Book 2 - Chapter 8
In this section Calvin enters into an extensive discussion of the Ten Commandments. He begins with a general discussion and then examines each of the commandments.
Summary: The opening question in this chapter is, what are the Ten Commandments to us? Calvin’s initial response is that the commandments show us that“…the public worship of God is still in force” (pg. 367) and “…the true character of godliness …” (pg. 367) He expands on this idea when he writes that that “…the Lord has provided us a clearer witness of what was too obscure in the natural law…” (pg. 368) In other words God gave us a clearer understanding of how we are to relate to God and neighbor than can be found in the world around us. Calvin then offers us several observations about the commandments.
First, they show us “how far we are from conforming to God’s will.” (Pg. 369) Though Calvin enumerates several downsides to this awareness he also points to some upsides. These include the ability to learn true humility and to depend on God’s mercy and grace.
Second, he shows us that the commandments contain both threats and promises. Calvin makes clear their purpose. “In order to imbue our hearts with love of righteousness and with hatred of wickedness, he has added promises and threats. For because the eye of our mind is too blind to be moved solely by the beauty of the good, our most merciful Father out of his great kindness has willed to attract us by the sweetness of rewards to love and seek after him….but unrighteousness will not escape judgment…” (pg. 370)
In this section Calvin argues that what God desires most is obedience to the law as enumerated in scripture. What this means for him is that all of the other rules and regulations added to the commandments by either Judaism or the Roman Church are unnecessary. “…the law has been divinely handed down to us to teach us perfect righteousness; there no other righteousness is taught than that which conforms to the requirements of God’s will.” (pg. 372)
Third Calvin reminds his readers that what God desires in the commandments is not simply outward obedience but “inward and spiritual righteousness...” because God “… is a spiritual lawgiver…and speaks no less to the soul than to the body.” (pg. 372) He then compares God to an earthly king. The earthly king is only concerned with legal obedience, but God desires “not only obedience of soul, mind and will, but requires and angelic purity, which…savors nothing but the spirit.” (pg. 373)
Fourth, Calvin acknowledges that there is more to each commandment than meets the eye; there is a deeper purpose in each. “Now I think this would be the best rule, if attention is directed to the reason for the commandment; that is in each commandment to ponder why it was given to us.” (pg. 375)
Reflection: There are moments when I believe that Calvin either overstates his position or misses the mark, however in this opening section of Chapter 8 I believe that he gets it right. He does so first because he sees that the commandments are not simply a set of rules to be obeyed because God “says so.” Instead they are gifts from God that offer us a clear witness as how we are to love God and neighbor. Second, they are intended to help us be spiritually transformed into the kind of people who can and will love God and neighbor. Finally, the commandments have deeper meanings which are applicable to more than a single situation; there is a larger purpose behind them.
This section of Chapter 8 will deal with what Calvin calls the first table of the Ten Commandments. In the first table are the first three commandments which deal directly with our relationship with God.
Summary: Calvin begins this portion of the chapter with an explanation of the two tables of the Law. “God has divided his law into two parts…the first part to those duties of religion which particularly concern the worship of his majesty; the second to the duties of love that have? to do with men.” (pg. 376-7)
The First Commandment is “I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before my face.” For Calvin this commandment contains several critical elements. First, it is a reminder that God is the one to be worshipped (I am the Lord…). Second, that God is not simply a generic god, but one that has chosen a particular people to be God’s own (…your God…). Third, that God is a delivering, liberating God who can be trusted to set people free (…who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.) And fourth, that God is to be the one God worshiped and obeyed (You shall have no other Gods before my face). Calvin states that “The purpose of the first commandment is that the Lord wills alone to be pre-eminent among his people, and exercise complete authority over them.” (pg. 382)
The Second Commandment is “You shall not make a graven image, or any likeness of anything…you shall not worship or adore them.” Calvin believes that this commandment can be summed up in two parts. The first is that it restrains us “…from daring to subject God, who is incomprehensible, to our sense perception, or to represent him in any form.” (pg. 384) “The second part forbids us to worship any images in the names of religion.” (pg. 384) Calvin reminds his readers that “…whatever visible forms of God man devises are diametrically opposed to His nature; therefore as soon as idols appear, true religion is corrupted and adulterated.” (pg. 384)
The Third Commandment is “You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God in vain.” The issue here for Calvin deals with oaths made in the name of God, such as those used in court. An oath for Calvin is when we call God “..as witness to confirm the truth of our word.” (pg. 389) God’s name is taken in vain when people utter false oaths or idol oaths, meaning those that are truly needless. Appropriate oaths are those that are used in a judicial setting which cause people to speak the truth because they have sworn to do so in the name of God.
