Calvinism on Independence Day … Then and Now


The great 20th Century Reformed Theologian B. B. Warfield, in speaking about the differences between Lutheranism and Calvinism could say,

Lutheranism, the product of a poignant sense of sin, born from the throes of a guilt-burdened soul which can not be stilled until it finds peace in God’s decree of justification, is apt to rest in this peace; while Calvinism, the product of an overwhelming vision of God, born from the reflection in the heart of man of the majesty of a God who will not give His glory to another, can not pause until it places the scheme of salvation itself in relation to a complete world-view, in which it becomes subsidiary to the glory of the Lord God Almighty. Calvinism asks with Lutheranism, indeed, that most poignant of all questions, What shall I do to be saved? and answers it as Lutheranism answers it. But the great question which presses upon it is, How shall God be glorified? — B. B. Warfield

Recently, Reformed Pastor and Theologian Robert Letham could echo Warfield’s words from about 100 years ago,

… for Reformed theology, everything took place to advance the glory of God. Thus the chief purpose of theology and of the whole of life was not the rescue of humanity but the glory of God. The focus was theocentric rather than soteriological….

Following from this was an attempt by Reformed theology to grasp the unity of creation and redemption. The whole of life was seen in the embrace of God’s revelatory purpose. With the covenant at its heart, the whole of life was to display God’s glory. Naturally, that included at its heart the restoration of sinners to fellowship w/ God. It also entailed, however the reconstitution of both civil and ecclesiastical affairs.

Robert Letham
The Work of Christ — pg. 189-190

Both of these quotes give some context for why the great Dutch Theologian Abraham Kuyper could say,

“Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'”

We open with this background in order to set the table for the observation that run of the mill vanilla Calvinism, in its preaching and teaching, has always been concerned with applying Biblical Christianity to all of life, precisely because, as Warfield stated, Calvinism has always been concerned with putting salvation in the context of a complete worldview, and as Letham noted Calvinism has always advanced the reconstitution of both civil and ecclesiastical affairs so they display God’s glory. Calvinism doesn’t dismiss the work of God declaring sinners right but historic Calvinism sees that only as the beginning work of God’s larger work of shaping the world to reflect His Glory — a glory which can never be increased.

So, on this Lord’s Day before the commemoration of our Nation’s Birthday we want to pause to consider the truths set forth in the Scripture readings this morning.

By the blessing of the upright a city is exalted,
but by the mouth of the wicked it is overthrown. Prov. 11:11

Righteousness exalts a nation,
but sin is a reproach to any people. Prov. 14:34

It is an abomination to kings to do evil,
for the throne is established by righteousness. Prov. 16:12

For the transgression of a land many are the princes thereof;
but by a man of understanding and knowledge the state thereof shall be prolonged Prov. 28:2

All of these Proverbs indicate that God has a word to speak about the ordering of Civil affairs. In all these passages there is a connection established between righteousness and the health of the commonwealth. Naturally, the inspired writer of the Proverbs understood that the Righteousness that was so instrumental to the health of the commonwealth could only be defined by assuming God’s law word as the Standard. Similarly, wickedness, sin, abomination and transgression as matters that contribute to the disintegration of the commonwealth could all only be defined as against the Standard of God’s law word. In these Proverbs God is teaching us that the health or the illness of a commonwealth is in direct relation to their esteeming or disregarding of God’s standard.

That this Nation was established with that understanding, to some degree, some of our Founding Fathers understood. Benjamin Franklin, who was hardly a Christian in any orthodox sense could still say,

As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals and His religion as He left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see.

Franklin had earlier suggested during the Constitutional Convention,

“In the beginning of the Contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection.- Our prayers, Sir, were heard, & they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending providence in our favor.

To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth- that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better, than the Builders of Babel: …

I therefore beg leave to move-that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that Service-“

Patrick Henry could say,

“Righteousness alone can exalt America as a nation. Whoever thou art, remember this; and in thy sphere practice virtue thyself, and encourage it in others.”

First Chief Justice John Jay could say,

Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.”

Presbyterian Minister and signer of the Declaration of Independence John Witherspoon could write,

[H]e is the best friend to American liberty who is the most sincere and active in promoting true and undefiled religion, and who sets himself with the greatest firmness to bear down profanity and immorality of every kind. Whoever is an avowed enemy of God, I scruple not to call him an enemy to his country.

I really could go on all morning citing references like this. I only wanted to give you a Whitman’s sampler of quotes that indicated that though all our Founders were not personally Christians, there was a Christian ethos and worldview that informed many many of the Founders.

Though according to some Civil leadership today … “we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values,” it was the case at one time that we freely spoke of ourselves as a Christian nation.

And this Christianity that at one time informed the American Commonwealth was the kind of Christianity that you and we embrace. It was distinctly Calvinist.

George Bancroft — Historian
History of the United States of America — Vol. 1 — pg. 464

“The fanatic for Calvinism was a fanatic for liberty; and, in the moral warfare for freedom, his creed was his most faithful counselor and his never failing support. The Puritans … planted … the undying principles of democratic liberty.”

