Calvin on Law and Gospel

Mike Horton’s essay from EVANGELIUM is now online.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. This is timely. I just got into a discussion at church today with a Bahnsen admirer who argued Calvin was one who was interested in transforming culture. I’m not sure how you can believe this with Calvin’s view of the law/Gospel distinction. I would think this is inconsistent at best, Dr. Clark? Will forward him Mike Horton’s article.

      • I know, I know. It also seems that the Reformed view of the three-fold use of the Law is at odds with a theonomic view of the Law. Unless I am missing something, I can’t see that theonomists would have a use for the pedagogical use of the Law.

      • Isn’t the idea that Calvin taught “two Kingdoms” just as much anachronostic as saying he was a “transformationalist”?

        I don’t know that Calvin held to either view as they’ve been articulated today partly because (as you said Dr. Clark) he lived in Christendom and didn’t operate with the same categories as we do. Not to say he didn’t lay the groundwork for such a position, but if you mean to indicate that Calvin is two kingdoms just as the position is described today I’m not sure you can avoid being anachronistic either.

        • Brandon,

          Have you read Dr VanDrunen’s work on this? Calvin clearly made a distinction between two kingdoms but he didn’t have to apply his theory to a post-Christendom context. We do. I’ve always conceded that he was a theocrat, even though there’s been some recent scholarship to dispute that notion. Most of the Reformed were theocrats, at least at times, e.g. Beza in De Iure Magistratuum.

          The two kingdoms view as articulated by VanDrunen and others is a legitimate outworking of Calvin’s theory.

          The reason that transformationalism is so anachronistic is that it makes assumptions that Calvin did and, given his theology, couldn’t make. It operates on a different theoretical basis than Calvin did whereas I think the 2k approach arguably operates on the same or at least organically related theoretical basis.

          One other difference is eschatology. Like it or not, transformationalist rhetoric sounds postmil. Calvin rarely sounded postmil. The little scholarship that’s been done on his eschatology (e.g. Oberman and Quistorp) suggests a view closer to what we could call today a-millennialism more than the sort of triumphalism sometimes associated with transformationalism.

          One would not and does not find Calvin EVER talking about Christ “redeeming” x or y except for sinners. One frequently finds transformationalism making this egregious error with some frequency. One does not find Calvin talking about “making” Christ Lord of x or y. For Calvin, Christ IS Lord of x or y. Perhaps the most significant difference between Calvin and the most popular forms of transformationalism is that the former had a doctrine of creation and natural law whereas most forms of transformationalism seem to be positively Barthian when it comes to natural law and creation. There I think the continuities between Calvin and what is called “the 2k-ethic” are much stronger than they are with transformationalism.

          • This take on Calvin is VERY helpful, Dr. Clark. Thank you. I made a point this year of doing the daily readings through “The Institutes” which Ref21 put out. I have been very much appreciative of Calvin’s views on suffering and his non-triumphalist views–which tracks to a large extent with Luther’s view of the theology of the Cross vs. the theology of glory. I can’t see how you could get theonomy or even postmill ideas from this.

  2. Yes, it is. The theonomists reject the traditional (and Reformed and confessional) threefold distinction. They have to in order to preserve the civil law, despite the clear teaching of the WCF: “expired.”

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