Today is the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin. Calvin’s effect on the world as we know it is undeniable and, hopefully for our sake, indelible. His influence on the Christian faith and western liberal society has been substantial. He was not a man without flaws, and he would not claim to be. But, whether or not we want to admit it or realize it, we all owe a huge debt to the “Genius of Geneva.”
This past Spring I was given the opportunity to combine my two greatest passions—politics and theology—in an independent study for my last semester of undergraduate study. The resulting work was term paper on John Calvin and the State.
In my studies I found a man committed to the rule of law, the right to overthrow tyrants, separation of church and state, republicanism, and a number of other ideas we in Western society hold dear. I also found overwhelming evidence of his theological heritage’s influence on our Revolution and Founding documents. And a number of our Founder’s had kind words for the man and his ideas. No wonder most of the Calvinists I know (including myself) support Ron Paul and other constitutionalists.
Though not directly responsible for America’s liberal democracy, Calvin left behind in his writings the ideas that provided the groundwork for classic liberal thought. He was no classical liberal himself, but without him, perhaps classic liberalism would not exist.
Below I have included only the introduction and conclusion to my term paper in honor of Calvin’s 500th birthday.
The legacy of John Calvin is a multifaceted one, comprising the roles of pastor, teacher, author, religious revolutionary, and a number of other achievements. His commentaries, sermons, and other writings have withstood the test of time and continue to be objects of much study which help to illuminate meaning in the Word of God. It is Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, however, which shines above the rest, remaining one of the fundamental works and influences of the Christian faith. It is in this, his life’s work, that one encounters Calvin’s attempt to help guide the believer in all aspects of faith and piety. As Elsie McKee points out, the central focus of Calvin’s work was to “instruct and exhort Christians in the purpose for which they were created…to know and love and serve the triune God…who creates, redeems, and gives faith” (3). Included in this purpose was a focus on the state. In the last chapter of his magnum opus, Calvin devoted his discussion to civil government and, in the process, created political thought which would be used by future generations to create liberal democratic thought.
The impact of John Calvin on Western political thought is undeniable. Though not directly responsible for America’s liberal democracy, Calvin left behind in his writings the ideas that provided the groundwork for classic liberal thought, which was instrumental in founding the United States.
After looking at Calvin’s own works—primarily his Institutes—as well as the large volume of scholarship done considering Calvin’s views of church and state, it becomes quite obvious that his political thought was instrumental in the formation of classic liberalism. As Graham notes, Calvin contributed “mightily to the doctrines of self-rule and self-determination in the new world” (196). To be sure, he was no classic liberal in the purest form of the term, but his work on the issues of theology and government was extremely important to those who would follow him and form Western republicanism.
Calvin was not only a religious revolutionary, he was also a secular one—although this second revolutionary spirit was for him merely a by-product of the first. Calvin did not begin the movement of Western progression toward democracy, though he certainly took a leading role in it. Therefore, he is to be praised or blamed for what would come in the form of capitalism, democracy, science, technology, and numerous other Western achievements (Graham 201).
His views on issues like revolution, church-state separation, freedom of conscience, rule of law, and republicanism, may not present an exact mirror of these same concepts presented by classic liberals in the 18th Century. But without Calvin’s influence, perhaps, none of this thought could have progressed. What we find in Calvin is a man with a passion for Christ and the freedom found in Him. It is only natural that this freedom would spill over into political thought and lead future generations to adopt concepts from the genius of Geneva.
Soli Deo Gloria