Category Archives: The Reformation
Soon after John Calvin was appointed as a pastor of the Genevan church, having only recently arrived as a refugee fleeing persecution in his native France, one of his first actions was to petition the city government for the establishment of church discipline. It was a hard sell. In no other Reformed city had the civil magistrates given clergy such authority. The reformers Zwingli and Bullinger maintained that overseeing the moral lives of Christians was a task for the civil magistrate. Most Reformed theologians and magistrates associated ecclesiastical discipline with papal tyranny.
Calvin acknowledged that the Roman church had grievously abused discipline by wielding it tyrannically to accomplish all manner of church goals. To prevent this evil, he called the magistrates “to ordain and elect certain persons of good life and witness from among the faithful” to shepherd the people on behalf of the church as a whole. These elders, along with the pastors, would bind themselves to the procedure laid out by Jesus in Matthew 18, by which professing Christians were to be held accountable to one another in the life of Christian discipleship.
While the city council granted the pastors’ request in principle, it soon became evident that there was little agreement in practice. Calvin found himself banished from the city. Within three years, however, the city asked him to come back. Though he was reluctant, he agreed to return under the condition that church discipline be established. The city relented, though nearly 15 years of conflict remained before the consistory—the body of pastors and elders charged with the ministry of church discipline—could rest secure from political interference.
Calvin’s consistory disciplined members of the Genevan church for a wide range of sins including idolatry, violence, sexual immorality, marital problems, and interpersonal conflict. They disciplined men who abused their wives and children, sons who refused to care for their aging parents, landowners who exploited their tenants, doctors who failed to care properly for the sick, merchants who practiced price gouging or sought to prevent economic competition, and employers who exploited or mistreated their workers. While many people were brought before the consistory, temporarily barred from the Lord’s Supper, and required to express public repentance or reconciliation, very few were permanently excommunicated (i.e., banished from participation in the sacraments).
Calvin viewed discipline as a necessary extension of the church’s ministry of word and sacrament. While he did not identify it as a mark of the church, he did insist that discipline is essential to the spiritual health of a church, without which a church cannot long endure.
The Westminster shorter catechism famously begins with the question, “What is the chief end of man?” Its answer is pithy and to the point: “To glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” My parents taught me this truth when they told me that I could do whatever I wanted in life, just so long as I did it for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:13).
This concern for the glory of God lay at the heart of the Reformation. To be sure, the Roman church did not deny the principle of Soli Deo Gloria in any explicit sense. But its teachings often undermined the principle in practice by shifting Christians’ attention away from the sovereign grace of God given in Christ toward all manner of human efforts at securing or mediating salvation.
For example, the church encouraged believers to pray to saints rather than directly to God in time of need. It called them to seek salvation through acts of penitence, pilgrimage, or patronage, or through participation in the sacraments of the church, rather than by trusting in the cross of Christ. And it insisted that sinners could prepare themselves to receive God’s grace and had to cooperate with that grace if it were to be effective in their lives. On top of all that, the Roman church claimed for the papacy and the church hierarchy a glory that should have been reserved for Christ himself.
The net effect of all of this was to rob God of the sole credit and glory for salvation. It was to distract human beings from the God on whom we depend for every good thing.
To be sure, the reformers recognized that Jesus shares his glory with believers by inviting us into the Trinitarian communion of love (John 17:22-24). Indeed, they affirmed, the whole creation will be brought into the liberty and glory of the children of God (Romans 8:21). And those whom God justifies and sanctifies, he also glorifies (Romans 8:30).
Still, they insisted that because all of this is God’s work, from start to finish, they insisted that all the glory for it ultimately belongs to God, from start to finish. As the Apostle Paul memorably concluded, “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them? For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Romans 11:35-36).
We live in a time when men and women believe their ultimate duty is to be true to themselves above all as they seek happiness and fulfillment in life. Indeed, a body no less august than the Supreme Court of the United States has declared a person’s right to determine ultimate meaning for him or herself a most basic and inalienable human right. Never has God’s claim to glory been more suspect in the eyes of his own creatures.
