Celebrating John Calvin’s legacy—not so much Charles Darwin’s

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Jul 12, 2009 5 Comments ›› John Eidsmoe

Celebrating John Calvin’s legacy—not so much Charles Darwin’s

2009 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s ORIGIN OF SPECIES, a book that dramatically changed ways of thinking and believing, though not necessarily for the better.

But July 10, 2009 was also the 500th anniversary of John Calvin (http://www NULL.calvin500 NULL.com/), the great Reformer whose teachings became the foundation of the Huguenot churches of France, the Reformed churches of the Netherlands, and the Presbyterian churches of Scotland.  Like Martin Luther, Calvin emphasized the all-sufficiency of Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura) as the source of Christian doctrine, the all-sufficiency of grace alone (Sola Gratia) as the provision for our salvation, and the all-sufficiency of faith alone (Sola Fide) as the means of receiving God’s grace.

But Calvin also influenced law and government.  His emphasis on Sola Scriptura led to his doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, stressing that all believers are priests and Jesus Christ is our great high priest, so we need no priest or bishop to intercede on our behalf.  But if, as Calvin taught, every plowboy should be able to read and interpret the Scriptures for himself, then every plowboy must be taught to read.  This led to widespread literacy, which made republican self-government possible.

Calvin’s emphasis on Sola Gratia led to a recognition of the total depravity of human nature.  Because of man’s sinful nature, we cannot live in a state of anarchy; we need government to maintain law and order.  But because those in authority have the same sinful nature as the rest of us, we cannot trust government with too much power.  This led to the system of limited government, separation of powers, checks and balances, and reserved individual rights that characterize republican self-government.

Years ago, I spoke to the Christian Legal Society (http://www NULL.clsnet NULL.org/law-students/cls-law-student-ministries) at the University of North Dakota Law School (http://www NULL.law NULL.und NULL.nodak NULL.edu/).  I emphasized the role of Calvin in providing the theological and philosophical basis for our Constitution.  One young Christian man was utterly amazed by this.  He told me he had a master’s degree in history, and until that night he had never heard of John Calvin!  But Leopold von Ranke, founder of the modern school of history in Germany, stated flatly (http://books NULL.google NULL.com/books?id=NLApAAAAYAAJ&dq=Von%20Ranke%2C%20%E2%80%9CJohn%20Calvin%20was%20the%20virtual%20founder%20of%20America NULL.%E2%80%9D&client=firefox-a&pg=PA202), “John Calvin was the virtual founder of America.”  And George Bancroft, the leading American historian of the first half of the 1800s, though not a Calvinist himself, called Calvin the “father of America” and added (http://books NULL.google NULL.com/books?id=jmdP3ZS3lfAC&lpg=PR9&ots=bH_pYEARpS&dq=george%20bancroft%20and%20john%20calvin%20%22founder%20of%20america%22&pg=PR9), “He who will not honor the memory and respect the influence of Calvin knows but little of the origin of American liberty.”

Fortunately, some have not forgotten Calvin’s influence on America and the Free World.  Vision Forum (http://www NULL.visionforum NULL.com/), an educational ministry founded and led by dynamic Attorney Doug Phillips, held a conference called Reformation 500 (http://www NULL.visionforum NULL.com/onlineemail/Vision-Forum/2009/03/05_ref_500/) in Boston July 1-4 to celebrate and study the influence of Calvin.  About a thousand people came including many children, many in period dress.  Besides Doug Phillips himself, speakers included Dr. Joe Morecraft of Chalcedon Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, historian Bill Potter, Plymouth Rock Foundation Executive Director Paul Jehle, Marshall Foster of the Mayflower Institute, and myself.

I delivered four addresses to the conference:  “John Calvin: America’s First Founding Father,” “The Use of the Bible in American Colonial Law,” “Calvin’s Doctrine of Interposition,” and “The Common Law: It’s Anglo-Saxon Conception, Christian Birth, and Reformation Revival.”  These addresses, and all of the addresses presented at the conference, may be purchased on DVD, CD, or MP3 through Vision Forum (http://www NULL.visionforum NULL.com/booksandmedia/productdetail NULL.aspx?productid=75482&categoryid=191).  It was a glorious weekend, from walking the Boston Commons, viewing the old Puritan cemeteries where John Cotton, Cotton Mather, Sam Adams, James Otis, and other founding fathers of America are buried, to gathering around the piano in the hotel lobby with over a hundred teenagers joyfully singing, not praise choruses, but the great old hymns of the faith until 1:30 AM.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Calvin!  Your influence continues, and you are not forgotten.

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  1. Celebrating John Calvin’s Legacy « (http://5ptsalt NULL.com/2009/07/14/celebrating-john-calvins-legacy/) says:

    [...] Read more here. [...]

  2. OFT (http://www NULL.ourfoundingtruth NULL.blogspot NULL.com) says:

    Great Post! Is there evidence that Montesquieu understood his separation of powers from Calvin?

  3. John Eidsmoe says:

    Good question! My initial reaction is that Montesquieu probably was not influenced much by Calvin, because Montesquieu was Roman Catholic. But Montesquieu was also French, as was Calvin originally, so it is possible. Perhaps someone else can enlighten us on this question.

  4. Kenneth Van Dellen says:

    Interesting post. (Proud to be a Calvinist, but only recently learned of these connections.)

    You may wish to remove the apostrophe from the “it’s” in the following if you can. “I delivered four addresses to the conference: “John Calvin: America’s First Founding Father,” “The Use of the Bible in American Colonial Law,” “Calvin’s Doctrine of Interposition,” and “The Common Law: It’s Anglo-Saxon Conception, Christian Birth, and Reformation Revival.”

  5. OFT (http://www NULL.ourfoundingtruth NULL.blogspot NULL.com) says:

    Montesquieu quoting Calvin would be important, for the framers referenced Montesquieu heavily in the Federalist, and during the founding.

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