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The common ends that once united spiritual and civil realms have been privatized as those ends have come to be seen as controversial and plural, rather than unifying and common. Acknowledging the diversity of ends resulted in increased attention to uniform rules. Since there was no longer agreement about what teloi mattered for society, law gradually lost its aspirational features and became simply a way to limit and punish uncivil and criminal behavior.

The formal separation, but ultimate unity, of civil and heavenly spheres, of norm with vision, articulated by Calvin, allowed him to be both idealistic and realistic about law’s capacity. Calvin the realist, more so than any prominent theologian, recognized the pervasiveness of human sinfulness and chastens any legal or political system that assumes the perfectibility of humankind. Calvin the idealist, however, reminds us of law’s potential to educate individuals in God’s will and to cultivate virtuous action in the process.

The development of Western legal and political institutions in the modern and contemporary eras likely benefited from Calvin’s recognition of the law’s limits as well as its capacities. If there is anything that the contemporary world should draw from Calvin’s writing on the law, it is that law is a richer resource than we often realize. At its best, it performs multiple functions. Law limits and enables; it punishes but also educates.