Category Archives: Calvin
In the debates that sometimes stir across the evangelical world natural law and Scripture, creation and redemption, are often played off against one another as if they are dueling forces in a zero-sum game. Usually these controversies obscure the point that the real question under discussion is about the appropriate relation between natural law and Scripture, or between creation and redemption, rather than about dividing and classifying the world or ethics according to some scientific principle.
The fact is, in orthodox Christian theology it is precisely the creation that God redeems in Jesus Christ (what else could he possibly be redeeming?) and it is the natural law to which Scripture commands us to adhere (otherwise God would be schizophrenic). The real questions we should be discussing – How does future redemption call us to relate to the presently fallen creation? How in the created order do we see the natural law that points all human beings to their creator? – are much more difficult to answer, and require much more humility, than are these false dilemmas.
Shortly after I arrived at Westminster Seminary California some years ago Michael Horton guided me into the field of political theology by suggesting that I read Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order. I had been a history major at Covenant College and in Washington D.C. my focus was on practical politics and government. This was my first deep foray into the theology that underlies ethics and politics.
Oliver O’Donovan is one of the preeminent ethicists of our time. He certainly knows the Christian tradition better than anyone else (he is the editor of the massive From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought 100-1625), and he has a way of bringing the debates of the past into conversation with the issues of the present in a way that is appropriate, rather than strained, insightful rather than anachronistic.
In Resurrection and Moral Order O’Donovan does a masterful job articulating the decisive relationship between Christ’s resurrection and the created order, particularly as it relates to Christian ethics. As he puts it,
In proclaiming the resurrection of Christ, the apostles proclaimed also the resurrection of mankind in Christ; and in proclaiming the resurrection of mankind, they proclaimed the renewal of all creation with him. The resurrection of Christ in isolation from mankind would not be a gospel message. The resurrection of mankind apart from creation would be a gospel of a sort, but of a purely Gnostic and world-denying sort which is far from the gospel that the apostles actually preached. So the resurrection of Christ directs our attention back to the creation which it vindicates.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that every last individual, or every particular of creation will be renewed. As John Calvin argues in his commentary on 2 Peter 3, making use of Aristotelian logic, it is the substance of creation that will be renewed, not the accidents. “Of the elements of the world I shall only say this one thing, that they are to be consumed only that they may be renovated, their substance still remaining the same, as it may be easily gathered from Romans 8:21 and from other passages.” As Calvin warns, we should be wary of theological speculation that seeks to identify precisely the sort of continuity this entails.
Still, Calvin is quite clear that the restoration for which fallen creation is destined is the same telos, or goal, for which it was always intended. God is redeeming the creation through Christ not in the sense that he is returning it to some static, original state, but in the sense that he is restoring it to its original destiny and purpose. As Michael Northcott puts it, directly in line with Calvin, “the resurrection vindicates the original relational ordering of creation towards the Triune God.”
Some of the readers of my article, “Should Christians be Environmentalists?“, questioned whether it is really appropriate to ground Christians’ approach to care for the environment in our Christology. Wouldn’t it be better simply to look to creation, rather than to confuse creation with redemption? I understand the concern. It would be ludicrous for Christians to claim the ability to somehow bring this fallen world to its eternal purpose in God’s kingdom, let alone even to restore it to its original pristine state.
But that is not the purpose or implication of grounding our attitude towards creation in Christ’s work of redemption. Rather, it is to demonstrate that Jesus’ incarnation and bodily resurrection has vindicated the created order, placing God’s stamp of approval on it and establishing its eternal existence. The sin and curse that have so tarnished it have done their worst, but they have ultimately failed. Creation is not destined for destruction, but for restoration.
Why does this matter? If the fall so tarnished creation that God has decided to abandon it, elevating human souls to some sort of transcendent destiny, then Christianity isn’t so different from Gnosticism or neo-Platonism. Natural law can hold little claim over us. Creation has mere instrumental value. The philosophers of modernity and the Enlightenment then had plausible reasons to view the human relationship toward the environment as one of mastery and exploitation. Christians are simply waiting out the deluge in the lifeboat, waiting to be rescued from this dying world. All that really matters is how many souls are saved.
If, on the other hand, the resurrection amounts to the reconciliation of all things in the body of Jesus, as Paul declares in Colossians 1:15-20, then that tells us something about the fundamental goodness of creation. No matter how tarnished it may be, no matter how radical a transformation it will undergo when Christ returns at the end of the age, the creation itself is destined for salvation. The resurrection has enabled us to make a “decision about the status of the ordering of creation as we still partially encounter it, both in ourselves and in the rest of the created order.” The decision is that natural law endures.
The practical implications of this are therefore significant. Because creation is good, because it continues to hold a place in God’s redemptive purposes, the created order – natural law – maintains its authoritative place in Christian ethics. O’Donovan ties together the various threads:
only if the order which we think we see, or something like it, is really present in the world, can there be an ‘evangelical’ ethics. Only so, indeed, can there be a Christian, rather than a Gnostic, gospel at all. The dynamic of the Christian faith, calling us to respond appropriately to the deeds of God on our behalf, supposes that there is an appropriate conformity of human response to divine act.
In other words, only if Christian ethics reflects the created moral order does it remain faithful to the gospel. Christians must constantly be about the business of demonstrating that the moral order found in Scripture is indeed that of the creation within which we live. It is, in short, natural law.
Far too much of modernity amounts to a war waged against creation for human ends. Women must have the right to choose to destroy the life within them if we are to be free. Industry must have the right to pollute rivers and groundwater if we are to be prosperous. Men must be permitted to use their property – even human property – precisely how they desire, if we are to be autonomous. Governments must be granted the unchecked ability to wage war against weaker nations if we are to be secure. Individuals must be permitted to engage in sexual relations that bring them pleasure, even to bring children into family structures that seem rewarding to them, regardless of the alienation from the body and from the sexuality of male and female that it entails, if we are to have genuine self-regard.
Christianity permits no such mechanical domination over nature. It requires, rather, a respect for natural law, finding genuine freedom within the order that God has created and that he has redeemed in Christ’s resurrection. And while Evangelicals are good at insisting on these principles for their own pet issues (i.e., abortion, same-sex marriage), their record is less impressive when it comes to others. Claims to a principled approach to politics, or to genuine interest in natural law, would be far more credible were they applied across the board. In the same sense that the health of the fetus, or of a sexual relationship, or of children, is normative for Christians, so the health of the environment, of material and social relationships, and of international affairs deserves our careful attention. The more power human beings, whether as individuals or collectively, have to exercise power unjustly in these areas, the more government is required to intervene to maintain at least a basic measure of justice and peace.
