In the fourth book of his Institutes, John Calvin wrote about the civil government. In this section, Calvin noted that civil governments have been ordained by God. He also mentioned the necessity of some wars and the legitimacy of taxation. Then Calvin went into some detail on the concept of law in society. Interestingly, he mentions that he would rather not write about societal laws, but he noticed some errors that needed addressing. Here’s one he mentioned:
For there are some who deny that any commonwealth is rightly framed which neglects the law of Moses, and is ruled by the common law of nations. How perilous and seditious these views are, let others see: for me it is enough to demonstrate that they are stupid and false…
Calvin explained the classic division of Moses’ law: moral, ceremonial, and judicial/civil. In this part, he mostly focused on the judicial or civil aspects of OT law. He even noted that “The Lord did not deliver it by the hand of Moses to be promulgated in all countries, and to be everywhere enforced….” Since the Mosaic law has been abrogated, what law should nations use? Calvin’s answer isThe moral law of God from nature which is engraved on people’s minds. Calvin cites Augustine in his explanation:
What I have said will become plain if we attend, as we ought, to two things connected with all laws, viz., 1) The enactment of the law, and 2) the equity on which the enactment is founded and rests. Equity, as it is natural, cannot be the same in all, and therefore ought to be proposed by all laws, according to the nature of the thing enacted. As constitutions have some circumstances on which they partly depend, there is nothing to prevent their diversity, provided they all alike aim at equity as their end.
Now, as it is evident that the law of God which we call moral, is nothing else than the testimony of natural law, and of that conscience which God has engraven on the minds of men, the whole of this equity of which we now speak is prescribed in it.
Hence it alone ought to be the aim, the rule, and the end of all laws. Wherever laws are formed after this rule, directed to this aim, and restricted to this end, there is no reason why they should be disapproved by us, however much they may differ from the Jewish law, or from each other (August. de Civit. Dei, Lib. 19 c. 17).
There will be diversity in the laws and punishments of crime in various nations and in different situations. But Calvin said we shouldn’t be offended by some diversity of laws:
How malignant were it, and invidious of the public good, to be offended at this diversity, which is admirably adapted to retain the observance of the divine law. The allegation, that insult is offered to the law of God enacted by Moses, where it is abrogated, and other new laws are preferred to it, is most absurd. Others are not preferred when they are more approved, not absolutely, but from regard to time and place, and the condition of the people, or when those things are abrogated which were never enacted for us.
The Lord did not deliver it by the hand of Moses to be promulgated in all countries, and to be everywhere enforced; but having taken the Jewish nation under his special care, patronage, and guardianship, he was pleased to be specially its legislator, and as became a wise legislator, he had special regard to it in enacting laws.
I appreciate Calvin’s insight here, explaining how the judicial laws of Moses were not intended for society today. Theonomy is not a good option! But this doesn’t mean society has no foundation for law. The foundation is the moral law God has written on people’s hearts by nature. There’s more to the discussion for sure, but this is a helpful and biblical approach to the topic of law in society.
The above quotes can be found in Calvin’s Institutes, IV.20.14-16.
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