Friday, October 31, 2008
Calvin vs Theonomy
In reading Calvin, having first read Thomas Aquinas, I am fascinated by much of the continuity in thought. Thomas maintained a differentiation between natural law (always binding universal principles) and positive law (human laws derived from universal principles). A happy find for me, one who spent a year writing a thesis on Natural Law, for it to have legitamacy in the Reformed tradition! Such a distinction is important when talking to some in the Reformed community who are postmillennial theonomists, and modern evangelicals that try a direct application of the Old Testament and the law to modern states.
Calvin wrote against such measures advocated by Anabaptists in the 16th Century. Anabaptists were known for setting up a city in Munster that tried to do just that, with horrible consequences (When joined forces of Lutheran and Catholics liberated the city from the self-appointed theocrats at the begging of the population). Calvin here explains that laws are the product of culture, circumstance and prudence and vary from country to country with no sin in their mere diversity (sounding very Burkean!). The Law of Moses for Israel was not meant to be applied directly to another state, but to Israel. Here is the relevant quote from Calvin:
"The law of God given through Moses is (not) dishonored when it is abrogated and new laws are preferred to it . . . for the Lord . . . did not give that law to be proclaimed among all nations and to be in force everywhere. Rather we must make our laws with regard to the condition of times, place and nation…How malicious and hateful toward public welfare would a man be who is offended by such diversity [among the laws of nations], which is perfectly adapted to maintain the observance of God's law?…I would have preferred to pass over this matter in utter silence if I were not aware that here many dangerously go astray. For there are some who deny that a commonwealth is duly framed which neglects that political system of Moses, and is ruled by the common laws of nations. Let other men consider how perilous and seditious this notion is; it will be enough for me to have proved it false and foolish."
-John Calvin Institutes IV, xx