Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics. Ralph C. Hancock. St. Augustine’s Press, 2011.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Luther’s Ninety Five Theses. Though the young John Calvin was no doubt precocious, one doubts that he gave Luther much thought as an eight-year-old. Nevertheless, Calvin went on to become another prominent leader of the Reformation – second only to Luther in his fame. Despite all the ink spilt about each, neither is well-understood by most American political theorists; misunderstanding of Calvin is especially egregious. In hopes of remedying some of the confusion about Calvin and Calvinism, we offer this review of Ralph Hancock’s study of John Calvin.
The 2011 reissue of Hancock’s book, originally his 1983 dissertation, then published in 1989 by Cornell University Press, appeared on the heels of Hancock’s The Responsibility of Reason: Theory and Practice in a Liberal-Democratic Age (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011). In both Calvin and that more recent study, Hancock offers a provocative thesis: if there is important continuity between radical transcendence and radical immanence, as he puts it, then modernity is neither exclusively secular nor materialist. In fact, modernity becomes the product of an unintentional partnership between modern rationalist philosophers and Christian theologians. As provocative as that thesis is, however, it is not argued clearly or convincingly in Calvin and the Foundation of Modern Politics. Neither does Hancock provide an enlightening study of Calvin or Calvinism, the latter being a category that Hancock steps gingerly around. Calvin and the Foundation of Modern Politics lacks both the historical research and theological nuance necessary to support the ambitious scope of Hancock’s larger thesis. Though sometimes a serviceable summary of some things that Calvin wrote, its analytical conclusions are dubious at best.
While Calvin has been put in the dock by Eric Voegelin and more recently by Catholic critics (e.g., Brad Gregory or Hilaire Belloc), Hancock adds Protestant theology, perhaps all of Christianity generally, to Leo Strauss’s indictment of modernity (171). In particular, Hancock makes the damning charge that Calvin’s treatment of reason parallels the modern structure of political rationalism. In Hancock’s argument, both Calvinism and modern rationalism are neither (as Hancock summarizes it in his new introduction) “other-worldly or this-worldy, but unworldly, anti-worldly.” In order for Hancock’s argument to succeed, however, we must not only content ourselves with Hancock’s brief treatment of those to whom Calvin is compared (Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, Marx) but, more importantly, with Hancock’s analysis of Calvin himself.
Was the consequence of Calvin’s understanding of “inward and outward,” spiritual and political, to collapse both into one world that is “all God’s” (119)? And if so, what would this mean for political practice? The question of civil and ecclesiastical authority was a rich and ongoing debate in Calvin’s time, but Hancock gives us no real background to, or insight into, that debate. Instead, he simply hopes to reveal so-called “modern rationalism” in Calvin. Hancock intends by this term more than association with a few early modern philosophers, however. The term is intended to designate a foe hunted by a small band of political theorists. Their bait and trap are a set of broad theoretical and abstract terms imaginatively forced on their subjects regardless of the subject’s context or evident practice.
In pursuing his prey, Hancock offers no support from Calvin’s actual political counsel for colleagues in France, England, or Scotland – or in his adopted home of Geneva. (Calvin was trained in the law as a humanist, a point worth noting.) If Hancock wants to tell us what Calvin thought about politics, we need more than his selective reading of Calvin’s Institutes and biblical commentaries. For example, Hancock omits letters and sermons altogether. Calvin was not a man existing only in Hancock’s readings of his books; he lived in a city alive with political controversy and in an age of international upheaval over questions of religion and politics. We are expected to be content with some interpretations by Marc-Edouard Chenevière and a passing reference to Harro Höpfl in the notes. It isn’t so-called “historicism” to draw from Calvin’s practice or political counsel; it is demonstrating that one’s conclusions stand on more than fanciful interpretive analysis. Unlike many political philosophers, Calvin provides many opportunities for such demonstration.
