Morality after Calvin (Summers)

Summers, Kirk M. Morality After Calvin: Theodore Beza’s Christian Censor and Reformed Ethics.

While Beza will defend natural law, he is also interested in constructing a Christian ethic which does not flow from the union with Christ.  The Father conjoins us to his Son by means of the Spirit (Summers 76).  The sins Beza attacks are specifically those which disintegrate society; restoration, therefore, will consist of being reintegrated into society.

The Cato

The Cato is a collection of poems (20-21) written by Beza on moral topics.  In keeping with the natural law theme, in Beza’s poem “sinners are deprived of the very things they idolized in life” (Summers 65).

Natural Law

Calvin: the order that God built into nature, which is witnessed to in all people (67).

Usury and Rhetoric of Mutuality

Summers rightly rejects the silly thesis of Weber that Calvin’s decretal theology led to an economic miserliness ultimately manifested in usury.  Even granting Calvin’s allowance of 5% (Geneva later set it at 6.7%) interest, usury was stigmatized by most Reformed ministers, with usurers often facing church discipline (212).

“Rhetoric of mutuality:” a concern for the corporate sphere that isn’t reducible to individualism.  Usurers exploit dishonest social conventions in order to take advantage of the most vulnerable, whereas “true citizens of the kingdom are guided by charity and mutual affection” (212).

Philosophy and Theology in Beza’s Concept of Usury

Beza holds to the traditional view that money is sterile (“Against Moneylenders,” 3). Beza is drawing from (if not always directly) the anti-usury tradition of Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, and Ambrose: usury begets money, but never experiences the pains of childbirth–it passes those pains onto others (221). “When the borrower cannot pay, the interest (centesima) is folded back into the principal, becoming a new producer of offspring.”

Etymology of the loan:

Paucapalea: “The term loan (mutuum) comes from the fact that what is mine (meum) becomes yours (tuum).  A loan is osmething that is quantifiable and which I pass on to you witht he expectation of receviing back only as much of the same kind” (Summers 225).

Ownership is indexed by the personal pronouns.  What I receive becomes mine (meum).

Thomas Aquinas

Money has a fixed value. Money cannot be distinguished from its substance.  Therefore, you can’t separate the using of it from its own substance.  You can’t sell both (ST  2-2.78).

Luther: Pecunia est res sterilis.

Beza inherits this powerful tradition and offers strong endorsements of his own.  He isn’t consistent, though.  He submits to the weakened 10% allowance of Geneva, but defends those who go above it.

Conclusion: “The ethics of the individual comprises more than anything a process of integrating oneself into the kingdom of God, both as it is manifest here on earth through the body of Christ and the community of believers, and eventually and perfectly in the heavenly abode before the presence of God himself.  In short, ethics for Beza are Christian citzenship not in the sense that the citizen lays claim to a set of constitutional rights, but in the sense that certain corporate responsibilities and expectations are incumbent upon a citizen” (255-256).

Sanctifying Physical Relationships


* Women who commit adultery are drowned in the Rhone (259).

* If a married man has sex with an unmarried woman were reprimanded and then thrown into prison for 9-12 days on bread and water. And probably put in the stockade.

* Unmarried fornicators were to be whipped (260).

* One Jacques Lenepveux, an early version of a pick-up artists, was executed because of his heinous way of preying upon young women (265).

The nature of sexual sin (and its punishment) can’t be abstracted from the city of Geneva.  Never mind adultery, fornication creates social confusion.  Divorce was initially frowned upon, not simply for covenantal reasons, but because it could create clannish enmities and fractions within a small city like Geneva (263).

“Pierre Ameaux, for example, accused his wife Benoite of a kind of free love espoused among Anabaptists sects of the day” (264).

Calvin’s thesis: “Adultery weakens the key pillars of a godly society by insinuating itself into the bedroom, business relationships, and social arrangements and thus threatening to cause extensive disarray and confusion” (Summers 266).

Per divorce:  Beza isn’t saying that divorce should be allowed on the case of adultery.  He is saying that magistrates should execute adulterers (making it a moot point).  However, since magistrates fail in their duties, “Jesus concedes divorce for this exception because an adulterer has in essence merited death” (269).

Summers gives a fascinating account of the church life in Geneva after Calvin. We see what they considered punishments and how they were punished.


Steinmetz: Calvin in Context

Calvin and the Natural Knowledge of God

Calvin is somewhat unique in focusing on the noetic effects in Romans 1 (Steinmetz 29).  The natural order does not reveal God’s essence, but “knowledge accomodated to the limited capacity of human beings to comprehend God” (29).

