Week 15 of 50 in the Institutes: Calvin Neither a Theonomist Nor a Postmillennialist

Many in the Reformed camp like to claim Calvin as an adherent to their particular pet doctrines, and since there hasn’t been a lot of discussion generated by previous blogs, I thought I would stir the pot with a couple of observations.

First, Calvin was not a theonomist.  We have seen Calvin’s view to be in line with the WCF (19.3-4), which is that the moral law is still binding, while the civil and ceremonial have been abrogated (Institutes, 2.7.16).  I didn’t point this out when we covered that section in week 12, but found 2.11.3 insightful with regard to the abrogation of the civil law, where Calvin makes something of a throw-away comment at the end of his delineation of the first difference between the Old and New Testaments.  When we keep in mind that the civil laws were contextualized for the particular situation of the Israelites, Calvin’s comment about the “dreadful nature of spiritual death by bodily punishments” sheds light as to why they would be abrogated in the New Testament, in that those physical benefits and punishments were types of spiritual ones (2.11.3):

“The unskilful, not considering this analogy and correspondence (if I may so speak) between rewards and punishments, wonder that there is so much variance in God, that those who, in old time, were suddenly visited for their faults with severe and dreadful punishments, he now punishes much more rarely and less severely, as if he had laid aside his former anger, and, for this reason, they can scarcely help imagining, like the Manichees, that the God of the Old Testament was different from that of the New. But we shall easily disencumber ourselves of such doubts if we attend to that mode of divine administration to which I have adverted—that God was pleased to indicate and typify both the gift of future and eternal felicity by terrestrial blessings, as well as the dreadful nature of spiritual death by bodily punishments, at that time when he delivered his covenant to the Israelites as under a kind of veil.”

Second, Calvin was not a postmillennialist (no chiliast, at least). Apart from all of the exegetical problems which plague that view (which I think are many), an issue core to the gospel is how a believer could seek felicity below in a carnal kingdom, which, of necessity involves seeking the same things every unregenerate person strives to attain: position, power, and affluence.  While demonstrating that the OT saints sought their felicity above, not in things below, Calvin lays down a principle that runs contrary to a basic tenet of modern postmillennialism (2.10.20):

” . . . whenever the Prophets make mention of the happiness of believers (a happiness of which scarcely any vestiges are discernible in the present life), they must have recourse to this distinction: that the better to commend the Divine goodness to the people, they used temporal blessings as a kind of lineaments to shadow it forth, and yet gave such a portrait as might lift their minds above the earth, the elements of this world, and all that will perish, and compel them to think of the blessedness of a future and spiritual life.”

But lest this week’s assignment should leave us in doubt about Calvin’s view on the matter, the assignment for August 21 (when we get there!) removes all doubt (3.25.5):

“But not only did Satan stupefy the senses of mankind, so that with their bodies they buried the remembrance of the resurrection; but he also managed by various fictions so to corrupt this branch of doctrine that it at length was lost. Not to mention that even in the days of Paul he began to assail it (1 Cor. 15), shortly after the Chiliasts arose, who limited the reign of Christ to a thousand years. This fiction is too puerile to need or to deserve refutation. Nor do they receive any countenance from the Apocalypse, from which it is known that they extracted a gloss for their error (Rev. 20:4), since the thousand years there mentioned refer not to the eternal blessedness of the Church, but only to the various troubles which await the Church militant in this world. The whole Scripture proclaims that there will be no end either to the happiness of the elect, or the punishment of the reprobate. Moreover, in regard to all things which lie beyond our sight, and far transcend the reach of our intellect, belief must either be founded on the sure oracles of God, or altogether renounced. Those who assign only a thousand years to the children of God to enjoy the inheritance of future life, observe not how great an insult they offer to Christ and his kingdom. If they are not to be clothed with immortality, then Christ himself, into whose glory they shall be transformed, has not been received into immortal glory; if their blessedness is to have an end, the kingdom of Christ, on whose solid structure it rests, is temporary. In short, they are either most ignorant of all divine things or they maliciously aim at subverting the whole grace of God and power of Christ, which cannot have their full effects unless sin is obliterated, death swallowed up, and eternal life fully renewed.”

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Apr. 13:  2.10.1 – 2.10.7

Apr. 14:  2.10.8 – 2.10.13

Apr. 15:  2.10.14 – 2.10.20

Apr. 16:  2.10.21 – 2.11.3

Apr. 17:  2.11.4 – 2.11.9


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