Friday, September 18, 2009

Year of Calvinism: Consequences I

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

Ideas have consequences. And these consequences are the fruits of history.

What has the history of Western Civilization taught the modern and postmodern man? Not much.
What has this same history taught many in the church? Very little it seems.

The reason for this is likely to be found in the wide-spread ignorance of such God-glorifying history. Americans especially are a-historical or even anti-history. Do we not make our own future? Why listen to the past?

Yet if ideas have consequences then history does have something to teach us. And in this Year of Calvinism it has much to teach the American churches. For Calvinism not only helped break the back of the Romish church (along side her Lutheran brethren), she became the ground-swell for political and social renewal.

Historically, the modern world--Modernity--began with the Reformation. Now more historians are publicly acknowledging what their older predecessors already knew: the substantive impact of Calvinism in history.

One recent book, The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe (Gorski), is an in-depth analysis of the social and political fortunes of two 17th-century European countries mostly influenced by Calvinists: Holland & Prussia. His understated conclusion is that the self- and communal-discipline (and theological underpinnings) of Calvinism greatly sustained and strengthened the cultural and political dimensions of these nations.

Another book, The Covenant Connection: From Federal Theology to Modern Federalism, is a collection of essays from various university professors exploring the Protestant roots of the modern democracies. It is Calvinism in particular that propagated the covenant idea as a social tool for greater good. From resistance to tyrants to state constitutions, the Reformers and their offspring substantially originated and expanded economical, social and political freedoms.

More significantly is the overwhelming acknowledgment that doctrine played a more significant role in the development of the modern era than previously admitted. Naturally, Christians should already believe that. In particular, the Reformational doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone on account of Christ alone was the pivot upon which societies moved from Medieval death to modern life.

Wherever man is the question of his individual standing before the Judge of the universe is forefront. How can I be saved? is the perennial question of the ages. Is salvation through law--mine, God's, the state's--or through faith? If the former, then wherever I am in life I turn that work or thought into an idol to save me. If the latter, then wherever I am in life I turn over to the Lord.

That is why the doctrine of salvation is so crucial: whatever man is doing right now will be impacted by his view of salvation. And that includes economics, science and politics...

“It is into Calvinism that the Modern world strikes its roots. For it is Calvinism which first reveals the dignity and worth of man. Called of God, heir of heaven, the merchant in his shop and the peasant in his field suddenly became the equal of noble and king."
John Richard Green, History of the English People

The famous German economist, Max Weber, proposed the connection between Christianity and Free Market labor almost one hundred years ago in The Protestant Ethic & the Spirit of Capitalism. In particular, he noted the industriousness of the Puritans (Calvinists one and all) as an incentive that helped fuel Capitalism. Their sense of Christian vocation for any lawful endeavor in life coupled with their sobriety, thrift, stewardship and high ethics contributed greatly.

Furthermore, the Reformers allowed the proper use of interest for money (contrary to Romish practice) and the accumulation of wealth for families and their children’s children. This further stimulated capitalism.

"Without question, the doctrine of Calvin, in so far as it concerns lending at interest, ran counter to the doctrine of the Catholic Church. This was because Calvin did not believe in barriers between the spiritual and the temporal: he considered work and the serious exercise of a profession as praiseworthy, and therefore accepted the acquisition of riches as legitimate…" (Sée, Modern Capitalism)

Since the kingdom of God was wherever the Christian’s vocation in life was, those lawful activities of work and recreation were sanctified unto God. Wealth was not wrong if used for God. Even with no biblical guarantee of prosperity, the believer knew that the biblical ideals of hard work and thrift generally lead to plenitude. With an increase in money help for the poor increased. They were simultaneously providing for their family and loving their neighbor.

Historian, Lewis Spitz summarized thusly:

“…by instilling into the laboring classes a view of life that raises work from drudgery to a source of self-respect, Protestantism and especially Calvinism helped to build up a group of productive and reliable people, a solid base for a capitalistic society.” (The Renaissance & Reformation Movements, Vol. II, p. 557)

The believer was economically free.

[Recent books include:
The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism
The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe
Revolution & Religion: American Revolutionary War & the Reformed Clergy
The Covenant Connection: From Federal Theology to Modern Federalism
Law & Revolution II: The Impact of the Protestant Reformation on the Western Legal Tradition ]

(read more here)

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