Calvinism Thriving in China: is Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine the reason?

In a fascinating blog post in the Guardian (HT: David Koyzis) Andrew Brown points out that the version of Christianity on the ascendancy in China is Calvinism. In Africa and Latin America the Christian surge is largely charismatic or Pentecostal, and its target demographic is the poor. But in China, which Brown suggests may well represent the future center of global Christianity, charismatic tendencies are despised.

Calvinists despise pentecostalists. They shudder at unbridled emotion. If they are slain in the spirit, it is with a single, decorous thump: there’s to be no rolling afterwards. And in China, the place where Calvinism is spreading fastest is the elite universities, fuelled by prodigies of learning and translation. Wang Xiaochao, a philosopher at one of the Beijing universities, has translated the two major works of St Augustine, the Confessions and the City of God, into Chinese directly from Latin. Gradually all the major works of the first centuries of the Christian tradition are being translated directly from the original languages into Chinese.

All of this is happening outside the control of the official body which is supposed to monitor and supervise the churches in China. Instead, it is the philosophy departments at the universities, or the language departments and the departments of literature and western civilisation that are the channel.

The unofficial churches, it seems, are younger, wealthier, more intellectual. But what is most interesting about Brown’s report is his explanation of why Calvinism is the theology of choice for so many Chinese.

Dr Tan suggests that this is because it is Protestant: that is to say it can be made much more convincingly native than Roman Catholicism, since presbyterian congregations choose their own pastors. This is, I suspect, enormously important at a time when China is recovering from a century and a half of being the victim of western powers; the pope’s insistence on appointing Catholic bishops is unacceptable to the government and perhaps to the people too.

Calvinism isn’t a religion of subservience to any government. The great national myths of Calvinist cultures are all of wars against imperialist oppressors: the Dutch against the Spanish, the Scots against the English; the Americans against the British. So when the Chinese house churches first emerged from the rubble of the Cultural Revolution in the 80s and 90s “They began to search what theology will support and inform [them]. They read Luther and said, ‘not him’. So they read Calvin, and they said ‘him, because he has a theology of resistance.’ Luther can’t teach them or inform them how to deal with a government that is opposition.”

It’s an interesting argument, and one that fits the classic caricatures of Rome, Wittenburg and Geneva. It also relates fairly closely to a focus of my own recent work, which is the rapid spread of Calvinism during the 1550s and 1560s in Catholic France. A number of leading Reformation scholars have recently argued that Calvinism was equipped to thrive in countries with a hostile magistracy in a way that other forms of Protestantism – such as Lutheranism or the Zwinglian Reformed – could not. Why? Not because Calvinism developed a theory of resistance. That largely came later (after the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre), and in fact, Lutheranism and medieval Christianity had their own versions of resistance theory.

Rather, the real cause of Calvinist expansion during its heyday, these scholars argue, was the distinctive Calvinist understanding of the church as an autonomous, self-governing institution distinct (though ideally coterminous) from the state. In contrast to Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bullinger, and almost all of the other magisterial reformers, Calvin insisted that the church was to maintain its own spiritual government of pastors and elders responsible for the administration of church discipline and, if necessary, excommunication. Less controversially, but not less distinctively, Calvin argued that the church had to maintain an ecclesiastical diaconate in order to administer care for the poor.

While other Protestants encouraged the civil magistrate to handle the functions of discipline and poor relief because they viewed church and commonwealth as essentially one society, Calvin and his followers insisted that even in the context of a Christian society the government of church and state were to be kept distinct. One of the main arguments of my dissertation is that it was Calvin’s unique version of the two kingdoms doctrine that made the Calvinist tradition so distinctive on this point.

What does this have to do with success in a hostile environment such as France, let alone China? Calvinism provided its followers with a model of the church that could easily be translated to any context, friendly or hostile. It did not matter if the French government rejected the true gospel, or even if it persecuted evangelicals, because the Reformed churches possessed all of the theological resources necessary to govern themselves and even to thrive without state support.

In fact, even the later development of Calvinist resistance theory presupposed this basic two kingdoms distinction. While Calvin and most of the other Reformed pastors insisted on the basis of Romans 13, the Sermon on the Mount, and other passages that churches and individual Christians must submit even to unjust civil authorities, the distinction between the two kingdoms enabled these same theologians to argue that different ethical principles applied to lesser civil magistrates. These subsidiary authorities, such as the Estates or the French Princes of the Blood, had the right to oppose tyranny on the part of the crown or its ministers precisely because they were authorities within the political kingdom rather than the spiritual.

The French Wars of Religion that occurred before the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre were therefore led by Huguenot nobility rather than by pastors or popular rebels. The pastors supported the Huguenot cause but always ensured that the governing bodies of the church were kept distinct from the Huguenot political or military authorities. The justification for war in these early years was always secular (i.e., the pro-Catholic regency established during the reign of the immature Charles IX was in violation of French legal tradition and therefore should be opposed by appropriate princes and nobility) rather than theological.

Are we seeing a repeat of these developments in China today? Despite Brown’s article, I doubt the Chinese are turning to Calvinism because of its theories of political resistance. If anything, I suspect that the Chinese, like the early French Reformed, want to avoid associations with subversive tendencies that would turn the government against them. Brown may well be on to something, however, when he emphasizes the Calvinist tendency to emphasize the autonomy of the church in a way that is appropriate for hostile contexts and therefore subversive of government tyranny. No doubt the theological and ecclesiological depth of Calvinism is compelling to those young, intellectual Chinese men and women so willing to break with their government and its officially tolerated institutions. In any case, this is a story worth following.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

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

Posted on November 26, 2012, in Calvin, Calvinism, Church Government, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Calvinism Thriving in China: is Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine the reason?.

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