That does not mean we are imposing our religion, seeking to bring about a utopian kingdom of God. Although our motive is forward looking (faithfulness to Christ and his work) our standard is backward looking (conformity to the created order, or to natural law). Although the measure according to which we will be judged is that of perfection (idealism), we recognize that this side of Christ’s return – and in the realm of coercive politics – we are dealing with fallen human beings and a cursed creation (realism). We are therefore motivated and informed by distinctly Christian theology, but the basic material with which we are concerned and the practical knowledge on which we rely, is shared commonly between believers and unbelievers. Christ is lord of all, but we remain caught in the eschatological tension between the two kingdoms, between the present evil age and the kingdom of the age to come.
Anyone who takes all of these principles seriously will quickly see that the Christian religion is not a political conversation stopper. There are no direct lines between biblical teaching and environmental policy. Our Christian faith calls us to take our responsibility toward the environment seriously, and yet it is by no means immediately clear what this means in practical terms. Indeed, on a practical level unbelievers or pagans might hold more wisdom and prudence in these areas than we do. Our calling is humbly to serve, testifying in this way to the hope that lies within us.
Christianity does eliminate several options. We are not pagans who worship nature, setting it above human beings in status and worth. Nor are we humanists who value prosperity and wealth no matter what the human and environmental cost. We are Christians who recognize that the destiny both of ourselves and of creation is in Christ, and that in the meantime, we are to be stewards of the created order, to the best of our ability.
In the February 27 issue of Christian Renewal Doug Barnes, a pastor in the denomination of which I am a member, writes a column addressing readers’ concerns about two kingdoms theology. Barnes declares that the two kingdoms doctrine “currently making waves” is sometimes called the “Radical Two Kingdoms” doctrine because it is so “sweeping” and “vast” in its implications. Clearly this is pretty serious stuff.
Barnes goes on to describe the two kingdoms view as one that divides the world into two spheres, the redemptive kingdom containing the church, and the common kingdom containing “the state and all other social institutions” (there is no eschatological nuance recognized here). In this kingdom, he says, “God reveals his will not by Scripture, but by ‘natural law’” (emphasis added). To drive the “vast” implications home to his readers, he then affirms that two kingdoms theologians believe Scripture is intended for the church but not for “the life of the common kingdom.”
The church has neither the right nor the calling to preach about politics or other matters distinct to life in the common kingdom, according to Two Kingdoms proponents.
Yikes. If what Barnes is saying is true, these two kingdoms people are arguing that God does not reveal his will about anything in the common kingdom in Scripture, and that pastors should therefore never say anything about marriage, the raising of children, relations between masters and slaves, or civil government, the sorts of matters discussed regularly in the New Testament. If what Barnes is saying is true, in other words, the theologians he has in view must be denying the authority of Scripture at best; they are outright heretical at worst. How many of Barnes’s readers come to just this conclusion? Labeling the doctrine “radical” doesn’t exactly set the stage for objective consideration.
Who does Barnes identify as the leaders of this wave, this movement that is so sweeping in its implications? He mentions three names, Michael Horton, R. Scott Clark, and David VanDrunen. VanDrunen is the chief theorist, of course, but Barnes points his readers to the book Kingdoms Apart, which he assures them, has ably addressed VanDrunen’s troubling views (for evidence that this is not remotely the case, see my review of Kingdoms Apart here and here, and VanDrunen’s review here). The most redeeming thing about Barnes’s column is that he points his readers to VanDrunen’s book Living in God’s Two Kingdoms (although he immediately reminds his readers that they should quickly follow up this book by reading Cornel Venema’s critique of it).
Yes, please do go and read VanDrunen’s book. If you do, I hope you note that this is a book that claims to present what Scripture teaches about both of God’s two kingdoms. On its very face, therefore, the book challenges Barnes’s characterization of two kingdoms theology as a view that claims God does not reveal his will about the common kingdom in Scripture. Then, after reading the first five chapters of the book, which lay out biblical theological foundations for the two kingdoms view, note that VanDrunen concludes the book with two chapters, one of which discusses Scripture’s teaching on the church, the other of which discusses Scripture’s teaching on education, vocation, and politics. The latter chapter, by the way, is longer than the former.
In fact, on pages 194-203 VanDrunen goes on to outline what he believes Scripture teaches about politics, and how the church should proclaim these truths while avoiding usurping God’s authority by going beyond them. VanDrunen even concludes the section by declaring that there may be times when pastors need to specifically address particular political controversies or public policies. “Each preacher must wrestle conscientiously with the particular text he is expounding and determine what obligations it undoubtedly places upon his hearers” (203).
It is time for serious Reformed people to step up and demand that whatever concerns people may have about two kingdoms theology, they raise them in a responsible way. If you want to criticize someone, I was always taught, you have to earn the right by showing that you actually understand their views, summarizing those views in terms they themselves would recognize. This has not been happening much lately in certain circles. To be sure, there are important questions worth asking and yes, there are legitimate criticisms of certain versions of two kingdoms theology that need to be made. But this is not the way to do it.
Note that Barnes and others are raising the stakes quite high here. Barnes admits that the “first generation” of two kingdoms proponents are “firmly committed to the confessions” and suggests “that keeps them from working their doctrine out to its logical ends.” Later generations, however, can be expected to follow the doctrine to its obvious conclusions. What then? “If that happens with the Radical Two Kingdoms doctrine, I suspect our broader assemblies eventually will need to evaluate how compatible the Radical Two Kingdoms doctrine is with our confessions.”
In fact, some confessional watchmen are already doing just that. Interestingly enough, in a ten page essay comparing two kingdoms theology to Belgic Confession Article 36, Mark VanDerMolen, an elder in the same denomination, focuses almost entirely on blog posts and does not even mention the name VanDrunen. He embraces a view of Belgic 36 that takes the footnote found in the 1976 Psalter Hymnal as confessionally binding, a view that would not be widely shared within the denomination. He ends up concluding that Belgic 36 includes three vital claims:
- the Magistrate is subject to both tables of God’s law
- the Magistrate is subject to the authority of God’s Word
- the Magistrate is ordained to advance the kingdom of Christ
I’m not aware of any two kingdoms theologian who would dispute the first two points. While it is true that all two kingdoms theologians agree that government should not enforce everything commanded in both tables of God’s law, I’m not aware of any two kingdoms theologian who argues that they magistrates may with impunity disobey them. No two kingdoms theologian thinks, for instance, that magistrates are justified in worshiping false gods or idols, blaspheming God’s name, or teaching false doctrine.
On the third point, VanDerMolen’s phrasing is sloppy. Belgic 36 does not declare that the Magistrate is ordained to advance the kingdom of Christ. What it says is the following:
Their office is not only to have regard unto and watch for the welfare of the civil state, but also to protect the sacred ministry, that the kingdom of Christ may thus be promoted. They must therefore countenance the preaching of the Word of the gospel everywhere, that God may be honored and worshipped by everyone, as He commands in His Word.
