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John Calvin at 500

Reflections on a mixed political legacy.

12:00 AM, Jul 10, 2009 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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Calvin did not yield an inch. Invoking Old Testament passages condemning the worship of false gods, he defended the use of violence against those who challenged orthodoxy and threatened the purity of the elect. Detractors were presumed to be insincere, morally debased--or worse. Despite their dark view of human nature, Calvin and his followers seemed to invite a new form of hubris into the church. "They did not usually act as if they believed what their own theology said about the huge gap between divine omniscience and human finitude," writes Notre Dame historian Mark Noll, "nor did they seem to really believe their own claim that even believers continued to abuse the gifts of God for idolatrous, selfish ends."

Thus, John Calvin and the Reformed tradition he launched were simultaneously medieval and modern. Much like his Catholic antagonists, Calvin viewed the political and religious realms as part of an unbroken spiritual unity. For all his theological innovation, he never imagined that the church could maintain its fidelity to the truth without the assistance of the state.

Nevertheless, Calvin anticipated the modern, liberal world by demanding that church authority yield to individual judgment when its traditions seemed to contradict conscience and the word of God. He insisted on the functional independence of the church from the state. He emphasized the spiritual freedom and equality of all believers, regardless of their station in life. In this way, Calvin helped sanctify a doctrine of liberty that democratic reformers--from John Locke to James Madison--would put to good use.

Joseph Loconte is a senior research fellow at The King's College in New York City and a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD. He is working on a book on the history of religious freedom in the West.