Imperial Calvinism: Transforming the World

It has long been standard in scholarly circles to claim that whereas Lutheran Protestantism tends to be passive and pietistic due to its emphasis on justification by faith alone and on the difference between the two kingdoms, Calvinism is active and vigorous in every area of life due to its emphasis on sanctification and the lordship of Christ. No matter how hard historical theologians work to show that this contrast is seriously exaggerated, the invention of modern theological controversies (not to mention Calvinists’ proclivities toward a certain Whiggish interpretation of history), it remains influential, enduring in the widely quoted statements of prominent scholars like Ernst Troeltsch, H. Richard Niebuhr, and Jurgen Moltmann.

Take, for instance, Troeltsch’s famous study, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, now more than one hundred years old. Troeltsch agrees that Calvin used the language of Luther’s two kingdoms, but he claims that, spurred by the doctrines of predestination and the absolute sovereignty and glory of God, Calvin’s social theory turned in a radically different direction.

“In his teaching on the independence and secular character of the State Calvin used exactly the same language as Luther; since, however, at the same time he created a strong independent Church … through which he desired to effect a Christian and ethical transformation of the whole of Society and civilization, in practice he made the State subordinate to the Church.” (2:627)

Troeltsch, like so many early twentieth century scholars, erroneously believed that Calvinism is a system of thought “logically constructed” on “the idea of predestination, the famous central doctrine of Calvinism.” (2:579, 581) In this system, according to Troeltsch, the gospel was no longer a means to the salvation of sinners rooted in the God who is love, but a means to the greater end of the glory of God who is majesty. The purpose of the doctrine of justification was not the joy of the forgiveness of sins that results in loving service to one’s neighbors, but the sovereign calling of an individual to serve as an instrument of the divine will. The gospel thus became “a spur to action” and the “spirit of active energy” in the heroic elect, who in turn became “Christ’s warriors and champions.” (2:584) Certain of their salvation, Christians were free to look outward and to devote themselves to the transformation of society into the holy community of Christ.

The doctrine of predestination thus gave rise to Calvinism’s second distinctive characteristic, which was its heroic religious individualism. Protestantism is inherently individualistic, Troeltsch admitted, but Calvin directed that spirit toward the purpose of “the glorification of God in action, [which] is the real test of individual personal reality in religion.” Whereas the Lutheran Christian satisfies himself with the quiet loving service amid the providentially arranged circumstances of life, for the Calvinist

“the whole meaning of life consists precisely in entering into these circumstances, and, while inwardly rising above them, in shaping them into an expression of the Divine Will. In conflict and in labour the individual takes up the task of the sanctification of the world … The Calvinist knows that his calling and election are sure, and that therefore he is free to give all his attention to the effort to mold the world and society according to the Will of God.” (2:588, 589)

The result is the establishment of a sort of “spiritual aristocracy.” (2:590) The lordship of Christ bestows upon Calvinists a “high sense of a Divine mission to the world,” an “immeasurable responsibility.” (2:617) “Predestination means that the  minority, consisting of the best and the holiest souls, is called to bear rule over the majority of mankind, who are sinners.” (2:618)

The third distinctive characteristic of Calvinism is “the central significance of the idea of a society, and the task of the restoration of a holy community, of a Christocracy in which God is glorified in all its activity, both sacred and secular.” (2:590-591) Here the church is not merely the organ of justification but “the means of sanctification: it ought to prove itself effective in the Christianizing of the community, by placing the whole range of life under the control of Christian regulations and Christian purposes.” This is to take place “in every aspect of life: in Church and State, in family and in society, in economic life, and in all personal relationships, both public and private.” (2:591) Calvin thus made “an ethic of sanctification the underlying basis of Church discipline and of the development of the State.” (2:601) Calvinism “sought to make the whole of Society, down to the smallest detail, a real expression of the royal dominion of Christ.” (2:622)

Calvin’s tool for this transformation, Troeltsch argued, was the Bible, which Calvin turned into the blueprint of the holy community, “a law, whose aim and nature were of equal value in every part.” (2:586) To be sure, Calvin recognized that parts of the law were no longer binding on Christians, and in that sense he did not seek to revive “Jewish legalism.” (2:601) But in contrast to the Lutherans, Calvinism “extended the authority of the Bible over a wider field, and in the process it transformed the whole conception of the Bible into an infallible authority for all the problems and needs of the Church.” (2:587) Based on the premise that the Bible could speak to all of life, Calvinists seeking the political and legal transformation of society inevitably found lessons in the example of Israel, its kings and its prophets. Calvin dismissed the immediate significance of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Troeltsch claims, in favor of the more relevant Old Testament.

I reject Troeltsch’s interpretation of Calvin’s theology, of course, though I will not refute it at length in this blog post, but there is a reason why it has been so influential. It rings true, I believe, for a significant strand of Calvinism, which takes as its raison d’etre the vindication and assertion of the absolute sovereignty of God. Far too often this has bred what Max Stackhouse has called “imperial Calvinism,” or what Nicholas Wolterstorff describes as “that most insufferable of all human beings, the triumphalist Calvinist.” Take, for instance, the following quote from Troeltsch:

This peculiar combination of ideas produces a keen interest in politics, but not for the sake of the State; it produces active industry within the economic sphere, but not for the sake of wealth; it produces an eager social organization, but its aim is not material happiness; it produces unceasing labour, even disciplining the senses, but none of this effort is for the sake of the object of all this industry. The one main controlling idea and purpose of this ethic is to glorify God, to produce the Holy Community, to attain that salvation which in election is held up as the aim; to this one idea all the other formal peculiarities of Calvinism are subordinate.” (2:607)

In short, what we have here are highly activist, enormously confident individuals, whose devotion is to exerting power over other human beings in order to assert the sovereignty of God. This is in sharp contrast to the proper emphasis of the Christian ethic, which is on conforming to the image of Christ in self-sacrificial service toward others.

Thankfully, Troeltsch’s characterization is not accurate for many Reformed people on the ground. Many of us were reared on the Heidelberg Catechism, which says precious little about the themes Troeltsch believes are so central to Calvinism. And however later Calvinists might have conceived of the implications of their faith, John Calvin himself took the distinction between the two kingdoms seriously, stressing that the kingdom of Christ is manifest in the church and its ministry, and that during the present age its witness is characterized by the suffering of the cross (a means of conformity to Christ, Calvin stressed in light of Romans 8, that has been predestined by God!). Calvin well understood the difference between sanctification and politics, between spiritual righteousness and civil righteousness, between the church and the commonwealth. He was no “Imperial Calvinist.”

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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 June 23, 2014, in Calvin, Calvinism, Martin Luther, The Reformation, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Imperial Calvinism: Transforming the World.

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