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On-line version ISSN 2304-8557
Print version ISSN 0023-270X

Koers (Online) vol.79 n.4 Pretoria  2014 



Calvin's instruction on the fifth commandment


Calvyn se onderrig oor die vyfde gebod



Dolf Britz

Jonathan Edwards Centre Africa, University of the Free State, South Africa





In this article Calvin's explication of the fifth commandment in his works intended to be used in education and catechetical instruction is surveyed. The investigation is restricted to (in this sequence) the 1536 Institutio, the Instruction et Confession de Foy, printed in Geneva in 1537 and 1538, l'Institution puerile de la doctrine Chrestienne and the expanded Institutio (1539) and incorporated Calvin's exposition of the core biblical texts (Ephesians, Colossians, Exodus and Deuteronomy) used for his explanation of the fifth commandment. The renowned Catechismus (1541/1545) is then scrutinised, followed by a consideration of La maniere d'interroguer les enfans qu'on veut recevoir a la cene Seigneur Iesus Christ (1553). The aim of the research is not limited to a discussion of the content of Calvin's exposition, but also to establish whether a development can be traced in the theological thinking of Calvin. The conclusion is that Calvin supplemented and clothed the basic trajectories of his interpretation, but that the 1539 Institutio provided the most complete and finalised explication of the fifth commandment. In addition, the conditional obedience of children is omitted in the 1545 Catechismus. It was probably done for pedagogical reasons.


Hierdie artikel gaan Calvyn se uitleg van die vyfde gebod in sy werke na wat op onderrig, insluitende die kategese, gemik was. Agtereenvolgens is die 1536 Institutio, die Instruction et Confession de Foy, gedruk in Genève in 1537 en 1538, l'Institution puerile de la doctrine Chrestienne en die uitgebreide Institutio (1539) ontleed. Hierna word die beroemde Catechismus (1541/1545) onder die loep geneem. Die oorweging van La maniere d'interroguer les enfans qu'on veut recevoir a la cene Seigneur Iesus Christ (1553) voltooi die navorsing. Die vraag aan hierdie werke van Calvyn is nie beperk tot die inhoud van Calvyn se uitleg nie, maar ook of daar 'n teologiese ontwikkeling af te lees is. Die gevolgtrekking is dat Calvyn die basiese trajekte van sy uitleg aangevul en ingeklee het, maar dat die 1539 Institutio die mees volledige en gefinaliseerde uitleg bevat. Hierbenewens het Calvyn in die uitgewerkte Catechismus nie alles wat byvoorbeeld in die 1539 Institutio (en ook sy kommentare op Eksodus, Deuteronomium, Efesiërs en Kolossense) na vore gebring is, ingesluit nie. Dit was waarskynlik om pedagogiese redes gedoen.




The Ten Commandments undeniably played a key role in Calvin's teaching and theology. He used and explained the commandments not only to inform and order the practice of the Christian life, connecting it to the redemptive work of Christ, but also to shape the public arena. For this reason he has elucidated the Decalogue in detail, in particular in the publications that were aimed at education, such as his Institutes of the Christian Religion (De Greef 1989:179-185; Selderhuis 2008:232-239) and the catechetical booklets and writings (De Greef 1989:122-123; Selderhuis 2008:239-248) he set up for the instruction of the children of the congregation. This article traces Calvin's interpretation of the fifth commandment in these writings. How did he understand - as he called it - this 'supreme or absolute rule of all justice', this 'ordinance of God'? How did he interpret the honour to be rendered to father and mother? Did he reflect critically on the blessing of a long life embedded in obedience to parents? If these writings are considered in chronological order (as is the intention of this contribution), an additional question is whether a development in Calvin's thinking on the exposition of the fifth commandment can be identified between 1536 and 1553, the date that marked the first appearance of the last catechism booklet.

The investigation commences with Calvin's writings published in the mid-1530s: the first edition of the (Basle) Institutio (1536) and the Instruction et Confession de Foy printed in Geneva in 1537 and 1538. The Instruction served as a core document to enhance the reformation of the city. The attention then shifts to Calvin's work and ministry in Strasbourg (1538-1541). Here he compiled l'Institution puerile de la doctrine Chrestienne1and also reviewed the Institutio (1539), in which was incorporated an extensive exposition of the fifth commandment. Back in Geneva (since 1541), he wrote and published the Catechismus (1541/45) that quickly gained international status and circulation. Then followed in the early 1550s a short learning book, designed for children who signed up for admission to and participation in the Lord's Supper. The consideration of La maniere d'interroguer les enfans qu'on veut recevoir a la cene Seigneur lesus Christ (1553) thus concludes the research. The outcome is summarised in the final conclusion, aiming at profiling the trajectories of Calvin's thought on the fifth commandment.