As Nelson Kloosterman clarifies on his own blog (where, however, he hosts and seems wholeheartedly to affirm VanDerMolen’s essay),
BC 36 does not require civil rulers to agree with the gospel preached or to engage in divine worship, but to remove every obstacle that could impede these. Nor does BC 36 require civil rulers to advance the kingdom of Jesus Christ or to resist every anti-christian power—but to fulfill their calling of obstacle-removal for these purposes to be achieved, presumably by Christians.
Exactly. Civil government is indeed ordained by God to fulfill certain purposes that contribute to the advancement of the kingdom of God, but such advancement is indirect, not direct (Calvin in his commentary on John 18 says it is accidental). And while Kloosterman does not admit it here, this insight comes directly from the two kingdoms theology of which he is so critical. Every Reformed two kingdoms theologian since Calvin has emphasized that civil government may not engage in the ministry of the gospel or the administration of the sacraments because Christ’s spiritual and political kingdoms are distinct and not to be confused. Article 36 of the Belgic Confession of Faith does not contest two kingdoms theology. It assumes it.
In his own essay VanDerMolen writes,
Undoubtedly, the manner of the magistrate accomplishing its God-ordained and God-honoring purposes in a pluralistic age lead[s] us into difficult thorny questions. But difficulty in application does not abrogate the principles we confess.
Thank you. That is precisely the premise of the scholars, like VanDrunen and myself, who have actually devoted significant scholarly attention to this problem. We are not questioning the principles we confess. We are trying to work through the “difficult thorny questions” that arise when these principles, as well as the teaching of Scripture in general, are applied to our pluralistic age. Can we get on with that task now?
[Note: For a brief, general introduction to two kingdoms theology, see these essays at Reformation 21:
At the Heidelblog last week, and since republished on the Aquila Report, my friend Scott Clark writes a helpful response to dismissals of Calvin as the “tyrant of Geneva,” dismissals closely related to caricatures of Calvinism as a cold, authoritarian, and fatalist religion. Clark reminds us that it was not Calvin who sentenced the heretic Servetus to death, but the civil government of Geneva. More importantly, he points out that this took place during an age in which civil authorities throughout Europe, aligned with Rome, were killing thousands upon thousands of Protestants. Clark’s post is well worth reading in its entirety.
All of the leading magisterial reformers defended putting heretics, including Anabaptists, to death. Indeed, as Clark points out, Zwingli, Luther, Melanchthon, and Bullinger and other leading reformers were just as vocal in their defense of such policies as was Calvin. The reformer gets the extra press today because he is associated with a social movement that has had an impact far beyond its numbers. Luther, of course, gets bad press for his own blemishes and their supposed legacy in history.
Clark has no interest in defending the reformers’ complicity in the suppression of religious liberty. A strong two kingdoms advocate, he writes,
Was it a confusion of the civil and ecclesiastical spheres for Calvin to demand civil penalties [against one of his severe public critics] for being identified with the sufferings of Christ? Absolutely. From the perspective of a distinction between the ecclesiastical and common spheres, Calvin might have had a case before the Consistory but not before the Civil Authorities.
The true moral of this story, however, is of the danger of the Constantinian church-state alliance wherein civil authorities have the power to punish heresy. Nowhere in the New Testament or in the moral law is theological heresy a ground for civil punishment. The only sphere authorized by God to correct theological error is the visible church (see Matthew 18) and their means are purely spiritual: Word, sacrament, and discipline (e.g., rebuke, censure, excommunication).
With all of this I agree, and I appreciate Clark’s putting Calvin’s actions in historical context. That said, I do think more needs to be said than simply that Calvin was a product of his time, that nearly everyone in Europe agreed Servetus should be put to death for denying the fundamentals of Christianity (not simply of the Reformation), and that in any case, it was not Calvin who technically condemned and burned Servetus, but the government of Geneva.
The fact is, Calvin was a vocal and dogmatic apologist for the suppression of religious heresy. He was severely criticized for his complicity in the execution of Servetus, and the theological fighter that he was, he wrote repeatedly in defense of his actions and those of his government. He considered the arguments that Clark raises above and rejected them on theological grounds. Had Clark made these arguments in Calvin’s Geneva, Calvin would have said that he simply “desire[s] to be at liberty to make disturbances with impunity.” There is no need for me to recap all of that here, as I’ve written on it before. But here is a brief sampling of Calvin’s arguments, drawn from his commentary on the Law.
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.
Calvin is aware of these arguments, and he agrees both that the use of the sword is alien to the spiritual kingdom of Christ and that Christ does not need it for his kingdom’s success. However, he insists that God can nevertheless require that magistrates promote and defend the true religion merely because it is his will that such be part of their earthly vocation. In essence, he simply denies that capital punishment for false doctrine is a confusing of the kingdoms.
But when human judges consecrate their work to the promotion of Christ’s kingdom, I deny that on that account its nature is changed… 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.
He then denies that any contrary conclusions should be drawn from Jesus’ silence (and in general, that of the New Testament) on this magisterial responsibility. This is the weakest part of Calvin’s argument, it seems to me – his lack of any clear New Testament support for his position. He attempts to make up for it by appealing to three passages – the same three passages he invokes in at least half a dozen places in his writings where he discusses the issue – that he thinks prove that even in the Christian era magistrates are to enforce the true religion: Psalm 2, Isaiah 49;23; 1 Timothy 2:2. Again, I’ve addressed his appeal to such texts here.
Why does it matter? I’m sure some Reformed people will read this blog post and complain once again that we shouldn’t be criticizing our forebears on matters that aren’t even controversial anymore. Why beat a dead horse? It simply threatens the credibility of our theological tradition, doesn’t it?
I disagree. I care more about the Reformed tradition than about Calvin’s particular political opinions, and the credibility of the Reformed tradition depends far more on whether or not we take seriously the legacy and theology of the past than on whether we can manage to whitewash our history with hagiography. In this case, I firmly believe, many in the Reformed tradition, along with many Evangelicals in general, have not come to grips with why we disagree (or should disagree) with our forebears who opposed religious liberty.
We think they were simply products of their time. As if, were Calvin to appear in the 21st Century, he would suddenly agree with us. As if we were not products of our time as well. And as a result, we never come to grips with the theological mistakes the reformers made that led them to the positions we now oppose. Calvin supported the suppression of religious liberty in part because, influenced by Plato, Cicero and others, he held certain assumptions about the nature of the Mosaic Law and of Israel, and about their normativity for Christians. He believed that magistrates were called to enforce the law of God as revealed in Scripture, unto the glory of God. He failed to see why the first table of the law (i.e., worship and piety) should be excluded from that principle.
