Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics (First Preface)

HomeArticlesCalvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics (First Preface)

Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics. Ralph C. Hancock. Cornell University Press, 1989.


I first became aware of the problem of the relationship between Calvinism and modern political thought in reflecting on the Puritan background of American political idealism, on what Tocqueville calls the “marvelous combination” in America of the “spirit of religion” and the “spirit of freedom.” I found this combination to be a puzzle as well as a marvel, since American liberalism obviously owes much to a distinctly rationalistic and secular theory of natural rights founded by Hobbes and refined by Locke in direct opposition to the political claims of religion. How could a religious worldview provide a motive for the pursuit of distinctly secular ends?

It may be that this American mingling of religion and rationalism, this fusion of Calvin and Locke, was no more than a confusion, as most scholars now seem to assume. I was not sure. Is it not possible that a certain understanding of reason and a certain interpretation of revelation jointly inspire a single project?

If the activity of natural reason itself is understood as the essence of the best way of life, as in the classical Socratic tradition, then our answer would be no. But modern rationalism cannot be identified with openness to reason as an end in itself. Rather, it implies a definite, programmatic hostility to any nonrational authority and a commitment to an antispeculative method as a means to the indefinite expansion of human freedom. Rationalism represents not the freedom of the intellect to articulate or contemplate the distinctive goodness of ideas but the demand that the mind be deployed methodically against all limitations on the power of humanity as a whole. Since defining the end of human action and articulating its goodness would set limits on human beings and subordinate them to something beyond their power, rationalists give a much fuller and more definite account of the obstacles (prejudices, traditions, institutions) standing between them and their “ideal” than  of the nature of the ideal itself (e.g., freedom, progress, liberation). Modern rationalism is a method and a means, not a way of life; secularism is not so much an end as a process. Thus the project of rationalism is not only distinct from but directly opposed to classical reason as the pursuit of the best way of life by nature.

I claim no originality for this statement of the opposition between classical reason and modern rationalism, and my main purpose is not to demonstrate or expand this insight. Rather, I rely on the contrast between reason and rationalism to question the contrast between rationalism and revelation. I attempt to show that beneath the obvious and direct opposition between modern rationalism and Christianity lies the potential of a profound convergence, a potential that can be most clearly discerned not in the possibly confused rhetoric of Calvinist Lockeans but in John Calvin’s rigorous reading of Christianity.

To defend this view I must show that Calvin not only attacks the classical, teleological conception of reason but is fundamentally open to the authority of reason with respect to method and means. But the deepest ground of the convergence of the spirit of modern rationalism with that of Calvinism comes to light only in looking beyond the instrumentality of reason to consider how both enjoin absolute commitment to a practical program whose end cannot be grasped; both crown with the finality of salvation the project of liberating the innocent needs of humanity from reason’s perverse claim to rule for its own sake.

Instead of allowing rationalism’s attack on its immediate enemy, the political power of Christianity, to stand as its defining characteristic, I thus seek to elucidate a curious kinship between these two rivals. I argue that the opposition between the claims of rationalism and those of revelation may be less profound theoretically and less consequential practically than that between both of these on the one hand and “reason” as classically conceived on the other.

Within the framework of these fundamental questions (which can be fully articulated only gradually and sometimes indirectly as my argument develops) I intend to reopen, or to open in a new way, the historical question of the contribution of Christianity, in particular the Protestant Reformation, to the emergence of a distinctively modern view of human beings and their relation to the nonhuman world. I say reopen because the idea that the Reformation was an essentially modern movement is in itself fat from original. As I indicate in the introduction, this idea has been espoused, in quite different forms, by Hegel, by the Whig historians, and by generations of liberal Protestants. An example more familiar to many contemporary scholars is Max Weber’s justly famous argument that Calvinism tended to dispose its adherents to capitalist enterprise. In general, however, the view that Protestant teaching itself made an essential contribution to the modern world has been on the defensive since modern liberalism began to lose confidence that it owned the future.

