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Calvin's Covenantal Pronomianism

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Calvin on the Judicial Law of Moses (Part 1)

When we come to consider the application of the judicial law of Moses, we have to take into account the complexity of the theological issues. Calvin's position on natural law, discussed above, is only one aspect of the problem of understanding his approach to the law of Moses. The basically covenantal character of his theology is another: "Calvin's understanding of divine law is based on the recognition that the law of God is covenantal law. . . . It is not simply a collection of commands about how to live well, but is included in the covenant of grace which God founded. . . . The law of God is embedded in this grace and loyalty which He shows towards His people, the church; God in entering into a covenant with His people makes an absolute claim upon them. The divine demand is the meaning of the law." [1]

Calvin's basic position is that the judicial laws, like the ceremonial law, are no longer directly applicable in the way that they would have been in the days of Moses. But just as we can learn of Christ from the ceremonial law and gain wisdom for our Christian life from its teaching, so too the judicial prescriptions of Moses continue to have important meaning for Christians today. Calvin could not regard the law of Moses as unimportant for the Christian if, for no other reason, simply because it too is part of God's Word to us. "Calvin took great pains to preserve the unity of Scripture: 'So let us learn to preserve this connection of Law and Gospel inviolable.' He charged that 'the apathy or malice of the priests had dimmed the pure light of doctrine to such a degree, that no longer was there any great or lively respect for the Law.'" [2]

Niesel expressed the relationship in these words:

What is true of the ceremonies of the Old Testament cult applies even more to the ordinances of the Mosaic law, which were meant to regulate the political life of the Jewish people. Even though such ordinances are connected with the divine law of love, they are to be distinguished from it. In that form they were given only to the people of Israel. Other nations are not involved in the political ordinance of the Old Testament law. But their emancipation means also subjection to the command of love, to the essential content of the divine law.

From all this it should have become clear that Calvin does not teach in the strict sense an abolition of the law. In this regard he is at one with the New Testament witness. Because he interprets the law exclusively in the light of Christ there can be no question of its annulment. Jesus Christ is the heart of the law. . . .

This Old Testament cultus proclaimed to the people of Israel the reality of the Christ. That is its meaning and this meaning is still reflected in the Old Testament account of it. The same applies to the political aspect of the Mosaic law. Its abolition does not mean its rejection. The foundation of those rules which were given to the people of Israel for the purpose of regulating its political life is abiding. [3]

Calvin himself never tires of stressing the abiding significance of the law for the present day, it is a theme of his Deuteronomy sermons:

Therefore it is appropriate for you to observe his law, since it has been established to be permanent, to endure age after age, and to be preached until the end of the world.

That is Moses' true and natural sense. And we can draw a favorable lesson from it: namely, that although we were not present at the beginning when the gospel was proclaimed and have not seen what was recounted to us from the law, nevertheless the work of God has not lost its authority. Why? It is true that when God chose Moses that that was a special favor which he bestowed on the people who were living then. Nevertheless, the authority of our law must not be deprecated, for it contains the truth of God which abides forever, which never varies, and which does not perish in the manner of men. It is said that men are like a flower, or like grass that is immediately withered and dry, but the truth of God is always permanent.

Now this truth which is neither changing nor variable is contained in the law. It is true that the law with regard to its ceremonies has been abolished, but with regard to its substance and doctrine which it contains, it always has virtue; it never decays. Thus let us note that although we did not live in the time of Moses, that does not mean that we can scorn the remonstrances which he made and which are contained in the law. Why? Because he was speaking to us; he was not simply speaking to that multitude which was assembled on the mountain of Horeb. In general, he was speaking to the whole world. [4]

It is not surprising, then, that for those who opposed Calvin's theology his theocratic [5] orientation was all too apparent:

The Reformed Christians were the practical party in the Reformation movement; the New Testament was not sufficient for their ecclesiastical-political institutions; they were compelled to go back to its Old Testament background and hence needed a unified authoritative Bible. The evangelical national state church and the Christian state as ideally pictured by Reformed Christians both rest upon the basis of Old Testament theocracy. [6]

Calvin's theology was certainly a theology of the rule of God. Nor did Calvin confine the rule of God to some small part of man's life. Politics for Calvin was a holy calling, and a godly Christian magistrate would be expected to gain wisdom for life from the whole law of Moses, even though he would not seek to apply its statutes and penalties in every case.

