Is Calvin Among the Liberals?

Is Calvin Among the Liberals? June 16, 2017

Matthew Tuininga’s Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church aims to be more than an historical study of Calvin’s “two kingdoms” political theology. Tuininga wants to demonstrate that Calvin’s theology is a neglected resource for contemporary Christian political engagement.

According to Calvin, Christ rules everything in order to transform all things into a future heavenly kingdom. In the present age, humanity is governed by two “sharply differentiated” orders or governments: the spiritual government of the Church, which anticipates the age to come, and the order of political life, which exists to preserve temporal life. The former “has the power to restore humans to spiritual righteousness, true virtue, and eternal life,” whereas the latter “can only establish outward, civil, and temporal versions of the same.” Church and state are both ruled by the ascended Christ, and the two kingdoms overlap and interpenetrate, but the distinction enables Calvin to limit church authority to word and sacraments, and to maintain a sober realism about the limitations of temporal power.

Calvin’s refusal to draw “simplistic” political inferences from Scripture, his use of natural law, his insistence on the Church’s independence from political power, and his recognition of the limits of both temporal and spiritual kingdoms are valuable resources for Christians living in secular societies. Calvin provides “resources for a substantive Christian critique of the ideal of Christendom.”

Calvin the political theologian is definitely worth reading, and Tuininga’s detailed exposition of Calvin’s two kingdoms theology is valuable. His effort to apply Calvin to contemporary politics is less successful.

Near the beginning of the book, Tuininga takes brief notice of recent theological critiques of liberalism, but it’s not clear he has grasped the objections. He defines liberal democracy as a system of representative, democratic government erected to protect rights “in accord with the rule of law under a system of checks and balances that includes the separation of church and state.” Virtually none of liberalism’s theological critics objects to these forms and procedures as such. Their complaint isn’t against representative government or voting or freedom of speech and association. No one advocates a fusion of Church and state.

Rather, they claim that such a formal, procedural description masks the basic thrust of liberalism. Liberalism’s stated aim is to construct a society without substantive commitments, leaving everyone free to choose whatever his or her or hir own may be. Liberalism’s common good is to protect society from adopting any single vision of the common good. That’s a deviation from classical and traditional Christian politics (including Calvin’s), which sought to orchestrate common life toward a common end—the cultivation of virtue or the glory of God. In fact—and this is the other side of the critique—liberal societies do have substantive commitments. The liberal state pretends to be a referee, but beneath the striped shirt it wears the jersey of the home team. Under the cover of neutrality, liberal order embodies, encourages, and sometimes enforces an anthropology, ecclesiology, and vision of the good society that is often starkly at odds with Christian faith. Tuininga never confronts that line of analysis.

The big challenge for someone who wants to enlist Calvin in a defense of liberalism is, well, Calvin himself, who is often, as Tuininga admits, illiberal in theory and in practice. Much to his credit, Tuininga attempts to face this challenge head-on. He acknowledges that, for Calvin, civil rulers are responsible for the “care of religion” and that rulers ought to “consecrate their work to the promotion of Christ’s kingdom” (Calvin’s words). With certain qualifications, Calvin even defends capital punishment for false teachers. That, to put it mildly, ain’t liberal.

More broadly, Calvin teaches that civil government exists for something more than the protection of individual choice. On one hand, civil order isn’t to “enforce true virtue”; yet, on the other hand, the civil ruler ought to promote true religion. One would have thought that true religion had some relation to true virtue. Tuininga is right that Calvin never claims that “civil government is a means of grace by which God justifies or sanctifies human beings,” but who ever thought otherwise? Besides, Tuininga admits that Calvin believes that “civil coercion may be an indirect aid to sanctification” (my emphasis) and that civil government should attend to “spiritual realities, the conscience, the soul, piety, and the inner mind.” Because Tuininga hasn’t grappled with the theological critique of liberalism, he doesn’t fully recognize the anti-liberal force of Calvin’s positions.

To sustain his argument, Tuininga has to save Calvin from himself, skimming off the illiberal husk to get to the liberal-friendly kernel. Whenever the two Calvins are in conflict, Tuininga argues that the liberal-leaning is more foundational. It’s not convincing, because the tension is largely of Tuininga’s making. Still, it is testimony to his care as a scholar that he presents enough evidence to sustain a thesis diametrically opposed to his own. The Calvin Tuininga portrays might easily be enlisted as a critic of liberalism and a spokesman for a modified, Protestant Christendom.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

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