“He that will not honor the memory and respect the influence of Calvin knows but little of the origin of American liberty”

James H. Huston
Religion and the Founding of the American Republic — p. 42

“On the eve of the Revolution, John Adams asserted that the pulpits of heavily Presbyterian Philadelphia thundered and lightninged every Sunday against the foreign tyranny, while Jefferson described a Virginia in which ‘pulpit oratory ran like a shock of electricity through the whole colony.”

World reknowned German Historian Leopold Van Ranke could write,

“John Calvin was virtually the founder of America.”

So, in the time remaining I only want to establish a couple of influences on the origin of this nation that were Calvinistic.

I.) A High Regard For God’s Laws

NEW JERSEY SEAL, 1665: “Righteousness exalteth a nation.” – Prov. 14:34

PENNSYLVANIA GOVERNMENT, 1682: ” . . . Make and establish such laws as shall best preserve true Christian and civil liberty, in all opposition to all unchristian . . . practices.”[30]

PENNSYLVANIA’S FIRST LEGISLATIVE ACT, 1682: “Whereas the glory of Almighty God and the good of Mankind, is the reason and end of government, and therefore, government in itself is a venerable Ordinance of God, therefore, it is the purpose of civil government to establish such laws as shall best preserve true Christian and Civil Liberty, in opposition to all Unchristian, Licentious, and unjust practices, (Whereby God may have his due, and Caesar his due, and the people their due), from tyranny and oppression . . . .”[31]

The main distinction of Puritan jurisprudence is its reliance upon the Bible as the source of its laws and principles of adjudication. This is not to say that it did not borrow liberally from the civil and common laws of England. However, even when it borrowed, the imported elements still had to pass Scriptural scrutiny in order to assure they were not contrary to Biblical principles. As heirs of the Protestant Reformation, the Puritans were, in a theological sense, the original proponents of “original intent.” They believed that, since God had spoken authoritatively in Scripture, revealing His will for humanity, Scripture should be the ultimate standard by which all human tradition, knowledge and laws should be judged. Any laws or legal traditions contrary to Scripture were therefore to be repudiated as the products of sinful man and not God. For this reason “[t}hey felt perfectly justified in putting God’s law above all other law.”

Now, this high view of God’s law was not as high by the time we get to the separation from England, but that there remained a high regard for God’s law is seen by the willingness of much of the citizenry to obey God rather than man.

Because of this high regard for God’s laws there was a sense that man’s wicked law was not to be observed when it ran contrary to God’s clearly established law, when it did so, and man was forced to choose between the Magistrate’s law and God’s law the Christian man had no choice.

That this mindset was also Calvinistic in its mindset can be seen by quotes from Christopher Goodman, and John Knox,

‎”When Kings or rulers become blasphemers of God, oppressors and murderers of their subjects, they ought no more to be accounted Kings or lawful magistrates, but as private men to be examined, accused, condemned, and punished by the law of God…. When magistrates cease to do their duty, the people are as it were, without magistrates … If Princes do right and keep promise with you, then do you owe all humble obedience. If not ye are discharged from and your study ought to be in this case how ye may depose and punish according to law such rebels against God and oppressors of their country.”

Christopher Goodman
Puritan / Co-pastor with John Knox in Geneva

How Superior Powers ought to be obeyed of their subjects; and wherein they may lawfully by God’s word be disobeyed and resisted.

“Obedience to God’s Laws by disobeying man’s wicked laws is commendable, but to disobey God for any duty to man is all together damnable.”

John Knox

Later Jefferson, though a Deist himself, could condense that Knoxian mindset into a phrase he originally championed to be put into the seal of these united States,

“Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”

On the eve of the separation from England, Presybterians, still echoing, Calvin’s disciples Beza, and Rutherford, were arguing that to confiscate one’s money or property w/o consent was “unjust and contrary to reason and the law of God, and the Gospel of Christ; it is contrary to the Magna Carta … and the Constitution of England; and to complain and even to resist such lawless power is just and reasonable and no rebellion.”

This connection to esteeming God’s law with resistance brings us to our next point,

II.) A Conviction That Government Should Be Limited

This conviction came from the Calvinist conviction, following Scripture that man as a sinner was fallen and therefore any power that man has should always be limited and checked. The idea of limited Government is a idea that grows out of the soil of a proper Christian doctrine of man.

“The heart is deceitfully wicked above all things …”

The earliest American Puritan philosophy, as derived from Calvin’s theology may be summarized,

* Man as a sinner is unable, even with good intellectual abilities, to discover or create perfect structures of the state.

This mindset is seen in James Madison’s quip that, “What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

And yet Madison could have been channeling Calvin with that statement. Calvin had written 2 centuries prior,

“If we were all like angels, blameless and freely able to exercise perfect self control, we would not need rules or regulations.”

One sees and hears the Calvinistic anthropology bearing influence on Madison.

* Because of this, a source of information was needed: divine revelation from a superior mind

* God, not man, was the ultimate sovereign, and all governments were accountable and subordinate to God

* As an expression of both law and grace, God revealed certain patterns and principles for governments, whether the governmental spheres were family, church, or civil. Calvinists believe Scriptures defined the charters as well as the limitations of civil governments.