Read a smattering of Evangelical political arguments on a host of issues today – abortion, homosexuality, economics, health care, etc. – and you will find that many Evangelicals hold the same assumptions about the simple correlation between Scripture (and the example of Israel) and politics. The only difference was that Calvin was much more consistent than they are. He didn’t exclude idolatry, blasphemy, sabbath-breaking, or adultery from the political realm. That modern Evangelicals do so is usually not so much because they understand the theological problems with Calvin’s (and the other reformers’) views, but because they, even more than Calvin, are products of their time.
But is there a biblical theological foundation for a democratic society that values religious liberty? That, for me, is what is at stake here. That’s why we need to keep hashing through the counter-arguments of our theological forebears, arguments that were better and more theologically rigorous than we are usually willing to admit. We need biblical theological arguments for democratic pluralism and religious liberty that seriously come to grips with the Christian political theological tradition and come out on top. Calvin’s political theology may have been a product of its time. It’s up to us to work as hard as we can to ensure that ours is a product of Scripture.
[Note: All the Calvin quotations are from his Commentary on Deuteronomy 13:5]
I’ve noted before that Calvin used Plato and other philosophers to defend his claim that magistrates should suppress false religion. In addition to the last chapter of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, one of the places in which Calvin makes this argument explicitly is in his commentary on the judicial supplements to the first commandment, ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ It is here that he addresses the Torah’s numerous stipulations that false teachers, idolaters, and witches are to be put to death. This work was published in 1563, well after Calvin’s approval of the execution of Servetus (in 1553) had swelled to a major international and theological controversy. It is obvious that he writes with that controversy in mind.
Calvin was well aware that the Torah’s call for capital punishment for false teachers is an insufficient basis for a Christian nation in the 16th Century to do the same. He affirmed that Christians are not under the law except as a guide to charity; the Torah’s political laws only bind other nations insofar as they reflect general principles of equity or of natural law. He knew therefore that if he was to defend the suppression of false religion he had to produce an argument supported by natural law and by Scriptural teaching on the nature of the kingdom of Christ (not simply about Israel).
It is quite telling, however, that Calvin’s first and most basic argument is not derived from Scripture but from Plato’s Laws. It is as if he knows that his exegetical argument against religious liberty is remarkably thin, and that he must therefore clear the air by showing that he has the consensus of philosophers – even non-Christian philosophers – on his side. He writes,
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 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.
From this statement it is clear that Calvin saw the defense of religious liberty (he would not have called it such, of course) as arising from Christian sources rather than from pagan ones. Yet he turns this important fact not into a basis for defending religious liberty, but into a reason for opposing it.
What is particularly striking about his argument is that as a rule Calvin had very little confidence in magistrates. He declares over and over in his writings that even those kings and princes who claim to be Christian are usually guided more by their own ambition than by a zeal for God’s righteousness. Virtually none in the history of the world have had the genuine interests of the church at heart. Yet Calvin’s solution for this problem is not to call for the state to remove itself from spiritual affairs, but to insist that it get religion right. One is reminded if the claim made in the late 20th Century by some Marxists, to the effect that the problem is not with Marxism, but simply with the fact that true Marxism has never been tried.
Of course, Calvin does offer the typical qualifications. Magistrates should only suppress false religion if the truth of God’s word as revealed in Scripture has been publicly acknowledged among the people. There can be no use of coercion on doubtful matters.
It must then be remembered that the crime of impiety would not otherwise merit punishment, unless the religion had not only been received by public consent and the suffrages of the people, but, being supported also by sure and indisputable proofs, should place its truth above the reach of doubt.
On this basis it would be difficult for Calvin to insist on the state’s suppression of religious liberty in 21st Century America (though this is small comfort for those who are concerned about the ultimate intentions of the Christian right).
Calvin also agrees with the later Enlightenment argument that the truth is strong enough to stand on its own feet and does not need the protection of the sword. But his appeal is not for the sake of the preservation of the truth, but to the will and glory of God.
God might indeed do without the assistance of the sword in defending religion, but such is not his will… Pardon shall never be extended to poisoners, by whom the body alone is injured, and shall it be sport to deliver souls to eternal destruction? Finally, the magistracy, if its own authority be assailed, shall take severe vengeance upon that contempt; and shall it suffer the profanation of God’s holy name to be unavenged?
Here Calvin returns to a comment he often makes in these sorts of contexts. Though our reason and sentiment may object to a particular command, God has pronounced his will and we must abide by it.
But what about the objection, derived from the two kingdoms doctrine, that in the spiritual kingdom of Christ the Torah’s stipulation about God’s will for the punishment of false teachers has no place? Calvin is well aware of this theological argument, the argument that most Christians (including myself) would use today to defend religious liberty. Yes, he was a product of his time; but that doesn’t mean he didn’t think through the issues clearly. He writes,
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 … he did not impose on himself an eternal law that he should never bring kings under his subjection.
In short, Calvin views the obligation of magistrates to use the sword to suppress false religion not as a function of their role in the kingdom of Christ (whether Israel or the church) but as a function of their secular vocation. He now turns to the passages in Scripture that he thinks decisively establish his case, two from the Old Testament and (only one!) from the New. He invokes Psalm 2, which calls kings to “kiss the Son,” and Isaiah 49:23, which declares that at the coming of Christ kings will become “nursing fathers of the church.” Despite his oft-repeated reminder that such prophecies should be interpreted analogically, as describing the spiritual kingdom of Christ in language that would have made sense to people familiar with the temporal and earthly kingdom of Israel, in these cases he jettisons all such exegetical principles.
Yet his argument from the New Testament is the most tenuous of all. He cites Paul’s instruction to Timothy that Christians are to pray for all people, including kings and those in authority over them, in order that “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Timothy 2:2). He insists that this passage calls magistrates to protect godliness by using the sword to suppress open ungodliness. In hindsight it is obvious that 1 Timothy 2:2 teaches no such thing. At best it might be said that Paul’s instructions imply that the magistrate should protect the religious liberty of Christians. The text says nothing at all about what the magistrate should do about other religious groups. Calvin was reading his own political convictions into the text. He surely acted sincerely, but his interpretation bears the mark of theological desperation rather than of the careful exegetical work for which Calvin was rightly so famous. He knew that the apparent teaching of the New Testament weighed heavily against his argument. He had to find something to show that his interpretation of the implications of natural law and of prophecy was affirmed in its pages.
Reformed folks sometimes want to defend Calvin for his views on religious liberty, pointing out that his position was no different from that of the other great theologians of Christendom. That is fair up to a point, particularly relative to those who want to judge Calvin as somehow uniquely tyrannical. He was a product of his time, as we are of ours. But in the interest of honesty and our Christian witness, it is necessary to affirm openly that Calvin was wrong, and that he was wrong not because he was not modern, but because he abandoned his own theological and exegetical principles. The biggest problem with the soft hagiography that defends Calvin is not the way it handles the execution of Servetus, but the way it ignores just how flawed was Calvin’s theological reasoning on religious liberty and politics. It is with this theological issue that we must come to grips if we are to clarify our own confession regarding religion and politics.
