Tag Archives: morals

Reforming the Law: John Calvin and the Use of the Law in Geneva (Pt. 1)

A Portrait of John Calvin

Addressing “The Pattern of the Law for Piety,” John Calvin states that the law profits believers in two ways: 1) it instructs us about God’s will and 2) it exhorts Christians to obey it. Given these two functions of the law, which are related to its “third use” (McKee, 266), we may wonder what role the law played in the daily life of Christians in Geneva. We may also wonder how important biblical law was for everyday Christians and how the law was enforced. At one point Calvin says,

Now this scriptural instruction of which we speak has two main aspects. The first is that the love of righteousness, to which we are otherwise not at all inclined by nature, may be instilled and established in our hearts; the second, that a rule be set forth for us that does not let us wander about in our zeal for righteousness. (McKee 271)

Here Calvin seems to indicate that the law has two ways of reforming behavior and inculcating a love for righteousness. First, it seems to establish a natural desire in the believer’s heart to obey the law, which prior to regeneration was not there. Second, the law acts as an external form of enforcement,  as a rule that does not let believers wander. In this brief essay I argue that Calvin’s method of instilling of God’s law into God’s people manifests itself in two ways — one, in the organic and unforced social process; the second, externally imposed by legislation. Calvin seeks to navigate between two ways of imposing the law. On the one hand, to leave law-keeping simply up to organic growth may lead to a lack of true enforcement. On the other hand, legislating conformity may create mere external obedience rather than real heart change. As we shall see, both manners of enforcing the law play an important role in Calvin’s Geneva, but both bring potential dangers. We shall begin the discussion of Calvin’s reformation of the use of the law for Christians by highlighting a few examples of how Calvin sees the law play out in Christians’ lives, then  turn our attention to each manner of enforcing the law.

The Pattern of the Law for Piety

Calvin argues that at the core of God’s law there are simply two principles. The first concerns what we owe God, and the second concerns what we own our neighbors. (McKee, 256) Thus all of the law can be considered to fall within the scope of these two concerns. Accordingly, it is the Christian’s duty to learn the law and internalize it. The Christian ought to be like a servant prepared to “search out and observe his master’s ways more and more in order to conform and accommodate himself to them.” (McKee, 266). This is the duty of all Christians, and it  ought to be pursued on a daily basis.

An important aspect of coming to internalize the law involves learning to recognize that other persons are made in the image of God. Learning to see, respect, and honor the image of God in others is a way of owing God what God is due and owing our neighbors wat they are due as well. The recognition and reverence of the image of God imprinted upon each person will keep Christians from shedding the blood of others, stealing from them, and bearing false witness against the. Recognizing the image of God in others will help Christians see the stranger and give them honor and love. The image of God recognized in others will generate a desire to be generous, giving them what they deserve. (McKee, 276) If honoring God and neighbor through the recognition of a shared image of God is the goal of Christian law keeping, we may wonder, how do Christians grow in their desire to follow the law? As mentioned above there are at least two ways. We will jump into these next time…


Edwards and Franklin (Pt. 4)

Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin lived in an era marked by change. People’s view of the natural world was changing, people’s views on religion and theology were changing, and people’s views on the nature of authority and government were really changing. Both men grew up in a particular tradition and they had to navigate their ways between their traditions and these changes. As we saw last time, Edwards and Franklin navigated this challenge in very different ways. This time we turn to another way in which Edwards and Franklin were different – their views on virtue.

Jonathan and Benjamin on Virtue

Both of these men were (mildly) obsessed with becoming virtuous people. Although their desires to become virtuous people had different motivations, Franklin was self-motivated and (at times) Edwards was motivated by a love for God, the way they pursed growing in virtue is quite similar.

Benjamin Franklin set before himself a list of virtues that he wished to attain:

  • Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation
  • Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; Avoid trifling Conversation.
  • Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  • Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  • Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  • Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions.
  • Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  • Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  • Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  • Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  • Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  • Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  • Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Jonathan Edwards also has a famous set of resolutions, by which he resolved to read over every day of the week:

  • Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory, and my own good, profit and pleasure, in the whole of my duration, without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence. Resolved to do whatever I think to be my duty, and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved to do this, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many and how great whatsoever.
  • Resolved, to be continually endeavoring to find out some new invention and contrivance to promote the forementioned things.
  • Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.
  • Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.
  • Resolved, when I think of my Theorem in Divinity to be solved, immediately to do what I can towards solving it, if Circumstances don’t hinder.
  • Resolved, to maintain the strictest Temperance in eating and drinking.
  • Resolved, to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive my self to grow in the Knowledge of the same.
  • Resolved, never to speak any Thing that is Ridiculous, or Matter of Laughter on the Lord’s day.