The first explication of the fifth commandment: 1536-1538

To the best of my knowledge, Calvin for the first time deliberately offered an explication of the fifth commandment in the 1536 Christianae Religionis Institutio (OS I), which he treats in chapter one: De lege, quod decalogi explicationem continet. It is nothing more than a concise explanation, following the biblical text. Because we must fear and love God, Calvin writes, we should not hold our parents in contempt nor offend (or aggravate) them. Rather, according to the will of God, and with reference to Ephesians 6:1-3 and Matthew 15:4-6, we should treat them with honour and obedience and serve them with gratitude. The Lord promises such children a blessed life on earth; but, to the contrary, he underlines, an inevitable curse should be expected by ungrateful children who neglect to display love and gratitude towards their parents (OS I, 49.21-35).

In his Instruction et Confession de Foy dons on use en leglise de Geneve (OS I, 378-417; CO 22, 33-74; Calvin StA 1/1, 138ff.; Saxer 1994:131ff.; COR III/II:XI-XXIII), published in 1537/1538, Calvin observes in the introduction to the exposition of the law that in the law of God we are given 'une tresparfaicte reilgle de toute iustice' (OS I,383; Calvin StA 1/1, 146.11-12: 'a supreme/absolute rule of all justice'). In his exposition of the fifth commandment here, thus for the second time, the 1536 domestic structure (parents-children, honour-obedience, gratitude-care/service, transgression-curse) is maintained (OS I, 386; Calvin StA 1/1, 152.15-35).

However, he now (in Geneva) adds new insights that significantly expanded the range of understanding the text. In this command, he continues, we are compelled to exercise devotion (or loyalty) (la piete) towards our fathers and mothers, as well as to those, he now adds, who are in the same degree in authority over us, such as princes and magistrates. They must be afforded the highest obedience, gratitude and reverence, and served to the best of our ability (Calvin StA 1/1,152.19-20).2

He then directs his attention at elaborating on the correlation of parents and children as indicated by this commandment. It is according to the will of the Lord that mutual service be accorded to those who have brought us into life, he asserts. Whether they are worthy to be held in this honour or not, Calvin continues, makes no difference. They have been set as parents by the Lord, who has willed children to honour them. He gave them as fathers and mothers (Calvin StA 1/1, 152.22-25). But, it must also be noted, Calvin significantly observes, that we are not commanded to obey them in any other way (differently) than in God (en Dieu), as Paul indicated in Ephesians 6:1. Accordingly, children may not contravene the commandment to satisfy them (father and mother) in any way. Indeed, if parents should demand of them anything that is directed against God, children should no longer regard them as father and mother, but rather as strangers who want to put an end to their obedience to 'our true Father' (Calvin StA 1/1, 152.26-30, OS I, 386.33-38).3

Finally, Calvin refers to Ephesians 6:2. According to Paul, this is the first commandment with a promise, he says. The Lord promises the blessing of the present life to children who revere their parents with fitting observance, but at the same time directs his curse over all children who are rebellious and disobedient (Calvin StA 1/1, 152.30-35).

Comparing the 1536 and 1537/1538 explications of the fifth commandment, the similarities as well as the expansion of the scope of the commandment, argued in the 1537/1538 Instruction, are apparent. In the Instruction et Confession Calvin is explicit: Not only parents, but also those who are in the same degree in authority over us, such as princes and magistrates, must be shown the highest obedience, gratitude and reverence. Calvin's statement that if parents should demand of children anything that is directed against God, the children should no longer regard them as father and mother, but rather as strangers who want to put an end to their obedience to their true Father, constitutes a second line of thinking, added now to the explanation of the commandment. As a line of thinking conditional obedience is a well-known (and thoroughly studied) Calvinistic notion, related to his teaching on obedience/ disobedience to authorities and the state. In the 1537-1538 explanation, however, Calvin applies it to the familial framework: parents are to be obeyed conditionally, and not unconditionally (as argued in the 1536 Institutio). Obedience to God overshadows obedience to parents (and authorities), even though He provided them. This obedience must be en Dieu, in God.

