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The Challenges of Cultural DiscipleshipEssays in the Line of Abraham Kuyper
By Richard J. Mouw
William B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2012 Richard J. Mouw
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCalvin's Legacy for Public Theology
In discussing the role of the ideal legislator in book 2 of his Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau paid tribute in a footnote to the Protestant Reformer who had dominated public life in the city of Geneva two centuries earlier: "Those who only consider Calvin as a theologian do not understand the extent of his genius. The drawing up of our wise edicts, in which he played a large part, does him as much honor as his Institutes. Whatever revolution time may bring in our cult, as long as love of the homeland and liberty is not extinguished among us, the memory of that great man will never cease to be blessed."
Rousseau does not offer any examples of the sort of wise edicts he has in mind, but he does eventually make it clear why he is not enthusiastic about the substance of Calvin's theology. When he gets around to discussing the role of religion in public life further on in his treatise, he singles out, without mentioning the Reformer by name, the kind of theology for which Calvin was known as posing a serious danger to the very fabric of civil society. Theological intolerance, Rousseau argues, is inextricably linked to civil intolerance. The believer in an intolerant God will be obliged to hate those whom God hates. "It is impossible to live in peace with people whom one believes are damned.... Wherever theological intolerance exists, it is impossible for it not to have some civil effect."
Rousseau would have had no difficulty bringing forth examples of the actual results of Calvin's theological intolerance for political life. Calvin's well-known complicity in the burning of Servetus is an obvious case in point. And, if anything, the Calvinist attitude on such matters had hardened in a place like Scotland in the years following the Reformation era. The Presbyterian "Covenanter" James Guthrie, in his 1651 pamphlet The Causes of God's Wrath against Scotland, offered just the kind of sentiment Rousseau was worried about when he wrote: "we judge it but the effect of wisdom of the flesh and to smell rankly of a carnal politic spirit to halve and divide the things of God for making peace amongst men."
There is no reason to question, however, the sincerity of Rousseau's explicit praise for Calvin's impact on life in Geneva. The best way of reading that accolade in conjunction with his condemnation of a theological intolerance is to take Rousseau as expressing a genuine ambivalence about the overall merits of Calvin's contribution to an understanding of a flourishing civil society. Furthermore, his concern about a Calvinist type of theological intolerance points to an important area of exploration that goes beyond a focus specifically on Calvin's views on political life in particular—a topic, to be sure, that deserves much detailed attention. Rousseau's observation about a theology's "civil effect" highlights a concern that has been receiving considerable theological attention in recent decades, particularly in that area of discussion that has come to be known as "public theology."
Theology and Civil Society
Public theology as an identifiable theological subdiscipline addresses an agenda that overlaps with those associated with some other rubrics that have been given much attention in the past century, such as "Christian social ethics," "political theology," and "church and society." While these other subdisciplines are still very much alive, public theologians have wanted to explore questions about "public" life that are not adequately addressed simply by focusing on "ethical," "political," or "church-and-state" topics.
This expanded theological focus takes up the concern expressed by some social scientists, that the identification of the public with the political tends to focus too exclusively on the relationship of the individual to the state in exploring normative questions about societal life, ignoring thereby the significant role that "mediating structures" can play—neighborhood organizations, youth clubs, service groups, churches, and families themselves — in creating a buffer zone between the state and the individual. This broad "middle" area of social interaction, characterized by a variety of associational groupings, is what constitutes much of civil society, and a healthy public life will encourage the flourishing of these entities. Conversely, as Robert Putnam has made the case in his much-discussed Bowling Alone, the decline in these associational patterns means a loss of the "social capital" that plays a crucial role in the character formation that is in turn necessary for effective citizenship.
These same issues have been taken up in the public theology discussions. Special attention has been given to the ways in which Christian theology and spirituality can contribute to the flourishing of civil society in this broader sense. In this context, Rousseau's concern about a theological intolerance has special poignancy. What is the "civil effect" of a theology like John Calvin's?
Rousseau's ambivalence about Calvin's contribution is certainly understandable, since even those who have strong sympathies for the basics of Calvin's theology have to deal with some obvious tensions in his thought. Indeed, one of Calvin's mostly sympathetic biographers, William Bouwsma, sees the tensions in the Reformer's theology as stemming from conflicts deep in his psyche—so deep in fact that Bouwsma resorts to positing "two Calvins, coexisting uncomfortably within the same historical personage."
One of those Calvins is "the philosophical Calvin" who, "as a rationalist and a schoolman of the high Scholastic tradition," favored a "static orthodoxy" and "craved desperately for intelligibility, order, certainty. Distrusting freedom, he struggled to control both himself and the world." The second John Calvin, though, "was a rhetorician and a humanist" who "was flexible to the point of opportunism, and a revolutionary in spite of himself." This was a Calvin who "was inclined to celebrate the paradoxes and mystery at the heart of existence."
