In the last post I sought to faithfully represent and summarize “Reformed Two-Kingdoms” natural law. For those desiring to move on to a critique of the position, I have bad news. I mentioned the need for examining the groundwork laid by Meredith Kline, but our exploration needs to extend further back. Before moving to Kline we need to look briefly at the broader climate of the reformers and what role they play in coloring our view of law – specifically natural law.
This excavation of historical thought will in no way be comprehensive, but a brief survey will prove worthwhile. Why? Because to engage a constructive critique one must seek first to understand and evaluate prior commitments.
Perhaps this is sufficiently illustrated by my friend and gardening expert at floridasurvivalgardening.com. In a recent correspondence he provided an apt analogy.
“I once planted a bed of barley. I watered and fertilized it, yet was perplexed by the barley’s failure to thrive. The stalks were dwarfed and there were very few decent heads of grain. After it started to die off, I pulled up the failed patch and started to dig the ground to plant something new. To my surprise, as I dug into the soil I noticed the layers an inch or two beneath the surface were dry and hard as a rock. The fertilizer and water I had applied had failed to reach most of the roots because the soil itself was impenetrable!”[i]
The point is, whether the soil is healthy or not, a proper appraisal of the plant requires a look into the soil beneath. Digging into someone’s prior commitments becomes essential to grasping an ideological stance.
We will dig into the theological soil of Kline, but before doing so let’s take the spade a little deeper into the humanist loam of the 16th century.
Tipping Our Reformed Hats
The course of church history was radically altered in 1453 with the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire to the Ottoman Turks. Although this was a significant blow to Christendom, it carried with it seeds that would help give rise to the Protestant Reformation. With the Fall of Constantinople came an exodus of Greek scholars who brought with them ancient Greek manuscripts to Western Europe. What had been confined mostly to Byzantine scholars was now beginning to permeate the West.
The Greek New Testament and other Greek Christian texts were now available and became a focus of study for many Western scholars. Those scholars employed Renaissance humanism, being the en vogue method of learning at the time, studying and appraising these texts with an elevated view of human reason. As a “movement to recover, interpret, and assimilate the language, literature, learning and values of ancient Greece and Rome”[ii], humanism became a significant influence in the development of Western Europe.
Many 16th century scholars employed the humanist method of learning and theologians during that time This had a unique impact on initial reform movements throughout Germany.
“Thus Biblical humanism and the call for reform began to fuse. By the early 1520s even rural congregations in Southern Germany were demanding the pure preaching of Scripture. In the cities a regular cult of the exegetical sermon developed, the Renaissance adulation of the Greek and Latin Classics being transferred to Christianity’s Apostolic Classics. Ciceronianism and Biblicism were fruits from the same tree.”[iii]
Martin Luther himself was “no enemy of the studia humanitatis” and believed that “the revival of antiquity was a necessary precondition of the Reformation”.[iv]Though he deemphasized man’s reason, he immersed himself in the Greek New Testament. During his stay at the Wartburg Castle, he translated it into German – an endeavor that would subsequently fuel his reform efforts. Such reform efforts had crescendoed earlier in 1518 when his Ninety-Five Theses were translated from Latin into German.
“Luther once commented that to his astonishment his Ninety-five Theses had within fourteen days been carried throughout the length and breadth of Germany. The young German humanists were the chief agent for their distribution,…Indeed, without the support of the humanists in these urban centres Luther’s evangelical revival would, humanly speaking, not have succeeded.”[v]
On the heels of heels of Luther’s reforming activities in Germany came Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin in Switzerland. The Reformation picked up steam as both of these men (among others at the time) applied the humanist learning method to the study of the scripture and church reform. Calvin in particular believed it was possible for scholars to “combine their humanist interests with their allegiance to the reformed religion”.[vi] His humanist training and religious devotion eventually culminated into the publication of his seminal work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. As a system of reformed doctrine, it had and continues to have a profound impact on the church. This work though, was not his first. His first publication was a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia. Seneca was a Roman Stoic philosopher and De Clementia, a work regarding justice and rule.