If we accept that the Instruction was intended rather for parents to teach their children, and not for children per se, the immediate question is whether Calvin hereby did justice to Scripture? Even if we consider that in Geneva at that time (1537) there was still much left of the Roman Catholic past with its entitlements, demands, loyalties, traditions and superstitions that contravened and undermined the Genevan reformation, the question persists whether his remark does not allow room for the possibility of an unbiblical relentless tension between children and parents. Does he offer children an opportunity that they could abuse? And did he sustain this conditional obedience required of children in subsequent writings and publications dealing with the fifth commandment? Or was he motivated by protecting the honour of God?

In 1538 Calvin had to leave Geneva. He found refuge in Strasbourg, where he worked with Bucer and enjoyed his ministry to the French congregation in the city. For this congregation he compiled l'Institution puerile de la doctrine Chrestienne. He also thoroughly reviewed his Institutio. In both these writings the Decalogue was elucidated again. To these publications our attention must now be turned.


Explications in Strasbourg: 1539-1541

In Strasbourg l'Institution puerile de la doctrine Chrestienne faicte par maniere de dialogue (OS 11,152-157), used in the French congregation and later in Geneva, was written and published between 1538 and 1541 (De Greef 1989:122). In this booklet Calvin offers a concise explanation of the commandment (OS II, 156.38-157.1). Children should honour, serve and obey not only their parents, but also the magistrate and their tutors (OS II, 156.41),4 as well as all those that are in (senior) civil positions of authority (OS II, 156.41).5 The child is expected to exercise himself/herself in this, because in doing so he/she will learn to live well and God will give him/her a long and peaceful life. Tutors are added to the list of those who should be obeyed, and no mention is made of any conditions that are to be met in this regard.

In reworking and enlarging the 1536 Institutio, Calvin argued a substantial elaborated exposition of the law in what he now titled the Institutio Christianae Religionis, published in Strasbourg in 1539 (OS III, 376ff.). The explication of the fifth commandment - for the fourth time in as many years - receives four paragraphs, covering the purpose (OS III, 376.28ff.), the demand (OS III, 377.26ff.), the promise (OS III, 378.12ff.) and the threat (OS III, 379.3ff.). In his explicatio Calvin keeps to his line of thinking as put forth in the first edition (1536) and in particular in the Instruction et Confession (1537/1538). He incorporates at least two additional trajectories, though, in his view relevant to an appropriate and argued comprehension of the commandment.

Ultimately, Calvin comments, the meaning of the commandment is that we should look up to those whom God in his providence (OS III, 377, 31-32)6 and by his ordinance (OS III, 377.26)7 has placed over us. We should respect them with honour and reverence, obedience, and gratitude (OS III, 376.30-32).8 It follows from this that we are forbidden to detract from their dignity either by contempt, by stubbornness or by ingratitude (OS III, 376.32-377.2). He is aware that the precept of subjection strongly conflicts with the depravity of human nature (OS III, 377.7).9 Thus, Calvin says, God has provided that kind of superiority, which is by nature most amiable and least invidious, to soften and bend our minds and to gradually accustom us to lawful subjection which can be tolerated (OS III, 377.9-12).10 Obviously he has submission to parents in mind - submission being theologically motivated (OS III, 377.2-24; 378.12ff.). The titles Father, God and Lord belong to God, but he shares these titles with persons in which he thus lights up a spark of his splendour. Fathers, princes and lords have thus some share in God's honour and should therefore be honoured (OS III, 377.21-22).11 In so doing, God has established a universal rule (OS III, 377.24-25).12 It does not make any difference, therefore, whether superiors are worthy or unworthy of this honour - they have attained their position through God's providence.

God, however, explicitly commands children to revere their parents. In a way, Nature itself ought to teach man this, Calvin asserts, because those who abusively and stubbornly violate parental authority are monsters, not humans (OS III, 377.34),13 and thus subjected to just punishment. This is the reason why the Lord had commanded that all those disobedient to their parents be put to death, according to important additions to the law in the Old Testament. In Exodus 21:17, Leviticus 20:9 and Proverbs 20:20 the Lord confirms reverence when he enjoins that one who curses (i.e. the opposite of reverence) his father or mother should be killed. God thus punishes contempt and abuse (OS III, 377.37-378.4). In Deuteronomy 21:18-21 God, in confirming obedience, decrees the penalty of death for disobedient and rebellious children (OS III, 378.5-7). This is a new line of thinking in the explanation of the fifth commandment. It surfaced for the first time thus in the 1539 Institutio.

The third kind of honour - gratitude - Calvin finds in what Christ said concerning the contemporary interpretation of the commandments - that we should do good to our parents - in Matthew 15:4-6, and what Paul emphasises in Ephesians 6:1-3 and Colossians 3:20 (OS III, 378.7-11).

