Did They Give Rise to Secession?

So here is the problem (aside from Irish department stores stocking washcloths but Irish hotels not owning them, or that no one shows up in Dublin for evening prayers when the fat ladies aren’t singing). Political philosophers and historians have given lots of attention to Calvinism as an engine of modern liberal (read constitutional) politics. Whether it’s resistance theory, the Dutch rebellion, or the so-called Presbyterian revolution of the British colonies in North America, students of Calvinism believe they have a firm read on Reformed Protestant politics as an inherently rebellious outlook, one that won’t let any human authority encroach on the Lordship of Christ. (Why we didn’t celebrate 1861 along with 1776, 1689, and 1567 prior to getting right with race is a bit of an inconsistency.)

That sounds good in theory, and it certainly turns out Calvinist (New, Neo, or Denominational) in large numbers for Fox News. But it doesn’t make sense of history where context matters. Here, the case of Irish Presbyterians are instructive. They were Scottish in background and carried around in their devotional DNA the covenants that Scottish or English-Scottish monarchs had made to ensure the protection of the true religion (Presbyterianism) and the suppression of the false (Roman Catholic or prelatical/Episcopal). But in Ulster they encountered a set of realities remarkably different from Scotland or North American colonies. They were subject politically to English authorities who trying to subdue the Irish and who wanted more Protestants but did not want to provoke the natives. They confronted a native population that was firmly Roman Catholic. And they found themselves on the outside of an ecclesiastical establishment (the Church of Ireland) that was Anglican. If you turn to Scottish history for help, you alienate the English government and your stir up your Irish neighbors. If you want to be part of the ecclesiastical establishment (the way Upper Canada would try in the nineteenth century), you’re guilty of historical anachronism. The closest situation to yours is perhaps Philadelphia which when it comes along toward the end of the seventeenth century provides an attractive alternative to Ulster for Scots-Irish.

Here is how I. R. McBride in Scripture Politics: Ulster Presbyterians and Irish Radicalism in the Late Eighteenth Century puts the challenge of placing Irish Presbyterianism on the map of political theory in the West:

It would be convenient if an analysis of theological controversy could somehow isolate a single gene that programmed radicalism into the Presbyterian Church. Unfortunately, political affiliations were not structured by religious allegiances in any simple way, but resulted from a subtle combination of theological inheritance, social factors, and political circumstances. Ulster radicalism cannot be understood outside the experience of exclusion from the institutions of the state, the social conditions of the north of Ireland, and a deep-seated ambivalence towards a British government which was both the upholder of Anglican ascendancy and the ultimate guarantor of Protestant security. Presbyterianism, furthermore, was neither homogeneous or static, but was fragmented . . . Unlike the monolithic edifices of its Anglican and Roman rivals, this fractured culture allowed theories of both religious and political dissidence to take hold and flourish.

The intellectual inheritance of the Scottish Reformation offered a rich and complex legacy of resistance and radicalism which provided a common platform on which Presbyterians of all theological preferences could unite. The basic principle that Jesus Christ was the sole lawgiver in the Church, though applied in a variety of ways, was shared by all strands of Presbyterian opinion. In its most extreme manifestation, the older ‘prophetic’ theocracy called for Church and state to be brought together to create a society in social and political conformity to the word of God, a vision still shared by those groups which adhered to the Solemn League and Covenant. In an age of social and political disruption, it retained its attraction for poorer Presbyterians in the Synod of Ulster, the Secession, and most of all the Reformed Presbytery. The political theology of the Covenanters, which asserted that all government, temporal and spiritual, must be based on those patterns allegedly found in Scriptures, was violently at odds with the development of an erastian, parliamentary regime. . . .