It is easy to see something like these two Calvins at work in, for example, the Reformer's struggles with the topic of Christian obedience to government. In his commentary on the classic "powers that be" passage in Romans 13, he comes down unambiguously on the side of unfailing submission to political authorities, allowing no room for legitimate political resistance, even in the case of unjust rulers. What are Christian citizens to do, he asks, when confronted with magistrates who "degenerate" from the proper use of power? Even in these difficult situations, Calvin insists, "the obedience due to princes ought to be rendered to them. For since a wicked prince is the Lord's scourge to punish the sins of the people, let us remember, that it happens through our fault that this excellent blessing of God is turned into a curse." Thus, it is the apostle's teaching "that we ought to obey kings and governors, whoever they may be, not because we are constrained, but because it is a service acceptable to God."
This counsel stands in rather stark contrast, though, to the position he sets forth in the last section of the Institutes where, while pointing his readers to "that obedience which we have shown to be due the authority of rulers," he nonetheless acknowledges that "we are always to make this exception," namely, "that such obedience is never to lead us away from obedience to him, to whose will the desires of all kings ought to be subject, to whose decrees all their commands ought to yield, to whose majesty their scepters ought to be submitted." Christian citizens must never forget that it is "the King of Kings, who, when he has opened his sacred mouth, must alone be heard, before all and above all men." If earthly rulers "command anything against him, let it go unesteemed."
More directly relevant for his views on civil society is the tension that characterizes Calvin's diverse assessments of the cultural insights of the unregenerate mind. On the one hand, his own studies in classical thought had given him a sense of his intellectual debt to several pagan thinkers, especially Seneca. This debt led him to point to "a universal apprehension of reason and understanding [that] is by nature implanted in men," which, "because it is bestowed indiscriminately upon pious and impious, ... is rightly counted among natural gifts"; indeed, says Calvin, every human being ought to recognize this implanted rational nature as a "peculiar grace of God." Moreover, when we observe this gift at work in "secular writers," Calvin advises, we should
let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God's excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it where it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.... Those men whom Scripture [1 Cor. 2:14] calls "natural men" were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of inferior things. Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good.
In spite of such praise, Calvin could also speak very negatively about the products of the unregenerate mind. When Calvin credits the unredeemed with some grasp of the principles of civic fairness, for example, he quickly adds that even when the human mind follows after truth, "it limps and staggers" in doing so. In the lives of unbelievers, he says, the civic "virtues are so sullied that before God they lose all favor," so that anything in them "that appears praiseworthy must be considered worthless." And while he acknowledges that "some sparks still gleam" in the non-Christian mind, that light is nonetheless "choked with dense ignorance, so that it cannot come forth effectively."
Given these two different emphases in Calvin's assessments of "the natural man," it should not surprise us that when Karl Barth and Emil Brunner debated the question of natural theology in the 1930s, each accused the other of betraying the basic aims of Reformation thought. On the one hand, Barth insisted that fidelity to the Reformation necessitated a firm rejection of natural theology as such, while Brunner issued a more modest call for "our generation to find the way back to a true theologia naturalis." And each of them, in making their case, appealed to the authority of John Calvin, quoting passages that reinforced their respective positions — with Brunner insisting that his more favorable assessment of "the natural mind" was the dominant viewpoint in Calvin's writings, and Barth responding that we should not allow "that little corner which has been left uncovered in Calvin's treatment" to lure us down a dangerous path.
Are we simply left with the "two Calvins," then, resigning ourselves to debates between parties who choose from what are finally contradictory patterns in the Reformer's thinking about important matters? Further on we will point to one creative effort to construct a public theology that draws on both of these strands. But for a beginning, it is instructive to single out a few themes in Calvin's thought—however they might be reconciled with other elements in his theology—that do contribute to the task of public theology.
Theology and "Collectivities"
In his study of Scottish Enlightenment thought, Richard Sher observes that some of the concepts that figured prominently in the exploration of societal phenomena were based directly—for all the secularized language in which they were couched — on "Calvinist foundations." Specifically, Sher cites the Calvinist insistence "that human beings constitute integral parts of the particular societies in which they live and cannot be studied apart from them; that God frequently uses people (or peoples) for divine purposes that remain unknown to them, such as punishing the sinful and rewarding the righteous (the famous concept of 'unintended consequences'); and that the study of collectivities — nations, tribes, and the like — is rich with moral and religious significance."
