Sovereign Grace: The Place and Significance of Christian Freedom in John Calvin's Political Thought
Kauber, Martin I., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Sovereign Grace: The Place and Significance of Christian Freedom in John Calvin's Political Thought. By William R. Stevenson, Jr. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, xii + 200 pp., $49.95.
This is an interesting book that views Calvin from a different angle than many other recent monographs, probably because the author is a political scientist rather than a theologian or a historian. Stevenson attempts to build on Ralph Hancock's work Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics (1989). He disagrees with Hancock's argument that Calvin's emphasis on predestination and divine sovereignty robs the public arena of spiritual purpose. For Stevenson, the concept of Christian freedom served as the basis for Calvin's political views and as a bridge between his theology and his politics. Rather than limiting the involvement of believers' involvement in the public arena, Christian freedom provides the foundation for participation.
The theme of freedom and slavery is a central issue of theology, and so it is not surprising that it was crucial to Calvin's system. Luther dealt with the issue as well in his treatise Two Kinds of Righteousness. How can Christians truly be free while they are responsible to follow at least the moral aspects of the Law? Christian freedom binds believers more closely to God himself as the source of our strength. Calvin developed his doctrine of the third use of the law whereby the moral law, rather than the ceremonial law, is binding upon the hearts of believers. Once they are freed from the penalty of sin, which provides both joy and embarrassment, they are able to respond to God in gratitude by obeying his commands. It becomes their natural desire to fulfill their responsibility before God. There is no conflict between law and gospel because the gospel fulfills the law.
A second aspect of Christian freedom is the activity of believers in the world toward their neighbors. Christians are freed to act for the greater good of society as they obey God's command to love their neighbor as themselves. Furthermore, while believers are freed from the penalty that sin warrants, they are continually aware of the holiness and judgment of God. Although Christians are free to act, they remain under God's watchful eye. The role of the civil government is to promote peace and tranquility. The government also possesses the power of the sword to coerce individuals into proper behavior and to punish them for misdeeds. Calvin believed strongly in the role of the godly magistrate to work with the church in this endeavor. The government should reflect and channel God's earthly care.
The Consistory was an institution that combined the services of both members of church and state. One issue with which Calvin had to deal was gaining the right for the Consistory to excommunicate unruly church members. The Consistory was not granted this right until late in Calvin's career, in 1559. The church, by contrast, supplied the checks and balances on civil government. …