Calvin and the Absolute Power of God

Calvin attacked the medieval distinction between potentia dei absoluta and potentia dei ordinata.  But maybe Calvin overshot his mark.  The goal of the distinction wasn’t to speculate “What could God really do?”  Rather, it clarifies what is logically possible and logically coherent, and what God has covenanted to do for his people.

Calvin on Isaiah 6

The problem:  Is God’s message to Isaiah negating human responsibility?  Calvin responds by several points: 1) God wills that Isaiah speak his word.  It is accidental to the nature of the Word that it blinds people (104).  But when it meets an adamant heart, it hardens it.  2) God foretells a state of affairs in which unbelievers are responsible.

Calvin and the Divided Self of Romans 7

Problem: Is Paul speaking of fallen or unfallen man?  For Calvin, as Steinmetz notes, “sinners are not divided against themselves.  Believers are” (111). Roman Catholics got around Calvin’s exegesis by positing 3 alternatives:

  1. Distinction between higher and lower faculties.
  2. Concupiscence is a punishment for sin rather than sinful.
  3. Difference between perfection possible in this life and in the eschaton.

Calvin among the Thomists

Given that Calvin praised Bucer as the near standard, and given that Bucer was a Thomist, are there Thomist leanings in Calvin?  Not really, but Steinmetz compares and contrasts Calvin’s reading of Romans 9 with Bucer’s and Thomas’s.

Thomas is quite clear that Jacob’s election isn’t based in any foreknowledge or anything Jacob had done (“Expositio in Omnes Sancti Pauli Epistolas,” in Sancti Thomae Aquinatis Doctoris Angelici Ordinis Praedicatorum Opera Omnia 13 (Parma 1872), 95, quoted in Steinmetz 144).  Bucer and Calvin clearly agree. Bucer develops Thomas in that “God works in such a way as to make human beings the agents of their own acts” (149).

Calvin doesn’t specifically draw from Thomas.  Rather, as Steinmetz concludes, all three draw from Augustine.

Calvin and His Lutheran Critics

Luther’s ubiquity:

Definitive presence–an object’s dimensions (Christ’s person) do not correspond to the container.

Local presence–its dimensions correspond exactly to the container.

Repletive presence–what God’s presence in the universe is.

The risen Christ is present in the unconsecrated bread but inaccessible until the word of promise.

According to Steinmetz, Calvin’s Lutheran critic, Tilemann Hesshusen, rejected that element of Luther’s theology.  The debate doesn’t get much further than that, though.  Hesshusen thinks Calvin is a Zwinglian.

Steinmetz’s thesis is that one can’t abstract Calvin’s Institutes from his larger body of exegesis. We move from the Bible to the Institutes and then to the Commentaries.


Frame: Early Modern Thought

This is the densest chapter so far and represents the thrust of the book.  Frame’s text is lighter on early and medieval thought and more weighted towards the modern era.  Not a criticism.  Just an observation.

Thesis: The two renaissance themes–humanism and antiquarianism–couldn’t be integrated.  Do we gain knowledge by reflecting on the past or do we gain knowledge by using our autonomous reason divorced from tradition (167)?

The Reformation

Presented alternatives in metaphysics and epistemology

Luther: in his metaphysics he turned away from the NeoPlatonic “One” and back to the absolute and personal God of revelation (169).

John Calvin

Calvin marks a new move: he begins his Institutes with the knowledge of God.  Knowledge of God is never apart from reverence and love towards him.  This also determines man’s self-knowledge: “how can we imagine knowing anything without knowing ourselves, that is, knowing our knowing” (Frame 173 n16)?

Calvin’s epistemology breaks with Renaissance and medieval models. Correlated with Calvin’s absolute personal theism.

Secular Philosophy

No point in examining each individual thinker, except where I think Frame is more than usually clear.

Descartes:  doubt is an activity of the mind.  I cannot doubt my mind’s doubting.  Decent discussion on mind-body dualism.

Spinoza: “substance is that which is in itself and is conceived through itself” (183).  Thus, “God” is the only substance (though there are an infinity of modes of that substance). God is nature naturing.  The world is nature natured.

Leibniz: idealist atomist.  Mind is the most basic category of reality.  These monadic minds have no windows but they are mirrors towards the other.  While there are problems here, some have suggested that Leibniz anticipated modern computer languages.

British Empiricism

Too much ink has been spilled on these guys. I won’t go into it here.