Has Aaron Sorkin been Reading John Calvin?

The Hart home has a problem. The missus and I are about 2/3 of the way through season four of The Wire (for at least the third time for the whole series), and we are also making our way pleasantly through West Wing thanks to being smitten by Newsroom. As I’ve tried to explain elsewhere, you can’t have two more diametrical views of political life in the United States than Simon’s sober portrait of the state of nature (Hobbesian) with a veneer of civilization or Sorkin’s inspiring depiction of large, national institutions like the executive branch of the federal government or the reporting of network news organizations. The conflict within this hyphenated blogger is thoroughly appreciating the self-interest that pervades all walks of life in Simon’s Baltimore and the genuine love of country that steers both West Wing’s president, Josiah Bartlet, Newsroom’s anchor, Will McAvoy. So powerful have Sorkin’s series been that I have found myself rooting for President Obama and (finally) recognizing how destructive (even if entertaining) conservative talk radio is. (I am still enough of an Augustinian and Madisonian to understand that people in power need to be questioned and checked.)

And thanks to the life of Martin O’Malley serving as the basis for the white city-councilman who becomes mayor in Simon’s Baltimore, I’m especially hoping that O’Malley beats Hillary in the Democratic primaries and becomes president. Then maybe Simon and Sorkin can co-produce a series on an O’Malley administration.

Another Aaron, the one who blogs for Ref21, has a few remarks about Calvin on civil government that help me justify my new-found patriotism and the shows that inspired it:

In Calvin’s estimation, the Christian life is properly one of constant gratitude. Gratitude bears fruit in holiness — we can and should say “thank you” to God with our lives as well as our lips. The root of gratitude is constant and careful attention to God’s remarkable gifts to us in spite of our creaturely finitude and culpability both for Adam’s sin and our own. God’s greatest gift to us, of course, is Jesus Christ, to whom we are joined by the power of the Spirit as the basis of our forgiveness, renewal in the divine image, and restoration to fellowship with the Triune God. But God has given other gifts to us — gifts that are common to believers and unbelievers alike, but should no less be noted and appreciated. Government is one such gift. Any reflection upon civil government which does not ultimately lead to gratitude (and therefore greater holiness) is faulty by Calvin’s standard. Thus he introduces the subject of human government in his Institutes by observing: “It is of no slight importance to us to know how lovingly God has provided in this respect for mankind, that greater zeal for piety may flourish in us to attest our gratefulness.”

It is, importantly, not government in abstracto that should lead us to “gratefulness” but government in concreto. To put a finer edge on this point: it is this government — this president, this congress, this parliament, this prime minister, this monarch, this mayor, etc. — that should properly catapult us into a posture of prayerful gratitude before God. Calvin has little interest, in fact, in government in the abstract. Thus he dismisses debates/conversations about the “best kind of government” (whether monarchy, oligarchy, or democracy) as an “idle pastime” for persons who have no real influence upon the particular form of government where they live. He proceeds, ironically, to spend some time considering the advantages and disadvantages (and there are both) of each “kind” of government, but concludes the matter by highlighting the superfluity of even his own words: “All these things are needlessly spoken to those for whom the will of the Lord is enough. For if it has seemed good to him to set kings over kingdoms, senates or municipal officers over free cities, it is our duty to show ourselves compliant and obedient to whomever he sets over the places where we live” (emphasis mine). What really matters, in other words, is not what government would be best, but what government you’ve been given. That is the government to which you must submit; that, by the same token, is the government for which you should offer thanks, with both your lips and your life, to God.

It may even be that for Calvin, gratitude is the basis for the Christian life.


60 thoughts on “Has Aaron Sorkin been Reading John Calvin?

  1. FWIW, my BFF Michael once suggested this and we imbibed last night. My wife was surprised when she suggested we watch Black Mirror, and I told her I wanted to skip to that episode of the show, since I had heard about it. She gets her info from Us Weekly, hence the Black Mirror. This blog, in other words, help me stay one step ahead of my better half.

