church vs state

5 Points about Calvin

Calvin is famous for his slightly misattributed and grossly misunderstood “five points of Calvinism” – I’ve got a reputation for being “not a five point Calvinist” mostly because I don’t like hyper-Calvinism. Calvin was mostly terrific – having done some research though I can’t say I’m fully on board with his philosophy of government.

Here are some things I learned about Calvin this week that I thought were interesting.

  1. Calvin wrote some stuff under a pen name to avoid persecution from the established Catholic church – including Charles d’Es-perville, Martianus Lucanius, Carolus Passelius, Alcuin, Depercan, and Calpurnius – these would be good names to consider for your children or characters in a novel if you’re staunchly, but secretly, reformed.
  2. Calvin was, by nature, incredibly humble – he wanted a life of quiet scholarship. He requested an unmarked grave. He was pastorally sacrificial. He submitted all things to the sovereignty of God. He championed a doctrine that made human agency incredibly small. He instituted a political system in the city whose church he lead removing power and authority from the church and putting it in the hands of the people. The idea of having a theological movement named after him would have been an anathema. It seems to me that this aspect of his character is in stark contrast to the pillars of the “new Calvinism”.
  3. Calvin was, by nature, incredibly arrogant. He was so incredibly confident in his personal views on scripture and Government – and did not particularly like opposition. God seems to prefer to work through guys who are an incredible paradox of confidence and humility – I’m not sure that humility and arrogance are the polar opposites people suggest. They seem to be two separate characteristics with related distinctives.
  4. Calvin was politically savvy enough to know when not to be political. This greatly enhanced his influence on the political sphere.  

    He was expelled from Geneva the first time round because he wouldn’t pander to the rich and powerful (by serving them communion). He was brought back to reform the political structure of the city a few years later. But he didn’t use this as an opportunity to grandstand or point score (at least from the pulpit)… To quote the helpful biography of Calvin I linked to the other day:
     

    When Calvin returned to St. Peter’s Cathedral in 1541, he unceremoniously but symbolically resumed his pulpit activity by expounding the Scriptures at the exact verse where he left off prior to his exile.

    Several days earlier, Calvin had consulted with the Small Council, the real political powerhouse of the day, and encouraged them to make important reforms. They were so willing to help him in the Reformation of Geneva that they not only approved his proposals to revise the protocols for church order, but they also appointed him to a committee to design a constitution for the Republic of Geneva.

  5. Calvin’s post-reformation political realignment of Geneva pioneered the separation of church and state, and the separation of powers. His restructuring of Geneva’s government removed power from the head of the church to a church council, and to a separately elected government in the city. These groups functioned as checks and balances. He separated government of the city from the church to protect the church from the interference of the government and the wealthy – not the other way around.

    He was, however, not a fan of government being “secular” – his philosophy of government, or theology of government, revolved around the government acting in a Christian manner. Again, a couple of insightful quotes from that biography…

    Calvin practiced what he preached. A consistency of ideals, both in church and state, permeated his thought and action. He was prudent enough to realize that the best way to reform the culture was an indirect one, i.e., to first reform the church.

    ”With the publication of the Ordinances, Geneva created a unique Christian commonwealth whereby church and state cooperated in preserving religion as the key to their new identity.”

On the Religious Right

Frank Schaeffer – son of theologian/evangelist Francis Schaeffer (sometimes regarded as the founder of the Religious Right) – has some interesting thoughts on the movement’s future posted in an article on the Huffington Post today. He has made major moves to distance himself from his father – even converting to the Greek Orthodox church. I read a couple of his novels this year – they’re pretty funny, they deal with some of the frustrations of growing up in the home of a Calvinist Minister – I could relate, but don’t share his sense of disenfranchisement with reformed theology.

He brings up the Old Testament laws – like stoning homosexuals – as a strawman point in his otherwise reasonable piece. There are some theological problems with this point which he doesn’t go over:
1. The Old Testament laws are specific to God’s people – Israel – Israel do not run around imposing the laws on their neighbours – although foreigners can sign up.
2. Israel don’t do a great job of keeping the laws – and the laws were set at a standard that no human could keep – hence the need for Jesus.
Schaeffer’s argument basically focuses on these other points:
1. America is not “God’s people” – even if they are nominally a Christian nation – the presence of just one non Christian in America would debunk that.
2. Nor is America a theocracy.
It’s a good article on how the Religious Right could choose to be a force for good – rather than bleating and trying to repeal laws that are popular with the majority.
EDIT: I think I need to point out that I do think there are some issues that transcend the rights of the majority and the need for protection of minorities – and in fact there are some issues where this point of view is shaped by theology. Issues like abortion – where the question is not a question of freedom for the parents (not just the mother) – but also the question of protecting the innocent unborn child – and their rights. Schaeffer makes an interesting point that’s worth repeating if you haven’t clicked through to the article:

