The Perilous Business of Pastoring

I am grateful to Doug Wilson for his thoughtful response to my post yesterday on the matter of binding consciences. It offered a good opportunity, I think, to move the conversation forward in clarifying the central issues at stake, both for the purposes of the present kerfluffle and any others that might arise. I agree with almost everything he has to say at the level of principle, and my only concerns lie with how one might apply these principles to particular issues of controversial preaching and teaching.

But first, let me clear up two possible confusions.

First, let the record show that my essay was not intended primarily as “a contribution to the great pink hair discussion,” so much as an attempt to clarify some principles that underlie both it and a number of other discussions ongoing at Trinity Reformed Church about preaching, good hermeneutics, conscience binding, and Christian liberty. For myself, I must confess, I am probably a 9 out of 10 on the troglodyte scale when it comes to matters such as pink hair, piercings, yoga pants, and the rest, and were I a pastor, I would no doubt have to be restrained often by my dear wife from venting my huffy opinions on such subjects. That she ought to so restrain me, more often than not, I will proceed to fortify with arguments below. Read More

On Binding Consciences: The Word of God and the Words of Man

It’s tough being a pastor. I know because I’ve never dared try, but I’ve watched others try. Sure, you can always avoid preaching on anything so concrete and close to home as to ruffle any feathers, and some ministers have perfected the art of doing so for years on end. But as soon as he takes seriously his task as a shepherd of souls, the minister is likely to hear howls of indignation raised—he is a legalist, a killjoy, binding consciences and trampling on Christian liberty. Or perhaps, depending on his congregation, he may find himself accused of being a softie or an antinomian, refusing to man up and speak uncompromisingly to our culture.

Nor can the pastor take refuge in saying that his task is simply to proclaim the gospel. For the good news is, as Oliver O’Donovan has said, a “demanding comfort,”[1] and the task of pastoring means knowing how to apply both demand and comfort to the concrete lives of his flock, which will necessarily take the pastor beyond Scripture—if not its spirit, certainly its letter. To preach and pastor effectively, the minister must be waist-deep in the stuff of everyday life, the myriad personal, social, political, and cultural challenges that confront his congregation and that at every point draw them closer to or drag them further from the face of God. And Scripture, it must be said, does not address modern challenges like home mortgages or legalized gay marriage as such—obviously, it does address debt and sexuality, but these specific challenges that confront us, in all their concrete particularity and novelty, are not in view in the biblical text.

Or to put it another way: one task of the pastor is to name and confront sin in the lives of his congregants, but while sin resides in the heart, all he has to go on is behavior. In a few rare cases, a behavior is so unavoidably and automatically sinful that he does not have to see the heart to name it as sin; there is no innocent way to murder or commit fornication. But even here, some knowledge of circumstances is necessary—after all, if the man with the gun is an officer pursuing a dangerous criminal, he may not be guilty of murder, and if the man making love with the woman has secretly married her, it is not fornication. As we move beyond such non-negotiable norms as murder and adultery, these qualifications proliferate, so that the rightness or wrongness of an action depends greatly on circumstances, or intentions, or both. To be sure, Jesus says that “You shall know them by their fruit,” and someone’s outward actions may strongly suggest that something is not right within, but even where we feel reasonably confident making this judgment in the case of one individual we know well, it becomes much harder to universalize it. And when a pastor preaches or writes, he must name and rebuke sins in general; he cannot pause mid-sermon and say, “Now, in your case, Jimmy, this means that you are sinning whenever you do this, but given your different circumstances, Tammi, I’m not worried about your conduct here.”

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Two Cheers for Coercion

This week, the world of competitive swimming was engulfed by controversy as South African swimmer Cameron van der Burgh admitted to using illegal “dolphin kicks” in his gold medal-winning and world record-breaking 100m breaststroke swim last week.  Of course, revelations of cheating at the Olympics are a dime-a-dozen these days, and van der Burgh’s infraction was trivial according to most.  What made it fascinating from an ethical standpoint was the purpose of the admission.  Van der Burgh was not, it appears, laboring under a guilty conscience and desperate to unburden himself of his dark secret.  He was quite casual about his admission, and made no great show of penitence nor showed any intention of relinquishing his medal.  Nor was he being hounded and threatened with investigation, of being stripped of his medal unwillingly, and so confessed to cut his losses.  On the contrary, he runs no risk of losing his medal, because only the on-the-spot umpires can enforce such violations, and although a few questions had been raised in the media, there was no great controversy or public scrutiny until after he made his remarks.  