    All about me, and all that, yo. Golfing on friday is the plan (sjmuni[dot]com). You are about as far as I have gotten so far on the Wire, currently on hiatus. I can’t get her to watch Ken Burns documentaries with me. Problems abound in reformed protestant households..


  2. So a government is better than no government.

    But I don’t think I would call God’s instituting of governments (or particular governments) a gift. Maybe it’s just his way of keeping things from going completely off the rails. I mean, Nero is bad enough, but I imagine the days of Noah were worse, with everyone doing what was right in their own eyes and all.

    When parents put up a fence, I don’t think the kids (or the parents) think of it as a gift, but a necessary institution to protect them from greater evils that could befall them. Certainly the kids are thankful their parents put the fence up when they look at the street and realize they could be squashed by the cars driving by. But thankfulness for birthday cakes (I prefer pie) and thankfulness for fences are two completely different things.


  3. Nate, how is keeping things from going off the rails (or from falling into pools, from rabid dogs and careening cars) not a gift? Maybe different kinds of gifts? But if not gifts then what? And if not gifts then whence gratitude?


  4. Zrim, civil government is a necessary evil based on coercion, and would not have existed without the fall. Yes I’m grateful for it, as for other necessary evils.


  5. David, I dunno. When the Rockford’s finest recovered Mrs. Z’s recently stolen purse and most of its contents, it’s hard to fathom the agency as a “necessary evil.” Evil seems to capture the twerp who stole it in the first place.

    Then again, when the Grandville police department slapped me with a fine for not wearing a seat belt tooling around the neighborhood (because the city coffers were running low, not because I was a danger to anyone, ahem), I wonder if you have a point. But “necessary evil”? Maybe “necessary nuisance.”


  6. AB,

    Kids, work and sleep take precedent over surfing these days. Though summer’s coming and that means longer days. You being a golfer know what that’s like.


  7. Nate, indeed I do. But my goal is to plant seeds, and just maybe influence ever so slightly to get you out in the water away from these computer screen / smat phones we currently now chat on. Never a bad time to think about being in the ocean / on the golf course. Cheers bro, back to solving the worlds problems, one blog comment at a time. I think Zrim was heading up that effort today. Z, floor’s yours.


  8. Zrim,

    Just like all this “grace before the fall” talk, I’m skeptical that all of God’s good actions towards man need to be considered “gifts”. Maybe I’m pushing to hard. But just because something isn’t a gift in the way we think of birthday presents doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be grateful for it. That was more my point.

    Calvin called it “provision”. Maybe that’s a kind of gift, but I tend to think of gifts in a more positive/enjoyment sense. If all it takes for something to be a gift is that it is good and it is given (duh) then I call lots of things gifts. But I’m a bit reserve in calling Government a ‘gift’ because Christ is God’s gift to mankind, so want to be cautious of minimizing different kinds of gifts.

    It’s a tough nut because we are called to submit and honor rulers who may very well be our executioners (as was with the Apostle Peter, reportedly). I think we are to submit because they are instituted by God for our protection, even if they abuse it, and as the 5th commandment demands. But our primary expression of gratitude and thankfulness is in our obedience. What is gratitude if we disobey (unjustly) the rulers God has set over us?

    It might be more like God giving the Law to Israel – certainly it was a gift from him that they might better know his will. And God gives us governments that we might live in [relative] peace throughout our days. But the gifts of the Law/Government is not like gifts of grace.

    I don’t know if my kids (when they grow up) would be to excited if I built them a fence for their birthday. They might see the purpose in it, but they would probably call it a lousy gift. Though I could use a new fence and it would be a welcome gift 🙂


  9. Nate, and I’m skeptical of positivity and enjoyment and pleasure and celebration defining things. So, yes, a fence would be a lousy b-day gift if a gift is only that which pleases our immediate sense of celebration and enjoyment (which b-days are for). But if it benefits us in less than obvious ways then I’m still lost as to how it couldn’t be deemed a gift. When you think about it, Christ is a gift in the latter sense. I mean, eternal life isn’t what’s on our immediate minds; it actually takes a fair amount of maturity to see Christ as a gift.