And yet, the more we trumpet our own inviolable dignity and glory as human beings, the more we struggle to explain where that dignity and glory comes from in the first place, or why it even matters. Though science gives us greater and greater knowledge of the glory of creation, we neither glorify God nor give him thanks (Romans 1:21). We continue to exchange the glory of the immortal God for idols of our own making.
Still, as has always been the case, our sin merely serves to advance God’s glory as our judge and as our savior (Romans 3:7; 10:22-23). And it does so in mind-boggling fashion. As Jesus taught his confused disciples, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds… And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:23-24, 32).
God’s character is most clearly revealed – and his glory must be most clearly proclaimed by the church – in the willingness of his son to set his glory aside in order to become a suffering servant on our behalf, even to the point of death on a cross (Philippians 2:9-11). In the final analysis, the glory of God redounds to our benefit and then back to him, as Paul reminded the Corinthians, “so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 4:15).
This article originally appeared in The Forum, the faculty publication of Calvin Theological Seminary, as part of an issue devoted to the five solas of the Reformation. The articles on the other solas are written by Jeff Weima, John Cooper, Karin Maag, and Lyle Bierma, and can be found here.
In his article, “Not Two Kingdoms, But Two Ages,” Jonathan Leeman proposes a doctrine of two ages as a helpful paradigm for understanding the relationship between the church and the world. Building on the political theology of Oliver O’Donovan and recent developments in New Testament studies, Leeman offers this as a helpful corrective to various “doctrines of the two” at play in church history, including that of the two kingdoms, which Leeman identifies with Martin Luther.
In fact, there’s good precedent for Leeman’s proposal, and it comes from none other than the 16th-century reformer John Calvin. Ironically, though, Calvin presented his theology in precisely the terms that Leeman opposes: two kingdoms. As I show in my forthcoming book, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church, Calvin’s two kingdoms theology was nothing if not a two ages eschatology. It was his attempt to explain how the future kingdom of Christ (the age to come) breaks into the present age even while the present age continues. The two ages overlap, and Christians inhabit both at the same time. As a result, Christians are subject to a “twofold government,” to two different kinds of authorities, which Calvin called two kingdoms (Institutes 3.19.15).
Calvin often described these two kingdoms by distinguishing between what’s earthly and what’s heavenly in human beings, or between what’s inward and what’s outward. But Calvin didn’t use these terms to denote a dualistic view of humans any more than the apostle Paul when speaking of the contrast between flesh and Spirit.
Rather, Calvin used “inward” and “heavenly” to refer to the age to come, which breaks into this age through the inward work of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers—even as from an outward and earthly perspective things seem to go on as they always have, under the shadow of death and decay.
Read the rest of this article at The Gospel Coalition.
In his 1938 essay “Church and State,” written on the eve of World War II, the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth offered a sharp criticism of the ‘two realms’ doctrine taught by Calvin and the other reformers. Barth lauded the reformers for distinguishing divine justification, the gospel, faith, and the mission of the church from human justice, the duties of citizenship, and the state. He praised them for showing, in contrast to the Anabaptists, “that the two are not in conflict, but that they can very well exist side by side, each being competent in its own sphere.”
But Barth criticized the reformers for not going beyond that. “Clearly we need to know not only that the two are not in conflict, but, first and foremost, to what extent they are connected.” Barth claimed that Calvin offered insufficient explanation of the degree to which civil government belongs to the external means by which God invites human beings and retains them within the society of Christ. He alleged that Calvin failed to develop the implications of his claim that all earthly rulers are subject to Christ, and consequently of his embrace of a Christian political order. In short, he accused the reformers of failing to develop a gospel foundation, a “Christological foundation,” for the state.