What’s worse, perhaps, is that Hancock does little to situate Calvin among other Christian thinkers. Hancock provides the reader with little more than a few slim pickings from Augustine and Luther. Though Hancock explicitly denies claiming to understand Calvin as he understood himself, it would be appropriate to determine Calvin’s concord with, or dissent from, the Church and tradition he claimed to be reforming. There were real political extremes that Calvin perceived and assiduously tried to avoid; it is impossible to understand Calvin apart from those on his right (Rome) or left (Anabaptists) that he considered his Scylla and Charybdis. Hancock’s confines his comparison of Calvin with Augustine (a continuity claimed by most Protestant leaders) to Chapter 19 of Augustine’s City of God. This is a start, but ignores the more holistic picture of Augustine’s political thought and should include, for example, Augustine’s use of the civil magistrate against the Donatists. Hancock provides a more satisfying discussion of Luther, but not enough to gain real insight into what may make Calvin unique. What about Huldrych Zwingli, Heinrich Bullinger, Peter Martyr Vermigli, or Martin Bucer: colleagues who also addressed politics and whose theologies were closer to Calvin’s own? (We have not even mentioned the Marian exiles who were coreligionists of Calvin’s).
And what about Christian theology for centuries between Calvin and Augustine – the long and rich tradition of Christian political theology? What is one to make of the fact that many of Calvin’s political ideas were not only shared by other Protestants but derived from prior theological (i.e., Roman Catholic) and constitutional traditions preceding the Reformation? Catholics readily deployed some of the same political arguments as Calvin, both before and after Calvin’s own use of them. Both Huguenots and the Catholic League after all, plotted against Henry IV. Or what about Calvin’s own use of classical sources – the tradition that Hancock claims Calvin opposed? What about the deep humanism that ran from Erasmus in particular through the Reformation? Without such context, we have little reason to believe Hancock’s assertion that Calvin (or anyone else) was engaged in any notable metaphysical mischief.
We now move to some of Hancock’s most significant misreading of Calvin that blunt the effectiveness his book. These are common misunderstandings of Calvin and the Reformed tradition, so we hope that our survey of a significant argument in Hancock’s book will begin to help others understand Calvin more accurately.
We begin by summarizing Hancock on Calvin’s understanding of human reason and natural law, a key argument of Hancock’s on which his book turns. Like many political theorists, Hancock wrestles with Calvin’s view of the fall. Calvin, Hancock argues, appears “flatly to contradict himself” on the question of “the status of fallen reason” (102). While it may appear that Calvin’s supposed assertion of (as Hancock puts it) “the impotence of the human soul” means “that the natural law can in no way be effective as a guide to human beings,” Hancock correctly notes that “this is not Calvin’s position” (103). Indeed, Calvin did not at all discard the natural law as a moral guide. This is too often a position read back into Calvin and Calvinism, no thanks to modern theologians Karl Barth or Cornelius Van Til.
Despite Hancock’s recovery on this point, he nevertheless imposes a false choice on Calvin: “In the very chapters in which he insists on the total depravity of man, Calvin repeats and indeed amplifies apparently contradictory statements” (104). As we will discuss at length, so-called “total depravity” did not imply a contradiction at all. As we will demonstrate, asserting spiritual fallenness in no way makes the assertion of man’s rationality in secular matters a contradiction – not for Calvin, nor (we must add) for almost anyone of consequence in the Christian tradition. Hancock at certain points seems to understand as much. He notes that Calvin “recurs to the traditional distinction between natural and supernatural gifts.” That is, “Fallen reason is not entirely worthless” (104). Hancock rightly recognizes that the natural law has both a negative and positive function. But rather than pursue Calvin precisely on what this means, Hancock imposes theoretical categories that Calvin would not recognize or approve.
Hancock calls Calvin’s natural law “consciousness of nothingness.” This is Hancock’s puzzling way of saying that man’s conscience reveals his lack of spiritual merit before God. More importantly, Hancock asserts that such spiritual unworthiness traps persons in a “hopeless practical dilemma” wherein they are (in Calvin’s words) to “‘aspire to a good which by nature he is wholly incapable of desiring as good.’” This may strike Hancock as dramatic and essential for his argument, but he misunderstands what Calvin means.
