Posted by Brad Littlejohn at 5:50 PM
May 8, 2010
Van Drunen’s third chapter, “Reforming Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: John Calvin and His Contemporaries,” is longer than either of the previous two, considerably denser, and much more important to VanDrunen’s project, and so I am afraid it will take quite a commodious review to do it justice. Before I start, I ought to admit up front that I am going to do something very un-kosher in this review--I am going to take a historian to task on theological grounds. I know, you’re covering your ears with horror at the very suggestion!
Historians will of course claim that theirs is an objective task of simply trying to figure out what historical writers said, and reserving judgment on whether what they said was right or wrong, to what extent we should imitate it today, etc. Theologians may argue over whether Calvin was wrong or right, but the historian is solely interested in uncovering what Calvin said, for good or ill. Of course, such claims are not altogether true of any historian, but in my mind, they are particularly disingenuous when dealing with historical theologians (or theological historians?), particularly ones working within very confessional traditions like the Reformed. When someone is taking the time to write a book on the history of a doctrine, odds are that they have a strong interest in the doctrine; and if they have a strong interest, odds are that they have a strong opinion; and if they have a strong opinion, then, human nature being what it is, odds are that they want to be able to show that their opinion has been supported by key historical figures. This is particularly true of Reformed theologians, who, despite their anti-Catholicism, have a strong affection for “tradition,” and are almost obsessive in their attempts to prove that their pet doctrines were held by the great Reformed theologians of ages past, particularly Calvin. In fact, it is a useful rule of thumb that if you ever see any Reformed guy arguing that Calvin has been misunderstood on a certain point, and what he really said was X, you can be quite sure that his interest is not merely historical, but stems from the fact that he strongly believes X himself.
Such is the case with VanDrunen; he has let us know right from the start that he thinks that the modern craze for extending Christ’s lordship to all of life is a mistake, and he wants to recover a tradition which keeps Christ’s lordship in its proper ecclesial sphere. Therefore, although he purports to be pursuing the merely historical task of telling us what Reformed theologians said, it is clear that he is also trying to recommend certain ideas to us rather than others, and so in this review I will not merely be questioning aspects of his historical narrative, but also the theological value of the position he attributes to Calvin. This is particularly reasonable since VanDrunen does not really seem very interested in history in this chapter, as I shall consider in a moment.
Given that I am sounding so negative, I should add another caveat--VanDrunen does some really solid work in this chapter. I’m about to make some objections about the way he handles the history, but I should say up front that he makes some very solid historical points, particularly against other Reformed folks who have manifested the same annoying tendency to try to prove that Calvin is on their side, whatever that side might be. Modern neo-Calvinists have got to face up to the fact that Calvin said some rather silly things, that they must be willing to renounce from time to time. And so, my biggest beef with VanDrunen in this chapter is not “Calvin never said that!” but rather, “Ok, Calvin said that...so what? The Bible clearly says the opposite, so let’s gently correct Calvin and move on.”
With these caveats out of the way, let me address three methodological problems with how this chapter is set up, from a historical standpoint. First, in the title of the chapter, “John Calvin” should have been written in size 24 font, and “and His Contemporaries” in size 8. In a 52-page chapter, Calvin’s contemporaries get 3 pages--1/2 page of intro, 1 page for Bucer, 1/2 page for Vermigli, and 1 page for Zanchi. For a study purporting to tell us about the origins of Reformed social thought, this is simply irresponsible. VanDrunen seems a little nervous about it himself, acknowledging in the chapter’s introductory pages that of course it was a common error to act like Calvin was “the one measure by which later Reformed theology must be assessed” (67), and that recent historians have highlighted both the importance of other early Reformed figures and the discontinuities between Calvin and later Calvinists. Yet, having raised these objections, VanDrunen dismisses them with a casual wave of his hand: “Though his influence on the later Reformed tradition was not exclusive, it was certainly not surpassed by any of his contemporaries” (68). Therefore, in a study which is necessarily selective, “granting Calvin the spotlight seems well justified” (68).
Now, let’s examine this for a minute. Let’s grant that Calvin exercised more influence on the subsequent Reformed tradition than any other single figure among his contemporaries; that does not mean that he exercised more than all of them combined. It might be fair to say that if we were to try to quantify influence, and oversimplify the picture a lot, we might say that Calvin’s influence on later Reformed thought was 35%, Bullinger’s 20%, Bucer’s 15%, Vermigli’s 10%, Knox’s 10%, and others’ 10% (sorry, I have a weakness for using statistics). Does this preponderance justify him receiving 49 pages and everyone else receiving 3?
In particular, VanDrunen has ignored an important point, which is that this study is not about Reformed theology in general (over which Calvin has had an unmistakably strong influence), but about Reformed social and political thought, which is a somewhat different matter. I’m sure that there’s a lot of literature on the subject that could offer a more well-informed opinion, but based on my knowledge, it seems quite certain that, compared to his influence on other issues, Calvin’s political theology had much less of an impact on subsequent Reformed thought. In France, the Huguenots, as a persecuted minority, never had much opportunity to put a political and social ideal into practice. In England and Scotland (and thus later in America), despite the name of Calvin being held in high regard, political theology and indeed ecclesiology was dominated either (among the Dissenters) by Knoxian and proto-Puritan strains of thought that differed dramatically from Calvin, or (among the Establishment) by Erastian, and, as Torrance Kirby shows, Tigurian (that is, from Zurich) political theology. In Germany and Switzerland, the latter influences held sway. The Netherlands I know too little about to say, though I think it would be fair to say that here Calvin’s influence was fairly strong, though alloyed with other elements. Even in Geneva, subsequent political and social thought was molded as much by Beza as by Calvin himself.
