The Political Philosophy of John Calvin

What is Calvin’s relationship to the foundations of modern politics? One obvious answer is that Calvin doesn’t have one. On this view, modern political thought begins by rejecting revelation (Christian or otherwise) and embracing reason. Calvin doesn’t contribute anything, according to this position; on the contrary, if anything, Calvin is an obstacle to be overcome! So studying Calvin is, for the political philosopher, just a waste of time, or, to put it more gently, studying Calvin may be interesting for any number of reasons, but politics is not one of them. Others take the exact opposite approach. On this view, to know Calvin is to know modernity. What was planted as a Reformation sprouted as the Glorious Revolution and grew into the American Founding. The views run the gamut, from one extreme to the other, because there are also any number of mediating positions that say that Calvin’s theology plays a role, but by no means the only role, in the development of what we have come to call modern politics.

But it’s even more complicated, because people don’t just disagree about the relationship between Calvin’s theology and modern politics; they also disagree about the particulars of each. And, to put it mildly, the interpretive challenges are absolutely enormous. What, after all, is modernity? It is notoriously difficult to define. Take a handful of examples: Let’s say that a confidence in reason constitutes modernity. If so, then David Hume isn’t modern, which seems odd. Perhaps it’s our strict separation of church and state. If so, then Massachusetts, which had tax-supported churches, wasn’t modern until 1833. A confidence in the free market? Marx isn’t modern. A rejection of revealed religion? Then Roger Sherman and some of the other Founders weren’t modern. Atheism? Descartes wasn’t modern. Etc.

And, of course, interpreters of Calvin spend no small amount of time disagreeing with each other over Calvin’s views on almost everything. If one believed everything written about him, then Calvin was a Renaissance humanist and a Protestant scholastic; a nominalist and a realist; a voluntarist and an intellectualist; a theological systematizer and an antisystematic biblicist; a lover of liberty and a burner of heretics.

We must acknowledge, too, that we are not disinterested participants in these debates. If we are (for want of a better word) secularists, then we want Calvin’s contribution to be nonexistent or unnecessary. Calvin played either no role or his role was limited saying in theological language what someone else said without it. If, by contrast, we are (for want of a better word) religious, then we may want a louder voice for religion in the public square. We may be predisposed to find in Calvin something unique and special that is relevant for us today. Even here, though, things get complicated: If we are Reformed, we may hope for some kind of endorsement of Reformed theology due to the attractiveness of the American Founding. If we are Roman Catholic, we may want to say that Calvin’s distinctively modern and that’s why Calvin’s awful.

With these kinds of interpretive problems before us, Ralph C. Hancock is to be congratulated simply for, as the English say, having a go at it in his book Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics, recently republished by St. Augustine’s Press. Taking Calvin and making him a political philosopher is like taking Isaac Newton and making him a theologian—it can be done, certainly, but it is a delicate surgery nonetheless.

To the question—what’s Calvin’s relationship to the foundations of modern politics?—Hancock takes a view somewhere between the two extremes. That seems to be the most reasonable approach, but Hancock pursues this middle road in an unexpected way. To see why Hancock’s approach is so unique, consider a more obvious way to relate Calvin to modern politics: First, one could say, Calvin espoused a particular view of modern politics; then that theologically drenched view lost the talk of God so prevalent in Calvin’s own thought, and, finally—voilà!—a secular, modern politics was born.

Now that’s not Hancock’s view. Instead, according to Hancock, Calvin has a theological motivation for his modern, more secular, political views. That’s what’s really interesting about Hancock’s interpretation of Calvin: According to Hancock, modern politics does not necessarily arise from a rejection of Calvin’s theology; instead, it is Calvin’s own theology that leads us to an antispeculative, genuinely modern approach to the world. To make his case, Hancock tries to show, in part 1 of the book, that Calvin focuses our attention away from otherworldly affairs in order to have a practical, but spiritual, concern for this life. In part 2, Hancock offers further evidence for the claims in part 1 by connecting his interpretation of Calvin to broader theological themes in Calvin’s thought.

If I have understood him correctly, Hancock wants to say that Calvin’s practical political philosophy is about the same as a Machiavelli or a Hobbes, but with one crucial, and superior, feature. Calvin exclusively has an optimism or a hope for the modern enterprise. Calvinist optimism arises from the sovereignty of God and God’s superintending providence over everything, including human activity. Towards the end of Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics, Hancock writes that, if his interpretation of Calvin is correct, then we ought to be as sensitive to the Christian tradition in Machiavelli and Hobbes as we are sensitive to Enlightenment thought in the Puritans (186).

Hancock is at his best in his Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics when he tries to bring his one particular view of Calvin into conversation with twentieth century political philosophers and historians of political philosophy. For example, Hancock argues, by taking Leo Strauss’s interpretation of modernity as a starting point, that Calvinism should be studied more carefully than it is in fact studied: “On Strauss’s own interpretation of the meaning of modernity, Calvinism appears to deserve more attention than it has generally received from students of political philosophy, a different kind of attention than that given it by historians of political thought . . .” (186). It’s a clever move.

So is the work persuasive? I think not, primarily because I found Hancock to be a less than reliable guide to Calvin. Hancock’s Calvin is far too Hobbesian, a problem for Calvin’s defenders and Hobbes’s, too, though for different reasons. So, for example, Hancock treats Calvin as a nominalist (161), though he recognizes explicitly that Calvin rejects nominalism (159). Additionally, Hancock does not see clearly enough how biblical passages serve as sources for Calvin’s thought. So, e.g., he attributes to Calvin (40-41) what is actually a biblical analogy about sons and servants (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4). This criticism may seem like biblical inside baseball, but it isn’t, because these are the contexts in which Hancock draws conclusions about Calvin’s political views. So, e.g., Hancock takes a compilation of quotes from Calvin’s commentaries made by Emil Doumergue to conclude that “there is, then, no denying a strong antimonarchic element in Calvin’s teaching” (205n3), without being sensitive to what the biblical passages are themselves about. Is it any wonder that, when commenting on a passage in the Bible speaking against monarchic abuses, Calvin would do the same? Theologically, too, Hancock can miss the mark: Hancock speaks of “the active fluid of the Spirit” (160), but Calvin would be appalled at the reduction of a Person of the Trinity to Hancock’s “diffuse, fluid, and formless energy” (160). Finally, Hancock focuses his attention on the Institutes, and it is an important work, unquestionably, but it should not be studied apart from Calvin’s other works and, indeed, his life. After all, Calvin was personally active in politics; considering what he did would have helped us understand his views.

Interestingly, Hancock may not disagree with these judgments. In the preface to the new edition, he writes, “Mine is a strong reading, in some respects a ‘violent’ reading of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. I would never claim simply to understand Calvin as he understood himself” (vii). Also, Hancock is modest in his judgment of the work. He writes towards the end of Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics, “I do not claim to have described a solid foundation for modernity, and so I cannot claim to have shown that John Calvin made these foundations, that he was the (or a) true founder” (186).

What Hancock does do is take John Calvin seriously as a political philosopher, focusing his attention on Calvin’s Institutes and offering a close study of that work. Taking Calvin seriously is a worthy endeavor. We do need to be more careful in our attempts at understanding the relationship between theology, especially Reformed theology, and the development of modern political thought. And political philosophers ought to engage Calvin more than they in fact do. The project of understanding Calvin’s relationship to modern politics is certainly a commendable one, and worthy of further study.

Ralph Hancock’s response