Posted by Brad Littlejohn at 6:55 PM
May 17, 2010
The remainder of chapter 3 consists of three main sections--an assessment of Calvin’s use of natural law, an attempt to neatly connect Calvin’s doctrines of natural law and the two kingdoms so they are complementary and mutually interpretive (this is the heart of VanDrunen’s project), and a very brief assessment of some of Calvin’s contemporaries. Although there is a lot of ground to be covered here, the initial section on the natural law. Perhaps it is just the fact that I am rather less familiar with natural law discussions than two kingdoms discussions, but this section did not seem to raise many red flags for me. The second section raises some serious questions and problems, and will merit a close discussion; while the final section plays too insignificant a role to be worth discussing here.
Calvin has generally been depicted, says VanDrunen, as having a rather negative attitude toward the natural law, often attributed to his voluntarist and nominalist roots. VanD wants to contest this on several counts--first of all, Calvin was not such a thoroughgoing nominalist and voluntarist as often claimed; second, as he has already briefly discussed in the previous chapter, natural law thinking was not at all alien to the nominalist tradition; and third, in any case, Calvin frequently and repeatedly invokes the idea of natural law.
Although, as I just mentioned, I’m no expert on natural law discussions, a recurring weakness seems to me to plague VanD’s discussions of it, both in the previous chapter and here: the discussion always remains very vague. Many different ideas of natural law have be put forward, and many different doctrines of to what extent we can grasp it, what relationship it has to the law of grace or evangelical law, etc. It is far from a univocal term. And of course, VanD does not entirely ignore these variations and complexities, but it does often feel that he is just saying, “See, Aquinas believed in natural law, and so did Ockham, and so did Luther, and so did Calvin. So there!” So what?
In any case, what do we learn in these pages? Well, for Calvin, human beings knew God in two ways, as Creator and Redeemer, and the former could be known via nature (99). Natural law, we are told, is “related to this general knowledge of God in creation” and has been implanted in human hearts (100). Natural law for Calvin was closely connected to the idea of conscience, by which we naturally know right and wrong (101-2). Indeed, in some ways, suggests VanD, Calvin’s notion of the role of the natural law was stronger than Aquinas’s, since while for Aquinas most applications of the natural law had to be deduced and applied by conscience, for Calvin the conscience offered us the immediately accessible testimony of the natural law (101-2), and for Calvin, charity was a matter of the natural law, rather than a supernatural virtue (which, it must be said, seems rather bizarre). In a footnote, VanD cites quotes one scholar’s list of some of the “moral questions on which Calvin took natural law to deliver rules of conduct”--rules immediately available to us via the conscience. It is a rather remarkable list, so I will quote it:
“Calvin thought that ‘nature’ or ‘natural sense’ or ‘reason’ teaches the authority of fathers over wives and children, the sanctity of monogamous marriage, the duty to care for families, breast-feeding, primogeniture (albeit with qualifications), the sacrosanctity of envoys and ambassadors, the obligation of promises, degrees of marriage, the need for witnesses in murder trials, the need for a distinction of ranks in society; and natural law prohibits incest, murder, adultery, slavery, and even the rule of one man. And again, nature itself teaches the duty to award honours only to those qualified, respect for the old, equity in commercial dealings, and that religion must be the first concern of governors” (102).
Really? I mean, come on, you’re telling me that all these things can be known by men immediately as deliverances of the natural law? If so, you’re going to have to add the qualification that many men have lost sight of these truths through sin, because the fact is that a number of these “universal truths” were universal only to early-modern Europe, if even there. I shan’t comment more for now, but hold this in mind, because I think this quote will come back to bite VanDrunen before the end of the chapter.
VanDrunen goes on to tell us a few other vaguely interesting but, so far as I can tell, not particularly-to-the-point tidbits comparing Calvin and Aquinas on the relationship of the natural law to the divine character and the divine will, and then VanDrunen turns to briefly consider the side of Calvin that we’re all more familiar with, the side that is deeply skeptical of our ability to know the natural law given the corruption of sin. “Because of this, Calvin insisted that sin makes the natural knowledge of God insufficient and therefore that moral understanding requires a revealed written law” (106). Indeed, “in expositing his very stark view of the effects of sin, he asserts that reason, though not entirely taken away, is a corrupted and shapeless ruin” (107). Again, hold these quotes in mind for the forthcoming section.
Finally, we are offered a brief discussion on “Natural Law, Civil Law, and Mosaic Law in Calvin,” where we are told that Calvin connects these in much the same way as Aquinas, Scotus, Ockham, and Luther--namely, that civil law derives its authority from natural law, of which it is a flexible application to the needs of particular societies. The Mosaic judicial law, then, while providing a model of such application, does not have specific authority for other nations in other times and places.
