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Calvin's Covenantal Pronomianism

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Calvin on the Judicial Law of Moses (Part 2)

Calvin complains in more than one place of Geneva's laxity in punishing adultery. He clearly prefers the law of Moses here, though it contradicts the "law of nations" in his own day and goes against the grain of the whole contemporary European culture.

[T]he Gentiles, even before the Law, . . . punish[ed] adultery with severity, as clearly appears from the history of Judah and Tamar. (Gen. 37:14) Nay, by the universal law of the Gentiles, the punishment of death was always awarded to adultery; wherefore it is all the baser and more shameful in Christians not to imitate at least the heathen. Adultery is punished no less severely by the Julian law than by that of God; while those who boast themselves of the Christian name are so tender and remiss, that they visit this execrable offence with a very light reproof. [16]

He hath matched himself in whoredom like a beast; and is not this an intolerable offence, and such a one as ought to be punished to the full? If we open not our eyes to behold it, yet the Law of Moses must needs condemn us. But besides this, the Paynims (who have observed a better order than we, and have had laws to punish whoremongers and to cause wedlock to be kept undefiled) even they shall rise up against us in the latter day, and shall prove that we offended not of ignorance, or for lack of warning, but of wilful malice, because we would foster such wickedness.

True it is indeed that this wicked custom is come from great antiquity, as the Papists will say that we are not under the Law but under grace, and therefore we must not punish whoredom. But it is a mocking of God when we take the Law of grace for a Lawless liberty to commit all wickedness. [17]

When he deals with incest, Calvin concedes that the Mosaic penalty does not necessarily have to be applied, but at the same time he also seems to prefer it. It is also clear that he was not impressed with the "law of the nations" whenever it contradicted God's word.

But now hath God provided a law for it, and not without great cause. For in those countries there was more corruption touching incests than hath ever been in all other countries besides. I say, that neither in Greece nor in Italy men ever used such lawless and villainous liberty in this kind of wickedness, as they of Asia and of all the East country did. For there it was counted nothing for the brother to couple with the sister. It was therefore needful that God in this case should reign in his people with a shorter bridle. And hereby we may see that custom shall not serve us for an example. If a thing displeases God, although it be used among men, it serveth not to lessen the fault. For God will always remain judge. And why? God's will is that we should do him this honor to hold our selves unto his simple will, although men draw clean backward. Let us therefore learn to yield ourselves unto the Law of God touching this point. And if a man reply that we are not to be held thrall to that order of Moses, I grant it. But yet ought we at leastwise to admit the warnings which God giveth us and to use his counsel. Although we be freed from this bondage of the civil Law of Moses, yet will he have us to bear always in mind this ground, to wit, that we bethink us for what cause God hath forbidden this thing. For it is because the thing is intolerable. We must therefore frame ourselves unto that thing which we know to be acceptable to God, and withhold us from that which he forbiddeth. [18]

Calvin is concerned too with laws protecting and aiding the poor and refers to the subject frequently:

Finally, Moses admonishes us that this tyranny on the part of the rich shall not be unpunished, if they do not supply their workmen with the means of subsistence, even although no account shall be rendered of it before the tribunals of men. Hence we infer that this law is not political, but altogether spiritual, and binding on our consciences before the judgment seat of God; for although the poor man may not sue us at law, Moses teaches us that it is sufficient for him to appeal to the faithfulness of God. [19]

He applies judicial laws to protect the poor of his own day in terms of the equity of the law:

A precept is added as to lending without interest, which, although it is a political law, still depends on the rule of charity . . . It is plain that this was a part of the Jewish polity, because it was lawful to lend at interest to the Gentiles, which distinction the spiritual law does not admit. The judicial law, however, which God prescribed to His ancient people, is only so far abrogated as that what charity dictates should remain, i.e. that our brethren, who need our assistance, are not to be treated harshly. Moreover, since the wall of partition, which formerly separated Jew and Gentile, is now broken down, our condition is now different; and consequently we must spare all without exception, both as regards taking interest, and any other mode of extortion; and equity is to be observed even towards strangers. [20]

It is abundantly clear that the ancient people were prohibited from usury, but we must needs confess that this was a part of their political constitution. Hence it follows, that usury is not now unlawful except in so far as it contravenes equity and brotherly union. [21]

The subject of magistrates applying penalties for crime naturally comes up frequently in dealing with the law. Calvin's comments shed light on his statements in the Institutes:

But it is questioned whether the law pertains to the kingdom of Christ, which is spiritual and distinct from all earthly dominion; and there are some men, not otherwise ill-disposed, to whom it appears that our condition under the Gospel is different from that of the ancient people under the law; not only because the kingdom of Christ is not of this world, but because Christ was unwilling that the beginnings of His kingdom should be aided by the sword. But, when human judges consecrate their work to the promotion of Christ's kingdom, I deny that on that account its nature is changed. For, although it was Christ's will that His Gospel should be proclaimed by His disciples in opposition to the power of the whole world, and He exposed them armed with the Word alone like sheep amongst wolves, He did not impose on Himself an eternal law that He should never bring kings under His subjection, nor tame their violence, nor change them from being cruel persecutors into the patrons and guardians of His church. . . .