Reflection: Calvin takes a relatively straightforward view of the commandments and attempts to make some practical application of them (such as with oaths). Even so he wants to be clear that our role is to be absolutely obedient to God in all that we do.
In this section, we continue with Calvin’s discussion of the Ten Commandments. We will now look at the second table of the Law, commandments four through six.
Summary: The Fourth Commandment is “Remember to keep the Sabbath day holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work.” Calvin begins by stating that “The purpose of this commandment is that, being dead to our own inclinations and works, we should meditate on the Kingdom of God.” (pg. 394) He continues with the belief that this would first entail a spiritual rest which would “…allow God to work in them.” (pg. 395), second to give them the opportunity to “…assemble to hear the Law…and be trained in piety” (pg. 395) and third to give workers “…some respite from their toil.” (pg. 395)
Calvin moves from a general overview of the commandment to a discussion of why Christians worship on Sunday and the purpose of our Sabbath observances. Christians can worship on Sunday first because it was the day Jesus was resurrected (thus offering true rest) and because any seventh day can serve as a Sabbath as long as the day is properly observed. Proper observance includes reading and expounding on the scriptures, administering the sacraments and praying in public. In addition the Sabbath is a time to insure that we do not “…inhumanely oppress those subject to us.” (pg. 400)
The Fifth Commandment is “Honor your father and mother that you may live long in the land which the Lord your God will give you.” Calvin sums this commandment up this way. “…that we ought to look up to those whom God has placed over us, and should treat them with honor, obedience, and gratefulness. It follows from this that we are forbidden to detract from their dignity by either contempt, by stubbornness or by ungratefulness.” (pg. 401) For Calvin this commandment reflects the hierarchical nature of the society in which he lived. There were people who were in charge and people who were subject to them. He therefore extends his commandment to all relationships.
The Sixth Commandment is “You shall not kill.” Calvin begins with a positive description of this commandment. “…the Lord has bound mankind together by a certain unity; hence each man ought to concern himself with the safety of all. To sum up then, all violence, injury, and any harmful thing…are forbidden to us.” (pg. 404) He even extends this commandment (as did Jesus)
to forbidding “…murder in the heart” to “…the inner intent to save a brother’s life.” (pg. 404)
Reflection: In these discussions we see a more humane side of Calvin than has been offered before. Calvin wants people to treat those who work for them well by insuring they have a Sabbath. He refuses to enter into arguments over which day ought to be the Sabbath. He offers only a general description of worship. And finally he desires that people not only do not kill but that they act kindly toward all persons.
In this section, we continue with Calvin’s discussion of the Ten Commandments. We will now look at the second table of the Law, commandments seven through ten.
Summary: The seventh commandment is “You shall not commit adultery.” For Calvin this commandment is tied up with two things. First it is that “God loves modesty and purity” (pg. 405) and that human beings should “not lead a solitary life.” (pg. 405) In other words people are to be chaste in singleness and if they cannot be then they ought to marry. As Calvin puts it, “…any other union apart from marriage is accursed in his (God’s) sight; and that the companionship of marriage has been ordained as a necessary remedy to keep us from plunging into unbridled lust.” (pg. 405) Calvin sees lust as both an issue for unmarried as well as married who are “not to pollute marriage with uncontrolled and dissolute lust.” (pg. 407) Finally Calvin extends this commandment to include the fact that not only are we to avoid sex outside of marriage but that we are not to seduce others by how we dress and act.
