,' 'the perpetual law of love,' and 'justice, . . . humanity and gentleness.' For Calvin, different nations appropriately have diverse constitutions because the nations are shaped by distinctive historical circumstances. Yet all these different constitutions rest on the equity of the moral law, which is natural and common to all nations.

Calvin sees this unchanging moral law as the foundation of all particular laws. The moral law is the equity or the common, natural basis of all civil law. [9]

If the knowledge of the moral law is available apart from Biblical revelation, there would be a "natural law" basis for civil legislation. In Godfrey's opinion, "Calvin seems to be saying that the basic moral law is objectively revealed in nature so as to be available to mankind and that the human conscience is so created that it responds to that law." [10] Godfrey points out that Calvin address the issue of applying the penalties of the law of Moses and clearly rejects it. [11] Although Godfrey does not clearly advocate an extra-biblical source of moral law as a standard for civil legislation, his reasoning seems to incline in that direction. He stresses "the need to examine the specifics of the civil laws of Moses in the light of the underlying moral law to find the contemporary application of those laws." But the moral law in Godfrey's thinking is "objectively revealed in nature so as to be available to mankind." He also writes, "Calvin uses the law of nature to criticize the law of Moses and declare it morally inferior." [12]

Other Calvin scholars, however, deny that Calvin intends to assign any such place to natural law. Wilhelm Niesel, for example, says:

The law of nature has only one purpose: namely to make man inexcusable before God. Since it becomes manifest in the dictates of conscience, the latter too has no other object but that of depriving man of the pretext of ignorance and making clear his responsibility before the judgment of God. All this, however, does not imply that in this way man can attain a real knowledge of the divine will. 'As man is enclosed by the darkness of error, the natural law gives him scarce an inkling of the kind of service which is pleasing to God.' The ability to distinguish between good and evil have ceased to be healthy and intact in the mind of fallen man. [13]

But even with regard to the second table we cannot rightly teach the truth. [14]

It [natural law] does not provide the starting point for a universal ethic which could develop into a Christian one.

In order to reveal His will to us and really to set us on the right way, God has given to us the written law. This does not speak otherwise than the natural law; but it addresses us so decisively that we must hear it when it pleases God to open our hearts to its authority by the power of the Holy Spirit. . . . The emphasis on the natural law does not injure the law of God which is drawn up in Holy Scripture: on the contrary, it suggests to us the necessity of the divine law of the covenant which has its basis in Jesus Christ. [15]

Ronald S. Wallace too denies that Calvin regards the law of nature as a second source of revelation apart from the Bible:

Therefore Calvin himself, as we shall see, does not hesitate to appeal to his hearers and readers to live according to the order of nature and the natural law, as well as according to the Gospel. In making such an appeal to the natural order he is not turning from Jesus Christ and the Scripture to some supposedly possible second and different source of guidance and inspiration. He is rather using the natural realm to illustrate and to fill out the details of the meaning of the Law of God for the Christian man. In appealing, as he does, to men to become truly natural and human, it can never be far from his mind that only in Christ do we have it revealed what is truly natural and human, and only since He has died and risen again does nature and humanity have real significance. For the Christian, then, the law of nature is not to be separated from the Law of God, nor is the Law of God to be separated from the law of nature. He should be inclined to follow both. [16]

Calvin himself challenges us to first "know what our Lord declareth unto us; and then let us afterward go to antiquity. And it is certain that if the religion be true and good, it is not new nor devised in our time, but our repair must be to the things that are witnessed in the Law and the Prophets. There we shall see how God hath gathered His church, how He hath governed it, and how it hath always had His truths, even from the beginning of the world." [17] He clearly prefers God's Word to men's customs: "For nothing is more absurd than for us to fix our minds on the actions of men, and not on God's word, in which is to be found the rule of a holy life. It is, therefore, just as if God would overthrow whatever had been received from long custom, and abolish the universal consent of the world by the authority of His doctrine." [18]

Although Calvin sometimes commends the laws of non-Christian nations, [19] he criticizes them also, regarding Biblical law as superior. [20] Calvin seems to hold the view that the law of Moses influenced the laws of the ancient world when he says, "The Roman laws accord with the rule prescribed by God, as if their authors had learnt from Moses what was decorous and agreeable to nature." [21] In another place he asserts this view more unambiguously, adding that the ancients would have been better off to have studied Moses more carefully: "What God formerly delivered to His people the heathen legislators afterwards borrowed. . . . But if all things be duly considered, it will be found that both Solon and the Decemvirs have made a change for the worse, wherever they have varied from the law of God." [22]

