Calvin, Christian Liberty, and the Regulative Principle

Let’s recap briefly the previous post in this new series: David VanDrunen argues that the doctrine of Christian liberty undergirds Calvin’s (and the Reformed tradition’s) two-kingdoms doctrine–the doctrine ensures that in the spiritual kingdom (which he takes to mean the visible Church) the Christian cannot be bound by any human laws, by anything besides Scripture alone; whereas in the civil kingdom (which he takes to mean the realm of society and politics) the Christian can be bound by laws other than Scripture.  Free in the Church, not in the State.  However, for VanDrunen, this actually comes to mean the opposite: bound in the Church, free in the State.  For the reason we cannot be bound by human laws in the Church is the regulative principle–that Scripture has already given us full and perfect guidance for worship and church order, so that we are bound to follow its rules, and no others.  Scripture, however, leaves plenty of flexibility in the civil kingdom, and so we are free here to make other laws and follow different standards, so long as we do not contradict Scripture.  

 But does Calvin teach such a regulative principle?  And if not, does he mean by Christian liberty, and by the “two kingdoms” the same thing that VanDrunen does?  A careful read of the very chapters that VanDrunen points us to yields a clear answer: “No.”  However, VanDrunen is not an idiot.  There is plenty here in the Institutes, and elsewhere in Calvin, that sounds a lot like the Puritan regulative principle.  Let’s consider this evidence first–Book IV, chapter 10 is the place to look.


In section 6, Calvin says of bishops and church leaders,

“Yet I deny that they have been appointed lawgivers over believers as to be able by themselves to prescribe a rule of life, or to force their ordinances upon the people committed to them.  When I say this, I mean that they have no right to command the church to observe as obligatory what they have themselves conceived apart from God’s Word.”

In section 7, he says,

“In his law the Lord has included everything applicable to the perfect rule of the good life, so that nothing is left to men to add to that summary….We hear that God claims this one prerogative as his very own–to rule us by the authority and laws of his word….No man can take this to himself.  We ought, therefore, to acknowledge God as sole ruler of souls, with whom alone is the power to save and to destroy….If we duly weight this, that it is unlawful to transfer to man what God reserves for himself, we shall understand that the whole power of those who wish to advance themselves to command anything in the church apart from God’s Word is thus cut off.” (IV.10.7) 

There you have it–human authority cannot institute or command in the church anything that is not laid down already in God’s Word, because we have a “perfect rule” there, to which nothing must be added.  This is particularly the case for worship, as Paul argues 

“in the letter to the Colossians that we are not to seek from men the doctrine of the true worship of God, for the Lord has faithfully and fully instructed us how he is to be worshiped…at the end of the [2nd] chapter he condemns with greater confidence all self-made religion, that is, all feigned worship, which men have devised for themselves or received from others, and all precepts they of themselves dare promulgate concerning the worship of God.  We therefore consider impious all constitutions in whose observance the worship of God is feigned to consist.” (IV.10.8)

He cites proof of this principle from the Old Testament, and asks, 

“Why, then, should we not consider ourselves much more strictly forbidden to add anything to the law, prophets, psalms, and gospel?  The Lord, who long ago declared that nothing so much offended him as being worshipped by humanly devised rites, has not become untrue to himself.” (IV.10.17)

Finally, by section 23, the rhetoric has become quite sweeping indeed:

“[The Lord’s kingdom] is taken away whenever he is worshiped by laws of human devising, inasmuch as he wills to be accounted the sole lawgiver of his own worship….From this we gather that a part of the reverence that is paid to him consists simply in worshiping him as he commands, mingling no inventions of our own….I say further: although in some contrived worship impiety does not openly appear, it is still severely condemned by the Spirit, since it is a departure from God’s precept….We see how the Spirit loathes this insolence because the inventions of men in the worship of God are impure corruptions.  And the more clearly God’s will is revealed to us, the less excusable is our wantonness in attempting anything.” 

