An observant reader of John Calvin’s Institutes will have noticed that the Reformer discusses the interesting and important question of Christian liberty in two places. The first is in Chapter 19 of Book III, appropriately entitled ‘Of Christian Liberty’, where he is dealing with soteriology and is at this point concerned with the consequences of justification. One of these consequences is freedom, freedom from the keeping of any law, whatever its shape and size, for justification. The second time he discusses Christian liberty is in Chapter 10 of Book IV ‘On the Power of Making Laws’ dealing principally with the church, and the root error of the Roman Catholic Church in imposing on the Christian laws of its own making, but also dealing with civil society which make law for human good.

Christian freedom in the church and in the state

Calvin’s approach is the same in both cases. Justified sinners possess liberty over the many things that are neither commanded nor forbidden by God, indifferent matters. This is a two way freedom, hence ‘indifferent’. The freedom to exercise to and claim the right to wear what coloured polo-shirt you should wear, but also not to insist on always wearing your favorite Postman-Pat Red. The rich may live in luxury, but they have liberty not to. Those who like a drink may enjoy one, but it is also a part of their liberty for them to abstain. And so on. ‘Indifference’ rather than ‘liberty’ emphasizes that the expression of freedom may go either way.

Even though the State is divinely-ordained, its laws are not divine laws, as are those which constitute the church, and which regulate its life. This is a rather surprising result, when you think of it. The church is not free to make new laws, but the state is. Are we free to disobey the state? The matters over which the state legislates may be indifferent as far as the law of God is concerned. The law of God neither commands nor forbids the imposition of a 30 mph limit.  But it must be obeyed nonetheless. Its laws ought to be kept conscientiously unless they flout the commands of God.

Having the Anabaptists in mind, no doubt, Calvin is quite exercised by this point of conscientiously obeying the powers that be, that the Christian should ‘internalise’ his obedience of a law that is not a divine law, when it is enacted by an institution ordained by God. He notes that Paul teaches (Rom. 13.5) that one must respect the state-law, not only for God’s wrath’s sake (because there  is a punishment for non-compliance), but also for conscience’s sake, though it may be purely human, and may carry with it all sorts of awkwardness and inconvenience. (And even though, in his day, the proceeds of taxation may be used to fund military conquest.)  Keeping the law should be a matter of inner integrity. (Calvin also cites I Tim.1.5.)

So concerned is Calvin to insist on this point that the more observant reader of the Institutes will recognize that Calvin reproduces verbatim (or almost so) his treatment of the church and society in Book III in his discussion of this point in Book IV.  For those who wish to check this, consider the language of III. 19. 16, and its verbatim repetition in IV.10 .4. (I wonder if a part of the reason is that Calvin thought that some of his readers would be inclined the skip parts of Book III, moving to the more political themes of Book IV?)

So Christian liberty has nuances to it.   Conduct respecting ‘things indifferent’ is not to be indulged or flaunted,   and the Christian as a respectful citizen is to keep the laws of men, because they are made law by a God-given power.

Hence a law is said to bind the conscience, because it simply binds the individual, without looking at men, or taking any account of them. For example, God not only commands us to keep our mind chaste and pure from lust, but prohibits all external lasciviousness or obscenity of language. My conscience is subjected to the observance of this law, though there were not another man in the world. . . .’ (III. 19. 16).

This is rather different from the modern view of liberty according to which we can do what we like provided that it does not harm others. Or from the attitude of those who seem never to get over the novelty of having been emancipated from Fundamentalism, and whose clothes tend to smell of tobacco and booze as a consequence.

As regards the church and liberty, Calvin’s treatment is a robust account of what is these days called the ‘spirituality of the church’. The Christian, made free by Christ, has a spiritual liberty, which must be safeguarded and preserved unimpaired. The governance of the church is quite different from the governance of the state. The church is to be structured and ruled by the revealed Word of God.  All his commands and only his commands are to inform Christian preaching and to sensitize the Christian’s conscience. This also – paradoxically, it may seem at first – is to be understood as a Christian freedom, freedom from the impositions of men. Rome burdens the conscience of worshipers with newly-invented obligations. Even though Calvin has the excesses of the Papal church in mind his argument is a perfectly general one, covering churchly impositions of any kind.

