Over at the Political Theology blog, I posted the first of a two part series: Was John Calvin a Liberal?
In recent years, a number of theologians and legal historians have argued that the early modern Reformed tradition was a significant source for the development of various liberal doctrines. Scholars such as Nicholas Wolterstorff, David Little, and John Witte have traced modern doctrines of individual rights and the separation of church and state back to various Calvinist thinkers. Witte has been the most prolific, writing dozens of articles and several books on the topic over the past couple decades. In his most recent book, The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism, Witte argues – even more directly than before – that many of our most deeply-held liberal ideas owe as much to John Calvin (1509-1564) and his theological descendants as to later Enlightenment theorists. This may seem a strange notion to anyone familiar with the common charges against Calvin, the stern Genevan reformer who allegedly presided over his own theocratic city-state. Yet Witte argues that our perceptions of the early Calvinist tradition need to be revised. In fact, while he acknowledges the “grimmer side” of the story – that is, the cases where Calvin and his followers failed to protect the rights and religious liberties of others – Witte believes that in many cases, the political thought of this tradition was “more progressive” than its contemporaries. Further, he contends that the modern separation of church and state (and the distinction between public and private morality that undergirds it) can be traced back to Calvin himself….