    But where Calvin seems to place the accent on government as a good gift, why do Calvinists tend to place the accent on the necessary evilness of that gift? Where Calvin seems to stir up gratefulness for civil powers, Calvinists tend to foster a begrudging thanksgiving.


  10. Nate, I’m with Z, but this one’s easy. Emoticons are for PCA blogs, never forget (emoticon).

    Nice connecting with you today, bro. Grace and peace.

    Who’s next?


  11. Would there have been coercion without our fall into sin? What is the government’s role except to coerce those who will not obey sweet persuasion (namely all of us)?


  12. Paul Helm—“I fancy that Carl goes on about this because he suffers from a sort of presbyterian perfectionism. Call it Bannerman’s Disease. When he bids us all to think with him of the church of Christ as a remnant, as living its life as if in exile, I’m with him all the way. ….They have made judgments about their churches as ‘normative aspirational models’ and the rest. And about the usefulness of otherwise of engaging in a public debate about themselves, and what others think of them. And overall they have judged (or are judging) that the benefits of staying as they are outweigh the costs of a flight to presbyterian order.”



  13. Before I give thanks to God for Abimelech (and cancer, instead of giving thanks that God works all things for good to the called elect), I need to ask what is so wrong about doing what is right in one’s own eyes, if one’s own eyes (conscience) are informed by the standard of the law of Christ instead of by the standard of what has gradually come about with the passing of time (drones, the military-capitalism complex). Sure, it would be better if Yahweh was still king, but in the meanwhile let’s at least have somebody….having somebody was their idea, not God’s…

    Judges 9 Abimelech son of Jerubbaal went to his mother’s brothers at Shechem and spoke to them and to all his maternal grandfather’s clan, saying, 2 “Please speak in the presence of all the lords of Shechem, ‘Is it better for you that 70 men, all the sons of Jerubbaal, rule over you or that one man rule over you?’ Remember that I am your own flesh and blood.” 3 His mother’s relatives spoke all these words about him in the presence of all the lords of Shechem, and they were favorable to Abimelech, for they said, “He is our brother.” 4 So they gave him 70 pieces of silver from the temple of Baal-berith. Abimelech hired worthless and reckless men with this money, and they followed him. 5 He went to his father’s house in Ophrah and killed his 70 brothers, the sons of Jerubbaal, on top of a large stone. But Jotham, the youngest son of Jerubbaal, survived, because he hid himself. 6 Then all the lords of Shechem and of Beth-millo gathered together and proceeded to make Abimelech king at the oak of the pillar in Shechem.

    7 When they told Jotham, he climbed to the top of Mount Gerizim, raised his voice, and called to them: Listen to me, lords of Shechem,
    and may God listen to you:
    8 The trees set out
    to anoint a king over themselves.
    They said to the olive tree, “Reign over us.”
    9 But the olive tree said to them,
    “Should I stop giving my oil
    that honors both God and man,
    and rule over the trees?”
    10 Then the trees said to the fig tree,
    “Come and reign over us.”
    11 But the fig tree said to them,
    “Should I stop giving
    my sweetness and my good fruit,
    and rule over trees?”
    12 Later, the trees said to the grapevine,
    “Come and reign over us.”
    13 But the grapevine said to them,
    “Should I stop giving my wine
    that cheers both God and man,
    and rule over trees?”
    14 Finally, all the trees said to the bramble,
    “Come and reign over us.”
    15 The bramble said to the trees,
    “If you really are anointing me
    as king over you,
    come and find refuge in my shade.
    But if not,
    may fire come out from the bramble
    and consume the cedars of Lebanon.”