Sher identifies an important feature of Calvin's theology here: the attention given to collective social entities. He also rightly connects this focus to the strong Calvinist emphasis on divine providence. In one sense, of course, providence is surrounded by mystery in the Calvinist scheme — which means that the Calvinist will always nurture a degree of pious agnosticism about what God is really doing in the "macro-" movements of history. God "orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner even when the devil and wicked men act unjustly," says one of the sixteenth-century Calvinist confessions; "[a]nd as to what he doth surpassing human understanding we will not curiously inquire into it further than our capacity will admit of," being content "with the greatest humility and reverence [to] adore the righteous judgments of God which are hid from us."
Calvin would certainly endorse that pious affirmation regarding the ways of providence. But he would also insist that we not decide too quickly what is being "hid from us" as "surpassing human understanding." Calvin was an astute student of collective entities. He had strong ideas about how a government ought to conduct itself in a variety of areas. And he exerted his influence as a church leader in a variety of areas of Genevan life: sewage systems, the treatment of refugees, medical care, the concerns of the poor, family patterns, entertainment activities, education, and so on. It was precisely this broad area of societal address that led Andre Bieler to write about Calvin's "social humanism."
Furthermore, while Rousseau was certainly correct in attributing a fair measure of both theological and civic intolerance to Calvin, as we have seen, there are elements in Calvin's thought that clearly point toward an appreciation of the cultural contributions of unbelievers. And Calvin did devote some attention to the theological foundations for such a posture. His probings in the direction of a natural law perspective, as developed by some of his theological heirs, have recently been given sustained exposition by Stephen Grabill. But Calvin also explored other ways of accounting for human commonness — as residing in a shared human sensus divinitatis and a semen religionis, as well as a shared access to general revelation— all of which serve in his mind at least to remind the unregenerate of some of the basic demands for righteous living.
None of this amounts, of course, to a robust theology of civil society. Much of that task has to consist — as is evident in those who make a case for Calvin as a resource for a theology of cultural life—of looking for underlying patterns in how Calvin addressed the social, educational, and economic issues of his day. One obvious and highly significant pattern in this regard is Calvin's insistence, in contrast to the thought of both Luther and the Anabaptists, on the strong continuity between ancient Israel and the Christian church. This insistence, grounded in his affirmation of the "third use of the law," which portrayed the Decalogue as a continuing norm for interactions in the public arena, meant that Calvin was disposed to look for extensive guidance for the Christian community in the Old Testament's deliverances on social, economic, and legal matters. Calvin even took this to the point of arguing that the "form" of Israel's politics, which he saw as featuring an "aristocracy bordering on democracy," continues to be the preferred structure of political life.
John Calvin's theological interest in political topics was passed on to many of his spiritual heirs; indeed, it often came to dominate their lives. This was certainly true in Scotland where, as J. D. Douglas put it in his study of the Scottish "covenanting" movement, the "None but Christ saves" theme of the Scottish Calvinists in the sixteenth century came to be largely replaced in the seventeenth by the "None but Christ reigns" rallying cry. The Presbyterian struggle often took the form of bloody battles for political control; but the period of this struggle also produced some major works in political theology, with perhaps the most influential being Samuel Rutherford's 1644 Lex, Rex.
While the Scottish Presbyterians and the Puritans also paid some attention to broader questions regarding civil society, those matters were given special attention by early Calvinists in the Netherlands, especially in the influential work of Johannes Althusius, who in the seventeenth century explicitly addressed the ways in which political authority could nurture a vital public arena in which a variety of private associations might flourish. 26 This broader agenda was in turn taken up as a sustained theological project in the nineteenth century by the "neo-Calvinist" movement initiated by the Dutch statesman-theologian Abraham Kuyper.
Like the Scottish Covenanter theology, Kuyper's theological reflections were forged in the context of practical involvement in public life. But Kuyper's public career ranged over an unusually wide variety of involvements in civil society. He founded and edited two newspapers, established a major university where he also taught theology, led a significant ecclesiastical schism that resulted in a new Dutch Reformed denomination, and birthed a political party that he then represented in parliament, eventually serving a term as prime minister of the Netherlands.
"Neo-Calvinism" and the Cultural Spheres
The "neo" part of the "neo-Calvinist" label signals a significant departure from Calvin himself on a key point, as well as an expansion of the Calvinist agenda on some other related matters. The departure from Calvin had to do with the way in which the Reformer had understood the proper arrangement between church and state. In his 1898 Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary, Kuyper was quite candid on this subject, citing examples of what he saw as the intolerant behavior of Calvin and many of those who followed in his train: Calvin's sending of Servetus to the stake, the Scottish Presbyterians' treatment of Independents, centuries-long restrictions on Catholic worship and practice in the Netherlands — and all of this stemming, Kuyper argued, from "the unanimous and uniform advice of Calvin and his epigones, who demanded intervention of the government in the matter of religion."
Excerpted from The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship by Richard J. Mouw Copyright © 2012 by Richard J. Mouw. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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