Calvin and Winthrop Between the Ages: Medievalism, Hierarchy, and Modernity (Part 1 of 4)

The following post is Part 1 of a series on Calvinism and Modernity. The first three posts will show that Calvin’s social and political philosophy is conservative by medieval standards, though there are important modifications to medieval thought. Calvin is not the first modern, a proto-modern or the foundation of modern politics, as many have argued.  The fourth post will be an exposition of Winthrop’s famous sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity” (1630). Its content is a clear application of Calvin’s theology to practical social philosophy. (Part 2)


The Reformation’s relationship to modernity remains a much-debated topic. Many claim that the Reformers are responsible for the radicalization of politics, hyper individualism, political revolution, and the “interiorization” of meaning. Others claim that Reformed theology is the basis for religious and political tolerance, liberal democracy, human rights, and equality. Luther and Calvin, of course, are always the chief culprits or champions in this debate. What is often missed though is that neither were theologically, socially, and politically radical; they were consciously conservative and sought to reform the Church back toward catholicity. In political and social philosophy, both Luther and Calvin, despite important theological differences with the medieval church, remained conservative, especially in one crucial respect: they continued to believe that there is a human social hierarchy in God’s created order. Inequality, according to the Reformers, is not a necessary evil, but a display of God’s wisdom in creation.

This essay will analyze Calvin’s theology and show that it is consistently both Protestant and politically and socially conservative by medieval standards. Calvin affirms an equality of persons as image-bearers while also consistently affirming the inequality of social roles in society. There is a tension, in Calvin’s theology, between this world and the world to come. In this world there is social inequality built into the created order, but in the world to come there is complete equality. Put differently, in the earthly kingdom there are roles with superiors and subordinates, but in the spiritual kingdom all are equal in Christ. These two kingdoms exist simultaneously for the believer, yet only one is visual to the senses. And God alone, by grace, will make visible the spiritual kingdom, but not through the efforts of the saints. This tension between the two kingdoms, something that did not exist in medieval thought, has important implications for the activity and obligations of each person in the world. Though it remains conservative, the tension in Calvin’s thought calls for people to treat each other as equal as persons but not in roles. Again, this is a necessary tension given Calvin’s theology, and to collapse it is to undermine his theology. Attempting to “immanentize the eschaton,” as Voegelin famously wrote, cannot be motived by Calvinism; it is a form of Pelagianism. Any such attempt must be at least a corruption of Calvinism.[1]

What becomes apparent in this study is that Calvin’s thought is far from consistent with many modern notions of liberty, tolerance and equality. Nor is it consistent with the “interiorization” of meaning, as claimed by Charles Taylor and others. Calvin is thoroughly conservative by a necessary consequence of his theology, not by any inconsistency or cultural baggage left over from his medieval predecessors. He was not the first modern or a proto-modern. To see Calvin’s social philosophy applied practically, I will exposit Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity.” His sermon consistently and practically applies Calvin’s thought, showing that both are consistently Protestant while also being socially and politically conservative by medieval standards.

Faith and Piety

The sola of the Protestant position sola fide arises from the nature of the fide itself. Faith, according to the Reformers, is not merely an “assent of faith” as an “act of the intellect” toward the “obedience of faith” as Roman Catholics claim. It is not a fides theoretica without fides fiducialis; Faith, according to the Reformers, does not theoretically save you; that is, it does not establish some necessary condition in which one proceeds through the use of ecclesiastical mediation of grace to the meriting of justification. As John Calvin wrote, “Faith then is not a naked knowledge either of God or of his truth; nor is it a simple persuasion that God is, that his word is the truth; but a sure knowledge of God’s mercy, which is received from the gospel, and brings peace of conscience with regard to God, and rest to the mind.” The Apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God” (Roman 5:1). Faith alone justifies, because through faith one trusts that the promises made by God to save his people have been realized, accomplished and applied. This makes the completed reality of God’s salvific promises the objects of faith.

