Monday, July 21, 2014

John Calvin and the Regulative Principle of the State

John Calvin (1509 - 1564), "The Theologian of the Reformation" 

Calvin affirms the Judicial Laws of Moses

Throughout his writings, Calvin takes for granted the judicial law's abiding validity. 

For example, in his "Sermons on Deuteronomy," he affirms the permanency of the judicial laws prohibiting adultery,[1] a woman lying about her virginity prior to marriage,[2] rape of a virgin,[3] kidnapping,[4] and incorrigibly rebellious children.[5]

And in his commentaries, he affirms the permanency of the judicial laws prohibiting incest,[6] apostasy,[7] and seduction to idolatry.[8] 

In his defense of the execution of Servetus—a vile blasphemer and promoter of soul-damning heresies—Calvin upholds the judicial law's prohibitions of blasphemy and seducing souls away from God:

Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his Church. It is not in vain that he banishes all those human affections which soften our hearts; that he commands paternal love and all the benevolent feelings between brothers, relations, and friends to cease; in a word, that he almost deprives men of their nature in order that nothing may hinder their holy zeal. Why is so implacable a severity exacted but that we may know that God is defrauded of his honor, unless the piety that is due to him be preferred to all human duties, and that when his glory is to be asserted, humanity must be almost obliterated from our memories?[9] 

Calvin and Geneva

While Calvin did not rule Geneva, he did have influence. Viggo Norskov Olsen, while discussing a perspective of Calvin on marriage, argues that Calvin sought a "bibliocratic" society in Geneva ruled by God's word:

Calvin sought to make the administration of Geneva "bibliocratic," which meant that the secular society ought to be governed by a "thus saith the Lord." His hermeneutical principle was that God is ever the same and does not contradict himself; accordingly, laws and regulations, including those governing discipline and punishment, which should guide the magistrate in matrimonial matters had to be in harmony with the teaching of Christ. Calvin and Beza contended that both the Old and New Testaments had made adultery the one exception to divorce only because the stoning had been neglected.[10]

The insufficiency of the "light of nature" 

For Calvin, the "light of nature" is insufficient regarding the First Table of the Law—and almost as bad regarding the Second Table:
And if we want to measure our reason by God’s law, the pattern of perfect righteousness, we shall find in how many respects it is blind! Surely it does not at all comply with the principal points of the First Table; such as putting our faith in God, giving due praise for his excellence and righteousness, calling upon his name, and truly keeping the Sabbath [Exodus 20:3-17]…
Men have somewhat more understanding of the precepts of the Second Table [Exodus 20:12 ff.] because these are more closely concerned with the preservation of civil society among them. Yet even here one sometimes detects a failure to endure
But in all our keeping of the law we quite fail to take our concupiscence into account. For the natural man refuses to be led to recognize the diseases of his lusts. The light of nature is extinguished before he even enters upon this abyss … [11]  

Civil rulers, then, cannot rely on natural law, but on Scripture, which is sufficient. As he writes while commenting on Deuteronomy 4:8:
And for proof thereof, what is the cause that the heathen are so hardened in their own dotages [feebleness]? It is for that [because] they never knew God’s law, and therefore they never compared the truth with the untruth. But when God’s law cometh in place, then doth it appear that all the rest is but smoke: in so much that they which took themselves to be marvelous[ly] witty, are found to have been no better than besotted in their own beastliness. This is apparent. Wherefore let us mark well, that to discern that there is nothing but vanity in all worldly devises, we must know the Laws and ordinances of GodBut if we rest upon men’s laws, surely it is not possible for us to judge rightly. Then must we needs go first [need to go first] to God’s school, and that will show us that when we have once profited under him, it will be enough. This is all our perfection. And on the other side we may despise all that is ever invented by man, seeing there is nothing but fondness and uncertainty in them. And that is the cause why Moses termeth them rightful ordinances. As if he should say, it is true indeed that other people have store[s] of ceremonies, store[s] of rules, and store[s] of Laws: but there is no right at all in them, all is awry, all is crooked. True it is that they perceive it not: and what is the cause thereof, but for that it is not possible for them to discern good from evil, without God’s word which is the truth? Howsoever we fare, we cannot do the thing that is just or right, except we have first learned it at God’s hand. And if we have been so far overseen as to allow our own doings, let us not go on still, for God will disallow every whit of it, because we must take all our rightness at his truth. In this case it is not for every man to bring his own weights and his own balance [Calvin here is referring to justice]: but we must hold ourselves to that which God hath uttered and doth utter.[12]

