Justification, election and social order

Towards the end of The World Turned Upside Down (see previous post), Christopher Hill considers “one of the most fascinating problems in the intellectual history of seventeenth-century England”: the “collapse of Calvinism”. He writes:

We are all such Arminians now that it requires a great imaginative effort to think oneself back into the pre-revolutionary period which Calvinism dominated.

For Hill, the main social function of Calvinism before the 1640s was to provide a means of countering what were perceived as the socially harmful consequences of justification by faith. Justification by faith taught the equality of all believers before God, and this belief lay at the root of the radicals’ claim for the equality of all people within society. Calvinism’s doctrine of election helped ensure that “the elect were respectable bourgeois Puritans”.

The problem was that it failed in this purpose. In the chaos of the English Revolution, it “proved unable to maintain its defences against Antinomianism”, leading to the growth of groups such as the Levellers, the Diggers, the Ranters and the Quakers, who all (in different ways) threatened the social order by taking seriously the concept of equality before God. In addition, the disciplining of society by Presbyterian clerics proved unpopular and unworkable.

This failure, Hill argues, “drove the men of property back to works – by their fruits ye shall know them”. However, this was “a very different theology of works from that of Catholics or Laudians”, being a secular, non-sacramental discipline exercised by J.P.s rather than ministers of the church.

Hence Hill’s observation on how the social effects of Puritanism outlived the popularity of Calvinism itself:

It was as though it had performed its historic task with the establishment of a society in which the protestant ethic prevailed.

Hill draws an interesting parallel between the Reformation’s proclamation of justification by faith and the French Revolution’s secular proclamation of human rights:

Middle-class revolutionaries proclaimed the Rights of Man, and seem to have been genuinely taken aback when the Fourth Estate claimed that they too were men.

Hill’s argument is that this led in both cases to a need to find ways to re-establish social order in the face of the democratising, even chaotic, forces of spiritual or human equality. As he puts it:

The “bourgeois” doctrine of equality always has the suppressed premise that some are more equal than others.

Hill’s Marxism is clearly showing through here (see also his reference above to Calvinism’s “historical task”!), and there was more to Puritanism – and certainly more to justification by faith – than just putting a religious gloss on a bourgeois revolution in property relations and social values. Indeed, it is precisely Puritanism’s refusal to restrict itself to this function that helped encourage its eclipse.

But I still found this an interesting analysis of how the content of Puritan (and reformational) doctrines could come into conflict with the role which many expected those doctrines to fulfil. One of many occasions where Christian doctrines have been used to justify a social order which, taken more seriously, they fundamentally question.

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7 Responses to Justification, election and social order

  1. John,
    If I remember rightly this was a sub-theme of John Osborne’s play, ‘Luther’, viz. that Luther, in his reaction to the Peasant’s Revolt, hypocritically fought against the central doctrine of the Reformation being allowed to shape societal relations.
    It’s a while, years in fact, since I’ve seen the play, but perhaps Osborne was coming at it from a Marxist perspective too?
    In any case, it’s an oversimplification in both cases.
    Marxists just don’t “get religion.”

  2. John H says:

    Mark: in fairness, I’ve been impressed by how balanced and insightful Hill is towards the Puritans. For example, when he writes about their struggle to replace medieval “property marriages” with “love marriages” in which women are, if not equal partners, then at least partners in the household alongside their husbands.

    But you’re right, he does show a Marxist tendency to see the social/economic function of religion as what’s “really” going on. However, even if we want to insist that there is more to the gospel than how it functions in a particular social/economic context, it is still both interesting and useful to understand how a given context can give particular doctrines more traction in one society as opposed to another, and how those doctrines can be exploited to further the interests of one group within that society over others (and then discarded when the desired social ends have been attained).