    16 “Now if you have acted faithfully and honestly in making Abimelech king, if you have done well by Jerubbaal and his family, and if you have rewarded him appropriately for what he did— 17 for my father fought for you, risked his life, and delivered you from the hand of Midian, 18 and now you have attacked my father’s house today, killed his 70 sons on top of a large stone, and made Abimelech, the son of his slave, king over the lords of Shechem ‘because he is your brother’— 19 if then you have acted faithfully and honestly with Jerubbaal and his house this day, rejoice in Abimelech and may he also rejoice in you. 20 But if not, may fire come from Abimelech…

    The people of God do not leave the wrath to whatever status quo, but instead plead imprecatory prayers to the God who judges justly

    Revelation 6: 9 When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the people slaughtered because of God’s word and the testimony they had.[ 10 They cried out with a loud voice: “Lord, the One who is holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth?” 11 So a white robe was given to each of them, and they were told to rest a little while longer until the number would be completed of their fellow slaves and their brothers, who were going to be killed just as they had been.

    even so, come, Lord Jesus


  14. David, we were also unashamedly naked before the fall. Clothing post-fall is a gift and really only construed as a necessary evil if you’re a nudist. Calvinists generally aren’t nudists (rightly so), so why do they often sound like them when it comes to government?


  15. Clothing post fall is a gift? Have you been to Woodland Mall lately? Salvation Army had a $1 sale yesterday on everything. Have you seen my typical professorial sartorial attire?

    I am no more a nudist than I refuse (generally) submission to governmental authorities.

    Still, I am prepared to state for the record that clothes are a necessary evil.

    Nota bene


  16. David, have you looked in my full length mirror lately? Most human beings are natural eye sores and unclothed all are unhygienic. Protecting humans from other humans, clothing and government are a God-send. To borrow from the NRA (heaven help me), clothes and government don’t offend, people do.


  17. I was privileged to be in the audience at one of the First Lady’s presentations, and I must say, that I was very moved by what she shared, and thought that her speech was an excellent one/very fitting.

    I do not agree with the President and First Lady on a number of issues, but I am thankful for (the post above) and 2K, and the general survey of the Reformed teaching on government and our posture as believers before the same to be able to know that I can pray for my authorities and honor them, even when I may not agree with them.

    At the same time, I was disappointed in Marilyn Mosby, whom I also have heard in person. Her speech was an ‘inappropriate campaign speech’ that had no place at the event/audience she was presenting to. My take on her doesn’t mean I could not love the Mosbys’ as my neighbors, but I definitely do not approve of her behavior.


  18. Zrim,

    I’m not saying government is a necessary evil (hope that wasn’t implied) nor that we shout submit and rejoice begrudgingly, but that at least we should be cautious about the way we think of God’s gifts. I think the way Denlinger wrote his article gave the impression that we ought to say “Thank You” to God in the same way we say “Thank You” to God for all is other gifts, and to say “Thank You” for even wicked rulers who rule unjustly (the concretus aspect he spoke of).

    I’m hesitant to call it a “gift” because I think of government as something necessary God put in place (instituted) because of human sin – basically to keep us from utter self-destruction. Certainly that was good and kind of God to do so, but to think of it as a gift, I think, misconstrues what the purpose of government is for. We ought to be thankful for it (because it restrains human sin and promotes/rewards obedience) but thankfulness for what is necessary doesn’t therefore imply that what was put in place was a “gift”. I think of it like, God had to put government in place if he was going to keep humanity from self-destruction. That doesn’t make government evil at all, just necessary (and helpful).

    Whereas I think of gifts as something that is given not because it is necessary.

    I think that it is a bit confusing to say we should be thankful for particular governors, etc. (concretus), and I don’t think we should say “Thank You” for a wicked ruler like Nero or Diocletian. I do think we should be thankful to God that he rules us in his good providence and whatever means he uses we know are directed by his ends, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that we should simply say “thank you” to God for cancer when we get diagnosed with it. In the same way I think we ought to be cautious in the way we speak of being thankful for wicked rulers.

    Calvin distinguishes between the office and the one holding the office:

    I speak not of the men as if the mask of dignity could cloak folly, or cowardice, or cruelty, or wicked or flagitious manners, and thus acquire for vice the praise of virtue; but I say that the station itself is deserving of honour and reverence, and that those who rule should, in respect of their office, be held by us in esteem and veneration. and so my point is that the institution of government is good and we ought to be thankful that God has given it to us (for reasons Denlinger points out), and we ought to be thankful that we have rulers over us, but particular thankfulness for particular unjust rulers seems unwise to me. It’s like being thankful for being diagnosed with cancer.


