Friday, March 26, 2010

Calvin on the Law

Today is another day of reflection the Institutes, from Book 2, V.1 - VIII.38. After finishing up a little "Refutation of the Objections Commonly Put Forward in Defense of Free Will," we're on to fallen man seeking his redemption in Christ.

I won't go through the refutations of free will, since I blogged about that enough last time. Calvin shows an extensive knowledge of scripture and all the possible objections to his position, but in my evaluation he's willing to read scripture through a lens that he's chosen. Not that he's horribly perverse in doing so. I think the lens he's chosen is one of humility: we owe everything to God, so that, although we are responsible for our actions, we may not take credit for our goodness.

This humility pervades all of Calvin's thought, including what I'll blog about today, which is his view of the law. The modern Protestant/evangelical of any denomination will relate to what he says about the law showing us how fallen we are, and how desperately we need a redeemer and a mediator in Christ.

However, Calvin's view of the law does not stop there. I want to focus on what I found striking in Calvin's treatment of the law, rather than what seemed familiar. Although I have grown up influenced by the Reformed tradition, American culture tends to obscure Reformed distinctives.

To begin with, Calvin's view of the Old Testament is striking because he posits more or less perfect harmony between Old and New. This is no doubt a corollary of his view that scripture generally functions as a unit. He says in VI.2,
Accordingly, apart from the Mediator, God never showed favor toward the ancient people, nor ever gave hope of grace to them. I pass over the sacrifices of the law, which plainly and openly taught believers to seek salvation nowhere else than in the atonement that Christ alone carries out. I am only saying that the blessed and happy state of the church always had its foundation in the person of Christ.
So Calvin would reject the view sometimes held in evangelicalism that Old Testament Jews were saved by obedience to the law, while the New Testament church is saved by grace. Note also that he speaks of one church, which existed as Israel in ancient times but began to include people of all nations at the coming of Christ.

Calvin draws a natural distinction between ceremonial law and moral law. The ceremonial law points to Christ's sacrifice, a mere shadow (using directly the language of the letter to the Hebrews). He says of the ceremonial law,
For what is more vain or absurd than for men to offer a loathsome stench from the fat of cattle in order to reconcile themselves to God? Or to have recourse to the sprinkling of water and blood to cleanse away their filth? In short, the whole cultus of the law, taken literally and not as shadows and figures corresponding to the truth, will be utterly ridiculous. (VII.1)
And with that his attention becomes mostly fixated on the moral law. He begins to outline three main uses of the moral law. One is to show us how far we have fallen (this he mentions repeatedly throughout). The second is that it "restrains malefactors and those who are not yet believers":
The second function of the law is this: at least by fear of punishment to restrain certain men who are untouched by any care for what is just and right unless compelled by hearing the dire threats in the law. But they are restrained, not because their inner mind is stirred or affected, but because, being bridled, so to speak, they keep their hands from outward activity, and hold inside the depravity that otherwise they would wantonly have indulged. Consequently, they are neither better nor more righteous before God. (VII.10)
As a result, the moral law has a political function, in that it can serve to regulate our public sphere of life. Although governments made by men cannot judge the inner thoughts of a human being like God can, yet governments have a responsibility to judge visible actions and punish them for the sake of society.

It's interesting to think about how this works out in own day. If we as Christians ought to be asking our government to govern according to the moral law set out in scripture, what does that look like? The very division between ceremonial and moral law in reading scripture already seems to create a canon outside the canon, so that serious questions of authoritative interpretation immediately come to mind. Who gets to say what laws ought to be followed strictly, while others are followed only loosely or not at all? These are big questions for modern Christians to think about as we involve ourselves in the political life of nations we live in.

