Aristotle described politics as involving art or craft (techne). It, too, required skill. It, too, could produce excellent, even wondrous edifices: regimes. Once upon a time, the Reformed tradition saw politics in the same manner. Althusius, for example, spoke of “the art of governing.” Joseph Caryl, a Westminster Divine, described rulers as engaging in an “art” or a “craft.” These thinkers, moreover, developed this artistry, doing so consciously within a Reformed framework.
Not many passages in the New Testament speak directly to political order. The first part of the thirteenth chapter of Romans is perhaps the most famous. I would like to focus in this essay on vv. 3-4, which may appear prima facie to be something of an interpretive crux. Are these verses descriptive or prescriptive? That is, are they simply declarative, or are they imperatival, telling us what magistrates ought to do?
In the third book of his Institutes, John Calvin argues that the church’s worship should begin with a corporate prayer of confession:
“Besides the fact that ordinary confession has been commended by the Lord’s mouth, no one of sound mind, who weighs its usefulness, can dare disapprove it….
What sort of person enrolls in a class in Reformation studies? It is a seemingly easy audience to profile. For those few programs which offer such a course, we expect it would be required for any student pursuing a degree in Christian history or theology; for young Reformed individuals who desire a deeper understanding of their tradition but whose career aspirations lie elsewhere, it might be a suitable elective. In short, it is a comfortably esoteric subject with few adepts, and so it has been for centuries. So why are more students suddenly enrolling in these courses?
John Calvin: More Lutheran or Zwinglian?
Everybody knows that Calvin was closer to Zurich than to Wittenberg. What this essay presupposes is: Maybe he wasn’t? In fact, Calvin was neither Zwinglian nor Lutheran in the developed sense of those terms, but rather saw himself as one who might mediate between the two sides in their intractable debates, particularly over the nature of the Lord’s Supper.
But what is perhaps most interesting, given contemporary ecclesiastical circumstances, is that Calvin saw himself as unabashedly part of one church—not just invisibly, but visibly—with all magisterial Protestants in Europe, and sought to make that visible unity more concrete through his literary and theological efforts, even if those hopes were in large measure frustrated.