“Let Love Be Our Guide”–Calvin’s Dialectic of Law and Liberty

As promised, I am returning to finish explaining Calvin’s understanding of Christian liberty, and here we finally get to the real meat of it, with enough food for thought to keep you digesting for at least the rest of Lent.  This too, like the recent Luther post, is an excerpt from the chapter draft I’m putting together–it overlaps somewhat with the previous post on Calvin, but for the most part picks up where that one left off.  (Apologies for the somewhat haphazard and incomplete page references, which are of course to the McNeill edition.)

Conscience, Calvin carefully defines, “is a certain mean between God and man…[an] awareness which hales man before God’s judgment….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.” (848-9)  A conscience-binding law is thus one that “simply binds a man without regard to other men, or without taking them into account”; to violate such a command would be sinful before God even if no other man lived on earth.  This constrasts with the adiaphora, which relate only to our outward actions before men, in which “we ought to abstain from anythign that might cause offense, but with a free conscience.” (849)  Here we may be bound for the sake of men, but not for the sake of God: “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.” (849)  The “indifference” of the adiaphora, then, is not to be understood as an absolute indifference, for it still makes quite a difference to our fellow man how we conduct ourselves in these matters, and God calls us to a vigilant awareness of this, ready to be the “dutiful servant of all,” in Luther’s words.

This paradigm illuminates Calvin’s discussion of church laws in IV.11, which shifts rather abruptly from an unrelenting polemic against man-made ecclesiastical traditions to a vigorous defence of the need for human laws in the church.  Calvin can make both arguments because he is distinguishing between laws made for the sake of our relationship to God and laws made for the sake of our relationship to men: “My purpose here is, therefore, to attack constitutions made to bind souls inwardly before God and to lay scruples on them, as if enjoining things necessary to salvation.”  The Christian’s duty to God has been defined clearly enough in Scripture, and is unchanging–human authority should not add anything to it.  But we have a duty to edify and love our neighbors, and, in this, a duty that is always changing, human law is very important.  The exact same law might therefore be made in the church (say, regarding vestments), but if it were done for the sake of God (“worship” or “religion”), it would be wicked, but if done to edify the church, it would be good (this was in fact Bullinger’s argument in the Vestiarian Controversy).   

Calvin recognizes the danger of confusion here, warning, “At this point it is exceedingly easy to be deceived, for it is not apparent at first sight how much difference there is between the former and the latter sort of regulations.” (1205)  So he explains why the latter sort of laws are necessary: any human society requires a “form of organization…to foster the common peace and maintain concord”; “in human transactions some procedure is always in effect.”  This is no less true in the visible church, a human society, than in any other organization; indeed, it should be more true, since concord is essential to the continuance of the church.  For such concord to be maintained amid a diversity of opinions, churches must be “constituted with definite laws.”  Indeed, says Calvin, “we are so far from condemning the laws that conduce to this as to contend that, when churches are deprived of them, their very sinews disintegrate and they are wholly deformed and scatterd.” (1205).  The important thing to remember, however, is that while it is necessary that there be some laws in this matter, there is flexibility according to the needs of particular circumstances; we must not imagine that any one particular arrangement not given in Scripture is in itself necessary for the being of the Church, for that would intrude upon God’s sole sovereign lordship over the Church and the consciences of its members.

Once we understand this distinction, we will be able to begin to understand the relationship of conscience to such outward matters.  For we might have been tempted to ask whether such outward matters are really irrelevant to conscience.  Don’t we have a duty to love our neighbor?  If we fail to do that which is edifying, will not our consciences condemn us before God?  Does it really make sense to say that it is “not necessary” to obey these church laws, if it is in fact necessary if we are not to sin against peace and order?  This necessity to do what was edifying, as we have seen, proved a stumbling block for many puritans as they wrestled with the notion of adiaphora.

