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Calvin's Covenantal Pronomianism

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith


My own conclusions on what Calvin believed and taught about the judicial law of Moses can only be somewhat tentative, for Calvin's position is complex enough that even Calvin scholars disagree about how we should understand him. But Calvin's preaching on the law is also clear enough that Christian ministers today can learn a great deal from him. His sermons on Deuteronomy certainly deserve a modern English translation -- not to mention a modern Japanese translation!

At this point in time then, my own conclusions are:

1. I tend to agree with Godfrey that Calvin is consistent in the Institutes, his commentaries and his sermons. It seems to me that the difference is one of emphasis, the Institutes being directed to a theological audience and often colored by polemic concerns, whereas the sermons are aimed at edifying Calvin's congregation. I do not mean, however, that Calvin's understanding of the judicial law is consistent. I mean that he is consistently inconsistent everywhere that he addresses the issue.

In both the Institutes and the Sermons on Deuteronomy Calvin at some points implies that the judicial law of Moses is subject to the scrutiny of a principle of equity that appears to tolerate a certain amount of natural law input. It is not really clear. On the other hand, both the Institutes and the sermons and commentaries on the law seem to teach a covenantal Biblicism. I think Wendel's view applies to both the Deuteronomy sermons and the Institutes -- Calvin's attempt to wed some form of natural law to the law of God is a failure that goes against the grain of his whole theological system.

2. Calvin's concern to teach the law of Moses, including the judicial laws, is not only clear but profound. Two hundred long sermons on Deuteronomy betrays more than a passing interest in the law of God. In this respect, at least, we may say that Calvinism departed from Calvin, for -- to the best of my knowledge -- there was not a significant Calvinistic study of the law of Moses and its modern application from the time of Calvin to Rushdoony. Calvinists contented themselves with the ten commandments, but almost completely neglected the judicial laws, except for occasional references. Though Calvin regarded the ten commandments as the central concern, he gave due attention the rest of the law of Moses because he regarded even ceremonies and judicial laws as an exposition of the meaning of the moral law of Moses that we can learn from. Above all, Calvin believed we learn of Christ in the judicial laws no less than the ceremonial.

3. Speaking of Calvin, Godfrey writes, "He does not simply appeal to Moses, but reasons from the equity of the moral law." [1] In his Sermons on Deuteronomy Calvin's appeals to the law of Moses are sometimes quite direct, but Godfrey's point may be admitted. We are not under the Mosaic covenant today. We should not apply the law of Moses in the same manner that Joshua, David and Daniel did. On this point theonomists totally agree with their critics. The question is, How far does the equity of the law of Moses extend? Why did God inscripturate all these details about the judicial law and the punishment of crimes if we are not to learn from it?

It seems to me that Calvin himself is ambiguous about just how far the equity of the law extends. But after centuries of Roussellian statism, are not Calvinists ready to conclude that we need clearer Biblical guidelines for the limitation of the state? Calvin seems to worry about the law of Moses restricting the state too much. He does not want to bind the Christian magistrate so strictly that he will be unable to make laws that are more severe than what the Mosaic judicial law permits. No doubt Calvin is correct that emergency situations such as war or pestilence sometimes require special laws. But our problem is very different.

Gary North illustrates the radical perversity of modern law and our need for Biblical standards by quoting the following from a local newspaper:

A Jacksonville [Texas] man [Marvin Hall] was sentenced by Cherokee County Judicial District Court Judge Morris W. Hassell to 50 years in prison for robbing the Holiday Inn . . .

In another robbery case, Hassell sentenced James Virgil Walker, 24, to 10 years in prison for robbing Floyd Roach of Rusk of his wallet . . .

Jerry Dale Jones, 26, Jacksonville, was sentenced to 12 years in prison on a charge of burglary of a habitation. Jones took guns, jewelry and an assortment of other items owned by William Patterson in Jacksonville, Holcomb said. Most of the items were recovered, he added.

A 22-year old Bullard man pleaded guilty to a charge of aggravated sexual assault on a child on Aug. 26, 1986, in Bullard, Assistant District Attorney Elmer Beckworth said. The man was sentenced to eight years and sent to boot camp, a new program that provides counseling and military-type training. [2]

As much as fifty years in prison, and no less than twelve, for robbery, but only eight years for aggravated sexual assault on a child! Note that the names of the robbers are reported but not the name of the man guilty of sexual assault. North also reports that "In the State of Massachusetts in the early 1970's, the median jail term served by a murderer was under two and a half years." [3] We are in far greater need in our day of considering what equity there may be in the judicial law of Moses than in moderating the Biblical standards to preserve the freedom of the magistrate.

4. We cannot do better than to adopt Calvin's basic attitude to the law expressed at the beginning of his series on Deuteronomy:

Now herewithall we be warned to receive the doctrine here contained, not as coming from a mortal man. In speaking unto us, Moses protesteth that he himself is not our schoolmaster though he rehearseth our lesson unto us; but that must always be God and His Holy Spirit, that must even be our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose hand the Law was given, as Saint Paul speaketh of Him. For He was the governor of the Church at all times. Ye see then that the thing which we have to consider here, is that we must reverently and carefully receive the things that were given us by the hand of Moses. Not that we may think that anything came of himself, but that God sent him and ordained him to be His instrument, so that when we receive anything that was spoken by Moses, we may warrant our selves that God guideth and governeth us by His own pure truth, and that our faith resteth not upon men nor upon any mortal creature, but that the living God is the author, and will also we be the warrant thereof. [4]

God's laws given through Moses continue to instruct us in wisdom and righteousness. If we obey His law, we will be blessed and prosper so that we may be an instrument in His hand for the extension of His kingdom in this world.

Calvin's covenantal view of the Bible has never been more needed, was never more relevant than it is today. What is desperately required today is Calvinists with a covenantal worldview, Calvinists who will apply the law of God to the problems of our day, building on the inheritance of wisdom left behind by Calvin. And by the grace of God we seem to be seeing the beginning of such a revival. May God grant that it will grow and increase and "that it may please Him to grant this grace, not only unto us, but also to all people and nations of the earth."


[1] "Calvin and Theonomy," p. 311.

[2] Gary North, Victim's Rights, The Biblical View of Civil Justice (Tyler, Tex.: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990), p.ix.

[3] Ibid., p. 146.

[4] SD, p. 5.

[ 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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