Calvin’s Influence on Legal Theory

John Calvin’s influence predominantly found a home in France, Holland, Scotland, and England. Not theology alone, but he influenced each respective nation’s legal theory. In Hendrik Hommes masterpiece, Major Trends in the History of Legal Philosophy, he explains how Calvin was not the standard natural law theorist:

Calvin, indeed, often uses the term “natural law,” but in a way completely different from its traditional employment as law founded in a metaphysical natural orders valid per sé. Instead it refers to “the seeds of justice and equity, the affinity for order, and the tendency towards communal life” by which God endowed human nature and which he has maintained by his common grace despite the radical perversion through sin (emphasis mine).

In other words, natural law is not a law, strictly speaking. If it were, then there would be no need for written, codified, positive laws. Natural law is better understood as natural law principles. The Dutch legal theorist explains that, for Calvin, there exists “fundamental spheres of liberty” incumbent upon the state to respect. However, Calvin does not conceive of these juridical moments as though they are valid laws independently of their human positivization.

Natural law is not a law, strictly speaking. If it were, then there would be no need for written, codified, positive laws.

Calvin’s seminal work in legal theory is the proto-Sphere Sovereignty which Althusius developed and Kuyper popularized. For Calvin, we might say that natural law is the form, positive law is the content, as it were.

Calvin’s Middle Path Nuance to Legal Theory

Strictly speaking, ethics is only law-like. Therefore, we are confusing ourselves when we speak about “ethical laws.” Natural law functions as principles of law which constitute the basis of positive law-creation by which they “alone…acquire legal validity.” There is a profound connection between Calvin’s proto-sphere sovereignty and his legal theory.

This follows from Calvin’s view of human society as an “organic whole,” a popular explanatory image of civilisation that Abraham Kuyper used.

Hommes explains:

The idea of organism in social relationships as defended by Calvin entails that human society and its authoritative relationships has been created by God as a living unity of mutually distinguishable parts which depend upon and complement each other.

Hommes believes this is why it is clear that Calvin rejected “every form of state-absolutism, which reduces non-political spheres of society to the political spheres of the state.” Though Calvin can agree that only positive law is law, he also stands against any attempt of the sovereign to place himself above law.

In other words, Calvin, yet again, walks something of a tightrope between natural law theory and positive law theory that we still see being debated today. In fact, Calvin anticipated the argument of the intellectual giant of jurisprudence, Ronald Dworkin. But it was the German Calvinist, Althusius, who picked up Calvin’s line of thought.

Althusius’s Development of Calvin’s Legal Theory

Continuing the connection with sphere sovereignty, Althusius specifically says, “Every societal relationship has its own specific laws which govern it. And within the several types of society these vary and differ as far as the nature of each requires it.”

In other words, Calvin, yet again, walks something of a tightrope between natural law theory and positive law theory that we still see being debated today.

Althusius was pioneering something. His way “of envisioning the state and non-political societal spheres” walked a Biblical line between the Roman Catholic Natural Law theorists and the quickly secularizing theorists of Hobbes and Bodin.

In short, the Calvinist rejection of natural law is not an attempt to reject natural law principles, nor to reject an objective morality that has real bearing on (or ought to have bearing on) the legal system.

Instead, the Protestant conception of law made room for the uniqueness of personhood, expressed socially; the collective personality of each people.

This is reflected (perhaps unwittingly) in the Westminster Confession of Faith’s understanding of the civil law of Israel. The objective standard of God’s justice was manifested in Israel’s civil law. Nevertheless, that law was a particular reflection of a particular people with a particular way of life. That law cannot and should not be applied today.

It was God’s good will that law be left up to each people. Specifically, it is up to each people to produce a system of law that, although manifestations of God’s perfect justice, are nevertheless unique expressions of justice. This is because law is an expression of personhood, as the Lutheran legal theorist, Julius Friedrich Stahl would later elaborate.

Citations & References 1. Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution, p. 58-68.
2. H.J. van Eikema Hommes, Major Trends in the History of Legal Philosophy, p. 76.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., 78.

[C]laims of religious experience through music are notoriously hard to evaluate and build upon unless one is prepared to identify at least something of the content of the “religion” in question. The category of “religion” or “religious,”….is a massively contested one, as is the belief that there is some kind of locatable core or essence of “religious experience.” Unless we are willing to clarify what we might mean by asserting that, for example, music puts us in touch with God (for the Christian, as for any theistic faith, this would mean with a quite specific God, we will be powerless in the face of the skeptic, who will see such claims as no more than hyperbole for a fervent emotional experience or as a way of masking our desire to have some kind of ultimate authority to back up our musical tastes! In short, a laudable attempt to connect with musical experience in the culture at large can easily trade away the distinctives of Christian faith, leaving the church more irrelevant than ever.[6]

Citations & References 1. Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, by Herman Bavinck, Baker Book House, 2013, p. 270.
2. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, edited by Vittorio Messori (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985)
3. Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, by Herman Bavinck, p. 255. 4. Ibid., p. 256.
5. I admit that this is unsatisfactory, in that Bavinck would say that beauty is revealed in the true statement and the good action, but it does not directly address the question of the truth and goodness in, say, music or paintings. But at the risk of redundancy, a painting is not really an argument, except by way of metaphor.
6. Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, by Jeremy Begbie, SPCK, 2008, Kindle loc. 217.

Robert J. McPherson II

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Robert J. McPherson II is a graduate of RC Sproul’s Reformation Bible College with an honors degree in theology. He has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Buckingham; conducting research under the guidance of Sir Roger Scruton. His thesis is on personal responsibility and social justice.

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