Tuesday, October 31, 2006

October Revolution: Personal

“Lord, have I committed the unpardonable sin??”

Wrestling with my inner soul, I cried before my God. Collapsing like a house of cards onto the bed, I incoherently bawled out my prayer of mourning. Fear clenched my heart, terror danced before my eyes, while I fought against despondency…Only to embrace her as an old friend.

I had entrapped myself in despair so often and so consistently, that it became almost comfortable, like the embrace of a bottle for a drunkard.

The same event triggered these bouts of depression: sin. Of course, it was never just any sin (white lies did not bother so), but it was sin nonetheless. And of these sins, only one stood out with great relief. It was a danger that readily consumed my waking hours, haunting me, teasing me like a shadow just out of the corner of my eyes.

Was I in God’s will?
If not, then I was in sin!
…What was God’s will for my life anyway?

These were the questions that hounded my teenage existence. Couple these questions with the quest for spiritual perfection and the conclusion becomes obvious: spiritual melancholy. It certainly did not help that I compared myself to those golden Christians I always read about: Muller, Wilkerson, Brother Andrew. All of them so readily found God’s will. They were so perfect.

And I wasn’t. Not by a long shot.

It was not until a book providentially fell on my lap did I begin to rise out of that emotional morass. My father recommended some Banner of Truth books that he stumbled across. So, while working steadily in the military, I took my spare time and read Ian Murray’s The Forgotten Spurgeon. There I read about these awful “Arminians”—men that claimed some supremacy over God’s will. There I read about an incomprehensibly wonderful God who controlled all things for His own glory.

But it was not just the words that began to challenge me, it was the over-abundance of Bible verses. So many verses---even in those old forgotten books of the Bible: the Old Testament. Although I implicitly believed that my life should be founded upon the Scriptures, my charismatic background undercut such a belief. These books awakened me to a newer and fresher understanding of the sole sufficiency of the Bible. Here I can find God’s will! Unbeknownst to me, I was existentially back at the Reformation, relearning sola Scriptura, the formal cause of that mighty revival.

As the old song goes, “He’s still working on me….” With this renewed embracing of the whole Bible, I delved into the marvelous doctrines of Grace: sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, soli Deo Gloria! Faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.

It may be surprising to some to know that it was not merely or mostly the five-points of Calvinism that transformed my life; rather those points were five great sentinels of the Gospel, guarding that core belief of the Evangel: justification by grace alone through faith alone on account of Christ alone.

Soon the material cause of the Reformation—justification by faith alone—gripped my heart, freeing me from the bondage of works-righteousness. In seeking God’s will, I was seeking my own perfection, dreading any occasion for being “outside His will.” Such fear was not always overtly tied to the Ten Commandments. It was more linked with the horror of losing my salvation.

For, you see, I was taught that nothing could take me out of Christ’s hand---except myself. If I sinned enough, if I doubted enough, if I was far enough “outside” of God’s will, then I would descend into hell. It was all about me. Sure, the teaching of God’s forgiveness of sins was preached, but the righteousness of Christ imputed to me was a complete mystery. What that meant in practical terms was that I tried to be as sinless as possible through fear of punishment. Since Christ did not cover my sin with His righteous obedience to the Law, I had to fulfill the Law. Or at least believe “enough” to stay in God’s will. I did not want to be a “carnal” Christian.

There was no rest. I strived mightily to be faithful. Having my sins forgiven but being left with my own perfection before the Law was an intolerable way to live.

It was akin to having the red-markings of sin on the chalk-board of life erased, only to have myself write the correct answers in the pure-white chalk of perfection. It could not be done. Having started in the spirit, I was continuing in the flesh.

And grasping—or rather being grasped by—the truth that Christ not only forgave my sins but fulfilled the Law in my place rejuvenated my heart and soul. I felt born-again, knowing that nothing could take me from Christ’s hands, not even myself! Understanding that regeneration meant new desires, I would never want to leave, and I would ever strive toward obedience, not out of a sense of completing my salvation, but out of a sense of gratitude.

Everything took on a new cast: I was in God’s Hands; even sin was part and parcel of His plan. Nothing could separate me from the Love of Christ. My personal Reformation was complete. I had direction and I had renewal.

And I immediately yearned for a wider renovation in the church. And that desire has not abated. Pray that the shackles of confusion and legalism would be broken. Pray that the Church of Christ would rediscover the Gospel.

Pray that the Lord of the harvest would reap mightily.

[Postscript to Reformation Impact!]

