Archive Civic Polity Peter Escalante

The Servetus Thing

Davey Henreckson, guest-posting at Political Theology, considers whether Calvin is really a Whig who simply suffered intellectually irrelevant bouts of political dyspepsia, as Dr Witte seems to want him to have been, or not. The first post is here, and the second here. We ourselves briefly dealt with Dr Witte’s construal of Calvin in our reply to Mr Tuininga’s hasty claims here.

Mr Henreckson cuts through a mass of spiderwebs in these last two paragraphs of his essay’s second part:

This is not the occasion to evaluate these competing normative political visions. It’s also not my intention to foreclose any reconstructive project which attempts to trace the development of certain shared concepts. Far from it. These projects can be immensely valuable. At the same time, these undertakings require that we first take our interlocutors (living or dead) on their own terms, paying attention to the implicit and explicit commitments that give them reasons to endorse certain beliefs or practices. Liberals can reject Calvin’s criminalization of heresy while recognizing that he believed he was acting for the common good. On our own terms, we could argue that Calvin misrecognized the nature of the goods shared in common. For example, he could not see that many pluralistic societies are able to thrive and achieve some level of mutual respect and “piety” even without the legal imposition of religious orthodoxy.

On these terms, the question of whether or not Calvin was a liberal becomes rather less significant. At the very least, approaching the issue in this way may help us to avoid our former befuddlement over the “inconsistencies” in Calvin’s “liberal” theory and “illiberal” practice. Instead, we can ask: What were his underlying commitments and intentions in writing and acting as he did? Perhaps there are real inconsistencies between Calvin’s normative political theory and his actual political practice. But if we’re going to recognize those critical moments in which real disagreements are made clear and explicit, we first need to understand our interlocutor’s context for belief and practice. We need come to terms with both similarities and dissimilarities between our conceptual worlds. In doing so, it may be possible for Calvin and modern day liberals to have a productive, two-way conversation in which each takes the other’s commitments seriously on his or her own terms.

Was Calvin a full-blown modern Protestant in his political views? Of course not. But neither was he something totally different. His principles were in concord with Luther, who taught that the magistrate cannot coerce consciences and thus shouldn’t be concerned with heresy as such, only with civil order. In the nascent urban society of their day, however, especially during the great unrest of the Reformation, publicly teaching heresy was fomenting civil disorder, as far they were concerned.

Given the subsequent development and differentiation of society, and the full development of Protestant jurisprudence, we can easily say that this is no longer the case. But it was a much more difficult call for Calvin. We might still fault him for his choice, and wish he had taken the purer way more clearly seen by men like Luther and Foxe, but we must, as Mr Henreckson says, read him on his own terms.

Read on their own terms, we think, they evince principles which gave rise to the free society in the full modern sense. But this happened not despite their supposedly illiberal claims about the architectonic character of religion and the role of the magistrate, but at least in part, contra Dr Witte, because of them. The limitation of political administration to the temporal good is a decision and institution of Christian rulers informed by evangelical truth; pacific secularity, as opposed to aggressive secularism, is a space of worldly shalom created by Christian governance.

By Peter Escalante

Peter Escalante is a founder and editor of The Calvinist International. He holds a MA in Philosophy.