And this is admirably expressed in the words of Moses, when he reminds them that judgment must be passed according to the law of God. I have already said that this severity must not be extended to particular errors, but where impiety breaks forth even into rebellion. When it is added, "to thrust thee out of the way, which the Lord thy God commanded thee," we gather from it that none are to be given over to punishment, but those who shall have been convicted by the plain word of God, lest men should judge them arbitrarily. Whence it also appears that zeal will err in hastily drawing the sword, unless a lawful examination shall have been previously instituted. [22]

On what may seem to be the harsh sentence of death in Deuteronomy 22:13-14, Calvin said:

For by the punishments which are set down here, we may gather how grevious and intolerable a wickedness it is. And why? Because we know that God exceedeth not measure, when he punisheth sins, but that he doeth it with discretion. Let us therefore conclude, that if the punishments be rigorous, it is because the sin also is great and excessive. . . . [Y]et we shall not err at all if we make this conclusion, namely, that if God have punished any fault of theirs, it is to declare unto us that the thing displeased him, and that it is not to be borne withal, and that we provoke his anger: and therefore that we must stoop unto him, since we see that he hath appointed certain punishments, and that it shall cost us dear if we become not the better by them. [23]

Detailed laws that we might not think could provide equity for modern Christians are referred to by Calvin with no thought that they would be irrelevant. With reference to laws on slavery he comments, "Although the political laws of Moses are not now in operation, still the analogy is to be preserved, lest the condition of those who have been redeemed by Christ's blood should be worse amongst us, than that of old of His ancient people." [24] And of the Sabbath year laws he writes, "[A]lthough we are not bound by this law at present, and it would not be even expedient that it should be in use, still the object to which it tended ought still to be maintained, i.e., that we should not be too rigid in exacting our debts, especially if we have to do with the needy, who are bowed down by the burden of poverty." [25]

The relatively "minor" law in Deuteronomy 22:8, commanding Jews to build a parapet for the roof of their houses, is applied to us also:

Now our Lord commendeth them to provide beforehand for it [danger], by making battlements about their houses. But we must first of all advise ourselves whereunto all the sayings are referred, which are set down here. Following the key which I have given already, which is that there are but ten articles whereby to rule our whole life well; we must not go seek for five legs in one sheep, as they say; but we must always hold us to the point, that God gave us a perfect rule of all righteousness and just dealing, when he comprised his Law in two Tables and in ten commandments. Now whereas here is mention made of building men's houses in such sort as they bring not blood upon them; hereby we see how our Lord hath shewed us how dear the lives of all men ought to be unto us. Mark that for one point. And so have we the exposition of this commandment, Thou shalt not kill. . . .

Now then, let us look well about us, and let us so seek our own commodities, as our building may be without danger. And why? For otherwise we shall be worthy of blame. . . .

[I]f any neighbor fall into any mishap through my fault or negligence, it is an offence committed against God, and the world also knoweth such things to be punishable. [26]

The law that forbids men to wear women's clothing and women to wear men's (Deu. 22:5) is applied to our day as well:

Howsoever the world go, let us learn that God will have us not only to be pure and clean from all lechery, but also to prevent all inconveniences. As for example, when he saith, Thou shalt not commit adultery; that commandment hath an eye to this present text. I have told you already, that all the laws which are written here, concern manners and are rules of good life, and are to be referred to the ten commandments: For God hath not added anything to those ten sentences. Therefore whereas in this text it is said that the man shall not wear the apparel of the women; doth God set down an eleventh commandment? Did God bethink himself better afterward, and add somewhat else to that which we heard of him heretofore? No, it is but only an exposition of this saying of his, Thou shalt not commit adultery. As how? For in forbidding adultery, God not only forbideth the act itself, which were punishable and worthy of reproach even before men; but also he forbiddeth in effect all unchaste behavior, so as none may appear, neither in apparel nor in any part of our conversation. . . . Were this better as well borne away as it ought to be, we should have better rule among us than we have and there would be no such impediments in the redressing the abuse of apparel. [27]

I will close this survey of Calvin's application of the law with two controversial topics. First, what does Calvin say about the famous passage in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 about the death penalty for a rebellious child?