The promise is added as a recommendation, as Paul confirms in Ephesians 6. This is to underpin how pleasing this kind of submission is to God (OS III, 378.12-14). Calvin again explains the difference between Israel (possession of the land Canaan) and believers in Christ (the whole earth). Therefore the meaning is: honour your father and mother so that through a long life you may enjoy the possession of the land, which is to be yours as a testimony to my grace (OS III, 378.23-26).14 At this point, Calvin, in his teaching, is aware of the fact that the promise could be elevated to meet unlimited material expectations and application, and thus could raise serious questioning of the providence of God, should the opposite be true. In addressing the issue, he takes account, for example, of the fact that unexpected death often terminates the lives of obedient young people, which does not, he argues, bring the promise into jeopardy (OS III, 378.32ff.) The whole point here, Calvin says, is that we should reflect that we are promised a long life in so far as it is a blessing of God; and that it is a blessing only in so far as it is evidence of God's favour, which he testifies to his servants far more richly and substantially through death, and proves it in reality (OS III, 378.37-379.2). These observations constitute a second new line of thought, added to his understanding of the commandment.

The commandment also carries an implicit threat: an inevitable curse threatens all stubborn and disobedient children (OS III, 379.5-6).15 To assure that the commandment is carried out, Calvin indicates that God has declared contempt and abuse subject to punishment and even to the sentence of death (OS III, 379.6-16). Calvin notes in conclusion that we are bidden to obey our parents only 'in the Lord' (Eph 6:1ff.; OS III, 379.16ff.). This is apparent from the principle already laid down, he writes. For they sit in that place to which they have been advanced by the Lord, who shares with them a part of his honour, he explains. Therefore, the submission paid to parents ought to be a step towards honouring that highest Father. Hence, if they spur us to transgress the law, we have a perfect right to regard them not as parents, but as strangers who are trying to lead us away from obedience to our true Father. In the same way we should, he adds, act towards princes, lords, and every kind of superior (OS III, 379.21-24).16

The exposition in the 1539 Institutio encompasses a much broader look at the meaning of the fifth commandment, as was offered in the preceding published works. It should also be seen as conclusive. In all the subsequent editions of the Institutio Calvin did not alter or review his explanation of the fifth commandment, nor did he elaborate on aspects of his interpretation. His interpretation of the commandment is firmly embedded in two sets of biblical texts. On the one hand, the New Testament's Ephesians 6:1-3 and Colossians 3:20-21 play a major role; on the other hand, Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16 form the core of the Old Testament texts Calvin used.

Except for Romans in 1539, Calvin commenced publishing his commentaries in 1548. The commentaries on Ephesians, Colossians and Exodus or Deuteronomy thus appeared after the publication of the 1539 Institutio. A condensed survey of Calvin's commentary on these texts is appropriate.


Calvin's commentary on the fifth commandment

As indicated above, reference to Ephesians (6:1ff.) and Colossians (3:20-21) repeatedly surfaces in Calvin's explication of the fifth commandment. How did he explain these verses in the 1548 Ioannis Calvini Commentarii, in quatuor Paulini Epistolas: ad Galatas, ad Ephesios, ad Philippenses, ad Colossenses, published in Geneva? A close reading of the commentary on the verses referred to reveals the familiar trajectories argued in his catechetical instructions and Institutio. Consistent with earlier publications discussed are Calvin's comments concerning Ephesians 6:1: the obedience of children is enforced by the authority of God. God has commanded it. His will is the unerring rule of righteousness and sincerity. The precept honour comprehends all the duties by which the sincere affection and respect of children to their parents can be expressed (CO 51, 227).

The exposition of Ephesians 6:2 and 3 (CO 51, 227) is also aligned to his views as expressed in the Institutio. The promise is to impart a greater cheerfulness to obedience. Calvin writes that Paul uses this as a kind of seasoning to render the submission, which he enjoins on children, more pleasant and agreeable. The promise is a long life among the gifts of God. Those who show kindness to their parents from whom they derived life are assured by God that in this life it will be well with them. The divine blessing is extended to the whole world and will last until the coming of Christ.

In the commentary on Ephesians 6:1 Calvin only hints at the notion of conditional obedience. Obedience of children towards parents is by the authority of God; therefore, Calvin states, parents are to be obeyed, so far only as is consistent with piety to God, which comes first in order (CO 51, 228).17 The performance of this duty cannot lead away from God Himself, Calvin writ