Sunday, 23 August 2009

On Calvin, rights and politics

I have now officially written the first sentence of my paper for Saturday’s Calvin conference (which means it’s time to procrastinate with a blog post). My plan is to focus on objective and subjective rights in Calvin’s thought, in relation to later ideas about rights in political philosophy. So I’ve been reading stacks of secondary literature on Calvin’s politics. Here are some of the texts that I’ve found most useful or interesting:

John Witte, Jr. The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (Cambridge UP, 2007) – an absolutely wonderful piece of scholarship; it’s the sequel to Witte’s superb Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation. For me, the only problem with Witte’s work is that it’s too good. What else is there to say?

David Little, “Calvin and Natural Rights,” Political Theology 10:3 (2009), 411-430. A brilliant article, which convinced me that Witte hasn’t necessarily said everything on this topic.

Harro Höpfl, The Christian Polity of John Calvin (Cambridge UP, 1982). For the general shape and historical context of Calvin’s ethical and political thought, I’ve found this book extremely useful.

David W. Hall, Calvin in the Public Square: Liberal Democracies, Rights and Civil Liberties (P&R, 2009). Not as original as Witte or David Little; but still a useful book which attempts a Calvinist history of the theological dimension of contemporary politics. I dislike some of his assumptions about the theological value of modern “freedoms” like democracy and so forth; but I quite like his description of Calvin’s politics as a “qualified absolutism”.

Roland Boer, Political Grace: The Revolutionary Theology of John Calvin (WJKP, 2009). Although this book is only marginally related to my paper, I found it delightfully fun to read. It’s a deeply personal, pugnacious, deliberately anachronistic reading of the revolutionary potential of Calvin’s political theology. I guess it could be read as a political thought-experiment based on Bouwsma’s idea of the “two Calvins”. Even if this has nothing to do with my paper, I certainly had a lot of fun reading it. (And it has one of the best prefaces I’ve seen in ages.)

Herman Selderhuis, John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life (IVP, 2009). Again, this isn’t related to my paper; but it’s a very nice, brisk, energetic biography, and it helped to get me back in the mood for a bit of Calvin, after neglecting his heavy tomes on my shelves for the past few years.

Erich Fuchs, “Providence and Politics: A Reflection on the Contemporary Relevance of the Political Ethics of John Calvin,” Louvain Studies 10 (1985), 231-43; reprinted in Articles on Calvin and Calvinism, ed. Richard Gamble, Volume 3. I guess this essay really has nothing to do with the topic of my paper, but I still found it to be a surprisingly vivid and moving analysis of Calvin’s political understanding of providence.

Meanwhile, on the late medieval background to the relation between theology and natural/subjective rights, I’ve been extremely grateful for the terrific studies of Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law, 1150-1625 (Scholars Press, 1997; reprinted Eerdmans, 2001); and more recently Annabel Brett, Liberty, Right and Nature: Individual Rights in Later Scholastic Thought (Cambridge UP, 2003).

And I thought my paper might also include some remarks on the Augustinian background to Calvin’s thought; so this finally gave me an excuse to read Donald Burt’s wonderful book, Friendship and Society: An Introduction to Augustine’s Practical Philosophy (Eerdmans, 1999). Reading it was a joy, and it reminded me that I’d rather be writing a paper on Augustine. But I guess it’s high time I attempted a second sentence on Calvin…

PS: Although I don’t want to procrastinate further by adding endlessly to my reading list, please let me know if there is some other top-notch work on Calvin and subjective rights that I should consult in order to avoid unnecessary public embarrassment.

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