There is one principle of interpreting the law that Calvin frequently employs that has led some to misunderstand his view of the law. Calvin derived the principle from the New Testament, not from natural law. [7] And he applied the principle where he thought the New Testament gives us a standard different from the law of Moses, in areas like marriage and slavery. The source of his principle appears to be Jesus' teaching about divorce. When Jesus debated the Pharisees, He said that Moses permitted divorce because of the "hardness of your hearts" (Mat. 19:8). Calvin takes this to mean that the Jews were given a law of divorce because they were especially hardhearted, rather than seeing it as a reference to the fact that divorce came into the world because of sin -- a reference to the hardheartedness of all men. [8]

Calvin, thus, in many places, particularly when discussing laws relating to marriage, says that the law is accommodated to the low level of ancient Israel's morality. The Jews "hardness of heart" is for Calvin a principle of interpretation.

Thus far God has proclaimed Himself the avenger of iniquities, and, citing thieves before His tribunal, has threatened them with eternal death. Now follow the civil laws, the principle of which is not so exact and perfect; since in their enactment God has relaxed His just severity in consideration of the people's hardness of heart. [9]

. . . God did not always punish offences in such sort as by good right he might, I mean of punishing according to the law which he gave for that ordering of the people of Israel. For he bear with many things because of the harness of that people, as our Lord Jesus sheweth them when he speaketh of divorcements which were done against all reason and indifference. . . . Ye see then that the law of God is to judge us. As for this it served but for an earthly policy. And God (as I have said) respected not such perfection as is required in the faithful; but rather bare with the hardness of the people, which was so sturdy and so hard to be ruled. [10]

It should be noted, however, that this principle argues that the statutes and punishments of the law are too lax for Christians today. Calvin's approach suggests that we need a higher standard than ancient Israel. It is doubtful that it would have ever occurred to Calvin that the Old Testament civil laws were overly strict in the sense that many today seem to think. The equity of the law, which is the unchanging standard for God's people, reaches higher than Moses' civil ordinances.

For the civil Laws (as I have told you already) serve but to deal with us according to our power and ability; but the righteousness which God commandeth us in his spiritual Law is a perfection whereunto we are tied and bound. And although we be not able to perform it; yet must we hold on still towards it, by setting our minds thereupon, and by straining all our powers to the uttermost. And when we find anything amiss, we must be sorry for it and condemn ourselves. For although men require nothing at our hands; yet shall we be ever guilty before God. Thus ye see what we have to remember to the intent we be not so blinded as to bear ourselves in hand, that because we escaped the hands of men, therefore we be also acquitted and discharged before God. Let that serve for one point.

And thereupon let us learn further, that we must not imagine as a number of fanatical persons do, that all the things are allowed of God, which were not punished in the commonweal of the Jews. For our Lord executed a double office among that people. He gave them an earthly order of government, after the manner of the Laws which we have; and also he delivered them a rule whereafter he will have us to behave ourselves as his children. For if we intend to have a sure record of God's will, we must resort to the ten commandments, wherein is comprehended the sum of all holiness and righteousness. He that frameth his life according to the ten commandments may well say that he hath the perfect righteousness. But forasmuch as we come short of it, and can by no means come near it so long as we be clothed with our flesh; let us acknowledge ourselves to be wretched sinners, and resort for refuge to the mercy of our God . . . [11]

Turning to Calvin's application of the law to various issues, we see what it means for him to apply the "equity" of the law to the modern situation and understand better just how broad his view of equity is. In his sermons Calvin addresses both the most important legal issues, such as the authority of the magistrates, and the lesser commands of the law, such as those concerning apparel. Any and every subject that Moses touches or alludes to, from war to diet, are all covered in Calvin's sermons.