The third and seemingly most important purpose for the (moral) law in Calvin's view is for believers to actually follow it!
The third and principal use, which pertains more closely to the proper purpose of the law, finds its place among believers in whose heart the Spirit of God already lives and reigns. For even though they have the law written and engraved upon their hearts by the finger of God, that is, heave been so moved and quickened through the directing of the Spirit that they long to obey God, they still profit by the law in two ways. (VII.12)
Those two ways, as he goes on to describe, are these: first, we can better understand how God intends for us to live; and second, we can discipline our flesh, as it is constantly a hindrance in our journey toward a righteous life.

So although the moral law no longer condemns us (VII.15) it is essential to the Christian life. It appears that Calvin would not trust the idea that Christians, having been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, would just "naturally" begin to become better people. In his view, discipline is required to continue shedding the sinful nature. The church is responsible for providing that discipline through proper instruction in the law.

Thus he goes on to explain the Ten Commandments in Book 2, Chapter VIII. I'm half-way through that chapter, having read the first five commandments.

My complaints about Calvin's thinking about the law are as follows. First, it's a lovely idea that there is continuity between Old and New Testaments, and that the prophets of old all saw the fulfillment of the ceremonial law in a coming redeemer.

But I wonder sometimes if this can be sustained from a historical perspective. For instance, did Moses and the ancient Israelites really think that the smell of animal sacrifices was hideous, as Calvin indicated? As I recall, the law mentions a "pleasing aroma" to the Lord.

If you were to ask Moses at the time he was alive what he thought of the sacrifices, what would he say? Would he say that these were not meant to be part of the law that is kept perpetually throughout all generations? Would he say, as we assume in our modern culture, that God would have to be some kind of sick freak to actually want animal sacrifices to satisfy him?

In fact, I have to wonder if the attitude would have shifted significantly just going from Moses to David to the later prophets. David, after all, was a king; Moses knew nothing of kings over Israel. The prophets after David lived during the time of a temple in Jerusalem; David never got to see a temple built. And other prophets lived post-temple, or during the rebuilding of the temple. What difference would that have made in their attitudes toward sacrifices and the "ceremonial law"?

The early Church Fathers knew a lot of Greek philosophy. Surely their view of God was shaped by this. Why would God even care about bloody animals? In Justin Martyr's First Apology, he highlights the significance of the fact that the Christian God does not care about animal sacrifices, but he simply demands moral character, and how clearly superior this kind of religion was to creating a good society. In post-Reformation Christendom, suddenly the emphasis became that God doesn't demand works, but that it is all grace. Context affects so much about how we answer questions about God.

So I guess it's not really a problem I have with Calvin so much as the whole Christian tradition that he is taking to the extreme--making Moses harmonize with the New Testament, because clearly Moses could not have been so stupid as to think anything other than what the New Testament teaches us. Calvin makes it clear in VIII.7 that whatever Christ taught, Moses would have agreed with, and it's only those who misread Moses who fail to see this.

See, whenever you start with the principle that the Bible is one unit, meant to guide us to salvation, you potentially cut yourself off from really getting to know its different characters. You have to read Moses in light of everyone else, so you never really get to know Moses. Of course reading all the different parts of scripture will certainly shed light on Moses, but there's a difference between shedding light and forcing someone to fit a particular mold.

But then, I absolutely agree with the Christian principle that we have to look back and read everything in light of Christ. Since Christ was raised from the dead, everything changes. We have to look back at the story of scripture in a totally different light. All I'm suggesting is that this new light is perhaps something Moses would not have expected, nor would David nor perhaps even the prophets. Who says Moses would have expected David? Who says David would have expected Isaiah? Who says Isaiah would have expected John the Baptist? Who says John the Baptist even expected the church?

I think this has a lot of significance for how we read the Bible today. I think it's fine to go to the scriptures in search of wisdom, so that it can shape our thinking. But we ought to be self-consciously aware that we're not reading it in some universal way. It wasn't always being used to answer the same questions that you now have.

I guess I can continue to stumble over these questions as I read through Calvin. So far it has been an educational experience. I'm just about 25% of the way through!

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