Thanks for all the entertaining captions. I've chosen my six favourites, and you can vote for the winner in the poll.
Wednesday, 30 September 2009
Monday, 28 September 2009
Okay, when Maggi linked to this, I just knew it had to be our next caption contest. The winner will receive a nice new book.
Note: See also Bruce's disturbing Jesus caption contest: it'll scare the bejesus out of you.
Sunday, 27 September 2009
Inspired by Brad's weekly Sabbath poetry segment, I thought I might occasionally post a poem here on Sunday.
This week I've been reading Patrick Donnelly's collection, The Charge (Ausable Press 2003). Many of Donnelly's poems take the form of psalms and prayers: prayers about friendship, beauty, same-sex desire, sickness, death; prayers of sorrow and gratitude; prayers about dying friends and living with HIV. (Donnelly is himself a gay man living with HIV.) But his writing is not angst-ridden or introspective; it is tender, fragile, questioning, charged with joy and belief. And his reflections on prayer are often deeply moving. Here are two poems from the book:
PRAYER AFTER REFUSING TO PRAY
Why, when the ferocious beauty that steers this world
has never braked for any cry of mine,
do I find myself making again, toward You
who will always do just as You please,
these motions with my lips and hands and knees,
trying to gentle Your vast wheel off the rails?
My friend is sick in the lymph behind his heart,
a monk, a teacher, Your servant, who loved You so.
ON BEING CALLED TO PRAYER WHILE COOKING DINNER FOR FORTY
When the heavens and the earth
are snapped away like a painted shade,
and every creature called to account,
please forgive me my head
full of chickpeas, garlic and parsley.
I am in love with the lemon
on the counter, and the warmth
of my brother’s shoulder distracted me
when we stood to pray.
The imam takes us over
for the first prostration,
but I keep one ear cocked
for the cry of the kitchen timer,
thrilled to realize today’s cornbread
might become tomorrow’s stuffing.
This thrift may buy me ten warm minutes
in bed tomorrow, before the singer
climbs the minaret in the dark
to wake me again to the work
of thought, word, deed.
I have so little time to finish;
only I know how to turn the dish, so the first taste
makes my brother’s eyes open wide—
forgive me, this pleasure
seems more urgent than the prayer—
too late to take refuge in You
from the inextricable mischief
of every thing You made,
eggs, milk, cinnamon, kisses, sleep.
Friday, 25 September 2009
I would like to dedicate this book to my good friend Ben Myers, who is making theology in the antipodes fashionable again and is my syndoulos in the kingdom of Christ. His dedication to the theological craft is inspiring. May his tribe increase!I expected to live my whole life without ever receiving such a warm and generous dedication (or any dedication at all); so I feel humbled and very grateful!
Mike's other latest books include Are You the One Who Is to Come? The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question (Baker 2009), Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message (IVP 2009), and How Did Christianity Begin? A Believer and Non-Believer Examine the Evidence (Hendrickson 2009).
Labels: Michael Bird
Theologians engaging in research commit themselves to certain protocols of argument which are often absent from the populist theological debates which occur in the church. Involvement in research is, at the very least, a commitment to the academy’s culture of debate where protocols such as the following would (hopefully) apply: the sifting and weighing up of evidence, a humility to see the weaknesses in one's own position and to be corrected by one's critics, care in the construction of arguments, a willingness to employ persuasion rather than dogmatism, and (therefore) a refusal to be dominated by the immediate....I think these questions deserve much more attention than they usually receive. What does it mean to say that theology can be practised as university research? One of the most interesting things I've read on this is an article by Hans Ulrich, which I summarised in an earlier post. And I also really appreciated Bruce McCormack's brief article on the justification of a theology faculty.
Sometimes theological discussion in the churches is illuminating and inspiring. Generally, however, the culture of theological discussion in the churches has little patience with the kinds of protocols noted above. It is frequently reactive, often trapped in denominational and geographical parochialism, and seldom well-informed. It is often driven by the pragmatic and the contingent, and is thereby distanced from any patient quest for the truth which intentionally draws on a larger horizon of theological wisdom. All of this is intensified by the underlying theological and biblical illiteracy which characterises so much contemporary Christianity.
Of course, for an alternative model to be recognised and appreciated, it would be necessary to break through the prevailing culture. The work and witness of the research-oriented theologian might not of itself be sufficient to effect that break through. Nevertheless, a research-strong faculty might become something of a benchmark within the life of the church for more patient and theologically-richer discussions within the church at large.