Freedom and the Two Kingdoms

We can see from this that Calvin’s treatment of liberty is within the overarching structure of his teaching on the two kingdoms, the church and the state, explicitly so:

Therefore, lest this prove a stumbling block to any, let us observe that in man government is twofold: the one spiritual, by which the conscience is trained to piety and divine worship; the other civil, by which the individual is instructed in those duties which as men and citizens, we are bold to perform.  To these  are commonly given the not inappropriate names of spiritual and temporal jurisdiction, intimating that the former species has reference to the life of the soul, while the latter relates to matters of the present life, not only to food and clothing, but to the enacting of laws which require a man to live among his fellows purely,  honorably, and modestly. We may call the one the spiritual, the other the civil kingdom. Now these two, as we have divided them, are always to be viewed apart from each other. (III.19.15)

The two are each divine jurisdictions, though they operate differently, and do not have equal importance. Each should give rise to conscientious action on the part of the Christian. So it is not the case that the first is God’s kingdom, the second the godless, purely secular ‘world’. The second a divine jurisdiction too.

The two kingdoms and Christian activity

In the dust raised by the current renewed appreciation of the Reformed doctrine of the two kingdoms, through the work of David Van Drunen and others, it is sometimes asked, in adopting the doctrine of the two kingdoms, what becomes of the divine cultural mandate? In the hands of Abraham Kuyper and the neo-Calvinists, this mandate has become the work of the kingdom, as distinct from the church, and part of the Christian’s endeavor to transform society by promoting Christian this and that:  Christian education, politics, art, literature, care for the environment, and so on. This has become a familiar theme, some being sanguine about the prospects of such transformation, stressing the place that such endeavors have as an expression of God’s ‘common grace’, others from the same stable stressing the ‘antithesis’ between Christian cultural endeavors and those of the secular world.  These attitudes have no more than the status of private opinions, the relevant attitudes and actions being neither commanded by the word of God as a part of Christian worship or conduct, nor required by the state.

To add ‘cultural transformation’ to Christ’s command to his first disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel, would (in Calvin’s view)  jeopardize Christian liberty, and no doubt we could add that it would be to privilege the educated middle-class Christians over their blue-collar fellow believers. A command, or a kind of culturally-correct pressure on Christians to transform society, could amount to a new law, and if it came to that it would infringe the spirituality of the church and the liberty of Christians.

But one might think of such ambitions as a matter of Christian liberty within society. If someone thinks that what they paint is a ‘Christian painting’, then fine. There ought to be nothing to stop them painting in this vein, whatever they take Christian painting to be, like choosing to paint the new baby’s bedroom pink. Neither kind of painting is commanded or forbidden so neither the colour of the baby’s bedroom nor the painting of a ‘Christian’ still life is a God-given requirement of Christian discipleship. Each may be done to the glory of God, as may sweeping a room (I Cor. 10.31).

So, the two liberties

In respect of life in the Church, there is freedom from the observance of man-made traditions or activities which a person is required (by some religious or other ‘authority’) to keep

In respect of Society, there is freedom to do (or not to do) matters indifferent, neither forbidden nor commanded by God, and otherwise to be conscientiously obedient to the law of the state, except when such obedience would be a sin.

Paul Helm was appointed J.I. Packer Chair of Philosophical Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, in 2001. He is presently a Teaching Fellow there. Among his many books are Calvin and the Calvinists, Faith and Reason, The Trustworthiness of God, The Providence of God, Eternal God, The Secret Providence of God, The Trustworthiness of God (with Carl Trueman), John Calvin’s Ideas, Calvin at the Centre, and Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed.