God’s Providence and the Limits of Revolutionary Activism: Calvin’s Social Theology. Part4/4

Calvinism & Spiritual Foundation of Society

Earlier Posts:
John Calvin’s Reformation in Context – Calvin’s Social Theology. Part 1/4
John Calvin on the Necessity of Civil Government – Calvin’s Social Theology. Part 2/4
John Calvin’s Response When Civil Government Turns Bad – Calvin’s Social Theology. Part 3/4

As the full implications of Calvin’s social theology unfolded in later historical developments, the perception of Calvin changed: Calvin the social conservative and an enemy of social freedom became Calvin the constructive reformer. /1/ Michael Walzer goes further to characterize Calvin not as a theologian but as an ideologist. First, Calvin developed a new radical psychology which transforms traditionally passive private citizens into activists who saw themselves as divine instruments for social transformation. Walzer refers to the Calvinist puritans as the earliest form of political radicals who developed his social vision into a revolutionary ideology. /2/ Walzer elaborates, “Calvinism taught previously passive men the styles and methods of political activity and enabled them successfully to claim participation in that ongoing system of political action that is the modern state.”

More importantly, Calvinist activists have been effective in bringing about revolutionary change because they were imbued with Calvin’s spirit of discipline: “[A]s the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the church, so does discipline serve as its sinews, through which the members of the body hold each other, each in its own place. Therefore, “all who desire to remove discipline or to hinder its restoration… are simply contributing to the ultimate dissolution of the church.” (Inst. 4.12.1) In Walzer’s opinion, Calvin’s emphasis on social covenant and discipline provides as the “supreme example of the new ideology’s organizing power” that enables his followers to set up robust church polities capable of engaging and impacting wider society.

Second, Calvin’s teaching on conscience and his call to “every saint to infuse “religious worldliness” [Walzer] to restore the fallen world emboldened his followers to confront rulers and authorities and be willing to overthrow traditional institutions in the name of setting up a new divinely sanctioned social order. Not surprisingly, Walzer, along with recent scholarship, depicts Calvin as the prototype of revolutionary radicals who have no hesitation about uprooting social order in the name of rebuilding a better society. Walzer bemoans as he writes,

Calvinist saintliness, after all, has scarred us, leaving its mark if not on our conscious then on our clandestine minds, and it is always worthwhile to go back over the wounds…The Calvinist saint seems to me now the first of those self-disciplined agents of social and political reconstruction who have appeared so frequently in modern history. He is the destroyer of an old order for which there is no need to feel nostalgic. He is the builder of a repressive system which may well have to be endured before it can be escaped or transcended. He is, above all, an extraordinarily, bold, inventive, and ruthless politician, as a man should be who has “great works” to perform, as a man, perhaps, must be for “great works must have great enemies. /4/

However, Walzer may have exaggerated the peril and destructive potential of Calvin’s social vision.

1) Freedom with Accountability
First, history is littered with human destruction and suffering caused by ideologues who seeing themselves as self-determining agents of history, readily overturn society at any cost to achieve their vision of human progress. However, Calvin’s recognizes the contingencies of history and the ambiguities of existence for fallen humanity (Inst.1.16.9). Since the purpose of God’s providence is not transparent, there should be caution and humility in initiating social action. History unfolds not as the story of autonomous human agents, but of the sovereign Lord of history. Believers must act in full dependence on God to guide them and empower them to accomplish his purpose in history.

In psychological terms, believers are fully cognizant of their inherent limitations and acknowledge that they are merely instruments of divine agency. But the sovereign grace of God assures eventual success as they work for the welfare and prosperity of the common good. In short, awareness of God’s judgment both reins in potential human hubris and at the same time instills believers with confidence for social action.

2) Restoration rather than Revolution
Second, Christian freedom for Calvin does not mean freedom without constraints. It is a freedom that is exercised within the law of God. Christian freedom should not degenerate into chaos precisely because it seeks harmony with God’s orders of creation. While unbelievers may view the law as a restriction to freedom, in reality God’s law is God’s providential stable order that encourages and assists his people in purposeful participation in that order. Such an outlook is surely antithetical to the attitude of revolutionaries set on disrupting and destroying existing social orders.

Calvin envisages Christ’s work as restoration of the world to its proper order. In his commentary on John, he emphasises that the word judgment (kρίσις) can also denote reformation. Likewise, the Hebrew word mishpat which is translated as judgment, can be understood to mean a well-ordered state. Thus in Calvin’s view, Jesus taught that “the world must be restored to a proper order.” Indeed, “Christ had already begun to erect the kingdom of God,” and his death “was the commencement of a well-regulated condition, and the full restoration of the world” (Commentary John 12:31).