There is a distorted version of the two kingdoms doctrine out there that claims that if an issue is political, the church should not address it. The separation between the kingdom of God and earthly politics is absolute. God has given authority over the latter to the state, and the church should not question it.
Now I should say up front that I’m not aware of any major theologian who has actually advocated this version of the two kingdoms doctrine, except perhaps Emmanuel Hirsch. Luther clearly believed that a prince has the obligation to act justly and to protect the preaching of the gospel against fiendish opponents like the pope. He did not hesitate to preach the law or the gospel to earthly magistrates, nor did he hesitate to draw specific conclusions about the implications of the law and the gospel for the way in which those magistrates were to rule. And later Lutheran theologians and jurists if anything only tightened the relationship between state and church. The state was to rule according to God’s law, establishing and protecting the true church, guided by the instruction of pastors.
Many modern two kingdoms advocates, of course, challenge the old assumptions about the necessary ties between church and state, and about the responsibility of the state to enforce the first table of the law (i.e., prohibitions against idolatry, false teaching, blasphemy, etc.). But they do not challenge the idea that the church should preach the whole counsel of God – even when that counsel pertains to politics – so much as they challenge old assumptions about what Scripture actually says about politics. The central factor underlying this shift in emphasis is a clearer understanding of the differences between modern political states and Old Testament Israel. If the present form of Israel and the Davidic kingdom is the kingdom of Christ, manifest in the body of Christ (i.e., the church), then we should not be too hasty in drawing direct lines between the Old Testament civil law and modern politics.
That said, it is important to distinguish between two lines of argument, one legitimate, the other problematic. According to the first, the statement that the church should avoid speaking to matters that are political means that the church has to distinguish between God’s moral law and its application in civil law. For instance, the church should proclaim that the state must protect innocent life, but the church has no right to advocate its own ideas about how to organize a police force, or about how to try and punish murderers. The church must call the state to govern consistent with God’s moral law (and in fulfillment of its obligation to protect the weak), but it may not dictate to the state the myriad of ways in which it might act consistent with that law. This distinction is absolutely necessary if the church is to avoid politicization and preserve its moral authority.
According to the second line of argument, the statement that the church should avoid speaking to matters that are political means that the church cannot speak on matters that are politically controversial. According to this mindset, the church might ordinarily have the right to proclaim that the state should protect the life of the unborn, or that it should prevent a person from violently destroying another person’s property, but in the context of national debates over abortion (i.e., the United States in 2013) or state authorized pogroms against Jews designed for the good of Volk and Fatherland (i.e., Nazi Germany in 1938), the church should remain silent. One would not want to alienate people from the gospel, or to give the wrong impression about one’s motives.
Now I’m sure that there are some readers who will think that I have just violated Godwin’s Law, the law which warns against bringing up the Nazis in an ethical, political, or theological debate. Some people chided me in recent weeks for my bringing up the Nazis and the Holocaust on this blog at all. And to be sure, we should be very, very careful about how we use such history, or the lessons we attempt to draw from it.
But this history is relevant here for a very important reason. The German church often attempted to justify its silence before Hitler precisely on the basis of its two kingdoms doctrine. Anyone arguing that the church should maintain the two kingdoms doctrine needs to explain why this happened and why it was wrong. As a scholar writing my dissertation on the two kingdoms doctrine and associate teaching a course on the Holocaust, I have particular reasons to address the issue. In the next few weeks, therefore, you should expect more articles from me wrestling with the use of the two kingdoms under Hitler. If you don’t like them, you are warned. You don’t have to read them.
For now I want simply to emphasize that the two kingdoms doctrine teaches not that the church should avoid matters of public or political controversy, but that the church should limit its proclamation to what the word of God actually teaches. The two kingdoms doctrine warns not against the church speaking about politics, but against the church moving beyond the word in the name of politics. And I want to emphasize that those who say the church should refrain from addressing any issue that has been deemed by others to be political are not freeing the church from politicization. On the contrary, they are subjecting it to the very politicization they claim to fear. For if the church’s proclamation of God’s word can be muzzled by a regime or a democratic constituency, the church can be manipulated by that constituency. The kingdom of Christ has been made subject to the political kingdom.
Calvin warns repeatedly against this mindset in his commentaries on the prophets. Here I simply want to quote from his commentary on Micah:
Since then the prophets were the organs of the Holy Spirit, whoever attempted to silence them usurped to himself an authority over God himself, and in a manner tried to make captive his Spirit. For what power can belong to the Spirit, except he be at liberty to reprove the vices of men, and condemn whatever is opposed to God’s justice? When this is taken away, there is no more any jurisdiction left to the Holy Spirit. (Commentary on Micah 2:7)
We now see that the word of God is not bound, but that it puts forth its power against the highest as well as the lowest; for it is the Spirit’s office to arraign the whole world, and not a part only. ‘When the Spirit shall come,’ says Christ, ‘it will convince the world.’ He speaks not there of the common people only, but of the whole world, of which princes and magistrates form a prominent part. Let us then know, that though we ought to show respect to judges (as the Lord has honored them with dignified titles, calling them his vicegerents and also gods), yet the mouths of prophets ought not to be closed; but they ought, without making any difference, to correct whatever is deserving of reproof, and not to spare even the chief men themselves. (Commentary on Micah 3:10)
If the two kingdoms are genuinely to be distinguished, the ministers of Christ must be free to proclaim his word.
At Ordained Servant David VanDrunen has written a helpful response to Ryan McIlhenny’s multi-authored Kingdoms Apart. You should definitely go and read the whole thing, but I want to draw your attention to a few points here.
First, like me (here and here), VanDrunen is disappointed with Venema’s chapter on Calvin and the two kingdoms, going so far as to call it “very polemical and tendentious.” This is in contrast to Gene Haas’s chapter on Calvin, which is much more measured and which largely agrees with VanDrunen’s work on Calvin. VanDrunen responds in particular to Venema’s charge (made by others as well) that he has turned the two kingdoms into two “hermetically separated domains or realms” and that he has identified the kingdom of God with the church “simpliciter.” He notes his own statement “that for Calvin ‘no area of life can be completely slotted as civil and not at all as spiritual’” and rightly denies that he identifies the church with Christ’s kingdom in this way, but he also reaffirms a crucial point affirmed by Haas and readily evident from much of the Genevan reformer’s work: Calvin does closely tie the two kingdoms to the institutional work of church and state.
Second, after mentioning that Kingdoms Apart focuses almost exclusively on Calvin and a few modern Dutch theologians, VanDrunen notes that McIlhenny and his co-authors (strategically? unintentionally?) sidestep the issue of the place of the two kingdoms doctrine in Reformed history.
