The Unworldliness of John Calvin: Ralph Hancock responds to “The Political Philosophy of John Calvin”

I thank the Law and Liberty site, and Dr. Bruce in particular, for their respectful attention to my book, in a new edition by St. Augustine’s Press, Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics.

Dr. Bruce nicely frames the question of Calvin’s theology in relation to modernity, and there is surely some validity in what he says about the limitations of my enterprise as a comprehensive guide to Calvin’s political teaching.   It is certain that I focus almost exclusively on the Institutes, and it may be that I sometimes concede too much to venerable authors like Emil Doumergue.  (Still, does Bruce mean to deny, against Doumergue and myself, that there is a pronounced antimonarchic element in Calvin’s teaching, one that emerges, unsurprisingly, when he is discussing biblical passages that tend that way?)

I’m afraid, though, that Dr. Bruce misses my point when he characterizes my approach as a kind of middle way “between the two extremes” of secular and religious interpretations of modernity, and, likewise, when he gives me credit for a “modest judgment of [my] own work.”  My interpretation of Calvin no doubt has many limitations, but modesty, I might as well now confess, is not one of them.  When I say that I have not “described a solid foundation for modernity, and so I cannot claim to have shown that John Calvin made these foundations,” I am talking, not about my limitations, but in fact, of Calvin’s, and of the limitations, the unfoundedness, of modernity itself.  My book is more about modernity than it is about Calvin; it uses Calvin as a mirror to modernity in order to point up the incoherence and instability of both.  Both are unstable and unfounded because modernity agrees with Calvin in repudiating of “all intermediate things,” that is, of all efforts by natural human reason to mediate between God and man.

The paradoxical simultaneous separation and fusion of “theory” and “practice” that characterizes modernity (theory abstracts from practice to master it) finds a precise analogue in the paradoxes of transcendence and immanence that emerge in the history of Christian theology, and that are brought to their rigorous culmination in the anti-theology of John Calvin.  Calvin radicalized the platonic and Christian idea of divine transcendence to the extreme point where the hierarchy of the soul and of the world vanishes altogether; God is pushed so far beyond the human world that divinity can provide no intelligible reference point above the common, material interests of humanity, but only a spiritual sanction for the universalization of these interests.  Thus divinity is reduced to beneficent power in the service of humanity, and the soul is reduced to the locus of consciousness of this power.  God becomes a vanishing point of transcendence from which the material world itself is infused with spiritual purpose.

To see how this is a mirror for modernity, consider the structural analogy between Calvin’s assertion of God’s absolute transcendence and Rene Descartes’ founding of the autonomy of modern reason.  Descartes attempts to ground all knowledge in the activity of the thinking subject: “I think therefore I am.” But note that the Cartesian cogito provides, not a self-sufficient ground of identity and purpose, but a sheer assertion or resolution (“I think” is indistinguishable from “I will”) that, because it will not look up to any good, must exhaust itself in a boundless mastery that can have no purpose but service to the material necessities of an abstract humanity. If reason is but a “universal instrument,” then it can only adopt for its defining purpose “the law which obliges us to procure . . .  the general [material] good of all mankind” (Discourse on the Method, Part VI).  If the soul provides no bridge to a qualitatively superior realm, if the “self” in knowing itself knows no limiting and directing goodness, then pure self-consciousness and pure God-consciousness are equally reducible to consciousness of Mastery, and are practically indistinguishable because equally bound to the service of material necessities.  Cartesian consciousness, like Calvinist conscience, points to a universalized, reductionist charity.

Of course Calvin would not recognize, much less embrace this interpretation, but that is not the point.  (Whether Descartes would is a more interesting question.)  Calvin’s thought, like the purported “secular” “foundations” of modernity, is driven by a dynamic it cannot master, since it has not assumed reason’s ineluctable responsibility for distinctively human goods.  (See my Responsibility of Reason.)

Dr. Bruce ought to review my new preface, where I tip my hand a little further than I had in 1989 to aver that my reading of Calvin in relation to modernity is a kind of deconstruction of both:

Both modernity, in its philosophical purity, and Calvinism, in my instructively ideal type, are unthinkably radical because of their refusal of reflexive responsibility (Responsibility of Reason ch. 2), their contempt for the space in between gods and beasts, their failure to account positively for the being of the author himself within a humanly meaningful world.  Of course radical Calvinism and modernity are not for the same thing, because they are not for anything; rather, they are both against both worlds, because they are against the continuity between this world a higher world.  One might say, then, that the “secularization thesis” is only true negatively; but this is to say a lot, because the essence of both Calvinism and modernity is negative, neither other- or this-worldly, but unworldly, anti-worldly.

Reader Discussion

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on February 10, 2013 at 21:36:14 pm

Dear Prof. Hancock,

I find your insights absolutely brilliant. I am neither philosopher no political scientist but came to the very same conclusions, although, of course, I could not argue them, as you did. Calvin is the key figure to our civilization. Understanding him through modernity and modernity through him is crucial and it is crucial now. I am currently working on the impact of his thought on art but your book is extremely helpful. It is amazing how still now lots of historians, even famous ones, manage to analyze changes in early modern society leaving theology aside.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.