Celebrating Calvin

David W. Hall
Friday, October 30th 2009
Nov/Dec 2009


The Calvinist view of liberty, wherever it spread, gave citizens confidence and protections. Within a century, the American colonies would exhibit these Calvinistic distinctives. Not incidentally, one of the first colonial law codes was named “The Massachusetts Body of Liberties.” So close were law and liberty that Calvin’s disciples customarily associated law codes with tables of liberties. The reason was that a proper understanding of liberty is essential for any successful venture, whether it is business, civic, or religious. Calvin had seen an oppression of liberties-both in Paris as Protestants were persecuted and in the eyes of the many Roman Catholic refugees who arrived regularly at Geneva’s walls-and he formed his view of liberties based on God’s Word and also in a fashion that avoided misuses of it.

Few thinkers with a lineage as ancient as Calvin have as much future promise. Calvin set forth both the positive necessity for well-ordered government as well as the limitations of its scope. His Reformed theology compelled government to be limited to the role of servant of the people; his political insights helped restrain the Leviathan. Today, when individuals frequently act as if centralized government agencies can provide lasting solutions to a wide range of social and individual problems, Calvinistic realism is one of the few substantial intellectual traditions that cogently warns against the twin dangers of utopianism and the threat of expansive governmental power.

Of all the theologies, Calvinism has made the most significant contribution to democracy. One summary of political Calvinism reduced Calvin’s ideas to five points that may be of continuing validity. Herbert Foster noted the following as hallmarks of Calvin’s political legacy, and these permeate the cultural contributions noted above:

  • The absolute sovereignty of God entailed that universal human rights (or Beza’s “fundamental law”) should be protected and must not be surrendered to the whim of tyranny.
  • These fundamental laws, which were always compatible with God’s law, are the basis of whatever public liberties we enjoy.
  • Mutual covenants-as taught by Beza, Hotman, and the Vindiciae-between rulers and God, and between rulers and subjects, were binding and necessary.
  • As Ponet, Knox, and Goodman taught, the sovereignty of the people flows logically from the mutual obligations of the covenants above.
  • The representatives of the people, not the people themselves, are the first line of defense against tyranny.

At least an elementary grasp of Calvin is essential to any well-informed self-understanding of Western democracy-indeed, for modernity itself. Unfortunately, many remain unaware of the signal contribution that the leadership of Calvin has made to open societies. We may even credit Calvin’s Reformation with aiding the spread of participatory democracy. Even if this heritage no longer holds a place of honor in our textbooks or in our public tradition, we owe our Calvinistic forefathers a large debt of gratitude for their efforts to establish limited government and personal liberty grounded in virtue. A single man with heart aflame changed the world.

American Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once estimated the paramount political accomplishment of the millennium as law established by elected representatives instead of by the king or his experts. His candidate for the fin-de-millénaire award in late 1999 was

the principle that laws should be made not by a ruler, or his ministers, or his appointed judges, but by representatives of the people. This principle of democratic self-government was virtually unheard of in the feudal world that existed at the beginning of the millennium….So thoroughly has this principle swept the board that even many countries that in fact do not observe it pretend to do so, going through the motions of sham, unopposed elections….We Americans…have become so used to democracy that it seems to us the natural order of things. Of course it is not. During almost all of recorded human history, the overwhelming majority of mankind has been governed by rulers determined by heredity, or selected by a powerful aristocracy, or imposed through sheer force of arms. Kings and emperors have been always with us; presidents (or their equivalent) have been very rare.

It should be noted, however, from the highlights above that Justice Scalia is describing the kind of republicanism pioneered by Calvin and his disciples-a republic grounded in the eternal truth of morally ordered liberty.

Even during the twentieth century, intellectuals certainly remained aware of Calvin. In fact, in the words of contemporary theologian Douglas Kelly, Calvin’s legacy continues and is “perhaps the stronger and deeper for the very fact that its roots are largely unperceived.” Large segments of political thought have often embraced such forward-looking Calvinistic concepts as respecting fixed limits on governing power and permitting people the rights to resist oppression, with little awareness of their genesis. Calvin’s original formulation of these ideas was eventually “amplified, systematized, and widely diffused in Western civilization….Thus modified, it would prevail across half of the world for nearly half a millennium.”

Calvin should certainly be acknowledged for his overall contribution to the legacy of freedom and openness in democratic societies. It is undeniable that he had a large influence on the American founding fathers, who had absorbed much more Calvinism-particularly in their views of the nature of man and the need for limited government-than some realize.

John Calvin was much more than a theologian, and his influence extended far beyond churches. Calvin and his disciples, when measured by this new millennium, will probably make more lasting contributions than Karl Marx, Napoleon Bonaparte, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, or Henry Ford. Calvin inspired the cultural changes that gave rise to the political philosophy of the American founders, a truly extraordinary event in world history. Founding fathers, such as George Washington, James Madison, Samuel and John Adams, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson stood on the shoulders of some of history’s greatest philosophers, not the least of whom was a pastor from Geneva hundreds of years ago. That he is still commemorated 500 years after his birth as a culture-shaping leader indicates the robust character of his thought and a sturdy legacy for generations to come.

1 [ Back ] Herbert D. Foster, Collected Papers of Herbert D. Foster (privately printed, 1929), 163-74. I have summarized the five points of political Calvinism slightly differently, referring to: depravity as a perennial human variable to be accommodated; accountability for leaders provided via a collegium; republicanism as the preferred form of government; constitutionalism needed to restrain both the rulers and the ruled; and limited government, beginning with the family as foundational. The resulting mnemonic device, DARCL, though not as convenient as TULIP, seems a more apt summary if placed in the context of the political writings of Calvin's disciples.
2 [ Back ] Foster, 174. Besides Calvin, this idea was reiterated in Buchanan, Beza, Peter Martyr, Althusius, Hotman, Daneau, Vindiciae, Ponet, William the Silent, and others.
3 [ Back ] Antonin Scalia, "The Millennium That Was: How Democracy Swept the World," The Wall Street Journal (7 September 1999), A24.
4 [ Back ] Douglas Kelly, The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1992), 4, 27.
5 [ Back ] Kelly, 32.
6 [ Back ] Some of the foregoing work was also contained in my dissertation, "The Calvinistic Political Tradition, 1530-1790: The Rise, Development, and Dissemination of Genevan Political Culture to the Founders of America through Theological Exemplars" (Whitefield Theological Seminary, 2002).
7 [ Back ] A recent article further corroborates Jefferson's ease with religion. See "What Would Jefferson Do?" in The Wall Street Journal (9 March 2001), D26. That editorial contains a finding by Kevin Hasson, to wit: "The Framers did not share the suspicion that religion is some sort of allergen in the body politic. Quite the contrary, they welcomed public expression of faith as a normal part of cultural life." It is also noted that in Jefferson's day, the Treasury Building was used for a Presbyterian communion, Episcopal services were held in the War Office and, as the Library of Congress exhibition states, "the Gospel was also preached in the Supreme Court chambers." That America today doesn't know its own history here is a reflection of the larger revisionism that today portrays the churches, synagogues, and mosques that criss-cross the country not as bulwarks of freedom but as incipient threats to the American way of life. The editorial concludes by suggesting that if future Supreme Court justices are hostile to the free expression of religion, "they'll have to do it without Jefferson."
Friday, October 30th 2009

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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