The postmillennial, transformational, moralistic, incorrect brand of Woodrow Wilson’s “Calvinism”

19 Dec

Good post by Matthew Tuininga, correcting an otherwise good article on Woodrow Wilson and Calvinism and reminding us that Woodrow Wilson’s moralistic foreign policy was driven not by orthodox Calvinism or even the political theology of Calvin (or Machen or even Kuyper) but by a distortion of it popular among mainline clergy at the time.  A clip:

Wilson, however, saw the political developments of his time as advancing world redemption in a way that Kuyper did not. The Federal Council of Churches echoed this in 1912 by stating that Wilson’s presidential campaign had communicated that “our social order must be fashioned after the Kingdom of God as taught by Jesus Christ.” Such an intense connection between the gospel and politics was far more stark and problematic than Kuyper’s own rhetoric suggested. Kuyper tended to speak of politics as informed by a Christian worldview, but nevertheless as a function of God’s creation ordinances and common grace, distinct from Christ’s kingdom.

To be sure, Wilson self-consciously sought to follow a Calvinist political theology of transformation. As Curry puts it:

Wilson taught his students that John Calvin was the “great reforming Christian statesman.” Summarizing Calvin’s impact on Wilson, Magee argues that Wilson’s understanding of the Christian statesman mandated the reconstruction of “his own society in covenantal patterns,” along the lines of Calvin’s Geneva. For Wilson, therefore, participation in politics was not an option, but a “necessary . . . outcome of this Calvinist faith.”

This is all true enough. But what neither Curry nor Magee clarify is that Wilson’s reading of Calvin was clearly shaped by the dominant post-millennialism of Wilson’s day, which tended to interpret the great reformer through the lens of social gospel transformationalism. Calvin always identified Christ’s kingdom with the proclamation of the gospel and the establishment of the church. Because of his distinction between the spiritual and political kingdoms, Calvin never spoke about politics in terms of the advance of the kingdom of God, except insofar as magistrates were responsible to protect and establish the true church.

So when Curry writes that Wilson had no sense of Reformed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic distinction between “moral man and immoral society” (a distinction by which Niebuhr sought to preserve realism about the level of righteousness that is achievable in institutions and large groups of human beings in complex circumstances), he tells us far more about Wilson than he does about Calvin (let alone Machen or Kuyper). Calvin was a stark realist when it came to his understanding of politics, as well as the progress of peace and justice in this world. He constantly emphasized that the life of the church would always be a life under the cross, until Christ’s return.

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