In their insistence on the supremacy of individual conscience over received authority, the New Lights also regarded themselves as the genuine heirs of the Reformation heritage. The call to separate Christianity from human policy echoed the fundamental Protestant dichotomy between human corruption, evidenced in the false ceremonies and beliefs which had debased the Church, and divine truth as embodied in the Scriptures. While their political principles were no doubt derived from a common Presbyterians, however, they also reflected the rationalism of non-subscribing divinity . . . . Far more important to the evolution of radical ideology was the non-subscribers’ battle for freedom of enquiry, and their conviction that civil and religious liberty were inextricably linked. . . . ‘that religious is a personal thing – that Christ is the head of the church – that his kingdom is not of this world – that the WILL OF THE PEOPLE should be the SUPREME LAW’. Here was the authentic voice of New Light radicalism. [109-110]

The spirituality of the church keeps looking better and better.

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Neo-Calvinism's Whiggish W-w

In his piece for Christian Renewal (March 26, 2014) Bill Evans expands on his earlier critique of 2k. And he commits again two important mistakes.

The first is to assert that 2kers identify the church with the kingdom of God. Wrong. 2kers follow the Confession of Faith in identifying the kingdom of Christ with the visible church and — see if you can follow the balls — the kingdom of God is not the same as the kingdom of Christ. If it were, then Saddam Hussein, who was under God’s reign, would have been part of the kingdom of Christ.

Remember how the Confession puts it:

The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. (25.2)

I still remember sitting across a seminar table from solid conservative Presbyterians under the spell of Kuyper who asked me if I really believe that affirmation (even though they had subscribed the Confession).

The second mistake is to say that Calvinism is socially activist in contrast to Lutheranism. Evans writes, despite similarities in the way that Calvin and Luther spoke about two kingdoms, Calvin’s efforts to protect the church from encroachments of the state, and to emphasize the duties that Christians have to the state wind up denying the sort of ecclesiastical independence that results in Luther’s view (even though Lutheran churches were as much part of the political establishment as Reformed).

This difference helps to account for the profound contrast between the passivity toward the state that has characterized much of the Lutheran tradition and the historic pattern of social and political activism evident among Reformed Christians.

And there you have in one sentence a historical verdict on 400 years, as if everyone knows this, as if the Scottish Kirk was all that militant in resisting London, or as if the Dutch churches were any more successful in opposing Hitler than Lutherans were. Just glide right over those complexities and arrive with two thumbs up for Calvinism which gave us the modern world. These Calvinist optimists — who seem to forget that TULIP is not exactly John Locke write large — never seem to calculate that Calvinists never lifted a hand to stop the execution of Servetus or argued against sending Roger Williams into exile.

Aside from Calvinist soteriology, the Confession of Faith and its historical circumstances pose a speed bump to Evans’ whiggish rendering of history where all lines lead to Christian Renewal‘s readers. Of the major confessions from the Reformation era (as far as I know), only Westminster’s has a chapter devoted to Christian liberty, a pretty important concept for those who argue for Calvinism’s influence on modern social and political arrangements. For instance, this is how John Witte understands Calvinism’s contribution to human rights:

The first and most essential rights for early modern Calvinists were religious rights — the rights of the individual believer to enjoy liberty of conscience and free exercise of religion, and the rights of the religious group to enjoy freedom of worship and autonomy of governance. Already in Calvin’s day, the reformers discovered that proper protection of religious rights required protection of several correlative rights as well, particularly as Calvinists found themselves repressed and persecuted as minorities. The rights of the individual to religious conscience and exercise required attendant rights to assemble, speak, worship, evangelize, educate, parent, travel, and more on the basis of their beliefs.(2) John Witte, Jr., The Reformation of Rights)

It would be harder to find a view of freedom of conscience, though thoroughly accepted by moderns, more at odds with the way the Westminster Divines conceived of freedom of conscience, which was for them first and foremost a spiritual reality:

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law. But, under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of. (20.1)

Unlike the Anabaptists, Quakers, or Roger Williams, freedom of conscience had nothing to do with politics. But for Evans’ understanding of Calvinism’s activist progressive side to make sense, he needs Witte to be right and to ignore what the Westminster Confession says.

And yet, the Westminster Divines, who wrote under the patronage of a Parliament at war with the crown — a sure sign of political activism if you wanted one — refused to let freedom of conscience be a buttress to political ends:

And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the church. (20.4)

Call it Lutheran if you want, but the A2k view of the Reformed tradition relies on a recent construction of Calvinism that has been foisted as the general article.