Reformed Political Engagement
“Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator.” – John Calvin (Institutes, II.II.XV)
Once upon a time, a friend recently returned from an Acton Institute event asked me to what degree Reformed individuals could describe fallen man as “good” in the realm of politics and ethics. As an ecumenical organization, Acton Institute states its mission “is to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.” The basic principle seems simply—a free market society (strongly libertarian) without discarding fundamental virtue principles.
Setting aside the topic of economics, the overarching question was if Calvin and the Reformed tradition would encourage participation in this program or anything similar? More matter-of-factly, does the doctrine of “Total Depravity,” most associated with Calvinism, discourage (whether in practice or expectation) cooperation with fallen man establishing a “virtuous society?” Without diving into any specific sphere of involvement, what space and involvement can be shared on matters of racial reconciliation, the global impacts of debt, and protecting the rights of the unborn or elder?
For many traditions, the answers to these questions are more straight-forward. The question facing those in the Reformed Tradition is what role can we perform at this shared table? I think a brief look at Calvin’s theology of humanity from the Institutes of the Christian Religion can shed light on one viable approach.
Defining Goodness and Virtue
One of the pitfalls in answer to this question comes by describing what our response to men as natural good or virtuous should be. In light of the fall, the Westminster Confession of Faith says:
“[We are] wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body” (VI.II)
“We are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil” (VI.IV)
Calvin himself states, “man’s natural gifts were corrupted by sin, and his supernatural gifts withdrawn” (Institutes, II.II.XII). From this, we can discern that the image of God in man remains forever tainted beyond repair. The Reformed Tradition can say this unflinchingly but the question remains about man’s fallen capacity for virtue and, ultimately, the meaning of “virtuous.”
While I doubt Reformed believers will affirm the term “virtuous” in a satisfactory way for other traditions, I believe Calvin and the WCF provide a basis for hope in the political and economic arenas and a mandate to communicate this hope. I will start by emphasizing the later.
In the chapter on “Good Works,” the WCF spends multiple sections speaking about the origin and cause of good works in the regenerate believer. It concludes with a section qualifying “good works” in the unregenerate. I quote in its entirety:
“Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from a heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God: and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God.” (XVI.VII)
I’d like to highlight two important points here. The first is that the unregenerate can do the things which God commands and this obedience can benefit themselves or their community. The second is that neglect of performing these commands is more displeasing and sinful than any corrupted performance. So from the outside looking upon the ethics of the unregenerate, the Reformed Tradition has affirmed that it is possible in the flesh to accomplish God’s commandments (precisely as the Jews obeyed the letter of the law without recognizing its Spirit). This declaration of God that they can and should perform these commands were described by Calvin as the “second office of the law” (Inst. II.VII.X) which is intended to curb the manifestation of man’s sinful inclinations.
While in principle, the church should not concern itself with preaching the “second office of the law” the natural effect in the regenerate heart should be a life of action that informs the unregenerate of their need to obey God’s commands. Naturally, this living out of obedience involves the use of words and language. It includes coming together in obedience even though these “good works” are only pleasing to God when offered from the heart of the regenerate (Heb. 11:6). For there is no natural inclination to obey these laws by the unregenerate. Calvin even goes so far as to write that “the more they restrain themselves, the more they are inflamed, the more they rage and boil.” Nonetheless, “this forced and extorted righteousness is necessary for the good of society” (Inst. II.VII.X).
So how does this line up with the idea of developing virtue? Early in the second book of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin speaks more precisely about some of the manners in which the unregenerate can fulfill God’s commands as well as be creators of virtue in this fallen world. There Calvin praises the wisdom of fallen men in non-spiritual things as “acute and clear-sighted” such that it “should teach us how many gifts the Lord has left in possession of human nature, notwithstanding of its having been despoiled of the true good” (Inst. II.II.XV). So while it is clear that sin has corrupted these gifts, it is also clear that they are not entirely withdrawn. These gifts permit obedience to a certain degree in the commandments dealing primarily with the flesh and curbing external sinful manifestations.