Kingdoms Apart does not resolve a question that would seem to be absolutely crucial to its purposes: is the two kingdoms doctrine part of our Reformed heritage? Since Kingdoms Apart aims to engage the “two kingdoms perspective” critically, one might think that the book would answer no. One of the endorsers (Charles Dunahoo) indeed states that Kingdoms Apart “compares and contrasts the one-kingdom view and the Two Kingdoms view.” But who actually holds a “one-kingdom view?” Venema and Haas clearly affirm that Calvin taught a two kingdoms doctrine, Wood explicitly presents Kuyper as a two kingdoms theologian (confirmed by Parler in a later chapter), and even Kloosterman admits that Bavinck “recognized the twofold kingship of Christ” and “the so-called two kingdoms” (72). For all of the negative comments against me in these chapters (Wood’s excluded), it seems as though all of these contributors to Kingdoms Apart agree with my basic thesis that the earlier Reformed tradition—including Kuyper and Bavinck—affirmed the two kingdoms.
It seems so, but unfortunately the authors fail to make this point. VanDrunen may be justified if he feels that the authors avoided affirming the extent to which they actually agree with his work. If the purpose of Kingdoms Apart is to promote cordial conversation and theological consensus, why the reticence?
VanDrunen goes on,
But what then of neo-Calvinism? My historical claim is that contemporary neo-Calvinism (post Kuyper and Bavinck) is different from the earlier Reformed tradition in ignoring and even denying the two kingdoms doctrine in favor of a one-kingdom perspective. If the contributors to Kingdoms Apart believe this is wrong (yet agree that Calvin, Kuyper and Bavinck affirmed two kingdoms categories), then presumably they believe that neo-Calvinism itself adheres to a two kingdoms doctrine. This would be quite a remarkable claim. But even McIlhenny’s Introduction (which seeks to define neo-Calvinism) doesn’t make this claim or clarify the issue.
As I suggested in my review of Kingdoms Apart (at Mere Orthodoxy, here and here), this is a major weakness of the book, one that obscures the extent to which most of the authors are actually in agreement with VanDrunen’s arguments about the two kingdoms doctrine. In my view, this is a classic example of the extent to which polemics and controversy can obscure truth.
Third, VanDrunen observes that McIlhenny, who once sought a third way between the two kingdoms and neo-Calvinism, now characterizes his own perspective as more firmly entrenched in neo-Calvinism. Yet it’s unclear just how McIlhenny’s position has changed. Indeed, VanDrunen writes,
I find his discussion here helpful, especially in its emphasis upon culture not simply as a thing that humans create but as at root language, which involves community practices and interpretations. And though he makes some critical comments directed toward advocates of the two kingdoms in the second part of the chapter, it is still not clear whether his broad proposal is really so at odds with the two kingdoms idea, at least how I understand it.
After describing one of McIlhenny’s arguments VanDrunen then writes,
At this point he states: “Interestingly, VanDrunen seems to agree with this” (270). Indeed, but why does he find this surprising? Does McIlhenny believe, deep down, that no two kingdoms proponent really thinks that no aspect of life is religiously/morally neutral or that the antithesis rears its head in all human activity, no matter how often some of us affirm such things? At the end of the day, McIlhenny’s interest in a redeemed cultural ethos seems to approach the subject at a different angle from me, but I hold out hope that our approaches may not be ultimately incompatible.
As I argued in my review, the disagreements here are really not as substantive as they sometimes seem. We need to keep working hard to tone down the rhetoric.
Finally, VanDrunen legitimately complains that Kingdoms Apart makes little effort to engage his own constructive exegetical work relative to the two kingdoms. In particular, the authors almost entirely ignore the significance of VanDrunen’s arguments regarding the Noahic Covenant, a fact which contributes to the book’s incorrect suggestion that he rejects the cultural mandate. VanDrunen explains,
A key aspect of my biblical-theological case for the two kingdoms is my interpretation of the continuing applicability of the cultural mandate in light of Paul’s Two Adams paradigm and the Noahic covenant…. It is not as if Christians have no cultural mandate (as Kingdoms Apart suggests I claim), but that the cultural mandate comes to the human race only as refracted through the covenant with Noah after the flood. It comes thereby to the human race as a whole (not to Christians uniquely) and is geared for life in a fallen world and holds out no eschatological hope of reward.
This is a helpful point. Recognizing that God has given the cultural mandate to believers in common with unbelievers would go a long way in helping Christians to avoid the sense of entitlement and even arrogance that nonbelievers often detect in our political and cultural engagement.
I do think VanDrunen could say more about the significance of the fact that “all things” are now tied up with Christ, and therefore about the relation of the Noahic Covenant to the witness of Christians to Christ’s lordship in all of life. What much of this conversation revolves around is the relationship between four theological realities:
1) the definitive reconciliation of the world that has taken place in Christ’s death and resurrection (the neo-Calvinist emphasis)
2) the full transformation of the world that will take place at Christ’s return, but not before (the orthodox Christian belief, undermined by the social gospel and certain forms of theological liberalism)
3) the in-breaking of the kingdom in the ministry of the church and in the sanctification of believers (the key affirmation for the discovery of common ground?)
4) the “already-but-not-yet” tension of a Christian life of sanctification and witness in an untransformed world (the two kingdoms emphasis)
More work needs to be done clarifying the relation between these points. I hope VanDrunen’s response to Kingdoms Apart can help to move the discussion forward.
At Economics for Everybody, R.C. Sproul Jr.’s website for “Applying Biblical Principles to Work, Wealth, and the World,” Timothy Terrell has written a three part response (here, here, and here to my discussion of the relation between property rights and the rights of the poor (here, here, and here). Terrell agrees with my criticism of the sort of libertarianism that views government taxation as theft, but he rejects my argument that the Christian political theological tradition recognizes that the poor have rights to basic necessities enforceable by civil government. He sums up my argument as follows:
[I]f the poor have not received sufficient charity from those who are able to give, the civil magistrate should (as a last resort, he grants) tax them and transfer the proceeds to the needy.
In fact, I believe the (deserving) poor have the right to sustenance as a matter of justice, not simply of charity. Further, I would view redistributive welfare policies as merely one possible means of the government’s enforcing this element of justice, and not by any stretch the best means. My argument (despite Terrell’s suggestion on this point) is not that government should usurp the role of civil society, but that it should ensure that at a most basic level, civil society is operating justly.
Terrell repeatedly declares that my arguments are those of the “political left” or “Christian left,” seemingly assuming that this will render my argument illegitimate for his typical readers. But his readiness to wave flags and call us to our partisan allegiances, in contrast to my attempt to think through the perspective of the pre-Enlightenment Christian tradition, leads him to ignore the actual substance of that argument.
