Classroom Lectures: Jackson Seminary (3)

Calvinism: World and Life View

R.J. Rushdoony

Let us begin with prayer. Almighty God our heavenly Father, we give thanks unto thee that we have inherited, in Christ Jesus, so great a heritage. Strengthen us in our most holy faith, that as we face a world in crisis and in ruins, we may reconstruct all things in terms of thy word, thy grace, and thy truth. Bless us with this purpose, in Jesus name, Amen.

Some of you may have heard a little story that I told yesterday, and if so, bear with me, because I feel it is so important it should be repeated and remembered. Yesterday, in talking to a nurse who works at the Jackson Emergency Hospital, she told me something that distressed me very greatly. She said that for the fair amount that she has been working there, she has seen many, many people brought in from accidents, from very serious and critical injuries, carried to the table, and only once did she hear anyone in that situation mention the name of God or pray. What this means is that to all practical intent, for most people here God is dead. He is not alive to them and a part of their lives. I think this is a very serious fact. I would have expected such a statement, say, from San Francisco, or New York City, or Chicago, but I would have been less likely to expect it from Jackson. There is a higher percentage of church membership here. But what it does indicate is that while many men here profess an evangelical faith, in a real crisis they do not think in terms of it. So that what they lack is a Christian mind. A mind whose responses are first and last in terms of Christ and the sovereign God. In terms of the Word of God.

In other words, for them there is no world and life faith. There is no faith that has the answers across the board for everything. Christianity has become to them, life insurance; protection against Hell. So that we are indeed in crisis.

The Reformed faith made its impact on the world precisely because it did present that. A world and life system. And its uniqueness was that is was virtually alone in so doing. At the time of the Reformation, you had Lutheranism, you had Anglicanism, you had Anabaptism and you had the Counter-Reformation. But the very power of the Reformed faith was that it alone presented a world and life view. The other faiths, or churches, had behind them powerful princes; powerful German princes, the Habsburgs, the English crown, and so on. But the Reformed faith never had a powerful prince behind it, a powerful, national face. Its strength was purely in terms of the fact that it presented an answer so that the Christian mind was possible. Having said that, let’s turn to an entirely different matter.

I have a number of Catholic friends, very devout, very earnest Catholics, some of whom will no longer go to the Church. They feel the church has abandoned them and the faith. Some of these people will not farm or plant until first a priest, if they can find nowadays a good one, comes out and blesses the field. I know that in San Francisco when I was a student, there were many of the old fishermen there, who would not go out with a new boat or at the beginning of a fishing season, until a priest came out to bless the boat. I know that not to long ago a very devout Catholic friend gave us, for Christmas, a blessed candle. And said we are facing a troubled time, a troubled age, and a particularly saintly old Irish priest, very feeble, very godly man, she said, blessed this candle and I got one for myself, because we need the blessing of the Lord.

Now of course to us, this kind of practice is not Scriptural, it is superstitious. And yet it represents something very important, and the history of it is very important, because you did not have this kind of thing in the early part of the Middle Ages, oh there were relics of it here, survivals out of paganism and the church made accommodation with it in this locality and that, but basically this was not a serious factor in the life of the church of Rome, until the high Middle Ages. It was then, that on a massive basis, the use of images and the whole paraphernalia of the popular devotional life came into being. As a matter of fact, the church fought it. Fought it hard and long, and then finally accepted it, and made it a part of its life because it was so helpful in keeping a hold on the people. Now, why did it rise in the way that it did, and in the manner that it did? The answer is that precisely as scholasticism arose, this also arose. Because scholasticism on the one hand, with its Greek, its Hellenic presupposition, cut the ground out from under the biblical world and life view. But people want an answer to everyday life, from their faith. And so when, in the church now, they were not getting the Word of God, they were getting a preaching that was based on Aristotelian philosophy as mediated by the scholastic philosophers, that no longer spoke the Word of God to their everyday life, then it was the images, then it was the candles, then it was having the priests come and bless the field, or bless their cattle at calving time, or some such thing. It was the urgent need of having a world and life covering in terms of their faith.