This takes the necessary steps to explain how the WCF can speak of man being capable of obeying—merely in the letter—the commandments of God. In the religious, this can lead to legalism and hypocrisy. But among the unregenerate, instead of creating hypocrites, this curbing of external sin benefits society and fulfills the intent of the “second office of the law.” Further, these gifts exist to the extent that Calvin can write:
“Man’s efforts are not always so utterly fruitless as not to lead to some result, especially when his attention is directed to inferior objects. Nay, even with regard to superior objects, though he [fallen man] is more careless in investigating them, he makes some little progress.” (Inst. II.II.XIII)
Far from questioning the intellect and reason of the fallen man, Calvin admits that by lesser means they can still prevail in moving humanity and society forward. Left unto themselves this may not be the case. But as members of society and humanity, Christians find a clear reason for optimism participating with the unregenerate on likeminded social issues.
Application to Political Involvement
It should be reiterated that these gifts of knowledge pertain exclusively to what Calvin called the “earthly things.” The Reformed Tradition distinguishes itself by our definition of man’s remaining gifts according to “spiritual things.” Whichever way we acknowledging this distinction, it is valuable to recognize that among these “earthly things” Calvin includes “matters of policy and economy” (Inst. II.II.XIII). Whereas some in the Reformed Tradition make matters of government a spiritual knowledge, Calvin assumes these topics remain among the things fallen man is gifted in improving upon throughout history. On the issue of politics, Calvin’s position is simple,
“Since man is by nature a social animal, he is disposed, from natural instinct, to cherish and preserve society; and accordingly we see that the minds of all men have impressions of civil order and honesty.” (Institutes, II.II.XIII)
If we let the language of this simmer for a bit, one can clearly see how Calvin‘s view of fallen man's ability to maintain "order and honesty" in government and politics could be described as a "natural good." These things were naturally given to all men. And while they have been tarnished, Calvin affirms that they are still capable of seeking—at the very least selfishly—to "cherish and preserve society."
In the modern age, we might think Calvin naïve to the evilness of man. We might convince ourselves that could Calvin see the political landscape of today he would not affirm “all men” have impressions of honesty. But spin that around. Is mankind really that much worse than in Calvin's time? Calvin is not ignorant of the depravity of man. The man who argued against Roman Catholic apologists about the depraved nature of man is not suddenly speaking out both sides of his mouth. Almost as if on cue, Calvin accounts for the doctrine of depravity by describing unregenerate man’s “stumbling every now and then like one groping in darkness” in the political struggle. So we should be tempered against any impressive “civil order and honesty.” And yet, the conclusion to be drawn is not to work without them but instead alongside them with our greater revelation.
The rebellion against the gifts of God (and the “second office of the law”) depicted by Calvin in the arena of politics is not proof that revelation is lacking. Even when they “hold that to be praiseworthy which is elsewhere forbidden,” Calvin chalks this up as “the weakness of the human mind, which, even when it seems on the right path, halts and hesitates.” This active struggle against the gifts of God proves that such gifts truly have been endowed (Acts 17:27). Instead of isolating or ostracizing on the basis of this struggle, the Reformed Tradition should see an opportunity to encourage obedience for the good of society and the potential conviction from God’s law that leads to regeneration. Nowhere is this truer than in the light of reason God has gifted man concerning politics and economics.
The image of God resides in man to the degree that he is uncomfortable with his knowledge of divine truth. As regenerate believers, our ability to come alongside with the commandments of God in full display through our lives can align with fallen men to improve society in virtue and justice. We who have the words of life are capable of being the regular reminder of God's commandments. Commandments which the WCF clearly teaches can be obeyed in the letter even by the unregenerate. Commandments which when followed benefit society in both truth and honor.
So back to the original question, can those in the Reformed Tradition bring anything to the table among interfaith discussions and even among the non-believer regarding political engagement towards virtue? Absolutely. I believe Reformed believers can proceed in discussions and organizations encouraging virtue in society. In fact, I believe great strides can be achieved for society and the church under such banners. We can learn from them and find wisdom in their thinking. Even though they toil less efficiently than us, it is entirely possible for them to make progress in the sphere of political on the basis of their remaining—natural—gifts from God. Total Depravity isn't a doctrine that denies the pervading grace of God. And it is that pervading and persistent grace of God that permits the Reformed believer to move forward in political engagement alongside the non-believer.