Hancock does note essential passages of Book 2 of Calvin’s Institutes wherein Calvin acknowledges (in Hancock’s words) “reason is competent to govern man in temporal things, including political matters” (110). But because man is inherently self-interested (part of his sinful condition), Hancock claims that Calvin loses all confidence in uniquely political or civic virtues, even to the point of disparaging honor, freedom, or justice. As we will demonstrate, Calvin did consider fallen man’s personal motives devoid of salvific merit. But, as we will also point out, this hardly made reason unfit for politics as politics; nor did it make politics devoid of any relationship with the Creator. Hancock goes wrong by constructing a framework of his own invention. While inventing analytical frameworks is what scholars do, Hancock’s is unpersuasive and is robbed of insight because it draws conclusions that flatly contradict what Calvin says, and betrays a fatal misreading of Calvin himself.
For example, Hancock claims that Calvin has made “human wisdom and virtue” an “impossibility” (108). Hancock asserts that Calvin makes “nature opposed to nature, and reason to reason” (110). This means that Calvin opposed “the intrinsic goodness of reason.” What Hancock intends by “intrinsic” and “goodness” matters a lot, especially since Calvin is very precise in discerning spiritual from carnal merit. Hancock tries to make the charge stick with a sweeping hit-and-run: Calvin is apparently opposed to “classical reason” but not to “modern rationalism” (111). Further demonstrating his misreading of Calvin, Hancock assets that “the natural knowledge of the means of preserving society is not practically effective without the support of revelation.” According to Hancock, “The revealed majesty of God’s law is needed to defend rational collective self-preservation against the haughty self-assertion of fallen reason” (112) This miscasts Calvin entirely.
The threat of man’s moral corruption (including his capacity for outwardly good acts done from sinful motives) does not preclude reason being “practically effective” in political matters without the support of revelation. Calvin would agree with Hancock that “apart from the fear of God men do not preserve equity and love among themselves.” But so what? Calvin was neither the first nor the last author of consequence to argue that the fear of God encouraged greater adherence to the natural law. This does not mean that reason and the natural law became useless for political society. Nor does this mean that “No rational purpose links man with God” (106). The conclusion that Hancock insists on is unrecognizable to both Calvin and for his legacy in politics. Far from separating political and spiritual worlds in hopes of collapsing them in a “two-front war . . . against the rational soul” or other “intermediate things,” Calvin asserted the goodness of nature and the rational soul. What he means by that, however, requires clear elucidation that we provide in the next two sections. Calvin did not aspire to “unite divine activity and human activity” in the realm of politics (119). Try as he might, therefore, Hancock cannot turn Calvin into Hegel.
As we have demonstrated, foundational to Hancock’s argument is his repeated claim that Calvin’s position on depravity is “radical.” This is not at all obvious historically. It is true that Calvin and other Reformed Protestants understand the effects of the fall of man to be more extensive than many Roman Catholics asserted, such as the great Catholic apologist Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) who argued that the Fall removed elevating grace while leaving nature intact and pure (i.e., the doctrine of natura pura). But Bellarmine himself, in arguing for this position (in De Amissione Gratiae 5.5, 15), had to contend with Thomas Aquinas (and Thomas Cajetan) who said that the Fall “corrupted” human nature (Summa Theologica I-II.82.1). Later, Reformed theologian Francis Turretin (1623-1687) cites Thomas in support of his view of the “positive” effect of the fall (viz., that it is “not only privative”).
Indeed, once all such particulars are considered, the Reformed tradition’s take on the fall (at least as it affected reasoning on secular questions) is not significantly different from Thomas’s. (Such an assertion will no doubt cause serious disorientation for political theorists not widely read outside the landmark texts and canonical narrative.) No amount of study of Calvin will justify the assertion of an “anti-theology” in Calvin or his so-called repudiation of “purposive reason.” Quite to the contrary, in fact. Even a cursory reading of a few sections of Calvin’s Institutes should disabuse the reader of such obvious errors.