Now, where is this all leading? Well, VanDrunen wants to propose a way of solving the puzzle posed by Calvin’s sometimes very positive, sometimes very negative assessments of the natural law. How's he going to do that? By putting together the pieces he has painstakingly laid out in this chapter and reading Calvin's statements on the natural law through the filter of Calvin’s Two Kingdoms theology:
“I argue here that Calvin was in fact not inconsistent in speaking as he did. Instead, Calvin ascribed surprisingly positive use of natural law (in the form of various cultural achievements) in his discussions of life in the civil kingdom and consistently negative use for it (in the form of leaving all people inexcusable for their sin) in his discussions of life in the spiritual kingdom. Calvin’s different evaluations of the use of natural law were not the result of intellectual inconsistency but of his view that though natural law permits even pagans to form good laws and produce other social goods in the civil kingdom, it is completely incapable of producing true spiritual good in people for the attainment of heavenly bliss, the realm of the spiritual kingdom” (110)
Huh. Well that is quite interesting. So natural law suffices to tell us how to live our lives here on earth, with other people, and the corruption of sin has not taken this comprehension away from us; all that sin has taken away from us is our ability to perceive God’s redemption in Christ, and to know how to live in relation to Him. Now I have some screaming objections on several levels, but I’ll try to keep this orderly and under control, and just mention two for now. One objection is that, on this portrait, I wonder if sin has taken anything away, because natural law never revealed to us redemption in Christ to begin with. Natural law was always about how to live here on earth, in relation to other people, and if that hasn’t been taken away by sin at all, what has? A second objection is that, while I’m no Calvin expert, this doesn’t seem to do justice to even the meager bits that VanD has cited, like the bit about sin leaving our reason a “corrupted and shapeless ruin”--so a corrupted and shapeless ruin is able to “form good laws and produce other social goods in the civil kingdom”? Hm.
VanD is going to tell us more, so let’s wait and hear him out. The key discussion, we are told, comes in Institutes II.2.12-15, where Calvin believes that reason was “weakened and corrupted in part, but not totally destroyed” (111), and goes on to specify this corruption in light of a distinction between “earthly things” and “heavenly things,” that is to say, the two kingdoms. “In regard to earthly things, sinful human reason continues to operate at a basic level and enables the human race to maintain a degree of civil order and at times to discover and achieve great things” (111-12), while with regard to heavenly things, the natural man is completely blind.
VanDrunen summarizes man’s remaining abilities regarding earthly things:
“The fact that ‘no man is devoid of the light of reason’ is proven by the continuing natural instinct to be a social animal and the primary ideas of justice that express themselves in all human societies. The accomplishments of sinful human beings in the ‘manual and liberal arts’ display ‘the fact of an universal reason and intelligence naturally implanted.’ The works of pagan authors, the enactments of ancient lawgivers, and the various accomplishments of the philosophers, rhetoricians, physicians, and mathematicians all remind ‘how many gifts the Lord has left in possession of human nature’ and warn against rejecting the truth wherever it appears” (112).
Now, let’s cross-examine this a bit. I am perfectly happy to admit that, by virtue of our created faculties of body and mind, we are able, whatever the effects of sin, to grasp a great deal in the way of purely intellectual truths and to gain many practical skills and arts. Anyone is willing to grant this, even the most hardened Van Tillian. It is when we come to the questions of how we ought to use these skills and this knowledge, that is, moral questions, that we run into trouble, for our moral sensibilities have been grievously impaired by sin. And after all, this is what the natural law is mainly about, as VanD himself has said at points--the moral law. So I must ask whether man, operating solely by means of the natural law, can discern rightly how he ought to act toward others. Earlier, VanDrunen said he could not--remember “Because of this, Calvin insisted that sin makes the natural knowledge of God insufficient and therefore that moral understanding requires a revealed written law” (106). But here, VanDrunen suggests the opposite answer in Calvin--fallen man comprehends ”the primary ideas of justice that express themselves in all human societies.”
And indeed, when you look at the relevant passage in the Institutes, the claim is rather strong:
“Since man is by nature a social animal, he is disposed, from natural instinct, to cherish and preserve society; and accordingly we see that the minds of all men have impressions of civil order and honesty. Hence it is that every individual understands how human societies must be regulated by laws, and also is able to comprehend the principles of those laws. Hence the universal agreement in regard to such subjects, both among nations and individuals, the seeds of them being implanted in the breasts of all without a teacher or lawgiver.”
