Calvin Wasn’t Antichrist

It Is Not Heresy To Assign More Responsibility To Magistrates

Recently, a provocative quote from Michael Bird made the rounds through Christian Twitter. “The Bible has a technical term for someone who tries to combine religious and political power,” says Bird, “It’s called antichrist.”

It’s a punchy line, but interrogating it for a moment reveals new vistas of incoherence. It’s obviously appealing to evangelicals who want to countersignal their embarrassment of fellow believers seduced by the lure of Christian Nationalism. But as many pointed out in the replies, does the satisfaction of castigating your socio-political rivals require censuring the lot of Calvin, Luther, the Westminster Divines, Constantine, most English monarchs, and King David as antichrist?

Any sane person will say Bird’s opinion lacks nuance. But how many will admit it represents an ideological bias embedded in American Protestantism whose reckoning is long overdue?

Radical Secularism and American Protestantism

It’s ironic that mainstream evangelicals have come to equate piety with a notion of radical secularism championed by an atheist turned Unitarian. Most are aware that the primary source of modern commitments to secularism comes from Thomas Jefferson’s “Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association” of 1802. There, Jefferson explains that his intentions behind the Constitution’s First Amendment were to build “a wall of separation between Church and State.” More important for today, however, was the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Establishment Clause in Everson v. Board of Education (1947). Building on Jefferson’s wall imagery, they urged it to be “high and impregnable.”

There has since been a post-war consensus about the absolute separation between church and state whose proponents have grown among believers and unbelievers alike. Most concerningly, the former sound just as dogmatic as the latter. 

Examples include David French’s infamous defense of drag queen story hours as a “blessing of liberty” which civil authorities must allow by demand of the First Amendment’s commitment to moral neutrality and  Russell Moore’s criticism of Uganda’s new anti-homosexuality laws which, to him, represent a trading of gospel witness for political power.

Both cases argue for limiting the magistrate’s power to enforce Christian virtues although on slightly different terms. French, for example, mostly appeals to Jeffersonian principles and the inalienable right to religious liberty. He doesn’t need to cite specific Scripture since it’s clear he thinks his views are the right application of the Bible’s teaching. And he’s not alone. A.A. Hodge, the famous nineteenth-century American Presbyterian theologian and churchman, made a similar appeal to religious freedom in his commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. 

Self-conscious of their desire to faithfully articulate the whole testimony of Scripture, the original authors of the Westminster Confession punctuated each doctrine with biblical citations. In James 4:12 and Romans 14:4, Hodge sees a right to conscience (WCF XX) which, when applied in the civil sphere (WCF XXIII), becomes an “inalienable prerogative of mankind…to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience.” For Hodge, the magistrate’s duty to preserve religious freedom supersedes that of advancing Christian virtues. Add a bit of Frenchian proceduralism and it’s ready for the Sunday column, though Hodge would no doubt be horrified by some of the ways French applies this way of thinking today. 

If French takes a slightly indirect way of arriving at the absolute separation of church and state, Moore is more explicitly biblicist, rooting his case in hermeneutics which reveal important distinctions between Old and New Testament political realities. Conveniently for him, evangelical hermeneutics mandate a church-state arrangement amenable to everyone but conservative Christians while also making it easier to dismiss his opponents to the right as theocrats who simply misread their Bible.

Chad Van Dixhoorn represents the best version of his argument, addressing what he calls the “problematic” parallels between the duties of Israelite kings and today’s civil magistrates codified in the original Westminster Confession of Faith:

The problem with these parallels is that what is good for the old covenant people of God is not always good for the new. In the Old Testament, Israel was the assembly or church of God and God’s chosen nation. And so rulers in the nation also carried some responsibility for the church. In the New Testament the assembly or church of God is Israel, but there is no chosen political nation. The church is scattered among the nations. Neither is any ruler in any nation responsible for the church (Confessing the Faith, 314).

But as I have argued before, the implications of Christ’s new covenant were not lost on most early American Protestants. Most wanted a harmonious relationship between the civil and ecclesial spheres no less rooted in Scripture but arranged by robust systematic categories. 

A Mixed Metaphor

One historically popular image for conveying the entire biblical witness to the magistrate’s relationship with the church was that of a nursing father. The admittedly mixed metaphor comes from Isaiah 49:23, and it was Calvin’s penetrating commentary on that verse that established the religious duties of Protestant magistrates in their realm. Beyond an “ordinary profession of faith,” magistrates are to defend the church, promote the glory of God, maintain the purity of doctrine, curb idolatry, and, generally, “supply everything that is necessary for nourishing the offspring of the Church.”

Impossible to ignore in Calvin’s interpretation is a convenient polemic against papal supremacy, which he blames for improperly subordinating civil authority to the greed of the Roman Catholic Church. Far from simply offering “to their priests and monks very large revenues, rich possessions and prebends, on which they might fatten, like hogs in a sty,” Christian magistrates were to take a far more active role in upholding Christian civilization through a combination of personal piety and legal right. 

Christian princes are not church officers, insisted Calvin, but they have “obtained” by God’s sovereign decree “this highest pinnacle of rank, which surpasses dominion and principality of every sort.” Like David, they should be versed in God’s law in order to apply it justly throughout the nation, leaving the administration of the sacraments and preaching to those with ministerial callings. 

Calvin’s view resonated with many in Britain where history had prepared the soil for it to take root. His resistance against Rome was attractive to English-speaking reformers eager to recover ground lost under the reign of Queen Mary I. Under Elizabeth I’s rule, a diverse array of church leaders echoed Calvin’s political theology including Puritans like Thomas Cartwright and Anglicans like John Jewel and Richard Hooker. 