Calvin articulates his theological anthropology of pre and post-lapsarian man in his Institutes 2.2.12-18. Following a long tradition going back to at least Lombard, he describes Adam as having two sets of native capabilities. One set, which constitutes man as an earth-bound being, include the capabilities related to earthly ends, such as “policy and economy, all mechanical arts and liberal studies.” That is, those things related to this “present” and earthly life, including civil life. The other set are the spiritual gifts related to “true blessedness”: those qualities necessary for true worship and righteousness and anticipation of the coming kingdom of God. This set orients one to “heavenly things.” The former set constitute man’s essence as man, while the latter are accidental (though not adventitious) to and perfective of man.
This distinction concerning the nature of these gifts is indispensable to understanding Calvin’s view on the effects of the Fall. He writes, “man’s natural gifts were corrupted by sin, and his supernatural gifts withdrawn” (2.2.12). Man’s heavenly orientation is removed, yet his earthly capabilities remain – though in a corrupted state. For “as the gratuitous gifts [i.e., spiritual gifts] bestowed on man were withdrawn, so the natural gifts which remained were corrupted after the fall” (2.2.17). Man’s relationship to the natural, moral order is not obliterated or removed; it is weakened. Man after the fall remained essentially and substantially the same i.e., he remained human, retaining his human components and capacities.
Note that one cannot put words in Calvin’s mouth as to what “corrupted” means. Calvin speaks for himself quite clearly on this point.
Though man cannot attain true righteousness and merit eternal life, he can still have “some result” on earthly matters. Indeed, the “human mind…is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator” (2.2.15). Man can still “cherish and preserve society,” have “impressions of civil order and honesty,” know that society “must be regulated by laws,” and can “comprehend the principles of those laws” (2.2.13). In addition, men’s “ideas of equity agree in substance” throughout all times and places.
Note especially what Calvin says about political life. Since “some principle of civil order is impressed on all… [this] is ample proof that, in regard to the constitution of the present life, no man is devoid of the light of reason” (2.2.13). For “the essential properties of our nature is reason” (2.2.16). Without reason, man ceases being man. Only in regard to spiritual discernment is man “blinder than moles” (2.2.18). This explains the “universal agreement in regard to… [civil order], both among nations and individuals, the seeds of them being implanted in the breasts of all without a teacher or lawgiver” (2.2.13). This is not at all a call to abandon reason. Neither is it, as Hancock claims, a call to “radical immanence” or “radical transcendence.”
The capacities of man that remained unchanged in themselves (i.e., the essential properties of man, such as reason) are the same capacities that make possible man’s conformity to the natural order. Since they remain, albeit corrupted, man can still attain a certain degree of conformity to their objects i.e. natural ends. The fall did not separate man from reality and the natural order. Indeed, this is impossible, since man as man is necessarily connected with nature. Man is necessarily in, of, and with nature. This why Calvin can claim, “Nothing, indeed is more common, than for man to be sufficiently instructed in a right course of conduct by natural law” (Institutes 2.1.22).
None of this resembles what Hancock calls a “purposeless natural instinct” (110), however. The fall did not dissever man from the natural law. Rather it caused him to worship the things of earth rather than God in heaven—an obsession with lesser goods in utter neglect of the highest Good. Man became dis-oriented. Hence, Calvin’s moral man is sick, not dead or comatose. Sin is with man’s nature, but sin has not destroyed the essential properties of it. This why Calvin can write in his commentary on Habakkuk (on 2:6) that “as some principles of equity and justice remain in the hearts of men, the consent of all nations is as it were the voice of nature, or the testimony of that equity which is engraven on the hearts of men, and which they can never obliterate.” One must conclude, then, that for Calvin the principles of natural justice and civil order are accessible to and attainable (though not perfectly) by unregenerate man; political order is hardly, as Hancock describes it, “sheer obedience to unintelligible power” (113). Such a Hobbesian Calvin exists only in Hancock’s imagination. Indeed, when one reads Calvin’s actual prescriptions on actual political circumstances, and the Calvinist tradition that followed, the assertion is baffling. Again, Hancock would do much better to study Calvin’s own political practice rather than force a false choice between (a miscast) Augustine and the Hobbesian bogeyman.
