In light of my extended discussion with Apologia Radio concerning theonomy, or God’s Law for society, I anticipate the response that always comes from certain Reformed quarters: “but Calvin rejected theonomy!” Then follows, inevitably, the quotation from Calvin’s Institutes, 4.20.14, in which said rejection is manifest. Then, with said quotation, the full discussion of the full scope of the theonomic debate is assumed to be settled for all times in all Reformed venues.
Question: But what if Scripture teaches otherwise? Question: What if Calvin was wrong? Question: What if there is an understandable explanation for Calvin’s resistance in this one area? What if, god forbid, Calvin was badly wrong here—even fallacious? What if, perish the thought, Calvin was not Reformed here at all, and even departed from his own standard of sola scriptura?
My argument is that this is exactly what happened. The following version of that answer is taken in part from my Biblical Logic: In Theory and Practice:
An unfortunate example of the fallacy of Epithet comes in the writings of John Calvin himself. That such a gifted theologian as Calvin commits this error testifies again to the insidious nature of fallacies—even the best can and do fall prey. When addressing the validity of Old Testament law for modern governments, Calvin does not seem to deeply engage the implications of the question, but skirts them with mere insult:
For there are some who deny that a commonwealth is duly framed which neglects the political system of Moses, and is ruled by the common laws of nations. Let other men consider how perilous and seditious this notion is; it will be enough for me to have proved it false and foolish.
Instead of providing reasons to back his denial, Calvin merely labels the position “perilous,” “seditious,” “false,” and “foolish.” This commits the fallacy of Epithet as clearly as anything. Calvin does go on for a few paragraphs to outline the classic medieval distinction between moral, ceremonial, and judicial divisions of laws in Moses’ code, but he provides no argument to show the biblical warrant for this division, nor does he show a biblical basis for deciding his view to be adequate while the revealed Mosaic view to be “false,” let alone “foolish.” What really drives his persuasion here is the widespread acceptance of his view already, and the Epithets he hurls upon to opposition.
Of course nearly everyone writing during the Reformation employed invective and insult on top of their argumentation, and such practice does not always count as fallacy. God’s prophets often spoke in vulgar metaphor and insult against rebellious people. But when the insult itself begins to do the work of persuasion, then we have fallacy. And while Calvin rarely made such a logical slip, on this issue he slid badly.
We could go so far as to argue that the exaggerated severity of Calvin’s epithets here really betray the emptiness of his case. Even if Old Testament law did not supply the most biblical and ideal legislation for modern states (though I believe it does), could he rightfully really argue that such a notion was seditious and foolish? Are they really fools who hold God’s prescribed judgments and punishments for theft, etc., in higher esteem than man’s?
The historical context in which Calvin wrote makes his appeal to “the common laws of nations” and his rejection of Moses somewhat understandable. Some violent revolutionaries in the so-called “Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster” had unfortunately associated the name of Moses with their bloodshed and havoc. The association was not just—not really even accurate—but propaganda did its thing. Kings everywhere quickly feared that local Protestants, wishing to reform society according to the Bible, would follow the same course and incite violence against the throne. Roman Catholic propagandists stirred fear amongst these leaders by pointing to Munster’s violence and murder as an example of what the Reformers’ Sola Scriptura (the Bible Alone as our ultimate authority) would inevitably lead to (a Slippery Slope Fallacy!). Into this scene stepped the very young John Calvin.
The furor in Munster began in 1534 and lasted until the middle of 1535. By this time it had gained fame throughout Europe as a symbol of “Protestant” rebellion against the throne. Calvin published the first edition of his Institutes in 1536—less than a year later—partly because he wished to distance the true Reformation from the unjust association with the violence done in its name. In his dedicatory epistle to King Francis I, he wrote,
Lastly, they do not act with sufficient candor when they invidiously recount how many disturbances, tumults, and contentions the preaching of our doctrine has drawn along with it, and what fruits it produces among many. The blame for these evils is unjustly laid upon it, when this ought to have been imputed to Satan’s malice.… And first, indeed, he stirred up men to action that thereby he might violently oppress the dawning truth. And when this profited him nothing, he turned to stratagems: he aroused disagreements and dogmatic contentions through his Catabaptists [Anabaptists] and other monstrous radicals in order to obscure and at last extinguish the truth.
Calvin thus made it clear that the advancement of God’s Word in no way necessitated social disasters like Munster, nor did those violent radicals represent the whole of the Reformation.
In pursuing this defense, however, Calvin unwittingly refuted his own argument against the Old Testament standard. Against those who impugned the Reformers’ adherence to the Bible by associating it with sedition, Calvin defended,
Furthermore, how great is the malice that would ascribe to the very Word of God itself the odium either of seditions, which the wicked and rebellious men stir up against it, or of sects, which imposters excite, both of them in opposition to its teaching!
