A Review of `Calvin in the Public Square: Liberal Democracies, Rights, and Civil Liberties`
David W. Hall, Pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA), Powder Springs, Georgia. He produced this volume for the 500th centenary of Calvin’s birth in 2009.
Calvin in the Public Square: Liberal Democracies, Rights, and Civil Liberties, by David W. Hall. Published by Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2009.
Reviewed by Dr. Clay Quarterman, PhD, Evangelical Reformed Seminary of Ukraine
This book is not about war, but about the development of the Reformed views of the relation of the believer and the state, of the Christian ethic of statehood, and of the proper role of government. The Reformers’ theological views raised practical questions: What difference does it make that there is a Sovereign God and a sinful Mankind? What difference does this understanding make for the rulers and for those who are ruled? How can we glorify God in every part of life, including political life and political power?
Most relevant to our current situation in Ukraine is that it addresses the issue of the proper submission to government, and how the Reformers variously addressed the issues of the overthrow of tyrants, the definition of tyranny, active resistance, etc.
It shows clearly that what drove the Reformers in their day was not popular uprisings and mob rule such as the Munster Rebellion, for the early reformers opposed individual resistance and anarchy. Nor were the Reformers dictators or theocrats. Neither were the Calvinists driven by mere self-preservation nor providing justification for government to promote their own religion. The whole movement was driven from a new approach to Scripture via a Reformed hermeneutic -- a new understanding of all of scripture, in both Testaments. It is clearly shown that the earliest Reformed writings touching politics were expositions and commentaries – mostly from the OT.
Some Christians in Ukraine try to justify pacifism by a New Testament hermeneutic, asking believers merely to suffer persecution at the hands of tyrants. This book challenges such a view, showing that the Reformers considered it our New Testament duty to overthrow tyrants under certain conditions. It shows equally that the Reformers came reluctantly to such a conclusion, and that the Calvinists not only created a new movement within the church, but that they “laid the foundations” for a dialogue of democracy in the Public Square.
Many have written apologies for a “Christian America”, but Hall’s work is no such historical defense. Hall merely shows the development of political theory among Calvinists, showing the resulting influence of this theory which “created a new trajectory of political discourse” in the modern world (p. 3).
In a scholarly manner, Hall gives the proper place to previous works on the subject, showing he is familiar with their labor and opinions. (Footnote number one contains a veritable bibliography on the subject!) Hall shows how Calvin built on the shoulders of previous writers, tracing many concepts back to Augustine and to the Romans and Greeks. Hall gives due attention to pre-Reformation roots in the Magna Carta, feudalism, the Helvetic Confederation, and other developments in France, England, and Rome. These make all the clearer the profound influence of Calvinism across Europe and beyond.
Hall places Calvin in his proper context, historically and culturally, showing the changes taking place across Europe during the Reformation. He shows the interplay between the reformers: Beza, Luther, Zwingli, etc., showing how their constant interchanges led to many points in common. Hall makes clear what foundations belong properly to Calvin, what may have influenced him to such opinions, and what developments came after Calvin which built upon his foundations.
Calvin began a movement that would carry his name and his imprint, not only in theology but in politics and culture. It became a tidal wave that not only changed Western Culture and Western politics, but continues to influence political discourse in the modern world. He exerted a moral influence in Geneva that would permanently change its politics and become a model for the world. Geneva became what is still the oldest continuing democratic republic in the world (p. 72). The Genevan model was shown to be no mere experiment, but a quite workable solution of human government in a sinful world.
Hall does not cast Calvin as a politician, political activist, or political theorist, but clearly presents him as the theologian and biblical interpreter he was, a man who put feet to his theology – having a moral influence in all the courts of his day through his correspondence and counsel, training up that generation in a biblical activism. Calvinism was an active theology, beginning in the private prayer closet with open Bible and in lively concourse with the Sovereign God, then moving outward to apply a godly worldview in a thoroughgoing Reformation of church and state, applying it boldly and fearlessly to the issues of its day.
This book is not an apology for Democracy or for any other form of human government, but it reveals the gradual understanding of the reformed theological foundations undergirding a proper church/state relationship. They felt that not only Christians, but all men, should understand the proper use of power and the blessing of order in a fallen world.
This book doesn’t plow new ground, but it is a helpful and balanced summary of the developments leading up to and following Calvin, showing the key contributions of Calvin in the Providential developments of western political science and movements. Hall gives proper place to the long train of Reformers: Viret, Bucer, Bullinger, Ponet, Goodman, Vermigli, Hotman, Beza, Mornay, Buchanan, Daneau, Knox, and Althusius. But this book shows that Calvin’s activity and his approach were key, laying foundations and opening new paths to the centuries that followed. His influence continues to be felt, and Hall traces the path up to van Prinsterer, Kuyper and Dooyeweerd.
One might consider the central figure in this book to be Calvin, but that is to overlook the Calvinists’ own central tenet, that Jesus is not only Head of the Church, but the Supreme Ruler of All Mankind. It is Christ who gives the sword to church and state. As the Covenanters would later claim, we must struggle for Christ’s Crown and Covenant in both church and state, since all power on heaven and earth has been given to him.
This book is strong meat, assuming a prior understanding of theology and political science. Yet, it is very much worth studying in depth – including all the copious and helpful footnotes. I found it one of the most helpful books on the subject, showing the clear relationship of the theology of the Reformation to our understanding of government, helping Christians distinguish our culturally-determined political views from our understanding of Christian duty.