What has Calvinism done for you? The political legacy of John Calvin

28 Nov

From Dr. John Witte:

“Building in part on classical and Christian prototypes, Calvin developed arresting new teachings on authority and liberty, duties and rights, and church and state that have had an enduring influence on Protestant lands.  Calvin’s original teachings were periodically challenged by major crises in the West — the French Wars of Religion, the Dutch Revolt, the English Revolution, American colonization and the American Revolution.  In each such crisis moment, a major Calvinist figure emerged — Theodore Beza, Johannes Althusius, John Milton, John Winthrop, John Adams, and others — who modernized Calvin’s teachings and converted them into dramatic new legal and political reforms.  This rendered early modern Calvinism one of the driving engines of Western constitutionalism.  A number of our bedrock Western understandings of civil and political rights, social and confessional pluralism, federalism and social contract, and more owe a great deal to Calvinist theological and political reforms.”

Witte, John.  Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, 2-3.

And from Abraham Kuyper:

The Calvinistic confession of the sovereignty of God holds good for all the world, is true for all nations, and is of force in all authority which man exercises over man… It is therefore a political faith which may be summarily expressed in these three theses: 1.  God only, and never any creature, is possessed of sovereign rights, in the destiny of nations, because God alone created them, maintains them by his Almighty power, and rules them by his ordinances.  2.  Sin has, in the realm of politics, broken down the direct government of God, and therefore the exercise of authority, for the purpose of government, has subsequently been invested in men, as a mechanical remedy.  3.  In whatever form this authority may reveal itself, man never possesses power over his fellow man in any other way than by the authority which descends upon him from the majesty of God.

Calvinism “protests against State omni-competence against the horrible conception that no right exists above and beyond existing laws, and against the pride of absolutism, which recognizes no constitutional rights.” Calvinism “built a dam across the absolutistic stream, not by appealing to popular force, nor to the hallucination of human greatness, but by deducing those rights and liberties of social life from the same source from which the high authority of government flows, even the absolute sovereignty of God.”

Taken from Kuyper’s Stone Lectures on Calvinism, 1898.

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