The result of this failure, Barth believed, was that Christians had constantly been tempted toward too great a separation of church and state. It had become all too easy, based on the distinction between true justice and civil justice, to construct “a highly spiritual message and a very spiritual Church.” On the other hand, as events in Germany made all too clear, it had led to the construction of “a secular gospel of human law and a secular church.”
The two kingdoms distinction was legitimate as far as it goes, therefore, but it had failed to answer the vital question: “is there an actual, and therefore inward and vital, connection between the two realms?” Or as Barth puts it in the first paragraph of the work, “is there a connection between justification of the sinner through faith alone … and the problem of justice, the problem of human law?” How does the order, peace, and freedom of the kingdom of God relate to the political order.
“Is there, in spite of all differences, an inner and vital connection between the service of God in Christian living … and another form of service, what may be described as a ‘political’ service of God, a service of God which, in general terms, would consist in the careful examination of all those problems which are raised by the existence of human justice, of law, or, rather, which would consist in the recognition, support, defence, and extension of this law – and all this, not in spite of but because of divine justification?”
Barth’s answer, of course, is that there is a fuller connection, and that it is clearly taught in scripture. But his own political theology turns out to be highly dialectical (and paradoxical). The doctrine of the state is to be understood in the context of Christology, he argues, with the state being called to respond obediently to the preaching of the gospel and the law on the part of the church (though without appeal being made to the word or the Spirit in the running of its affairs, given that the state encompasses nonbelievers and is therefore broader than the community of faith!). The state is an allegory of the kingdom of God (though it never becomes the kingdom of God!). It is the outward circle of the reign of Christ (though not to be confused with its inward circle, the church!).
But what is most striking about Barth’s argument is his complete failure, as Reformed critics like Emil Brunner pointed out, to grasp what was the real political theological teaching of the Reformation. For at the heart of Barth’s criticism of the reformers was his absolute rejection of natural revelation or natural law (although even here he granted the useful functioning of a “so-called natural law”). This rejection led him to confuse the reformers’ embrace of the temporal and secular nature of civil government under the natural law with a practical denial of the sovereignty of Christ.
In fact, contrary to Barth’s claims, Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine was thoroughly Christological from start to finish. Calvin recognized that, having ascended to God’s right hand, Jesus holds sovereignty over all authorities, both in this age and in the age to come. In fact, Calvin claimed that Christ is the heir of all things and that human beings only enjoy the legitimate use of material things insofar as they are in Christ. Thus all civil government properly belongs to Christ, is obligated to honor Christ, and must enforce his law insofar as that is possible. Indeed, Calvin even argued that civil government is obligated to establish, defend, and maintain the ministry of Christ’s kingdom (a position whose first and third tenants – establish and maintain – Barth was right to reject)!
At the same time, Calvin recognized that although all legitimate justice, law, and government is subservient to Christ and his purposes, and therefore is an outward reflection of true justice, law, and government, these categories cannot be collapsed into one because through the power of the gospel Christ accomplishes something different from anything that the state can accomplish. By his word and Spirit Christ creates true justice rather than mere civil justice, he fosters the spiritual use of the law rather than the mere civil use of the law, and he establishes his spiritual government rather than mere civil government.
Barth was right to call for a clear understanding of the relationship and connection between the two kingdoms in the context of Christology, one that would help Christians to see that the righteousness created by the gospel is the righteousness that takes concrete form in this world. But he was wrong in claiming that Calvin failed to offer this in his two kingdoms theology.
One of the popular caricatures of Protestant two kingdoms theology often bandied about – both by some of its critics and by some of its proponents – is that it separates Christianity from politics. The fact that some two kingdoms proponents in the modern era have presented the doctrine as if it does separate the authority of Christ or of scripture from politics gives some of these critics a certain measure of plausibility. However, anyone familiar with the writings of Martin Luther and John Calvin will be aware that this does not represent the classic two kingdoms position. Luther and Calvin both followed their mentor Augustine in insisting that a faithful Christian prince would look quite different from the rank and file of his (or her) fellow politicians.
