Anachronistic Calvinism

James Bratt may think that historians of Calvinism need to explore the ways that this form of Protestantism interacted with or even shaped the forces of modernity, but scholars who study early modern Europe have moved on from the Calvinist exceptionalism that goes with neo-Calvinism:

. . . the essential historical importance of the story told here does not lie in its connections to metannaratives of modernization; it lies in its centrality for understanding that now-bygone era when confessional principles and attachments becamee structural elements of European society. The stance of recent historians who have approached the subject with a sense of anthropological otherness unquestionably appears more appropriate than that of whose who continue to insist on its links to that quicksilver concept of modernity. The particular variant of the broader Reformation call for evangelical renewal that insisted on purging from worship all rites without explicit biblical sanction and on eliminating from eucharistic doctrine all possible confusion between created matter and a God who is spirit first gained official sanction within a small, distinctive corner of the Continent nestled on the periphery of its largest states. From there, the polysemous message of its early prophets was able to go forth and crystallize dissatisfaction with the Roman church across much of the Continent, in some areas by virtue of its capacity to offer ordinary Christians motivation and models for forming alternatives to the established church, in others by virtue of its ability to convince rulers and their key theological advisers of its fidelity to Holy Writ. The consequences shook many states to their foundations. The establishment of Reformed churches in defiance of the authorities, the resistance of Reformed believers to state-sponsored ecclesiastical innovations they viewed as infringements against the purity of God’s ordinances, and the fear of a Catholic plot to roll back the advances of the Reformation: each precipitated some of the bitterest conflicts of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even when the religious transformations associated with the movement’s spread did not occasion full-scale civil war, the alteration of the traditional form of worship — occasionally as many as three or four times within a few decades — placed the local clergy before a series of difficult decisions of conscience that led many to resign their posts. For ordinary believers in virtually every generation, the decision of whether or not to join a Reformed church, to embrace a specific contested point of Reformed doctrine, or to refuse to abandon one when ordered by the authorities to do so could be a literally life-changing decision, casting individuals upon the paths of exile or assuring them of access to positions of power and respectability. The story of the establishment and defense of Europe’s various Reformed churches is fundamental to the history of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed, 543-44)

In other words, Reformed Protestantism didn’t begin as a w-w but as an effort to reform church, doctrine, and liturgy. No one was willing to go to the stake in order to integrate faith and learning, or to practice slaughtering animals and selling the meat Christianly.

Benedict continues modestly:

If the fatal flaw of theories crediting Calvinism with distinctive consequences for economic behavior or political development (me: think Kuyper) is that they exaggerate the spillover effects of religious doctrine outside the religious domain, the great shortcoming of the recent emphasis on the parallel consequences of the Lutheran, Reformed, and Catholic Reformations is that it downplays each faith’s distinctiveness within the domain of culture and religious life. For all of the undoubted similarities between the various confessions and for all of the porosity of confessional boundaries to the motifs and practices of the new devotion of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it made a difference in peoples’s life experience whether they were raised as Lutherans, Reformed, or Catholics. It made a difference as well where and when within each tradition they were raised, for none were monolithic or static. Each confession had its own set of styles of devotion. Each had its own doctrinal and psychological points of friction.

In other words, can you believe it, Calvinism was a religion. Getting from there to Kuyper’s lectures is another matter altogether but the way history generally works is that what comes first sets the standards for what comes after. The other way around is anachronistic — or worse — Whiggish.

John T., Philip B., and D.G.

I am (all about me) a pretty big fan of Julie and Julia. For one thing, it’s a movie about food and I like to eat. Second, it’s about cooking and I like to cook because I like to eat. For another, it features Meryl Streep as Julia Child, which is a remarkable performance. How many actors have played such various roles?

My affection for the movie has inspired thoughts about a daily blog about one of my different responsibilities. For those who haven’t seen the movie, Julie decides to cook through the all the recipes of (I believe) Mastering the Art of French Cooking. And she blogs virtually daily about the trials and successes of this marathon.

This premise has made me think about blogging my way through Robert Murray McCheyne’s schedule to read the Bible in one year, not just the edification that accompanies reading the word, but also the challenges to schedules, the odd juxtaposition of texts and life’s circumstances, and the failed days which require reading 30 chapters in one weekend before the guests arrive. Another thought is to blog about talk-show radio, to follow the topics and screeds that govern sports-talk shows, Rush Limbaugh, and Phil Hendrie over the course of one year and see what that reveals about the American people.

