27 September 2014

Five Centuries of Calvin (Part 2 of 2)

Interestingly the Reformation largely failed to achieve the goal of liberating the church from the state. On the continent of Europe, the state churches continued to dominate until the 19th century. By then all of the state churches had slipped into Enlightenment apostasy and it took Pietism and the Free Church movement to finally get European Christians to start thinking differently about the idea of Christian Civilization. But as Pietism proved both a blessing and a curse, this too largely failed and many of those movements eventually departed from the faith and embraced theological liberalism.

Pietism was a weak protest against state Christianity and infused zeal in its adherents, but in the de-emphasis on doctrine doors were opened for other ideas to enter. In the end theological liberalism has many avenues of attack. It is a cancer that destroys all in its path and when it's done, it destroys itself.
The 19th century also saw the Swiss Reveil movement and the birth of the Brethren Churches. Like missionaries entering pagan territory Christians fanned out across Europe teaching a form of Christianity that did not celebrate the Reformation but instead clung exclusively to the Bible. Unfortunately (from my standpoint) with this came the doctrines of Dispensationalism and some other errors. But for many parts of Europe it was and continues to be a beam of light and a breath of fresh air.
In terms of economics Calvin did help to 'free' the Church from ideas about restricting interest and allowed Christians to see the charging interest was not usury per se. I'm not sure if this is something to be celebrated. In fact the episode reminds me of the same types of revisions that occurred at the time of the Constantinian Shift when the Church completely revised its attitude regarding money and power.
Sometimes Calvin is considered as the father of Free Market Capitalism. This is anachronistic and misrepresents what Calvin stood for. Some of the lecturers have had to acknowledge this and I appreciate their candor. Free Market economics were abhorrent to Calvin and the Puritans. The very idea depends on basically an Arminian or Pelagian notion of man's fallen state. None of these believers in Total Depravity thought that men could just be turned loose. They did not believe in a law of nature that declared everyone's self-interest would effectively regulate and promote economic stability. This would be to promote chaos and as many later thinkers pointed out, anarchy ultimately leads to tyranny.
These were people who believed strongly in wage and price controls and in government oversight of economic activity and indeed personal profit and income. These folks were not libertarians and its telling that the libertarian community largely hates Calvin and his Geneva.
Of course many Christians (especially outside America) do not find Christianity to be compatible with Capitalism at all and look with great scepticism and Calvin's theological justification for interest and his ideas concerning profit.
To many, myself included I see much of Protestantism as a re-casting of the Medieval model and the creation of a New Sacralism, a new type of Christendom.... but Christendom nonetheless.
Of course listening to these lectures these very ideas are assumed and never questioned. Again to my ear, the lectures are one great exercise in question begging. They're assuming a great deal that I do not agree with and thus the whole context of the discussion is flawed and in some cases absurd.
One lecturer criticized the interpretation that Calvin was a medieval man. The lecturer wants Calvin to be a modern man, a founding father of a new age of European civilization. Both ideas are true and yet I think the whole notion of Protestantism rests upon Rome and many of its assumptions. Calvin was a transitional figure but largely (I think) he was deeply enmeshed in medieval categories of thought. It would take subsequent generations to develop republican and constitutional ideals.
Historians worked hard to divorce these ideas for a long time. Protestantism was supposed to be the antithesis of Rome. It perhaps reached its peak in the 19th century when Protestantism was all about progress and European power and this was contrasted with defeated Rome which clung to outdated theological and sociological ideas. The Unification of Italy seemed to accentuate this view as the bitter popes were all but imprisoned within the Vatican unable to stop the tide of progress.
Today as historical Protestantism is on the ropes (so to speak) the emphasis has shifted and today not a few Protestants are happy to refer to a common heritage with Catholicism, continuity and to my ire refer to medieval figures as 'Saint' Thomas or 'Saint' Bernard.
It's rather offensive and dishonours the Christians who for centuries have opposed and resisted the false claims of the Roman entity.
Nonconformity flourished in Britain and America but was this due to Calvin? Were Calvin's fingerprints on the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the English Bill of Rights in 1689?
Far from it. The basis for the kind of pluralism was certainly rejected by Calvin. He made no such efforts to affect that kind of compromise in Geneva and the Church of England born of the Elizabethan Settlement would have been unacceptable to Calvin as it was to his followers.
The Glorious Revolution was a great victory for Baptists, Quakers and others but in many ways it finalized the defeat of Calvinistic Puritanism. It allowed them to exist without persecution but once and for all ended their political project. It was supposed 'Glorious' because it ended the threat of a Roman prince but it also ended the whole struggle that had dominated the 17th century. It was a compromise that rejected both Rome and Geneva and put the Church of England on its peculiar course with all the positives and negatives that entails.
The lectures have been interesting but what interests me most is the change that I've undergone. Seventeen years ago I would have been enthusiastically nodding along with the lectures and would have been part of the crowd laughing at the digs against liberals and standing to my feet in applause. Today I find myself outside and largely alone disagreeing with almost every historical assessment, the foundations they rest on and the theological assumptions which undergird them.
But I am not daunted or disturbed. I am burdened by what I hear. I lament the celebration of riches and war and the willful blindness to the evils and consequences of Reformation thought. The Reformation was truly a huge shift in the march of civilization a force for some good but also a great deal of evil.
Liberal theologians and sociologists step back and see the big picture... a picture these seminary lecturers cannot see. They see the Reformation as a bridge between the Medieval Era and the Modern Age. It brought both death and life. It set the stage for the final act of the Middle Ages and also birthed Modernity something Christians have rightly never been at ease with.
It cannot be separated from the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. The ideas and trends born during the Reformation bore fruit and created the world of Rousseau and Adam Smith. Certainly it played a part in great shift that brought about Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution.
I think these legacies are at best mixed. By this I mean I think we should reflect on them. I'm not so sure we should celebrate them.
The same kind of willful blindness has led many Protestant and Conservative thinkers to misunderstand the consequent revolutions and the breakdown of the family and society. They willfully refuse to see the role Capitalism and Industrialisation have played in the breakdown of society.
They don't want to see it and thus do not.
Though burdened and a bit sad I am at the same thankful and (no thanks to Calvin) I am liberated... free from the bonds of tradition and paradigms which bind the conscience and commit the heart to a civilizational project that is doomed to fail. I don't need to whitewash history to assuage my guilt nor do I need to distort the truth with an imposed narrative.
I used to argue with people in order to defend Calvin and his legacy. Today I can critique it but at the same time still largely disagree with his secular critics.
The truth is often more complicated and far more profound. I am happy the Lord has led me on a path that is far narrower and lonely, in some ways more difficult and confusing, but at the same time is well lit and easy to see. I praise God for his goodness in helping me to see a world that is overwhelming and confusing but much bigger than the narrow world I once inhabited.
While this sounds like a 'liberal' sentiment I don't mean it to be. I'm not speaking of 'free-thought' in the Enlightenment sense but 'free' in terms of being liberated from factional loyalties and narratives.
I am free to follow truth and He who is Truth and go wherever it leads.
I can still believe in Predestination and Total Depravity... in fact I am struck at how many Calvinists in practice all but deny these core doctrines... and I can cling to many other ideas that share some commonality with Calvin's heirs.
But I would not call myself a Calvinist or Reformed. The so-called Five Points are a great reductionism and the heritage of Geneva while by no means monolithic has been at best a mixed bag... truth and error, some good but also a great deal of theological and sociological harm.
The truth is glorious but on this side of glory it is often complicated.