There would certainly have been no discord among the creatures of God, if they had remained in their first and original condition. When they exercise cruelty towards each other, and the weak need to be protected against the strong, it is an evidence of the disorder (ἀταξίας) which has sprung from the sinfulness of man. Christ having come, in order to reconcile the world to God by the removal of the curse, it is not without reason that the restoration of a perfect state is ascribed to him; as if the Prophets had said that that golden age will return in which perfect happiness existed, before the fall of man and the shock and ruin of the world which followed it…that the people of Christ will have no disposition to do injury, no fierceness or cruelty. (Commentary Isaiah 11.6)

Christ’s renovation of the world begins with the casting out of Satan whose usurpation of God’s authority and whose “tyrannical dominion” brought confusion and deformity. Calvin further emphasizes that “this casting out must not be limited to any short period of time, but is a description of that remarkable effect of the death of Christ which is daily manifested” (Commentary John 12:31). That is to say, Christ’s work is not manifested in sudden ruptures or revolutions of history but is instead manifested steadily and progressively.

3) Embracing and Edifying Social Institutions
Third, for Calvin Christian freedom requires the believer to serve the welfare of his neighbors. Having found freedom Calvin urges, “We must at all times seek after love and look toward the edification of our neighbor” (Inst. 3.19.12). The purpose of freedom is “to encourage us to do good.” (Inst. 3.19.6) The goal of Christian freedom within the covenant community is to reinvigorate and rebuild social institutions since these institutions are God’s caring provisions to ensure orderly life. Christians should eschew revolutionary destruction of social institutions and instead opt for social reforms. In the words of William Stevenson,

The Christian believer is thus free both to change such structures through God’s inspiration and to accept such structures as signs of God’s care and love. Christian humility can mean both a raucous charge into the fray, riding the Lord’s will, and a quiet acceptance of one’s place and time in recognition of one’s deep ignorance of the particular details of God’s plan. Ultimately, Christian freedom’s indifference can imply both cool skepticism and warm acceptance of one’s historical circumstances. /5/

Put concretely, Christian freedom of personal indifference requires Christians to go beyond acting for self-interest and instead seek to serve the common good. That is to say, social reconstruction must be undergirded by social sanctification.

A sanctified Christian conscience will liberate the believing community to strive for societal change and at the same time it caution them against both the presumption to power and a harmful preoccupation with political change for its own sake. Christian conscience reminds the Christian community to “speak truth to power” and not allow itself to become comfortably ensconced by worldly power. /6/

Perhaps the exemplary embodiment of acting beyond one’s self interest may be seen in the life of Calvin himself. While recognizing God’s sovereign rule in the sphere of politics, Calvin resolutely kept the church separate from civil government. As such, Calvin never sought public office, but he defended independence for the spiritual ministry of the church so that he could maintain a prophetic voice to remind civil authorities to temper expedient politics with the persuasions of conscience.

ENDNOTES

1. See Fred Graham, The Constructive Revolutionary: John Calvin and His Socio-Economic Impact (John Knox 1971).
2. Walzer, Revolution of the Saints, p. vii. He may have exaggerated the originality of Calvin’s radical politics. For the debt Calvinism owes to Lutheranism see Quentin Skinner, The Foundation of Modern Political Thought, vol.2 (Cambridge UP, 1978).
3. Ibid., p.18.
4. Ibid., p. vii.
5. William Stevenson, Sovereign Grace: The Place and Significance of Christian Freedom in John Calvin’s Political Thought (Oxford UP, 1999), p. 131.
6. Ibid., p. 102.

 

Epilogue:

Calvin Was Buried in an Unmarked Grave
Calvin died at eight o’clock on the evening of 27 May [1564]. At his own request, he was buried in a common grave, with no stone to mark his own. There was to be no personality cult based upon him in Geneva. In death, as in life, Calvin proved to be self-effacing. Yet with his death, his influence upon the world proved to have only begun. Alister McGrath, A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture (Blackwell, 1990), p. 196.

 

Why was Calvin Buried in an Unmarked Grave?
[Calvin] was buried on Sunday [May 28, 1564] in an unmarked grave at a secret location somewhere in Geneva. In one of the last commentaries he wrote, he commented on the death and burial of Moses, “It is good that famous men should be buried in unmarked graves.” This conviction guided his own burial. He rejected the superstitious veneration of the dead and wanted no pilgrimages to his grave. He had lived to make Christians, not Calvinists. He had perhaps written his own best epitaph in his Institutes “. . . we may patiently pass through this life in afflictions, hunger, cold, contempt, reproaches, and other disagreeable circumstances, contented with this single assurance, that our King will never desert us, but will give what we need, until having finished our warfare, we shall be called to the triumph.” [Institutes 2.15.4] Robert Godfrey, John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor (Crossway, 2009), p. 198-199.

Calvin was not a saint…Perhaps he was a prophet.

Obituary
Calvin’s own assessment of all the work he had done was equivocal. On the one hand, it was slight because it was the work of a miserable creature. [In God’s Holy presence “I am is a miserable creature who “willed what is good, and that my vices have always displeased me, and the root of the fear of God has been in my heart.”] On the other hand, it was a great work, for “I have not falsified a single passage of Scripture, to the best of my knowledge. I aimed at simplicity. I have written nothing out of hatred to anyone, but I have always faithfully produced what I esteemed to be for the glory of God.” That last statement applied not just to the many writings he produced but also to his whole life’s work. It was directed at nothing other than the glorification of God’s name. Willem van’t Spijker, Calvin: A Brief Guide to his Life and Thought (WJK, 2009), p. 124.

 

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