As you see both of these men were very organized and diligent when it came to the project of becoming virtuous people, however the difference between them lies in their motivations. Franklin’s virtues were designed for self-fulfillment, it was essentially a self-help project. Edwards’ list of resolutions was designed to help him subordinate himself to God’s will. Franklin lived in light of what was most pragmatic, and tacked Jesus on at the end of his list (alongside Socrates). Edwards tried to live all of life in light of God, the gospel, and eternity. He had God at the center of his list, and more importantly of his life. Yes Edwards struggled to keep them and yes they became legalistic at times, but when it became legalistic he recognized it for the legalism that it was. There is nothing wrong with writing out a “change project,” especially if you are a Christian, but ultimately we have to realize that real and lasting change comes only through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Obama, Romney, and Christian Ethics

Election day is around the corner and many Americans are still on the fence. Obama or Romney? Many Christians will go to the polls on Election day and vote based upon which candidate better lines up with “Christian Values.” This is a legitimate way to decide who will get one’s vote. Many Christians in my part of town believe that Romney best lines up with Christian/Biblical values. Many Christians I go to school with believe that Obama best lines up with Christian/Biblical values. In this blog post I want to briefly outline the ethics or values of both Obama and Romney as they are presented in a couple of interviews done by Ed Stetzer. Ed Stetzer interviewed some high up staff that adequately represented each candidate. For the sake of Christian Charity I will only highlight the positive aspects of their ethical stances. After taking a look at this I will suggest a paradigm for understanding their ethics and voting in light of their positions.

Obama’s Ethics

According to the his representative, “President Obama recognizes that as a society we will be judged on how we care for the ‘least of these.'” This is evident if we look at his stances on immigration, healthcare, and creation.

“On immigration, the Bible tells us to show care and respect for “strangers in the land” (Deuteronomy 10:19). President Obama has promoted pragmatic and compassionate immigration policies, including support for the DREAM Act that would provide a path to citizenship through higher education or military service for young people who came to America as children.”

“He has expanded health insurance to 32 million Americans, supported maintaining nutrition assistance for needy families, unemployment benefits for those who are out of work, Head Start programs for early childhood education, and doubling Pell Grants for students who may not otherwise be able to afford to attend college.”

“We are called to be stewards of God’s creation (Genesis 1:26), and President Obama has taken steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mercury pollution, protect water quality, and promote clean, renewable energy.”

Obama’s ethics are clearly a reflection of his belief that we are a government of, by and for the people, which means the values and priorities of our governmental institutions are a reflection of all of us. Because of this we cannot divorce ourselves from this responsibility as a society.

Regarding some of his more controversial positions: Gay Marriage and Abortion

“President Obama believes that it is fundamentally unfair to deny certain rights and protections to gay and lesbian couples who perhaps adhere to a different religious perspective.”

“While the President is pro-choice, it is not an issue he takes lightly, and there are certainly people of faith on both sides of this debate. President Obama believes we should be working together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions. He has strengthened programs that encourage adoption, increased pre- and post-natal care, and has increased access to contraception.”

Upon doing a quick survey of Obama’s ethics its clear that he is in favor of helping immigrants, the poor, and the oppressed. He is interested in taking care of creation. He desires to protect the freedom of people to do whatever they want as individuals, whether it be gay marriage or abortion.

Romney’s Ethics

Regarding the poor:

“Governor Romney’s governing history indicates a reliance on important partnerships between public and private sectors to address these problems. Furthermore, his life of involvement in his church demonstrates a consistent record of caring for the “least of these” in our midst.”

Regarding Gay Marriage:

“Governor Romney has long supported the civil rights of all Americans while still opposing the right for same sex couples to be joined in marriage.”

Regarding Abortion:

“Governor Romney has been quite transparent about his “conversion” on this issue, which resulted from a scholarly discussion on the matter of stem cell research during his term as governor of Massachusetts…I do not have the slightest concern about his fidelity to the defense of human life beginning at conception.”

Regarding Immigration:

Romney plans to “implement a national immigration strategy that bolsters the U.S. economy, ensures our security, keeps nuclear families together, addresses the problem of illegal immigration in a civil and resolute manner, and carries on America’s tradition as a nation of legal immigrants.”

He plans to secure the borders by: “completing a high-tech fence to enhance border security”, “ensuring that we have the officers on the ground we need to gain control of the border”, and to “develop an efficient, effective system of exit verification to ensure people do not overstay their visas.” He will discourage undocumented immigration, especially among young people by opposing “all “magnets” that entice illegal immigrants to come to our country. (As governor, he vetoed in-state tuition benefits for illegal immigrants and opposed driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.)

A Paradigm for Understanding Obama’s and Romney’s Ethics

Reading through their positions on these political (ethical issues) it become clear to me that neither candidate really displays a more consistent Christian morality. Let me explain why…

Obama’s Ethics are best understood as corporate ethics. Romney’s ethics are best understood as individualistic ethics. For Christians both are essential. Romney is concerned about ensuring the morality of individuals. Homosexual acts and abortion are all sins that are committed by individuals. Obama is concerned about ensuring a corporate morality. He goes after the systems and structures that are immoral. For instance the systematic injustice faced by the poor when they are denied access to healthcare or a proper education. This observation is true not only of the candidates but the parties as a whole. For instance consider the democratic stance on the role of government and the republican stance on the role of government. Republicans tend to believe that freedom is a freedom from coercion. Democrats tend to believe in a version of freedom in which freedom is the ability to do something, rather than merely being a lack of restrictions preventing one from doing something. Thus these views of freedom influence their views on what the government is supposed to do. Republicans believe that the government should not coerce, so the government should stay out of the picture as much a possible, this is how to help people be free. Democrats believe that freedom is the ability to do something, so the government should help people to be free, thus by stepping in to situations they can help people actualize their freedom.

This might be an oversimplified analysis of the situation…. but when you (Christians) go out to vote next week keep in mind that one candiate is not necessarily more moral than the other. They just approach morality from two different directions (individually or corporately). As Christians both paradigms for morality are supposed to come into play. Vote accordingly.