One other possibility is to blog about the writing of a book, from the stage of drafting a proposal for a contract, through the ups and downs of research and writing, to the soul-enslaving chore of revising and editing. The problem with this idea is that it would give an editor too much information about whether the author is goofing off. It would also give future readers a chance to see the real flaws in the book — such as that point when you cannot nail down the argument but decide on a strategy that let’s you fudge it. If you let on that you didn’t have time to go to the archives for a particular section of the book, the way that Julie admitted she overcooked the beouf bourgignon, then your editor is likely going to make you go to the archives, thus delaying the book and prolonging the blog for another year.

All of this is a long-winded way of mentioning that I turned in what I believe to be the final manuscript for Calvinism: A Global History, which if production schedules go well and if the Lord tarries, should be published next spring by Yale University Press. I have been working on this for almost five years — sometimes in fits and starts — but for the last eighteen months in a concerted way, and it is a great relief to have the manuscript “in the can.” This also means that I have been communing for the last five years in various ways with John T. McNeill, author of The History and Character of Calvinism (1954), and Philip Benedict, whose book Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism (2002), broke the mold for studies of Reformed Protestantism. My book is somewhere in between McNeill’s and Benedict’s. Like the former, mine tries to cover the entire range of Reformed communions in various settings since the sixteenth century. Like Benedict, I look at the institutional, political and social history of Calvinism but extend his narrative (in a much less comprehensive way) beyond 1700, where his book stops.

So far, I don’t think I have revealed anything that I haven’t already written for my editor or readers. Nor do I think I have exposed potential weaknesses for reviewers ready to pounce. And to give readers an additional peek into the book, I include an excerpt from the introduction:

Although Calvinism was flagging, Froude, Kuyper, and Beattie were not simply overcompensating with their praise for Reformed Protestantism. Various students of modern societies in the West, with no particular stake in the survival of Calvinism, made similar claims about the faith’s political and economic contributions. Alexis de Tocqueville had observed during his visit to the United States that representative government was the fruit of English Calvinism’s seed. In New England among the Puritans, he wrote, “Democracy more perfect than any of which antiquity had dared to dream sprang full-grown and fully armed from the midst of the old feudal society.” George Bancroft in his History of the United States of America asserted that “the fanatic for Calvinism was a fanatic for liberty, for in the moral warfare for freedom, his creed was a part of his army, and his most faithful ally in the battle.” Positive appraisals of Calvinism as a generator of a better world were not simply the product of nineteenth-century amateur intellectuals. Max Weber’s argument about the influence of Calvinism on economic productivity became a staple in the analysis of capitalism. Several decades later, Robert K. Merton extended Weber’s analysis to show that Calvinism was decisive in the English scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. These assessments of Calvinism reveal that Froude, Kuyper and Beattie were not delusional. As much as they hoped to inspire, they also employed arguments that many non-Calvinists would have found plausible.

As natural as global assessments have come to students of Calvinism, this book despite its title, Calvinism: A Global History, takes a different outlook. Instead of exploring Calvinism’s contribution to the workings of the modern world, this study takes a modest approach. It examines how a variety of western Christianity that started in opposition to Rome in obscure small cities in central Europe eventually distinguished itself from other forms of Protestantism and established institutional outlets not only across Europe but also in North and South America, Africa, Australia, and Asia. Too much scholarship during the last century has exposed the overdrawn and sometimes faulty analysis of earlier assessments of Calvinism. What is needed now is less an account of Calvinism’s role in the forces of globalization and more a narrative of how Calvinism became a global faith. Reformed Protestantism did indeed circumnavigate the planet. But it did so not by underwriting or inspiring the West’s political and economic forces. Calvinism spread around the globe through unlikely historical developments that perhaps only the sovereign God whom Reformed Protestants worshiped could pretend to control. This book is about how Calvinism became a global faith. As it is, the how of Calvinism’s expansion is key to understanding why.