We are forced to recognize that Calvin's "concepts of justice, of the nature of positive law, of the ideas of a constitution, constantly hark back to biblical principles." [23] Although he did not seek to reestablish the Mosaic law itself, "he did believe that if one were to establish a truly Christian justice within the state, one could find in the Old Testament theocracy basic principles which should be applied, but in a way that fitted in with the particular historical situation." [24] Therefore, not the mind or conscience of unregenerate man, or a vague natural revelation, but the Bible itself "became the source of the architectonic principles of his whole pattern of thought, not only for theology but also for law." [25]

Calvin's apparently anti-theonomic position in the Institutes is either in contradiction with his other statements or perhaps can be reconciled into an overall harmonious system, but, in any case, it cannot be simply taken to mean that he endorsed an extra-biblical source of civil law. His close friend Bucer openly approved of applying the judicial law of Moses to contemporary issues and it is not possible that Calvin is referring to Bucer's position as "foolish," or "perilous and seditious." [26] We can probably do no better than to conclude with Francois Wendel that

Calvin expended a great deal of skill in presenting a coherent doctrine of natural law, which was an attempt to reconcile the Pauline texts with the definitions of the Roman jurists. And he did, no doubt, partly succeed in this by distinguishing between the application of the natural law in the political life and its function in the human conscience. Yet one cannot help feeling that this element in his theology is somewhat of a foreign body, assimilable to it only with difficulty; and that its existence alongside the divine Law that is expressed in the Decalogue is hardly justifiable. So it seems, at least, to those who have received some knowledge of the revealed Law. [27]


[1] On Calvin's education as a lawyer and its meaning for his theology, see especially: W. Stanford Reid, "John Calvin, Lawyer and Legal Reformer," in W. Robert Godfrey and Jesse L. Boyd III, (eds.), Through God's Word: A Festschrift for Dr. Philip E. Hughes (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1985).

[2] Westminster's Confession: The Abandonment of Van Til's Legacy (Tyler, Tex.: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), 52.

[3] Ibid., p. 52

[4] W. Robert Godfrey, "Calvin and Theonomy," in William S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey (eds.), Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), p. 304.

[5] Ibid., pp. 301, 307, 308, 310.

[6] Institutes, IV: XX: 14. In this same context as the above, Calvin also says, "[N]othing truer could be said than that the law is a silent magistrate; the magistrate a living law." It should not be forgotten that Calvin's view of the magistrate is clearly "theocratic."

[7] Institutes, IV: XX: 16.

[8] Godfrey, "Calvin and Theonomy," p. 302.

[9] Ibid., p. 302.

[10] Ibid., p. 303.

[11] Ibid., pp. 303-4.

[12] Ibid., p. 308; Godfrey recognizes too that Calvin "had no interest in trying to develop an abstract natural ethics apart from scriptural revelation." Ibid., p. 310.

[13] Wilhelm Niesel, The Theology of Calvin (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 102.

[14] Ibid., 103.

[15] Ibid., 103. Compare also, William Balke, Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 186.

[16] Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin's Doctrine of the Christian Life (1952; Tyler Tex.: Geneva Divinity School Press, 1982), pp. 144-45. Italics added.

[17] SD, pp. 488-89.

[18] HLM, vol. 3, p. 98.

[19] HLM, vol. 3, 18-19; 63-64; 78; 120, 121, 129.

[20] HLM, vol. 3, 15, 36, 38-39, 40, 73-75, 97-106, 108, 126, 140-43.

[21] HLM, vol. 3, 99.

[22] HLM, vol. 3, 140.

[23] Reid, "John Calvin, Lawyer and Legal Reformer," 154.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] On Bucer's influence on Calvin, including Calvin's thinking on the law, see: Francois Wendel, Calvin: The Origin and Development of His Religious Thought (New York: Harper & Row Inc., 1963), pp. 138-144. Wendel refers specifically to Calvin's "borrowing" from Bucer "on the question of the permanent validity of the Law, and of the equality of the two Testaments as expressions of the Divine Will." p. 142.

[27] Francois Wendel, Ibid., p. 208.

[ 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.