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.

Two-Kingdom Tuesday: A 2K Pietist (and Dutch to boot!)

Wilhelmus a Brakel was a seventeenth-century Dutch Reformed pastor, and a leader in the so-called Second Reformation of the Dutch churches. At one blog dedicated to Brakel this development in Dutch Protestantism receives the following description:

By this term, Nadere Reformatie, we mean a movement in the 17th century which was a reaction against dead orthodoxy and [the] secularization of Christianity in the Church of the Reformation and which insisted on the practise of faith. This may also be called a special form of Pietism, because the central idea is the “praxis pietatis.” The origin of the pietistic trend lies in England and the father of Puritan Pietism [who] was William Perkins. Via Willem Teellinck and Guilielmus Amesius a direct influence on a kindred movement in Holland ensued. To this movement belong the Teellincks, Voetius, Van Lodenstein, Saldenus, the two Brakels, and especially also Witsius. This movement is not meant as a correction of the Reformation but as the consequence of it. The background of the conspicuous preciseness is the desire to serve God fully according to His will.

In sum, Dutch pietism was an effort fuse the personal piety of experiemental Calvinism with the rigor of the original Reformed movement.

Old Lifers are not known for relishing pietism, as a current discussion points out. And yet, even Dutch Reformed pietists, like Brakel, had enough sense to recognize the insights of post-Constantinian 2 kingdom theology. I hope the Baylys are listening.

The following comes from Brakel’s A Christian’s Reasonable Service, Book 2, chapter 29. (Props go out to our other mid-western correspondent):

Does the civil government have any authority at all with regard to the church? If yes, what does or does this not consist of?

We wish to preface our answer to this question by stating that first, all members of the clergy—ministers, elders, and deacons—are subject to the civil government as individuals , and thus are in one and the same category as other people. I repeat, as individuals. This is not true, however, as far as their ecclesiastical
standing is concerned, for as such, they are subject to consistories, Classes, and Synods, and thus are subject to the only King of the church, Jesus Christ.

Secondly, if members of the clergy conduct themselves contrary to civil laws pertaining to all citizens, they, just as other citizens, may and must be punished according to the magnitude of their crime.

Thirdly, since members of the clergy are not servants of the civil government, but as individuals are in the same category as all other citizens, they have the same right to legal defense. Therefore, in the event of an indictment, legal procedures must be initiated against them the same as against other citizens.

Fourthly, members of the clergy and the entire congregation, each in their own position, are obligated to honor and obey the civil government conscientiously—with heart and in deeds. They are to do so not by way of compulsion, but in an affectionate manner, out of love for God, whose supremacy and majesty are reflected in the office of civil government. No one is released from the duty of rendering honor and obedience simply because he is a member of the clergy or of the church. This is true even if the civil government is either pagan, Islamic, heretical or Christian, good or evil, godly or ungodly, compassionate or severe. It is the duty of elders to stir everyone up to render such honor and obedience. “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers” (Rom. 13:1)