Well, there you have it, that’s the regulative principle.  No inventions of our own, worship God simply as he himself commands; to do anything else is sinful insolence; even if there is nothing sinful about the particular action of worship, it is sinful because it has not been commanded.  To be sure, it would be difficult to deny that the latter statements in particular (those in sections 17 and 23) amount almost to a full-blown statement of the regulative principle (though even here, Calvin is far from going to the Thornwellian extreme, which makes the principle to apply not merely in worship but in matters of order and procedure like denominational mission boards).  In the wider context of Calvin’s doctrine in IV.10, however, these statements appear as rhetorical exaggerations, which indeed is unsurprising, as Calvin is in this part of the chapter engaging in a polemic against the Roman Catholic innovations in worship, a context in which he is often prone to forget himself and get a bit carried away.  Indeed, rightly understood, even these stronger statements might harmonize with his overall teaching.  


And what is that teaching?  Well, Calvin is well aware that there will need to be rules laid down in the church for ceremonies (that is, forms of worship) and order, on human rather than Scriptural authority.  Like Hooker, Calvin recognizes that Scripture simply doesn’t speak comprehensively to many questions of worship and polity that might arise, and even when it does speak to them, its guidance may be relative to time and place.  This is spelled out most clearly in sections 27-32 of chapter 10, which I hope to get to in due course (though I have already touched on this in a recent post).  So Calvin does not believe, with VanDrunen, that Scripture can be the only guide in the visible Church.  But how does this fit with the quotes we’ve just seen?  A closer look at some of them, and at others from their context, will help illuminate what Calvin’s up to.


When we look at the first quote above, we must ask what is meant by “obligatory,” by saying that nothing can be made “obligatory” in the Church contrary to God’s word.  In fact, in section 8, Calvin tells us precisely how “to distinguish what human constittutions are contrary to the Lord’s Word.  All of these are of the sort that pretend to relate to the true worship of God, and that consciences are bound to keep, as if their observance were compulsory.”  

He says something similar in section 16:  

“But suppose, apart from present circumstances, you simply want to understand what are those human traditions of all times that shold be repudiated by the church and by all godly men.  What we have set forth above will be a sure and clear definition: that they are all laws apart from God’s Word, laws made by men, either to prescribe the manner of worshiping God or to bind consciences by scruples, as if they were making rules about things necessary for salvation.”

Ok, so we have the element of conscience-binding.  This is absolutely crucial for Calvin, was we shall see.  Presumably, then, constitutions which do not claim to bind the conscience (e.g., we kneel while praying) are permitted.  (We will look shortly at what precisely “conscience” means for Calvin.)  But he also gives another criterion–constitutions cannot be made that “pretend to relate to the true worship of God.”  Now what does this mean?  Kneeling while praying is part of worshipping God, right?  So can we not make rules about it

Another passsage quoted above may shed some light: “We therefore consider impious all constitutions in whose observance the worship of God is feigned to consist.”  This last clause gives us a clue as to what’s going on here.  The problem is not rules about anything whatsoever relating to outward worship, but rules that purport to specify wherein consists the essence of worship–understood not in its horizontal dimension (the corporate actions of the congregation) but in its vertical dimension (that which is pleasing to God, that which establishes and maintains our salvific relationship to him).  It’s not that you can’t make rules saying, “we will all kneel to pray” but you can’t make rules saying, “unless you kneel, it’s not prayer,” you can’t make rules defining, from a God’s-eye perspective, what worship is and isn’t.  Understood this way, the criterion about worship serves simply as a specification and elaboration of the overriding criterion about not “binding the conscience” and not making things “necessary to salvation”–only God’s word can bind the conscience and only God’s word can tell us what’s necessary for salvation, so only God’s word can tell us wherein consists the essence of true worship.  The terminology is misleading at times, to be sure, but this reading fits the structure of Calvin’s discussion in the Institutes, in which the overriding concern is “binding the conscience”; read otherwise, the insistence that worship must follow Scripture alone, in some regulative principle fashion, would sit quite awkwardly with Calvin’s insistence on flexibility in all matters not necessary to salvation–unless, of course, you made every aspect of worship necessary to salvation.  