Calvin’s Basic Rule of Justice
John Calvin’s view of law cannot be divorced from the historical context described above. From a young age he was trained within the broader context of Renaissance humanism. He also studied law at the University of Orleans and the University of Bourges. It was at the latter that he took particular interest in Andrea Alciato, an Italian jurist who was regarded as the founder of the French school of legal humanists.[vii] He published his commentary on the laws of Seneca around three years later. Not long after, he would undergo a religious conversion and within four years he had published the first edition of his Institutes. Calvin’s focus had now become the study of Scripture and church reform.
All of this forms the backdrop that we must keep in mind when discussing Calvin’s view of natural law. Although rooted in stoic philosophy, his formulations have a distinct Christian character and scriptural basis that one would expect. Yet, they do not represent formulations that are altogether consistent.
First of all, Calvin is clear that Scripture is not necessary for establishing civil justice. It is man’s conscience as the vehicle of natural law that is central to building just societies.
Adapting the Stoic concept of prolepsis to Christian philosophical norms, he demonstrates that God implanted in the consciences of pagan nations an understanding of right and wrong and of justice and injustice, sufficient to remove any excuse for sin…Calvin separates natural moral law from biblical precepts and makes it stand for innate knowledge of right and wrong. It is this innate knowledge that enables nations who do not know the Bible to have legal systems.[viii]
Calvin’s primary concern is to “establish a direct link between pagan consciences—the seat of natural moral law—and the civil laws they produced”.[ix]Although his view of the conscience was rooted in Cicero, Calvin was careful to make an important distinction. Man’s conscience contains moral norms founded on the moral law of God.
Calvin is of course aware that the pagan thinkers’ concept of conscience differs from Christian in one important respect. According to Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, and others, the torments of a man’s conscience are a natural and not a God-derived phenomenon, and remedy for them is to be sought in man’s natural power to improve his self-knowledge and correct his bad habits. This, however, has no particular bearing on his doctrine of natural law, as it is conscience as such that is of crucial importance to him and not any mistaken interpretations of it.[x]
This natural law that manifests itself within the conscience is a reflection of the second table of God’s Ten Commandments. Calvin seems to indicate that such is sufficient for even pagans to build and govern a society.
Calvin is of the opinion that natural law can, without recourse to the Bible, bring about legislations that are in accord with the second table of the Decalogue. In a God-ordered universe, God can reveal his will in terrestrial matters through a system of civil legislation just as effectively as through the Holy Writ.[xi]
As for the Bible, Calvin divided Old Testament law into moral, civil and ceremonial. He equated natural law with the moral law. As for the application of the civil laws to building just societies, Calvin makes this frequently quoted statement:
For there are some who deny that a commonwealth is duly framed which neglects the 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.[xii]
Calvin seemed to believe that the case laws involved God’s justice, but only for Israel in their particular situation in history. He believed that it in some way accommodated the sinfulness of God’s people at the time. The eternal law was written on the heart and in the conscience of man. This is Calvin’s standard to be enforced in the New Covenant era. He referred to it as “equity”. His summary for this equity is “love”.
In that section of the Institutes [4.20.14], Calvin criticizes those who deny that a state that ignores the civil government of Moses and bases its law on the pagan system is correctly governed. He then explains that only the moral part of Mosaic Law pertains to Christians. This moral part can be summed up in one universal law, valid for all times and for all nations, which is the love of God and one’s neighbor. The moral part is the foundation of all order and equity and stands for what Calvin has elsewhere called natural law.[xiii]
Calvin did qualify this notion of building a society upon natural law. He admitted to more of a consensus in regards to general principle over and against direct application. Everyone might agree to a particular offense such as murder or theft to be wrong. At the same time, men might differ as to the particular punishment required.
