On the 25th of October, the Reformed Covenanter blog published an article on John Calvin’s apparent rejection of the “satanic heresy of racial segregation.” In this article, Calvin’s sermon on Galatians 2:11-14 is quoted, and by virtue of the title, a special emphasis is placed on the following words of Calvin:
Peter fearing lest some misreport might be raised of him, shrunk away, and made countenance as though he had no familiarity nor acquaintance with the Gentiles, and notwithstanding that they had the same faith of the Gospel which he had, yet did he use them as strangers, because it was taken to be a kind of defiling, to be in company with them. See here a wicked madness: for by that means there was a division made in the Church. For (as it is said in another place [Ephesians 2:14]) the wall was broken down when our Lord Jesus Christ was appointed to be a light from God, not only for the Jews, but also for the salvation of the whole world. Wherefore if it behooved those that had erst [formerly] been separated and estranged from the Church, to be called into one flock: then doth Peter disannul God’s grace, whereas yet notwithstanding we know there is not a more precious thing than the union of the Church.1
These words of Calvin are then interpreted to mean that he understood that Paul rebuked Peter for maintaining racial segregation among Christians. It is my objective to point out that, when this statement is seen in context, this interpretation is a grave distortion of Calvin’s intent.
In his commentary on verse 11, Calvin puts the events described into context by making the important point that it took place prior to the church council described in Acts 15, where it was decided that the Gentile Christians should receive no burden concerning ceremonial laws, and particularly circumcision (Acts 15:24-28). Concerning verse 12, Calvin writes: The state of the case is here laid down. For the sake of the Jews, Peter had withdrawn himself from the Gentiles, in order to drive them from the communion of the Church, unless they would relinquish the liberty of the Gospel, and submit to the yoke of the Law.” The reformer here rightly notes that the motive for Peter’s withdrawal and separation from the Gentile Christians was not based on ethnic considerations, but because of the legalist Judaizing tendencies promoted by certain Jewish Christians, which implied forcing the gentiles to conform to the ceremonial law, from which they were already set free by virtue of its fulfillment in Christ (Gal. 3:13-14). Calvin then actually, by implication, refutes the interpretation of the Reformed Covenanter blog: “The chief argument on which Jerome rests is excessively trifling. ‘Why should Paul,’ says he, ‘condemn in another what he takes praise for in himself? For he boasts that ‘to the Jews he became as a Jew.’’(I Cor. 9:20.) I reply, that what Peter did is totally different.”2 In explaining Paul’s statement in I Cor. 9, he continues to write “Neque enim aliter se accomodabat Iudaeis Paulus, qum salua libertatis doctrina” — which is translated, “Paul accommodated himself to the Jews no farther than was consistent with the doctrine of liberty.”
Now we can see the real issue addressed by Paul here: namely, that Peter’s practice was contrary to the doctrine of liberty. The Westminster Confession of Faith states the following in Chapter 20 on Christian liberty: “[U]nder the New Testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish Church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of.”3 Contrary to the permissible practice of Paul, Calvin writes the following concerning Peter: “Petrus vero ita iudaisabat, ut gentes cogeret in servitutem et simul hoc quasi praeiudicio derogaret Pauli doctrinae,” which in English means, “Peter Judaized in such a manner as to compel the Gentiles to suffer bondage, and at the same time to create a prejudice against Paul’s doctrine.” It becomes clear then, that the libertatis doctrina (to have liberty in Christ) of Paul is here contrasted with the heretical practice of cogeret in servitutem (to suffer bondage under the yoke of the law), which undermines the doctrine of salvation by grace alone, as Paul would continue to explain in Galatians 3.4 On this point, it is also important to note that Calvin here doesn’t teach antinomianism, but merely explains that the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone is taught by Paul, and that obedience to God’s law only follows after regeneration and is not the means by which we are saved.
Later on, Calvin would write concerning those who defend Peter’s practice (the very same accusation that is made against kinists in the article): “There are some who apologize for Peter on another ground, because, being the apostle of the circumcision, he was bound to take a particular concern in the salvation of the Jews; while they at the same time admit that Paul did right in pleading the cause of the Gentiles. But it is foolish to defend what the Holy Spirit by the mouth of Paul has condemned. This was no affair of men, but involved the purity of the gospel, which was in danger of being contaminated by Jewish leaven.” Again the two practices are being contrasted by Calvin as the Evangelii puritas (purity of the gospel) versus the Iudaico fermento (Jewish leaven) of those Peter feared to offend.4 Thus we clearly see the understanding of Calvin, that the issue here is pertaining to soteriology and not, as the article in the Reformed Covenanter interprets it, to the natural social order.
It is important to read both Paul and Calvin within their respective historical contexts, in order to avoid misinterpretation. To read either Calvin or Paul as even implicitly condemning racial segregation as such in these texts, does not do justice to what the authors’ intentions were. In fact, the cultural Marxist interpretation of Galatians 2:11-14 would necessarily force one to a gnostic interpretation of Galatians 3:28. There is also a very big difference between what happened in the early church and the differences between kinists and cultural Marxists today. While ethno-nationalism is a universal principle that can be applied by all peoples, regardless of race, and while Christian ethno-nationalism does not lead one to deny any familiarity with fellow believers from other races or deny them access into the church visible (never mind the church invisible) — as was the case described in chapter two of the epistle — the heresy addressed in Galatians is clearly an attempt at forcefully Judaizing non-Jews. Consequently, the two doctrines cannot be regarded as similar.
- http://reformedcovenanter.wordpress.com/2011/10/25/john-calvin-on-the-wicked-madness-of-racial-segregation-among-christians/ ↩
- http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom41.iii.iv.iii.html ↩
- http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/ ↩
- http://www.e-rara.ch/gep_g/content/pageview/237265 ↩
- http://www.e-rara.ch/gep_g/content/pageview/237265 ↩