Venema, VanDrunen, and Calvin on the Value of Natural Law

In his critical review of David VanDrunen’s interpretation of Calvin, the first chapter in Ryan McIlhenny’s Kingdoms Apart, Cornel Venema argues that while VanDrunen’s interpretation of Calvin is generally inadequate,

his interpretation of Calvin’s view of the respective roles of the natural law and Scripture in the twofold government of believers is especially flawed. In Calvin’s theology, there is a much closer relation between the natural and special revelation of God than VanDrunen’s interpretation implies. (18)

Venema offers three points of critique, the first of which is that “VanDrunen posits a more positive and robust assessment of the apprehension of the natural law than Calvin’s position and actual practice warrant” (22).

It’s an interesting charge. As Venema points out, VanDrunen suggests that Calvin’s paradoxical statements about natural law – sometimes he speaks of the human ability to know or follow it very disparagingly, while other times he does so in glowing terms – can be explained in terms of whether it is the spiritual kingdom or the political kingdom that is in view. Venema doesn’t dispute the point per say. He simply suggests that Calvin is a lot more critical about the use of the natural law even in the political kingdom than VanDrunen “implies.”

When polemical discourse gets into the realm of “implications” and “emphases” we are in murky territory indeed, but obviously there is a lot at stake here. If human beings’ ability to learn from and follow the natural law is radically hampered even when it comes to civil and political matters, then Christian engagement in politics must always place the Bible front and center. There is no use trying to persuade America that marriage between a man and a woman is worth defending, that the murder of human beings is wrong, that the poor should be cared for, or that property rights should be defended, without first establishing Christianity and the Bible as the basis for politics. While this may not force us all to be theonomists or reconstructionists, it certainly does require us to articulate explicitly Christian political perspectives (on everything) and to insist upon a Christian America.

But does VanDrunen really get Calvin wrong on this point? I can’t solve that dispute in a blog post, of course. I’d encourage you to look up the evidence as cited by both VanDrunen and Venema and see for yourself. For now I want to highlight a passage in Calvin’s commentary on 1 Corinthians (published in 1548) that I don’t believe either of these theologians engages. It is a passage in which Calvin is explaining Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:19-20:

For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has God not made foolish the wisdom of this world?

Calvin wholeheartedly embraces Paul’s argument that human philosophy and science, the liberal arts, are entirely useless, “mere smoke,” when it comes to knowledge of the gospel. But he immediately raises a concern. How does it happen

that Paul in this way throws down upon the ground every kind of knowledge that is apart from Christ, and tramples, as it were, under foot what is manifestly one of the chief gifts of God in this world. For what is more noble than man’s reason, in which man excels the other animals? How richly deserving of honor are the liberal sciences, which polish man so as to give him the dignity of true humanity! Besides this, what distinguished and choice fruits they produce! Who would not extol with the highest commendations civil prudence (not to speak of other things) by which governments, principalities, and kingdoms are maintained?

The problem, in short, is that overemphasizing the uniqueness and authority of Scripture over all of life – especially politics – can disparage the very gifts that God has given to human beings, gifts that have accomplished so much in this world. We can identify with this, I think. We all know people who love to say that if America simply followed the Bible, or the law of God, all of its problems would be solved. And yet most of us can accept the paradoxical reality that America’s greatness is not necessarily in proportion to its faithfulness to God. The country has never been more powerful or prosperous on a global scale than it has since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but this has hardly been the age of its greatest virtue.

Calvin has a solution, however.

Paul does not expressly condemn either man’s natural intelligence, or wisdom acquired from practice and experience, or cultivation of mind attained by learning, but declares that all this is of no avail for acquiring spiritual wisdom. And certainly it is madness for anyone, confiding either in his own acuteness or the assistance of learning to attempt to fly up to heaven, or in other words, to judge of the secret mysteries of the kingdom of God … Let us, then, take notice that we must restrict to the specialities of the case in hand what Paul here teaches respecting the vanity of the wisdom of this world – that it rests in the mere elements of the world and does not reach to heaven.

To be sure, there are “other respects” in which human knowledge is vain without Christ. Calvin even declares that “these choice gifts of God – expertness of mind, acuteness of judgment, liberal sciences, and acquaintance with languages – are in a manner profaned in every instance in which they fall to the lot of wicked men.” But that does not mean – remember this is Calvin talking here, not VanDrunen – that we should disparage what human beings can and have attained without Christ in a wide range of cultural and political affairs. Indeed, as Calvin puts it in the Institutes, these things come to us from the Holy Spirit, and to ridicule or reject them is nothing less than to reject God himself.

As Christians we need to be humble when it comes to hotly disputed political, economic, or cultural matters. On some points we certainly have unique and authoritative insights, but on so many more we absolutely do not. Ask your unbelieving neighbor or coworker whether he or she thinks conservative Christians are known for their humility in the matters of which Calvin speaks, especially politics. I bet you already know their answer.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on December 4, 2012, in Calvin, Natural Law, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Venema, VanDrunen, and Calvin on the Value of Natural Law.

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