In the mid-1970s, the famous Mennonite theologian and ethicist John Howard Yoder visited Calvin College to give a lecture explaining the Anabaptist perspective on political authority. His opening comments offended many in his audience (including me). Referring to the Gospel account of the third temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, Yoder said that in refusing to bow before Satan in order to receive authority over the governments of the nations, “Jesus was refusing to be a Calvinist.”
I thought of that comment when I read the news report today of my friend Russell Moore’s response to how Jerry Falwell, Jr. welcomed Donald Trump’s visit to Liberty University this past Monday. Moore was not opposed to Trump’s visit as such. The Politico headline had it wrong on this score: “Evangelical leader blasts Falwell for hosting Trump.” The university had previously hosted Jeb Bush, Bernie Sanders, and Ted Cruz, and nothing in Moore’s published comments faulted the university for exposing students to differing political viewpoints.
What Moore did find distressing was the way President Falwell introduced Mr. Trump. Falwell described Trump as “one of the greatest visionaries of our time” who “lives a life of helping others . . . as Jesus taught in the New Testament.” Appealing to the authority of Jesus in praising a candidate like Trump is wrong-headed, said Moore. “Politics driving the gospel rather than the other way around is the third temptation of Christ. He overcame it. Will we?”
I fully agree with Moore, including his appeal to the biblical account of Christ’s refusal to bow before Satan in order to receive authority over all the nations of the earth. And I know—given his own active role representing Southern Baptists in Washington—that Moore is not operating from a Yoderian-type Anabaptist perspective.
Furthermore, while I still harbor irritation at Yoder’s piece of anti-Calvinist rhetoric, I think the third temptation reminder is an important one specifically for Calvinists to heed. I can appeal in this regard to the authority of no less than the prominent 19th century Calvinist statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper. When Kuyper visited the United States in 1898 to deliver the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary, he made a point of criticizing John Calvin for tying his theology too closely to a political agenda—a topic very much on Kuyper’s mind, given his active role in the Dutch Parliament, where in a few years he would serve as prime minister. In almost one hundred pages of extolling the virtues of Reformed life and thought in his prepared text (still in print as Lectures on Calvinism), Kuyper confesses that on some key elements in past Calvinist thought he not only was unable to “pick up the gauntlet for Calvinism,” but he actually found it necessary to “directly oppose it.”
Kuyper explains himself by offering a litany of historical cases where Calvinism went wrong. The defects of Reformed politics can be seen
in the pile and fagots of Servetus [whom John Calvin had executed for heretical teachings in Geneva]. It lies in the attitude of the Presbyterians toward the Independents. It lies in the restrictions of liberty of worship and in the “civil disabilities,” under which for centuries even in the Netherlands the Roman Catholics have suffered. The difficulty lies in the fact that an article of our old Calvinistic Confession of Faith entrusts to the government the task “of defending against and of extirpating every form of idolatry and false religion and to protect the sacred service of the Church.” The difficulty lies in the unanimous and uniform advice of Calvin and his epigones, who demanded intervention of the government in the matter of religion.
Kuyper may be quite harsh here in his version of Calvinism’s historical record, but he quickly goes on to insist that the proper correctives to this regrettable pattern can be found in a unique and compelling way within Calvinism’s own theological resources. In tension with the practices and events that Kuyper deplores, he holds up an underlying Calvinist celebration of the liberty of the individual conscience—a theme clearly on display, he observes, in the way “our Calvinistic Theologians and jurists have defended the liberty of conscience against the Inquisition.” Indeed, Kuyper argues, it was the genius of Calvinism to oppose the French Revolution’s corrupt notion of individual liberty as the freedom “for every Christian to agree with the unbelieving majority” in favor of the kind of liberty, as Calvinism eventually came to endorse explicitly, “which enables every man to serve God according to his own conviction and the dictates of his own heart.”
This healthy understanding of liberty was put on display in a special way, says Kuyper, under Calvinism’s influence in the Netherlands. “There,” he observes, “the Jews were hospitably received; there the Lutherans were in honor; there the Mennonites flourished; and even the Arminians and Roman Catholics were permitted the free exercise of their religion at home and in secluded churches.”
Mr. Trump promised his Liberty audience that if elected he will “protect Christianity.” People who love the Christian faith certainly could do with some protection these days. But the religious freedom we long for has to come as part of a larger movement for justice that generates a more comprehensive vision for a pluralistic society. It is in the service of that broader vision that we can avoid, as Russell Moore nicely put it, a pattern of “politics driving the gospel rather than the other way around.” If Jerry Falwell, Jr. wants some theological help in understanding that vision, I have a 19th century Calvinist whom I can recommend on the subject.
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.