Labels: doing theology
Thursday, 24 September 2009
One of the perks of blogging is that I get a commission when people buy anything from Amazon after following a link from F&T. (All proceeds go towards – you guessed it – theology books.) Yesterday I glanced at my Amazon report to see what people had purchased over the past 24 hours. It's often fascinating to see the kinds of things theologians are into:
- Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies $18.48
- The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul $43.20
- The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ $4.97
- Twilight (The Twilight Saga, Book 1) $6.59
- THC Marijuana Dip Test (25 Tests) $19.49
Wednesday, 23 September 2009
Today I was reminded of Dan's post (some time ago) on faux libraries. A friend told me that he bought a digital set of Karl Rahner's Investigations, and he suggested that it should come with a matching faux set, just so everyone can see that you own it.
The temptation to create faux libraries is not unique to film sets and other sinks of iniquity. When the famous Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon moved to Bournemouth, he didn't have enough books to fill all the shelves, so he added a wall of handsome dummy books. Charles Dickens created a humorous collection of dummy books, with titles such as The Corn Question by John Bunyan, Dr Kitchener's Life of Captain Cook, Mr J. Horner on Poet's Corner, and Savage on Civilisation. And Aldous Huxley describes a faux library with titles such as Biography of Men Who Were Born Great, Biography of Men Who Achieved Greatness, Biography of Men Who Had Greatness Thrust Upon Them, and Biography of Men Who Were Never Great At All.
In his entertaining Anatomy of Bibliomania, Holbrook Jackson pours scorn on such "panels of deception"; and he passionately condemns those "ghouls" who purchase old books with the deliberate intention of converting them into attractive boxes for cigars, jewellery, notepaper and the like:
"And what of those who encourage this ghoulish trade? They are no better than body-snatchers, desecrators of the temple, vain, tawdry, callous, whether sellers of such monuments of destruction or buyers of them, biblioclasts and dolts to boot, necrophils of a sort..."Personally, I don't really see the appeal of faux libraries. I myself think it would be much more useful to have a faux desk and faux computer in my study. "Oh, that computer's not real. I just want to look as though I do some work here; whereas really I sit around all day reading books." Here's a working prototype:
Tuesday, 22 September 2009
This month, Sydney is being blitzed with Australia's biggest-ever Christian campaign: Jesus. All about life. It's supported by most of Australia's major church groups: Catholic, Anglican, Uniting, Pentecostal, Baptist, etc. The Jesus logo is appearing on billboards and bus shelters around town; there are prime time TV and radio commercials; churches are holding all sorts of special Jesus events; and there's even a Jesus racing car. Apparently the whole campaign is based on market research about what the average Australian wants.
There's also a Thank You Jesus website, where you can submit thank-yous to Jesus for cool middle class stuff – there's an example below. (Incidentally, I don't think they've had very good web advice for this campaign. Through a curious oversight, they forgot to register the .com domains of both their websites: one is now owned by the atheist parody site, Jesus. All About Lies, while the other is owned by Secular Thinking.)
The campaign has been discussed on various blogs, radio programmes, and so forth. In a recent programme, there was some intelligent critique from one of our local theologians, John Hirt: "If we market Jesus to the culture, do we lose his life-alignment to the poor and the broken?" And the same programme included some disturbing insights from the marketing director of the campaign: "People have the right to know about Jesus, and they have the right then to choose to turn him down." Riiiiight.
Speaking of advertising, here's some cool unofficial promotion for HBO from Postal Secrets (a blog where people send in their anonymous secrets on the front of a postcard):
Sunday, 20 September 2009
- Theologian trading cards are coming soon!
- A new blog: The Evangelical Calvinist
- And another one: Paul Griffiths
- A fantastic post on Augustine's De Trinitate
- A liturgy for a miscarried child
- On Inglourious Basterds and the ethics of cinematic violence
- A compilation of audio resources for theology
- Audio Foucault lectures
- A revealing study of the cost of humanities journals
- John Colwell's new book reflects theologically on his struggles with bi-polar disorder
- Christian theology of religions blog conference: call for papers
- A journal issue devoted to the work of William Cavanaugh
- Andrew with the best F&T posts on Karl Barth (thanks Andrew!)