October Revolution 6: Civil Government, Again

Yale history professor, George Fisher, a religious liberal and no friend of the Reformation, wrote:

How is it, then, that Calvinism is acknowledged, even by foes, to have promoted powerfully the cause of civil liberty? The reason lies in the boundary line which it drew between church and State. Calvinism would not surrender the peculiar notions of the Church to the civil authority. Whether the church, or the Government, should regulate the administration the Sacrament, and admit or reject the communicants, was the question which Calvin fought out with the authorities at Geneva, in this feature, Calvinism differed from the relation of the civil leaders to the Church, as established under the auspices of Zwingli, well as of Luther, and from the Anglican system which originated under Henry VIII….A second reason why Calvinism has been favorable to civil liberty is found in the republican character of its church organization. Laymen shared power with ministers… Men who were accustomed to rule themselves in the Church would claim the same privilege in the commonwealth…Another source of the influence of Calvinism, in advancing the cause of civil liberty, has been derived from its theology. The sense of the exaltation of the Almighty Ruler, and of his intimate connection with the minutest incidents and obligations of human life, which is fostered by this theology, dwarfs all earthly potentates. An intense spirituality, a consciousness that this life is but an infinitesimal fraction of human existence, dissipates the feeling of personal homage for men, however high their station, and dulls the luster of all earthly grandeur. Calvinism and Romanism are the antipodes of each other. [1]

Hamilton, a legal historian and expert on constitutional and copyright law and former assistant to Supreme court judges, discovered that:

"This [American] marriage of distrust in individuals but hope in properly structured institutions is no mere historical accident but has its roots in the Reformation theology of John Calvin…Others have made the more general case that Calvinist precepts permeated the culture at the time of the framing. Many of the Framers brought to the convention a background in Calvinist theology, with Presbyterians predominating among the Calvinists."[2]

Daniel Elazar, of Temple University, a member of presidential committees and founding member of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, created a World History Curriculum (Article 2).

“In all of the places where Reformed Protestantism was strong, there emerged a Protestant republicanism that opposed tyrants even as it demanded local religious conformity. Reformed Protestants in England became the Puritans, whose name indicated that they wanted to purify the Anglican Church as much as the Catholic, which they had rejected. In the seventeenth century they launched the first of the great modern revolutions, the English Civil War, against royal absolutism, opening the way for modern democracy.”

“Hence the constitutional democracy that we all know today has its roots in that Reformed Protestant revival of the biblical idea of covenant which was not only important in the fight against tyrants and hierarchies but could be made operational in political systems that would protect liberties.”

Elsewhere (amongst his plethora of socio & politico-economic international essays) Daniel further claims (Covenant & the American Founding ):

“A majority of the delegates to the Convention were affiliated with covenant-based churches…The Presbyterians, however, were already moving toward full-scale federalism. As Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., noted: "More than either [the Congregationalists or Anglicans] the Presbyterians in their reliance on federalist and representative institutions anticipated the political makeup of the future United States. Indeed, as the first government came into office under the U.S. Constitution in 1789, the Presbyterians held their first nationwide General Assembly. In the Presbyterian system, congregations in a local area formed a presbytery; several presbyteries in a region formed a synod; and then came the General Assembly. As a result, the system of federal democracy established by the U.S. Constitution has often been referred to as Presbyterianism writ large for civil society…[3]

Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, an Austrian, Roman Catholic, aristocrat, intellectual and National Review contributor asserts:

“If we call the American statesmen of the late eighteenth century the Founding Fathers of the United States, then the Pilgrims and Puritans were the grandfathers and Calvin the great-grandfather…the prevailing spirit of Americans before and after the War of Independence was essentially Calvinistic in both its brighter and uglier aspects.”[4]

This fearlessness brought them to preach against public evils, whether from the populace or the prince. Naturally, the princes did not like this. Calvin, himself, was eventually kicked out of Geneva for “meddling” in politics: he clashed with the local counsel over church discipline: he wanted it controlled by the church; they wanted it controlled by the city. Already, Calvin began the ongoing power struggle between church and state.

John Adams bluntly acknowledges the wide-spread influences of both the French-Calvinist’s work Vindicus Contra Tyrannus and the English Calvinist work of Ponet (A Shorte Treatise of Politike Power), both which defended the right of the people to rise against tyrants.[5] Certain elements in the Declaration of Independence echoed past religious thought such as “all men are created equal,” which was originally expressed in the Puritan work Lex, Rex in 1644. Even further back in time, a Dutch Calvinist, Johannes Althusius, wrote Politica (1603), a complete systematic presentation of a representative Republican government including political resistance theory. Pre-existing resistance theories existed, but were not as fully developed until the Reformation under the likes of Calvin, Bullinger, Knox, and others.

A modern encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics summarizes thusly:

In general it may be claimed for Calvinism that its influence has been an elevating and invigorating one. Abasing man before God, but exalting him again in the consciousness of a newborn liberty in Christ, teaching him his slavery through sin, yet restoring his freedom to him through grace, and leading him to regard all things in the light of eternity, it contributed to form a grave but very noble and elevated type of character, and reared a race not afraid to lift up the head before kings.[6]

The story of Reformed influence on political theory has yet to be fully written.

[1] George Park Fisher, The Reformation, revised, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920), 207ff.,

[2] Christian Perspectives on Legal Thought, ed. Michael McConnell, et.al., “The Calvinist Paradox of Distrust and Hope at the Constitutional Convention,” New Haven; Yale University Press, 2001, 293.

[3] The Covenant Tradition in Politics, vol. 3 (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1998), 77ff.

[4] “The Western Dilemma: Calvin or Rousseau?” Modern Age 15, no. 1 (1971): 5.

