Friday, June 27, 2008

Calvin & Divine Rule of Kings:

I wanted to comment on Jason Kuznicki's post on the Acton Institute's The Birth of Freedom whose screening we both saw. His post brings to mind George Willis Cooke's observations:

The doctrine of degrees, as taught by the Calvinists, was the spiritual side of the assertion of the divine right of kings. On the other hand, when the people claim the right to rule, they modify their theology into Arminianism. From an age of the absolute rule of the king comes the doctrine of human depravity; and with the establishment of democracy appears the doctrine of man's moral capacity.

As Kuznicki correctly points out, Calvin was not a social contractarian, and his teachings on government were nothing like the democratic-republican ideas that America's Founders established:

According to Calvin, magistrates get their authority from God, and not — as the Levellers would have had it — by an agreement of the people. Hobbes sided with the agreement of the people, although he did attach, shall we say, some rather stringent terms to it. This — agreement versus divine institution — is the whole of the difference between social contract theory and what came before it.

Insofar as Calvin ever considered a state of nature, he viewed it not as full of danger (like Hobbes), nor as imperfect and needing improvement (like Locke), nor even as subject to natural transformation into a governed state (like Nozick). He viewed it as profane, because it was not sufficiently subject to God’s authority. He compared it to rats in straw. (And yet don’t rats enjoy living in straw? Why should we presume that this is such a bad thing for them? Doesn’t the metaphor deconstruct itself?)

Indeed, it’s hard to find something less like a Lockean social contract than the following passage from Calvin:...

Kuznicki then quotes from Calvin, an excerpt of which follows:

For though the Lord declares that a ruler to maintain our safety is the highest gift of his beneficence, and prescribes to rulers themselves their proper sphere, he at the same time declares, that of whatever description they may be, they derive their power from none but him. Those, indeed, who rule for the public good, are true examples and specimens of his beneficence, while those who domineer unjustly and tyrannically are raised up by him to punish the people for their iniquity. Still all alike possess that sacred majesty with which he has invested lawful power.

History gets interesting, though, when we recognize that some later "Calvinists" made arguments for "resisting the King," that somewhat paralleled what the American Founders would even later do in the American Revolution, and that a strong Calvinist component in the American population supported revolt against Great Britain. Still, Calvin was not a liberal democrat or social contractarian, but if anything represented "the spiritual side of the assertion of the divine right of kings," the exact opposite of the position America's Founders took.


Brad Hart said...

A very thoughtful posting. So are you suggesting that Calvinism -- or at least its doctrine -- was essentially done away with as a result of the American Revolution?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Not exactly. Rather that Calvin's teachings had little to do with the principles of the American Revolution.