- Another reflection on the awesome kids' band, Butterflyfish
- Why men shouldn't be ordained
- Analogia entis revisted
- Rowan Williams does a little Hegeling
- And Rowan on how to be accessible without being banal
- On David Bazan and poetry
- A long and remarkable interview with Marilynne Robinson
- A new live Tom Waits album coming soon
- Finally, my curiosity got the better of me: I just had to see Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus. Is it really as bad as everyone says? No. It's worse – much worse. In my favourite scene, the characters are discussing the impending global catastrophe: "Civilian casualties have already skyrocketed on both sides of the world.... This cannot be allowed to happen. The devastation of marine life [would be] unimaginable. Miles of oceans would be poisoned with fallout. Also the potential for coastal damage and human casualties are extremely high. Plus massive tidal waves. We'd better think of something fast." After a solemn pause, our hero replies: "I suggest we all get some rest and reconvene."
- (Oh, and the sign pictured above is thanks to Jason.)
Labels: here and there
Thursday, 17 September 2009
by Kim Fabricius (originally printed in this month's Reform magazine)
This is an ecclesiastical health warning for “divine flu”. There are two potentially fatal forms of this malady afflicting the church. One is caused by the Tweedledum virus, the other by the Tweedledee virus.
Theo-chemically, the viruses are mirror images of one another, and can only thrive in symbiotic relationship. The technical terms for the related illnesses they cause are “neo-liberalism” and “conservative evangelicalism”. Here is a list of ten symptoms associated with each pathology. Sufferers may not exhibit all of these symptoms, but if you experience some of the symptoms you should immediately seek medical attention.
• Feel the omission Old Testament readings from Sunday worship is a welcome relief rather than an egregious truncation. They regard the preacher as a reflector on experiences, or a community life-coach, rather than one called to confront the congregation with God’s living word of grace and judgement.
• Tell us the Creeds are old-fashioned, bang on about “relevance” and, with “chronological snobbery” (C. S. Lewis) masking historical ignorance – the idea that the Church Fathers or Reformers believed in a bearded celestial pensioner is risible – instruct us about what modern people can and cannot accept.
• Give Trinity Sunday, the climax of the Christian year, a miss. Or if that is not possible, delight in the crypto-unitarian images – the three lobed-leaves of the shamrock, or the three states of water – of the children’s address, as if the doctrine of the Trinity were a mathematical puzzle rather than a description of God’s very identity.
• Deny the divinity of Christ (while acknowledging him as great guru, right up there with the Buddha), speak of the resurrection as a “spiritual” reality (i.e. as something that happened to the disciples, not to Jesus), and so cannot worship or pray to Jesus; and, consequently, don’t know what to do with Paul.
• Think “Calvin and Barth” is the name of a comic strip, that orthodoxy is dull rather than dangerous, and that John Spong is a “progressive” theologian rather than a recycler of Enlightenment ideas.
• Mistake counselling for the cure of souls, clinical psychology for spirituality, and prefer the nostrums of Myers-Briggs and James Fowler to the wisdom of the Desert Fathers.
• Argue that Jesus’ silence on the subject of homosexuality is germane to the contemporary debate about same-sex relationships, presumably not realising that an argument from silence is a non-argument, i.e. a fallacious argument.
• Believe near-death experiences are relevant to our understanding of what St. John calls “eternal life”.
• Seem reluctant about declaring that “Christ died for our sins”, and shy, even embarrassed, about saying that they are “born-again”, or that they “love the Lord Jesus”.
• Are fans rather than followers of Jesus when it comes to his absolute rejection of violence; for example, they will kill other people if the state tells them to.
• Read the Bible only in the original version – the NIV, of course! – as if there were a neutral and stable position from which this library of a book could be translated, as if translations weren’t themselves interpretations, and as if our interpretations of these interpretations didn’t go all the way down and resist closure – they do.
• Hold tenaciously to the quite unbiblical, relatively newfangled, and deeply problematical doctrine of biblical inerrancy.
• Act like the doctrine of penal substitution is in the Creeds, find nothing at all sub-Christian in the idea that God “punished” Jesus on the cross, and deploy this model of the atonement as the litmus test for distinguishing “real” Christians.
• Argue that the Levitical and Pauline condemnations of homosexuality conclusively settle the contemporary discussion of same-sex relationships, insisting, however, that “while we hate the sin, we love the sinner.” (Gay/Lesbian Christians: “Yeah, right!”)
• Worship with “choruses” that are four lines long, a half-inch deep, and take 20 minutes to sing.
