Tag Archives: The Law

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…


Two Concepts of Freedom in Galatians

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. – Paul in his Letter to the Galatians

At Soma (the college group I lead) we are currently in a series on Relationships – Where’s Your Heart. It’s a relationship series based upon the conviction that where your treasure is there your heart will also be. This series has led us to examine the purity of our hearts and the motives of our hearts in relationships. This weekend we turn to Paul’s thoughts on freedom.

The passage above is pretty straightforward – we have been called to be free. We are not under the law – we really are free! But what does that mean? What is freedom? I won’t get into this in this upcoming weekend’s sermon, however having some philosophical background for the concept of freedom really helps us understand this passage.

Two Concepts of Freedom

In 1958, Isaiah Berlin, delivered what is now considered a classic paper on the philosophy of freedom. The paper, titled: “Two Concepts of Freedom” lays out (quite obviously) two different concepts of freedom. The first is what he calls “negative freedom.” This type of freedom is concerned with the question “What is the area within which the subject- a person or group of persons – is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?” The second, which he calls positive freedom is concerned with the question “Who or who is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do or be this rather than that.” He says that these two versions of freedom are clearly different, yet at times they certainly overlap. Berlin is absolutely right – at times it is hard to determine which sort of freedom we are talking about.

So there you have it – at the most basic level there are two types of freedom: Negative and Positive. Just to reiterate – Negative freedom has to do with freedom from coercion – it could be considered “freedom from.” Positive freedom has to with powers and abilities – it could be considered “freedom too.” As an analytic political philosopher Berlin is actually concerned with issues revolving around citizens freedom in regards to governmental structures. He wants to know whether when we talk about citizens being free and the government encouraging freedom whether we are talking about negative or positive freedom. Should the government merely not interfere with citizens (negative freedom) or should the government enable citizens to express and live out their desires (positive freedom). I have thoughts about that – but this isn’t the place or time to address those issues – I want to turn my attention to Paul and his view on freedom in this Galatians passage.

Freedom in Galatians

Paul says

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.

It seems to me that Paul has two versions of freedom that he is working with – yet its sort of tricky because he moves with ease between these two versions of freedom even within one verse! Paul certainly has negative freedom in mind when he talks about Christians being called to be free – we are free from the coercive powers of sin, death, and the law. But he also seems to imply that freedom is more than just being free from these things – freedom is being free to do other things as well: freedom to serve, freedom to love, freedom not to indulge in the flesh. In this other sense freedom is not simply the lack of coercion, its the power or ability to do what one actually wants. Freedom is a positive power – which is to be used in service and love. I believe that this is the primary mode of freedom within Paul’s thought. Paul (almost) always talks about freedom in a positive sense. Freedom in Christ isn’t primarily a freedom from other sorts of things which bind us (though it is that at times) – Freedom in Christ is the power to be what Christ has created us to be. It is a positive freedom which says that our new natures given to us by Christ actually determine our actions. This version of freedom takes seriously the fact of new creation and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Or to put things more simply and in the type of language Paul is using here:

As a believer you aren’t simply free from the obligations of law – you are free to actually carry the law to its fulfillment.