The Five Political Points of Calvinism

Here is an excerpt from my forthcoming book with Tom Pratt, Seeking the City.

One of the great questions that has been raised by historians is whether or not John Calvin’s views were the basis of later Republicanism, such as that which prevailed in the American experience in the 1770’s and 1780’s. The best answer seems to be that Jefferson and Madison worked out an approach to government that was consistent with some Calvinist ideals, especially in regards to human depravity and the need for limited government, but clearly not identical. Calvin favored the idea of decentralization in governance, an idea consistent with Jeffersonian politics. One scholar has argued that a synthetic reading of Calvin shows that he held to five principles—“fundamental law, natural rights, contract and consent of people, popular sovereignty, resistance to tyranny through responsible representatives”—what this interpreter calls the “five points of political Calvinism” that would later be a description of Republicanism in essence. But he would likely not have favored the exact system we now have in the United States. As one historian has put it, “Modern Democracy is the child of the Reformation, not of the Reformers.” Modern Republicanism is a sort of working out of the basic ideas that come from the Reformation, but it is not found in the Reformers’ teachings explicitly.

Chad Owen Brand

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