• Punctuate their prayers with the word “just” (“Father, we just pray this, and Father, we just pray that”) with mind-numbing repetition, and assume that the more people you have praying about something, the more likely you are to get a result.
• Despise Richard Dawkins while actually believing in the kind of God he rightly rejects, as if the existence of God were, in principle, demonstrable, as if the proposition “God exists” were a hypothesis to be affirmed or denied, as if God were simply the hugest of individuals.
• Treat the visions in the book of Revelation as if they were the prognostications of a Nostradamus rather than imaginative murals of encouragement for confessing churches and protest against militant empires.
• Believe, sometimes with quite unpleasant schadenfreude, that hell will be full rather than empty – and that they have access to the Inferno’s census.
• Are fans rather than followers of Jesus when it comes to his absolute rejection of violence; for example, they will kill other people if the state tells them to.
I repeat: both forms of divine flu are very serious and potentially terminal. However, if forced to choose, this theo-clinician would say that neo-liberalism rather than conservative evangelicalism is the greater danger to the life of the church itself. Why? Because (to rephrase the American Presbyterian Hugh T. Kerr) it is easier to cool down the feverish than to warm up the undead.
Neo-liberals, the problem is not that you are too critical, but rather not critical enough; and conservative evangelicals, the problem is not that you are too biblical, but not biblical enough. Let the healing begin!
Wednesday, 16 September 2009
The AUFS crowd recently had a nice book event discussing Laurel Schneider's Beyond Monotheism: A Theology of Multiplicity. Their next discussion will focus on Philip Goodchild's Theology of Money – and if you want to join in the conversation, SCM are currently offering a generous discount on the book.
Monday, 14 September 2009
Okay, as requested, here's another excerpt from the aforementioned review of Stefan Holtmann's book, Karl Barth als Theologe der Neuzeit:
Trutz Rendtorff’s work has been one of the most important influences on the reception of Barth in Germany since the 1960s. Rendtorff does not regard Barth’s theology as a fundamental break with the nineteenth century; rather, he argues that Barth represents one particular constructive development of the nineteenth-century themes of subjectivity and self-consciousness. Barth takes these Enlightenment concepts and places them right at the centre of his dogmatic edifice: the notion of autonomous human subjectivity now becomes a doctrine of the ‘radical autonomy of God’. Barth thus represents a kind of ‘liberal theology’ writ large.
Rendtorff is not entirely unsympathetic to Barth in this regard; his criticism of Barth focuses above all on the nature of the church. As Holtmann demonstrates, the seeds of this critical stance towards Barth can be seen already in Rendtorff’s 1958 dissertation on ‘The Social Structure of the Community’, an attempt to subvert the dominance of the Barthian ‘theology of the Word’ and to recover instead a Troeltschian sociological approach to theology. Against Barth’s restrictive dogmatic orientation around the Bible and the theology of the Reformation, Rendtorff found in Troeltsch the promise of a renewed ‘rational’ theology grounded in a universal methodology. In short, his goal was to reinstate a ‘theory of Christianity’ as the proper theme of theology, and this necessarily brought him into conflict with Barth’s dogmatically grounded ecclesiology.
Holtmann turns next to Falk Wagner, one of many critics who have taken Rendtorff’s reading of Barth as a basic point of departure. But whereas Rendtorff’s own response to Barth was marked by a deep and sustained engagement with Barth’s thought, Wagner is clearly more interested in denouncing Barth than understanding him, though Holtmann observes that Wagner nevertheless represents a fascinating and important episode in the story of Barth’s reception. Based on his own commitment to a Hegelian ‘theory of the Absolute’ (mediated to him by the Frankfurt philosopher Wolfgang Cramer), Wagner insisted that theology must always find its ground and centre in the reality of the self-conscious human subject. As he puts it: ‘The “I”, self-consciousness, or subjectivity: this is the fundamental condition for the constitution of theology.’ Thus Rendtorff’s interpretation of ‘the radical autonomy of God’ can only issue in a bitter denunciation of Barth: for Wagner, Barth’s doctrine of God perpetrates ‘tyranny’; it eliminates all human freedom; it erases ‘the other’; it is structurally akin to Fascism! While it is clear that such criticisms cannot be taken seriously as an interpretation of Barth (Eberhard Jüngel icily described this interpretation as a ‘sin against good taste’), Holtmann convincingly demonstrates that such a polemical stance takes root on the soil of a particular set of Hegelian commitments to the utter primacy of the human subject.