It is through this faith that one has the “eyes” to see spiritual realities. Faith is a form of spiritual sight or perception: knowing that redemption has been accomplished allows one to see, through the eye of faith, this redemption applied. In a state of spiritual agony, the English Puritan John Bunyan wrote of the comfort supplied by the eyes of faith as he saw in heaven the imputation or reckoning of Christ’s righteousness to his account:

This sentence fell upon my soul, Thy righteousness is in heaven; and methought withal, I saw, with the eyes of my soul, Jesus Christ at God’s right hand; there, I say, as my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was a doing, God could not say of me, He wants my righteousness, for that was just before him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse; for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever (Heb 13:8)…. I saw that the man Christ Jesus, as he is distinct from us, as touching his bodily presence, so he is our righteousness and sanctification before God.[2]

This perception by faith is not some beatific vision contained in a dream or from intellectual contemplation. It is theological truth applied in the imagination to see, in the eye of the mind, a glimmer of the future glory. The Puritan poet, Richard Steere, wrote of it as well:

How frequent may we find in Sacred Writ
Metaphors, Similes, Comparison,
Drawn from those Temp’ral Things that are in sight,
To signify to us Heav’ns unseen Glory,
As Riches, Honours, Pleasures, Kingdoms, Crowns,
Speaks to our sense the Highest State of Glory,
By such known Language Heav’n conveys to us,
High Apprehensions of Eternal Bliss.

Faith Exercis’d on these is of such force,
As to present our minds with future things,
Faith Soars aloft, and thence (preventing time)
Descends with Samples of those Joys to come.[3]

Steere writes that by faith we can image “future things” that serve as foretastes of the “joys to come.” Tasting the future glory requires faith in the promises of God. When tasting in faith, our “minds” are able to experience some glimmer of the future. The mind is taken above, not to encounter the essence of God in itself, but to taste the joys of the world to come already established but not yet descended. Exercising faith in the Calvinist theological tradition is not done by seeking an ontological escape or an ontological transcendence of the created order. It is fundamentally eschatological. Calvinist faith is consumed with the “future glory.” To walk by faith is to live eschatologically; it is to “see” by actively imagining of the world to come. In other words, to fully trust the promise that redemption has been accomplished and applied one must not judge by appearances or the current state of things. The eyes of faith are fundamentally imagining that which will be realized in the future. It is Bunyan seeing the light of the Celestial City beaming just over the horizon. To see the beautiful is to see the future glory in the visible; the hidden yet realized divine promises irradiating the finite surface.[4]

An important consequences of justification by faith alone and the Calvinist conception of faith in general is that there is no spiritual hierarchy among the believers. All are equally justified in Christ. Some have progressed further in sanctification, but sanctification cannot merit one eternal life. By faith alone one receives the merit of Christ and is credited the complete satisfaction he once-and-for-all achieved for his people. I will discuss this fundamental equality in more detail below. For now we must recognize that when we combine this fundamental equality with a future-oriented faith, it might seem that this makes earthly hierarchy or inequality utterly arbitrary. In the world to come, there will be (or are) no such distinctions. So if believers are to act in light of the world to come and if each person is fundamentally equal with any other, then all social, economic, political, gender, and familial distinctions should be reformed as well. The chief end of the Calvinist would have to be a radical (and thoroughly modern) form of equality. Calvinism would call for the revolution of the saints.

This potential for radical social change is exacerbated by the Calvinist demand for action. Though faith alone justifies, faith is never alone. Faith and works necessarily go together. The fervor over the antinomian controversies in England and New England show the seriousness of this connection. And since the object of the Calvinist faith is, as Calvin says, that “in the cross the whole world has been renewed and all things restored to good order,”[5] piety cannot be separated from this renewal. As theologian Michael Horton writes:

Medieval piety…points the energetic saint to a life of isolation from the world in meditation upon the eternal Good by transcending the world of appearances. But Reformation piety could not stand in greater contrast. First, it emphasized God’ redemptive activity in history and in the hearing of the gospel, sharply criticizing the Platonized elements of the medieval synthesis, shifting the emphasis from contemplation to action. Second it emphasizes free justification, which freed one from at least the theological motive for serving oneself by serving God and others. If justification before God is already accomplished, God and neighbor are not instrumental to one’s own salvation.[6]

