Blog 47: 2.2.22 - 2.2.27

Sean Lucas

Humans want to carve out some place for their own natural abilities when it comes to doings works that conform to God's law. Ethicists will sometimes talk about "natural law," an inbred standard of right and wrong that is common to all people everywhere. Calvin knows the category of natural law, but defines it a bit differently: "natural law is that apprehension of the conscience which distinguishes sufficiently between just and unjust, and which deprives men of the excuse of ignorance, while it proves them guilty by their own testimony" (2.2.22).

The first part of Calvin's definition is boilerplate: natural law is that part of human conscience that distinguishes right from wrong. But Calvin moves in a more radical direction--natural law is not simply a standard to which might be made for ethical life; rather, it leaves all humans everywhere guilty before God. Even if human beings could conform by nature to the two tables of the Ten Commandments, "they take no account of the evil desires that gently tickle the mind" (2.2.24). The problem is not the standard; rather, the problem is lodged in the human heart. Evil desires tickle the mind; self-interest excuses our worst sins; our reason is corrupted and subject to vanity.

It is this self-knowledge--the depths of our blindness and darkness--that should cause us to cry out to God in humility for his mercy. It should also cause us to recognize that anything good in us or our world is God's own work; and "nothing is ours but sin" (2.2.27).