Ordained Servant Online
Calvin's Doctrine of the State
Richard M. Gamble
Calvin's Doctrine of the State: A Reformed Doctrine and Its American Trajectory, the Revolutionary War, and the Founding of the Republic, by Mark J. Larson. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009, xvii + 129 pages, $18.00, paper.
Would John Calvin have blessed the American Revolution and the Framers' Constitution? Mark Larson suggests that the great Reformer would have given his benediction. To be sure, Larson only implies this question in Calvin's Doctrine of the State and never makes it clear just what is at stake in finding the link between the U.S. and the French theologian. Nevertheless, he claims to see Calvin's "long shadow" and "legacy" in the achievement of James Madison and his generation.
Larson devotes the majority of his book not to America but to absolving Calvin of responsibility for the emergence of modern theocracy and for the brutal holy wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He uses Calvin's Institutes, sermons, and commentaries to reintroduce modern Americans to a cautious and nuanced theologian who favored mixed regimes of limited power and who stood firmly within the just war tradition of Augustine and Aquinas. Larson's Calvin, though in some ways a forerunner of later political liberalism, emerges here as more of a medieval thinker in matters of statecraft and warfare, a man still attached to the medieval unities of the Christian commonwealth. Calvin clearly had no inkling of the challenges of religious pluralism to come.
To Larson's credit, he reminds us of the complexity of the real Calvin as opposed to the diabolical cartoon figure of too many simple-minded textbooks. This brief and accessible book should send careful students of the Reformation and of modern political theory back to Calvin's own writings and back to those classical thinkers, medieval theologians, and Renaissance humanists who shaped his thought. Overall, however, Calvin's Doctrine of the State fails to live up to the promise of its title and subtitle. Its treatment of Calvin's political theology ends up being rather sketchy and oddly repetitive. Larson allows assertions about Calvin and his contemporaries to substitute for the painstaking work of historical demonstration. And, despite the American flag on the front cover and the expectations set by the subtitle, the book devotes only one of its six chapters to the American founding, and that chapter runs rapidly over the surface of one of the most difficult episodes in the nation's history.
A few strategies would have strengthened the book's argument considerably. First, Larson needed to map out clear definitions of both theocracy and holy war. These loaded and contested ideas remain too nebulous throughout the book. Second, the standard views of Calvin that he seeks to refute needed a fair and adequate hearing. Aside from a few comments confined largely to footnotes, Larson never sets forth the best of his opponents' arguments. If these scholars have misconstrued the evidence, then those failings need to be exposed and corrected in some detail. Third, Larson ought to have distinguished between political institutions as they exist on paper and the behavior of real men within those institutions. It is not enough, say, to show what Geneva's Ecclesiastical Ordinances prescribed and forbade. More telling is how pastors and magistrates actually wielded power within that system day by day. Theory and practice end up entwined in historical experience.
Of more serious concern, Larson never delivers on his promise to show the "trajectory" from Calvin to the American Founding. Such a connection may well have been present in the minds of the nation's forebears, but Larson asks his reader to take late eighteenth-century America's debt to the Reformation more on faith than sight. He offers plausible similarities, not a historical chain of influences, linking Geneva to Philadelphia. A better strategy might have been for Larson to watch Calvin's political theology play itself out closer to his own time and place, say in John Knox's Scotland or through a more thorough explication of what happened in Calvin's own Geneva. The possible connections to colonial America seemed needlessly forced in Larson's analysis. Indeed, the very passage from the Institutes that he relies on the most (4.20.8) to show Calvin's preference for republicanism over monarchy advises bluntly against changing regime types and defends God's wisdom in providing a diversity of governments suited to circumstances, concluding that "it is our duty to show ourselves compliant and obedient to whomever he sets over the places where we live." To be sure, Calvin's reading of Scripture and political theory provides for resistance to tyrants. But the line from Calvin to the American Revolution is neither as straight or obvious as Larson assumes.
Above all, Calvin's doctrine of the state ought to be placed in tension with other parts of his theology. No author can be or needs to be comprehensive, but a somewhat different Calvin emerges if we look at him not as an anticipation of an America distant in time and place that he could not have imagined existing, but rather in light of his larger theology of the Christian's primary identity not as a citizen of an earthly kingdom but as a pilgrim and sojourner in a strange land. In his commentary on 1 Peter 2:11-12, Calvin reminds God's people that "wherever they may go on the earth [they] are only guests in this world." Nowhere in Larson's treatment of Calvin does this biblical and Augustinian perspective come through.
The Calvin who feared royal absolutism and articulated a defense of limited warfare needs to be better known to modern audiences. To his credit, Mark Larson has taken a step in recovering the real Calvin who labored as a pastor and theologian half a millennium ago during one of the most turbulent times of political and religious transformation in all of European history. The Reformed community today would do well to reacquaint itself with the fruit of Calvin's extensive meditations on church, state, and war.
Richard M. Gamble
Ordained Servant November 2009.