  3. John,

    I’ll gladly concede Hill is a cut above most Marxist historians. When I think about it, I once read ‘God’s Englishman’, and not only was it thoroughly readable, as I recall, but he did display an insight into theological matters that suggested he might have had a Christian upbringing. Sure enough, I just checked Wiki and it says he came from a Methodist family. Perhaps that fact not only gave him a familiarity with theological vocabulary and issues but also some residual sympathy towards them as well?

    And yes, I see what you’re getting at with your second paragraph, and I would agree. We must not be blind to the fact that religion can be sincerely believed but still used for less than godly purposes. That’s why I have a Lutheran doctrine of original sin!

    Last week I happened to watch Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ on TV, a version made c. 1996 and actually adapted for film by Miller. We all know it is an allegory about MCCarthyism, but what I was struck by was how effectively Miller portrayed this human tendency to misuse religion for egotistic purposes. Not having read the original play, I don’t know whether Miller tweaked the script to do this for a contemporary audience or whether it was always there, but I thought it was very well done, especially as it wasn’t overbearingly anti-Christian. In fact the ending really portrayed the triumph of faith in the face of trials in a way that reflected the theology of the cross.

  4. Chris E says:

    I think this is based in part on a academic perception of Calvinism (as a sort of un-official hierarchy with an electing God on the top, who elects the elites underneath and so on) rather than anything specific about how the doctrine works itself out in practice. I have no idea how prevalent that view was amongst actual elites.

    I recall an anecdote from a Korean minister working amongst prostitutes and down and outs; for them the sense of their own shame was so great that they didn’t think they could possibly be the recipients of grace, until he introduced the doctrine of predestination (after all, if God is King over all, he can choose who he wants to show grace to). So I can see how Calvinism can directly lead to a levelling of the classes even without antinomianism as an intermediary step.

    As an example nearer to home, I wonder if the influence of Scottish Presbyterianism is a cause of the lower levels of class perception and the greater can-do attitude north of the border.

  5. Interesting comment on Scotland. Perhaps because I’m part-English & part-Scottish I’ve often reflected on these cultural differences. Scotland’s influence on the world – it has been said that the Scots invented the modern world – is out of proportion to its small population, and I’ve no doubt that the Presbyterian ethos accounts for much of that. As the saying goes, “Calvinism put iron in men’s souls”.

  6. Rick Ritchie says:

    In contrast to Hill, David Hackett Fischer claims that Puritanism and Quakerism, for example, are not separated so much chronologically as geographically. He makes the case that four distinct British subcultures moved from four distinct regions of Britain to four distinct regions of America. The American side of the equation makes all kinds of sense to me. I’m wondering whether this makes as much sense to the British.

    I am also leery of the Marxist reading of theological doctrines. I find it difficult enough to track how different groups of Lutherans can seem to place different emphasis on different Lutheran doctrines. The idea that someone like Hill could easily imagine someone else’s theological system accurately, and be able to see how this differed according to time and place while giving so much weight to economics is something I find implausible. I think his social research is intriguing, and I trust his command of the sources. But interpretation of this kind requires a kind of empathy for a different set of assumptions that he doesn’t appear to have. The belief that all motives are economic will cloud any attempt to understand a motive that is not economic, if there are such motives.

    Much as my Lutheranism makes me itchy around Calvinism’s discussion of Election, I am more inclined to think that the early impulses for teaching the doctrine were strictly theological, and it was only later versions that were latched onto for social reasons.

  7. Rick,
    The assertin that predestination under in classical Calvinism was purely theological and only later took on a prominent social dimension would seem to be backed up by studies on the subject from within the Christian community. E.g. the American Anglican scholar and bishop C. Fitzsimons Allison wrote a very good study, The Rise of Moralism: The proclamation of the Gospel From Hooker to Baxter, which is partly to do with how the evangelical and moderate Calvinism of the middle period of the English Reformation (after the early Lutheran influence subsided) morphed into something quite different in Puritanism, a religion where anxiety over assurance of salvation led to an urgency to prove one’s salvation (and hence election) to oneself through works, eventually leading to moralism. That may very well be part of the dynamic under discussion.

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