Calvin writes about Christian freedom in Chapter XIX of Book of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. He connects it directly with justification by faith. Because we are completely justified by God's grace alone, we have a freedom of conscience that allows us to be rid of any guilt imposed by any law, especially laws devised by humans, but even the law of the Old Testament. In particular, he believes in freedom on "things indifferent," i.e. outward customs and practices not directly tied to righteousness.
Calvin is very moderate with this idea. He says that we are likely to fall into one of two errors because of this doctrine. One error is to overuse this freedom so as to offend others. As an illustration, Calvin mentions those who in his day would purposefully eat meat during Lent and on Good Friday just to show Catholics that they were proud of their Christian freedom. The other error is to overuse this freedom for the sake of self-indulgence. This, he says, is not permitted. The purpose of our freedom of conscience is so that we can pursue God, not sin. If we have freedom of conscience, then we can accept God's full embrace; but if we run back to the embrace of sin, then we give ourselves over to the way of death.
I see some major problems with Calvin's view of Christian freedom. These arise when he starts trying to explain how it is that we can be bound to certain duties in this life when we have freedom of conscience before God. This particular statement strikes me as disastrous:
Therefore, lest this prove a stumbling-block to any, let us observe that in man government is twofold: the one spiritual, by which the conscience is trained to piety and divine worship; the other civil, by which the individual is instructed in those duties which, as men and citizens, we are bold to perform. ... Now, these two, as we have divided them, are always to be viewed apart from each other. When the one is considered, we should call off our minds, and not allow them to think of the other. For there exists in man a kind of two worlds, over which different kings and different laws can preside.To see just how disastrous this dualism is, it is important to see how it plays out:
By attending to this distinction, we will not erroneously transfer the doctrine of the gospel concerning spiritual liberty to civil order, as if in regard to external government Christians were less subject to human laws, because their consciences are unbound before God, as if they were exempted from all carnal service, because in regard to the Spirit they are free.You could not ask for better soil in which to plant the seeds of secular modernity! These words imply that religious liberty does not imply political liberty. Thus the believer is reduced to hoping for a future freedom, while the state is allowed to assert its absolute authority here on earth. It is not hard to see how the ideas expressed here gradually morphed into the idea that religion is a private matter for individuals to cherish in their own personal lives, but irrelevant in the public sphere. These words make the common Christian impotent to stand up to the State's coercion. For this reason I am in profound disagreement with Calvin on this point.
On a more general note, Calvin seems to take all the real content out of freedom of conscience. Consider the last section of Chapter XIX (emphasis added):
Wherefore, as works have respect to men, so conscience bears reference to God, a good conscience being nothing else than inward integrity of heart. ... Sometimes, indeed, it is even extended to men, as when Paul testifies, "Herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offense toward God, and toward men," (Acts 24:16). He speaks thus, because the fruits of a good conscience go forth and reach even to men. But, as I have said, properly speaking, it refers to God only. Hence a law is said to bind the conscience, because it simply binds the individual, without looking at men, or taking any account of them. For example, God not only commands us to keep our mind chaste and pure from lust, but prohibits all external lasciviousness or obscenity of language. My conscience is subjected to the observance of this law, though there were not another man in the world, and he who violates it sins not only by setting a bad example to his brethren, but stands convicted in his conscience before God. The same rule does not hold in things indifferent. We ought to abstain from every thing that produces offense, but with a free conscience. Thus Paul, speaking of meat consecrated to idols, says, "If any man say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that showed it, and for conscience sake:" "Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other," (1 Cor. 10:28, 29). A believer, after being previously admonished, would sin were he still to eat meat so offered. But though abstinence, on his part, is necessary, in respect of a brother, as it is prescribed by God, still he ceases not to retain liberty of conscience. We see how the law, while binding the external act, leaves the conscience unbound.Calvin's dualism is oppressive here. In our minds, we are free, but in our bodies, we are slaves. Again, the political implications are disturbing.
Freedom is not something that can be grasped. One does not define its parameters and then rest easy in a self-satisfied feeling of justification. Freedom is a matter of difficult choices that must be faced with courage. Liberty is not something to be asserted without humility, yet an individual must not simply let the world around him control his destiny. As surely as a man must acknowledge his own inner depravity, he must also acknowledge the depravity of the State, and of all the powers at work in this world. One cannot continually abstain from certain things for the sake of not offending others. At times his actions will offend others, though his own conscience is clear. It is not at all clear when he ought to go through with those actions despite the risks. But that's the thing about freedom: it refuses to be clearly defined, yet always remains essential to living as true human beings.
Calvin's work on Christian freedom was probably very important, especially in his own context. Nevertheless, this is a probably a low point in my opinion of Calvin's seminal writing. I don't think I could disagree with him any more strongly on a philosophical level than on this point.
The next section in the Institutes is on prayer. It's a long chapter, so I'm sure the next time I'll write will be on that topic.