A Missed Opportunity to Plumb Calvin’s Greatness

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The review of my Calvin by Glenn Moots and Stephen Wolfe leaves me, I’m afraid, with the all-too-familiar task of explaining that the book I wrote is simply a different one from the book the reviewers wish I had written.  My book’s scope and purpose do not conform to the historical study of Calvinism they expect or would wish for, and they do not, alas, succeed in reading the book I have written.  This is a pity, because my book has something important to say about the questions that transcend that of the historical situation of Calvinism; it bears rather on the moral and political meaning of Christianity conceived radically, the human meaning of the radical challenge to classical reason that Calvin at his most radical best represents.

Like many first books, there was, as the reviewers begin by noting, a dissertation behind this one.  It seems to serve their purpose to reduce the book to the (Harvard, Political Science) dissertation, but it is careless to say that the 1989 volume was “originally” the dissertation, since they’re not the same, though the dissertation is nothing to be ashamed of.  They are closer to the truth when they speak of the St. Augustine’s edition as a “reissue,” since nothing has changed except for the addition of a new preface.  But in fact this is a notable oversight, since, if they had paid adequate attention to that deep little preface – to be sure addressed more to readers conversant in the big questions of political philosophy than in the historical or contemporary definition of “Calvinism” – they might have saved themselves the trouble of lamenting that I wrote the book I wrote instead of another they would have wished for.

The reviewers refer to the “ambitious scope” of my “larger thesis,” which they accurately report to be “there is important continuity between radical transcendence and radical immanence,” and therefore that “modernity becomes the product of an unintentional partnership between modern rationalist philosophers and Christian theologians.”  But they are convinced that my book “lacks the research or analysis necessary to support the ambitious scope of Hancock’s larger thesis, and it does not teach the reader much about Calvin and his political ideas.”  Well, let’s consider.

My ambition is both very great and quite limited.  I propose to reinterpret modernity.  That seems substantial.  I do not propose to speak as a master of Calvin’s entire corpus or, except incidentally, of the historical development of Calvinism.  I know my limits because I know my interests.  It would be very good if there were a book that grasped the deep question of Christianity and modernity as I frame it on the basis of Calvin’s radicalism and at the same time do justice to all of Calvin’s pastoral and political teaching and action as well as to the history of Calvinism.  I suppose that would be enough for a number of books.  I am no more capable of writing such books (probably less so, in fact) than I was thirty years ago, and no more interested, though I think it would be a very fine thing to do. The first step in doing such a fine thing would be to understand what I have explained and argued with considerable textual evidence and philosophical acumen in the book under review.

My book is in significant part an exercise in Straussian revisionism, I don’t mind saying, and I still think the revision is one of fundamental importance.  To revise Strauss’s interpretation of modernity, in which Max Weber’s assimilation of Calvinism and capitalism was dismissed on the grounds that the Calvinism Weber considered had already made its peace with the modern premises underlying capitalism, I proposed to go straight to the horses’ mouth and to consider the question of Reformation and Modernity through a close examination of a founding, comprehensive text of Protestantism, i.e., Calvin’s monumental and magisterial Institutes of the Christian Religion.  If experts on or partisans of Calvinism do not regard this text as authoritative, it would be interesting to know why; it seemed reasonable to me to engage it as a comprehensive statement of the essence of the Calvinist Reformation, one that Calvin deepened and refashioned with care throughout his reforming life.  Engagement with this text (to be sure a very Straussian approach, formally) is the core of Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics; the implications of this core examination are elaborated through discussions with the most interesting leading voices on Calvinist theology and politics (from Michael Walzer and Quentin Skinner to Harro Hopfl) I could find, on the one hand, and with leading interpreters of modernity on the other (Strauss, Voegelin, Lowith, Blumenberg).  With the help of these interlocutors I survey and assess the main issues in the practical politics of early Calvinism (right of rebellion, the relation between civil and church government, etc.), ground these questions in the systematic treatment of the Institutes, and, most importantly, trace Calvin’s political understanding to the deepest springs of his theological vision.

So this is the book I wrote.  It would gratifying, perhaps even useful, to engage the reviewers’ claim that my reading is “superficial,” or that it lacks the necessary “research or analysis,” because that claim is not defended, or even explained.  They are so offended by “the damning charge that Calvin’s treatment of reason parallels the modern structure of political rationalism” that they can’t seem to make out the basic structure of the argument.  They are convinced that if I had focused, not on the argument of the Institutes, or more generally on Calvin’s mere “books” or “disembodied ideas,” but on Calvin’s political deeds in Geneva and elsewhere, on the letters and sermons that explain these deeds, and on what came to be known as “Calvinism.”  The reviewers are disappointed that, rather than focusing on Calvin’s practical activities and comparing him to other actors, I am preoccupied by an “elusive and poorly defined foe hunted by a small segment of political theorists working in only the most theoretical and abstract terms.”