We will consider Calvin's comments from his sermons and commentaries on the law on a few selected topics. Calvin's comments on the judicial implications of the first command serve as a good introduction:

The Commandment itself will always remain in force, even to the end of the world; and is given not only to the Jews, but likewise to us also. But God formerly made use of the ceremonies as temporary aids, of which, although the use has ceased, the utility remains; because from them it more clearly appears how God is to be duly served; and the spirit of religion shines forth in them. Therefore the whole substance is contained in the precept, but in the external exercise, as it were, the form to which God bound none but His ancient people. Now follow The Political Supplements, whereby God commands the punishments to be inflicted, if His religion shall have been violated. For political laws are not only enacted with reference to earthly affairs, in order that men should maintain mutual equity with each other, and should follow and observe what is right, but that they should exercise themselves in the veneration of God. For Plato also begins from hence, when he lays down the legitimate constitution of a republic, and calls the fear of God the preface of all laws; nor has any profane author ever existed who has not confessed that this is the principal part of a well-constituted state, that all with one consent should reverence and worship God. In this respect, indeed, the wisdom of men was at fault, that they deemed that any religion which they might prefer was to be sanctioned by laws and by punishments; yet the principle was a just one, that the whole system of law is perverted if the cultivation of piety is ignored by it. . . . For as much as the several nations, cities, and kingdoms foolishly invent their own gods, He propounds His own Law, from the regulation of which it is sinful to decline. [12]

In his sermon on Deuteronomy 12:2-3, Calvin shows how the laws of idolatry still apply, though not literally:

The Papists in these days reply that the commandment was given to the Jews, because they were given to superstition. Verily as who should say that we were better disposed nowadays than they were. True it is that God giveth not this commandment to us as touching the ceremony of burning all things wherewith idols have been served; but yet for all that, His will is that we should make a clean riddance of all things that may turn us from the pure religion. If it were necessary that all things should be done away wherewith idols have been worshipped; this temple should not now stand to have the name of God preached in it. It hath been a brothel house of Satan's, but now must we apply it to good use, by taking away the trumperie that hath reigned in it, which was quite contrary to God's word. But howsoever the world go, if we look well upon our infirmity, we shall find that this lesson belongeth to us at this day, namely that all remembrance of idols is to be utterly rased out. [13]

Again commenting on the abiding significance of laws against idolatry, this time from Deuteronomy 7:5-8, Calvin says:

And now must we apply them to our own benefit. For although some would restrain this to the Jews, as though it belonged not to us in these days; yet it was not God's intent to speak for any one time only. . . .

Now then, out of this text we must draw a rule, which is that according as God giveth ability, we must endeavor to have all idolatry and all the tokens thereof utterly abolished both publicly and privately. As how? When a Country is a liberty, and our Lord hath planted his word there, such as bear sway and have authority, must find the means that all such things as have corrupted the true religion may be abolished and brought to nought. If they do it not, it is a negligence which God condemneth. [14]

In his comments on theft, Calvin applies the interpretive principle that when the law forbids a sin, it calls for us not merely to restrain our evil, but to do what is right:

For as much as we restrain the commandment of the law too much whereby theft is forbidden; therefore the warning is given us here is very needful. It seemeth to us that if we have not taken away another man's goods or substance, we be clear before God, and can not be accused of theft. But God hath a further respect, to wit, that every man should work his brother's welfare. For we be bound thereto, and he that maketh none account thereof is condemned as a thief before God, though he can not be blamed before men. If I should abstain from doing any man harm, and keep my hands undefiled from robbery, and extortion; yet am I not discharged for all this. For if I have seen my brother's good perish, and suffered it to go to destruction through my negligence: God condemneth me for it."

Therefore let us mark well that the law in forbidding theft hath also bound us all to procure the welfare and profit one of another. And indeed it is a rule to be observed of us in all cases, that God in forbidding any evil, doth therewith command us to do the good that is contrary thereto. [15]


[1] Niesel, The Theology of Calvin, pp. 92-93.

[2] Balke, Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals, p. 315.

[3] Niesel, The Theology of Calvin, pp. 100-101.

[4] STC, pp. 48-9.

[5] Theocracy means the rule of God and is to be distinguished from the idea of ecclesiocracy, rule by the church, something Calvin certainly never believed in.

[6] Paul Wernle quoted in Osterhaven, "Calvin on the Covenant," p. 100.

[7] Contrary to Godfrey, "Calvin and Theonomy," p. 308.

[8] See the discussion of Matthew 19:8 in Greg Bahnsen Theonomy in Christian Ethics 2d ed., rev. and enl. (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1984), pp. 102-4.

[9] HLM, vol. 3, p. 140.

[10] SD, p. 792.

[11] SD, p. 753.

[12] HLM, vol. 2, p. 73. Italics added.

[13] SD, p. 491.

[14] SD, 310, 311.

[15] SD, p. 767.

[ 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 ]

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