Posts tagged with: john calvin

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, January 21, 2008

In the prefatory address to King Francis in Calvin’s 1535 edition of the Institutes, Calvin cites Hilary of Poitiers approvingly:

Indeed, Hilary considered it a great vice in his day that, being occupied with foolish reverence for the episcopal dignity, men did not realize what a deadly hydra lurked under such a mask. For he speaks in this way: “One thing I admonish you, beware of Antichrist. It is wrong that a love of walls has seized you; wrong that you venerate the church of God in roofs and buildings; wrong that beneath these you introduce the name of peace. Is there any doubt that Antichrist will have his seat in them? To my mind, mountains, woods, lakes, prisons, and chasms are safer. For, either abiding in or cast into them, the prophets prophesied.”

Augustine too had railed against the emphasis on station and authority rather than service, as he writes that “a bishop who takes delight in ruling rather than in doing good is no true bishop” (City of God, 19.19).

But lest you think that Calvin (or Hilary or Augustine, for that matter), were the sort to emphasize works at the expense of doctrine, consider this description of the relationship between doctrine and love from Calvin: “We have given the first place to the doctrine in which our religion is contained, since our salvation begins with it. But it must enter our heart and pass into our daily living, and so transform us into itself that it may not be unfruitful for us” (Institutes

I did a brief interview yesterday with Greg Allen of The Right Balance and have a couple more scheduled for next week. It’s kept me thinking about some of the issues surrounding the debate about Christianity, democracy, and Iraq.

In the piece I wrote I pointed to some of the rather guarded opinions of representatives from the Christian tradition, namely John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on the possibility of finding the “best” form of government.

But I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking about the biblical data, and it occurs to me that it was during Solomon’s reign that Israel enjoyed its greatest prosperity. We read, for instance, “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, each man under his own vine and fig tree.”

This led me to wonder a bit about how we should characterize the rule of the kings in Old Testament Israel. Clearly it’s a monarchy, but what sort?

We see the protection of private property, and a king who is subject to the rule of law and is specifically held accountable to Torah, when necessary by its public expositors the prophets. Calvin noted the intimate relationship between the prophets and Torah. Speaking about understanding the prophetic books, he writes, “the shortest way of treating this subject is to trace the Prophets to the Law, from which they derived their doctrine, like streams from a fountain; for they placed it before them as their rule, so that they may be justly held and declared to be its interpreters, who utter nothing but what is connected with the Law.”

While the prophets lacked the direct relationship with the executive power such that they could enforce Torah adherence, they certainly represented the divine perspective on Torah violation and its consequences (no doubt they were strict constructionists). In that sense they functioned as a sort of judicial check on the monarch’s power, similar to the way our Supreme Court is supposed to function.

If we view Torah as a sort of constitution, then in OT Israel we have an ancient kind of constitutional, and therefore limited, monarchy.

In Part 4, we saw that post-Enlightenment philosophical currents such as Humean empiricism, utilitarianism, and legal positivism are the real culprits in the demise of natural law and not theological criticism from within Reformation theology, as many today take for granted. If this is so, why is contemporary Protestant theology so critical of natural law?

The most common reason why contemporary Protestants reject natural law is because they think it does not take sin seriously enough. And the second, which we will address in Part 6, is that natural law is thought to elevate “autonomous” human reason above divine revelation and therefore to rival God and Scripture.

To many Protestants, natural law seems to suggest that the order of being in the original creation has not been sufficiently disrupted by the fall. Moreover, they think reason is viewed too optimistically because it is still able to discern a rough outline of God’s will in creation. They think natural law is guilty of elevating reason above revelation as the standard of what is right and wrong, true and false. In other words, they think natural law leads to rationalism where reason is the standard by which everything is judged. Following Barth and his mediators, many think the divine image was fully destroyed with the result that nonbelievers now only experience God’s wrath and judgment and never God’s general providence (or common grace as it is called in some traditions).

Helmut Thielicke, a Lutheran theologian and sympathetic critic of Barth, says, since the fall, we confront at best “orders of preservation.” Yet, despite his affinity with Barth, Thielicke could not fully jettison natural law. He saw that it had abiding significance as a sign of the human quest for justice and right. For him, natural law is a goad to the pursuit of justice in an imperfect world. But it is difficult to respect the common search for justice without more solid theological and anthropological reasons.

