Distorting Calvin on the Aquila Report: Governor Haslam may know his Calvin but David Tulis does not

In a bizarre article on the website Nooganomics, posted by the Aquila Report on its own site (note, the Aquila Report does not agree with everything it publishes), David Tulis claims that Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, a Presbyterian elder in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, was following Calvin’s legacy when he vetoed the General Assembly’s HB 3576/SB 3597 as an illegitimate state intervention into the matters of a private university. Now Governor Haslam may have made the right decision in vetoing the bill, though liberty and limited government based arguments could be made on both sides. But to claim Calvin’s legacy in the decision is misleading and woefully distorting of Calvin’s legacy.

Tulis writes,

Mr. Haslam, an elder in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, is following the thinking of the world’s foremost Christian reformer, John Calvin, a French theologian who is credited even by his enemies as having systematized the concept of modern political liberty that everyone from the tea party to Occupy Wall Street to Hamilton County government with its divided powers owe their thanks.

Calvin, whose major work is The Institutes of the Christian Religion, followed Martin Luther and Scotsman John Knox in enunciating limitations of the civil magistrate (or, as we say today, the state) that are the bulwark of western political liberty. With Calvin, the doctrines of government by covenant, interposition by the lesser magistrate and the duty of princes to avoid arbitrary and absolutist government came into the modern consciousness. The American colonial concept of fractured national government with its competing power centers (executive, legislative, judicial) is a new historical development — and comes from Calvin.

Let me be clear. I am writing my dissertation on Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine, and have been studying Calvin’s political theology for years now. I have no doubt that Calvin made significant contributions to the development of western theories of political liberty, limits on the civil magistrate, resistance to tyranny, and government by covenant. His two kingdoms doctrine helped set the stage for later progress in all of these areas, and I appreciate Tulis’s article for helping to draw attention to that doctrine.

But to claim that Calvin “systematized the concept of modern political liberty that everyone from the tea party to Occupy Wall Street to Hamilton County government with its divided powers owe their thanks” is absolutely absurd. Calvin did no such thing, and I know of no credible scholar of Calvin who would make this claim. Yes, as my own dear professor John Witte has demonstrated in his The Reformation of Rights, Calvin played a serious role in the development rights theory. But that does not mean he “systematized” the concept of modern political liberty.

Even worse, to claim that “With Calvin, the doctrines of government by covenant, interposition by the lesser magistrate and the duty of princes to avoid arbitrary and absolutist government came into the modern consciousness,” is a woeful distortion that any historian worth his salt – let alone thoughtful Christians aware of the medieval portion of our history and tradition – could refute. All of these elements find their roots well behind Calvin in classic Jewish and Christian thought, and all of them were articulated in some form by medieval theologians and scholars prior to the Reformation. Finally, to say that the American distinction between the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the government somehow “comes from” Calvin is simply bewildering.

Yes, Calvin played a role in their development; yes Governor Haslam’s actions make sense in light of a Reformed tradition of political theology that Calvin helped shape. But let’s not make the sort of ridiculous claims that simply make our tradition look full of itself and entirely unaware of our broader Christian legacy.

What make’s all of this ridiculous is that in all probability Calvin would have opposed the Governor’s veto (although, of course, it is absurd to say what Calvin would have thought if he were living in our context today). Calvin had no difficulty with civil government taking action to ensure the freedom of Christianity and the Gospel in private institutions. In fact, he would have seen it as a duty. The reformers certainly made contributions to ideas of political liberty and limited government, but they also did much to expand the role of government in matters of religion. That is a sad part of their legacy, but it is one with which we have to come to grips. Let’s get Calvin right.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on May 4, 2012, in Two Kingdoms and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Distorting Calvin on the Aquila Report: Governor Haslam may know his Calvin but David Tulis does not.

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