Two-Kingdom Tuesday: The Hollowness of Article 36

Critics of two-kingdom theology from Dutch backgrounds often cite the Belgic Confession’s teaching on the civil magistrate as grounds for rejection. For those who don’t have a copy of the confession handy, Article 36 reads:

And the government’s task is not limited to caring for and watching over the public domain but extends also to upholding the sacred ministry, with a view to removing and destroying all idolatry and false worship of the Antichrist; to promoting the kingdom of Jesus Christ; and to furthering the preaching of the gospel everywhere; to the end that God may be honored and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word.

What said critics fail to mention is that Article 36 has been soundly rejected by the Dutch and the Calvinists among them.

First, the North American descendants of the Dutch Reformed church would revise the article to remove the magistrate’s responsibility for upholding the true religion and destroying all infidelity. The Christian Reformed Church Synod of 1958 called this affirmation of Article 36 “unbiblical” and substituted the following:

They should do it [i.e., remove every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to divine worship] in order that the Word of God may have free course; the kingdom of Jesus Christ may make progress; and every anti-Christian power may be resisted.

That may give the magistrate more sway over religion than 2k folk would like, but it is far removed from the original language of the Belgic Confession. What is more, the modern Dutch churches regard the standard by which many neo-Calvinists critique 2k as “unbiblical.”

Second, Abraham Kuyper himself, the Calvinist than whom no Calvinist is more neo, rejected Article 36’s assertion of the magistrate’s power to punish infidelity. As pointed out in a previous post, Kuyper wrote specifically and candidly about his disagreement with Article 36. Among the assertions he made were:

We would rather be considered not Reformed and insist that men ought not to kill heretics, than that we are left with the Reformed name as the prize for assisting in the shedding of the blood of heretics.

It is our conviction: 1) that the examples which are found in the Old Testament are of no force for us because the infallible indication of what was or was not heretical which was present at that time is now lacking.

2) That the Lord and the Apostles never called upon the help of the magistrate to kill with the sword the one who deviated from the truth. Even in connection with such horrible heretics as defiled the congregation in Corinth, Paul mentions nothing of this idea. And it cannot be concluded from any particular word in the New Testament, that in the days when particular revelation should cease, that the rooting out of heretics with the sword is the obligation of magistrates.

3) That our fathers have not developed this monstrous proposition out of principle, but have taken it over from Romish practice. . . .

I do wish that Dr. Kloosterman would pay attention to the master of all worldview and world transformation and cease from using an article against 2k that no Dutch Calvinist uses (except himself and his fans).

Finally, the Dutch magistrates themselves rejected Article 36 even in the glory days of the Dutch Reformation. Here is how Philip Benedict concludes his chapter on the Dutch Reformation:

The place of the Reformed church came to assume within the seven United Provinces of the Netherlands was different from that of any other established church in Europe. On the one hand, the Reformed church was the public church. Its ministers were paid from the tithe and the proceeds of seized church property. It provided the chaplains who accompanied the republic’s armies and navies. . .

On the other hand, across the republic as a whole the Reformed enjoyed neither the numerical preponderance nor the degrees of ideological hegemony that Europe’s legally dominant churches normally exercised. For every author who likened the Dutch struggle for independence to the liberation of ancient Israel from the yoke of Egypt, another depicted the long war for independence as a battle to preserve the traditional liberties of the region against tyranny, including ecclesiastical tyranny. . . . The consistories and synods learned before long to moderate the severity of their demands for moral purity, and the measures regulating public morals generally fell far short of the strictness of those promulgated in Zurich, Geneva, and Scotland. Last of all, ecclesiastical discipline was not backed up by civil sanctions as in Geneva and Scotland. The revolutionary reformation of the Low Countries was thus revolutionary for its reconfiguration of the relation between church and state and for the degree of freedom it obtained for inhabitants of this region to live their lives outside the institution and ritual of any organized church, even while it gave birth to a Reformed church that was at once privileged and pure, an established church and a little company of the elect.

Maybe I’m finally understanding the purpose of worldview thinking. It is a way of seeing the entire globe and ignoring reality.

The Original Blended Worship?

