I have been buried this week in thoughts about John Calvin’s theory of natural law, some of which you can find over at Mere Orthodoxy. Along the way, I came upon this excerpt by David Little, who does a fantastic job of encapsulating the implications of Calvin’s doctrine of natural law:
“In Calvin’s hands, this doctrine of the total transformation of the will plays down the importance of appeals to nature, and instead raises the status and indispensability of the Calvinist church as the locus of true righteousness, since it is there and there alone that, under proper teaching and organization, the human will at least begins to be “created anew,” thus establishing the foundations for achieving a true righteousness. As such, the church, truly certified “wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution,” becomes a necessary condition for upholding proper law and order in society. Without it, chaos and disorder are the likely result.”
Little is exactly right that the Church plays an essential role for the proper ordering of the state.
But we could go one step further. When the State is properly oriented toward the heavenly kingdom and acts in accordance with the principles of equity and the natural law, it functions as an arm by which the providence of God aids the Church. Specifically, civil government is “to cherish and protect the outward worship of God…[and] to defend sound doctrine of piety and the position of the church.” For Calvin, the heavenly kingdom is not opposed to the earthly, but transforms it and directs it to its proper end. While the Church is primary, our sinfulness requires a properly functioning State for the Gospel to go forward peacefully.
For Calvin, the political order is “initiating in us upon earth certain beginnings of the Heavenly Kingdom, and in this mortal and fleeting life affords a certain forecast of an immortal and incorruptible blessedness.” One of its duties is to “cherish and protect the outward worship of God,” and the magistrate is an “image of divine providence, protection, goodness, benevelence, and justice.” In rather shocking language to our modern sensibilities, Calvin even goes so far as to calls the magistrates “vicars of God.”
But all this is grounded in a political eschatology. Calvin writes:
“All of this I admit to be superfluous, if God’s Kingdom, such as it now is among us, wipes out the present life. But if it is God’s will that we go as pilgrims upon the earth while we aspire to the true fatherland, and if the pilgrimage requires such helps, those who take these from man may deprive him of his very humanity. Our adversaries claim that there ought to be such great perfection in the church of God that its government should suffice for law. But they stupidly imagine such a perfection as can never be found in a community of men.”
In short, it is precisely because the Church remains a church of humans that the state is needed. For now, until Christ Jesus comes again, Calvin insists on a separation and proper ordering of powers.