Doing Justice to Equity

Our old friend Kazooless has been serializing his talk from Hoagies & Stogies: Open Mic Night about the historicity of Theonomist thought throughout the Reformation. The fourth and latest installment has quotes from Calvin, which made me think in a new way about the language of the confession.

The bit of Calvin in question is from the very end of the Institutes, 4.20.15-16, where he talks about judicial law. A few sentences I think will express the thrust of Calvin’s argument:

Equity, as it is natural, cannot be the same in all, and therefore ought to be proposed by all laws, according to the nature of the thing enacted. As constitutions have some circumstances on which they partly depend, there is nothing to prevent their diversity, provided they all alike aim at equity as their end. Now, as it is evident that the law of God which we call moral, is nothing else than the testimony of natural law, and of that conscience which God has engraven on the minds of men, the whole of this equity of which we now speak is prescribed in it. Hence it alone ought to be the aim, the rule, and the end of all laws. Wherever laws are formed after this rule, directed to this aim, and restricted to this end, there is no reason why they should be disapproved by us, however much they may differ from the Jewish law, or from each other (August. de Civit. Dei, Lib. 19 c. 17).

In other words, it is O. K. for our laws to be different from the judicial laws of Moses. But notice in the beginning there, Calvin’s use of the word “equity,” three times in three sentences. What does ‘equity’ mean? I had previously been bamboozled by Theonomists’ constant harping on WCF 19.4’s statement about the judicial laws, “not obliging any now, further than the general equity thereof may require.” In the Theonomist interpretation, equity basically means “equivalence,” which is an easy etymological trap to fall into, because both words start with “equi.”

But look at the Calvin above; the context defies replacement of the term “equity” with “equivalence.” What Calvin obviously means when he says “equity” is justice, or more generally, Natural Law. In fact, Calvin quite explicity defines what he means by “this equity of which we now speak” as the law of God, the moral law, natural law, that which is engraved on men’s consciences.

How do I know I’m not just crazy, reading Calvin in a way that is alien to his intent? Let’s take the tiresome step of turning to dictionaries. In the Latin version of the Institutes, Calvin uses the words aequitas and iustitia, (equity and justice). In this Latin-to-English dictionary, you can see that those words are homonyms, having identical definitions of “justice, fairness, equity.” In this English dictionary definition for equity, every definition has to do with justice or natural law; “equal” treatment for all parties within the system that has equity, not a trace of a system having “equivalence” to something else outside the system.

So I contest that WCF 19.4 can be faithfully read “not obliging any now, further than the Natural Law thereof may require.”

This entry was posted in Church and State, Confessionalism, Confessions, Constantinianism, Culture War, Quotes, Theonomy, Transformationism. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Doing Justice to Equity

  1. kazooless says:


    Theonomists always meant equity to mean justice, not equivalence. That’s what I’ve always meant. My quoting Calvin on this is to give the background of that word to show how the Westminster Divines used it. I’m glad you’ve finally got it, even if you didn’t realize that was the theonomist understanding. No wonder you’re so against “theonomy,” you’re giving it too much stringency.


  2. RubeRad says:

    Maybe I’ve been the only one being equivocal about equity all along, that’s good to know. But it sure still seems like Theonomy is about taking every judicial law from Moses, and installing its modern-day equivalent in our own state.

    In particular with penology, you’re always saying “we’re flexible — it doesn’t have to be stoning, it could be the electric chair” — the point being, you insist that, if there was a death penalty under Moses, anything other than the death penalty (i.e. anything that is not equivalent) is unjust (not General Equity).

    Calvin denies that quite explicitly. This is quite a boldly non-Theonomistic statement: “Justice, as it is natural, cannot be the same in all”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s