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‘Because of your hardness of heart’: Calvin and the limits of law

  • Matthew J. Tuininga (a1)


This article proposes that Calvin's ‘hardness of heart’ principle functions as a substantive limitation on political authority and the law, creating the legal space for meaningful moral pluralism. Calvin distinguished between the spiritual and civil uses of the law, as well as between the natural moral law and the civil law within the Mosaic law. He repeatedly used Jesus' concept of ‘hardness of heart’ to explain inadequacies within the Mosaic law and to articulate a general principle about the nature and limits of civil law. This approach has important implications for law and morality in contemporary contexts characterised by a degree of moral pluralism that Calvin scarcely could have anticipated.

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1 As he puts it, ‘whenever holiness is made to consist in anything else than in observing the law of God, men are led to believe that the law may be violated without danger’. Commentary on Matthew 15: 3 (1555); Ioannis Calvini opera quae supersunt omnia, 58 vols, ed. Johann-Wilhelm Baum, Edouard Cunitz, and Eduard Wilhelm Eugen Reuss (Brunswick: C. A. Schwetschke, 1863) [hereafter CO], 45: 449. Cf. Commentary on Romans 8: 7 (1556); CO 49: 142–3; 9: 21; CO 49: 447–8; 3: 31; CO 49: 68; Commentary on 2 Timothy 3: 16 (1548); CO 52: 382–4; Commentary on Titus 2: 12 (1550); CO 52: 423; Commentary on Psalms 19: 8 (1557); CO 31: 200–1; Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 3: 6–10 (1550); CO 52: 211; Commentary on James 2: 12 (1550); CO 55: 402.

2 Commentary on Deuteronomy 10: 12 (1563); CO 24: 723.

3 Commentary on Philippians 3: 6 (1548); CO 52: 46.

4 These are the second and third uses of the law. Of course, Calvin posited three uses of the law. The first use of the law, the pedagogical use, pertains to the ‘natural man’ who is entirely unable to attain to the purpose and end for which God created the world and human beings. It achieves nothing but condemnation. ‘[S]ince our carnal and corrupted nature contends violently against God's spiritual law and is in no way corrected by its discipline, it follows that the law which had been given for salvation . . . turns into an occasion for sin and death’ (2.7.7). See Hesselink, I. John, Calvin's Concept of the Law (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick Publications, 1992), pp. 217–76.

5 Commentary on Romans 7: 14 (1556); CO 49: 128. Cf. Commentary on Romans 2: 13, 27 (1556); CO 49: 37, 45; Commentary on 1 Timothy 1: 5 (1548); CO 52: 252.

6 In a sermon on Deut 5:17 Calvin declared, ‘It is true that when magistrates create laws, their manner is different from God's. But then their purpose has to do only with the way we govern ourselves with respect to the external civil order to the end that no one might be violated, and that each might have his rights and have peace and concord among men. That is their intention when they create laws. And why? [Because] they are mortal men; they cannot reform inner and hidden affections. That belongs to God.’ CO 26: 328. Cited in Witte, John Jr., The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (Cambridge: CUP, 2007), p. 64 . Cf. Commentary on 1 Timothy 1: 9 (1548); CO 52: 255; Chenevière, Marc, ‘Did Calvin Advocate Theocracy?’, Evangelical Quarterly 9 (1937), p. 166 .

7 Initially Calvin limited his discussion of the civil use of the law to a purely secular purpose, but in the 1543 Institutes he suggested that the civil law also plays a role as a ‘tutor unto Christ’, as described by the Apostle Paul in Gal 3:24. Still, he is clear that it does so not by any sort of spiritual influence, but as a preservative. It restrains human beings from the worst kinds of sin, so preserving them for the possible future influences of the Gospel (2.7.11). See Little, David, Religion, Order, and Law (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), pp. 53 , 72; Torrance, Thomas F., Kingdom and Church: Study in the Theology of the Reformation (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1956), pp. 151, 158–9; Stevenson, William R. Jr., Sovereign Grace: The Place and Significance of Christian Freedom in John Calvin's Political Thought (New York: OUP, 1999), p. 93 ; Hancock, Ralph C., Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), pp. 5961 .

8 Commentary on Acts 17: 2 (1554); CO 48: 393.

9 Commentary on Numbers 10: 2 (1563); CO 24: 374. Cf. 18: 19; CO 24: 187–8.

10 See O'Donovan, Oliver and O'Donovan, Joan Lockwood, From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 664 ; Stevenson, Sovereign Grace, pp. 94–5.

11 Calvin interpreted the Decalogue representatively, such that a host of moral principles not explicitly mentioned in it were understood to be part of its implicit teaching. In his Harmony of the Law he writes that ceremonial laws, which pertain to the first table of the Decalogue (piety and the worship of God), and political laws, which pertain to the second table (justice and relations between human beings) are to be regarded as supplements that do not add anything to the moral content of God's law but that serve ‘merely to aid in the observance of the moral law’. They are ‘only helps which, as it were, lead us by the hand to the due worship of God, and to the promotion of justice towards men’. To put it in Aristotelian terms, ‘they are not, to speak correctly, of the substance of the law’, but are ‘appendages’. Preface to Calvin's Harmony of the Law (1563); CO 24: 7–8. See Haas, Guenther, The Concept of Equity in Calvin's Ethics (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1997), pp. 72–5, 84–90. It is true that Calvin was much more sensitive to the error of conflating the Torah's ceremonial laws with the moral law (which he associated with Judaism) than he was to the danger of conflating the political laws with the moral law. In certain respects Calvin also held to a uniquely dogmatic interpretation of scripture's moral teaching compared to other magisterial reformers. Still, he repeatedly articulates points at which he finds Israel's civil law to be anachronistic, insufficient or even counter to natural law. See Thompson, John Lee, ‘Patriarchs, Polygamy and Private Resistance: John Calvin and Others on Breaking God's Rules’, Sixteenth-Century Journal 25/1 (1994), pp. 328 .

