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Was John Calvin a Liberal?

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I am glad to be able to welcome Davey Henreckson as a new contributor here at the PT Blog.  He is a Ph.D student in Religion at Princeton University, working particularly on early modern political theology under the supervision of Eric Gregory.  His own blog, which offers an excellent orientation to key contemporary discussions in political theology and Christian ethics, can be found at www.reformingvirtue.com.

In recent years, a number of theologians and legal historians have argued that the early modern Reformed tradition was a significant source for the development of various liberal doctrines. Scholars such as Nicholas Wolterstorff, David Little, and John Witte have traced modern doctrines of individual rights and the separation of church and state back to various Calvinist thinkers. Witte has been the most prolific, writing dozens of articles and several books on the topic over the past couple decades. In his most recent book, The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism, Witte argues – even more directly than before – that many of our most deeply-held liberal ideas owe as much to John Calvin (1509-1564) and his theological descendants as to later Enlightenment theorists. This may seem a strange notion to anyone familiar with the common charges against Calvin, the stern Genevan reformer who allegedly presided over his own theocratic city-state. Yet Witte argues that our perceptions of the early Calvinist tradition need to be revised. In fact, while he acknowledges the “grimmer side” of the story – that is, the cases where Calvin and his followers failed to protect the rights and religious liberties of others – Witte believes that in many cases, the political thought of this tradition was “more progressive” than its contemporaries. Further, he contends that the modern separation of church and state (and the distinction between public and private morality that undergirds it) can be traced back to Calvin himself.

Re-dressing Calvin as a proto-liberal takes a fair bit of work due to his own stance toward heretics and his theological foes. Calvin’s perceived illiberalism often arises from accounts of his encounter with Michael Servetus, who came to Calvin’s Geneva in 1553, already on the run from Catholic authorities who had arraigned him on multiple charges of heresy. Anti-trinitarian theologians like Servetus did not enjoy a high quality of life in the sixteenth century. Once Servetus arrived in Geneva it was not long before the governing authorities had him arrested, tried for heresy, and – eventually – executed. The episode has attached an ineradicable stigma to Calvin’s legacy. Even in Calvin’s own day, various detractors highlighted this incident in order to paint him as an archenemy of intellectual freedom who wished only to impose his narrow conception of piety through coercive means.

Witte finds this interpretation rather suspect. Although he acknowledges that the execution of Servetus was cause for some of Calvin’s most “intemperate” writings, Witte argues that Calvin’s response to Servetus can be read as a bitter, bombastic outburst caused by internal political pressures and insurrections in Geneva. Despite the tragic nature of the episode, we should not forget that Calvin’s other written works offer an “otherwise carefully nuanced treatment of religious liberty” (p. 70).

It is this positive conception of religious liberty that Witte wants to lift up as an example of what Quentin Skinner once called “liberty before liberalism.” While Calvin lacked the more sophisticated framework of rights and liberties present in mature liberalism, Witte argues that the reformer did advance (rather innovatively) a few basic theological ideas that provided the foundation for subsequent distinctions between church and state, private morality and public right, and so on.

Perhaps most importantly, Calvin is said to have proposed a “two-track system of morality.” According to Witte, Calvin believed that law provided “civil norms” for political governance on one side and “spiritual norms” for pious Christian observance on the other:

These norms, in turn, give rise to two tracks of morality: a simple morality of duty demanded of all persons, regardless of their faith, and a higher morality of aspiration demanded of believers in order to reflect their faith. In Calvin’s mind, commandments and counsels, musts and shoulds, absolutes and adiaphora can thereby be distinguished. This two-track system of morality corresponded roughly to the proper division of jurisdiction between church and state, as Calvin saw it. It was the church’s responsibility to teach aspirational spiritual norms. It was the state’s responsibility to enforce mandatory civil norms (p. 78).

The “aspirational” norms, Witte explains, pertain to inward piety, and can therefore be oriented toward a perfectionist system of moral standards. In this vein, we might think of the stringent moral commands of the Sermon on the Mount, supererogatory acts, and – most paradigmatically – worship of God. For Calvin, Witte suggests, these commands and disciplines are associated with the First Table of the Decalogue – that is, the biblical commands to worship only the one true God, and to honor God’s name. The various commands associated with the Second Table – prohibitions against theft, murder, dishonesty, and the like – pertain to civil norms. The two sets of norms entail two sets of liberties: the “spiritual liberty” to pursue piety and the “political liberty” to be free of unjust constraint. In terms of the latter, Witte argues that Calvin views the political office as called to specific duties; the overstepping of those duties leads to a violation of subjective political liberties.

As Witte frames all this, the distinctions between spiritual and political liberty, and between internal piety and external duties, allowed Calvin to provide “a lean and learned apologia for religious liberty and related freedoms that would inspire fellow Protestants for generations, indeed centuries, to come.” By carving out a sphere for inwardly pious human activity, Calvin made it possible to imagine the state as a rights-limited institution – that is, as an institution that could not violate the individual’s subjective right to worship God according to conscience. Later generations of Calvinists would expand this category to include a much broader catalog of natural rights.

All this sounds rather liberal indeed. Yet we still might wonder how Calvin could say all this while still prosecuting heretics and harboring rather illiberal sentiments about those whose religious practices offended his austere Protestant sensibilities. On Witte’s own telling of the story, it seems we must chalk this tension up to an inconsistency between Calvin’s theory and practice. On the most sympathetic reading possible, we might suppose that Calvin would have corrected himself had he not been subject to the political pressures of his office, or had he realized the implications of his own “two-track” theory of morality.

What this explanation appears to leave out, however, is a consideration of the relevant commitments, implicit and explicit, that underpin Calvin’s belief that the civil prosecution of heresy is permissible. I will turn to some of these commitments in a second post next week.

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Doctoral student in the Department of Religion at Princeton University
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dennis-Maher/1045287449 Dennis Maher

    The Reformers planted the seeds of Christian destruction by valuing education and learning. I do think there were liberal seeds in his writings and work. Cf. Constructive Revolutionary by Fred Graham, 1979.

  • Madison

    What a great topic to probe – I heard Witte speak at Duke two years ago on the Christian origins of ‘human rights’, and he (in private conversation afterwards) admitted that for Calvin liberty & rights language would only make sense within a Biblical framework. I’m not sure what you’ll say in the posts to come, but it seems to me that Calvin never envisioned his framework to be used by people who didn’t believe in the God of the Bible. Witte also admitted that when Christians use rights language, they ultimately have to justify their use of it using Christian ideas (the triune God creating people) – this is decidedly not liberal, even though Witte didn’t seem to want to admit it.