We should notice here that whereas the medieval dualism is vertical, the Reformed duality is horizontal.[7] Medieval piety, according to Horton sought to “transcend the world of appearance.” Reformed piety, in contrast, saw redemption as “in history.” It is necessarily in the world, not an attempt to escape it. Indeed salvation is, in a sense, in the world; for final salvation is made visible in history at the descent of the New Jerusalem. The medieval dualism was the temporal realm and the ontologically higher divine realm. Reformed duality is the temporal world and eternal world to come in history. The difference is that in Reformed theology there is no escape to an encounter with the essence of God; there are glimpses of the future glory in the present. It is horizontal in the sense that one looks forward to historical completion, not upward to an ontological ascent. Another way to look at it is to consider Dante’s ascent toward the Beatific vision of God and Bunyan’s travel toward the Celestial City. Both describe processes of making oneself fitting for their destination, but the former escaped creation while that other never left it.

Despite their disagreements with medieval theology, many Reformers continued to use the Thomistic language of the infusion of holiness into the soul. The Calvinist view of infusion, however, has nothing to do with justification; it has to do only with breaking the power of sin. Thus while the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, which justifies in relation to the legal demands of God’s righteous standard, remains extrinsic to the person, the infusion of holiness to the soul is inherent in the person; and a person who performs good works from this inherent holiness can, in a sense, claim the works as his or her own. The Puritan Robert Traill makes this distinction:

In sanctification the Spirit of God infuses a holiness into the soul….Our [imputed] righteousness is without us; our [infused] holiness is within us, it is our own….It is our own, not originally, but our own inherently; not our own so us to be of our own working, but our own because it is indwelling in us. But our righteousness is neither our own originally nor inherently; it is neither wrought out by us, nor doth it dwell in us; but it is wrought out by Jesus Christ, and it eternally dwells in Him, and is only to be pleaded by faith, by a poor creature. But our holiness, though it be not our own originally, yet it is our own inherently, it dwells in us.[8]

The Calvinists, far from being complacent in the complete satisfaction of God in Christ by faith alone, demanded good works. Indeed, many (if not most) of the early Reformers said that works were the primary means of having assurance that one has justifying faith.[9] The point here is that the Calvinists were serious about fervent devotion to God by the performance of good works. It might seem then that the Calvinist emphasis on equality by faith and fervent works must demand radical social change and radical politics. If all believers are equal in Christ and must be active to accomplish good works in the world and must live in light of the world to come, then should not believers commit themselves to a radical break from the medieval social hierarchy?

The Rejection of the Spiritual Hierarchy

This potential for radical social change is due, in part, to the Reformers’ rejection of the medieval spiritual hierarchy. Many in the middle ages saw the hierarchical structure of society and the Church as part of and a mirror to a greater cosmic hierarchy. “Social inequality,” says Michael Walzer, “was most often described in direct analogy to the cosmic hierarchy.”[10] This cosmic hierarchy is all-inclusive, meaning that, in the words of John Fortescue, “there is nothing which the bond of order does not embrace.” He continues:

In this order angel is set over angel, rank upon rank in the kingdom of heaven; man is set over man, beast over beast, bird over bird, and fish over fish, on the earth, in the air and in the sea: so that there is no worm that crawls upon the ground, no bird that flies on high, no fish that swims in the depths, which the chain of this order does not bind in most harmonious concord…God created as many different kinds of thing as he did creatures, so that there is no creature which does not differ in some respect from all other creatures and by which it is in some respect superior or inferior to all the rest.[11]

Since in medieval thought God created the cosmos with such hierarchy, one would expect that human society reflects this ordering. Walzers says, “The idea could hardly be avoided that such a lesser chain, corresponding to the order to animals and angels, existed among men….Indeed, the feudal hierarchy of status and degree seemed to imitate perfectly the great chain.”[12] The legitimacy of the feudal order relied on the legitimacy of medieval metaphysics.