Howbeit, forasmuch as the time will not suffer me to speak so much thereof as were to be spoken; we will now come to the conclusion: which is, that if the disobedience which is committed against the fathers of this world be so greviously punished by God's law: what shall become of men when they will not hear the voice of their heavenly father? True it is that here God speaketh of the corrections which proceed from himself: for when a man nurtureth his child, he is God's minister in that behalf, and his voice is not the voice of man but of God. But yet when as God declareth after more manifest fashion, that it is he which gave us law, so as we have his holy writ, where we may hear his heavenly voice: that is a voice of more authority than the speaking of a father or a mother at home in their house. Again, we come to the Church, where God's word is preached unto us, and God hath dictated that place and the pulpit to deliver out his word to be heard, as though he were there in his own person. Seeing then that God's word is so set down unto us in the holy scripture, and so preached unto us: are they not to be rejected as monsters, and in no wise to be suffered, which disobey the same and make no account of it? And if men bear with them, is it not a procuring of God's wrath? When it hath lurked never so long among us, in the end it must needs betray itself, and we must feel to our cost what it is to have maintained evil willingly and wittingly. [28]

Concerning the application of the death penalty in this case, Calvin says:

And therefore let Magistrates be vigilant in rooting out wickedness, yea and in punishing men's faults as they deserve. If there be need of man's correction, let it be had, and let this extremity of putting men to death be always prevented. But if the crime be unpardonable, then must severity and rigor be used. For if wickedness be willingly fostered, men shall see in the end what they shall have won by it. . . . Moreover if Magistrates and Judges be called here of God, yea, and expressly commanded by him, to punish the disobedience that is committed against earthly fathers and mothers: let us mark, that whensoever there is any manifest contempt of God, an irreligiousness, or any withstanding of his word, those things are much less to be suffered; and that if they be borne with, it is rank treason to God, which he will not leave unpunished. And therefore let all Magistrates and all such as are set in place of government to execute justice, understand that God commendeth his own honor to them above all things, and that they must be vigilant in that case chiefly, yea, and that after such a sort, as all of us may show by our doings, that our whole desire is that God should reign among us, and that we would not have his word to be despised and scorned, but rather reverenced as it ought to be. Wherefore let us show this zeal, if we will have our Lord to bless and prosper us. [29]

Second, consider Calvin's thoughts on abortion. On this subject Hesselink, an expert on Calvin's view of the law, made the mistake of opining, "Calvin, of course, could not have anticipated some of the issues which defy neat and simple answers, such as abortion and euthanasia." [30] But Calvin did "anticipate" the complicated issue of abortion, which is anything but new. Commenting on Exodus 21:22-24, he wrote very clearly on the subject and gave us a rather "neat and simple" solution:

This passage at first sight is ambiguous, for if the word death only applies to the pregnant woman, it would not have been a capital crime to put an end to the foetus, which would be a great absurdity; for the foetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, (homo,) and it is almost a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man's house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a foetus in the womb before it has come to light. On these grounds I am led to conclude, without hesitation, that the words, "if death should follow," must be applied to the foetus as well as to the mother. Besides, it would be by no means reasonable that a father should sell for a set sum the life of his son or daughter. Wherefore this, in my opinion, is the meaning of the law, that it would be a crime punishable with death, not only when the mother died from the effects of the abortion, but also if the infant should be killed; whether it should die from the wound abortively, or soon after its birth. [31]


[16] HLM, vol. 3, p. 78.

[17] SD, 790. Italics added. Calvin goes on here to explain the significance of John 8 for civil law also. His conclusion is that Jesus is not to be our example for civil law in John 8.

[18] SD, p. 795.

[19] HLM, vol. 3, p. 114.

[20] HLM, vol. 3, p. 127-28.

[21] HLM, vol. 3, p. 132.

[22] HLM, vol. 2, p. 77, 78.

[23] SD, p. 787.

[24] HLM, vol 3, 165.

[25] HLM, vol. 3, 154.

[26] SD, p. 776-77.

[27] SD, p. 774. Throughout Calvin's sermon on this section of Deuteronomy he applies the law directly to the society of his own generation with no apology other than his assertion that this is obviously an aspect of the seventh commandment forbidding adultery. The moral teaching of the law of Moses is much broader in Calvin's view than just the Ten Commandments themselves, it includes a great deal of other essentially moral instruction in the law which Calvin sees as filling out the meaning of the Ten Commandments, making their meaning concrete and specific.

[28] SD, p. 760.

[29] SD, p. 760.

[30] I. John Hesselink, "Christ, the Law, and the Christian" in Readings in Calvin's Theology, ed. Donald K. McKim (Grand Rapids, Baker: 1984), 183.

[31] HLM, vol. 3, pp. 41-42.

[ 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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