Thursday, July 08, 2010

Calvinism and American conservatism

John Calvin (1509-1564)

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has been having an internal debate for years over Calvinism and what role it should play in SBC theology. I've always suspected that underlying the mind-numbing theological generalization, that "Calvinism" in this debate actually stood for a Christian dominionist view of government and politics.

The following article by Burke Gerstenschlager doesn't specifically address the SBC debates: The Kids Are All Wrong: Texas Tosses The Enlightenment Religion Dispatches 07/08/2010. But Gerstenschlager does give a good idea of how Calvin's hardcore theocratic view could would find favor among Christian Dominionists:

Throughout The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin, a lawyer by training, comprehensively establishes and describes God’s authority and action as complete in every moment of human existence. He opens his volume with these words: Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and ourselves.

If there ever was an anti-Enlightenment axiom, this is it. ... Calvin's Divine Providence, through the exclusive salvific death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is absolute. Everything is predestined for God's own glory and has been manifested in the Gospel for humanity's salvation and damnation. In light of this, in his very last chapter, Calvin offers his concept of government. Basically, it is The Institutes put into civil practice.
With his high view of inerrant, god-breathed Scripture, Calvin employs story after biblical story to establish God's choice in the determination of every ruler from David to Nebuchadnezzar and beyond. By Divine Providence and holy decree, God—not the people—chooses the rulers, though the people may think they have some sort of democratic power. And those who believe that laws do not come from God Calvin calls "seditious."

He writes, "the first duty of subjects towards their rulers, is to entertain the most honorable views of their office, recognizing it as a delegated jurisdiction from God, and on that account receiving and reverencing them as the ministers and ambassadors of God."

Later, he writes "let no man here deceive himself, since we cannot resist the magistrate without resisting God." In The Institutes, Calvin begins with our knowledge of God the Creator and ends with the complete manifestation of God’s will in our governments and social lives. [italics in orginal; my emphasis in bold]
On the surface, this notion that all laws come from God looks like a kind of quietist view, holding that Christians should adapt themseves to whatever legal regime under which they find themselves living.

But while Calvin would have assumed God's sovereignty even in ungodly governments, his arguments there are essentially applicable to godly government. Like, for instance, the rigid theocratic regime that Calvin eventually headed in Geneva - though it was nearly so ferociously rigid as that of the Anabaptists in Münster. And Calvin understood it to be part of the duty of Christians to actively seek to realize godly government here in the fallen world.

Gerstenschlager accurately observes, "So comprehensive and extensive is Calvin’s concept of predestined government, it effectively invalidates the concept of the Separation of Church and State before it is even introduced!"

Gerstenschlager isn't just using hyperbole about Christian fundamentalists rejecting the Enlightenment. That's really the case when it comes to Enlightenment ideas of science, individual freedom and representative government. Fundamentalist theology from the start was particularly hostile to historical-critical methods of Biblical research, which was a prominent feature of classical German philosophy and scholarship of the early 19th century.

But even fundis are free of Enlightement thinking. John Maynard Keynes famously observed, "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist." Or, as he also put it, "Even the most practical man of affairs is usually in the thrall of the ideas of some long-dead economist." And Christian fundamentalists are in many ways in thrall to the Scottish Enlightenment, from which the so-called literalist reading of the Scriptures is derived.

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