In all of this, Calvin does not seem fully committed. In his sermons on Deuteronomy he did in fact take some of the case laws seriously and his social theory gave credence to covenant sanctions for God’s people in history.[xiv] He oscillates between the necessity of Scripture and the sufficiency of man’s conscience. He views the Scriptures as “spectacles” or “corrective lenses” through which man is able to perceive God and understand the world. At the same time, he argues that man can successfully discern and apply principles of justice without the Bible. Perhaps his views were a function of the Christian consensus at the time. He mistook the common Christian ethic of his time for a natural consensus.
At any rate, we are all to some extent a product of our times. John Calvin is not above this phenomenon. To what degree the church over time imbibed and modified the natural law theory of the Stoics is a subject that could be discussed in more detail and by someone more qualified. What is clear is that Renaissance humanism played an integral part in the development of Western Europe’s moral order.
In England, “From the 1550s onwards, no Englishman who passed through the hands of teachers escaped a system built on the return to the ancient authors and a training of the mind in the techniques of rhetoric and literature….But if the educated scholar opted for the service of God – especially if he entered the clerical profession – he found himself compelled to a view of man as totally sinful and totally dependent on God’s unpredictable grace. Double predestination marches ill with any form of humanism. Though Calvin himself could cope with his humanist training by relegating everything not consonant with it to the realm of God’s mysteries which it is not the function of reason to examine, others proved less relaxed; the reformed religion that sprang from him set up manifest and often intolerable tensions within the minds of men educated by the humanists and committed to a predestinarian faith. In the end, it was the second that gave way and largely disappeared in its stringent form; by about 1660, at any rate, the main part of thinking Christians among Englishmen had insensibly surrendered to the triumph of the humanist view of the world.”[xv]
We reformed folk must tip our hats to the humanists. Providentially, Renaissance humanism gave us a needed boost in taking the true gospel to both Christendom and the world. That said, we should have limited our acknowledgement to cordial gestures. As it stands we have allowed our ethical underpinnings to be tainted. This reality and the broader reformed context needs to be understood if we are to efficiently engage in a discussion about natural law.
At the close of the previous post I mentioned the modified version of natural law that is operative within a modified two-kingdoms framework is in part due to Meredith Kline’s influence among R2K theologians.So, returning to the task at hand we move from the larger reformed backdrop of Western Europe, to a more focused backdrop in Southern California. It is there that we see the foundations laid for a new variation of reformed two-kingdoms theology and natural law theory.
[i] David Goodman, www. floridasurvivalgardening.com
[ii]Burke, Peter, “The spread of Italian humanism”, in The Impact of Humanism on Western Europe, ed. A. Goodman and A. MacKay, London, 1990, p. 2.
[iii]Matheson, Peter, “Humanism and Reform Movements”, in The Impact of Humanism on Western Europe, ed. A. Goodman and A. MacKay, London, 1990, p. 29.
[iv] Burke, Peter, “The spread of Italian humanism”, in The Impact of Humanism on Western Europe, ed. A. Goodman and A. MacKay, London, 1990, p. 17-18.
[v]Spitz, Lewis W., “Humanism in Germany”, in The Impact of Humanism on Western Europe, ed. A. Goodman and A. MacKay, London, 1990, p. 209.
[vi]Burke, Peter, “The spread of Italian humanism”, in The Impact of Humanism on Western Europe, ed. A. Goodman and A. MacKay, London, 1990, p.18.
[viii] Backus, Irena, “Calvin’s Concept of Natural and Roman Law”, in Calvin Theological Journal 38, 2003, p. 10.
[ix] Ibid, 12-13.
[x] Ibid, 13.
[xi] Ibid, 15.
[xii]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford L. Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), 4:20:14.
[xiii] Backus, Irena, “Calvin’s Concept of Natural and Roman Law”, in Calvin Theological Journal 38, 2003, p. 25.
[xiv] Calvin, John, Covenant Enforced: Sermons on Deuteronomy 27 and 28, ed. J. Jordan (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990).
[xv]Elton, Geoffrey, “Humanism in England”, in The Impact of Humanism on Western Europe, ed. A. Goodman and A. MacKay, London, 1990, p.278.