“This knowledge signals not just a loss for the Religious right but a resounding and permanent defeat. It also signals (to anyone sane) that even if you except the Religious right’s view that, for instance, all abortion is murder, gay marriage an affront to God’s natural law and so forth, a change of tactics is in order. Obviously no one is getting convinced, but rather the culture is moving in the other direction. In fact the Religious Right has made its case so badly that with friends like these them causes need no enemies.”

Liber(al)ating

There was a fair bit of conjecture during the Presidential campaign over what Obama actually believes – is he a Christian (one of his senate speeches)? Is he a Muslim (urban legends)? Is he the Messiah (slate.com)? Is he the antichrist (snopes.com)?

Back when Obama was just a senate nominee he conducted a lengthy interview on his beliefs which has just been republished here. Interesting reading – there’s a fair bit of extra-biblical doctrine in his thinking – but he’s certainly no Muslim. He also doesn’t really subscribe to a belief in hell, thinks all roads lead to God etc – and professes a personal faith in Jesus. He’s a classic liberal Christian – a bit wishy washy for my liking, and biblically wrong on a few issues. I don’t have time to go into the whole church v state issues regarding flashpoint topics like abortion and gay marriage – but this seems to be the dominant doctrine for Obama.

“Alongside my own deep personal faith, I am a follower, as well, of our civic religion. I am a big believer in the separation of church and state. I am a big believer in our constitutional structure. I mean, I’m a law professor at the University of Chicago teaching constitutional law. I am a great admirer of our founding charter, and its resolve to prevent theocracies from forming, and its resolve to prevent disruptive strains of fundamentalism from taking root ion this country.
As I said before, in my own public policy, I’m very suspicious of religious certainty expressing itself in politics.
Now, that’s different form a belief that values have to inform our public policy. I think it’s perfectly consistent to say that I want my government to be operating for all faiths and all peoples, including atheists and agnostics, while also insisting that there are values tha tinform my politics that are appropriate to talk about.”

So – I’ve had arguments with my Christian friends and non Christian friends over how people of faith should act when in office – and it’s a fundamental question that goes back to your views on what the “representative” means in representative government – is the individual elected to act as a representive of the views of their electorate – ie take all views into account and form a balanced position, or is the individual elected as an individual who best represents what people want (that’s a clumsy definition) – ie the person is elected and then should act in good conscience (which seems to be limited to, and by party lines).

I tend to think government as a whole should fall into the former category – and the best way for it to do that is through the diversity offered in the latter. Your thoughts?

Edit: I think the whole Messianic cult of Obama thing, perpetuated basically by his campaign team and the media is interesingly idolatorous. I think Obama, like many of us, is guilty of trying to craft God in his own image – not the other way around. Particularly these sections from that interview:

On Hell:

I find it hard to believe that my God would consign four-fifths of the world to hell.
I can’t imagine that my God would allow some little Hindu kid in India who never interacts with the Christian faith to somehow burn for all eternity.
That’s just not part of my religious makeup.
Part of the reason I think it’s always difficult for public figures to talk about this is that the nature of politics is that you want to have everybody like you and project the best possible traits onto you. Oftentimes that’s by being as vague as possible, or appealing to the lowest commong denominators. The more specific and detailed you are on issues as personal and fundamental as your faith, the more potentially dangerous it is.

On Heaven:

“What I believe in is that if I live my life as well as I can, that I will be rewarded. I don’t presume to have knowledge of what happens after I die. But I feel very strongly that whether the reward is in the here and now or in the hereafter, the aligning myself to my faith and my values is a good thing.
When I tuck in my daughters at night and I feel like I’ve been a good father to them, and I see in them that I am transferring values that I got from my mother and that they’re kind people and that they’re honest people, and they’re curious people, that’s a little piece of heaven.”

On Sin:

FALSANI:
Do you believe in sin?

OBAMA:
Yes.

FALSANI:
What is sin?

OBAMA:Being out of alignment with my values.

I think it’s the same thing as the question about heaven. In the same way that if I’m true to myself and my faith that that is its own reward, when I’m not true to it, it’s its own punishment.

None of those positions are consistent with what God actually says about himself in the Bible – they’re more pictures of how Obama would like God to be. Dangerous stuff really.

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