Now, to point all this out is not merely a quibble of historical methodology, as it would be if Calvin and his contemporaries shared basically the same paradigm (as VanDrunen seems to try and say, though without much conviction). Bucer’s De Regno Christi portrays a richer, more complex, and maddeningly ambiguous picture of the relation between “the kingdom of Christ” and “the kingdoms of this world” than does Calvin, as I shall hopefully discuss a bit more when I get to the end of the chapter. Knox and the Presbyterians, with their notion of a theocratic “national covenant” are certainly far from Calvin and even further from what VanDrunen wants to advocate. Vermigli and Bullinger (enormously influential upon many strands of early Reformed thought), while drawing a sharp “two kingdoms” dichotomy, did not draw it in anything like the way VanDrunen wants to, since their paradigm made the oversight of religious affairs the foremost duty of the civil magistrate (see Torrance Kirby’s The Zurich Connection for a fascinating discussion of the unique and bizarre blend of Gelasianism and Augustinianism that these two theologians propounded). All of this means that, whatever VanDrunen is able to prove about Calvin in this chapter really proves rather little about the “Development of Reformed Social Thought,” since it leaves 2/3 of the foundations of Reformed social thought out of the picture.
The second methodological problem is perhaps another to which the Reformed seem especially prone. We Reformed have an obsession with order, logic, systems. (Perhaps this is why--to indulge a thought that just struck me--we seem so prone to go head-over-heels for Austrian economics.) This has its uses, but it can really get in the way of doing good history, because it means we are always looking for people to be orderly, logical, consistent. And people aren’t! How many real thinkers, thinkers with interesting thoughts worth studying, were consistent in all of their thinking across different contexts, different genres, different debates, different decades? If you can point me to an example (Francis Turretin, maybe, or the dime-a-dozen Reformed systematicians of the last century) then to me that’s just proof that they aren’t thinkers with interesting thoughts worth studying, because they’re not thinking like real people. Real people change their minds, real people get passionate about something and overstate their case, real people get caught up in a debate and over-emphasize just one side of an issue, only to over-emphasize the other side the next year in a different debate.
VanDrunen seems terribly reluctant to admit that Calvin was “inconsistent,” as if this were to accuse him of the unforgiveable sin. He hems and he haws and he gives various explanations, before finally admitting that yes, perhaps, Calvin was inconsistent at points. This way of looking at it also means that, since inconsistency is an odd aberration, VanDrunen can identify what the “heart” of Calvin’s “real” position was, and then dismiss other aspects as lamentable inconsistencies. This, I submit, is not good history. The fact is that even a man as systematic as Calvin thought many different things over the course of his life and simultaneously wanted to do justice to a number of different intellectual and practical ideals, which led him to sometimes assert, for instance, a radical discontinuity between church and state, and sometimes a close partnership between the two. The Calvin that VanDrunen gives us is a rather inhuman, disembodied Calvin, a mind whose true ideas we can identify if we can succeed in disentangling them, as Calvin himself couldn’t quite do, from earth-bound issues of practical life. This perhaps makes sense, when we consider VanDrunen’s Gnostic paradigm of the Christian life, in which the Christian’s true identity is “spiritual” and “heavenly,” separated from the mundane earthly affairs in which, as a human, he must still be engaged. (You know, that came across rather harshly; I didn’t really intend for it to, but, there it is--maybe my true feelings are harsher than I thought.)
Third, and closely related, VanDrunen seems to have very little interest in the historical context within which Calvin and the Reformers formulated their statements on social and political issues. For someone seeking to do historical work in any period, this is a significant oversight, but when dealing with a period as tumultuous and conflicted as the Reformation, it is grievous indeed. At one point, after introducing Calvin’s rather shockingly dualistic statements in the Institutes (e.g., “For there exists in man a kind of two worlds, over which different kings and different laws can preside”) VanDrunen says, “I turn now to describe Calvin’s view of the nature of these two kingdoms and thereby to explain why he drew this contrast so sharply.” “Aha!” I thought, “Here it is; he’s going to explain to us why, in historical terms, Calvin felt compelled to state things this way, about the context of anti-papal polemics and so on.” Alas, no. VanDrunen proceeded to explain Calvin’s view in terms of other theological commitments of his, with absolutely no mention of the historical, polemical context.
This approach explains why VanDrunen finds himself so flummoxed when he comes to the fact that, in actual practice in Geneva, Calvin did not seem to abide by the radical disjunction that he had asserted in the Institutes; in fact, even in the Institutes, Calvin appears to contradict himself, very quickly moving to give civil magistrates charge over religious affairs. We can see this same phenomenon, even more vividly, in the work of Bullinger and Vermigli--they will make the most shocking, unqualified statements about the incommensurability of civil and religious affairs, of church and state, on one page, and then, a couple pages later, they’ll be saying how silly people are who think that spiritual and ecclesial matters aren’t the province of the civil magistrate. Part of the explanation for this lies in understanding the polemical context. They don’t like the way in which the popes and the Catholic Church have claimed a plenitude of power over all affairs, spiritual and temporal, so that the Church has become in many respects indistinguishable from a worldly kingdom. In reaction to this, they will in certain contexts argue forcefully for the separation of civil and religious affairs, but then it becomes clear, when they turn to consider the civil magistrate, that they don’t want anything like a complete separation. Rather, they want to separate civil affairs from ecclesial authority, but they don’t necessarily want to separate ecclesial affairs from civil authority; the independence of the Chruch is simply not a high value for them at this point. We all do this sort of thing all the time, and in the polemically-supercharged setting of Reformation theology, it stands to reason that they did it even more. VanDrunen, though, gives almost no attention to the historical context or causes of the claims Calvin makes, a critical oversight in a book purporting to give us a history of Reformed social thought.
Now, all that was prolegomenal--good heavens! I told you this would be a long review.