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Calvin on the Law

Still reading through the Institutes (though after a hiatus during which I read about a dozen plays), I ran across this bit of skillful theology from John Calvin. In the section he is addressing the common claim (that later resurfaced in historical-critical biblical studies) that Jesus in a way intensified the Torah of Moses (at least the moral law) beyond its original scope. Calvin responds thus:

After we shall have expounded the Divine Law, what has been previously said of its office and use will be understood more easily, and with greater benefit. But before we proceed to the consideration of each separate commandment, it will be proper to take a general survey of the whole.

At the outset, it was proved that in the Law human life is instructed not merely in outward decency but in inward spiritual righteousness. Though none can deny this, yet very few duly attend to it, because they do not consider the Lawgiver, by whose character that of the Law must also be determined. Should a king issue an edict prohibiting murder, adultery, and theft, the penalty, I admit, will not be incurred by the man who has only felt a longing in his mind after these vices, but has not actually committed them. The reason is, that a human lawgiver does not extend his care beyond outward order, and, therefore, his injunctions are not violated without outward acts. But God, whose eye nothing escapes, and who regards not the outward appearance so much as purity of heart, under the prohibition of murder, adultery, and thefts includes wrath, hatred, lust, covetousness, and all other things of a similar nature. Being a spiritual Lawgiver, he speaks to the soul not less than the body. The murder which the soul commits is wrath and hatred; the theft, covetousness and avarice; and the adultery, lust…

The Pharisees having instilled into the people the erroneous idea that the Law was fulfilled by every one who did not in external act do anything against the Law, he pronounces this a most dangerous delusion, and declares that an immodest look is adultery, and that hatred of a brother is murder. “Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause, shall be in danger of the judgement;” whosoever by whispering or murmuring gives indication of being offended, “shall be in danger of the council;” whosoever by reproaches and evil-speaking gives way to open anger, “shall be in danger of hell-fire.” Those who have not perceived this, have pretended that Christ was only a second Moses, the giver of an evangelical, to supply the deficiency of the Mosaic Law. Hence the common axiom as to the perfection of the Evangelical Law, and its great superiority to that of Moses. This idea is in many ways most pernicious. For it will appear from Moses himself, when we come to give a summary of his precepts, that great indignity is thus done to the Divine Law. It certainly insinuates, that the holiness of the fathers under the Law was little else than hypocrisy, and leads us away from that one unvarying rule of righteousness. It is very easy, however, to confute this error, which proceeds on the supposition that Christ added to the Law, whereas he only restored it to its integrity by maintaining and purifying it when obscured by the falsehood, and defiled by the leaven of the Pharisees. (Institutes 2.8.6-7)

The upshot of the teaching is clear: whatever the law was when Moses delivered it, its divine source precludes any interpretation that would limit it to the “externals”; God eternally being the God of all reality, the Law of God must from its inception have claimed all of reality.

This kind of reasoning ought to establish, if one doubted, that Calvin is not just a caricature of a bulldog (no offense, Grace) but one of the true intellectual heavyweights of the Church, one to be reckoned with even if one engages him (as sometimes we must) as erring.

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About Nathan Gilmour

Nathan P. Gilmour is a Christian, a husband, a father, and a college English teacher. He tries to do all of that and write something worthwhile on occasion.

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