But it was James I, says James Hutson, who “secured the victory of the nursing fathers metaphor.” Most students of church history are familiar with Jacobus Arminius and the eponymous doctrine which the Synod of Dort condemned in 1618-19. Lesser known, however, is the man who succeeded him at the University of Leiden, Conrad Vorstius. Vorstius was an acknowledged Remonstrant whose appointment to fill the vacant chair became a matter of international intrigue when James I wrote the Dutch authorities urging them to depose the heretic. In his letter, James pressed for “the extirpation of these springing Atheismes (sic) and Heresies” and that doing so constituted a fulfillment of their magisterial duty. James I later defended his intervention in the Vorstius affair by virtue of his role as a nursing father. From then on it would always be an important term in the lexicon of English-speaking Protestantism. 

But its near universal acceptance as a proper title did not mean there was unanimity about application. For example, English Nonconformist, John Owen, believed a civil magistrate could allow a certain level of religious toleration while still limiting public expressions of false worship. Scots like John Knox and Samuel Rutherford, however, were more insistent. In Lex Rex, Rutherford goes so far as saying that when a people sense the king is inattentive to false worship, they “are presumed to have no king, so far, and are presumed to have the power in themselves, as if they had not appointed a king at all.”

Notable figures like Roger Williams and John Milton dissented and advocated a proto-secularist position, but there is little doubt that they represented a minority view. Most English-speaking Protestants understood the civil authority to be a nursing father concomitant with the duties of protecting the church and upholding Christian civilization by enforcing both Tables of the Law. No doubt it was this opinion they brought with them on the long journey across the Atlantic. 

American Exceptions

So what happened between then and now to cause such a radical change in Protestant conceptions of the civil magistrate’s duties to the church? Why do self-described Calvinists like French, Moore, and Bird sound so different from Calvin?

A possible answer begins with the revisions American Presbyterians made to the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1788. Many of the ministers who helped write those changes, including John Witherspoon, were supportive of American independence. Once accomplished, they needed a new confession to match their new country.  

Of particular import are their changes to Chapter XXIII dealing with the civil magistrate. On the one hand, they embraced the term “nursing fathers” in a way their forefathers had not, writing it into the confession when the original 1647 document merely cited Isaiah 49:23 in the list of Scripture proofs. Such is evidence that “nursing father” was still the predominant paradigm for conceiving civil authority in 1788. However, changes in the third section reveal a novel application for the American context and a break from prevailing sentiments in the Old World. In their new confession, American Presbyterians relegated nursing fathers to the protective role only, a duty they saw extending beyond their own denomination to all Christian sects and “all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies” everywhere.

Thus, American Presbyterians modified established Protestant political theology by enlisting magistrates to defend an abstract right to religious liberty rather than to defend the actual exercise of true worship, which was the original intent of the WCF. But their commitment to disestablishment in a religiously diverse nation of various Protestant denominations as well as Catholics, Jews, and Muslims does not mean they endorsed the form of radical secularism we are familiar with today. 

Consider the words of Rev. George Duffield, a minister from Philadelphia and the first Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1789. As an influential member of the Synod of Philadelphia, Duffield would have been intimately familiar with the revisions and the reasons for them. Still, he was no modern secularist. When asked whether a community of Christians had a right to require a satisfactory profession of faith from their civil authorities, Duffield answered not only that they could but that it was “absolutely incumbent.” The health and prosperity of the state depend on good morals, and as “Christianity is much better calculated to preserve and promote good morals than infidelity,” says Duffield, “so much more advisable and prudent it is to have Christian magistrates and officers.” We might call this the Duffield Plan and it is as simple as it is intuitive: Christian officials pass Christian laws to instill Christian morals. 

Even Witherspoon, the great advocate of religious liberty, admitted Christianity is “the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness” and that men of “all ranks,” including elected representatives, should promote “the practice of true and undefiled religion.” 

Clearly Witherspoon and Duffield believed it possible to both support their updated understanding of “nursing fathers” and disestablishment while retaining a thoroughly Christian civil sphere. 

But that’s not to say it was always easy for American Presbyterians to square the circle. Take for example the case of John Holt Rice, a leading disestablishment Calvinist in Virginia, and his opposition to the appointment of a religious heretic to the faculty of Virginia’s state university. When Rice discovered that Thomas Cooper, a friend of Jefferson with similarly heterodox convictions, was being considered for a teaching job at the public university he denounced both Cooper and his benefactor in the pages of his magazine. Clearly, the right to religious liberty was not as absolute for Holt as it is for many Calvinists today.  

Holt’s dilemma encapsulates the challenge of absolute religious liberty among the non-religious. But a believer in the naked public square he most certainly was not. Though we may fault men like Holt for being inconsistent, we should still resist the temptation of turning them into champions for modern liberal pieties. 

Even more tempting and less justified are the sentiments of those like Michael Bird, who carelessly charge nearly two millennia of Christian political theology to be damnable heresy. If the dream of an absolute separation of church and state is as tied to the American experience as evidence suggests, what is this but a brazen kind of national exceptionalism by those who so liberally lob charges of political idolatry?

What’s undeniable is the failure of Jefferson’s wall to create the fabled neutral state. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the disestablishment of Christianity has been replaced by the establishment of militant secularism replete with its own vision of the good and its own nursing fathers to enforce it. 

Any talk of formal re-establishment is undeniably premature. But is it even necessary? The examples of disestablishment figures like Witherspoon, Duffield, and Holt suggest there are American models for flexing our Christian faith in the civil sphere while retaining broad religious freedoms. But atrophied muscles need time to regain their strength. Right now, I’ll take nursing fathers over fathers nursing as a good place to start. 

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Robert Hasler

Robert Hasler is a seminary student, pastoral intern at Christ Presbyterian Church in Burke, VA, and a 2023 Cotton Mather Fellow at American Reformer.

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