Calvin’s Social Agenda

In my previous two posts (here and here), I have quoted from a series of sermons given by Calvin on 1 Corinthian 11:11-16. The sermons shed light on Calvin’s view of social hierarchy, social mobility, and social customs; and he sounds much more medieval than modern. In other posts and using other sources, I have tried to show Calvin’s medievalism (here and here ). In this post, I show that Calvin’s two-kingdom theology, though affirming spiritual equality in the (spiritual) kingdom of God, does not support the “flattening” of social distinctions (that is, the reforming of social hierarchy into social egalitarianism) in the civil realm; nor does it have much room for what we today call “equal opportunity.” At the same time, it does call for what today would be a rather radical social agenda. One could have gathered this from my previous posts, but the sermon I quote below makes it clear.[1] Here is the first part:

Regarding our salvation, and regarding the Kingdom of God (which is spiritual), there is no distinction or difference between man and woman, servant and master, poor and rich, great and small. Nevertheless, there does have to be some order among us, and Jesus Christ did not mean to eliminate it.

This quote resembles a few others in Calvin.

“Besides, political and outward order is widely different from spiritual government.”  (Commentary on Matt. 19:7)

I’ve cited the following a few times and others have used it to show the outward/inward distinction in Calvin’s 2k theology. (Commentary on 1 Cor. 11:3):

[T]here is no difference between the man and the woman, he is treating of Christ’s spiritual kingdom, in which individual distinctions are not regarded, or made any account of; for it has nothing to do with the body, and has nothing to do with the outward relationships of mankind, but has to do solely with the mind — on which account he declares that there is no difference, even between bond and free. In the meantime, however, he does not disturb civil order or honorary distinctions, which cannot be dispensed with in ordinary life.

According to Calvin, the spiritual, inward kingdom of God does not “disturb civil order or honorary distinctions.” The heavenly does not invade the earthly to establish social equality. Justice, then, does not include declaring all social distinctions arbitrary and subject to reformation and destruction, as Michael Walzer and Nicholas Wolterstorff say of Calvin’s political theology. Nor is Calvin’s world a Hobbesian world of power-relations and pragmatic survival (again, contra, Walzer and Ralph Hancock says as much[2]). For Calvin, consistent with others in the Christian tradition, the hierarchical social order is natural and “it is not without reason that he has been pleased to join us together in this way.”

So the Gospel, for Calvin, does not appear to be social, at least not in the typical politically liberal sense. The distinction-less kingdom of God is not breaking into the civil realm to bring about social equality and liberal democracy.

In the same paragraph of the sermon quoted above, he continues by quickly dismissing the anabaptists and then ends with this:

Servants must also be cognizant of their rank and station; and everyone must apply himself in the thing which he has been called. It certainly accords well with Christianity that the rich man should enjoy his wealth (provided, of course, that he not devour everything without attending to the needs of his neighbors), and that the poor man should endure his station patiently, and beseech God, not desiring more than is proper.

There is nothing new here. As I quoted Calvin in a previous post (Institutes III.x.6.):

And that no one may presume to overstep his proper limits, he has distinguished the different modes of life by the name of callings. Every man’s mode of life, therefore, is a kind of station assigned him by the Lord, that he may not be always driven about at random.

But what is important about the quote from the sermon is that it is contextually linked with a clear statement of Calvin’s 2k theology. Calvin recognizes the potential risk in his view of spiritual equality, namely, that it can be used to justify radical social reformation. So he exhorts the poor man to “endure his station patiently.” The poor man must do this not only in obedience to God and his created order, but also because inequality is necessary for civil (outward) order. It is natural: social hierarchy is a natural law. And God established this natural hierarchy because it teaches us that we “were not created for ourselves” but for service to others.

Though I have only scratched the surface on the issues surrounding Calvin’s 2k theology, it does seem that both the typical “Gospel-is-not-social” and the “Gospel-is-social“[3] advocates are wrong in important ways. I think that Matthew Tuininga has made a valuable correction to D.G. Hart and R. Scott Clark who seem to find no social value in Christian sanctification. Would not our conformity to the image of the Last Adam have social implications? Of course, it would. The fundamental problem with the Hart-Clark 2k theology is their failure to recognize that the Gospel, which includes sanctification, restores the Adamic dominion. As J Peter Escalante and Steven Wedgeworth have made abundantly clear, “man’s Adamic dominion has been in principle restored in Christ.” This means, so it seems to me, that sanctification includes a conformity to the original Edenic order and a restoration toward the original mandate to bring, through human creativity and work, creation to its potential maturity. This has nothing to do with immanentizing the eschaton, as Eric Voegelin warned against. It means rather that the Gospel empowers Christians to work toward the realization of a mature natural order.

Notice that the principle texts for this post are from a sermon. Calvin preached a social vision in this sermon. Yet in the context of discussing Calvin’s 2k theology, Clark writes, “whatever social agenda a Christian pursues is one thing but leave the visible, institutional church out of it….[and it] has no social agenda for the wider civil and cultural world.” But Calvin did not leave his “social agenda” out of the institutional church. He made it an important part of obedience and sanctification. Calvin did not even leave the visible, institutional church out of the social agenda of obedience to social customs

The Hart-Clark “Reformed” 2k theology presents a false dilemma: either the institutional church works to immanentize the eschaton or it remains silent on social issues. But there is another, more historic (and Calvin’s) position: the institutional Church calls for Christians to be obedient to their calling to conform to nature and bring creation to a pre-glorifed maturity (that is, Christians are not to bring the heavenly to the earthly, but to bring the earthly to its earthly potential).

The problem with the “Gospel-is-social” perspective is, as one might expect, that the Gospel is not social in the following way: the eschatological does not modify creational/natural hierarchies. The Gospel does not flatten reality. What the Gospel does is restore man’s original orientation to creation and his mandate to work in it and for it to the glory of God. Still, Tuininga’s 2k theology, as opposed to Hart’s and Clark’s, is much closer, in my estimation, to Calvin’s.


[1] Men, Women, and Order in the Church, translated by Seth Skolnitsky, M.DIV., WTS. For some of the text, see here.

[2] See his book Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics, 32.

[3] See D. G. Hart’s odd response to Tuininga here.

2 replies on “Calvin’s Social Agenda”

  1. “This means, so it seems to me, that sanctification includes a conformity to the original Edenic order and a restoration toward the original mandate to bring, through human creativity and work, creation to its potential maturity. ”

    Joachim of Fiore couldn’t have said it better.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: