Natural Rights and the Calvinist Political Tradition (1)

In the last couple decades, many scholars have recognized the contribution of Calvinist theologians and political theorists to the formulation of natural rights. Prior to this, largely due to Leo Strauss, Calvinists were lumped in with the pre-modern notions of objective natural rights. These, according to Strauss,

…are doctrines [that] taught the duties of man; if they paid any attention at all to his rights, they conceived them as essentially derivative from his duties.[1]

Natural rights in its classic form is connected with a teleological view of the universe. All natural beings have a natural end, a natural destiny, which determined what kind of operation is good for them.[2]

According to Strauss, in the 17th and 18th centuries there was a “shift” from an emphasis on “natural duties to natural rights.”[3] These are “subjective” rights: “the inherent claim that an individual has to various natural goods like life, liberty, and property.”[4] This shift came from unorthodox Enlightenment thinkers, not the religious orthodox. This view is the Enlightenment origin of Western rights.

In an important work, John Witte, professor of Law at Emory University, questions that claim. Including many contemporary Calvinists among the “Straussian” perspective, he writes,

One of those circles [i.e., those who claim the Enlightenment origin position], ironically, is that of conservative Protestantism. Many conservative Calvinists and other Protestants today still view human rights with suspicion, if not derision. Some view human rights as part and product of dangerous [Roman] Catholic natural law theories that Calvinists have always purportedly rejected. More view human rights as a dangerous invention of the Enlightenment, predicated on a celebration of reason over revelation, of greed over charity, of nature over Scripture, of the individual over the community, of the pretended sovereignty of man over the absolute sovereignty of God. These critics view the occasional discussions of natural law and rights in Calvin and other early reformers as a scholastic expunge from the tradition. At a certain level of abstraction, this conservative Protestant critique of human rights coincides with certain streaks of “Straussian” historiography about the Enlightenment origin of rights. Various Straussians dismiss premodern Christian rights talk as a betrayal of the Enlightenment. Various Protestants dismiss modern Enlightenment rights talk as a betrayal of Christianity.

Whatever the philosophical and theological merits of these respective positions might be, the historical reading and narrative that support them can no longer be sustained. Not just by my account. A whole cottage industry of important new scholarship has now emerged to demonstrate that there was ample “liberty before liberalism,” and that there were many human rights in place before there were modern democratic revolutions fought in their name. Indeed, it is now quite clear that the Enlightenment was not so much a wellspring of Western rights as a watershed in a long stream of rights thinking that began more than a millennium before. A comprehensive history of Western rights is still very much a work in progress today, with many serious scholars still discovering and disputing in earnest the basic roots and route of development. But broad outline of the story of the development of Western rights is becoming clearer. In that emerging story, both the Reformation and the Enlightenment have an important place, but only in later chapters. Both these two movements presupposed and built on critical rights developments in classical Rome and in medieval Catholic Europe. Indeed, leaders of both the Reformation and the Enlightenment inherited many more rights and liberties than they invented. While they certainly made their own original and critical rights contributions, too, what Protestant theologians and Enlightenment philosophers contributed more than anything were new theoretical frameworks that eventually widened these traditional rights formulations into a set of universal claims that were universally applicable to all.  (pg. 22-23)

The importance of natural law and natural rights in the Reformed tradition has been made profoundly clear by David VanDrunen (here) and Stephen J Grabill (here). Though VanDrunen’s understanding of the two kingdoms and other aspects of Calvinists political theory has been definitively challenged (notably by the writers at The Calvinist International), he rightly states that “the early Reformed tradition, drawing from and building upon important strands of patristic and medieval theology, developed clear and interconnected categories of natural law and the two kingdoms that played a foundational role in it social thought.”[5] It is time for Calvinists today to recognize the importance of natural law and reason in the political and social realms. There is a rich body of Reformed thought that seems to have been forgotten, and it is now resurfacing. Those who question the two kingdom doctrine need not reject the WSC’s (Westminster Seminary California) subject matter, only their faulty interpretations of it.

The fact is that Reformed theologians and political theorist took great stock in natural law and reason for ordering society and politics. See my article on John Witherspoon (here). They were political conservatives by medieval standards, as I argued concerning Calvin (here and here). Their (and especially Calvin’s) relationship to the Enlightenment is a tricky subject, and I’m more inclined to widely separate the two. But the contribution of Reformed theologians and political theorists to a pre-existing theory of natural rights is undeniable.

In the coming, months I hope to post more from Witte’s work.

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[1] Natural Rights and History, 182.

[2] Ibid, 7.

[3] Ibid, 182.

[4] John Witte, Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism, 21.

[5] Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought, 15. Of course, what he precisely means by this is flawed, but he is generally correct.

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