  19. Correction:

    Whereas I think of gifts as something that is given precisely because it is not necessary (though it may necessary to ameliorate something in order for the gift to be received).


  20. I stole that line from DGH, Nate. I’m just jealous ‘cuz I’ve tried and I can’t surf. There’s always next time.

    Grace and peace.


  21. David,

    civil government is a necessary evil based on coercion, and would not have existed without the fall. Yes I’m grateful for it, as for other necessary evils.

    I think this a bit reductionistic. How can we know that some form of non-coercive government won’t exist in the eschaton? After all, we are going to be living and serving, even ruling as vice-regents in a Kingdom, which I imagine will have some order and structure to it. Somehow existing amongst a bunch of pierced, unbathed, patchouli-reeking anarchists doesn’t sound much like heaven to me – except for Zrim: he can use all the patchouli he needs and I won’t complain.


  22. I Corinthians 15: 23 But each in his own order: Christ, the first fruits; afterward, at His coming, those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father, WHEN HE ABOLISHES ALL RULE AND ALL AUTHORITY AND POWER. 25 For He must reign UNTIL He puts all His enemies under His feet. 26 The last enemy to be abolished is death. 27 For God has put everything under His feet. But when it says “everything” is put under Him, it is obvious that He who puts everything under Him is the exception. 28 And when everything is subject to Christ, then the Son Himself will also be subject to the One who subjected everything to Him, in order that God be all in all.

    Did the law “enter” to increase of the knowledge of sin, or to increase sin, or to decrease sin? The trouble with “could be worse” is that the new normal always gets worse.

    Colossians 2:14 God erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it out of the way by nailing it to the cross. 15 God disarmed the rulers and authorities and disgraced them publicly; God triumphed over them by Him. 16 Therefore, don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day.17 These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is[g] the Messiah. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on ascetic practices….20 If you DIED WITH the Messiah to the elemental forces of this world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations: 21 “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch”? 22 All these regulations refer to what is destroyed by being used up; they are commands and doctrines of men… they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence.


  23. Jed, I think the very fact that only believers, who have Gods law written on their hearts, and have become obedient from the heart, will persist into the kingdom, shows that there will be no need of “civil authorities”. What law could there be for those who always act out of love? The only way I could conceive of there being “governments” among redeemed men in heaven is if you permit gradations of duties/rewards.


  24. Nate,

    Like I said, remove coercion, down to the fact that it won’t be needed, you will still have governance – it’s a fundamental means of organization of nearly any social structure. Even here and now, we have relatively coercion free modes of governance in human organizations, especially voluntary ones like the church. We don’t typically resort to coercion when governing the church, yet it is still an organization where certain individuals and governing bodies have say over how members organize.

    Reducing governance to coercion is the only way you can remove governance, and you can’t have complex bodies such as kingdoms without it. Sin is removed is heaven – Someone will still have say over how the Kingdom goes about its business, the only difference is unlike here on earth, we’ll all gladly oblige in heaven with no fear of coercion to boot.

    Would you like to be owned again by my superior insight? Feel free to disagree any time hermano.


  25. Nate, think of government more like administration — you know, Obama administration. Having been an academic administrator, I think I understand the value of administration — all the coordination that goes on behind the scenes for a campus to be open, work, and to provide faculty with a platform to do what makes the school tick.

    I’m not saying that the U.S. government does this, or that no American can do things without the help of government. But when it comes to coordinating sectors of life that make a lot of what we do possible, government is the administration that does it.

    Can you imagine obtaining support from a majority of residents to pay for and hire a general contractor to build roads?


  26. Nate, I get your point about wicked rulers (though even evil powers still serve an earthly purpose in ways cancer just doesn’t, so the analogy is something of a non-starter). But evil rulers seem to be something of an exception to the rule, i.e. wicked rulers don’t really seem to be as in sight here as good ones which are the rule. In which case, gratefulness for them makes a lot of sense.