In his classic The City of God Augustine paints a colorful picture of the ideal Christian emperor:
We claim that they [Christian emperors] are happy if they make their power the servant of God’s majesty by using it for the greatest possible extension of his worship; if they fear and love and worship God; if they love that kingdom in which they are not afraid to share power more than their earthly kingdom; if they are slow to punish and ready to pardon; if they apply that punishment as necessary to govern and defend the republic and not in order to indulge their own hatred; if they grant pardon, not so that crime should be unpunished, but in the hope of correction; if they compensate with the gentleness of mercy and the liberality of benevolence for whatever severe measure they may be compelled to decree; if their extravagance is as much restrained as it might have been unrestrained; if they prefer to rule evil desires rather than any people one might name; and if they do all these things from love of eternal happiness rather than ardor for empty glory; and if they do not fail to offer to the true God who is their God the sacrifices of humility, contrition, and prayer for their sins. Such Christian emperors, we claim, are happy in the present through hope, and are happy afterwards, in the future, in the enjoyment of happiness itself, when what we wait for will have come. (Book V, Chapter 24)
During the late middle ages Augustine’s two cities model was gradually transformed by the papal two swords doctrine. The popes began to claim that as the vicars of Christ, all temporal and spiritual authority alike had been given to them. When seeking to rally Christendom in support of the crusades, Bernard of Clairvaux praised “a new kind of knighthood and one unknown to the ages gone by. It ceaselessly wages a twofold war both against flesh and blood and against a spiritual army of evil in the heavens.” Temporal soldiers are worthy of honor, he admitted, and spiritual soldiers (monks and priests) are worthy of even greater honor. “But when the one sees a soldier powerfully girding himself with both swords and nobly marking his belt, who would not consider it worthy of all wonder, the more so since it has been hitherto unknown?” (In Praise of the New Knighthood)
It was to this horribly distorted version of Augustine’s theology that Luther was responding when he articulated the two kingdoms doctrine. Luther’s point, however, was not to say that politicians could not or should not conduct themselves as Christians. Rather, Luther’s point was that the vocation of a politician is secular and must be kept quite distinct from that of a pastor or priest. In his Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed Luther wrote,
Now that we know the limits of temporal authority, it is time to inquire also how a prince should use it. We do this for the sake of those very few who would also like very much to be Christian princes and lords, and who desire to enter into the life of heaven….
First, he must give consideration and attention to his subjects, and really devote himself to it. This he does when he directs his every though to making himself useful and beneficial to them … He should picture Christ to himself, and say, ‘Behold, Christ, the supreme ruler, came to serve me; he did not seek to gain power, estate, and honor from me, but considered only my need, and directed all things to the end that I should gain power, estate, and honor from him and through him. I will do likewise, seeking from my subjects not my own advantage but theirs…’ In such a manner should a prince in his heart empty himself of his power and authority, and take unto himself the needs of his subjects, dealing with them as though they were his own needs. For this is what Christ did to us; and these are the proper works of Christian love….
Fourth, here we come to what should really have been placed first, and of which we spoke above. A prince must act in a Christian way toward his God also; that is, he must subject himself to him in entire confidence and pray for wisdom to rule well, as Solomon did…. Then the prince’s job will be done right, both outwardly and inwardly; it will be pleasing to God and to the people. But he will have to expect much envy and sorrow on account of it; the cross will soon rest on the shoulders of such a prince.
At least early in his career, Luther was of course much more critical than Augustine had been of the involvement of politicians in the defense of the gospel or the discipline of the church. His early theological opposition to the use of the sword to coerce heretics, like that of Calvin, anticipated the modern separation of church and state, without relying on modern assumptions about the separation of politics and religion. But the point is that neither Luther nor Calvin ever imagined that a Christian politician would separate his (or her) politics from fidelity and obedience to Christ. Such a view owes more to the Enlightenment than it does to Christianity.
