Viewing Calvin at the Bottom of a Deep Well

from May 06, 2009 Category: Articles

The nineteenth-century Roman Catholic theologian George Tyrrell once criticized Adolf von Harnack’s liberal view of Jesus in these now famous words: “The Christ that Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.” In other words, nineteenth-century liberals projected their own values and ideals onto Jesus and then used this man-made Jesus to support those values and ideals.

Apparently, Jesus is not the only one who can be created in the image of man. The May 4 issue of USA Today, carried an opinion piece by Rev. Henry Brinton titled “Calvin Saw This Coming.” The subtitle reads: “The Protestant Reformer, born 500 years ago, could teach us a thing or two about fiscal idolatry, diplomacy and democracy. But would we listen?”

Brinton begins by saying that Calvin “could have seen the global financial meltdown coming from a mile — or mere centuries — away” because he knew human weaknesses. An interesting premise, but how is Brinton going to argue his case? Well, he doesn’t. Instead, he proceeds to recreate Calvin in his own image.  

First, he claims, “we are entering a Calvinistic period in American life, one that is falling into line with the insights and innovations of Calvin.” This alone should raise eyebrows. What exactly is there in contemporary American life that would suggest we are entering a “Calvinistic period”? What would define such a period? Calvin’s primary concerns were the right worship of God and the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Is there any evidence that America, as a whole, is entering a period that is falling into line with these concerns? No. So what does Brinton mean by this claim?

Brinton writes, “Calvin was interested in a wide range of issues far beyond the walls of the church, and his ideas reshaped the economic, political and educational life of the Western world. His perspective can benefit us today, in this time of political change and economic crisis.” It is true that Calvin was concerned with issues beyond the walls of the church, but these were not his primary concerns.  

Brinton writes, “By calling for Christians to live frugal, disciplined and simple lives, he helped foster savings — a message that is once again resonating today.” Calvin did call Christians to live frugal, disciplined and simple lives, but this is hardly distinctive of Calvinism, Max Weber notwithstanding.  

So where is Brinton going with this? He continues, “[Calvin] encouraged people to seek the public good in their economic lives, not just private gains.” Therefore, Brinton concludes, “Clearly, Calvin would not have been opposed to increased regulation of the banks and brokerage firms that have caused financial ruin for so many.” Now things are becoming clearer. Calvin, we see, would have supported Brinton’s particular economic policies. Convenient.

This is not all, however. “Another Calvinistic priority was vigorous education of the young, which is a critical priority in establishing a foundation for sustained economic growth.” Calvin supported vigorous education, primarily, in order that believers might be able to read and understand Scripture, not in order to establish a foundation for sustained economic outgrowth. That may have been a byproduct of such education, but it was not Calvin’s primary concern.  

Brinton then quotes Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, who says, “In a time in which women weren’t even supposed to read, Calvin had the courage to imagine them not only as educated citizens, but also as religious and political leaders. Unfortunately, his thinking is ahead of some of our churches, even today.” Here is historical revisionism with a vengeance. Calvin believed that Scripture forbids women to teach in the church (Institutes IV. 10. 29). He didn’t imagine women as religious leaders. Whether one disagrees with Calvin or not is irrelevant to the point I want to make, namely, that Brinton (and Serene Jones) are projecting their views back onto Calvin.

It gets better. Brinton writes, “In ethics, Calvin was not comfortable making sharp pronouncements about good and evil.” Either Brinton has not read very much of Calvin, or the blinders are on so tight that he cannot understand what he has read. Calvin was not remotely hesitant to make ethical pronouncements about what is good and what is evil. Even a cursory reading of his theological works, commentaries, letters, tracts, and sermons will reveal this fact.

So why would Brinton make such an assertion? He writes, “Political talk of an “evil empire” or an “axis of evil” would have struck him as overly simplistic, since he believed that sin corrupts every person, community and nation on earth. He realized that all people were good and valuable, but also distorted and dangerous.” Here Brinton implies that Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity combined with his view of man as created in the image of God would have caused him to condemn President Bush’s rhetoric as “overly simplistic.” These sentences reveal a lot about Brinton’s political views, but they are useless for understanding Calvin’s views. Calvin again is being enlisted into a contemporary political cause.

Brinton concludes with this statement: “It’s hard to say whether a Calvinistic revival in American life can provide us with the inspiration we need to rise out of our troubles. But given the positive impact that John Calvin has had on much of our history, I’m willing to put some faith in the old man.”

The problem with this statement is that Brinton sees America’s “troubles” as fundamentally economic and political, and he equates a “Calvinistic revival” with economic, political, and educational progressivism. Our problem, however, is sin, and the solution is the Gospel. Calvin knew this. It was the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and Him crucified, not the proclamation of progressive economic and political policies, that resulted in the sixteenth-century Reformation of the Church.  

Brinton seems to think that stricter banking regulations, increased ethical ambiguity, and the election of Barak Obama indicate that we are entering a Calvinistic period in America’s life. Frankly, this makes about as much sense as saying that the election of John McCain and the triumph of Apple in the Mac/PC wars would have indicated that we are entering a Wesleyan period of America’s life. A Calvinistic period of America’s life would be characterized by repentance for sin, faith in Jesus Christ, and a concern for the right worship of our God. I see precious little of these in this country at the present time.

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