Tuesday, March 1, 2011

“Calvin, Politics, and Political Science” by Paul Marshall (Ch. 7)

This review, written by Michael Wagner, is one of our series of reviews of chapters of David W. Hall & Marvin Padgett, Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview (P&R, 2010). We welcome your engagement and responses.

Paul Marshall is an internationally-recognized expert on issues related to religious freedom and persecution. Currently a fellow of the Hudson Institute (an American think tank), he is the author of over 20 books on religion and politics and is highly respected in the field.

The main burden of his article is to disprove the modern notion that John Calvin made no distinct contribution to political thought. Quoting from Calvin himself as well as other scholars, Marshall convincingly demonstrates that “Calvin’s key contributions to the study of politics come not from the detailed particulars of legal theory but from the way he embedded politics in a Christian, particularly Protestant, worldview or cosmology.”

Calvin’s emphasis that each person could relate directly to God through Jesus Christ had anti-hierarchical and egalitarian implications for politics and society. No longer was the Church seen as the “highest body” of society and no longer were ecclesiastical vocations seen as more spiritual than other tasks. Furthermore, the Church was organizationally separate from the state.

Calvin favoured a form of government where citizens shared in political power to a certain degree, an “aristocracy tempered by democracy.” Monarchy (the dominant form of government at his time) could degenerate too easily into tyranny. Calvin’s view included “a system of checks and balances,” an idea that would later significantly influence American constitutionalism. In sum, his thought “led to a stress on moving politics from being simply an elite occupation to one that is participatory.”

Marshall also discusses the thought of Johannes Althusius (1563-1638), a philosopher who developed some of the implications of Calvin’s political views. Althusius played a key role in the creation of federalism (a system where political power is divided between a national authority and constituent regional authorities). He also may have coined the term “political science.”

The material presented by Marshall is helpful for demonstrating Calvin’s importance to political science and Western societies. It’s a worthy contribution to a volume on Calvin’s impact on the modern world. Personally, I would like to have seen greater attention placed on aspects of Calvin’s thought that confront powerful trends in the Western nations such as the marginalization of Christianity and the widespread acceptance of abortion and promiscuous sexuality of various kinds. As he argues in the Institutes, political rulers are not to be neutral with regard to religion but “should labor to protect and assert the honor of Him whose representatives they are, and by whose grace they govern.”

In two places Marshall quotes a certain passage from the Institutes showing that Calvin did not believe the judicial law of the Old Testament should be carried over into modern societies. Of course, this is true. Calvin did not believe that the judicial law could be transplanted from the Jewish people of the Old Testament to modern nations. In his view, each nation must have the latitude to make laws and punishments that suit its particular situation.

However, he did expect those laws to reflect God’s moral law. As he puts it, “together with one voice, they pronounce punishment against those crimes which God’s eternal law has condemned.” Calvin calls the moral law “the true and eternal rule of righteousness, prescribed for men of all nations and times, who wish to conform their lives to God’s will.” The Ten Commandments are normative for all mankind and all nations.

That is not a message that people will want to hear today. But is Calvin wrong? Is God’s moral law an enduring standard for political ethics? Or need we look to another source? It’s a stark choice, and an answer reflecting historic Reformed thought will not be popular even in some Christian circles. Clearly, faithfulness to God requires submission to His moral law.

In Calvin’s view the chief purpose of man is to glorify the one true God, even in political matters. And it is this God, as he puts it, “to whose will the desires of all kings ought to be subject, to whose decrees all their commands ought to yield, to whose majesty their scepters ought to be submitted.”

Michael Wagner holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Alberta. He is an independent researcher and writer, the author of Standing on Guard for Thee: The Past, Present and Future of Canada’s Christian Right (Freedom Press, 2007), and is a member of the Puritan Reformed Church of Edmonton.

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