Rather, van der Burgh voluntarily fessed up because he wanted to invite further scrutiny and controversy, he wanted the rules to be enforced more strictly.  The problem, he complained, was that FINA had made rules about what constituted illegal swimming techniques, but then had not taken the necessary steps to enforce such rules (making use of underwater footage), thus leaving athletes with the duty to be self-policing.  Van der Burgh suggested that this was an unfair burden to lay on the consciences of athletes.  He even went so far as to admit that what he had done was probably immoral, but what else could he do, since almost every other swimmer was cheating as well?  Cynics will have little difficulty in pooh-poohing this as mere spineless excuse-making, but remarkably, van der Burgh’s rivals Brenton Rickard and Brendan Hansen made no attempt to lash back (particularly remarkable in the case of Hansen, who insists that he is not among the large majority that break the rules in this way).  Hansen said,“I give him credit for actually having the guts to come out and say something and be honest because maybe that’s what it’s going to take for the organizations running swimming to use the technology at their disposal to enforce the rules.”

And while we can hardly admire him, perhaps van der Burgh does have a point.  Perhaps it really is too much to ask of athletes to be self-policing, and it’s not just the rotten ones who cheat.  If you’ve dedicated your life to a competitive sport, and what separates success and immortality from lasting mediocrity is a few tenths of a second that can be gained by one illegal maneuver, that’s a lot of temptation to bear.  And once there are a few who have already succumbed to the temptation, it becomes that much harder.  Van der Burgh clearly thinks of himself as a basically clean, right-minded athlete (and he has an impeccable record), but one who is not going to stand aside and let all his training go to waste because only those with the fewest scruples will have a chance to win.  He would much prefer not to be a cheat, and to have all temptation taken away from him by proper enforcement:  ‘‘I think only if you can bring in underwater footage that’s when everybody will stop doing it because that’s when you’ll have peace of mind to say, ‘All right I don’t need to do it because everybody else is doing it and it’s a fair playing field.’ . . . [At one competition where such footage was used] it was really awesome, because nobody attempted it [the dolphin kick].  Everybody came up clean and we all had peace of mind that nobody was going to try. . . . I’m really for it. If they can bring it, it will better the sport. But I’m not willing to lose to someone that is doing it.’’


If we can resist the urge to be cynical, and to ask whether competitive sport ought to be the object of such wholesale devotion, we can glean from this episode a valuable insight about the roles that law and law enforcement play in human life.  (Indeed, Victor Austin argued in an excellent paper last fall at the conference of the Society for the Study of Christian Ethics—now published in the journal Studies in Christian Ethics—that we can use sports as a paradigm for understanding the function of legal structures and various sorts of authorities in society.)   For we (and I speak here autobiographically) are often tempted to view law enforcement with a skeptical or scornful eye, as something oppressive and almost intrinsically violent, as “coercion”—which of course, it is, but what a negative connotation that word carries!  Law enforcement is perhaps a necessary evil, for the bad people out there who would otherwise murder and steal, but for most of the rest of us decent people, it’s an unwanted and unneeded imposition on our liberty.  

Increasingly, indeed, the whole concept of law is an unwelcome one, intrinsically at war with the highest value—liberty.  All the evil in the world, we are told, comes from people trying to force other people to conform, and everything would run so much more smoothly if everyone was allowed to pursue their own idea of the good.  This is like saying that the ideal sport is one without rules, and without umpires, in which each competitor follows his or her own sense of what the competition demands.  In economics, this libertarianism concludes either that all individual competitors will somehow conclude that it is not in their best self-interest to cheat, because then that would provoke others to cheat still further, or else that by everyone cheating out of their own pursuit of self-interest, a better sport for all would result (a 100m breaststroke in which the competitors now do nothing but dolphin-kick!).  Of  course, this libertarian mindset has a theological parallel in Anabaptism, which likes to think that laws and coercion should be needless, because everyone should just follow the law of love, and if we suffer from the evil people who don’t, we should count ourselves privileged.  