I hope you note the irony here when you compare this quotation with the earlier one I cited as a fallacy. Earlier Calvin impugned the argument that Moses applies to modern governments as “seditious.” Now he defends adherence to the ultimate authority of the Bible as right and refutes those who ascribe to such preaching “sedition.” Why the disparity here? I believe the issue of biblical law at this early stage in Calvin’s career to have been a glaring inconsistency—one which his own biblical standard refutes.
I consider this inconsistency to be Calvin’s greatest error (he committed very few, of course). In everything else Calvin overtly relied upon the standard of God’s Word; elsewhere he thunders against the church of Rome and the mere words of men which, when even questioning the authority of God’s Word, Calvin calls a “great insult to the Holy Spirit”; but when he comes to the issue of civil law he faced two enormous pressures which overcame his exegesis: his education and then-current politics, things still enormously responsible for the same error today.
On the issue of education, Calvin had studied law at the Universities of Orléans and Bourges, and engaged Roman natural law ideas deeply. His first published work, in fact, was not the Institutes, but a commentary on the laws of Seneca (not of Moses). He had imbibed a pagan view of law for six years, 1526–1532, and since he pursued it at such length, he had the comforts of familiarity, confidence, and authority when he wrote on the issue. This naturally coalesced with the second problem, the political situation described above. When the moment called for distancing the Reformation from the evils done in the name of biblical law, Calvin readily responded with a politically correct view of law that would keep the Protestants out of trouble with both the king and Christian scholarly tradition, despite not having a clear biblical warrant. It was Calvin exclaiming publicly, “Hey look, we agree with Aquinas and Justinian, and Cicero and Seneca just like you guys do!”
Much later in his life he would preach through the book of Deuteronomy, speaking clearly that God intervened in history and judged nations according the historical sanctions mentioned in chapters 28 and 29 of that book of Moses. Whether he addressed the standard by which those sanctions get judged needs more study, though he still refers to pagan theorists in the Preface to that work, and his Epithets against Moses remain intact in the 1559 edition of the Institutes, published just before his death. I suspect he never really saw his own inconsistency by this point, since he was consumed with his duties and his failing health.
Pointing out this fallacy in Calvin is important because some “modern” Reformation theologians (like those critiqued in Inglorious Kingdoms) love to quote the same “foolish and false” statement from Calvin as if it provided an actual refutation of the biblical law (“theonomic,” or “reconstructionist”) view. When they do so, these theologians can’t but help themselves to add the Epithet “theocratic,” as if it would be an insult to man if God Himself revealed civil laws (He did). The insult, rather, is against God, for rejecting His very clear legal standards. They prefer instead the alleged “diversity” of a natural law standard. Yet even Calvin when defending something like a natural law view, and acknowledging that “Heathen authors also saw this,” nevertheless adds, “although not with sufficient clearness.” Modern Reformed theologians put to much emphasis on the fact that heathen authors “saw this” and not nearly enough on the “by not with sufficient clearness.”
And where should one go to find this missing “clearness”? One should ask why we should wish to pursue an unclear “equity,” shrouded in “nature” and suppressed beneath the fallen nature, when we have the crystal clear standard revealed in God’s Word? With this in mind, Calvin’s regard for Seneca and natural law—deeply buried in the presuppositions of his condemnations of Moses and biblical civil law—put to the light and refuted.
Calvin himself provides the type of refutation needed in biblical terms. His remarks provide us a way to understand the rightful limits of Epithet and Euphemism as well. As far as God’s Word determines “good” and “evil” for us, to that extent we can understand something as “godly” or “foolish,” but even then we should take care in our language lest we risk judgment for unjustly slandering a brother (Matt. 5:21–22). Calvin used God’s prophet as a frame of reference for the charge of “sedition”:
Yet this is no new example. Elijah was asked if it was not he who was troubling Israel [I Kings 18:17]. To the Jews, Christ was seditious [Luke 23:5; John 19:7 ff.]. What else are they doing who blame us today for all the disturbances, tumults, and contentions that boil up against us? Elijah taught us what we ought to reply to such charges: it is not we who either spread errors abroad or incite tumults; but it is they who contend against God’s power [I Kings 18:18].
Amen! It is unfortunate that Calvin could see this when the charge was leveled at him, but so freely leveled the same charge elsewhere at others with only heathen, and not biblical, justification. Epithets mean nothing if they run counter to God’s revealed Will. When they do, we may justly charge them with fallacy. When they do not, we must consider their weight in the light of God’s Word. Even then, wisdom and love for our neighbors dictate that we should avoid them when possible—even if they come from the lips of our favorite and most trusted theologians.
When we finally get this type of fallacious argument out of the way, perhaps we can actually argue the merits of biblical law on biblical grounds.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1536 Ed., 11–12.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1536 Ed., 12.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559 (1.7.1).
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1536 Ed., 12.