Were the old Calvinists like today’s Islamists?

In a fascinating column in RealClearReligion the famous sociologist of religion Philip Jenkins compares the radical Islam of figures like Sayyid Qutb (author of Milestones and an intellectual father of modern day Islamism) with 16th Century Calvinism. Jenkins’s overall point is to demonstrate that a religion often evolves in positive ways only by first passing through dark times. In the case of the West, he suggests, the Enlightenment followed the radicalism and iconoclasm of the Reformation; Protestants had to destroy much of what came before them in medieval Christianity in order to forge new ways to the future.

In the process of making this argument Jenkins accurately portrays a side of 17th Century Calvinism that most present-day Calvinists would find troubling. Speaking of the Dutch Reformed iconoclasts of the 1560s, he writes,

Beyond smashing images, the insurgents had other ideas that look strikingly familiar to anyone familiar with radical Islam today, with thinkers like Sayyid Qutb and Maulana Mawdudi.

The Calvinists of the 1560s sought to remodel society on the basis of theocratic Old Testament law strictly interpreted, with the role of the sovereign measured by how far he or she submitted to God’s will. Some thinkers devised a pioneering theory of tyrannicide, justifying the removal of any allegedly Christian ruler who betrayed Christ’s true church. Protestant radicals pursued a harsh policy of reading rival believers out of the faith, defining the followers of images as utterly anti-Christian, deadly enemies of God.

In the English-speaking world, the heirs of 1566 were the Puritans, the radicals who dreamed of an austere New England. When Puritans seized power in England itself in the 1640s, their agents toured the country, smashing statues and windows in every parish church they could find. By the 1640s, at the height of Europe’s death struggle between Protestants and Catholics, Calvinist ideas that to us seem intolerably theocratic dominated not just the Netherlands, but also New England, Switzerland and Scotland, and were struggling for ascendancy in the whole British Isles. Religious zeal often expressed itself through witchcraft persecutions.

To be sure, what Jenkins describes here was not true of all Calvinists. John Calvin himself, living in an earlier century, explicitly rejected the sort of strict allegiance to the Old Testament civil law that Jenkins here describes, and he absolutely rejected the theories of tyrannicide and rebellion articulated by some of his followers. But Jenkins nevertheless accurately describes a strand of Calvinism, and his description of the violence and disorder that was sparked by radical Calvinist notions of what allegiance to God in the public square demanded is truthful, if not representative of the whole tradition.

One question we might ask here is to what extent was this old militant Calvinism different from the Islamism with which our nation is in conflict today. If Calvinists today were advocating theories of resistance and revolution, or if they were suggesting that the current U.S. government of Barack Obama is illegitimate such that Christians do not owe it allegiance, would the state have to launch a campaign against them as well? What if they were defending tyrannicide, based on the belief that Barack Obama is a tyrant?

Actually, this is not so theoretical. If there is one thing I have learned since starting this blog, it is that there are a number of Calvinists out there today who would espouse virtually all of these views (perhaps even tyrannicide? I’m not sure …). I don’t think most Reformed Christians give the time of day to these thinkers, but there is a minority that is with them all the way.

These people are some of the most vocal critics of the two kingdoms doctrine that is being advocated with various nuances by figures such as Darryl Hart and David VanDrunen, and they are certainly hostile to any sort of criticism of the culture war model of political engagement. As they like to point out, modern day two kingdoms advocates do not apply their theory exactly like our 16th and 17th Century forbears would have. The contemporary two kingdoms doctrine must therefore be illegitimate – both historically and theologically.

But I would like to ask those who find these arguments persuasive, do you really want to go back to the heyday of Calvinist revolution and theocracy? Is it the American project that you reject – with its commitment to religious liberty and the separation of church and state? And if so, how do you distinguish your own cause from that of the Islamists, especially the more respectable groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, or the intellectual followers of Sayyid Qutb? To those who, like me, find this brand of Calvinism profoundly troubling, how do you reject it without some sort of distinction between the two kingdoms, between the kingdom of Jesus, and the political institutions of this age?

Jenkins appreciates the fact that the violence and revolution associated with early Calvinism was an important part of the story of how the democratic liberties and political structures that we take for granted came to exist. Calvinism had its own growing pains, and the best political theological insights from its earlier years need to be extracted from a number of assumptions and applications that were inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture. But not every Calvinist views things this way. That’s why we need to keep making the point.

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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 August 7, 2012, in Calvinism, Culture War, Islam, Religious Liberty, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Were the old Calvinists like today’s Islamists?.

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