For instance, Terrell rightly insists that simply because someone has a duty to do something does not mean that government has the authority to enforce that duty. This is a distinction I have made repeatedly on this blog. The difference between the moral law and the civil law is foundational to political liberty, religious liberty, and Christian liberty alike. Yet Terrell seems to assume that this distinction in and of itself proves that government has no obligation to protect the rights of the poor to have their basic necessities met. He writes,
If “justice” is about making sure that rights are protected, we should be careful in thinking about who has a right to what. Are all rights to be enforceable by the sword of the civil magistrate? …
Where do those responsibilities end? Does the civil magistrate have power to enforce (with the sword) every positive duty of families and churches?
While a person with the ability to give has a moral obligation to do so, this is different from a poor person having a legal right to the assets of a rich person.
Of course, I agree. But this is not an argument, it is simply a statement of principles. Terrell goes on,
So, even if those with means to give charitably do not do so, this is a long way from showing that the civil magistrate has a right to extract wealth from them by force and transfer it to the poor. As R.C. Sproul, Jr. has pointed out in another post, true compassion is done voluntarily, with one’s own resources, not resources forcibly extracted from others. Unfortunately, the twisting of the terms “justice” and “protection” clouds this truth, as wealth transfers become (in the Left’s view) just another part of the civil magistrate’s legitimate pursuit of “justice” or “protection” for the poor.
Here Terrell is stating his position but he is not really making an argument. He is refusing to admit that the poor have rights to basic sustenance or that the obligation of others to assist the poor is a matter of justice, insisting on describing it as charity. His basis for this refusal seems to be Sproul’s point that true compassion is voluntary, not coerced. But of course we are not talking about true compassion, but about public justice. A comment on the nature of true compassion tells us nothing more about the form that the civil law should take than does the teaching of Jesus that truly refraining from murder requires loving our neighbor from the heart. Morality and civil law, as Terrell has pointed out, are not the same thing. Pointing to what Scripture says about poor relief and compassion in the church and in the sanctified lives of believers is insufficient when we are discussing the obligations of the state.
Terrell falls into the same confusion when he discusses Calvin’s position. Appealing to Calvin’s commentary on the Law he writes, “Calvin indicates that giving to the poor is to remain a voluntary act, not coerced by anyone.” Terrell rightly comments that Calvin rejected the position he associated with the Anabaptists, which called for the abolition of property, because Calvin believed Christians are to hold all things in common as a matter of voluntary fellowship, not as a matter of civil law. Yet he oddly assumes that this means Calvin thought the government had no obligation to use public property to assist the poor. Here he quotes François Dermange, who argues that Calvin
explicitly distinguishes this religious interpretation of justice from legal and political justice. God summons consciences to appear before his judgment seat, not before an earthly judge, and hence one must say that this law is ‘spiritual.’
So now Terrell does appeal to the distinction between true justice and political justice in order to say that the government should not ensure that the needs of the poor are met. Care for the poor is a matter of conscience, not of public order. Yet here he misses Calvin’s distinction between the virtue of Christian poor relief and the outward political order of poor relief. This despite his own admission that in Calvin’s Geneva the civil government funded and regulated not only the work of the church, but the tasks of education and poor relief as well. Calvin clearly supported Geneva’s policy: In his commentary on Isaiah 49:23 and in a sermon on Deuteronomy 15:11-15 he explicitly called government to use public funds to establish poor-houses, hospitals, and schools.
The relevant distinction is not between charity (love) and justice, which in ordinary Scriptural usage have the same basic content (to love someone is to treat them justly; to treat someone justly is to treat them in accord with love; the justice/righteousness of the law is summarized in the command to love one’s neighbor). The relevant distinction is between the true or inward justice that arises from the heart and the minimal or outward public order of justice that the state is obligated to uphold. The right of the poor to have their minimal outward necessities met clearly falls under the latter. It is a distortion of Calvin’s (two kingdoms) distinction between spiritual and political righteousness to insist that it falls exclusively under the former.
The real question is on what basis Terrell and others claim that the government must force citizens to honor contracts and abstain from murdering one another, while insisting that it may not force those with surplus resources to meet the most basic needs of the poor. I understand how this argument arises from certain classical liberal (or libertarian) premises about the state. I do not believe it is consistent with Christian political theology.
But what of the slippery slope argument? If government has the obligation of making sure the most basic needs of the (deserving) poor are met, will this not lead to intrusive regulation of every part of our lives? One may as well push the slippery slope argument further. If government has the responsibility to enforce justice at all, how do we stop it from seeking to enforce all justice?
The solution, however, is not government abandoning its most basic responsibilities, out of fear that it will abuse its legitimate power. The solution is in the never-ending work of getting government power right, finding the appropriate balance between liberty and justice, the individual and the society, rights and responsibilities. We don’t have to go from one extreme to the other.
In a discussion at the Puritan Board regarding propositions written by Mark VanDerMolen in a comment thread on this blog, a number of people wondered how it can be true that the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue) were given at Mt. Sinai uniquely for God’s covenant people, and yet the moral substance of those commandments remain binding on all human beings in all times and places. As one person wrote, this seems like “doublespeak … [I]s the moral law expressed in 10 commandments binding on all men or not?”
In practice I don’t think most people have any trouble distinguishing between the Ten Commandments as given and the moral substance of those commandments as timeless. After all, the commandments specifically address the covenant people of God (I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt), make promises unique to the covenant people of God (that you may live long in the land the LORD your God has given you), and provide reasons unique to the covenant people of God (for the LORD brought you out of a land of slavery). Such covenant language could not have been transferred to ancient Egyptians or Canaanites any more than it can be transferred to contemporary Tibetan Buddhists or even to American Evangelicals.
Why not? Because the Ten Commandments are the centerpiece of a specific legal document, a covenant often referred to by theologians as the Mosaic Covenant and described in the New Testament simply as “the Law.” Neither Jews nor Christians have ever received them simply as a timeless statement of ethical principles, which is why Jews do not view the sabbath law as binding on Gentiles, and why Christians do not hold to the seventh day sabbath. If Christians literally believed that the Decalogue was given to all people in all places as a timeless statement of moral law, we would all be Seventh Day Adventists, seeking the reward for our obedience to our parents by relocating to the land of Israel.
Some Christians do that, of course, but not most of us.
Most of us follow the lead of Christian theologians going back to the middle ages and distinguish between the moral substance of the Law – which we equate with the principle of love, or with natural law – and the covenantally contextual elements of that Law, usually described as the judicial and ceremonial law, which no longer bind us. In addition, we follow the logic of the theologian John Calvin, who distinguished between the rigor and contractual legal force of the law, which no longer binds Christians, and the truth or teaching of the law, which is always profitable for moral instruction.
In taking this approach to the Ten Commandments we follow the Apostle Paul in Romans. Paul argued that Christians are no longer under the Law, having been freed from it and bound to Christ just as a woman whose husband has died is free to marry a new husband. At the same time, he called Christians to love one another, declaring that by doing so they fulfill the moral substance of all the commandments.
