Book Review

"Political Grace: The Revolutionary Theology of John Calvin" by Roland Boer

D. G. Hart
Roland Boer
Tuesday, November 1st 2011
Nov/Dec 2011

In the summer of 2009, when scholars, pastors, and the historically minded laity were celebrating the 500th anniversary of John Calvin's birth, The Washington Post ran an op-ed piece by a constitutional attorney who attempt-ed to give reasons for not only Protestants but all Americans to commemorate the Frenchman's birth. Ac-cording to Doug Phillips, "On July 10, six days after our own Independence Day, the world will celebrate the birthday of John Calvin, the man most responsible for our American system of liberty based on Republican principles of representative government." Calvin would likely have been surprised to see comparisons between his own church-dominated Geneva and a new nation that rejected state approval to all churches and religious bodies. But for Phillips, the fact that so many founders (such as John Adams) claimed Calvin as an influence was decisive. What also mattered was the Geneva pastor's "anti-statism, the belief in transcendent principles of law as the foundation of an ethical legal system, free market economics, decentralized authority, an educated citizenry as a safeguard against tyranny, and republican representative government which was accountable to the people and a higher law." These convictions, which may not exactly represent Calvin's political ideas, were so widespread among the first settlers of the United States that the historian Leopold von Ranke, whom Phillips quoted, could assert that "Calvin was virtually the founder of America."

Readers who want a counterweight to arguments like this one or whose own politics run more toward the editorial slant of the BBC World Service than Fox News now have a book to rescue Calvin from both lower-case and upper-case republicanism. Ronald Boer, who teaches theology at the University of Newcastle in Australia, provides a reading of Calvin designed to liberate the Reformer from the clutches of the GOP and turn Calvin into a forerunner of Marx and Lenin. The way Boer pulls off this remarkable feat is to mine the radical trajectories of Calvin's theology for leftist politics. The result is a reading of Calvin as skewed as the efforts of American patriots to claim Calvin as founding father in absentia.

Boer divides his study into five areas: Calvin's views of Scripture, grace, freedom, civil order, and his reliance on Paul. In each case, Boer finds a radical message that Calvin knowingly employs for theological or ecclesiastical purposes but then rejects when applied to society or civil government. And in each case, Boer registers dissatisfaction with Calvin's failure to follow through on the radical implications of his theology. For instance, in Calvin's doctrine of Scripture, Boer resonates with the Reformer's argument that the Bible is independent from and preceded church authority. Less palatable is Calvin's rejection of Anabaptist efforts to affirm the ability of ordinary believers to understand and apply Scripture on their own. But Boer's penchant for political and economic realities blocks the way to a worthwhile discussion of the important theological question of how God reveals himself and the authority of that revelation. He credits Calvin with a high view of Scripture that can go in one of two directions: either the conservative path "in which the Bible is not to be questioned," or the one "of radical critiques of oppression, visions of new forms of living, and stories of revolutionary change" (113).

The same mistake of missing the theological forest for the political trees occurs in Boer's discussion of grace. On the one hand, Calvin is a radical when it comes to the transformation that comes when a person goes from the state of total depravity to that of being alive to God. Boer approves of such depictions of sweeping change. On the other hand, Calvin understands that the transforming power of God's grace does not apply to all people; he believes in the doctrine of limited atonement and is not a universalist. For Boer this represents a failure of nerve in Calvin, an exchange of the "democracy of depravity" for the "aristocracy of salvation." Boer claims that this demonstrates the all too common tendency of Calvin "for radical impulses to fall back all too easily on reaction and repression" (113).

These examples show how for Boer, with the hammer of Marxist ideology in hand, all theology looks like a political tract. Arguably, the most revealing instance of this tendency to reduce theology to politics comes in Boer's discussion of Calvin's use of Paul. Boer knows the recent efforts in Pauline studies to show that the apostle was a subversive who attempted to establish an alternative authority to the empire of his day. Yet Boer also asserts that Paul was two-faced because of what he wrote in Romans 13 about the duty of Christians to submit to the emperor. Rather than crediting Calvin for recognizing what God through Paul was trying to communicate, Boer faults both for failing to follow through with the radicalism that he himself believes to be right, no matter what God, Paul, or Calvin says: "In the same way that Paul dithers between radicalism and reaction, so also does Calvin. In the same way that Paul equivocates over the radical possibilities of this new message and his tendency to recoil, so also does Calvin. And in the same way that Paul has the option of breaking through decisively or retreating to safer ground, so also does Calvin" (110).

Had Boer known about the doctrine of the two kingdoms’the Augustinian formulation that distinguishes the affairs of the temporal political order from God's design to build an eternal kingdom’he would likely have had the capacity to sort out these seemingly contradictory impulses in Calvin's theology. Clearly, the grace of the gospel is radical and overturns all post-Fall notions about guilt, punishment, and justice. Instead of an eye for an eye, the gospel proposes simply to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. But the gospel is not a white paper for public policy. It is believed by people who still live in a fallen world where God has instituted authorities to restrain the external effects of sin for the sake of civil peace and a modicum of social order.

Perhaps Boer is unfamiliar with this way of reconciling the radical and conservative strands in Calvin's thought because of his own upbringing in a strict Dutch Reformed home. Throughout the book he engages in a chatty and personal style, and he acknowledges his own encounter with Reformed Protestantism through his father who ministered in an apparently conservative Dutch-Australian congregation. Since most Dutch Reformed Protestants after Abraham Kuyper opted for a comprehensive understanding of creation and redemption that forbade dualisms of the kind on which two-kingdom theology relies, the likelihood that Boer did not encounter such an account of the differences between the common and redemptive kingdoms is not farfetched. Even so, Boer's reading of Calvin shows how important a two-kingdom outlook is. Without it, attempts to square the ordinary workings of creation with the extraordinary accomplishments of redemption are doomed to wind up either in Anabaptism or theonomy, neither of which follows from Calvin's own understanding of providence and salvation.

Tuesday, November 1st 2011

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

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