John Calvin’s birth 500 years ago predestined American exceptionalism
America was born 233 years ago last week with a Declaration of Independence signed in the City of Brotherly Love. Five Hundred years ago Friday a man was born to love God that helped define much of what embodies the independence that has defined the Shining City on a Hill and the greatest hope of man on Earth.
John Calvin must be ranked as one of the greatest men of the Second Millennium after the birth of Jesus Christ, and not just for his role in the Protestant Reformation of the Christian Church though that role alone was monumental.
Clearly, absent the reforms set in motion by Martin Luther’s 95 theses in Germany and Calvin’s Institutes in France, western civilization and its American jewel would likely not have achieved its paramount position in world history.
Contrary to revisionist historians hostile to the Christian Church, the Reformation enabled the Enlightenment from the Dark Ages with Judeo-Christian principles essential to a New World of tolerance and reason. The Church, not secularists, built the university.
Man, not the King, is entitled to the fruits of his labor*
Did Calvin want us to abstain from all material pleasures? He wrote that God “meant not only to provide for necessity but also for delight and good cheer. . . . Has the Lord clothed the flowers with the great beauty that greets our eyes, the sweetness of smell that is wafted upon our nostrils, and yet will it be unlawful for our eyes to be affected by that beauty, or our sense of smell by the sweetness of that odor?” He opposed any doctrine that “deprives us of the lawful fruit of God’s beneficence.”
Liberty under God trumps Church and State
Calvin also opposed doctrines that deprive us of political liberty. His understandings—that God-given laws are superior to those of the state, the king, and any other institution, and that individuals have direct access to the Bible, without dependence on pope or priest—are common now, but compare them to the political and theological theories fashionable before his time. In ancient times, pagan states revered leaders as semi-divine. Those who argued with such bosses were seen as deserving death. In medieval times, the interpretations of church officials often trumped the words of the Bible itself (which few people could read). They identified God’s kingdom on earth with a church monopoly, and hanged, burned, or decapitated some with other ideas.
Separation of Church and State and the Protestant Work Ethic
Calvin and other Reformation leaders, though, separated church and state while emphasizing the importance of believers working to lead the state. Calvin contended that, since God reigns everywhere, His followers should be entrepreneurs in every strategic institution, including government, civil society, commerce, media, law, education, the church, and the arts. This emphasis led directly to what has become known as the “Protestant ethic,” with its unleashing of individual initiative and its emphasis on hard work in purportedly secular areas. Many kinds of labor are equally worthy, Calvin argued, and those in charge of one activity should not dictate to others.
Calvin’s writings also had an implicit anti-statism. Since fundamental law comes from God, obeying the law means obeying God, not necessarily the state. Rebellion against an unlawful state act, led by “lesser magistrates” such as local leaders, is really a justifiable maintenance of true law. One Calvin disciple in 1579 wrote Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (“Vindication Against Tyrants”), which emphasized the limits of power.
It is a shame that the revolution in Calvin’s France nearly 300 years after his birth threw off respect for Creator endowed rights and that Europe in general has relegated God to equivalence with Zeus.
It is part of the Miracle at Philadelphia that America’s Founding Mothers and Fathers understood that only a moral and religious people could handle the freedom they set in motion that allowed for Independence not only from a King in England, but from the world history of tyranny itself, as TMR’s Pilgrim exclaims:
The Founders knew that ninety-nine percent of the human race has had to live out their lives under tyranny.
My prayer today is that We the People not succumb to the Siren Song of alluring Big Government that would deform Calvin’s reforms reflected in the Statue of Liberty his France gave to the New World.
*All quotes but final quote are from Marvin Olasky
“One man with courage makes a majority.” – Andrew Jackson
Originally published @ Examiner.com, where all verification links may be accessed.