Reformed Political Theory
Reformed political theory is a branch of Christian political theory, so it is not surprising to find significant overlap between how Calvinists and other Christians view politics. General Christian propositions with implications for politics include the ideas that humans are created in the image of God, that men and women are sinful, and that God has established different institutions for various purposes: notably, the family, church, and state. Virtually all Christian political thinkers have recognized that civil authorities are ordained by God and that there is a biblical obligation to obey them, but that the obligation is not absolute. Although generalizations are always dangerous, it is fair to say that between Constantine and the Protestant Reformation most Christians who thought about politics assumed that monarchy was the ideal form of government, saw rulers as playing an important role in promoting the common good, and paid little attention to subjective individual rights. While they believed that Christians should refuse to obey an unjust law, virtually none of them contended that the people had a right to revolt against unjust rulers.
Reformed political theory broke in significant ways from previous Christian views. Of course Reformed thinkers borrowed from earlier thinkers, and the tradition developed over time. However, in the same way that scholars are comfortable speaking of a “liberal tradition” that includes John Locke, John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, and, according to numerous scholars, most of the founders, so too is it possible to speak of a Reformed tradition that includes John Calvin, John Knox, Samuel Rutherford, John Winthrop, and, I shall argue, many of America’s founders. Because some readers, even sophisticated students of American political theory, may be unfamiliar with this tradition, I offer a brief introduction to it below. Obviously a few pages on a tradition that spans centuries and involves a contentious and wordy people cannot do it justice, but it does allow me to introduce key themes that I believe have a significant impact on American political ideas.
The Protestant Reformation was a wide ranging movement opposed to perceived abuses by the Roman Catholic Church. It may be conveniently dated to 1517, when Martin Luther (1483-1546) nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg castle church door. For our purposes, the work of John Calvin, whose followers comprise what is considered to be the Reformed tradition, is of particular interest. Calvin was born in France but lived most of his adult life in Geneva, Switzerland, which he helped govern between 1536-1538 and 1541-1564. In 1536 he published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, a volume that he revised several times until his final 1559 edition. The work, along with his voluminous biblical commentaries, has proven enormously influential among his followers, who were represented most prominently in America by the Puritans.
Calvin’s work echoed the great battle cries of the Reformation such as sola fide and sola scriptura, and it reinforced the seminal notion of the priesthood of all believers. Reformers rejected the idea that the church and her priests were necessary intermediaries between common persons and God, and that the Church as an institution possessed the authority to speak for God. Individuals were told that they were responsible for their relationship with God, and that His will for them is most clearly revealed in the Holy Scriptures. This belief led to widespread male literacy and a commitment to translating and printing the Bible in the vernacular. These views and practices helped undermine existing hierarchies and paved the way for the growth of democracy. Although ecclesiastical structures varied, Reformed churches leaned heavily toward democratic forms of government, and nowhere was this more true than among Calvinists who immigrated to America. In some instances church members merely consented to be governed by elders, but among Congregationalists the people took a direct role in governing their churches.
Particularly significant within the Reformed tradition is the insistence that God is sovereign over all of creation. Reformers attempted to apply their faith to all elements of life, including things such as raising children, conducting business, and participating in politics. This “sanctification” of every part of life contributed to the tremendous economic and social development that marked most countries in which Protestants influenced by this tradition became a majority. From their earliest days in power, Calvinists were concerned with creating Christian political institutions and practices. Yet they were not theocrats, and they even expanded contemporary distinctions between church and state. Reformers believed that both institutions were divinely mandated and that the two should work closely together to create a Christian society. Because only God is sovereign, and because of their commitment to the doctrine of total depravity, they insisted that both ecclesiastical and civil authority be strictly limited. As well, Calvinist thinkers remained committed to the traditional Christian idea that governments should promote the common good.
Calvinist movements sprang up throughout Europe, and were particularly successful in Switzerland, Holland, Scotland, and England. In these and other countries—notably France, where the Huguenots were a persecuted minority—they faced hostile regimes. Although the Reformers initially advocated passive obedience, they rapidly developed a resistance ideology unlike anything ever seen on a widespread level in Christendom. Calvin, the most politically conservative of the Reformers, contended that in some cases inferior magistrates might resist an ungodly ruler. However, Reformers such as John Knox (1505-72), George Buchanan (1506-82), and Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) of Scotland, Theodore Beza (1519-1605) of France and Switzerland, David Pareus (1548–1622) of Germany, Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562) of Italy, and Christopher Goodman (1520-1603) and John Ponet (1516-1556) of England argued that inferior magistrates should resist unjust rulers, and even permitted or required citizens to do so.