[5] The Works of John Adams [1851] Vol. 6, p. 3-4.

[6] James Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Part 5, (Kessinger Publishing, 2003), 153.

The story of Reformed influence on political theory has yet to be fully written.

[Next: Personal Application & Postscript (with recommended books)]

October Revolution 5: Civil Government

“He that will not honor the memory, and respect the influence of Calvin, knows but little of the origin of American liberty.”

America’s first great historian, George Bancroft (founder of Annapolis), although not a Calvinist himself, was honest in his evaluation of history:

The fanatic for Calvinism was a fanatic for liberty; and, in the moral war fare for freedom, his creed was his most faithful counselor and his never-failing support. The Puritans… planted… the undying principles of democratic liberty.[1] [He further claimed]:…Calvin infused enduring elements into the institutions of Geneva, and made it for the modern world, the impregnable fortress of popular liberty, the fertile seed-plot of democracy. We boast of our common schools; Calvin was the father of popular education, the inventor of the system of free schools. We are proud of the free States that fringe the Atlantic. The pilgrims of Plymouth were Calvinists; the best influence in South Carolina came from the Calvinists of France. William Penn was the disciple of the Huguenots; the ships from Holland that first brought colonists to Manhattan were filled with Calvinists. He that will not honor the memory, and respect the influence of Calvin, knows but little of the origin of American liberty.[2]

But this is not all. Bancroft’s assessment is based upon an intimate knowledge of the intellectual and religious culture of that time. Consider:

  1. The founders of the three main settlements, Jamestown, Plymouth and Massachusetts, were creedal Calvinists.
  2. The Huguenot settlers in the South, the German Reformed of the middle colonies and the Dutch of New York were all Calvinists.
  3. In 1787, the number of Calvinist churches (of one stripe or another) in America ranged from 60-80% (Religion and the American Experiment, Witte, 120)
  4. Many state legislatures (especially in the populous New England region) enacted yearly election day sermons with a minister preaching before the political body—and “artillery sermons” for the militia.
  5. The most popular school book for 100 years, The New England Primer, contained one or two catechisms, Cotton Mather’s and the Westminster Shorter Catechism—both Calvinistic!
  6. Many books bought and sold in Colonial America were Reformed: Jonathan Edwards, Whitefield or the famous poem, The Day of Doom—a popular book for 100 years.
  7. Many state legislatures (and the national body) called for days of fasting and prayer in the Calvinistic language of Providence:[3]

“…it becomes the indispensable duty of these hitherto free and happy colonies, with true penitence of heart, and the most reverent devotion, publickly to acknowledge the over ruling providence of God; to confess and deplore our offences against him;… Desirous, at the same time, to have people of all ranks and degrees duly impressed with a solemn sense of God's superintending providence, and of their duty, devoutly to rely...on his aid and direction and…through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain his pardon and forgiveness; humbly imploring his assistance to frustrate the cruel purposes of our unnatural enemies; and by inclining their hearts to justice and benevolence…” Continental Congress, March, 1776.

In a letter dated Oct, 31, 1776, Rev. Inglis, rector of Trinity Church, New York, wrote to fellow Anglican leaders:

I have it from good authority that the Presbyterian ministers, at a synod where most of them in the middle colonies were collected, passed a resolve to support the continental congress in all their measures. This and this only can account for the uniformity of their conduct; for I do not know one of them, nor have I been able, after strict inquiry, to hear of any, who did not, by preaching and every effort in their power, promote all the measures of the congress, however extravagant.[4]

That resolve was enacted on May 20, 1775. The Presbyterian Synod (Calvinists one and all) was the first religious body to send a public letter in favor of the war.

Historian James G. Leyburn, of Washington & Lee University, wrote a book on the Scotch-Irish and summarized it in an essay in the:[5]

…Scottish Presbyterianism was unique in its intensity, even in those religious days...A Hessian captain wrote in 1778, ‘Call this war by whatever name you may, only call it not an American rebellion; it is nothing more or less than a Scotch Irish Presbyterian rebellion.’ King George was reported to have characterized the Revolution as ‘a Presbyterian war,’ and Horace Walpole told Parliament that ‘there is no use crying about it. Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson, and that is the end of it.’…Such testimony to enthusiasm for the American cause was not given to any other group of immigrants."

[1] A History of the United States, vol. 1 (New York: Harper & Brothers), 464.

[2] Literary and Historical Miscellanies, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1855), 405-406.

[3] “In theology, the care and superintendence which God exercises over his creatures. He that acknowledges a creation and denies a providence, involves himself in a palpable contradiction; for the same power which caused a thing to exist is necessary to continue its existence. Some persons admit a general providence,but deny a particular providence, not considering that a general providence consists of particulars. A belief in divine providence, is a source of great consolation to good men. By divine providence is often understood God himself.” Webster’s 1828 Dictionary.

[4] Historical Notices of the Missions of the Church of England in the North American Colonies, Ernest Hawkins, (London, 1845), 329.

[5] “The Scotch-Irish. The Melting Pot: The ethnic group that blended,” American Heritage Magazine Dec. 1970, online.

[Next: More Religion & Politics]