This is supposed to suffice, I gather, as a dismissal of the whole Straussian problematic of modernity, which obviously eludes my readers but which I confess I find important and worth engaging.  I simply attribute more importance to “disembodied ideas” than do my earnest reviewers. I am convinced it is profoundly important how we understand at the most fundamental level the relation between humanity and divinity, between human action and divine grace or power.  In fact, as explained in both my prefaces, I think basic structures of thought are so influential that they may reverberate beyond the deliberate intentions of their “authors.”  While attentive to Strauss’s warning against claiming prematurely to understand an author better than he understands himself, this is in fact the claim I am making: Calvin contributed to the releasing of worldly energies that the modern rationalists new how to mobilize and organize.  At the same time, those rationalists failed to comprehend the spiritual motives that informed their material projects – they were not in control of the eschaton they were immanentizing, if you will.  (How’s that for ambitious!)

Leo Strauss knows very well, in fact, that Christian universalism set the stage for the modern project, but he prefers to accentuate (contra Voegelin, notably) the rationality of modern rationalism, even though he finally understands that rationalism is fundamentally irrational, materialism leading by its own inner logic through historicism to nihilism – is that not unmistakably Strauss’s critique?  (The reviewers for VoegelinView do not even notice that a main point of my book’s conclusion is to criticize Strauss’s reply to Voegelin on the question of Christianity and modernity in On Tyranny). It was left to me, then, to show, through a rigorous, sustained, intensive reading of Calvin’s magnum opus, that the reverse is also true.  Irrationalism (or an insistence on the radical transcendence of Christian revelation, on the abyss separating grace and nature) is, or invites, “rationalism”: instrumental rationality as the governing horizon of human action.  The reviewers do not seem to understand my reciprocal reductions of rationalism and irrationalism, but experience the one that applies to Calvinism as a “damning charge.” If it is, it is no insult to John Calvin but a kind of deconstruction that applies to the deep structure modernity per se.  My point is not to take down Calvin but to explore the dynamics of transcendence and immanence and to point up the radical challenge that the Christian idea of an other- or non-worldly destiny (an idea I would not know how to reject) poses to responsible moral and political thinking. (How responsible thinking might meet that challenge is the subject of my later The Responsibility of Reason.)

Unfortunately, the present reviewers dismiss my argument before even beginning to understand it, finding it more convenient to see me as another Calvin-basher of a familiar type, and so they expend a lot of apologetic energy contesting claims I don’t make, or even insisting on points that I have already affirmed.  They are so eager to include me in a category of anti-Calvinist clichés in which I have no stake that they cannot see that my critique works at a much deeper level and includes, as in a mirror, the basic structure of modern rationalism.  Their disdain for what they consider merely “abstract and theoretical” disqualifies them at the outset from engaging my work.  By clinging to their anti-anti-Calvinism they avoid challenge of my thinking, but at the cost of sharing in the very vulnerability to the irrational rationalism of modernity that I expose.

I do not dispute Moots’ and Wolfe’s point that further comparisons with other Christian authors would clarify and strengthen my argument.  There is always more work to be done, and in fact I am even now turning my attention back to such comparisons (with Augustine, Aquinas and Pascal, for example) for a book under contract with Notre Dame University Press.  Further intra-Reformation comparisons would be illuminating, too, though life is short and my capacities are admittedly quite limited.  I recommend on this topic a brilliant little volume by Alain Besancon on Protestantism and America, to be published soon by St. Augustine Press.  It is much better on the practical, historical influence of Calvinism per se than my book.

My book attempts to plumb to its depths the Christian challenge to political reason, using the deepest, controlling theses of Calvin’s Institute as a radical voice in this challenge.  It does not detract from my argument to note that in practice (fortunately) Calvin is not consistently faithful to the radicality of this challenge; indeed, I regard this as impossible.  As I wrote in my first preface:

“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.” But the radical challenge to purposive practical reason, which is of course not the full, intentional meaning of Christianity (Calvin’s or anyone else’s), works its way and contributes to the erosion of a teleological perspective (which is, of course, problematic).  I go on in that preface to specify the range of my book, a specification that, had my present reviewers attended to it, would have saved them a lot of trouble and polemical energy:  “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.”

The reviewers’ failure to engage what I actually argue is clear in their effort to refute my interpretation of Calvin’s doctrine of the fall.  They seem to imagine that they are teaching me something when they rehearse Calvin’s argument that “man’s heavenly orientation is removed, yet his earthly capabilities remain though in a corrupted state.”  But I in fact insist that Calvin’s political teaching accords politics a much higher status than is the case for Augustine or for Luther (a nice little comparative point that I might wish my reviewers had appreciated).  My whole point is to highlight Calvin’s enhancement of “earthly capabilities” and to ask just what the horizon of earthly action can be when the teleological capacity of reason has been excluded.