This classical realist perspective gave rise to a hierarchy of potential spiritual advancement, with some (those with the extraordinary calling, such as the clergy and monks) having a fast-track to salvific merit accumulation, while all others have the slow-track. Those of the lower order were necessarily occupied with the lower things of the cosmos: working, consuming, sex, and all other earthly and mundane things of life. Those of the upper realm were to separate themselves from such distractions. Thomas Aquinas, having the most refined understanding of the medieval synthesis, wrote, “the contemplation of divine truth…is the goal of the whole of human life…[because] the contemplative life is according to what is most proper to man, namely his intellect.”[13] Concerning work, he writes, “The active life impedes the contemplative, because it is impossible for anyone to be involved in external works and at the same time give himself to divine contemplation.”[14] This reflects the platonic influence (usually via Pseudo-Dionysius) on Christian thought. Plato, in Phaedo, has Socrates say, “it is the body and the care of it, to which we are enslaved, which makes us too busy to practice philosophy….if we do not get some respite from it…it prevents us from seeing the truth.”[15] It is only naturally that such a synthesis of classic Greek thought and Christianity would give rise of a spiritual hierarchy with a privileged few having the ability to devote themselves to the “higher” things (i.e., the eternal and the visio beatifica) while the rest, those without the divine vocatio, were left with the “lower” things of life.

In Thomas’ Summa Theologica, he argues that since God’s essence is seen by the intellect, not by the senses, and since some have a greater power or capacity of the intellect (and have more time to devote to it), there in an inequality of apprehending God and, therefore, in the ascent to God (I.12.6). And this hierarchy of intellect is part of the natural “order of charity” in creation, which will “remain in heaven” (II-II.26.13). The social hierarchy endures into heaven. As we will see below, Calvin’s view is that all members of the spiritual kingdom are equal in Christ, and this equality will be finally realized and public in the world to come. Though there is temporal natural hierarchy in the world, there is no spiritual hierarchy in Calvinism.

According to Wolterstorff, the medieval spiritual hierarchy is a hierarchy (or inequality) of persons, not merely of social roles:

You and I, shaped in our thought by the modern world, are prone to misinterpret this picture of society as natural hierarchy. What comes before our minds is the picture of a complex, hierarchical order array of social roles. We then interpret the medieval as claiming that this hierarchical array was God-ordained. But that is not what they [the medievals] were thinking. They were not thinking—first of all, anyway—of social roles and their inequalities; they were thinking of the inequality of the persons playing these roles. It was not the roles but the players in the social drama that they had their eyes on. They were first of all thinking of kings and serfs, not of kingship and serfdom. Some human beings are born to be kings, they thought, as lions are born to be king of the beasts. And some are born to be commoners.[16]


The medievals held not only to a hierarchy of roles—which Calvin (including Winthrop) and those influenced by Puritans (e.g., John Adams) held to—but also a hierarchy of persons corresponding to the hierarchy of roles. This certainly fits Aristotle’s understanding of inferiority. For him, life devoted only to work and the pursuit of pleasure, a life of necessity and utility, is little better than the life of “grazing animals.”[17] Human are “rational animals” and any life without considerable devotion to contemplation for its own sake is an unhuman life. Such a life is slavery and in fact many are “natural slaves,”[18] born fit only for labor. How far this influence went in the medieval synthesis is debatable, and Wolterstorff might be overstating his case. Still, his overstatement contains some truth. It would have been hard not to view the privileged class, with their private Masses and time for leisure and contemplation, as having a type of fundamental superiority conferred upon them by God’s cosmic order.

Charles Taylor calls the clergy/laity distinction that arose a “two-tiered religion” with a “multi-speed system,”[19] and while the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation had projects to correct the most extreme forms of this hierarchy, the central concern of the Protestant Reformation was to break down this dualism entirely. The Reformers argued that “for the saved, God is sanctifying us everywhere, hence also in ordinary life, our work, in marriage, and so on.”[20] For Taylor, this “affirmation of ordinary life” is crucial to understand Western history from at least the Renaissance to the present.[21] The affirmation of domestic concerns and the mundane is natural given the logic of justification by faith alone. In medieval theology (codified later in the Council of Trent), justification is a process of participation in sacraments, and those with the privilege to devote themselves to these means of grace and reduce dependence on the lower (i.e., temporal) things of life are in a position, over and above the rest, to accumulate merit unto justification.