Finally, this way of reading Calvin’s remarks on worship is confirmed by its context in an attack on papal traditions, traditions of which “the authors themselves define, in clear terms, that the veriest worship of God is, so to speak, contained in these very constitutions” (IV.10.9).  The problem is that they lead “one man to despise, judge, and cast out another because of what are trivial and (in God’s sight) indifferent matters” (IV.10.10).  Note the difference here from the likes of VanDrunen and Thornwell.  For them, the traditions of Catholic worship that Calvin here discusses are not indifferent–because they are not commanded in Scripture, they are wrong.  But for Calvin, in principle, they are indifferent (well, many of them at any rate; others, idolatrous ones, are flat forbidden by Scripture), and the problem is that the Catholics have made them essential, have feigned that in them the true worship of God consists.  Again, it cannot be doubted that in parts of chapter 10, Calvin’s rhetoric against these veers toward the sort of regulativism we see in later Puritanism, but it seems clear that this rhetoric does not square with his overall doctrine of Christian liberty.


To get a clearer idea of what this overall doctrine is, let’s look more carefully at his definition of conscience, since Christian liberty consists above all in the inability of conscience to be bound by human constitutions.  Calvin recognizes that confusions at this point are certain to crop up (as they certainly did for those who claimed to follow him) if we “do not sharply enough distinguish the outer forum, as it is called, and the forum of the conscience.”  So he defines conscience for us: “it is a certain mean between God and man…[an] awareness which hales man before God’s judgment” (III.19.15).  

“Therefore, as works have regard to men, so conscience refers to God.  A good conscience, then, is nothing but inward integrity of heart….properly speaking, as I have already said, it has respect to God alone….Hence it comes about that a law is said to bind the conscience when it simply binds a man without regard to other men, or without taking them into account”–that is, laws that would be morally binding even if no other man lived on earth (III.19.16).  

Conscience then refers strictly to the relationship between the individual soul and God; not to the relationship between the individual and other human beings.  Not, of course, that the two aren’t connected in important ways (which brings up all sorts of fascinating new layers to this doctrine), but they are distinct.  Christian liberty means in indifferent things–things not necessary to salvation–that human laws must only bind in the “outward forum,” in terms of the relationships between man and God.  They cannot presume to intrude on the relationship between man and God, and give or take away our standing in the sight of God.  

What this means is that we can, in fact, be outwardly bound in indifferent things, without our inward freedom being thereby compromised.  For instance, by the need not to offend a brother: “For we ought to abstain from anything that might cause offense, but with a free conscience….But however necessary it may be with respect to his brother for him to abstain from it, as God enjoins, he still does not cease to keep freedom of conscience.  We see how this law, while binding outward actions, leaves the conscience free” (III.19.16).  Later he says, “human laws, whether made by magistrate or by church, even though they have to be observed (I speak of good and just laws), still do not of themselves bind the conscience” (IV.10.5).  

Christian liberty does not, therefore, mean that individuals are set completely free vis-a-vis the visible Church, or vis-a-vis civil authority.  Inasmuch as rules made by these bodies pertain to the outward forum, Christians will be bound to obey; and when we are talking about indifferent things, there will be no reason why these bodies cannot make rules one way or another.  What Christian liberty means is that individuals are set free in the realm of conscience, from fearing that their actions in things indifferent necessarily affect their relationship to God.  


This, then, is the proper two-kingdoms distinction that Calvin derives from his doctrine of Christian liberty, a distinction that bears almost no resemblance to that which VanDrunen attributes to him.  He has just said, in III.19.14, that in indifferent things, “we are not bound before God by any religious obligation preventing us from sometimes using them and other times not using them”; otherwise, conscience is threatened by superstition.  Therefore “we conclude that they [believers’ consciences] are to be released from the power of all men.”  But he immediately recognizes that some will understand this to mean that “all human obedience were at the same time removed and cast down.”  Far from it.  For, in Calvin’s famous statement, “There are in man, so to speak, two worlds, over which different kings and different laws have authority….Through this distinction it comes about that we are not to misapply to the political order the gospel teaching on spiritual freedom, as if Christians were less subject, as concerns outward government, to human laws, because their consciences have been set free in God’s sight; as if they were released from all bodily servitude because they are free according to the spirit” (III.19.15).  By “political order” it is clear that we are not to understand merely “civil government,” “the State” or anything of that sort, but a synonym of “outward government” and “human laws”–in short, what Calvin then goes on to call the “external forum” as contrasted to the “internal forum” of conscience–the domain of the spiritual kingdom.  