Or perhaps we grant that yes, laws are a good thing, because they define the good for us publicly, establishing a standard so that we all know how we ought to act and what we ought to aim at.  But the chief purpose of law is instructive, not coercive.  To be sure, coercion will be necessary because there are wicked people who will refuse to pursue the good to which the laws point, heedlessly harming others, and they must be restrained.  For the Christian, though, who recognizes all laws as specifications of the law of love, this coercion is needless.  The Christian is subject to the law, but not to the sting of the law, to the guidance, but not to the enforcement, because he doesn’t need it.  The ideal, from this standpoint, is to no longer need the heteronomy of law enforcement, because one has achieved the autonomy of a conscience wholly in conformity to the end of the law.  This is more or less the standpoint proposed in Johannes Heckel’s interpretation of Luther, Lex Charitatis.  And I have argued similarly at many points.  From this perspective, we should try to encourage people to become self-policing, as FINA was doing with competitive swimming; enforcing laws by penalties simply encourages people to do the right thing out of fear and compulsion, rather than genuine love of the good.

This is true, of course, as far as it goes.  But the flaw of Heckel’s interpretation of Luther is its forgetfulness of simul justus et peccator, and so we must beware of thinking that coercion is only for the wicked, for we are all wicked.  The self-directed conscience obedient to law out of love and in no need of outward policing is indeed a good ideal, but we mustn’t forget that it is for all of us in this life only an ideal.  For this reason, the invitation to self-policing is for many of us at many times not a free grant of liberty but an intolerable burden, as we are called to struggle against self-deceptive desires that constantly distort our concept of the good and sap our will to pursue it.  Particularly when we see others around us abusing their liberty, the pressure to abandon the struggle and join them becomes unbearable, and we long to be freed from the burden of such liberty.    When we as a society make laws and grant to others the authority to hold us to them, then, we are not merely trying to protect ourselves from evildoers without but from the evildoer within each of us, and asking the common authority to carry some of the weight of the burdensome task that otherwise falls entirely on our consciences.  From this perspective, law enforcement can actually be liberating, reducing the array of temptations that would otherwise paralyze us to a manageable number, empowering us rather than encumbering us in our pursuit of the good.

“Even Your Own Deed Also”: Law and Corporate Moral Agency

How can we be free even in the midst of obedience to laws with which we do not agree?  In a recent post, I expored the conundrum of law and liberty in the Reformation, and how we might be free even in submission to law when we recognize that obeying the law is a means of loving the neighbor.  Hooker, in seeking to persuade Puritan consciences that the laws of the English church were edifying, rational, and had in their favor the approval of centuries of church practice, and of the wisest among the Church of his own day, seems to be smoothing the way for such a free and voluntary law-obedience:

“Surely if we have unto those laws that dutifull regard which their dignitie doth require: it will not greatly need, that we should be exhorted to live in obedience unto them . . . . The safest and unto God the most acceptable way of framing our lives therefore is, with all humilitie lowlines and singlens of hart to studie, which way our willing obedience both unto God and man may be yeelded even to the utmost of that which is due” (III.9.3). 

Nonetheless, what about when we don’t think the laws in question are edifying and rational?  What about when we, and others, heartily disagree with the decisions taken by those in authority?  Given the breadth and depth of the Puritan protest, it seems a bit audacious for Hooker to declare, “To them which aske why we thus hange our judgmentes on the Churches sleeve, I answer with Salomon, because two are better then one. . . . The bare consent of the whole Church should it selfe in these thinges stop theire mouthes who livinge under it dare presume to barke against it.”  After all, the “consent of the whole church” was precisely what was lacking, and had been for decades, as Puritans in the churches, among the gentry, and even in Parliament continued to oppose the judgments enshrined in law.  Indeed, not just some few, but “thousands, yea and even of those amongst which divers are in publique chuarge and authoritie,” as Hooker would quote Cartwright in his Preface.

To this Hooker responds, in a crucially revealing sentence, “As though when publique consent of the whole hath established any thing, every mans judgement being thereunto compared, were not private, howsoever his calling be to some kind of public charge.”  The distinction drawn here is one key to Hooker’s political thought, as well as that of many of his contemporaries, between singulis and universis, citizens considered individually and considered as “the whole.”  Neither the number nor the status of dissenting voices counts against the “consent of the whole” inasmuch as this has been enshrined in law.  