Thus you see, when you deal with these Catholic practices, it doesn’t do any good to lash out at the simple folk for their superstition, that isn’t the answer. They’re trying to supply a lack in the teaching in the Church. And today you have the same thing rising in a far worse fashion. People are again being left without a world and life view. The Catholic church is no longer providing it in any way. You all know that a few years ago, about two years ago it was, the Catholic church deposed a number of saints including Saint Christopher, and you’ve all seen the Saint Christopher medallions that used to hang from the rearview mirror of so many cars that Catholics had. It was a crude way of saying: “I need a world and life view, I need a faith that goes with me wherever I go. That applies in every situation.” And then suddenly the church said there is no Saint Christopher, that’s a myth. I know from Catholic friends what a hornet’s nest they stirred up with that, and the kind of scene that was actually created in one or two churches. And the Catholics are not used to having that kind of challenge to authority that they did have, what had they done? In the name of a humanistic faith, they had cut the ground out from under the people, even with respect to their popular substitutes, which gave them a world and life coverage. Not a view, but a coverage. So what has been springing up to take its place, another world and life view, of the demonic sort, occultism. So now it’s spirits, satanic forces, the witchcraft movement, the occultist movement, which says here, every day, as I move around, these spells, these incantations, these spirits, govern and guide. It’s a world and life view that they are providing. Very clearly, very unmistakably, a world and life view.

And we cannot understand it unless we appreciate that fact. So you see, the remedy to these things is not to say right off: “well that’s bad,” it is. Or: “that’s superstition!” It is. But it makes no difference than if you tell a person who comes to you, assuming you’re a dentist just for a moment, and says: “I have a bad toothache, I think it’s abscessed,” and you look at it and say: “indeed it is! Thank you, goodbye, that’ll be ten dollars.” You don’t have to identify his toothache, and that doesn’t cure it, you see. And occultism doesn’t go away for being told it’s superstitious, and images and candles don’t disappear because we describe them for what they are, any more than a description of a toothache makes it go away. The answer has to be a world and life view.

Now, in this book, John Calvin in his socio-economic impact The Constructive Revolutionary, by Fred W. Graham, which I just picked up and I browsed in it, it looks good, although I don’t think I agree with a great deal in it. I’d like to read a statement he makes. He says,

“It is true that the great debates within religious bodies have been over such purely theological doctrines as double predestination, the presence (or absence) of Christ at his Table, and correct modes of church polity. But—partly because we live in a period when such doctrines are not of consuming importance, and partly because Calvin expressed his own mundane interests clearly and urgently—lI try to balance the better-known theological position of the Reformer with a lucid statement of his social and economic thought and the application of that great mind to the problems of his tiny Alpine city-republic. Indeed, his secular thought is often seen to be critical of his theological thought. This worldly stress is not at all foreign to Calvin’s thought. On the contrary, the message of what we might call Christian secularity was preached several times each week from the pulpits of Geneva’s three churches—St. Pierre, the Madeleine, and St. Gervais. To insist that Calvin’s thought is grasped in the main by a study of Total Depravity, Limited Atonement, Double Predestination, and Irresistible Grace is simply to distort his thought and to study a dead torso rather than a revolutionary thinker.”

Now, there’s a great deal of truth in what Graham said. I preached the message I did in chapel this morning, as a preparation for this class. So, that was preached as an introduction to what we’re going to say now. My point there was that the Pharisees sought sociological justification, not theological justification. In my book, The Politics of Guilt and Pity I have a chapter on Calvin in Geneva, The Sociology of Justification, in which I deal with the fact that justification, sociologically, was a relevant concern of Calvin’s. First; theological justification and then a sociological justification. But all that the people of the Counsel of Geneva wanted was sociological justification, and here was the conflict. Calvin was intensely concerned about society. But he was not primarily concerned about that, he was concerned primarily about God. And because he was concerned about God, he was concerned about society. Now what happened in Geneva was this, very briefly. Geneva was a small city-state. But it was important economically. Its life was collapsing. It was a city that commercially had a great deal of importance, but it was losing its ability to function because the moral caliber of life was collapsing. And if you don’t have law and order, moral law and order, law and order in the streets, you cannot function. Now the Council of Geneva was primarily interested in maintaining a functioning city-state. They did not want to be in ruins. The Catholic Bishop had been unable to make the city function. It was collapsing into moral anarchy. And so they were interested in the Reformation from a purely pragmatic point of view.