Hancock repeatedly appeals to Calvin’s “radical” view of depravity in an attempt to nuance Calvin away from what Calvin is clearly saying. When Calvin indicates a positive role for the natural law, Hancock pits him against his supposedly “radical” doctrine of sin and claims to resolve the tension for him. Calvin is quite capable of working through this himself, however.
How do we explain Calvin’s frequent negative comments on man’s sinful nature? In his commentary on Isaiah (on 44:9), Calvin states that the principal end of man is heaven-directed worship, not earthly civil life. Proper worship is that which crowns man with true righteousness. Thus, the loss of it alone leaves man in a state of darkness and unrighteousness. Therefore, since the ability to worship properly was almost entirely lost at the fall (see 2.2.24), man is in a state of unrighteousness quite apart from any and all civil achievements he is capable of. So, for Calvin, even if man is decent in regard to civil life but is utterly corrupt in worship, man is still in a state of unrighteousness, devoid of good, unable to attain eternal life, and estranged from God. In other words, Hancock’s presumed dilemma for Calvin vanishes when we understand that decency and uprightness in civil life and knowledge of natural ends are widely insufficient to achieve true virtue or declare one righteous. This explains Calvin’s low view of fallen man: proper worship—both internal and external—is so important for him that man’s failure in it is sufficient grounds to consider man devoid of any good. This is why Calvin says in his commentary on Micah 6:8 “As the name of God is more excellent than any thing in the whole world, so the worship of him ought to be regarded as of more importance than all those duties by which we prove our love towards men.”
Still, as we demonstrated above, for Calvin the failure to worship properly does not make man destitute of the ability to craft a political order in conformity, at least in part, with the natural principles of civil justice and order. The utter loss of man’s ability to achieve his heavenly end does not necessitate the loss of the ability to achieve earthly ends. The fact is, the Reformed tradition has a largely catholic view of man’s goodness, recognizing the legitimacy of the distinction between righteousness coram deo (“before God”) and righteousness corum mundo (“before man”). Most Reformed confessions and Reformed theologians after Calvin made this distinction (See, for example, Bullinger’s Helvetic Confession Chapter Nine, the Canons of Dort 3/4.4, or the Westminster Confession 16.7.) Calvin alludes to this distinction in 2.2.24 of his Institutes.
These facts reveal a critically erroneous premise in Hancock’s argument. Unregenerate man is capable of achieving a degree of civil righteousness in conformity to the natural law through the use of right reason. Even though such righteousness is not meritorious for eternal life, it still merits civil praise – especially insofar as it still reflects the goodness of God and nourishes civil fellowship and peace among others. Hancock either ignores or overlooks this essential distinction.
Calvin’s comments on scripture affirm the continued meaningfulness of the natural world and recognize the same limitations acknowledged by the broader Christian tradition. Scripture, which contains in part a republication of the knowledge of God already revealed in creation, serves as “glasses” (1.6.1) through which one can see the Creator, especially the theological knowledge most obscured by the fall (e.g., God’s mercy). Man is not to turn away from creation, nor is he freed from the “encumbrances of human purposes,” as Hancock states (109). The Gospel sends man back to the ultimate and natural human purpose: to worship and enjoy God. Scripture, says Calvin, “save[s] us from wandering up and down, as in a labyrinth, in search of some doubtful deity” (1.6.1). The principal purpose of Scripture is not to provide a system of civil ethics, but to restore man’s knowledge of and relationship with God. This understanding of man’s darkness is consistent with the broader Christian tradition. Aquinas himself said in his Summa Contra Gentiles 1.4.4, “If the only way open to us for the knowledge of God were solely that of reason, the human race would remain in the blackest shadows of ignorance” (cf. Summa Theologica I.1.1).
