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Reformation Perspective: John Calvin

Although the Reformers rejeted many of the false doctrines and practices of Romanism, they did continue to perpetuate the 1200-year tradition of state churches. Reformation ethics, therefore, were also Old Covenant based. This was tragic, for while Protestantism developed ethics as a "distinguishable and systematic discipline,"137 only the Anabaptists espoused an ethic rooted in the corss.

Calvin's Law-based ethic resulted from his flat view of redemptive history. He saw no crucial progression from Old to New Covenants. Helmut Thielicke observes that Calvin's tendency to ignore redemptive history results in a view where law and gospel "are regarded as two sides of the same thing."138 For Thielicke, such a view threatens the imperative to root the love of God in salvation history.139 It is a disregard for history epitomized by Karl Barth who, according to Thielicke, sees "no movement of saving history from the Old Testament to the New."140 He points out that for Barth,

There is no qualitative difference between the two Testaments, only a distinction in the manner in which salvation is dispensed and offered, namely the distinction taken over from Calvin between the "mode of administration" and the "substance" of salvation.141

Calvin and Barth differ greatly in many other ways, of course, but Thielicke is simply pointing to their common failure to distinguish between law and gospel - an insight even Luther understood somewhat better than Calvin.142 And, what is the root of Calvin's tendency to ignore history in his view of ethics? Again, according to Thielicke,

For Calvin, there is basically only one covenant in many varied forms . . . There is thus an implied identifty of the two Testaments . . . For Calvin the New Covenant does not really introduce anything new . . . The New Covenant does not involve a historical turning point . . . Even when Calvin quotes passages from Scripture which tell us that the Law preaches death and condemnation while the Gospel preaches life and righteousness, and that Law is abolished while the Gospel remains, he changes the obvious qualitative distinction between Law and Gospel into a quantitative one . . . The result is that in the Calvinist tradition there is an unhistorical trend which leads finally to the extreme of relating Old and New Testaments in the fashion of two concentric circles.143

This is why we must emphasize: (1) the obvious historicity of the Biblical covenants; (2) the obvious a-historicity of the "covenant of grace" as unfolded in Covenant Theology; and (3) the obvious historical turning point which occurred in the incarnation of Christ.


Footnotes:

137. N.H.G. Robinson, The Groundwork of Christian Ethics, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971, p. 21.

138. Thielicke, p. 99.

139. Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979, pp. 97-98.

140. Thielicke, p. 100.

141. Thielicke, p. 103.

142. Thielicke, p. 106.

143. Thielicke, pp. 120, 104, 113, 122, 124.


This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him. Jon Zens. Searching Together. Summer-Winter 1997, Vol. 25:1,2,3. Pages 38-40.