A few weeks ago I suggested that the emphasis of Reformed catechisms on the Ten Commandments can obscure the fact that the New Testament’s approach to the Christian life is that of putting on – or being conformed to the image of, or following – Jesus. The ordinary pedagogical approach of the New Testament, I noted, is not to explain the Ten Commandments or urge believers to follow them, but to describe the implications of the person, work, virtues, and commandments of Jesus.
Although this claim may sound radical to modern ears, for most educated Christians up until the 13th or 14th centuries it would have been a matter of course. One thoughtful reader – a student of the early church – wrote this to me:
I’ve continued reflecting on the catechetical and didactic use of the Law, particularly as I’ve been reading William Harmless’ book Augustine and the Catechumenate which details the complex and rich process of preparation for baptism in the primitive church.
I have been on the look-out for mention of the Decalogue as a core part of any of the four parts of initiation: 1) the evangelistic, 2) the catechetical, 3) the illuminative, or 4) the mystagogic processes. In both East and West, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer receive paramount attention, especially in the weeks leading up to the Easter Vigil when baptisms would take place. Particularly during Lent, there was tremendous instruction in Christian living and ethics during the daily services which involved teaching, singing, exorcism, anointing, and blessing. But, as I’ve been reading Harmless, he makes no mention (that I’ve picked up on) of a systematic use by the primitive church of the Decalogue. I’ve now become curious as to when (presumably during the Medieval period) the Decalogue became a focus again of Christian discipleship and instruction.
This prompted me to do some research on my own. Is it true that the early church did not emphasize the Ten Commandments in its catechesis? If so, when did the Ten Commandments become a focus of Christian discipleship? And what was the motivation for the shift in focus?
These questions led me to a fascinating (and unfortunately expensive) book by Robert James Bast entitled, Honor Your Fathers: Catechisms and the Emergence of A Patriarchal Ideology in Germany 1400-1600. Bast’s basic thesis is that during the late medieval era and the early Reformation Christian theologians turned to the Ten Commandments as a focus of catechesis as a primary means of disciplining and ordering a society that was widely seen to be in crisis. The title of the book comes from the stress such theologians placed on the Fifth Commandment as the foundation for paternalistic magisterial authority, and the consequent obligation of godly magistrates to enforce all ten commandments.
In the first chapter Bast sets up the context for his more focused analysis by considering “The Ten Commandments and Late-Medieval Catechesis.” He begins by confirming the judgment of my correspondent above, that early church catechesis involved “a formal period of instruction, usually based on the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and moral directives drawn from a variety of sources” (3). It was not until the late 12th Century that the Ten Commandments began gradually to move into a more prominent position. Yet of the tradition before this Bast writes,
Nearly unnoticed in scholarship on the catechism is the fact that while catechesis itself had been on the agenda of the Church from the very beginning, the use of the Decalogue had not. For reasons not yet completely clear, before the late twelfth century the attitude of the Church toward the Commandments was ambiguous… Christians defined themselves as recipients of a New Covenant, sealed by the ultimate sacrifice (Jesus’ death) and guided by a new and better Law (the Sermon on the Mount). (32-33)
Bast goes on to clarify that the church decisively rejected the heresy of Marcionism, which divorced Christianity from Judaism and the New Testament from the Old. As a result, the church sought to emphasize on the one hand the enduring truth and relevance of the Old Testament, including the Ten Commandments, and on the other hand its fulfillment in the clearer revelation of Jesus.
The general tenor of the solution may be seen in the writings of Irenaeus (d. 200), who claimed the superiority of Christian ethics to the Jewish Law, while affirming that the Decalogue itself had not been cancelled, but rather amplified and extended by Jesus… Catechetical texts from the Patristic era include the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, explanations of Baptism and the Eucharist, and a great deal of moral teaching drawn from various biblical and apocryphal sources, but the Decalogue was generally passed over. (33)
Augustine was somewhat of an exception, Bast points out.
