John Calvin’s influence predominantly found a home in France, Holland, Scotland, and England. Not theology alone, but he influenced each respective nation’s legal theory. In Hendrik Hommes masterpiece, Major Trends in the History of Legal Philosophy, he explains how Calvin was not the standard natural law theorist:
Calvin, indeed, often uses the term “natural law,” but in a way completely different from its traditional employment as law founded in a metaphysical natural orders valid per sé. Instead it refers to “the seeds of justice and equity, the affinity for order, and the tendency towards communal life” by which God endowed human nature and which he has maintained by his common grace despite the radical perversion through sin (emphasis mine).
In other words, natural law is not a law, strictly speaking. If it were, then there would be no need for written, codified, positive laws. Natural law is better understood as natural law principles. The Dutch legal theorist explains that, for Calvin, there exists “fundamental spheres of liberty” incumbent upon the state to respect. However, Calvin does not conceive of these juridical moments as though they are valid laws independently of their human positivization.
Calvin’s seminal work in legal theory is the proto-Sphere Sovereignty which Althusius developed and Kuyper popularized. For Calvin, we might say that natural law is the form, positive law is the content, as it were.
Calvin’s Middle Path Nuance to Legal Theory
Strictly speaking, ethics is only law-like. Therefore, we are confusing ourselves when we speak about “ethical laws.” Natural law functions as principles of law which constitute the basis of positive law-creation by which they “alone…acquire legal validity.” There is a profound connection between Calvin’s proto-sphere sovereignty and his legal theory.
This follows from Calvin’s view of human society as an “organic whole,” a popular explanatory image of civilisation that Abraham Kuyper used.
The idea of organism in social relationships as defended by Calvin entails that human society and its authoritative relationships has been created by God as a living unity of mutually distinguishable parts which depend upon and complement each other.
Hommes believes this is why it is clear that Calvin rejected “every form of state-absolutism, which reduces non-political spheres of society to the political spheres of the state.” Though Calvin can agree that only positive law is law, he also stands against any attempt of the sovereign to place himself above law.
In other words, Calvin, yet again, walks something of a tightrope between natural law theory and positive law theory that we still see being debated today. In fact, Calvin anticipated the argument of the intellectual giant of jurisprudence, Ronald Dworkin. But it was the German Calvinist, Althusius, who picked up Calvin’s line of thought.
Althusius’s Development of Calvin’s Legal Theory
Continuing the connection with sphere sovereignty, Althusius specifically says, “Every societal relationship has its own specific laws which govern it. And within the several types of society these vary and differ as far as the nature of each requires it.”
Althusius was pioneering something. His way “of envisioning the state and non-political societal spheres” walked a Biblical line between the Roman Catholic Natural Law theorists and the quickly secularizing theorists of Hobbes and Bodin.
In short, the Calvinist rejection of natural law is not an attempt to reject natural law principles, nor to reject an objective morality that has real bearing on (or ought to have bearing on) the legal system.
Instead, the Protestant conception of law made room for the uniqueness of personhood, expressed socially; the collective personality of each people.