Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics

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240 pages, 6" x 9", prefaces, notes on references, notes, bibliography, index

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Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics

Hancock, Ralph C.

This work reopens the question of the relation of the Protestant Reformation to the emergence of a distinctively modern view of political activity. Providing a highly original reading of John Calvin’s major work and an examination of some key interpretations of Calvinism, Ralph C. Hancock argues that Calvin should be considered a founder of modern civilization along with such “secular” thinkers as Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Descartes.

According to Hancock, however, leading interpretations assume a dichotomy between the “worldly” and the “religious” which a close reading of Calvin’s writings does not sustain. Hancock provides an illuminating commentary on Calvin’s fourvolume Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), addressing both Calvin’s political and ethical argument and the theological foundations of this argument. In Hancock’s view, Calvin radically distinguishes between the religious and the secular in order to bind them together in a summons to worldly activity for the preservation of the species and the glory of God. The author thus uncovers the theological basis of Calvinism’s historical activism and demonstrates the complex unity of Calvin’s practical teaching and his theology. Hancock concludes by speculating on the implications of his findings for interpretations of the modern political theory of Strauss, Voegelin, and Blumenberg.

In this penetrating volume, based on a close reading of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Ralph Hancock argues that the Whig historians, Hegel, the Progressives, and Max Weber were more correct than they knew in suggesting an affinity between the Reformation and the modern project. If he is correct – and he may well be – modern Enlightenment rationalism cannot give a full and fully rational account of itself, its this-worldly orientation can only be defended from a standpoint outside this world, and the radicalism and unabashed acquisitiveness of the moderns make no sense when fully divorced from holy zeal. – Paul A. Rahe, Hillsdale College, author of Republics Ancient and Modern, Against Throne and Altar, Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty, and Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift

With subtly and sagacity, Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics reopens a timely, but now widely neglected, question: Did Reformed Christianity play a role in forming modernity and its distinctive account of human beings and the world? Perceptively tracing the moral, political, and theological movements of the Institutes’ arguments, this book brings to light the striking and at times surprising similarities between Calvinism and modern rationalism. In so doing, Hancock punctures the prevailing sophisticated belief that our “rationalized” and “secularized” modern world is-or ever could be-as self-subsisting whole. Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics challenges readers to think seriously about the philosophical, theological, and political problems that inescapably confront human beings today. – Marc D. Guerra, Director of Graduate Programs in Theology, Ave Maria University

The republication of Ralph Hancock’s Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics is most timely. Overhanging modernity is the clash between religious faith and enlightenment rationalism. It is insisted that the latter must supersede the former and that the secular society inevitably replaces the sacral. Hancock shows through close analysis of Calvin’s theology that in modernity there is interpenetration of the spiritual and material spheres such as to infuse the enlightenment project of continual forward looking renewal with religious seriousness while, conversely, the realization of the religious spirit manifests itself in the world, spiritualizing the material. Hancock argues powerfully that political theorists need to take Calvin more seriously, and to assess more critically the claims of enlightenment rationalism and the religiosity lurking within it. This is an auspicious catalyst for deeper reflection in contemporary political thinking. – Timothy Fuller, Colorado College

An excellent book, [it] will be must reading for scholars interested in political philosophy, religious studies, and contemporary historiography. It contributes to the growing literature on the meaning of the modern age and to the literature on the relationship between religion and liberal democracy.” – Jerry Weinberger, Michigan State University

The topic to which [this work] is devoted is one that has lately begun to attract a good deal of attention on the part of political theorists and religious thinkers alike. One of the book’s great merits is that it does not limit itself to Calvin’s expressly political teaching, but traces the roots of that teaching to Calvin’s notion of God and of the Christian life generally. What we have here is a thoughtful and dexterous synthesis of Calvinist theology as it bears on the issues at hand. – Ernest L. Fortin

Ralph C. Hancock is Professor of Political Science at Brigham Young University, where he teaches the tradition of political philosophy as well as contemporary political theory. His latest book is The Responsibility of Reason: Theory and Practice in a Liberal-Democratic Age. He is the President of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy, and Public Affairs.