Calvin's Covenantal Pronomianism
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? 
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.  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.  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."  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."  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:
Calvin goes on to say:
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."  Godfrey summarizes Calvin's statement in these words:
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."  Godfrey points out that Calvin address the issue of applying the penalties of the law of Moses and clearly rejects it.  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." 
Other Calvin scholars, however, deny that Calvin intends to assign any such place to natural law. Wilhelm Niesel, for example, says:
Ronald S. Wallace too denies that Calvin regards the law of nature as a second source of revelation apart from the Bible:
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."  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." 
Although Calvin sometimes commends the laws of non-Christian nations,  he criticizes them also, regarding Biblical law as superior.  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."  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." 
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."  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."  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." 
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."  We can probably do no better than to conclude with Francois Wendel that
 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).
 Westminster's Confession: The Abandonment of Van Til's Legacy (Tyler, Tex.: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), 52.
 Ibid., p. 52
 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.
 Ibid., pp. 301, 307, 308, 310.
 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."
 Institutes, IV: XX: 16.
 Godfrey, "Calvin and Theonomy," p. 302.
 Ibid., p. 302.
 Ibid., p. 303.
 Ibid., pp. 303-4.
 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.
 Wilhelm Niesel, The Theology of Calvin (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 102.
 Ibid., 103.
 Ibid., 103. Compare also, William Balke, Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 186.
 Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin's Doctrine of the Christian Life (1952; Tyler Tex.: Geneva Divinity School Press, 1982), pp. 144-45. Italics added.
 SD, pp. 488-89.
 HLM, vol. 3, p. 98.
 HLM, vol. 3, 18-19; 63-64; 78; 120, 121, 129.
 HLM, vol. 3, 15, 36, 38-39, 40, 73-75, 97-106, 108, 126, 140-43.
 HLM, vol. 3, 99.
 HLM, vol. 3, 140.
 Reid, "John Calvin, Lawyer and Legal Reformer," 154.
 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.
 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 ]