Civil government cannot be arbitrary, but must rule by God's word

Calvin writes this about the necessity of civil government to rule not by man's opinions, but God's word:
And Moses said unto his father-in-law...   Moses replies ingenuously, as if on a very praiseworthy matter, like one unconscious of any fault; for he declared himself to be the minister of God, and the organ of His Spirit. Nor, indeed, could his faithfulness and integrity be called in question. He only erred in overwhelming himself with too much labor, and not considering himself privately, nor all the rest publicly. Yet a useful lesson may be gathered from his words. He says that disputants come “to inquire of God,” and that he makes them to know the statutes of God and His laws. Hence it follows that this is the object of political government, that God’s tribunal should be erected on earth, wherein He may exercise the judge’s office, to the end that judges and magistrates should not arrogate to themselves a power uncontrolled by any laws, nor allow themselves to decide anything arbitrarily or wantonly, nor, in a word, assume to themselves what belongs to God. Then, and then only, will magistrates acquit themselves properly: when they remember that they are the representatives (vicarios) of God. An obligation is here also imposed upon all private individuals, that they should not rashly appeal to the authority or assistance of judges, but should approach them with pure hearts, as if inquiring of God; for whosoever desires anything else except to learn from the mouth of the magistrate what is right and just, boldly and sacrilegiously violates the place which is dedicated to God.[13]
Here Calvin very overtly embraces the regulative principle of the state. He notes that in Old Testament Israel, "disputants come 'to inquire of God,' and that he makes them to know the statutes of God and His laws." For Calvin, "this is the object of political government," where civil government is based on God's laws ("God's tribunal")not on laws arbitrarily determined by man. 

Therefore, for Calvin, the Mosaic law has a complete system of justice; as he writes in his Treatises Against the Anabaptists and Against the Libertines:
Let us hold this position: that with regard to true spiritual justice, that is to say, with regard to a faithful man walking in good conscience and being whole before God in both his vocation and in all his works, there exists a plain and complete guideline for it in the law of Moses, to which we need simply cling if we want to follow the right path. Thus whoever adds to or takes away anything from it exceeds its limits. Therefore our position is sure and infallible.[14] 

Calvin's strong words for those who seek counsel beyond God's Word

Calvin found it vain for rulers to look for counsel beyond God's word, and had very strong words for those who would deny this. In his sermons on Deuteronomy he states:
We saw yesterday [Sermon 105] why God commanded kings to have a book of the law. For although they had been taught God's Word previously, yet when they ascended to power it behooved them to realize that they had more need than ever to rule themselves by God's Word, considering how hard a thing it is to govern a people. Moreover, God must be ready to work on their behalf, and men must acknowledge themselves far too weak for the task, so that they seek the help they need—namely, to be guided by God; and to get this help they must apply their study to His WordFor it is vain for us to hope that God will give us counsel, unless we seek it in His law. If a man says he is happy that God has given him His Spirit, and yet meanwhile despises all the appointed aids, such as the reading of Holy Scripture and the hearing of sermons, does he not mock God? And so you can see that it is good and necessary for kings to have a book of the law. ... Our true wisdom is to hearken to God when He speaks to us, and to obey His doctrine.[15]  
In even more pointed language, Calvin says this about denying the sufficiency of Scripture for civil government:  
He [God] does [want] us to understand, that we must not judge after our own imagination, whether the deed be worthy of death or no[t]. For it is a thing which beguiles many men and rulers than to strive against God and to blaspheme his law that they needs give sentence of themselves according to their own opinion. But contra wise our Lord brings us back here to his will.[16] 

[1] John Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth), 790. 
[2] Ibid., 788. 
[3] Ibid., 791.
[4] Ibid., 846.
[5] Ibid., 760.
[6] John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians: Volume One, 1 Corinthians 5:13. 
[7] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses: Volume Two, Deuteronomy 18:5.
[8] Ibid., Deuteronomy 13:6.
[9] Cited in "Calvin’s Defence of the Death Penalty for Heretics" in Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume VII: Modern Christianity, the Swiss Reformation, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907), 791.
[10] V. Norskov Olsen, John Foxe and the Elizabethan Church (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973), 208. 
[11] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2:2:24.
[12] John Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy: Facsimile of 1583 Edition (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), 123. Cited in Brian Schwertley, God's Law for Modern Man: Chapter 3: Natural Law vs. Biblical Law (Brian Schwertley, 2000), 6. Retrieved June 23, 2014 from
[13] John Calvin, Harmony of the Law: Volume 1, Exodus 18:15.
[14] John Calvin, Treatises Against the Anabaptists and Against the Libertines, trans. and ed. Benjamin Wirt Farley (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1982), 78. Cited in Gary North, Westminster's Confession: The Abandonment of Van Til's Legacy (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), 57.
[15] John Calvin, Sermon 106: Deuteronomy 17:16-20 (Nov. 21, 1555). Cited in "Calvin Speaks," ed. James B. Jordan (Tyler, TX: Geneva Divinity School, March 1981), Vol. 2, No. 3, 1. 
[16] Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy 634. 


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