Wednesday, February 9, 2011

“Law, Authority, and Liberty in Early Calvinism” by John Witte Jr. (Ch. 2)

This review, written by Ian Moes, is one of our series of reviews of chapters of David W. Hall & Marvin Padgett, Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview (P&R, 2010). We welcome your engagement and responses.

In this chapter, John Witte Jr., Director of the Center for the Study of the Law and Religion and Professor of Law at Emory University Law School, illustrates how Calvin influenced the legal arena both during his life and after. He focuses on Calvin’s main legal teachings and the unique models of law and liberty, authority and discipline, and church and state that Calvinists later developed from Calvin’s writings.

Witte highlights that central to Calvin’s teaching is a basic separation between church and state, but not a division between religion and politics. The church, Calvin argues, is responsible for governing itself without state interference. The state is responsible for making and enforcing laws that encompass the biblical principles of love for God and neighbour, but not for embracing biblical laws per se.

Witte explains how this worked practically for Calvin, who described three uses for the “moral law,” i.e., the moral commandments engraved on the conscience and summarized in the Decalogue:
  1. Theological – to condemn all persons in their consciences and compel them to seek God’s liberating grace;
  2. Civil – to restrain the sinfulness of nonbelievers; and
  3. Educational – to teach believers the means and measures of sanctification.

From these three uses, Calvin argued that it was the church’s responsibility to teach the “spiritual norms” that are distinctly Christian, and the state’s responsibility to enforce the “civil norms” that are common to all persons.

In this regard, Calvin argued that the church was its own distinct legal entity and held “doctrinal power” to determine its own confessions, “legislative power” to ensure orderly administration, and “jurisdictional power” to enforce its own laws and church discipline. Only if the church’s spiritual jurisdiction failed should the state be called upon to enforce civil and criminal sanctions. In doing so, Witte notes that Calvin struck a unique balance between “law and liberty, structure and spirit, order and innovation, dogma and adiaphora.”

In reading Witte’s overview of Calvin’s contributions to the legal arena, one can see how Calvin’s teachings are still evident today in both internal church relations and church-state relations. For example, Canadian courts are notably reluctant to interfere with internal church matters. This is something Calvin would applaud as it recognizes the church’s “jurisdictional power.” Additionally, Canadian courts have historically refrained from passing judgment on the validity of doctrinal beliefs, but have instead focused on whether a particular belief is sincerely held in determining whether it merits protection. Again, this is something Calvin would applaud as it recognizes the church’s “doctrinal power.”

The challenge arises, however, that we are living in an increasingly pluralistic society. There is an increasing sentiment, both judicially and socially, that the freedom to hold religious beliefs is broader than the right to practice them publicly. The courts are increasingly called upon to “balance” religious rights with other rights and to adjudicate on whether there are legal limits on religious freedoms that are “justified in a free and democratic society.” In this way, religious beliefs are increasingly marginalized to be practiced within the four walls of the church building.

In this context, do Calvin’s teachings provide any guidance? I think they do. While Witte notes that Calvin assumed each local community would have a single faith wherein both the church and the state would cooperate in the governance of a godly polity, Calvin’s primary emphasis was that the state should not apply biblical laws per se, but the (biblical) principles of love, justice and equity. We should be encouraged to continue Calvin’s urging on the state to reflect these principles in its law making and adjudication.

Ian Moes earned his LL.B. from the University of Alberta Law School and is a lawyer in Vancouver, BC, where he practices in civil, constitutional, and church law matters. He is a member of Langley Canadian Reformed Church and a director of the Geneva Society for Reformational Worldview Studies.

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