With less division [than over church government], the Westminster Assembly also drew up an order or worship and a confession of faith. The Directory for Public Worship, accepted by the Parliaments of England and Scotland alike in 1645, carved a middle ground between the Presbyterian desire for a fixed liturgy and Independent attachment to extemporary prayer by specifying the order of services but merely suggesting sample prayers. Distilling the practices of the “best Reformed churches” and adding a dash of English Sabbatarianism, it prescribed the discontinuation of all “festival days, vulgarly called Holy Dayes,” instituted a simple seated communion, and called for the “Lord’s Day” to be given over entirely to such acts of piety, charity, and mercy as singing psalms, repeating sermons in family groups, visiting the sick, and relieving the poor. No ceremonies whatsoever were to accompany funerals, and the pouring or sprinkling of water on the newborn was the sole approved ritual action of baptism, which could be performed only by a minister at a regularly scheduled worship service. (Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed, p. 401)

If only today’s blends were as good.

Muslims and Protestants Together?

Among the many juicy bits of history packed into Philip Benedict’s Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed comes the item about the Ottoman insurgence into the Holy Roman Empire. Turns out the influx of Muslims into formerly Roman Catholic territories was a boon to the Reformed faith, especially in Hungary which gave us the Magyar Reformed Church.

Not only was the church largely decapitated in the central portions of the kingdom (i.e., Hungary), much of the parish clergy fled before the Ottoman onslaught, leaving nearly four-fifths of the localities in Ottoman-controlled regions without parish priests. Finally, the new rulers of the portions of the kingdom had neither the liberty nor the inclination to pursue the campaign against heresy. Ferdinand (Roman Catholic and from the Habsburg dynasty) was so busy with his military campaigns that he had little time to concentrate on the problem of heresy within his lands. Furthermore, he depended heavily on Protestant support within the empire for tax revenue to help fight the Ottomans, which prompted him to favor negotiation over repression in dealing with the problem. The Ottoman authorities looked for religious leaders who might cooperate with them as they strove to organize their control over their recently conquered territories and stem the flight of the population from the region. They were thus prepared to give evangelical preachers a free hand to proselytize so long as they respected Ottoman authority.

. . . . In the Ottoman-controlled regions, wandering preachers had a free hand. Mihaly Sztairai (d. 1575), a Paduan-educated ex-Franciscan who was the chief evangelist of the western portion of Ottoman Hungary, reported to a Viennese correspondent in 1551 that he had been able to preaching throughout the region for the previous seven years. In the process, he claimed, he and his fellows had founded some 120 congregations. (pp. 274, 275)

Now that’s church growth.

Getting over the Puritans, Say Hello to the Huguenots

I cannot say enough good things about Philip Benedict’s Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism (Yale University Press, 2002). Among the reasons for recommending the book, aside from careful scholarship and judicious conclusions, is Benedict’s attention to the variety of Reformed expressions as they took shape in diverse cultural and political contexts. This is what historians do and Benedict does it greatly.

One of the arresting parts of Benedict’s narrative is his account of the French Reformation. Obviously, the politics of France never cooperated with the aims of church reform (as if they did in England). As a result, the Huguenots failed to institutionalize a reformed church in ways that could be sustained in France, or that served as the inspiration for colonial churches in the New World where Calvinism of British descent would dominate the Reformed experience. Even so, his comments about the French Reformed church prior to St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre are music to Reformed confessionalist’s ears:

The achievements of the Reformed by early 1562 were little short of remarkable. Within just a few years, hundreds of congregations had assembled across the kingdom. A set of national church institutions had been defined that would endure for more than a century with only minor modifications. Reformed worship had obtained legal toleration. In a few locales, it had even displaced Catholicism. . . .

. . . [T]he wars of Religion taught the churches to rely on their own resources to survive. At successive national synods, they increasingly marked their distance from the secular authorities. Synodal decrees warned against selecting magistrates to serve as elders, forbade consistories to denounce church members discovered to be guilty of heinous crimes to the secular judges, and declared all consistory proceedings secret, even those in which consistory members were insulted in manners that might be actionable before the secular courts. All this was a far cry from the sort of defense of consistorial authority that Calvin sought and obtained from the Genevan magistracy. The French Reformed churches thus became the enduring model of a network of churches that maintained purity of doctrine, quality control over local clergy, ecclesiastical discipline, and reasonable uniformity of practice with a minimum of reliance on secular authorities. (pp. 144, 148)

Not to mention that the Gallican Confession wasn’t too shabby.

If only the Huguenots were more the model for American Reformed church life than the Puritans.