A Calvinistic Basis for a Free & Virtuous Society

Joshua Torrey comments
| Faith

“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

A friend recently came back from an event hosted by Acton Institute. His question at the dinner table was to what degree Reformed individuals could describe fallen man as “good” in the realm of politics and ethics. Keep in mind that Acton Institute is a cross-faith organization whose mission “is to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.”

The basic principal seems simply — a free market society (strongly libertarian) without discarding fundamental virtue principles. My friend’s question was if Calvin and the Reformed tradition say anything that would encourage participation in this program. Does the doctrine of “Total Depravity,” most associated with Calvinism, hinder any hope for cooperation with fallen man establishing a “virtuous society”?

It should be clear up front that the Reformed tradition will not prescribe to mean a natural goodness or virtue. The image of God in man remains forever tainted beyond repair — there will remain a question about the meaning of “virtuous.” Calvin himself states valuably, “man’s natural gifts were corrupted by sin, and his supernatural gifts withdrawn” (Institutes, II.II.XII).

I do not think Reformed believers will affirm the terms “good” or “virtuous” in a satisfactory way for some. Yet, I believe Calvin, in particular, provides a basis for hope in the political and economic arenas. Calvin’s praise for the “acute and clear-sighted” wisdom of fallen man “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” (Institutes, II.II.XV). Sin certainly has corrupted these gifts, but they are not withdrawn. These gifts exist to the extent that Calvin can say, “Even with regard to superior objects, though he [fallen man] is more careless in investigating them, he makes some little progress.”

There remains Included in these gifts a knowledge of “earthly things” that includes even “matters of policy and economy.” On the issue of politics, Calvin’s generic 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)

We, in the modern social age, might think Calvin naïve to the evilness of man in this regard — if Calvin were alive today he would certainly not affirm “all men” have impressions of honesty. But let that idea sink in for a moment. Calvin is not ignorant to the depravity of man. And so Calvin accounts for the “stumbling every now and then like one groping in darkness” of fallen man. Here, Calvin’s position takes a noticeably ‘Calvinistic’ turn as he expounds upon the natural fallacy within fallen man against any truly good impression of “civil order and honesty.”

Man’s rebellion against the gifts of God 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 thrashing against the gifts of God proves that such gifts truly have been endowed. As Karl Barth once stated, "Where God's grace is rejected, man rushes into his own mischief" (Dogmatics in Outline, 106). 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.

Yes, I do believe Reformed believers can proceed in discussions and organizations of free market/virtue ethics that incorporate fallen man. I, in fact, believe great strides can be achieved for society and the church under such banners. We should do so with gusto acknowledging (openly) the ultimate sovereignty of God. But we should also do so with the knowledge that man will rebel against God the entire way. Call that the pessimism in my postmillennialism.


Joshua Torrey

Joshua is a computer engineer by day and reader/blogger by night. He has written a couple books no one has read and is indoctrinating his children to cheer for Pittsburgh sports teams.

My Website: http://www.torreygazette.com