The key for Calvin, however, seems to lie in a distinction between per se and per accidens.  Calvin does not want any of these externals to be considered in itself, regardless of circumstances, a requirement for the believer before God–this would be superstition and idolatry.  Love for neighbor, to be sure, is a requirement for the believer before God, and involves certain general duties laid down in Scripture.  This general necessity, therefore, will mean that in given circumstances, a special necessity attaches to certain external acts (e.g., love of neighbor means that in this circumstance, I must wear vestments to preserve the unity of the church), but this necessity is not in the things themselves, but in their relations, and also in our attitude to them–even if we misjudge what the circumstance requires, we are safe if we are acting out of genuine love (“But love will best judge what may hurt or edify; and if we let love be our guide, all will be safe.” (1208))  Therefore, we are able to recognize that such observances are relative, changeable; the error of papists (and puritans) is their failure to recognize this, imagining an eternal necessity to something mutable and temporal.  “Because…the upbuilding of the church ought to be variously accomodated to the customs of each nation and age, it will be fitting (as the advantage of the church will require) to change and abrogate traditional practices and to establish new ones.”  One discerns here a remarkable resonance with the spirit of Hooker.

This special necessity, or indirect conscience-binding, attaching to externals, is described in Calvin’s treatment of the apostolic decree of Acts 15:20.  Here, says Calvin, the Apostles do not lay down a new law binding on the conscience before God, but rather “the divine and eternal command of God not to violate love.”  This command is being specified into a particular requirement in present circumstances; the Gentiles are being told not to use their freedom in a way that will offend other believers, which we have said all along is a restraint on freedom.  (1200)  And to this extent, the law did affect their consciences.  “For even though these things, superstition aside, are of themselves indifferent, still, when offense to the brethren is added, they cannot be committed without sin” (1200).  But, since the end of the law, not the particular circumstances, were what mattered, the Corinthians could later disregard its law because they saw that its purpose would not be violated.  They were obeying the end of the law–love–not the specific means thereunto, which was not applicable. “They knew that the law was to be judged by its purpose.  Since, therefore, this law was framed with a view to love, in it nothing is prescribed except as it pertains to love.” (1201)

Calvin will later make a similar argument about kneeling for corporate prayer, which he gives as an example of a law of decorum.  This law is simultaneously human as well as divine.  “ I say that it is human, as it is also divine.  It is of God in so far as it is a part of that decorum whose care and observance the apostle has commended to us.  But it is of men in so far as it specifically designates what had in general been suggested rather than explicitly stated.”  We are bound before God with regard to the general end, but only to the specific means insofar as “the necessity of the church will require for order and decorum” (1208).

Our obligation in such things, being dependent not on the things themselves, but arising out of their relations, does not do away with our freedom: “each one of us will keep his freedom in all these things; yet each one will voluntarily impose some necessity upon his freedom, in so far as this decorum of which we spoke or considrations of love shall require.” (1210)


Now, thus far we have spoken only of church laws.  What about civil laws?  Calvin recognizes that he cannot simply declare conscience to be bound to these without qualification, as other Reformers had.  He sees Romans 13:5 as a potential problem passage, not as one to be blithely asserted, as so many of his predecessors seem to have done: “Moreover, the difficulty [of defining conscience] is increased by the fact that Paul enjoins obedience toward the magistrate, not only for fear of punishment, but for conscience’ sake.  From this it follows that consciences are bound by civil laws.  But if this were so, all that we said a little while ago and are now going to say about spiritual government would fall.” (848)  He notes the problem in III.19.15, and returns to it in IV.10.4: “For if we must obey rulers not only because of punishment but for conscience’ sake, it seems to follow from this that the rulers’ laws also have dominion over the conscience.  Now, if this is true, the same also will have to be said of church laws.”  Calvin is completely aware, as Melanchthon did not always seem to be, that what was said about civil laws would apply also to church laws, seeing as both shared the nature of human law.  Therefore, the same restrictions must reply to both: “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.  For all obligation to observe laws looks to the general purpose, but does not consist in the things enjoined.” (1183) 