In contrast, according to Taylor, the Protestant Reformers said that complete justification is by faith alone. And since the ability to exercise faith has no relation to some cosmic or natural hierarchy, no person—be it a man or women, rich or poor, slave or magistrate—has any advantage over another due to some accidental feature or station in life. They are all equal members in the spiritual kingdom of Christ. The minister is no more justified than the slave. A ditch-digger’s faithful digging is no less holy than the faithful minister’s sermon. This is why puritan minister, William Perkins, could say, “The action of a shepherd in keeping sheep…is as good a work before God as is the action of a judge in giving sentence, or a magistrate in ruling, or a minister in preaching.” All are equal in Christ by virtue of being united to Christ and having all that is Christ’s already. Since being made right with God is already taken care of by Christ’s righteousness imputed (or reckoned) to a believer, the purpose of worship and sacramental life is not climbing the ladder to eternal salvation, but of performing and experiencing the reality of one’s position in Christ, through the preaching of the Word and receiving of the sacraments, in order to be commissioned to serve God in the world by serving one’s neighbor.

[1] In this essay, I will not go into detail on possible corruptions that occurred later in Protestant political thought. If I did, I would argue that the political thought Hobbes and Locke is fundamentally opposed to Calvin’s social and political philosophy.

[2] John Bunyan, Grace Abounding. Edited by John Stachniewski and Anit Pacheco. Oxford: Oxfod University Press, 229-231.

[3] From his “Earth Felicities, Heavens Allowances” (Lines 450-457, emphasis mine).

[4] We can reject then the oft-repeated claim that the early Calvinists practiced a form of Christian gnosticism that despised human desire, creation, and joy. The Puritans, who are often unfairly derided, feared that enjoyment in the world without considering it in light of the world to come is to lose faith in the promises of God. Comfort in this world leads sinners to think that they are ultimately at home in this world, and if they are home, then the promise of God for a better home is not a promise at all. In effect, by feeling at home in this world one calls God a liar. The Calvinists fear not the world itself but that one’s excessive enjoyment of it will nullify the promises of God, and, in effect, cause one to lose faith. If the promises are null, faith has no object. Faith is then lost. And to lose faith is to fall. This distrust of one’s relationship to the current state of creation is not due to a gnostic-like rejection of creation or the physical, but due to the importance of keeping the mind’s eye on the world to come, the “new creation” where the invisible, seen now by the eye of faith, becomes visible. None of this is due to some inherent deficiency with creation or the non-human natural world, but due only to the fallen nature of each human person. In the world to come, humans will experience creation to its fullest. In the world to come humans will be, according to Bunyan, the “same in nature, though not in corruption.” And with humans, the rest of creation is renewed and brought to perfection.

[5] John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, Vol. XVIII (Edinburgh: Baker Books), 73. Calvin is commenting on John 13:31.

[6] Michael Horton, Covenant and Eschatology (Louisville: Knox Press), 254.

[7] It is problematic to call this precisely a Reformed “dualism.” The Medieval dualisms involves two substances (e.g., nature and grace), but the Reformed involves to intertwined states of creation. In other words, grace renews nature from one state to the other. Grace is not a substance added to nature, but simply divine favor with redemptive effects. So the two state are unredeemed nature and redeemed nature.

[8] See for the text (accessed 12/11/14).

[9] See Mark Jones Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcomed Guest? (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2013), ch. 7.

[10] Michael Walzer The Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics (Cambridge: Harvard Press,1965), 155-156.

[11] Quoted by Nichols Wolterstorff Until Justice and Peace Embrace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1983), 7.

[12]Walzer, 155-156.

[13] Summa II. 2nd, Q. 180, art. 4 and Q. 182, art.1

[14] Summa II. 2nd, Q. 182, art. 3

[15] Phaedo 66b-d

[16] Wolterstorff, 7-8.

[17] Nicomachean Ethics, I.5.

[18] Politics I.v.8

[19] Charles Taylor, Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard Press, 2007), 63.

[20] A Secular Age, 79.

[21] See his Sources of the Self (Cambridge: Harvard Press, 1989), 211-285.

2 replies on “Calvin and Winthrop Between the Ages: Medievalism, Hierarchy, and Modernity (Part 1 of 4)”

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: