Ethics and Community

Vision for Society

Reformed Christians tend to be moderately optimistic about the prospects for human life on earth.  The cautious part of this attitude is driven by their belief in a fallen humanity (even the saved remain sinners).  But the optimism is driven by a belief in God's grace, both in assisting the elect to fulfill the law (however imperfectly), and in sending aid to all humans in the form of governments and moral reasoning to make human life on earth sustainable.

John Calvin certainly did not expect a progressive spiral of history leading to some sort of utopia on earth.  Humans would remain in an imperfect and fallen state until the end times.  And he did not spend as much time speculating about those end times as he did on other theological subjects.  He considered the Book of Revelation, the last book in the Christian Bible, which prophecies about events at the end of history, to be canonical, but it is the one book of the New Testament on which he did not write a commentary.

But Calvin's actions in Geneva clearly show that he also did not think human society would necessarily be some sort of dystopia.  The Church in Geneva was run by a consistory, which was a body that included both clergy and lay people (elders).  One of the roles of the consistory was to advise the city council on how to make Geneva as just and godly a city as possible.  Calvin advised the city council to regulate dress, parties, and the use of makeup by women.  The seriousness with which Calvin and William Farel attempted to put into place "godly" standards of behavior for all Genevans is likely one cause for their expulsion from 1538 to 1541.

Calvin's cautiously optimistic prospects for society are based on his belief that, in order for God's providential plan to unfold and for the elect to be saved, society must be functional enough for the Gospel to be preached and the sacraments to be celebrated.  To facilitate enough social order for this to occur, part of God's grace was to send governments that, while never perfect and often very unjust, kept human depravity in check.  Even the non-elect were endowed with conscience and will to live a (relatively) moral life.

There have been times in the history of Reformed churches when Reformed Christians have been slightly more optimistic about the prospects to build a good society.  Many of the reforms of the Progressive Era in the United States (1890s to 1920s) were led or undertaken with great participation by Presbyterians.  Such reforms include temperance, women's suffrage, prison reform, and educational reform.  Perhaps the culmination of Presbyterian Progressive energies comes in the presidency of Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), who entered World War I in part because he believed a victory over Germany could end all wars.  He invested great effort in the founding of the League of Nations.  (He failed in this quest, but the League was a forerunner of the United Nations, founded after World War II.)  He believed that an international body dedicated to dialogue and diplomacy could greatly improve international cooperation.

A thinker on the possibilities for society from the Reformed tradition who remained perhaps closer to Calvin's thought was Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), who grew up German Reformed.  Niebuhr's view of society is informed by a Calvinistic view of human nature as sinful (though Niebuhr gives biological reasons for this human nature).  In his classic work Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) he argues that even when individuals can act selflessly, their actions are almost always in the service of a group that is acting selfishly.  This is true of nations, classes, and races.  His blueprint for creating, not a just society, but a "just enough" society through the practice of non-violent resistance, was influential on the civil rights movement.  His tone of cautious optimism (we can and should do better, but we will never do very well) recapitulates the tone of Calvin's efforts in Geneva.

Study Questions:
     1.     Where does the optimism of a Reformed Christian originate?
     2.     Why should it be noted that Calvin did not write a commentary on the book of Revelation? What did this say about his faith?
     3.     How has the Reformed movement tied itself to progressive social issues?
     4.     Who was Niebuhr? What did he offer to the Reformed Church?

Back to Religion Library