But the modern Protestant view of natural law as simply an order of preservation does not do justice to the status it had in the older systems of theology. Reformers such as Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, Peter Martyr Vermigli, John Calvin, and Wolfgang Musculus, contrary to popular opinion, incorporated large segments of the medieval as well as the patristic past into their systems of theology.

To be sure, they opposed certain high profile doctrines of late medieval and early sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism. But, as historian Richard Muller points out, “It is worth recognizing from the outset that the Reformation altered comparatively few of the major loci [or topics] of theology: the doctrines of justification, the sacraments, and the church received the greatest emphasis, while the doctrines of God, the trinity, creation, providence, predestination, and the last things were taken over by the magisterial Reformation virtually without alteration.” Importantly, the Reformers did not discard the custom, since the time of Thomas Aquinas, of treating ethics as a subdomain of the more fundamental doctrines of God and providence, which, as Muller contends, were carried into the Reformation without any significant alteration.

In Part 6, we will address the second most common Protestant criticism of natural law, namely, that it elevates autonomous human reason and therefore rivals God and Scripture.

This has been cross-posted to my blog on natural law, Common Notions.

In Part 3, we examined why many contemporary Protestants have something of a bad conscience when it comes to natural law. But, of course, the blame for this cannot be laid fully upon Karl Barth. Even a hint of a fuller explanation has to address intellectual currents that begin to gather momentum in the so-called Enlightenment. One popular explanation within the academic mainstream for the demise of the natural-law tradition in modern Protestant theology attributes it to a form of implosion. And this is what I want to take up here.

Why did the natural-law tradition fall on hard times in modern Protestant theology? Many have speculated that the reason somehow lies deeply embedded in the Reformation theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin. However, John T. McNeill, the Reformation historian and editor of Calvin’s Institutes, reached a far different conclusion:

There is no real discontinuity between the teaching of the Reformers and that of their predecessors with respect to natural law. Not one of the leaders of the Reformation assails the principle. Instead, with the possible exception of Zwingli, they all on occasion express a quite ungrudging respect for the moral law naturally implanted in the human heart and seek to inculcate this attitude in their readers. Natural law is not one of the issues on which they bring the Scholastics under criticism. With safeguards of their primary doctrines but without conscious resistance on their part, natural law enters into the framework of their thought and is an assumption of their political and social teaching. . . . The assumption of some contemporary theologians that natural law has no place in the company of Reformation theology cannot be allowed to govern historical inquiry or to lead us to ignore, minimize, or evacuate of reality, the positive utterances on natural law scattered through the works of the Reformers. . . . For the Reformers, as for the Fathers, canonists, and Scholastics, natural law stood affirmed on the pages of Scripture.

The pressure to abandon the teaching of natural law did not stem from the Reformation so much as from post-Enlightenment philosophy, especially Humean empiricism, utilitarianism, and legal positivism.

The post-Enlightenment era can be characterized in terms of a loss of belief, not only in special divine revelation through Scripture and church teaching, but also in the ability of reason to discern a natural moral order in human affairs. These losses become visible in Europe and North America after 1850 and prepare the way for law to become an instrument of power. With the eclipse of natural law, positive law lost its transcendent moorings and soon came to be an instrument of the totalitarian state. Appeals to “higher law” were dismissed as relics of the past, and moral questions were reduced to legal decisions. With the collapse of the religious and metaphysical foundations of justice, the totalitarian state could now manipulate law as a mere function of absolute power. This is the meaning of the famous statement by Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.” Thus there was no other criterion of validity for the law than the will of those who had the monopoly of force.

The twentieth century has paid a high price in legalized atrocities and crimes against humanity. After World War II, for a brief moment in the wake of the Nuremberg trials, Protestant theologians and ethicists seemed to entertain the idea of a “baseline morality” that all people could be said to know and thus be responsible for. But they were in a quandary about natural law, and found it difficult to move beyond Barth’s objections. Carl Braaten captures well the ambivalence of Protestant theologians during this period: “Natural law came to be seen as a kind of necessary evil, or as an illegitimate child that could not be completely abandoned but whose rights must be severely restricted.”

In Part 5, we will shift our focus slightly and address the two most common Protestant criticisms of natural law.

This has been cross-posted to my blog on natural law, Common Notions.