Many scholars consider the survival of the modernist interpretation of the Reformation and particularly of Calvinism a testimony more to human credulity than to the plausibility of the thesis itself. For, they point out, whereas it is obvious that Calvin  acted out of or at  least in the name of an extreme religious or otherworldly zeal, it seems equally clear that modern rationalism implies a concentration on the goods of this world, on the “secular” realm. The central purpose of my introduction is to prepare a fresh reflection on Calvinism by beginning to render questionable this simple dichotomy between the secular and rationalistic and the religious and otherworldly. In this chapter I begin to articulate the philosophical problem Calvin posed by investigating the historical question of the influence of Calvinism. I proceed by briefly considering certain representative modern scholars whose ultimate rejection of the modernity of Calvinism depends on the quite reasonable premise that the categories of secular and religious are simply opposed. This discussion allows me to demonstrate that, to come to grips with Calvin, one must be ready to reconsider the meaning of the “secularism” or “worldliness” we so readily associate with the modern and thus to question the modern dichotomy between rationalism and religion. The view of “this world” involved in this dichotomy is not a self-evident and eternal truth but part of the distinctive background of the modern mind.

After this critique of a series of categories whose unquestioned authority would have prevented us from coming to terms with the fundamental significance of Calvinism, I turn in the body of the book, to a discussion of original Calvinism. This discussion focuses almost exclusively on the Reformer’s most authoritative work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, and generally takes the form of a rather close-to-the-text commentary. I am convinced that this sometimes indirect approach to my central themes is the only way to defend a rather surprising view of Calvin’s thought and fully to reveal the depth and intricacy, as well as the blind spots, of his argument.

I explore Calvin’s system by beginning with his most directly political and ethical teachings and tracing these to their theological foundations (part I), and then by examining the foundations themselves in order to locate a central, generating idea or intention (part 2). I show that Calvin explodes the simple dichotomy between secular and religious concerns; he distinguishes radically between them, to be sure, but precisely in order to join them fast together. God is elevated so far above human beings that the divine can serve no longer as a standard for ranking human concerns as higher or lower but only as a sanction for the manifest and universal interests of humanity.

Since this view of Calvin’s thought is likely to surprise and risks offending, let me emphasize at the outset that I have concentrated on what I regard as the most profound and original thrust of Calvin’s thought as it is exhibited in his most systematic work. I do not claim to five an account of or to account for all his teachings, only to uncover a philosophically significant underlying structure. Clearly Calvin did not always draw the ultimate conclusions of his own radical premises, clearly he remained on many points within the horizon of a traditional Christian piety. Though such traditional piety is not the subject of this book, the understanding reader will see that my argument implies no disrespect to this less distinctive and truly humane part of Calvin’s legacy.

Most surprising, as I suggest in chapter 5 and elaborate more fully in the conclusion, is that Calvin’s interpretation of Christianity essentially mirrors the deep structure of modern “rationalism.” This argument implies that we may ignore the full background and implications of our own distinctively modern assumptions. The secular is not a self-evident theoretical category  or a self-sustaining domain of practical activity; the theoretical and practical concentration on “this world,”  this allegedly “rational “ world, is part of a broader intentional context. In other words, our concentration on the secular and rational cannot be understood without reference  to a standpoint claims religious authority or not, the intention that constitutes this world thus cannot be simply “worldly” or “secular” or “rationalistic.”

My reading of Calvin implies that Max Weber was more correct than he knew in suggesting an affinity between the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. At one level, therefore, one might say that I intend to rehabilitate the modernist interpretation of Calvinism. But a full reflection on this affinity must work in both directions; it challenges our view of modernity as well our view of Calvinism. It is thus not my intention simply to resituate Calvinism with respect to a ready-made definition of modernity or to nominate Calvin for inclusion within some established pantheon of modern founders. Rather (and this is where I depart form Leo Strauss), I mean precisely to question whether modernity is susceptible of a fundamentally consistent definition on its own terms and thus whether it has founders or a foundation. I wish to hold up Calvin’s spiritual secularism as a mirror to the idealistic materialism of the modern age in order to ask whether, any more that Calvinism, with its explicit reliance on a power beyond reason, modern rationalism can give a full and fully rational account of itself.

If not, then Tocqueville was right to judge that to defend civilization in the modern world requires more than the defense of modern civilization.


This is the first preface from the book.  For a review of this book, it is available here and Ralph Hancock’s response is available here. The second preface of the book is also available.

Ralph C. Hancock

Written by

Ralph C. Hancock is a Professor of Political Science at Brigham Young University and President of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs. His books include Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics (Saint Augustine’s, 1989) and The Responsibility of Reason: Theory and Practice in a Liberal-Democratic Age (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011). He has also translated numerous works from French, the latest being Pierre Manent's Beyond Radical Secularism (St. Augustine's, 2016).