John Calvin (1509-1564)’s View on Church & State: Part 4 (Final)

John Calvin (1509-1564)’s View on Church & State: Part 4

“Equity” versus God’s Law:

Opponents of the application of God’s Law in society and defenders of the debtor-slave economy have Calvin to thank for the modern economic world: Trained as a jurist, he was able to lend precision to the notion crudely anticipated by Luther and Bucer that the Mosaic and Gospel rules were to be translated in the light of the individual conscience, the equity of the Golden Rule, and the requirements of public utility. Calvin on Deuteronomy became a Gospel of the modern era. Everyone from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century who advocated a more liberal usury law turned to Calvin for support. Even those who would not or could not mention his name was compelled to speak his words. If today we do not appeal to his teachings, we have learned his lessons too well. Religious or ethical vocabulary is no longer needed to justify the moral and economic postulates he helped establish.

Calvin employs at least two in his overturning of Deuteronomy: he confronts love (“charity”) and the natural Law of nations (“equity”) against the Law of God and declares God’s Law the loser. As he introduces the passage in his commentary, he says, “A precept is added as to lending without interest, which, although a political law, still depends on the rule of love. It is plain that this was a part of the Jewish polity because it was lawful to lend at interest to the Gentiles, which distinction the spiritual Law does not admit”.

Calvin’s thinking is difficult to follow, especially if one believes he is a “Theonomist.” He makes many good points, only to dismiss them with a consideration based on “equity” or “charity.” God has permitted many things “pour la police des Juifs” which are in themselves not good; therefore, He did not mean to legitimize the taking of usury from strangers. He merely left it unpunished. God showed this indulgence to the Jews “since otherwise a just reciprocity would not have been preserved, without which one party must be injured.” God had laid the Jews alone and not foreign nations under the obligation of the Law against usury. Calvin is the first religious leader to exploit the ambivalence of the passage in Deuteronomy in such a fashion as to prove that it was permissible to take usury from one’s brother. His exegesis spells the demise of Deuteronomy.

If the Biblical reasoning behind Calvin’s arguments is unclear, social motivation certainly is. Since the Church is no longer obligated to obey the Law, the Church is in debt and paying hefty interest payments to Jews, who obey (in parts) the Law. Calvin seeks to remove the (old) Israelites’ right to charge interest to the Gentile Church by removing the authority of the Mosaic Law.

The Law of Moses (Deut. xxiii:19) is political and does not obligate us beyond what equity and the reason of humanity suggest. Surely, it should be desirable if usuries were driven from the whole world, indeed that the word be unknown. But since that is impossible, we must concede the common utility (utilité commune). To maintain social position, credibility with politicians and scholars, and mortgaged “investments,” the Church has re-defined the Gospel (Galatians 3:8). Some in our day have attempted to establish a distinction between “interest” and “usury,” where the former is permitted but not the latter. In another case, Calvin establishes a Biblical premise only to destroy it with natural Law and “equity” or “public utility.” Calvin shows how God’s Law denies the distinction between “interest” and “usury” but then asserts the latter to be permitted. Calvin’s ability to make “equitable” judgments on Biblical Law is frightening. But it is tied to his failure to see the Church as the New Israel and his belief in a political “natural law,” which replaces any instruction God gave to the State in the Old Testament. Calvin sets forth his view of which laws apply to the State in his Institutes. (iv.xx.14-16)

 Old Testament law and the laws of Nations: 

The laws come after the magistracy in the civil State, stoutest sinews of the commonwealth, or, as Cicero. Plato calls them the souls, without which the magistracy cannot stand, even as they have no force apart from the magistracy. Accordingly, nothing more authentic could be said than that the Law is a silent magistrate, the magistrate, a living law. We have seen in Calvin the continued use of the concept (if you can call it that) of “equity” and its use to overthrow the plain anti-statist teachings of Biblical Law. The Reformers had to choose between Biblical Law on the one hand and the power and credentials of the State, its universities, and its money-lenders on the other.

The Reformers, Calvin in particular, rejected Theonomy and put in its place the reason-defined subterfuge of “equity” or “public utility.” Calvin’s view of the Law and the State has been the dominant view of the churches in the Reformation tradition, which has given the State the right to legislate as they please and has refused to challenge the seductive claims of Babylonian commerce. Emerging “theonomic” groups now champion Calvin as a theonomist. We must not mistake a fascist use of State coercion and power for a Christian use of the Old Testament Law. The Mosaic Law was not designed to increase the power of the State nor to condone the financing of short-term, cheap industrialism and plastic merchandising with work-less State credit. The Reformers “denounced God’s Law in favor of Statist law” in order “to buttress the power of the State.” “They uttered a blasphemy and called it Reformation.” And this “reformation” is embodied in the Westminster Standards.

 Calvin On Church Organization:

Following the history of the earliest Church recounted in the New Testament book, The Acts of the Apostles, Calvin divided church organization into four levels:

  • Pastors: These were five men who exercised authority over religious matters in Geneva;
  • Teachers: This was a larger group whose job was to teach doctrine to the population.
  • Elders: The Elders were twelve men (after the twelve Apostles) chosen by the municipal council; their job was to oversee everything that everybody did in the city.
  • Deacons: Modeled after the Seven in Acts 6-8, the deacons were appointed to care for the sick, the elderly, the widowed, and the poor.

Calvin’s most important theological position was his formulation of the doctrine of predestination. The early Church had struggled with this issue. Since God knew the future, did that mean that salvation was predestined? Do human beings have any choice in the matter, or did God make the salvation decision for each of us at the beginning of time? The early Church, and the moderate Protestant churches, had decided that God had not predestined salvation for individuals. Salvation was, in part, the product of human choice. On the other hand, Calvin built his reformed Church on the concept that salvation was not a choice but was pre-decided by God from the beginning of time. It means that individuals were “elected” for salvation by God; this “elect” would form the population of the Calvinist Church.

This view of human salvation is called either the “doctrine of the elect” or “the doctrine of living saints” (in Catholic theology, a “saint” is a human being whom the Church is particular has gained salvation; in Calvinist theology, a “saint” or “living saint” is a living, breathing human being who is guaranteed to gain salvation no matter what they do here on earth, although the elect doesn’t engage in flagrant sin; not all good people were among the elect, but people with bad behavior were indeed not among the elect). It was incumbent on churches filled with living saints only to admit other living saints; this organizational principle was called voluntary associations. Voluntary associations are predicated on the idea that a community or association chooses its members, and those members, of their own free will, choose to be a member of that community or association. In time, voluntary associations would become the basis of civil society and later European political society.

Other Issues:

HIV/Aids, Epidemics, Prostitution, Domestic Abuse, Abortion, Pornography, Gay/Lesbianism, Secret Societies, etc.

The challenge of addressing these issues lies in the hands of the Church. The Church, according to Calvin, has spiritual and moral resources to tackle these issues effectively. The Church is responsible for creating the State of peace since peacemaking is an important Christian Virtue. Peace, therefore, is reconciliation and “harmony between God and people, between people and people, between people and nature” – (Augsburger 1990:135). The Church falls short of these responsibilities despite its presence for 164 years. Initially, the Church was very effective as an instrument for enlightenment. The Church introduced the literacy in virtually all aspects of learning, Medicine, Law, Education, Pharmacy, Teaching, Theology, Journalism, etc. Though the Church alone cannot succeed in addressing the  ethnic/racial/tribal tensions, violence, and conflicts in the nations.

The Church would have been more effective if the Church had participated in politics and governance to provide quality leadership. Then there would have been less injustice, oppression, and differentiation but more cohesion, love, fairness, and justice. The doctrine close to Calvin’s heart is “Everybody has his calling, and your calling is holy, and you must pursue it and excel in it.” Christians are probably imbibing the “Protestant Work Ethic,” the direct teaching of Calvin that God is glorified in everyday work and Family life.

References (Parts 1 – 4):

  • Calvin John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Beveridge Henry
  • Dabney R. L. The Five Points of Calvinism,
  • Spurgeon, C. H. A defense of Calvinism
  • Nelson, Benjamin. Usury, Natural Law, and the Reformers, Part Two
  • Nelson, Benjamin. The idea of Usury: from Tribal brotherhood to Universal otherhood, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949, England. 2nd edition, 1969
  • Armstrong, B. G.. Who’s who in Christian History, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
  • Loflin, Lewis. Who is John Calvin?

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