Calvin calls this a distinction of “genus and species”: while “individual laws may not apply to the conscience, we are still held by God’s general command, which commends to us the authority of magistrate.” (1183-4).  Calvin does not elucidate any further, but from his discussion of church laws that we have already considered, we can ascertain what he seems to have in mind.  We are bound in general to be in subjection to the magistrate, just as we are bound to love the neighbor–indeed, Calvin would probably equate the two, arguing that love of neighbor requires subjection to the magistrate, who advances the common good.  Therefore, this love requires both an attitude of subjection, and a readiness to do what that subjection requires in particular circumstances–a requirement that will be primarily stipulated for us by the laws.  By virtue of our duty toward the magistrate, and the fact that he has decreed these particular things, we are therefore conscience-bound to obey these laws, but again, not because of any necessity in the laws themselves, a necessity they have only per accidens.  This conception implies that, since such necessity is relative, we have a certain liberty to disobey these laws and fulfill our general duty to seek the common good in a different way, if circumstances seem to demand this (just as the Corinthians could do with the apostolic decree of Acts 15:20.  Calvin never says this, of course, but the implication would seem to follow.  If this is correct, then in Calvin we have a helpful corrective to Melanchthon, making clear that civil laws, no more than any other human laws, bind only per accidens and therefore may be set aside if charity permits or requires.  


It may still appear that this distinction, whether in the case of civil laws or church laws, is overblown and makes little difference.  Why should such an indirect binding of conscience be so different from the direct binding that Calvin attacks so strongly (almost unrelenting from IV.10.9 to IV.10.26)?  Calvin, though an improvement on his predecessors, is still not quite as clear as we might like on this point, but drawing on both his explicit statements and their implications, we may discern at least six points of difference.  First, it’s a matter of avoiding idolatry.  We must learn to recognize that the necessity lies not in the external thing itself, which could indeed be ordered completely otherwise, but merely in our relationship to it in this particular situation.  We thus avoid superstition and  rationally, which is to say freely.   Second, because of this–because the evil is not in the thing itself, but in our relation to it–we are not enslaved by fear and paranoia, concerned that one overstepping of the boundary condemns us.  Rather, it is a contemptuous, unloving attitude that condemns us.   Third, we therefore are freed to obey out of love, instead of fear, out of a realization that our love of brother calls us to this observance in this situation, not out of fear that acts so as to avoid penalty.  Fourth, we are able to recognize the essentially human character of the law.  This law is in place for men’s sake, not for God’s.  It is for God only insofar as God desires good things for men.  So for instance a ceremony is fine as long as we do it for the edification of the congregation, and not because we imagine that God thereby receives some special honor.  Fifth, the law is not necessarily binding, but only binding insofar as the end of the law is concerned.  If we judge that in a particular circumstance, conformity to the end of the law does not require conformity to the spirit of the law, we may disobey the law.  Sixth, the law is mutable, free to be altered by the society as circumstances require, instead of shackling it forever.

These points may help make sense of a paradox of sorts–that Calvin’s doctrine of freedom is not opposed to necessity; on the contrary, it is completely wrapped up in necessity.  Our internal freedom is a freedom to be bound by God, to follow his authority and his laws absolutely in the internal forum.  Our external freedom is a freedom to be bound by love of neighbor to act in certain ways as circumstances demand.  Given certain circumstances, it will be necessary for us to abstain from meat, or necessary, perhaps, to wear vestments.  But this necessity does not contradict freedom.  To do something freely, for Calvin, means to embrace this necessity cheerfully, rationally, and without fear.  Bondage is to respond fearfully and slavishly to the necessity of circumstances.  The believer’s freedom is his ability to work in the world with his head held high and his eyes open and attentive to what the need of his neighbor demands, a demand that he will thus respond to not blindly, but rationally and voluntarily.

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