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." 
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.'"
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
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. 
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. 
It is not surprising, then, that for those who opposed Calvin's theology
his theocratic  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.
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
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.
 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. 
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. 
. . . 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. 
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 . . . 
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.
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. 
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. 
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. 
 Niesel, The Theology of Calvin, pp. 92-93.
 Balke, Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals, p. 315.
 Niesel, The Theology of Calvin, pp. 100-101.
 STC, pp. 48-9.
 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.
 Paul Wernle quoted in Osterhaven, "Calvin on the Covenant,"
 Contrary to Godfrey, "Calvin and Theonomy," p. 308.
 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.
 HLM, vol. 3, p. 140.
 SD, p. 792.
 SD, p. 753.
 HLM, vol. 2, p. 73. Italics added.
 SD, p. 491.
 SD, 310, 311.
 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