Calvin’s Political Theology Revisited

Honest Reformation Scholarship Leads to an Unmistakable Conclusion

Published co-incidentally with our friends at The North American Anglican

What does it look like when a defender of pluralistic liberalism critiques Christian nationalism (i.e., Christendom) without resorting to charges of racism, kinism, and so forth? Sober criticism of this sort has been scarce in the year since Stephen Wolfe’s book on Christian nationalism was published. As it so happens, though, an attempt at serious engagement was made several years prior to the book’s release. This effort took the form of a book titled Calvin’s Political Theology, authored by Matthew J. Tuininga, currently Associate Professor of Christian Ethics and the History of Christianity at Calvin Theological Seminary. Tuininga makes his objective clear from the beginning:

[Calvin’s political theological perspective] offers us the theological resources to reject the ideal of Christendom, in which all citizens are expected to worship and live as Christians, on the one hand, and to affirm the value of political liberalism and principled Christian participation in pluralistic democratic societies, on the other.[1. Matthew J. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church: Christ’s Two Kingdoms (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 1.]

The reaffirmation of liberalism is necessary in our time, he continues, because “prominent Christian pastors and theologians, not to mention liberal philosophers, are questioning the compatibility of orthodox Christianity with political liberalism.[2. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 4.] Against this skeptical attitude, Tuininga believes that “Christians cannot afford to reject liberal politics if we are to take seriously the command to love and serve our neighbors.”[3. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 7.] His discussion of Calvin’s political theology is therefore meant to bolster contemporary liberalism, even as he recognizes that “Calvin was no liberal.”[4. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 2.]

That said, it would be difficult for me to name another book that undercuts its own stated purpose so spectacularly as this one. To begin with, Tuininga acknowledges that most or all of the major Reformers other than Calvin believed, contrary to modern liberalism, that “government is obligated to make the truth, the honor of God, and the care of religion its chief concern.”[5. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 2.] Martin Luther, whatever comments he made in his earlier career, ultimately “[defended] the obligation of secular authorities to suppress…heresy, blasphemy, and sedition.”[6. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 37.] Likewise, Philip Melanchthon came to hold that “magistrates were obligated to enforce both tables of the Ten Commandments for the purpose of maintaining the glory of God.”[7. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 40.] Ulrich Zwingli “endorsed the need for the magistrate to suppress those who disturbed the church by preaching or practicing false doctrine.”[8. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 44.] Martin Bucer “argued that the magistrate is to preserve public order by establishing peace and godliness,” with the corollary that “false teaching should be punished with the sword.”[9. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 57.] Finally, Heinrich Bullinger maintained that “civil government could require outward obedience to the covenant, using capital punishment to free the commonwealth of false teachers, blasphemers, adulterers, or other offenders.”[10. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 54.]

The fact that many prominent Reformers favored magisterial care of religion, as Tuininga demonstrates, would be enough on its own to seriously undermine any contemporary effort to baptize modern liberalism, but he further grants that Calvin, rather than departing from the other Reformers on this question, was in full accord with them. Calvin “explicitly presupposed the existence and legitimacy of Christendom.”[11. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 3.] He “maintained that civil government has a responsibility to protect the true religion against public offenses, enforcing outward obedience to the moral law summarized in both tables of the Ten Commandments.”[12. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 228.] In particular, Calvin thought it appropriate for the government to punish “whoredom and adultery, drunkenness, and blaspheming of the name of God,”[13. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 253.] among other things. Most famously, he “supported the death penalty for individuals guilty of notorious heresy,”[14. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 251.] as exemplified by his role in the execution of Michael Servetus. All of this is supported by Tuininga with copious citations from Calvin’s entire corpus, including letters, sermons, and biblical commentaries as well as various editions of his Institutes.

In light of this evidence, it is natural to wonder how a Christian proponent of modern liberalism such as Tuininga might argue that we should disregard the example of Calvin and the other Reformers, to say nothing of the wider Christian tradition. Tuininga’s justification for dismissing Calvin on this point is that his support for magisterial care of religion is primarily rooted in natural law. As he puts it, “Calvin’s arguments rely more on his interpretation of reason, experience, the laws of nations, and classic philosophy than they do on his exegesis of scripture (or even his use of the Old Testament).”[15. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 21.] Tuininga defends this move on the grounds that “Calvin himself distinguished between the authority of arguments drawn from natural reason (which could be challenged and rejected) and the authority of scripture (which, if interpreted correctly, could not be rejected).”[16. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 4.] Here Tuininga sounds a great deal like some critics of Wolfe’s book, a number of whom have objected that it relies too much on natural reason rather than Scripture. To give a couple of examples, Andrew T. Walker writes that “Wolfe may assert that ‘the government has the duty to promote true religion,’ but he never argues that point from the Bible from any clear command. It’s just assumed.”[17. Andrew T. Walker, “Book Review: The Case for Christian Nationalism, by Stephen Wolfe,” 9Marks, 9 December 2022, https://www.9marks.org/article/a-baptist-engagement-with-the-case-for-christian-nationalism/.] Similarly, Wyatt Graham says “Christian Nationalism needs more Bible.”[18. Wyatt Graham, “Stephen Wolfe’s Christian Nationalism: A Review,” Wyatt Graham, 26 November 2022, https://wyattgraham.com/stephen-wolfes-christian-nationalism-a-review/.]

However, it is rather odd that Tuininga draws attention (repeatedly) to Calvin’s reliance on reason and natural law on this point—as if this were sufficient cause to reject Calvin’s argument—considering that at the end of the book, Tuininga promotes the use of natural law as a form of “public reason” by which Christians can engage in the public square: “Calvin’s emphasis on natural law, as a basis for political reasoning that is universal in its scope and accessibility, offers Christians their own form of public reason: a means by which they can participate in moral and political arguments without preaching at nonbelievers or requiring a confession of Christ as a basis for discussion.”[19. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 371.] If natural law is a legitimate foundation for politics, then it is no objection to say that Calvin’s support for magisterial care of religion is primarily founded in natural law. Furthermore, in affirming the use of natural law as a form of public reason, Tuininga criticizes the impulse to make the Bible a “blueprint” for contemporary politics: “The true focus of scripture is the covenantal and eschatological fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ, the very word of God incarnate. Thus the church should be wary of moving from a proclamation of the word of God to an authoritative proclamation of policy or politics based on the use of proof-texts.”[20. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 373.] This makes it even odder still that Tuininga seems to require such a proof text before he will accept the propriety of magisterial care of religion.

The charitable inference to draw here, rather than simply declaring him inconsistent, is that Tuininga does not think magisterial care of religion is really part of the natural law. But he never makes a case for why this is so. Instead, he points to more recent thinkers and Christians at large who disagree with the notion that magisterial care of religion is good and salutary:

Why give Greek and Roman philosophers more weight than Locke or [Jeffrey] Stout, whose political reflections take religious pluralism into account? If the experience of medieval Christians taught them that unity in religion is required for public peace, the experience of the religious wars of the seventeenth century and the ideological wars of the twentieth have convinced many contemporary Christians of the opposite. If it was once assumed that the alliance of religion and power increased the credibility of faith among the masses, scholars since Alexis de Tocqueville have observed that in educated, democratic societies it is the separation of church and state that works to the advantage of religion. Communitarian political theologians can still make their case that a morally vacuous liberalism needs Christianity, but for many Christians it is just as clear that Christianity flourishes best in the context of a liberal commitment to basic human and civil rights. For such Christians the claim that natural law calls government to care for religion is a hard sell.[21. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 366, italics original.]

In short, says Tuininga, Calvin’s belief in magisterial care of religion was simply a product of its time rather than an unchanging principle of natural law—we know better now. Calvin may have “failed to follow the logic of his own two kingdoms theology to its own logical political conclusion,”[22. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 368. Compare David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 82‒93.] but we can succeed where he failed: we should “defend the right to religious liberty based on the creation of human beings in the image of God.”[23. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 368.] More broadly, we should draw upon the political theology of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine rather than his “practical politics”[24. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 3.]—of which Calvin’s support for magisterial care of religion, we are told, is a part—and seek to live well within liberal democracy because it is the system of government we have:

Democracy demands our fidelity at least to the degree that it has been providentially ordained by God as the established governing institution (Romans 13). As citizens of a pluralistic democracy, we are called to make sense of our political responsibilities and possibilities in light of the particular officials, bureaucracies, courts, traditions, procedures, laws, privileges and rights ‒ in short, the political system ‒ that we have, regardless, of our measure of agreement with them.[25. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, 362.]

Much more could be said about Tuininga’s discussion, but for the sake of brevity, I will confine myself to a few points. First, to cite differing conclusions of more recent times, without demonstrating who has the better claim to truth and why, is a non-argument akin to what C. S. Lewis termed “chronological snobbery.” It demonstrates nothing to say that some who came after the Reformers favored what became known as liberalism rather than magisterial care of religion. Moreover, to reiterate, Tuininga’s repeated observation that Calvin’s support for magisterial care of religion is rooted primarily in natural law rather than the Bible is an ineffective critique in light of his own affirmation of natural law as a foundation for politics. Second, Tuininga takes for granted, as many do even now, that we still inhabit a truly liberal system. I will not rehearse the litany of evidence to the contrary, available to anyone who has eyes to see. Suffice to say that contemporary proponents of modern liberalism are in no position to assume its ongoing health as a given. If anything, it increasingly appears the only question is whether we will have pro-Christian illiberalism or anti-Christian illiberalism. Finally, while the appeal to natural law as a means of establishing political consensus within modern liberalism has echoed among Christian scholars for the past thirty years or so, such consensus has never materialized. Indeed, one of the chief advocates for what we might call natural law liberalism, David VanDrunen—acknowledged by Tuininga as a special influence on him[26. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology, viii.]—has belatedly recognized that natural law arguments are least likely to make sense precisely to those who are most in need of the truth such arguments seek to convey:

For natural law arguments to be sound, they must tap into the store of wisdom without which the natural law is incomprehensible. Yet that store of wisdom is attractive only to those who have been acculturated in its ways and have gained the perception of the world it provides. Those not duly acculturated, bereft of this perception, lack the wherewithal to appreciate the persuasiveness of such arguments. People who set themselves up against the norms of the natural law are not able to see the world in ways that make sense of them. They are foolish. And Proverbs emphasizes that it is very difficult to make headway arguing with foolish people, who ridicule and scoff (15:12; 21:24). It often may not be worth trying (23:9; 26:4).[27. David VanDrunen, Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2020), 149.]

In sum, Tuininga, in spite of himself, does more to shore up the idea of Christendom than modern liberalism. His meticulous sourcing of Calvin and the other Reformers’ commitment to magisterial care of religion—and, by extension, illiberalism—gives us good reason to consider it anew as a viable political-philosophical approach. What is more, his attempts to uphold modern liberalism in the face of these weighty historical precedents amount to little more than an appeal to currency. If Tuininga’s book represents what critics of Christendom have to offer at their most sober, it is little wonder that so many of them are quick to defame their opponents and thereby short-circuit the discussion entirely.

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