27 September 2014

Five Centuries of Calvin (Part 1 of 2)

Recently I've been listening to some seminary lectures from 2009. This was a big year for Reformed people because it was the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin.

All over the country and all over the world there were conferences celebrating Calvin and speaking of his influence in history and the shaping of civilization. The lectures range in topic from theology to politics to economics. Calvin truly is a titan in terms of civilizational influence.

Listening to the lectures I was forced to reflect on my own experience and how I personally have changed and been transformed from a Reformed stalwart to someone who has mixed feelings at best. I was taken back to 1997 when I rode the train from Italy through the Alps and along the breathtaking lake and finally arrived at the city of Calvin... though few think of it in terms of Calvin anymore. I can't recall who said it, but at one point in time it was pointed out that the future civilizational struggle would be between Rome and Geneva. This was not referring to Protestantism and Roman Catholicism but to the Enlightenment as represented by Geneva and Christianity. Geneva had become the city of Rousseau and Voltaire and no longer associated with the Calvinistic creed. Calvin's real cultural influence extended beyond his home in Switzerland.

Visiting the city was for me a pilgrimage. I was in awe of Calvin and visiting St. Peter's was a dream come true. I marvelled as I walked the streets Calvin walked, visited the location of his house and stood before the monument built to him and the other leaders of the Reformation.

I even recall thinking at the time that 2009 would be a big year, an occasion for celebration and reflection. I wondered if there was some possibility I would be able to come to the city that year.

Little did I realize by the time 2009 rolled around I would no longer be a Calvin enthusiast. In fact I was already on that road in 1997 but I didn't yet know it.

At the time I would have nodded along with some of the lectures that I'm listening to today. These lectures are mostly given by Reformed people within the Reformed world. Now they strike me as misreading history, exercises in question begging, and rather insulated and naive in their views.

Calvin as the father of America and religious liberty! Really?

There are senses in which that can be said to be true but in many other ways it's actually very far from the truth. Calvin's Geneva did influence the Republican ideal but I think you'll find that for most of the so-called Founding Fathers the Republican ideals of Ancient Greece and Rome were probably just as much of an influence.

I'm afraid there's a terrible tendency to give unwarranted credit to the Pilgrims and Puritans in the formation of America. Their ideas which few seem to realize are actually at odds played very little and perhaps no part in the formation of ideas that led to 1776. The whole emphasis on the Pilgrim iconography is really a child of late 19th century American Romanticism and nationalist propaganda.

The other colonies which played just as large a part in the formation of American Idealism... Quaker Pennsylvania and of course the greatest of all, Virginia had nothing to do with Calvinist thought.

Even if it were true that Calvin somehow was the primary cultural influence that led to the formation of the United States, it would be nothing to celebrate and in no way would it provide Biblical vindication for the American project.

Did Calvin help to birth the idea of the 'right of the resistance' the notion that Christians can take up arms to counter tyranny? Certainly he played a part in the development of this doctrine. Of course I don't believe it to be a Christian doctrine in any shape or form. As far as the rebels of 1776 I doubt very much that more than a handful of them had the Genevan Reformer in mind when they took up their muskets to shoot at the soldiers of the United Kingdom. Rebellion is itself as old as the hills and of course is denounced in Scripture as the moral equivalent of witchcraft. It is a rejection of Providence and an attempt to exercise dominion of the Divine Order.

As with all wars the motives of those involved are complicated and indeed there were many Scots-Irish Presbyterians who had been influenced by the long violent struggle in Scotland. The ideas behind these struggles were certainly influenced by Calvin and Knox.

But as far as the leaders of the colonial revolt? Well despite the delusions of David Barton and people like him you're not going to find any Calvinistic influence in the Declaration of Independence. It and the Constitution are dripping with Enlightenment thought.

Of course we might point out that Calvinism played no small part in the development of the Enlightenment but I am confident these seminary conferences and symposiums will contain no lectures on that topic!

I find it amazing that so many of these folks continue to insist Calvin was some kind of champion of religious liberty. Most people would say he represented an absolute opposite set of ideas.

The Middle Ages saw a long struggle between Church and State. To speak that way is somewhat anachronistic but we can speak of the aristocracy struggling against the power of the Papacy. Who would rule Europe? Who would have the final say?

At times the kings seemed to be winning the day and during other periods the popes were truly ascendant. The Reformation or more properly the Magisterial Reformation was a triumph of the state.

Protestantism was midwived by the state, wedded to it and protected by it. In fact by the second generation of the Reformation of which Calvin was a part, the situation had become unacceptable. The state was effectively running the Church.

Calvin struggled to free the Genevan church from the domination of the city government. In this sense he stood for religious liberty. He wanted a free Protestant church that was able to function outside of government control and one that would be free from the talons of Rome.

Beyond that I think our modern notions of religious liberty were not only foreign to him but anathema. Calvin did not believe in freedom of conscience. Geneva was crawling with informers and thought-crime was a punishable offence. Social pluralism an enshrined concept of the Constitution was a concept Calvin did not hold to.

And neither do most of the lecturers I've heard.

Not all would go so far as to tear down pagan houses of worship and imprison heretics... but most would like to see the state sanction Christianity (at least in a broad sense) and help to foster and protect it.

This is not religious liberty. It may seem an improvement when compared to Europe under Innocent III but it's not allowing true freedom of conscience.

Not a few authors have pointed out that religious liberty in the American sense is a child of two forces...

The Enlightenment,

and the Anti-Constantinian Christian movements represented by Quakers, Anabaptists, Baptists, Moravians and other groups that explicitly rejected political Christianity.

Colonial history had not always been kind to them and certainly some of the founders had these groups in mind as they worked to establish pluralist foundations.

Pluralism itself has generated much confusion. Theological and Social pluralism must be distinguished. We must absolutely reject the former with as much vigour as we embrace the latter. Some view this as bifurcated thought. I would argue that it is Biblically necessary and without it our very notion of the Kingdom is destroyed.

The Quakers are of course a bit more complicated and represent a unique experiment in terms of Christian government in colonial Pennsylvania. But it must also be said that they maintained a great deal of integrity and when their hand was forced by the French and Indian War they willingly gave up power as they realized they couldn't participate in the creation and fostering of an army.

Unless you restrict religious liberty to the very narrow sense of Church-State relations, Calvin is really beyond the scope of the discussion. Our common notions of it today are actually in opposition to Geneva. Even the Presbyterian Churches of the post-Revolutionary period redacted the Confession's teaching on the magistrate. It no longer functioned in an American context demonstrating the new America's incompatibility with the Calvinistic mindset of the Confession's framers. America is not a child of Calvinism.