America's Debt to John Calvin
In this year of John Calvin’s 500th birthday, I don’t know of a better place to read about his impact on America than Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism given at Princeton Seminary in October 1898. Kuyper was a pastor, a journalist, the founder of the Free University of Amsterdam, and Prime Minister of the Netherlands.
John Calvin and Martin Luther were the twin pillars of the Protestant Reformation. Why do fewer people speak of Luther’s culture-shaping impact on America, but for centuries Calvin has been seen in this light? Kuyper argues,
Luther’s starting–point was the . . . principle of justifying faith; while Calvin’s . . . lay in the general cosmological principle of the sovereignty of God. . . . [Hence] Lutheranism restricted itself to an exclusively ecclesiastical and theological character, while Calvinism put its impress in and outside the Church upon every department of human life.
It is the personal pervasiveness of God’s sovereignty that makes all the difference. This means that “the whole of a man’s life is to be lived as in the Divine Presence.” This “fundamental thought of Calvinism” shaped all of life. “It is from this mother-thought that the all-embracing life system of Calvinism sprang.”
For example, Calvin’s doctrine of “vocation” follows from the fact that every person, great and small, lives “in the Divine Presence.” God’s sovereign purposes govern the simplest occupation. He attends to everyone’s work. This yielded the Protestant work ethic. Huge benefits flow from a cultural shift in which all work is done earnestly and honestly with an eye to God.
Or consider how Calvinism breathed an impulse of freedom into modern history. The decisive principle was
the sovereignty of the Triune God over the whole Cosmos, in all its spheres and kingdoms, visible and invisible. A primordial Sovereignty which eradicates in mankind . . . a threefold . . . supremacy, viz., (1) the sovereignty of the State; (2) the sovereignty in Society; and (3) the sovereignty in the Church.
God’s sovereign claim on every person and every sphere of society relativized all other claims. It began with the churches.
The sovereignty of Christ remains absolutely monarchical, but the government of the Church on earth becomes democratic to its bones and marrow. . . No church may exercise any dominion over another, but . . . all local churches are of equal rank.
This impulse of freedom spread to the political sphere. Calvin and his heirs had a strong predilection for republican government—and an aversion to monarchy. A benevolent dictatorship would be ideal in a sinless world. But in a sinful world, it brings the horrors of tyranny. “Call to mind . . . that Calvinism has captured and guaranteed to us our constitutional civil rights.”
We ask: Why then did Calvin endorse the death of Servetus for heresy? How was this part of his liberating impulse? Kuyper’s answer is helpful.
I not only deplore that . . . I unconditionally disapprove of it; yet not as if it were the expression of a special characteristic of Calvinism, but on the contrary as the fatal after-effect of a system, grey with age, which Calvinism found in existence, under which it had grown up, and from which it had not yet been able entirely to liberate itself.
A thousand years of abuses are not thrown off overnight. But the impulses of liberty, flowing from the decisive principle of the all-embracing sovereignty of God, proved to be unstoppable. “Calvinism has liberated Switzerland, the Netherlands, and England, and in the Pilgrim Fathers has provided the impulse to the prosperity of the United States.”
Kuyper closed his lectures with a claim that for many today sounds preposterous. Do not write him off. Get the book Lectures on Calvinism, and test these words, spoken to Americans in 1898.
In the rise of your university education . . .; in the decentralized . . . character of your local governments; . . . in your championship of free speech, and in your unlimited regard for freedom of conscience; in all this . . . it is demonstrable that you owe this to Calvinism and to Calvinism alone.
(Originally published in World Magazine)