Further note: A few comments on the previous post asked for further information about the "Munich school" interpretation of Barth. For a very clear and informative overview of this terrain, I would highly recommend John Macken's book, The Autonomy Theme in the Church Dogmatics: Karl Barth and His Critics – as far as I know, this is the only book in English to discuss all this in great detail. And for another example of this kind of approach to Barth, you could also see my review of Michael Menke-Peitzmeyer's book on divine subjectivity in Barth. Hope that helps!
Labels: Karl Barth
Friday, 11 September 2009
The latest issue of Reviews in Religion and Theology includes my review of Stefan Holtmann's big study, Karl Barth als Theologe der Neuzeit: Studien zur kritischen Deutung seiner Theologie [Karl Barth as a Theologian of Modernity: Studies in the Critical Interpretation of His Theology]. The book is tremendously helpful for understanding the history of the Marburg-school interpretation of Barth. Here are the opening lines of my review:
One of the dominant trends in contemporary English-language Barth studies is to view Barth’s thought as a project that overcame the problems of modernity by returning to the roots of classical dogma; thus Barth becomes the champion of a renewed (because more deeply traditional) evangelical orthodoxy, while the problems and questions of the nineteenth century are passed over as obsolete. Coupled with this is the tendency to read Barth’s dogmatics as a kind of tour de force, a magisterial work whose authority is fundamentally beyond question, and whose thought can be apprehended without any reference to the historical context within which it was conceived. Even where Barth is criticised, Anglo-American Barth scholars will typically identify some ‘gap’, some relatively benign deficiency (usually creation or pneumatology) which requires supplementation.
Things are very different in Germany. Under the influence of Trutz Rendtorff and the so-called ‘Munich school’, several major German theologians have long pursued a stinging critique of Barth’s entire project. Here, his work is understood not as a triumph over modernity, but as one particular – and deeply problematic – product of the Enlightenment. In this impressive, meticulously researched study, Stefan Holtmann explores the history of this critical reception of Barth’s thought in Germany.
Wednesday, 9 September 2009
Speaking of books and publishing, I’m always pleased when I come across some weird and unaccountable publishing mishap in one of my books, some defect that sets it apart from the common herd. A notable example is the well-known Hauerwas and Willimon book, Resident Aliens (Abingdon 1989). My copy has the following pagination: 1-32, then 65-96, then 33-64, then 97-175. I have no idea how many copies were printed like this: perhaps I’ve got a Very Rare and Lucky Copy? Or perhaps a whole print-run came out like this?
In any case, pagination like this really adds to the element of surprise: you never quite know what’s coming next. And it’s perhaps a mark of the book’s tightly focused argument that it still reads pretty coherently when you cross that boundary from p. 32 to p. 65. If you lost concentration for a moment while reading, you might not even notice. The text reads: “What we call ‘freedom’ becomes the tyranny of our own desires. We are kept detached, strangers to one another as we go about fulfilling our needs and asserting our rights. The [page break] me. I must be true to myself. The more we can be free of parents, children, spouses, duties, the more free we will be to ‘be ourselves’…”
Monday, 7 September 2009
They say you can't judge a book by its cover. By I think that's a very overrated sentiment. When I'm choosing a novel, for example, I always base my choice on two things: the cover, and the first page. In the publishing industry, a lot of care goes into producing covers that will attract the right kind of reader; that's why most crime thrillers, or historical fictions, or literary fictions, look recognisably similar. The cover design has its own genre. (The same is true with films. In the first instance, I always base my choice on the DVD cover.)
When it comes to covers, books published in other languages are of course a different story – that obstinately democratic white cardboard of the French, or the austere and humourless cloth of the Germans – but at the moment I'm talking only about English-language publishers.
Generally speaking, theology book covers tend to be nice and tasteful, if a little predictable. The diversity is certainly less pronounced than in philosophy. In the latter discipline, you have everything from the most spare, elegant simplicity (e.g. Kierkegaard's writings) to the most outrageously loud graffiti-art (e.g. the Continuum series). A while back, Evan pointed out a nice gallery of the various international editions of Harry Frankfurt's book, On Bullshit. It's an extremely fascinating series of images, depicting very different styles of cover design.
