Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Book Review: John Calvin's American Legacy - Chapter 1 - Calvin and the Social Order in Early America: Moral Ideals and Transatlantic Empire

So, a week ago I read the first chapter for this blog-through-review but now finally taking time to type up my thoughts. Go here for notes on the Introduction and go here for my notes jotted down before I started reading. And so.

Mark Valeri, who is a Professor of Church History at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia and has written much on Puritanism and early American economic practice, provides the introductory article on legacy of Calvinistic American society, and his contribution is thoughtful and marvelous.

The issues Valeri is grappling with is that there are two veins of thought regarding Calvinist legacy in America. On the one hand, some specialists and historians assert that the original influence of Calvinism in American society was overwhelmed by the demands of the market economy (e.g. the condemnation of the practice of usury was greatly softened as the transatlantic market developed), but on the other hand, other specialists and historians assert that Calvinistic economic thought laid the foundation for capitalism (typically this view is read through a lens provided by Max Weber's seminal work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).

Valeri, however, does all of the historical heavy lifting for us by "setting the narrative of Calvinism and commerce in the context of Atlantic history" (no easy task). Valeri concludes that the two veins of thought described "oversimplify what historically occurred." Valeri is a real man and does not stand in shadows debating historical quibbles and merely lobbing critical bombs at the fruits of the labor of other men and women, rather Valeri offers a reading of history that breaks from the pack.

He suggests that Calvin's biblical hermeneutic is the key to best understand the "shift" in the Calvinistic outlook towards transatlantic trade in the New World. Valeri believes that the shift in Calvinistic economic thinking is not evidence of the market having defeated Calvinistic thought, that led to a watering down of the Calvinistic ethos, or the creation of a "fixed association between Calvinism and capitalism" (35). Instead, Valeri says the shift and development is consistent with Calvin's hermeneutic, which "modeled for his followers a highly disciplined moral method grounded in the Bible. . . . Calvin applied the Bible to everything."

Calvin's application of the Bible, however, was not systematic or ideological. Appealing to "William J. Bouwsma, Serene Jones, and others," Valeri says:
"Calvin applied the Bible in an almost ad hoc fashion to public dilemmas as they presented themselves. Just as he avoided systematic doctrinal formulations, he rebuffed elaborate social theories. He addressed local and immediate problems in their particular context. His pragmatism made it difficult to fix a Calvinist politics or economics but easier to identify Calvin's chief appeal: it was mobile, practical, and flexible" (22).
It is this "mobile, practical, and flexible" hermeneutic that enabled Calvinistic theological development not in spite of the economic changes but because of them. It was for religious reasons interpretation and application of Scripture developed with the burgeoning transatlantic economy. Valeri suggests the religious reasoning at play was something along the lines of: if something can be viewed as being good for the church (flourishing), then, providentially speaking, the church ought to be gratuitous and accept the development.

Perhaps some will disagree with Valeri's reading of Calvin, but I don't think the evidence is there. Calvin's corpus is largely characterized by his Bible commentaries and his sermons--Calvin in Geneva was a true model of a pastor-theologian--and his most systematic work is the Institutes, which he perpetually revised throughout his lifetime. As anyone who has spent much time with Calvin can attest, he absolutely abhorred theoretical abstractions. One can certainly appeal to the Institutes as a systematic work, and Calvin is a very careful and thoughtful writer, but if the Institutes are read in isolation from Calvin's other letters, then one is missing out immensely on all that Calvin has to offer. (Personally, I have found his Bible commentaries to be compelling tenfold in comparison to Institutes.)

Thus, Valeri concludes that the "readiness to replace economic ideology with a practical application of the Bible to local circumstances has amounted, in the long run, to the Calvinist legacy in America" (36).  Methinks that is a good legacy to have.

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