But is there such universal agreement? Perhaps Calvin could make that claim, being familiar only with the nations of Christendom and, before them, with a somewhat rose-colored portrait of Greece and Rome. With our current knowledge of the variety of the world’s cultures throughout history, few would make such a claim. Sure, most societies have agreed that there must be some principles of law and order, but there has been rather little agreement as to what those principles might be. To pick a few random examples, compare sub-Saharan African tribes, the Aztecs, Genghis Khan’s Mongols, and the Samurais. This problem becomes much more pressing when we consider the quote above, where we were told that things like natural reason teaches such things as the authority of husbands over wives, monogamy, the right of primogeniture, the need for ranks in society, the evilness of slavery, and need for a plurality of political rulers. It’s easy to think of a host of societies, ancient and modern, that have not recognized these deliverances of reason. Now remember, this is not to contend that they are not in fact taught by natural reason (even though I would contend that on a number of the points), but that, if they are, natural reason is clearly sufficiently distorted by sin that many people have failed to grasp these moral and social requirements. So, to VanDrunen I would say, “Sure, awareness of the natural law often (though far from always) allows for some modicum of peace, prosperity, and even justice in the civil kingdom (as Augustine recognized), but it’s usually a pretty meagre modicum (as Augustine recognized) and it clearly needs to be supplemented; it clearly needs to be redeemed in light of the Gospel.” And of course, that’s precisely what VanDrunen says the civil kingdom is not--redeemed.
I should note briefly that VanDrunen’s discussion at this point seems to be dogged by over-intellectualism--e.g., “[Calvin] denied that natural law could ever give knowledge of salvation in the heavenly kingdom, even while he affirmed that it provided true and useful knowledge of mundane things in the civil kingdom” (113). The focus keeps coming back to "knowledge." When you put things this way, what VanD is saying seems to make sense-- “Oh yeah,” you reason to yourself, “it sure is true that unbelievers are able to figure out all kinds of great things about astronomy and physics, and about history...all sorts of useful knowledge for getting along in the world. But it’s pretty clear that they couldn’t know Christian doctrines like the resurrection or the Trinity without revelation and grace.” But this is a rather distorted way of looking at it. If we put it more in terms of moral understanding and praxis, I think it would become clear rather quickly that, without grace, man gets along pretty wretchedly indeed, and that, with grace, his life in both the “spiritual kingdom” [whatever exactly that is] and the civil kingdom are dramatically transformed.
It’s also worth noting briefly in passing that essentially what VanDrunen seems to have discovered in Calvin (or read into him; I’m not enough of an expert to make a firm judgment, though I do note that VanD has been rather selective in his quotations) is the sort of nature/grace dualism that was falsely read into Aquinas, and that modern Thomists have been aggressively reading out of him--namely, the so-called “two-tier” model of reality. Nature provides the bottom storey, complete in itself for all of man’s natural needs of taking care of himself and living in society, and learning about the world around him, etc.; and Grace provides the separate top storey, taking care of man’s “spiritual needs” and teaching him how to live in relation to God. A common problem with this way of thinking is that it seems generally to leave us with a very unsocial gospel, because all that seems to be left for the realm of grace is man-to-God relationships. If the realm of grace transformed man-to-man relationships, then it would be intruding on the proper province of the realm of nature, implying that the realm of nature was not in fact sufficient in itself to govern man’s social relations. We saw this sort of tension in VanDrunen’s admission that marriage, while clearly a civil institution, obviously was the concern of the spiritual kingdom as well.
Let’s wrap this up, though. VanD summarizes,
“An earlier part of this chapter discussed the distinction between the civil and spiritual kingdoms in terms of the distinction between God’s non-redemptive work of creation and preservation and his work of redemption. Another part of this chapter portrayed Calvin’s association of natural law with creation and preservation (particularly through God’s inscribing the law on the heart and sustaining the testimony of conscience). This meant, for Calvin, that God gave natural law as part of his creating work and not as part of his redeeming work. Hence, Calvin was quite coherent in recognizing natural law as the standard of life in the civil kingdom, where God rules but not in a redemptive manner, but not as the standard for the spiritual kingdom, which is the realm of God’s redemptive activity” (113).
Now, the key problem with this (aside from the fact that Calvin did not recognize natural law as “the standard of life in the civil kingdom,” but as a standard, to which the Bible should be added as an additional standard, a fact that VanDrunen actually admits in the paragraph right above the quote here), is the continued equivocation about “redemption.” The fact that the civil kingdom and the natural law are products of God’s creating work and are neither products or tools of his redeeming work does not mean that they are outside “the realm of God’s redemptive activity.” If they are fallen, then they need to be redeemed, right? VanDrunen avoids this straightforward question with his ambiguous “God does not rule them in a redemptive manner.” And, on a related but bigger note, I think there’s all kinds of theological problem with this sharp separation of God’s “creating work” and his “redeeming work”--as if the latter was not intended to bring the former to completion! I don’t think VanDrunen thinks it was, but if not, then this discussion is not about little issues in political theology, but is about the very heart of Christian theology.
There, closing on a dramatic, alarmist note like that can perhaps offer some justification for my incredible wordiness in reviewing this chapter. Note that I will omit discussing VanD’s piddling three pages on Calvin’s contemporaries. I noted at the beginning of this chapter than neither Vermigli or Bucer had a two kingdoms doctrine that was much like Calvin’s, and certainly neither was anything like what VanDrunen wants to recover. Time permitting, I hope to, some time in the next few weeks, give a decent-sized post to Vermigli, Bullinger, and Bucer each, looking at their “two kingdoms” doctrines, or lack thereof. (But time may well not permit.)