More, then, than merely an appeal to corporate rationality, to the wisdom found in tradition, underlies Hooker’s argument for submission.  Indeed, immediately after his remark in I.10 that laws must be made by wise men, he cautions, “Howbeit laws do not take their constraining force from the qualitie of such as devise them, but from that power which doth geve them the strength of lawes” (I.10.8).  This power is sovereignty, the moral agency exercised by a collective through its authorized representatives, as he discusses at length in Book VIII.  To be sure, laws thus made can be overturned, but only by the same exercise of corporate agency that created them, not by the dissent of individual members, no matter how numerous.  “Lawes that have bene approved may be (no man doubteth) again repealed, and to that end also disputed against, by the athors therof themselves.  But this is when the whole doth deliberate whtat lawes each part shal observe, and not when a part refuseth the lawes which the whole hath orderly agreed upon.”  For Hooker, to speak of our “consent” to these laws is no mere metaphor, but an expression of the fact that we really do act not merely through our private wills, but through others: 

 As in parliaments, councels, and the like assemblies, although we be not personallie our selves present, notwithstanding our assent is by reason of others agents there in our behalfe.  And what we do by others, no reason but that it should stand as our deed, no lesse effectually to binde us then if our selves had done it in person.” 

As members of a body politic, our agency simply is constituted by our participation in this public action, and it is meaningless to pretend that we can exempt ourselves:

“[It is] unmeet that laws which being once solemnly established, are to exact obedience of all men, and to constraine therunto, should so far stoup as to hold themselves in suspense from taking any effect upon you, till some disputer can perswade you to be obedient.  A lawe is the deed of the whole body politike, whereof if ye judge your selves to be any part, then is the law even your deed also.” 

This statement, though it comes at the beginning of the Lawes, could be considered the capstone of Hooker’s argument.  Here we have the logic of God’s own action—a law to himself, completely free although bound to observe his eternal law, because this law is the most perfect expression of himself, and of rationality—mirrored in the logic of the human agent: we remain free even in being bound by law, because this law is our own rational action.  This is Hooker’s final argument—if all else fails, if the Puritan conscience refuses to see the edifying value of the laws, refuses to see their basis in the law of reason, refuses to defer to the judgment and wisdom of antiquity, persists in stubborn conviction that these laws are badly-made, his obedience is still, Hooker maintains, congruent with Christian liberty because he is simply obeying himself.  


Of course, we will have some concerns about this line of argument.  To what extremity could this go?  Perhaps the particular laws that Hooker defends really were fairly reasonable, but could the same logic be applied to underwrite meek acquiescence to true tyranny and injustice?  Hooker does not wish to leave things quite this stark.  Certainly, this trump card is not one that he wants to play lightly: “Neither wish wee that men should do any thing which in their hearts they are perswaded they ought not to do,” he says in 6.3 of the Preface, and again, in 6.6, “Not that I judge it a thing allowable for men to observe those lawes which in their hearts they are stedfastly perswaded to be against the law of God.”  But he does not think that the present case is one in which this “Here I stand, I can do no other” can be legitimately invoked: “your perswasion in this case ye are all bound for the time to suspend, and in otherwise doing, ye offend against God by troubling his Church without any just or necessary cause.  Be it that there are some reasons inducing you to think hardly of our lawes.  Are those reasons demonstrative, are they necessary, or but probabilities only?”

A demonstrative argument, Hooker grants, “dischargeth . . the conscience, and setteth it at full libertie.”  But where is this demonstrative argument?  “But if the skilfullest amongst you can shewe that all the bookes ye have hitherto written be able to afford any one argument of this nature, let the instance be given” (Pref. 6.6).  In the absence of an utterly compelling reason to disobey the laws, the Puritans must be willing to suspend the judgments of their conscience for charity’s sake, for, whatever their concerns about the harm to be done by bad laws, they must surely recognize the greater harm that will be done by contentiousness and disobedience: “of peace and quietnes there is not any way possible, unlesse the probable voice of every intier societie or bodie politique overrule all private of like nature in the same bodie.”  

Hooker’s first route of reconciling law and liberty has been to show that the particular laws in question are such as to advance the common good, so that to support them and obey them is in fact to love the neighbor.  Failing this, however, he will advise the Puritans that disobedience, founded merely on probable private opinion, cannot but harm the commonwealth, so that neighbor-love requires suspension of judgment, since there will be “no end of contention without submission of both parts unto some definitive sentence.”

“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.