The nature of this distinction thus means that what we have are not two different spatial spheres of action, so that some actions belong to the civil kingdom (e.g., paying your taxes, executing murderers) and some to the spiritual kingdom (going to church, caring for the poor), but two different modes of action, or we might say two different planes or dimensions, so that an action is simultaneously in the spiritual kingdom, inasmuch as we do it before God, and in the civil kingdom, inasmuch as we do it before man.  This is why our Christian freedom can express itself even in a complete outward bondage–we are no less free, Calvin says, if we abstain from meat for our entire lives because of the weakness of our brother–”Indeed, because they are free, they abstain with a free conscience” (III.19.10)  In this, Calvin is following some of Luther’s finest passages in On the Freedom of a Christian Man.  


Because, however, these two kingdoms exist side-by-side, simultaneously, the freedom of the conscience and the bondage of inward action unavoidably “interpenetrate,” we might say, at key points.  My conscience (the internal forum) does demand that I treat my brother in a certain way in the external forum; my response to laws made in the external forum, inasmuch as God has given me commands to be subject to such laws, do affect the internal forum.  I hope in a further post to explore the rich complexities of this relationship which leave Calvin’s paradigm in a state of creative tension–a tension which unfortunately proved quite difficult to sustain for his followers.  (I say, “I hope,” however, because the demands of putting out a roughly-finished product of this chapter for my supervisor might have to take precedence over the leisurely business of piecing it together bit-by-bit here, as I did for “Hooker’s Doctrine of Law.”) 

2 thoughts on “Calvin, Christian Liberty, and the Regulative Principle

  1. Albert

    I think I understand, but can you flesh it out a bit more. The abstention from eating meat is a good example. Paraphrasing, you seem to be saying that for Calvin, the conscience of the individual remains free even when abstaining from eating meat for his brother's sake because he knows where his justification really lies (in Christ through faith alone apart from works). Is that right?Would Calvin extend this to a church government forbidding its members to eat meat for the sake of a brother? That is, for Calvin, would the consciences of members remain free if their Session forbids eating meat for the sake of the brother (since they still understand where their salvation lies)? If I understand you correctly, it would seem that the consciences would still be free in this situation.


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Oh, I will be fleshing it out a lot more–and you're on exactly the right track. The second post I was planning to do on Calvin was to touch precisely on such questions…but I decided I needed to take the time to go ahead and write up all the background–Erasmus, Luther, Melanchthon, the English Reformation in its several stages, before I finish up Calvin. Hopefully a good bit of that will find its way onto the blog here…it's just quite an enormous bit of material, hard to figure out how to fit even into blog posts the size of this one. But yes, the question I'm investigating is to what extent authorities may make laws regarding the adiaphora, and who those authorities can be. This is, as you recognize, a distinct question from what's already been touched on here–how our liberty relates to such laws. For one could say that such laws should never be made, it should always be up to the individual believer, but *if* such laws are in fact made, the believer should freely obey them–out of charity, of course, not conscience-boundness. So yes, the conscience of a believer would still be free in the presence of such a law. However, Calvin (and all the magisterial Reformers) are willing to go considerably further than this. They are willing to say that authorities may and should in fact make laws regarding such things; the example you gave is actually pretty much what Calvin thinks happened at the Council of Jerusalem–the Apostles ordered that the Gentiles abstain from meat sacrificed to idols–although in itself indifferent, in this situation love required a particular course of action, so as not to offend Jewish Christians, and the Apostles laid down this requirement. This discussion is in IV.10.21. In this context (polemic against papists), Calvin emphasizes that they are not really laying down a new law–merely stipulating what the law of love would have required in any case. But later in IV.10.27-32, he will be quite open about the need for laws of church order to be made in things in themselves indifferent.The real difficult question, though, will be who can legitimately make such laws. If civil magistrates can (as many Reformers, particularly in England, thought), then this poses a problem, in that the standard Protestant view was that civil laws were binding upon conscience. Calvin is particularly sensitive to this problem, but he does not try to resolve it in the way we might expect (i.e., insisting that civil magistrates can make no laws respecting church practice). But more on this anon, I hope.


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