Among the most famous pieces of resistance literature is Stephanus Junius Brutus’s Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos (1579). Written by a Huguenot, probably Philippe du Plessis Mornay (1549-1623) or Hubert Languet (1518-1581), the Vindiciae contends that men originally exist in a state of natural liberty, and that “the natural law [ius Naturale] teaches us to preserve and protect our life and liberty – without which life is scarcely life at all –against all force and injustice.” Humans are “free by nature, impatient of servitude,” and they create governments to promote the common good. Legitimate rulers are established only by virtue of a twofold covenant (duplex foedus). The first of these, between God, king, and people, commits the people and ruler to obey God. If either the king or the people turn from God and so violate this covenant, it is void. The second covenant, which is between the ruler and the people, stipulates that the consent of the people is necessary for government to be legitimate. The people promise to obey the king as long as he rules justly. Rulers who are illegitimate, negligent, unjust or tyrannical break this covenant and forfeit their right to rule. When the people resist ungodly or unjust rulers, they are “procuring that which is their natural right [droit naturel].”
For Reformers, families, churches, and civil governments should be grounded in agreements between humans that are witnessed and enforced by God. Of course they did not invent covenants, but they significantly emphasized their use and significance; particularly with respect to civil and ecclesiastical authorities. Moreover, as represented well by Brutus’s first covenant, they believed that God makes covenants with peoples, much as He did with the ancient Jews. These covenanted people then have an important role to play in God’s plan to bring about His kingdom on earth. Failure to keep these covenants, clergy routinely warned in sermons known as jeremiads, would result in God’s punishment. The rights and responsibilities associated with such covenants would have an important influence in America.
One might object that nothing in the preceding section is distinctive to the Reformed tradition. Indeed, Quentin Skinner has argued that even works like Vindiciae are not “specifically Calvinist at all,” but that ideas contained in them were borrowed from Scholastic authors. As a matter of the genealogy of ideas this may be the case, but what is critical for the purposes of this essay is that these ideas were most extensively developed, defended, and applied within the Reformed tradition. Within a generation of Calvin virtually every Reformed civil and ecclesiastical leader was convinced that the Bible taught that governments should be limited, that they should be based on the consent of the governed, that rulers should promote the common good and the Christian faith, and that unjust or ungodly rulers should be resisted or even overthrown. Whether or not these ideas are inherently connected to Calvinism, the Reformed tradition became a major means by which they became a part of American political culture.
6. Kenneth A. Lockridge, Literacy in Colonial New England (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1974), 98. Lockridge calculates that 60% of males in New England were literate in 1660, and that this percentage rose to 85% by 1760 (13).
7. On New England churches and ecclesiology see especially James F. Cooper, Jr., Tenacious of Their Liberties: The Congregationalists in Colonial Massachusetts (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) and David A. Weir, Early New England: A Covenanted Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).
8. Max Weber famously noted the connection between Protestantism and capitalism in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 3rd, ed. and trans., Stephen Kalberg (Los Angeles: Roxbury, 2002). Although his analysis is flawed in important ways, Weber deserves credit for noticing the significant impact Calvinism had on economic growth. See generally W. Stanford Reid, ed., John Calvin: His Influence in the Western World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982).
9. John Witte, Jr., The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 1-80.
10. Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought: volume two: The Age of Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), especially chapters 7-9; David W. Hall, Genevan Reformation and the American Founding, (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2003).
11. Stephanus Junius Brutus, Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos, ed. George Garnett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 149, 92, 37-40, 129-131; Skinner, Foundations of Modern Political Thought, 2: 329 (quoting Brutus).
12. The exact nature of these covenants was hotly contested among New England ministers. See Perry Miller, “From Covenant to the Revival” in Miller, Nature’s Nation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966); Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978); and Jonathan D. Sassi, A Republic of Righteousness: The Public Christianity of the Post-Revolutionary New England Clergy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 19-83.
13. Skinner, Foundations of Modern Political Thought, 2: 321. But see Michael Walzer, Revolution of the Saints (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965).
14. The extent to which later Calvinists were faithful to the teachings of John Calvin and/or the Bible is a question that goes beyond the scope of this essay.
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Mark David Hall: The Influence of the Reformed Tradition on the American Founding, Part II
By Mark David Hall