A related problem is that Hancock does not understand Calvin’s two kingdoms. The spiritual kingdom for Calvin is the eschatological kingdom—the world to come. It is not the exclusive realm of the divine, but the future kingdom for the elect secured for them by Christ. It is radically different because its order does not take into account gender and social station but only spiritual merit. The civil (or ecclesiastical) rulers of this age will not necessarily have preeminence in the coming spiritual kingdom. The civil (or natural) kingdom is also divinely ordered, having the imprints of its Creator, Sustainer, and Governor; but it uses a much different criterion, one based on civil merit. Calvin separates them to protect each from the other, but their separation has nothing to do with the fall. Both kingdoms are divine and remain so after the fall.
Hancock’s use of phrases such as “intrinsically divine or partaking of the divine” (32) throughout the book suggests that Hancock understands the perfect world to be one in which nature is infused with some divine element superadded to it. Calvin did not believe that the fall removed some divine substance from creation – a view more consistent with Roman Catholic nature/grace dualism. This dualism, however, was largely rejected by Reformed Protestants: the world for them was very good apart from any superadded divine substance. Nature is, according to Calvin, divinely ordered, though not because it has been infused with divinity.
As far as some pure and hypothetical Aristotelian teleology of reason, the catholic Christian tradition’s treatment of that was complicated – far less simple than Hancock’s argument presumes. As stated before, Hancock’s lack of intellectual history gives us no reason to think that Calvin was radically different in this regard, let alone influential. Hancock’s omissions in this regard imply that such challenges were unique to Calvin. To refine and sharpen the charge against Calvin, Hancock should have surveyed, for example, how Calvin’s contemporaries and successors (friend or foe) responded to his anthropological assertions and his attacks on classical precedent. If Calvin was really up to something that collapsed the distinction between the divine and the human in order to bind them together in so radical a manner as Hancock insists, would not someone have noticed this in Calvin’s own time? It isn’t as though Calvin’s educated (and humanist) contemporaries would have been insensitive to such a radical move. We are not so credulous as to believe that the task of catching Calvin’s hand in the metaphysical or anthropological cookie jar was left for Ralph Hancock or Leo Strauss four centuries later.
Are such as these are really about their subjects or about the abstract constructs of their authors? There is certainly a designated space for purely theoretical studies within political theory, but they should not bill themselves as studies of particular authors and we should not expect them to provide insight into the author or their intellectual descendants. That is especially true in the case of Calvin and Protestant theology, both of which remain misunderstood by too many political theorists.
 See Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (IET), trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1994), 9.11.12-13.
 Turretin later argues that the heavenly part of man (which was removed by the fall) was “concreated” with that which constitutes man as man (i.e., the earthly part), but it is not essential to constitute man as man. The heavenly part is, however, essential for man’s perfection. Hence, it is natural perfectively but not natural constitutively, making it accidental but not adventitious to man. This is a subtle but important distinction that distinguishes Reformed orthodoxy from other Christian theologies. See Turretin, IET, 5.11.2-10. Though even a subtle theological difference in one area can cause a radical divergence in theological systems, the differences between Reformed and some forms Roman Catholicism on the relationship of nature and grace produce few to no practical differences vis-à-vis unregenerate man’s natural reason and capacity for civil order and the implementation of civil justice, contrary to many commentators.
 See Stephen Wolfe’s essay “Pagan Civil Virtue in the Thought of Francis Turretin,” in Beyond Calvin: Essays on the Diversity of the Reformed Tradition, edited by Jonathan Tomes (Moscow, ID: Davenant Trust, 2017) for a discussion on the affirmation of pagan civil virtue in the theology of Francis Turretin, a major representative of Reformed orthodoxy.