Calvin was called in to be the social engineer, as it were. “Provide us with some kind of social order. But don’t demand too much of us.” Now the Council ruled the city, the idea of Calvin as a dictator is ridiculous. In fact, they didn’t even allow him to become a citizen or give him a vote until they knew he was dying. And then they thought it was safe to give the old man the vote, make him a citizen. What they were concerned with was order. “Help us to function!” Europe at that time, as Schmitt has pointed out in his study of Calvin, was honeycombed with secret societies, all aiming at revolution. Many of them championing such things as free love, many of them holding ideas, such as the Adamites, that all men needed to get back into the Garden of Eden was to throw off all clothes, they were nudists, and, before the end of the Middle Ages incidentally, there were many parades of these Adamites, nude down various streets in Europe. Defying the city fathers in the name of an anarchistic faith. Everything, you see, was falling apart! Morally, every kind of perversion was being championed by one secret group or another, every kind of practice was being justified, the witchcraft movement, occultism was all around then, JB Russell in his Witchcraft in the Middle Ages has pointed out what a fearful thing it was, with their belief in, and practice of, human sacrifice and cannibalism and much else. Here are some councilmen, running a city, who’re businessmen, who say: “Look, we’ve got to have law and order or things are going to fall apart. Calvin, can you provide us law and order? Go to it! But don’t step on our toes in the process.” They wanted the order Calvin could provide, but they didn’t like Calvin. First chance they got they got rid of him, and then found they could not do without him. And Calvin had to be threatened by one of his former associates with the judgment of God if he didn’t go back and do his duty, and he did. He did go back.

Why was it they could not do without Calvin? Well, the reason was that Calvin was providing a world and life view. A world and life view. This is why Calvin had conflicts with the Council, in a way that Luther did not have with his prince, in a way that Cranmer did not have with Henry VIII. And in a way in which the Catholic church and the Catholic state did not have conflicts. Why? Because Calvin, with his world and life views said: “since God is sovereign, all areas must be godly; every area must be under the jurisdiction of God and His Word.” So the Word of God is not a church word. It is not a church book. Now this is one of the greatest sins of the modern church, evangelical and reformed, it has reduced the Bible to a church book. The Bible is not a book for the church alone. And if we reduce it to a church book, we are denying its essential meaning. The Bible is a book for every man in every area of life, it’s a book for the individual, it’s a book for the family, it’s a book for the state, it is a book for the businessman, it is a book for every area of life. As a result, because God is the sovereign and absolute God, His Word is a total Word. Thus, the requirement that Calvin insisted on was that the state must be godly. Every area of civil government has as great a requirement of obeying Scripture as the church does. Now Calvin was not saying that the church must rule the state, and he was denying that the state had a right to rule the church. What he was saying was that the state had an obligation to obey God. And this of course was impertinence in the eyes of the princes. And the eyes of rulers all over Europe. They regarded this as a very, very revolutionary doctrine.

For a minister of God to stand up and instruct princes? Of course, this is what Ambrose and others had done in the early Church. St. John Chrysostom, so boldly again and again rebuking the Emperor, this was once routine, this was the prophetic word of the Old Testament. And certainly every pulpit in the United States that claimed to be reformed and evangelical, should have, when the Supreme Court came out with its decision on capital punishment and on abortion, have preached the Word of God, concerning those things. And said to all the members there, that: “thus saith the Lord!” to the Ahab’s in Washington.

Now this is the requirement that Scripture makes of the state. This is why the kings of Israel and of Judah in their apostasy were so unhappy about the prophets, because the prophets were saying that civil government must be godly. And again, schools must be godly. The school as much as the church or the state must be under the Word of God. So the idea of a state school which doesn’t recognize God is not Biblical at all. The Bible is as much a book for the school as it is for the state. As it is for the Church. And as it is for the covenant man. And so the necessity of Christian schools. An urgent necessity. Christian schools that are in every subject governed by the premises of Scripture. Similarly, with regard to vocations, the idea of the Christian calling. Now you probably read, when you were in college, in history, unless they dropped that from too, they drop so much now a days that it’s hard to keep track of it, how in the seventeenth century in England and America, books like The Christian Cobbler, The Christian Shepherd, The Christian Farmer, The Christian Merchant, were being published in great numbers, and had a tremendous audience. And how commonplace it was, in those days, for every layman who was a businessman, or a workman, to read and memorize most of the book of Proverbs. When I was still a small boy there was an element of this yet, in that you used to be able to get little pocketbook editions of the book of Proverbs. But Proverbs were once very widely used that way. The Christian man and his calling to know the Word of God.