  27. Jed,

    So maybe there will be non-coercive government. I has not seen nor ear has heard. If you want to call that govt,. fine by me. But it will be so fundamentally different from what we experience now, with the coercive element missing, that there seems little value in comparing the two.

    I think there are category mistakes being made here. People being organized in accordance with their own desires and intentions, freely, seems hardly like government. You’re really talking about something else. Madison in Federalist 51 seems more to the point.


  28. David,

    What Darryl said was where I was trying to go with non-coercive governance. Administration is a function of government that I suspect will endure. Not all government functions are coercive, but still necessary for ordering a complex society.

    But more importantly, DGH is swooning over a democrat, next thing will probably be his laments for the working poor. Has he gone soft? Or does he feel lonely because the Bros. Bayly have been leaving him alone for too long?


  29. West Wing, Sorkin and Calvin in the same post- amazingly may, just barely pass the “shibboleth” test.


  30. Nada- I’m watching West Wing with my bride now… Just laughing to myself, that Calvin, West Wing and Sorkin all invoked in the same post. So I made a “Shibboleth” comment… A nod to West Wing… Which had an episode with that title…
    And I’m “grateful” as well… My name is Gage Browning- I was named after a 12 Gauge Browning…
    I’m a Texan… So goes without saying…
    …back to the sidelines for me eagerly awaiting a Mark Jones sighting or another round of republication.


  31. Gage, welcome to oldlife. I’ve heard good things about West Wing. I hope you enjoy watching television. Take care, and I loved this:

    back to the sidelines for me eagerly awaiting a Mark Jones sighting or another round of republication


  32. DG- big fan of both Daniels/Newsroom and all things Sorkin…and Old Life
    AB- Thx I will enjoy watching television… But mainly DVR shows…
    Back to watching and waiting…for MJ/Repub or maybe even throw in the proper distinction between Law/Gospel….

    DG- do you have the song “Sanvean” from the episode when Zoey is kidnapped..? Almost churchlike…


  33. Zrim,

    That makes sense. For good or ill, I have a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to praise of governments. I’m a bit more indifferent to them to the good the bring. Certainly they (and their leaders) can bring good as Denlinger and Hart point out, yet they also can create a lot of havoc. But I think I’m seeing the point now of what you and others here are getting at.

    Thanks for the interaction.


  34. DG,

    think of government more like administration — you know, Obama administration

    Well, if you use coercion and media manipulation that certainly is one way to get the wheels of administration working.

    Point taken though.


  35. Jed,

    Your superior insight has led me to some amazing conclusions – like… that shooting off bottle rockets out of cars in downtown Chicago would be a good idea.


  36. Gage, done with 5/7 episodes of Black Mirror with my bride. That, warriors basketball (so sorry about the rockets) over internet radio, and The Wire is what has been piping over our fiber optic lines. Oh, and Ken Burns documentary on Roosevelt’s was good, I want to watch his series on the national parks. Take care.


  37. Nate,

    Your superior insight has led me to some amazing conclusions – like… that shooting off bottle rockets out of cars in downtown Chicago would be a good idea.

    The police never found us, and you had a good time – I’d call that a win.


  38. DG,

    is that how you order a Dos Equis? I didn’t live in CA long enough to know.

    Well, depending on the establishment, it’s how you get a couple of Dos Equis on the house, or it’s how you get promptly shown to the door. It’s all about context.

    Stay thirsty my friend.


  39. New one for me, but yes, for sure. Hell on Wheels, with some Walking Dead, The Americans, and a few others I could list. Between you and me, I’m trying to steer clear of HBO lately, off topic I know, Justified appears to be FX, sweet! There’s a guy “Michael” who lurks here and likes to talk to me, told me about that Black Mirror it blew me away.

    Mad Max steampunk this weekend was wacky, not sure whether to say up or down, but it has 98% on rotten tomatoes. Keeping the bride happy over here, that’s what it’s about. Yo.


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