The eight commandment is “You shall not steal.” Calvin offers both a negative and positive analysis of this commandment. He writes, “…we are forbidden to pant after the possessions of others, and consequently are commanded to strive faithfully to help every man keep his own possessions.” (pg. 408) The basis of this commandment is the belief that all we have has been given to us by God and if we steal from someone then we are “…fraudulently setting aside God’s dispensation.” (pg. 409) He extends this idea when he writes, “We will duly obey this commandment, then, if…we are zealous to make only honest and lawful gain; if we do not seek to become wealthy through injustice, nor attempt to deprive our neighbor of his goods to increase our own…but to faithfully help all men…keep what is theirs insofar as we can.” (pg. 409-410)
The ninth commandment is “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Again Calvin offers the negative and positive aspects of this law. “…let us not malign anyone with slander or false charges, nor harm his substance by falsehood...(but)…help everyone as much as we can in affirming the truth…” (pg. 411) Calvin sees lying as the equivalent of theft in that those who lie are depriving someone of their good reputation. We are therefore to allow love to help us to “…keep their honor safe in our judgment, our ears and our tongue.” (pg. 413)
The tenth commandment is “You shall not covet your neighbors….” The negative is to avoid having thoughts that “should steal upon us to move our hearts to a harmful covetousness that tends to our neighbors loss.” (pg. 413) The positive is that “…whatever we conceive, deliberate, will or attempt is to be linked to our neighbors good and advantage.” (pg. 413) Calvin expands on this positive when he states that “The Lord has previously commanded that the rule of love govern our wills…” so that the mind not be “…pricked or tickled by empty and perverse objects.” (pg. 413)
Reflection: Calvin’s attitude toward lust (in or out of marriage) reminds us that part of the Reformation ethos was that of order. God was an orderly God and so we were to be orderly people. Thus lust is seen as disorderly…an emotion that takes control of us away from God. The upside of these discussions is that Calvin always offers a positive aspect for each commandment, describing what we ought to do rather than simply a negative focused on what we ought not to do.
This section brings to a close Calvin’s look at the Ten Commandments. Here he will take some time to help us see how the ancient Law is still active even after the coming of Christ.
Summary: Calvin sums up the purpose of the Law in this way. “Now it will not be difficult to decide the purpose of the whole law: …to form human life to the archetype of divine purity. For God has so depicted his character in the law that if any man carries out in deeds whatever is enjoined there, he will express the image of God, as it were in his own life.” (pg. 415) He continues, “It would be therefore a mistake for anyone to believe that the law teaches nothing but some rudiments and preliminaries of righteousness by which men begin their apprenticeship, and does not also guide them to the true goal, good works…” (pg. 415) The law for Calvin then is in some ways a gift of God’s own self in that it reflects the very character of God in such a way, that if we follow its precepts then we will be reflecting the true image of God into the world.
Calvin notes that the scriptures often spend more time looking at the second table of the law, that dealing with human-human interaction, than it does with the first table, which deals with human-God relationships. Evidently some people had argued that this meant that human-human interactions were more important to God. Calvin rejects this. Instead he states, “For almost every time the prophets exhort men to repentance they omit the First Table, and urge faith, judgment, mercy and equity. In this way they do not overlook the fear of God, but they demand through signs real evidence of it.” In essence Calvin sees obedience to the second half of the law as possible only when we have our hearts properly aligned to God through following the first half of the law.
The conclusion of this chapter covers two topics. The first is love of neighbor and the second is a reminder that all sins matter, not just those mentioned in the Ten Commandments. First he addresses love of neighbor. “Here let us stand fast; our life shall best conform to God’s will and the prescription of the law when it is in every respect for our brethren. In the entire law we do not read one syllable that lays a rule upon man as regards those things which he may or may not do to the advantage of his own flesh….thus it is clear that we keep the whole commandment not by loving ourselves but by loving God and neighbor.” (pg. 417) Calvin then wants to be sure that we know who our neighbors are. “…we are not expected to limit the precept of love to those in close relationships…But I say: we ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love; here there is no distinction between barbarian and Greek, worthy and unworthy, friend and enemy, since all should be contemplated in God, not in themselves.” (pg. 419) He then goes on to make a special point of reminding us that we are to love our enemies.
In terms of sin he makes it clear that, “…all sin is mortal.” (pg. 423) In other words there is no distinction between sins. Though we may see some as great and others small, God does not.
Reflection: Calvin and Calvinism have often been seen as being stern and unloving. Yet when we take the time to reflect on this section of the Institutes what we see is that Calvin not only expects, but demands love of neighbor, including friend and foe. For Calvin this would extend to people of all faiths and nationalities. To not love them would be a great sin and only by loving them do we reflect the image of God through our own lives. This is a lesson I believe we all need to take to heart as we live in a more and more diverse world.