And in fact, as I show, the repudiation of teleology is not a result of Calvin’s radical doctrine of the fall; rather, the reverse would be closer to the truth.  Even in man’s original condition, purposive reason is excluded by Calvin’s radical view of transcendence.  Of course I do not mean by this that Calvin’s reason has no aims.  As any attentive reader could easily discover, my point is that for Calvin the aims of reason are severed from any “higher,” hierarchically-conceived goods of the soul, and so all that is left is, by default (and however clearly Calvin grasps this himself, by the way), the immanent or material or, as the Reformation helped us learn to say, “secular” necessities of mortality.  All the citations that Moots and Wolfe collect to show that Calvin accords reason a significant role in fact accord perfectly with my thesis.  The question is the meaning of this role, the horizon within which “reason” operates.   And for Calvin – Calvin in his most rigorous anti-teleological mode, which is the controlling theme of his great Institutes — this is a horizon that has been rigorously divorced from any substantial, humanly accessible goods of the soul as such.

It is in order to illuminate what Calvin means by “reason” that I focus on one theological comparison: that between Calvin and those he rejects as “sophists,” by which he clearly means the scholastic philosophers descending from the tradition of Thomas Aquinas.  This is the comparison that Calvin himself makes central, which seems a good reason to prioritize it over other interesting parallels that the reviewers would like to read about.  In the most fundamental sense, Calvin rejects Aquinas’s partial exemption of the rational faculty from the effects of the fall; he insists that “the whole man is flesh” and that “the soul . . . is utterly devoid of all good” (II.iii.2) Calvin said these things; I did not make them up. Here’s another pretty radical statement: “The spirit is so contrasted with flesh that no intermediate thing is left.” (II.iii.1)  “The Reformed tradition, however, has a nuanced, and largely catholic, view of man’s goodness,” my reviewers insist.  Very well, I say; I suspect this bit of ecumenism may exaggerate a bit, but in any case it touches my argument not a whit.   If Calvin and especially Calvinists were not always consistent in upholding this radical rejection of the humanly knowable good of the soul, that in no way detracts from my case.

This is the paradox that must be explained:  Calvin in a way thinks more highly of politics than Aquinas and yet in the most fundamental sense has a lower estimate of human nature in itself (where eternal spiritual goods are concerned) than Augustine.  Explaining this paradox is one good way of characterizing what my whole book is about.  But the reviewers cannot even see the paradox, since to uncover the meaning of the term “reason” would no doubt involve some of the “abstract theory” they despise.  The explanation, in a word, is that Calvin interprets human action as divorced from teleological reason and thus in effect delivered over to a kind of incipient secular rationalism.  This incipient secularism redounds to the glory of God precisely because it does not pretend to any intrinsic goods.  In this way all the parts of Calvin’s argument in the Institutes fit together in a remarkably coherent and radical (anti-) theological vision, one that the present reviewers have yet to appreciate, preferring as they do a certain tradition of “Calvinism.”

Finally, another word about “higher purposes” according to Calvin:  Moots and Wolfe seem to believe they are refuting my thesis by showing from Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah that “the principal end of man is worship.”  Here again the reviewers support my thesis without knowing it:

“But the failure to worship properly does not make man destitute of the ability to craft a political order. Man’s status as unrighteous and at enmity with God on matters of worship or soteriology says nothing about man’s ability to know what is civilly good, to know the natural end of civil community, or to achieve a degree of civil righteousness.”

Precisely: the natural end of the civil community has nothing to do with man’s ultimate spiritual end.  And man’s spiritual end has nothing to do with the natural end or function of the civil community.  This is my point.  “No intermediate thing is left.”  “Civil righteousness” has nothing to do, intrinsically, with “worship,” and so, by default, reduces to Augustine’s mortal necessities, the organization of which is now understood to redound directly to the Glory of God — which glory must of course be understood as uncontaminated from any intelligible natural purposes.

So, there’s the nub of the argument of my book, which is not presented in but only obscured by the sideways approach, the approach from the standpoint of a defense of a Calvinist tradition, of Moots and Wolfe.  In a word: my theoretical Calvin (extracted rigorously from a systematic reading of the Institutes) is not their practical and “catholic” Calvin/Calvinism, and I would not want mine to replace theirs, practically.  I commend their attachment to their wholesome and pious Calvin.  I am personally attached neither to their traditional Calvin nor to my radical Calvin, but I am more interested in my radical Calvin for what he can teach me about the deep problem of transcendence and politics.

I do not know just how the reviewers understand their approach in relation to the legacy of Eric Voegelin, a legacy that is so well honored by the excellent and plentiful articles published on this website.  It does strike me their defensive dismissal of political reflection that they consider too “abstract” or “theoretical” shows the impotence of a thinly veiled anti-Straussian ire.  Since I have spent much of my career trying both to mine the depths and to trace the limits of Leo Strauss’s thought, and since my credentials as a critic of a certain “high Straussian” discourse are well established, I will use the occasion of this response to warn against any religious or philosophical partisanship in which allegiance to Voegelin insulates the scholar from openness to Strauss’s insights or questions.  I believe we have much to learn from both these great interpreters of modernity, and that the truth lies somewhere on the path of thought opened up by the confluence of their ways, and especially by their divergence.


For a review of this book, it is available here. The first and second prefaces of the book are also available.

Ralph C. Hancock

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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).