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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Calvinism’

- - Wednesday, December 11, 2013

CALVINISM: A HISTORY
By D.G. Hart
Yale University Press, $35, 352 pages

In "Calvinism: A History," D.G. Hart, a professor of history at Hillsdale College, traces a half-millennium of Reformed Protestantism from its European roots to its now-global presence. He shows how Protestantism's fissiparous nature has allowed it to adapt and, in some instances, transmogrify to fit local and personal needs.

Mr. Hart identifies three types of church communions that currently exist under the Reformed banner: The first group embraces a personal experience of saving grace. The second group has a worldly agenda that emphasizes the social gospel. The last group, the neoconservatives, adhere more closely to Calvin's theology as it is found in his "Institutes of the Christian Religion" (1536).

John Calvin (1509-64) was the central figure in promoting the theology and organizational structure of Reformed Protestantism. Briefly stated, Calvin asserted the sufficiency of Scripture for our salvation and that our justification comes through the shedding of the blood of Christ. He condemned the papal assemblies since, he said, the Word of God is banished from them. Consistent with these beliefs, Mr. Hart, in a somewhat biased remark, says, "Protestants made the sermon the heart of worship both to reflect the importance of Scripture and to supply needed instruction to Christians, whom the Roman church had neglected through its preoccupation on separation from the world and its insistence on the Mass as the centerpiece of worship."

Calvinism presumed a church closely allied with the state in order to create a godly people. Calvin's theocratic city of Geneva was his ideal. This church-state relationship enabled autonomy from papal control. It also permitted local princes to establish political hegemony in their states. The formulary "Cuius regio, eius religio" (whose region, his religion), worked out in the Peace of Augsburg (1555) between Catholic and Lutheran princes, set the pattern for religious diversity in Germany, Switzerland and the Low Countries. Calvinism's appeal to personal holiness also enabled it to spread to Scotland and England.

Initially, Reformed Protestantism did not anticipate missionary efforts. The spread of Calvinism came about first by people desiring to escape religious persecution. For example, the Pilgrims and the Puritans emigrated to America, transplanting their faith in the New World. Later, with the growth of commerce and colonial expansion, Reformed churches spread rapidly to the Far East and South Africa. Mr. Hart contends that missionary societies were an afterthought. He writes that "churches sponsored missionaries reluctantly. Prior to the late eighteenth century, Christian missions were invariably an offshoot of colonialism."

Two strains of Reformed Protestantism have gained high visibility in modern times: Enthusiasm and the social gospel.

The first theological phenomenon that divided some of the Reformed churches was Enthusiasm. It appeared prominently in America during the First Great Awakening (1737-43). It lent itself to an individual experience of faith through a personal enlightenment by the Holy Spirit. Mr. Hart says, "Over the course of the 1730s these revivals divided Presbyterians, Reformed Protestants and Congregationalists. The chief point of division was the relationship between the subjective and objective, or internal and external aspects of the gospel and Christian duty."

Further, he says,"Adding to the dispute was the revivalists' refusal to obey synodical rulings in favor of their own direct calling by the Holy Spirit."

Mr. Hart shows how this type individualistic faith of experience continues to have rapid growth in emerging nations, especially in Africa and South America.

The second group promoted the social gospel, which called for all Protestant denominations to work together for the good of society. Its strong influence grew when some churches began to combat social ills such as slavery and poverty during the 18th century. The social gospel had broad political implications. For example, President Woodrow Wilson, a devout Presbyterian, felt a religious obligation to promote Progressive legislation based on its principles. A recent biographer of his says that "he approached his office as evangel in chief." Wilson himself said, "There must be heart in a government. There must be a heart in the politics of government, and men must look to it that they do unto others as they would have others do unto them."

The above variations in Reformed Protestantism have often lent themselves to a dilution of orthodox Calvinist doctrine. Attempts at theological restoration have been made by neo-orthodox theologians such as Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) and Karl Barth (1886-1968). However, their impact has been minimal.

Kuyper insisted that both ministers and church members adhere to the Reformed confessions. Barth tried to extricate the church from serving the affairs of nations. He declared that the "wholly otherness of the kingdom of God" was impossible to overemphasize. "The kingdom of God is the kingdom of God," he asserted. "The new Jerusalem has not the least to do with the new Switzerland and the revolutionary state of the future; it comes to earth in God's great freedom, when the time has arrived."

Calvin's contribution to Western civilization is undeniable. The influence of Reformed churches are responsible for enabling democratic processes, cooperation among Christians, for alleviating social problems and for leading people to personal holiness.

For this, the world owes a debt to Calvin and the other Reformers.

As John T. McNeill, Calvin's first chronicler, so aptly said: "We, and all the world of the twentieth century, are peculiarly the creatures and heirs of a handful of geniuses of early modern Europe, for it was they who defined the peculiar and distinctive bent of European, presently of Western, and now to a very substantial degree, of world civilization."

The Rev. Michael P. Orsi is chaplain and research fellow in law and religion at Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Fla.