12 One important theological reason Calvin offers why certain laws in the Torah are not binding on all nations is that God gave Israel laws appropriate for its unique mission as God's sacerdotal kingdom. Such laws include the law about the sharing of manna (Commentary on Exodus 16: 17 (1563); CO 24: 171–2); the law about breaking down altars and images (23: 24; CO 24: 546); laws pertaining to the chief priest (Commentary on Numbers 3: 5 (1563); CO 24: 444–5); the laws on tithes (18: 20; CO 24: 479–81); laws calling for the extermination of the Canaanites (Commentary on Deuteronomy 7: 20–5 (1563); CO 24: 553–4); and laws prohibiting alliances with pagan nations (Commentary on Isaiah 30: 1 (1559), 15; CO 36: 506, 517).

13 See Huijgen, Arnold, Divine Accommodation in John Calvin's Theology: Analysis and Assessment (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), pp. 190200 , 208–36.

14 Commentary on Exodus 22: 1–4 (1563); CO 24: 688.

15 Commentary on Matthew 5: 31 (1555); CO 45: 180. Cf. Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7: 10 (1546); CO 49: 409.

16 Commentary on Matthew 19: 1–9 (1555); CO 45: 528.

17 Commentary on Deuteronomy 24: 1–4 (1563); CO 24: 657–8. Cf. Commentary on Numbers 5: 11; CO 24: 654.

18 ‘Moses conceded it on account of their obstinacy and not because he sanctioned it as licit.’ Commentary on Matthew 19: 7 (1555); CO 45: 529–30.

19 Ibid.

20 Commentary on Malachi 2: 16 (1559); CO 44: 456–7. A similar case is the law's toleration of polygamy. See Commentary on Leviticus 18: 18 (1563); CO 24: 664; Commentary on Psalms 45: 8 [1557]; CO 31: 455; Thompson, ‘Patriarchs’, p. 15.

21 Commentary on Deuteronomy 21: 10 (1563); CO 24: 353.

22 Commentary on Leviticus 19: 20–2 [1563]; CO 24: 649–50.

23 Commentary on Deuteronomy 20: 12 (1563); CO 24: 632. On Bullinger see Larson, Mark J., Calvin's Doctrine of the State: A Reformed Doctrine and its American Trajectory, the Revolutionary War, and the Founding of the Republic (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), pp. 4450 .

24 Commentary on Exodus 21: 7–11 (1563); CO 24: 650–1.

25 Commentary on Exodus 21: 1 (1563); CO 24: 700–1. Calvin describes other weaknesses in the Mosaic laws pertaining to slavery as well. See 21: 26; CO 24: 626. A final set of cases in which Calvin explained the weakness of the law in terms of the hardness of human hearts related to violence. See 21: 18; CO 24: 623–4; Commentary on Numbers 35: 19 (1563); CO 24: 638–40.

26 Commentary on Exodus 21: 18 (1563); CO 24: 623–4.

27 He offers comparisons on debt slavery (Commentary on Exodus 22: 3 (1563); CO 24: 690); theft (22: 1–4; CO 24: 687–9); the theft of neighbour's landmark (Commentary on Deuteronomy 19: 14 (1563); CO 24: 676); just conduct in war (20: 10; CO 24: 632); the treatment of slaves (Commentary on Leviticus 25: 39 (1563); CO 24: 703); contract law (19: 35; CO 24: 675–6); and laws on incest (18: 6; CO 24: 661–3). Where the Mosaic law differed from Roman law he occasionally finds the former to be superior. See Commentary on Deuteronomy 21: 18–21 (1563); CO 24: 607–8; Commentary on Exodus 21: 20 (1563); CO 24: 624; Commentary on Exodus 22: 1–4 (1563); CO 24: 687–9.

28 As Hopfl observes, Calvin believed the church's duty is ‘to urge on the magistracy an ever stricter conformity of positive with divine law, and an ever stricter enforcement of obedience to the law’. Hopfl, Harro, The Christian Polity of John Calvin (Cambridge: CUP, 1982), p. 196 .

29 Commentary on Matthew 19: 6 (1555); CO 45: 529.

30 Commentary on Matthew 19: 7 (1555); CO 45: 529–30.

31 On the sexuality laws of Lev 18 Calvin writes, ‘If any again object that what has been disobeyed in many countries is not to be accounted the law of the Gentiles, the reply is easy, viz., that the barbarism which prevailed in the East does not nullify that chastity which is opposed to the abominations of the Gentiles, since what is natural cannot be abrogated by any consent or custom.’ Commentary on Leviticus 18: 6 (1563); CO 24: 661–3. Cf. Commentary on Exodus 20: 14 (1563); CO 24: 641–2.

32 See, for instance, Calvin's Déclaration pour maintenir la vraye foy que tiennent tous chrestiens de la Trinité des personnes en un seul Dieu: Contre les erreurs détestables de Michel Servet Espaignol. Où il est aussi monstré qu'il est licite de punir les hérétiques, et qu'à bon droict ce meschant a esté executé par iustice en la ville de Genève (Geneva: Jean Crespin, 1554; available online at the Post-Reformation Digital Library,, p. 46.

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Scottish Journal of Theology
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