[H]e preached on the Commandments regularly, and a cautious though unwavering affirmation of them runs through his works. Here too, however, the ideological need to preserve the superiority of Christian revelation was maintained, for Augustine was careful to read the Decalogue as the practical exposition of Jesus’ commands to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart … and your neighbor as yourself. (33)
Augustine’s careful and qualified approach to the Decalogue did not change the church’s emphasis in catechism and discipleship. The typical early church approach to catechesis was solidified during the medieval era by Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604).
According to Gregory, the commandments of the Decalogue were essentially inferior to the precepts of the Gospel. While the former governed only external actions, he argued, the latter went further, dealing with matters of the heart. The old Law was ‘imperfect’ and ‘weak’; ‘bread for infants,’ given to an immature people for a limited time, but later repudiated by God himself. As … good things cease to be good when compared to what is better, so too, argued Gregory, the Commandments given to the ignorant pale beside the ethical teaching of the New Testament. (34)
Gregory’s Moralia, Bast observes, became the basis for the church’s moral instruction for centuries.
Culling ethical imperatives and prohibitions almost exclusively from the Gospels, the Epistles, and patristic theology, Gregory created a patchwork of moral teaching organized into seven virtues and seven vices (or ‘deadly sins’). (34) Ecclesiastical legislation from subsequent centuries followed Gregory in de-emphasizing the Ten Commandments. (34)
The later shift toward the Ten Commandments did not come from the Reformation. Indeed, it was not a distinctive of the Reformation at all, contrary to popular belief. It began, rather, during the 12th Century, both in response to a new scholarly interest in the Old Testament and the increasing fear of European elites that Christendom was falling into crisis. Many scholars have noted that during the late medieval era, especially after the Gregorian Revolution, the church began to devote tremendous energy to social and cultural reform. The Ten Commandments were increasingly seen as a simple and decisive authority for the illiterate masses (the Ten Commandments can easily be counted on one’s fingers). They were also conceived as an easy and obvious program for enforcement by lay magistrates.
It was no accident that the medieval church turned to Israel and the Law when its mindset revolved around reforming the masses, Bast notes.
As a system of moral instruction, the Decalogue offered something that the Gregorian system did not. It was Law – God’s own Law, etched by His finger into tablets of stone, delivered on Sinai amidst the frightful clamor of thunder and lightning, backed by the promise of eternal blessedness for those who kept it and swift, dreadful punishment for its transgressors. These were details regularly echoed by catechists… [They] clung to it as a tool to fashion an ordered, godly society, and as a weapon to fight those who opposed it. (34)
In part 2 of this series I’ll consider these developments after the 12th Century. Either there, or in a part 3, I’ll take a look at how the Protestant appropriation of the Ten Commandments built on and adapted the late medieval approach.
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]
For the last two years I’ve been immersed in the writings and context of John Calvin, the subject of my doctoral dissertation at Emory University. Reading thousands upon thousands of pages of the reformer’s systematic, exegetical, homiletical, polemical, and personal writings enables one to get a good sense of the broad brush strokes of his thought, the fundamental principles and practices about which he was most concerned.
In the popular caricature of Calvin the reformer appears as something like a tyrant, lording himself over the people of Geneva by using every possible tool of suppression and manipulation. But of course, this caricature makes it impossible to understand why Calvin’s writings and theology were so inspiring to millions of Christians across Europe who were enduring violence and persecution under the cross. One might view those Calvinists of the Netherlands, England, America and elsewhere as being devoted to the establishment of tyranny in their own lands. But if you are at all aware of the trajectory of democracy and religious liberty in modern history, you will quickly discover that this picture doesn’t quite fit the facts.
The more systematic misrepresentation of Calvin, one admittedly fostered by some of his most devoted followers, portrays him as a vigorous systematician who took the basic theological principles of the glory and sovereignty of God to their logical extremes. This is the picture of the Calvin who is obsessed with double predestination, the Calvin of Ernst Troeltsch and of Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic. But again, a careful reading of Calvin’s Institutes and basic exegetical and homiletical works will quickly demonstrate that Calvin was not driven primarily by systematic or logical concerns. The default perspective of the man who described predestination as the “terrible decree” about which people shouldn’t speculate too much was that of a pastor and interpreter of Scripture.