Then the family. The family is a covenant sphere. At this point let me digress a moment, there’re many people who feel the idea of spheres and sphere laws originated with Abraham Kuyper, this is not true. Kuyper was a great thinker who did formulate and develop the idea, but in the Colonial era, you had the same idea, only they didn’t call it sphere laws, they called it ‘covenant.’ The personal covenant and salvation. ‘The civil government covenant,’ ‘the family covenant,’ ‘the church covenant,’ and so on. So they saw all these areas as covenant-areas, you see. And in American colonial literature, there’s so much said about covenants, and man being in a covenantal sphere as he moved from one area of life to the church to the home, to his work, to school or state. The family therefore under Calvinism, became a tremendous force. So important a force, that Rome felt that it was a major threat. The Reformed family grew to such tremendous dimensions in its influence, it was a protective force, it gave the child, and it gave the husband and the wife a security; it was like a fortress! It was like a university that trained its children in the faith, it taught Catechism, it gave them a body of doctrine, a world and life view. One reason why I don’t like the Sunday School. It’s taking over and building what the family ought to do, and so we’ve crippled the family by saying, look, you don’t have to do it, we’ll do it for you, we’ll teach your children. It used to be, at one time, that the pastor or ‘dominie’ called on each family once a year, or if the church were too large, the elders called, to see how much Catechism the children had been taught by the family.

And they were rebuked and disciplined if they had not done so. What did Rome do? They were so shocked by the strength of the Reformed family, that they organized a cult to try to counteract it, and to create a parallel development in their own circles. The cult of the holy family. The Saint Joseph cult. They made of St. Joseph a figure of some importance, which he had not been previously, and they stressed the holy family in a new way to try to create the same kind of strong family within their own circles. But as the sociologist who just died recently, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, pointed out, it did not succeed to any appreciable degree as in the Reformed circles, in Catholic circles.

Again, in the sciences, the same feeling that the world and life view of the Reformed faith required them here to develop the implications of their faith. Most of the men who were founders of the Royal Society in England were Puritans. A number of the great scientists of the early centuries, a very large percent, were Reformed men. Dr. Hepp of the Netherlands wrote a book on this, some years ago, on how extensively the sciences of the modern era began in Reformed circles.

The same was true of the area of the arts and so on. So that the tremendous power of the Reformed faith was precisely because it had a world and life view. It had a total answer in every area in terms of the plain statements of Scripture, the implications of the sovereignty of God. And this was its strength, and its weakness now is that it doesn’t have that, it isn’t using it, it has it there implicit in its standards, but it’s reduced the Bible to a church book, and the faith to a church faith. So that the Christian, Reformed or unreformed, can go to the emergency hospital, and never think of God until a minister comes around.

One thing more, and then I’ll open the floor for questions. I think I referred to a fact which some of you may have heard me, I think in conversation, I’m forgetting by now what I said and where I said it, I’ve been speaking steadily for two weeks now, but a very delightful Catholic political scientist whom my wife and I have known for some years, and he has read my books and agreed not to comment on them and I’ve agreed not to comment his, he’s a very charming man. But he wrote not too long ago, in Modern Age, a very remarkable article. He said the future of the world depended on two men, and their influence on the modern age, two men of Geneva. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Calvin. And he said, on the one hand, you have in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the faith in the natural goodness of man and in the totalitarian state, totalitarian democracy, the general will, the state as man’s savior. He said that this is what is on the march in every country in the world and is destroying the world. He said on the other hand, you have in Calvin a belief that man is a sinner, but that there is a sovereign and total God, who absolutely governs all things and has the answer in every area of life. And he says as a Catholic I am not happy about taking my choice between these two men, but there’s no question in my mind, I have to hope that it is the position of John Calvin that triumphs. And of course, Doctor or Count von Kuehnelt-Leddihn is saying there, implicitly, that here is a world and life view. The world has to have one today, or it will go into a Dark Ages. I think he’s right.

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965.  His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books. Learn more about R.J. Rushdoony by visiting:

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