Why is this confusing to some Protestants today? It is confusing in part because despite these clear covenantal and theological distinctions, the theologians of the Reformation generally described the moral law as being summarized in the Ten Commandments. Both Luther, Calvin and their followers gave the Ten Commandments a prominent place in their catechisms, which became the core teaching tool (after regular preaching) instilling doctrine into their followers. Eventually various catechisms and confessions presented the Ten Commandments simply as the summary of the moral law. For instance, in response to the question, “What is God’s law?”, the Heidelberg Catechism recites the Ten Commandments. Likewise the Westminster Confession of Faith declares that the moral law is “summarily comprehended” in the Ten Commandments.
Have these documents abandoned the distinction between the Ten Commandments as a contextual covenantal document and the timeless moral law, thus leading to contemporary confusion? In my view they are less than clear on the point, but a careful consideration of each indicates that while the distinction is not clearly stated and articulated, it is nevertheless assumed. This is most obvious for the Heidelberg Catechism, which follows Calvin and the Second Helvetic Confession in interpreting the Fourth Commandment (the sabbath law) in terms of an eternal sabbath that calls Christians to spiritual rest and worship, rather than as a call to seventh day sabbath observance, as the Decalogue is actually written. But even the Westminster Confession, which does present the sabbath day principle as binding on Christians, explains that for Christians the day has been changed from the seventh day of the week to the first. Even here, it is clear, it is the moral substance of the commandments that is viewed as binding on all people, not the Decalogue itself as given to Israel.
One might wonder why this question even matters, outside perhaps of debates about the sabbath law. Everyone involved in the discussion agrees that the moral law as presented in the Ten Commandments is binding on all people and all places, and (as far as I can tell) everyone agrees that the elements of the law that were covenantally specific to Israel are not. Nevertheless, given the consternation of some Reformed Christians regarding those who try to explain why this is the case, the point clearly needs clarification. I hope this post has helped to provide just that.
When Evangelicals think about natural law they often imagine cerebral intellectuals attempting to use reason and logic to invent or try to prove moral principles. They are appropriately skeptical of such exercises. With a little ingenuity and skill, the intellectually self-confident can defend just about any moral conclusion on the basis of reason. Catholics in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas might take natural law to some very conservative conclusions, but the Enlightenment launched us in a liberal trajectory that has taken us far to the left of anything recognizable to Aquinas. As cynics point out, reason alone does not confirm the most basic principles, such as human dignity or equality, which depend on theological affirmations regarding the creation of human beings in the image of God.
Reformed theologians can be quick to jump on the bandwagon. Given human depravity and sin, natural law is not a reliable epistemology (i.e., means of moral knowledge). All it does is to render human beings accountable to God (i.e., Paul’s argument in Romans 1). It has little constructive value for human life.
On the other hand, as theologians like David VanDrunen have demonstrated, the older Reformed tradition actually followed Thomas Aquinas in finding an important role for natural law. To be sure, Calvin and others emphasized that natural law has no power to save. Only the gospel of Christ – special revelation – can do that. But when it came to political and social moral practices these theologians could often wax eloquently about the achievements and wisdom of pagan philosophers like Plato and pagan societies like ancient Rome. And Calvin repeatedly affirmed that all truth comes from the Holy Spirit, wherever it is found.
But what is natural law? And what do we make of the fact that natural law can be and has been claimed as the moral basis for virtually everything – including slavery, racism, and the Nazi genocide of the Jews? Since I’ve started this blog a number of people have written me to ask me just this question. What is natural law?
This is not the focus of my work, and I have no scholarly response prepared. VanDrunen is currently working on a book that articulates a biblical theology of natural law, and I think it will be quite good. It will certainly move the discussion forward. For now, however, I want to make a few points about what natural law is, what it isn’t, and why it is useful in our current cultural context.
First, contrary to popular belief, natural law is not first and foremost a process of reasoning or a means of attaining moral knowledge. It is, rather, the objective moral order of creation as designed by God. It exists whether or not any human beings understand it or can attain to it, and whether or not human theories of natural law have any correspondence to it. It is inherently covenantal, in that it expresses the moral relationship God has created between himself and human beings, among human beings, and between human beings and the rest of creation. As an objective standard built into creation, it is distinct from positive human law (i.e., laws humans have established whether consistent with natural law or not) as well as from revealed divine law as recorded or written (i.e., the Torah, the Ten Commandments, the New Testament), although the latter is always consistent with and often includes much of the natural law.
Second, knowledge of the natural law does not necessarily depend on reason or logic because it is written on the human heart (Romans 2). In that sense it is often intuitive, expressed by human beings in their social and political interactions whether they are aware of it or not. Human beings can suppress some of the principles of natural law (i.e., that God should be worshiped or human life preserved) but they can never consistently suppress all of it (i.e., that human life should be preserved and the flourishing of social order promoted). Evidence of natural law is found in what philosophers and theologians used to call the law of nations – the universal or near universal practices of human beings that are essential to social survival. But intuition, reason, experience, science, and special revelation all provide some evidence of the natural law; none of them reveal it independently, or fully.
Third, although there are areas in which contemporary modern society flagrantly ignores natural law, there are also numerous commitments of the liberal West that express its enduring moral relevance. Such expressions include much of the content of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as other similar charters, and they also include some of the principles found in more overtly religious documents like the American Declaration of Independence. The moral authority of these documents, even in societies like the United States that feature significant political, cultural, and moral divisions, indicate the widespread acceptance of a natural moral order, however we might disagree about what that order looks like in practice.
Finally, the primary role of natural law in contemporary American political and civil society is not to solve our political disputes or even to adjudicate between our conflicting arguments. In a perfect world, of course, natural law would achieve such ends, but as the critics rightly point out, in the world we have human depravity and sin is simply too great to warrant such optimism. The primary role of natural law is therefore not to serve as a means to moral knowledge but as a basis for moral conversation. By speaking in terms of natural law – or in terms of language of rights and responsibilities, liberty and equality, justice and peace – we testify to the fact that as human beings we are moral creatures obligated to live together according to standards of mutual accountability, order, and basic justice. We acknowledge that although we might often disagree on very important things, we also agree on many important things. We recognize that we have the ability to work through our disagreements in a manner conducive of at least a modicum of peace and justice, and that therefore we should not be in a constant state of war.
What happens if we reject natural law? What happens if we simply appeal to our personal preferences, our religious convictions, or to the revealed standard that our religious community uniquely affirms to be the word of God? We lose all common ground. We see the breakdown of conversation. Politics becomes nothing more than a power struggle. Government loses its moral authority in the eyes of its subjects. There becomes no reason why my neighbor (or enemy) should listen to me when I seek to persuade him that a certain principle or practice is morally essential to our common good.
There is much more that could be said, but perhaps this is a good start. Natural law will certainly not solve all of our problems. But we cannot do without it.