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Impact of Calvinism on Culture

By Jeff Ziegler
Published November 1, 1998

A Challenge to the NRA

In order for the National Reform Association to achieve its chief ends for America, recognition of an explicit Calvinistic social order must be heralded. That is, Calvinism must be audaciously and cogently advanced as the undergirding principle behind the political aims of the NRA. Prevalent debates over Calvinism revolve around its soteriological or salvific component, specifically the acrostic of The Synod of Dort—TULIP; or Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and the Perseverance of the saints. My intention is not to ignore nor diminish the soteriological aspects of Calvinism, but instead, make deductions and observations about Calvinism as an idea and as a social force which helped to shape and mold the culture of the West.

Isolating the two overarching and dominating effects of Calvinism on culture, concentration must be placed on Calvinism’s stress of the transcendent nature of God, as well as the notion of covenant as the great means by which the transcendent God rules and governs history. While it is true that John Calvin’s general worldview and his concept of culture was not as developed as say full-blown expressions of reconstructionism, even a cursory glance at his sermons on Deuteronomy show a keen understanding of covenant replete with concrete sanctions of both blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience to the law of God. But again, my emphasis is not on Calvin’s view of culture, but to instead trace the impact upon culture by the movement which bears his name.

Before proceeding, it is necessary that we also define the word “culture.” Culture, taken from its Latin root of cultus or cultura, is composed by an act or acts of adoration and worship. Accordingly, a nation’s culture, along with its resultant societal structures, will ultimately reflect the god it worships. The anthem of Calvinism respecting culture is best summed by Cornelius Van Til who said: “The Biblical ideal or sum of God’s will is the transformation of the world, every part of it, into a place of worship or (cultus) for Christ.” Ergo, Calvinism as the fullest development of Christianity, is a fully articulated world-life-view that makes its impress on all of life, effectively fulfilling the Great Commission.

The Calvinistic Worldview Is One of Dominion

A Calvinistic worldview emphasizing God’s transcendence and covenantal dealings with man, is comprised of a number of presuppositions and can be summarized in four overarching tenets:

The transcendent-creator God has made all things both visible and invisible. Life is a gift from God. He alone is the Lord and giver of life. That life is physical, it is intellectual, and it is spiritual; in other words, it is God alone who sustains your body, your soul, your senses, and your reasoning faculties.

The transcendent God gave man responsibility to preserve, develop, and rule the creation (Gen. 1:26-28). The fall of man breached this covenant, but God through the finished work of Christ reinstated it for the elect (Rom. 5:17).
God has granted to man faculties and gifts to perform and advance the dominion mandate (Deut. 8:18). God has given man possession of earthly resources in order to realize godly dominion.

God has given His law and covenant to protect and prosper the dominion mandate (Deut. 4:1-8). God’s law limits liberty to prevent anarchy, and confines governmental power to inhibit tyranny.

In other words, God has given us life, liberty under his Law, and the earth (or personal property) to work and be productive according to His covenant in order to subdue the earth—every part of it—to His crown. This is the vision of godly social order which Calvinism undergirds and promotes.

Effects on Western Culture

The general effects of Calvinistic thought on the culture of the West are nothing short of astounding! In economics, Calvinism helped fuel the destruction of Feudalism and gave rise to various expressions of “free enterprise” or Laissez Faire economics. Concerning government, even a cursory glance at Holland or Switzerland found governments and political social theories which existed primarily to protect life, liberty, and property. Accordingly, where Calvinism reigned supreme, government was limited, non-oppressive, and the state would be felt only in the invaluable blessings of safety provided by this concept of government. This would later be seen in England, and more perfectly in America. Under such conditions family life, instead of being a Feudal factor of production or a servant of the state, would be free in its devotion to God and His covenant, working and being productive and so fulfilling the dominion mandate.

Effects on the Church

The Reformation era, and Calvinism in particular, led to a revival of both the prophetic (contemporaneous application of biblical law) and the Levitical (instructional) role of the church. As an example of the prophetic voice, one need look no further than one of Calvin’s mightiest disciples, John Knox, and his impact upon sixteenth century Scotland. Knox the founder of Presbyterianism, insisted that if the circumstances were right, Christians had both the right and the obligation to revolt against an evil and tyrannical monarch. Previously, with the entrenched idolatrous doctrine of the “Divine Right of Kings,” the idea of revolt was considered sin. Knox’s notion of political resistance was related to his belief in corporate resistance to sin. Knox, with firm understanding of God’s sovereignty, argued that a nation, because of the covenant obligation to live according to God’s law, incurred corporate guilt for tolerating evil in the civil realm.

