Theology of Nations, Part I

55122_j-calvin_lgWe have lost our theology. America has lost the theology that built great nations. Reformers labored to create it. Many have given their lives to protect it. Yet it has become buried in the annals of church history. The foundational pillars of American government are rooted in Protestant theology, and some are found specifically in the theology of John Calvin.

Until recently, I associated Calvin only to doctrines on predestination. Even though I knew him to be a major player in the Protestant Reformation, I had no idea the scope of his contribution to America. This all changed when I read Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism which were delivered to Princeton University in 1898. (Check out my shop to purchase a copy of Kuyper’s Lectures or other great reads).

Dutch journalist and theologian, Abraham Kuyper, challenged his audience to dig into the foundational principles of the Reformation that created free nations. Kuyper illustrated that Calvinism developed philosophy on every area of life. Calvin did not restrain his theology to matters of the spirit, but extended it to the practical.

“Only of Calvinism can it be said that it has consistently and logically followed out the lines of the Reformation, has established not only Churches but also States, has set its stamp upon social and public life, and has thus, in the full sense of the word, created for the whole life of man a world of thought entirely its own.”[1]

Calvin gave nations the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God. The Bible gave us the truth of this doctrine, but Calvin thought it out and applied it. He gave us a template for the congruous outworking of the State, the Church, and the People. In modern times, we debate the topic of separation of church and state. We think it a modern issue, but the answer to our debate lies in our history.

Calvinism teaches that God is sovereign over the Church, God is sovereign over the State, and God is sovereign over the people (families, individuals, and the outworking of culture such as science, art, entertainment, and business). Thus, separation of Church and State is not separation of God and State. In fact, “the sovereignty of the State and the sovereignty of the Church exist side by side, and they mutually limit each other.”[2] The Church has no jurisdiction over the government, nor does the government have authority over the Church. But God has authority over both.

If we do not understand our history, we are in danger of wanting the Church to rule the nation. Instead, we want a Church that operates as a Church, and not the State. God’s sovereignty over the State does not open the door for the Church to encroach on the State. Nor can either entity control the freedom of the people. We cannot dominate culture the way the world does. Our job is to change culture without using worldly weapons. Even non-violent methods of coercion are worldly weapons. We don’t coerce. We transform. Transformation will bring reformation as long as our theology provides for it. But the world will dominate any area of life that the church has no use for.

Even though we are a nation whose government is for the people and by the people, we cannot lean so far right that the voice of the people nullifies the voice of the government. If the people are completely sovereign over the State we will have anarchy. Even though we are a nation with a strong federal government, we cannot lean so far to the left that the voice of the government nullifies the voice of the people. The people are to be freely sovereign under God without usurping the healthy mandate of a government. Each group ought to work together in proper tension to each other.

As Christians, it is normal to want our way of life to be supreme in the land. The more we kuyperalign with the Bible, the healthier our nation will be. The problem is in how we accomplish this goal. It will not serve us in the long run for the Church to demand power over the government, even to bring good correction to it. If we do not understand the structure of our nation we can, in our ignorance, make matters worse, rather than better. When we think we would be better off without government, we lose sight of what it means to be a nation. We cannot look at only how the government appears now, but at what it was designed to be.

Martin Luther was indispensable to the Reformation. Without Luther we would not have Calvin. But “Luther never worked out his fundamental thought.”[3]  In contrast, Calvin developed an entire system that applies to government, Church, science, family, business, etc. The Sovereignty of God was not simply a doctrine for the Church, but for the world. It was not left to the upper room of theology. Calvinists lived theology and built nations with it. No area of life was left bereft of theology. We have heard of applied sciences: this is applied theology.

If we do not have a theology for what a great nation looks like, we won’t know where we are, or where we are going. If our theology does not inform our politics, our thoughts will be informed by other groups that claim to represent our desires. We will not know if these groups truly represent us or not, because we do not have a theology that informs our thinking about our nation. Our theology should inform our politics more than our politics informs our theology. When we align completely with one political party we have likely become absorbed by its worldview instead of doing the hard work of applying theology to the issues we face as a nation.

Kuyper spoke these words over one hundred years ago:

“Since Calvinism arose, not from an abstract system, but from life itself, it never was in the century of its prime presented as a systematic whole. The tree blossomed and yielded its fruit, but without anyone having made a botanic study of its nature and growth. Calvinism, in its rise, rather acted than argued. But now this study may no longer be delayed.” [4]

Free nations do not just happen. It takes good theology to build great nations. G.K. Chesterton wrote that “philosophy is merely thought that has been thought out.” It would seem that Calvin has gifted America with theology which has been thought out and applied in such a manner that we no longer realize we are living within its branches.

[1] Kuyper, Abraham. Lectures on Calvinism.,, 2010. p. 145

[2] Kuyper, p. 79

[3] Kuyper p. 145

[4] Kuyper p. 148


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