Getting back to theology, though: Eric has linked to this book, which I'd have to say is one of the most striking theology covers I've seen: a veritable feast for the eyes. The designer's website has images of their other book covers, including a stunning poetry series, a gorgeous milk cover, a sexy retro James Bond series, a Peter Carey series designed with tissue-paper, and – my favourite – a sumptuous Jules Verne series. It's not often you see covers like this – covers that are really works of art in their own right. (If I was a theology publisher, I'd be getting on to these guys: if you don't think covers make much of a difference, just look at the previous cover of The Story of God, and you'll know why you never heard of that book till now.)
There's also a nice Book Design Review blog, which features loads of cool book covers (including an annual shortlist of the year's best covers). One of the gems I discovered on that blog is the following book about Kafka – a cover that makes me twitch my antennae and grin from ear to ear:
Of course, for many years the Folio Society has been producing seductively lovely covers: they're so good that my wife and I have occasionally been lured into buying them, even though God knows we can't afford them. (Did we really need that full set of Jane Austen novels? Were the old paperbacks really so demeaning? Who knows, next time I have £175 burning a hole in my pocket I might even get their fabulous Moby-Dick edition.)
Finally, no post about book covers would be complete without mention of the South American publisher, Los Libros de Homero – they have a beautiful website, and their book covers are quite breathtaking. (I know the fellow who founded this publisher, and he's a true bibliophile, not a mere businessman: this makes all the difference.)
Oh, and I'm also very glad that Penguin Australia recently launched a new series of Popular Penguins, with those classy old retro covers. This is what paperbacks are all about. Plus, for the price of a single Folio Society volume, you could fill your entire house with groovy orange Penguins. Think about it.
Anyways, just to prove that not all cover designers are people of intelligence, sensitivity and creative genius, here's one of the worst covers you'll ever see – brace yourself...
Friday, 4 September 2009
- Historical formulations of Christian Social Thought
- Associative relationships in theology, economics, and society
- Re-framing social justice
- Theological liberalism and conservatism/political liberalism and conservatism
- Economics, capital ownership and markets in Christian Social Thought
- Christian Social Thought and notions of Left and Right
Wednesday, 2 September 2009
Cynthia has written an excellent and elegant critique of the excerpt from my Calvin paper – she focuses on problems with Hobbes’s political philosophy, and on the continuing usefulness of rights-discourse. I won’t try to defend Hobbes here, since my paper didn’t really have any special investment in Hobbesian philosophy (I’m admittedly quite sympathetic to Hobbes’s understanding of rights and sovereignty; but in this paper, I was just using him in passing, to illustrate the inherent violence of rights-discourse – and the real reason I mentioned him was so that I could say it was a paper about “Calvin and Hobbes”!).
But as for the larger questions about justice: it might help to clarify things if I post another excerpt from my paper. I’m also posting this in response to Kim’s very apposite comment: “Nevertheless, that refugee, yes, really needs a just society that understands itself as obligated to do what's right for her’. However, that sounds to me like the church — at least the church Jesus calls us to be. But Leviathan? Not as we know it, Spock.” Roughly speaking, I agree with this – in fact, I tried to make this the strongest claim of my paper. Here’s the last two paragraphs from the paper:
At this point, I think Calvin can offer us an insight that should remain central to Christian considerations of political order: as I have emphasised throughout this paper, Calvin’s vision of a justly ordered society is from start to finish not a “secular”, but a theological vision. His political philosophy cannot be divorced for a moment from theological considerations of sin, grace, justice, virtue, and divine sovereignty. For Calvin, all human beings and all societies are profoundly damaged and corrupted by the power of sin. A society cannot raise itself by its bootstraps; a people ruled by vice cannot become virtuous through their own efforts or through the formal improvements of legal procedures and political structures. (This is why Calvin thinks that any existing political structure – monarchy, aristocracy, democracy – should simply be accepted; no structure as such is more inherently just than any other.)
What is needed, Calvin thinks, is the transformation of human life through the Word of God which is proclaimed and enacted in the Christian community. It is in the community of believers that the righteousness of God – God’s way of putting things right – is displayed to the world. It is in this community that the virtues necessary for a just social order are cultivated and defended. It is here, therefore, that the world catches a glimpse of true justice, order, virtue, and peace. It is in the Christian community that the true purpose and telos of the whole social order is disclosed. The church, therefore, becomes (as David Little puts it) “a necessary condition for upholding proper law and order in society. Without it, chaos and disorder are the likely result.” It is by looking at the church that the world learns how to be the world. The common good of the whole people depends on the fragile yet indispensable witness of this community of virtue, justice, and peace.
(Pictured is my own 1569 edition of Calvin's Institutio.)