The prophetic lessons of Knox and Scottish Presbyterianism were not lost on future generations. In fact, such was the force and vitality of this fiery brand of Calvinism on the American colonies, that their fight for independence was viewed in England as “The Presbyterian Revolt.”

Just as Calvinism forged a prophetic edge to the church, so too, the Levitical-instructional role of the church was brought to the fore at the timeof the Reformation. Whether Calvinism took the form of Congregationalism, Presbyterianism, or Puritanism, there existed a weighty stress on doctrine and teaching in the church. Prior to the Reformation, the role of the clergy was centered on liturgy and the sacraments with little biblical instruction. Not so with Calvinism! As an example, during the colonial period in Puritan New England, Calvinist pastors delivered approximately 8 million sermons averaging 90 minutes each. The average seventy year old colonial church goer would have listened to 7,000 sermons or 10,000 hours of concentrated learning during his lifetime. Such an intense and in depth doctrinal emphasis produced three culture altering visions of reality:

  1. All things and all institutions were under the scope and rule of heaven.
    All of life, no matter how mundane, was controlled by Providence.
  2. There existed an extensive postmillennial optimism characterized by the belief “that it was to a world made righteous that Christ would return.”

While space does not permit me to explore Calvinism’s impact on all societal structures, sufficient voice has been given to “whet the appetite” for further study. Certainly one can see why secularists, humanists, and all other statist, collectivist societal engineers hate Calvinism. The two worldviews are wholly incompatible and are hostile one to the other, and on this note there can be no neutrality.

The Need for a Calvinistic Revival

Evangelicals tend to view “revival” as man-centered. Sentimentality and hyper-emotionalism stirred by impassioned guilt manipulation leads to pacifistic, pietistic introspection. This view tends to dualism and a compartmentalizing of life, which glorifies the spirit world and denies the material. This limits the rule of God to the unseen. Societal reformation is spoken of, yet due to antinomianism (rejection of God’s law), any “reforming” is turned inward, resulting in legalism and will worship.

Reformed distinctives, having their genesis in Calvinism, depict revival and reformation as the consistent and persistent application of God’s Law- Word to all spheres of life. Biblical revival leads first to a return of doctrinal orthodoxy and fidelity to the Law of God. As a result of this “reviving,” convicting of sin and the public destruction of idolatry coextensive throughout society is evidenced. Finally, because of a reconstruction of culture, a Christian civilization is erected leading to national blessing, peace, and prosperity.

The NRA has the opportunity to be the dynamic engine of such a revival; a revival which is essential in the development of a godly social order. In conclusion, I turn to the great American Calvinist John Winthrop and an excerpt of his famous lay sermon A Model of Charity. These words exemplify Calvinism’s impact on culture:

For we must consider that we shall be as a “City upon a Hill.” The eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us; we shall be made a by-word through the world….

Beloved there is now set before us life, and good, death, and evil in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His ordinances…. That we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land wither we go to possess it. But if our hearts shall turn away so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced and worship other gods…we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we passed over this vast sea to possess it. Therefore let us choose life that we, and our seed may live; by obeying His voice, and cleaving to Him, for He is our life, and our prosperity.

Rev. Jeffrey A. Ziegler, is founder and president of Christian Endeavors and Reformation Bible Institute, co-founder and moderator of The Association of Free Reformed Churches and The Ohio Reconstructionist Society, a member of the National Reform Association Board of Directors, editor of the Revival Flame newsletter, and an ordained minister. He has lectured in over 600 churches and ministerial conferences in North America, Great Britain, and Germany. Jeff is also president of The Continental Group, a think tank for political activism. His articles have appeared in such publications as the Chalcedon Report, The Christian Statesman, and The Forerunner.

Your comments are welcome!

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Schaeffer lists two reasons for evangelical indifference: a false concept of spirituality and fear. He calls on believers to stand against the tyranny and moral chaos that come when humanism reigns-and warns that believers may, at some point, be forced to make the hard choice between obeying God or Caesar. A Christian Manifesto is a thought-provoking and bracing Christian analysis of American culture and the obligation Christians have to engage the culture with the claims of Christ.

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