* Civil rulers, thus, were to conform to God’s plans for government; they were not autonomous or at liberty to ignore his moral strictures. Their powers were neither absolute nor based solely on popular will.

* Because of human depravity, citizens needed restraint and Utopian solutions were impossible.

For the Calvinist then there is no form of government more fundamentally anti-Christian than a government that recognizes, in principle, no limit to what it can require. For the Calvinist because absolute claims are the prerogative of Deity all subordinate authority must be limited and checked.

Calvinists believed that if the decisions of the English Parliament were allowed to stand, there would be no longer any limiting principle upon Parliament whatever. Our Calvinist forebears who had drank deeply from the political theology of Calvin and his successors understood it was time for the ruling class to discover that there is still a limiting principle outside the Parliament, enforced by those who believe that the only real limiting principle is at the right hand of the Father.

They understood that Jesus is Lord — not Caesar, and not the Supreme Court, Not Congress, and not the President.

Er … I mean not the English Parliament.

Do we any longer understand that. Are we any longer Calvinists?

Author: jetbrane

I am a Pastor of a small Church in Mid-Michigan who delights in my family, my congregation and my calling. I am postmillennial in my eschatology. Paedo-Calvinist Covenantal in my Christianity Reformed in my Soteriology Presuppositional in my apologetics Familialist in my family theology Agrarian in my regional community social order belief Christianity creates culture and so Christendom in my national social order belief Mythic-Poetic / Grammatical Historical in my Hermeneutic Pre-modern, Medieval, & Feudal before Enlightenment, modernity, & postmodern Reconstructionist / Theonomic in my Worldview One part paleo-conservative / one part micro Libertarian in my politics Systematic and Biblical theology need one another but Systematics has pride of place Some of my favorite authors, Augustine, Turretin, Calvin, Tolkien, Chesterton, Nock, Tozer, Dabney, Bavinck, Wodehouse, Rushdoony, Bahnsen, Schaeffer, C. Van Til, H. Van Til, G. H. Clark, C. Dawson, H. Berman, R. Nash, C. G. Singer, R. Kipling, G. North, J. Edwards, S. Foote, F. Hayek, O. Guiness, J. Witte, M. Rothbard, Clyde Wilson, Mencken, Lasch, Postman, Gatto, T. Boston, Thomas Brooks, Terry Brooks, C. Hodge, J. Calhoun, Llyod-Jones, T. Sowell, A. McClaren, M. Muggeridge, C. F. H. Henry, F. Swarz, M. Henry, G. Marten, P. Schaff, T. S. Elliott, K. Van Hoozer, K. Gentry, etc. My passion is to write in such a way that the Lord Christ might be pleased. It is my hope that people will be challenged to reconsider what are considered the givens of the current culture. Your biggest help to me dear reader will be to often remind me that God is Sovereign and that all that is, is because it pleases him.

4 thoughts on “Calvinism on Independence Day … Then and Now”

  1. The sad part is that those early Presbyterians rejected the historic theonomy of their forefathers in the three kingdoms changing ch.23 of the WCF and essentially making it impossible to have a consistent testimony to the kingship of the Lord over the USA. The early American Presbyterians signing off on the rightness denominational schism. Now we’re left with the dregs of political polytheism of ancient Rome. The fall and falling of America was from it’s very beginning, a rejection of King Jesus.

  2. Pastor Bret,

    I was wondering what you thought of the ideal that Deism was the catalyst for the American Revolution? I’m reading through Dr. C. Gregg Singer’s “A Theological Interpretation of American History” and in “Chapter 2: Deism in Colonial Life” he states,

    “Ultimately (Deism) it provided that political philosophy which would produce the American Revolution, and at the same time, brought in it’s wake a new theological outlook which was quite conducive to revolutionary activity. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the separation from England could not have taken place unless there had first been a revolt against the Puritan world and life view in the colonies. Richard Mosier correctly stated the case in his “The American Tempter” when he wrote that the struggle against the absolutism of the King of England had it’s corollary in the struggle against the sovereignty of the Puritan God: “the ‘Revolutionary’ could no more admit a sovereign God than he could a sovereign king.” Thus Deism provided the motivation for not only the American Revolution, but also for the rise of Democracy in America (as distinct from the type of representative government which had characterized the Puritan movement in the seventeenth century).”

    1. J. J.,

      I am sure that there were those for whom what Singer describes is true. However, I think it goes too far to suggest that Deism was THE worldview basis for the American counter-Revolution. In order to argue that Deism was the exhaustive worldview of the colonies one would have to ignore a good deal of contrary evidence. I was taught that the American war for Independence was a matter of two worldviews animating people in two different ways each pursuing the same action (Independence from the Crown) but having different motivations for doing so.

      If one considers the sermons of the time and background of previous Calvinists in history one can easily see that many of those who fought for Independence were Biblical Christians.

      So, I think Singer correct on his observation, but I don’t think him completely correct.

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