If anything drove Calvin, then, it was his unshakable conviction that the Church of Rome had lost sight of the essence of Christianity, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that this gospel was recoverable only in the faithful teaching of Scripture, the pure word of God. Rome defined the existence of the church in relation to the papacy and the apostolic succession of bishops but for Calvin this external hierarchy was simply an empty shell without the life of the gospel in its midst.
As much as possible, then, Calvin sought to transform the worship and government of the church into the mediation of Christ’s rule by his word. To be sure, he was well aware that in neither of these areas can churches function without appropriate rules and structures not revealed in Scripture but necessary to preserve peace, order, and edification. Calvin would have utterly rejected the modern tendency of Reformed and Evangelical churches to fracture into a multitude of denominations and sects on the basis of secondary matters of worship, government, or culture. But he would have been just as critical of those churches, whether Catholic or Evangelical, that fail consistently to preach and teach the pure word of God.
In his Necessity of Reforming the Church, which Calvin wrote to the Emperor Charles V in 1543 after the emperor had summoned the Diet of Spires, Calvin emphasized that Christian worship is in essence the practice of faith and repentance in response to Christ’s word. In contrast to the medieval church, he insisted, the reformers had simply “brought back the worship of the one God to the rule of his Word.” Invoking the Old Testament prophets Calvin writes,
For what is the sum of their declarations? That God neither cares for nor values ceremonies considered only in themselves; that he looks to the faith and truth of the heart; and that the only end for which he commanded and for which he approves ceremonies is that they may be pure exercises of faith, and prayer, and praise.
Calvin’s emphasis was on the word and sacraments (the Lord’s Supper and Baptism) because he believed that it was through these means that Christ had promised to reveal himself to believers and commune with them. The emphasis on the word was therefore never an end in itself, as in bibliolatry, but the means of holding fast to Jesus by holding fast to his communication to believers. Any piety that claims to honor Christ, he argued, and yet fails to take seriously what Christ has said, is false. The fundamental mark of the church is the faithful representation of Christ through the preaching of his word.
For all of our emphasis on the Reformation and the vibrancy of Evangelicalism these days, in my view churches across the denominational spectrum are actually quite weak in this area. For so many churches the reaction to the (very real) danger of intellectualizing worship has led to the much more prevalent danger of dumbing it down. Pastors assume their congregations can handle only the most practical, relevant form of teaching, and only in the briefest manner possible (perhaps 25 minutes a week). And they do little actually to explain what concrete passages of Scripture teach, in their Christ-centered context. Yet while churches can survive with many weaknesses and errors in practice and even worship, they cannot long survive the lack of faithful teaching.
As always, the churches need reform. One organization seeking to promote just this sort of reform is Michael Horton’s White Horse Inn program, a radio discussion he leads along with three other pastors, one Reformed, one Lutheran, and one Baptist. The White Horse Inn (which also publishes an excellent monthly magazine entitled Modern Reformation) sponsors White Horse Inn Discussion Groups around the country for the purpose of encouraging Christians to gather together and talk about these things, promoting reformation in their own churches (and in fidelity to their own traditions). It’s a great way to study the theology of the Reformation on a basic level, as well as to get acquainted with Christians in your area from a wide range of traditions and denominations.
If you’d like to join my group, which meets in Stone Mountain, Georgia, please let me know via the Contact feature on this blog. If you’d like to start your own group you can contact me as well, or just contact the good folks at the White Horse Inn. We need more of this, and you, in your own time and place, can help.
[Note: This post originally referred to the groups WHI sponsors as Reformation Societies. That was inaccurate. Reformation Societies are similar, but are sponsored by a sister organization, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (another excellent organization, by the way, and the publisher of the online magazine Reformation 21, with whom a number of my articles have been published).]