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.


mike d said...

If you want to look at recent developments/defenses of subjective rights in the Reformed tradition, Wolterstorff's recent Justice: Rights and Wrongs is an excellent work (he leans on Tierney in several places as well).

John Hobbins said...

The first issue that comes to mind, of course, has to do with the tendency of the human rights tradition to divorce rights from obligations.

In Calvin, rights are discussed in the context of obligations. Are rights "denatured" when they are divorced from that context? I would think so.

Secondly, if one thinks theologically in German, the fundamental pair for a theological anthropology is: Zuspruch Gottes - Anspruch Gottes (in that order). Does this pair no longer apply in a political anthropology? I would think they still apply. If so, is there any air left in the room for "rights" as a linchpin of political theology?

Brian Lugioyo said...

The recently published English edition of the Calvin Handbook, has the following short bibliography under the heading Politics and Social Life (a very good 12 page section by Dolf Britz)

- Bieler, A. La Pensee economique et sociale de Calvin. 1959.
- Bohatec, Josef. Calvins Lehre von Staat und Kirche mit besonderer Berucksichtigung des Organismusgedankens. 1937.
- Hipfl, Harro. The Christian Polity of John Calvin. 1982.
- Kingdom, R.M., and R.D. Linder, eds. Calvin and Calvinism: Sources of Democracy? 1970.
- Olson, J. Calvin and Social Welfare: Deacons and the Bourse Francoise. 1989.
- Schulze, Ludi. Calvin and "Social Ethics": His Views on Property, Interest and Usury. 1985.

Anthony Paul Smith said...

Boer is really great. I heard a rumor that he only travels on boats and won't fly. No one ruin that story for me like you all did that fucking great Hauerwas one!

Ben Myers said...

Actually Anthony, in his preface to this book he explains that he wrote the whole book on a ship at sea. (I have to reiterate: it's a marvellous preface.)

And I'm glad I wasn't the only one who felt deflated and disillusioned when the Hauerwas anecdote was exposed as apocryphal. I guess this illustrates Boer's claim in his Calvin book: sometimes, historical accuracy just takes all the fun out of a good story.

Anthony Paul Smith said...

I just realized he has a blog (that you already link to). You should check out his book in the New Slant series that Goodchild and Surin edit. I've also heard good things from Alberto Toscano about his Criticism of Heaven book. Boer may be my personal hero even if he has widely different academic interests.

roger flyer said...

I'm sticking with the little golden book.

kim fabricius said...

Surely it is a huge hermeneutical mistake to show the slighest interest in getting behind the text to some so-called "historical Hauerwas". What next, a "Stan the Man Seminar"?

Ben Myers said...

Mike, you're right about Wolterstorff — his book on justice will definitely be mentioned. In a very small way, I guess I'm trying to sketch a brief counter-history to the one Wolterstorff advances, since (partly for the reasons John mentions in his comment above) I'm not a fan of rights-based politics.

Brian, thanks for suggesting that article in the Calvin Handbook. I've just read this and it's an excellent piece; I've promptly ordered the handbook as well (I didn't even know it had been translated, so thanks for the heads up!).

Oh, and since my paper is full of references to Quentin Skinner's Foundations of Modern Political Thought Volume 2, it occurs to me that I should also have mentioned this in my post. But Skinner goes without saying. (Just as no one mentions "the Bible" on their list of favourite books: res ipsa loquitur.)

Shane said...

What the hell is a subjective right?

If a "right" = a legal entitlement to something, then aren't they all by definition 'objective' rights since the law is objective?


Ben Myers said...

Good question, Shane. For an answer, I refer you to the terrifying body of scholarship on exactly this question. (And Annabel Brett's book is really superb.)

The usual distinction is that a subjective right is a "quality of the subject", while an objective right is the right thing (iustum) for that subject. The first refers to something that an individual possesses; the second can refer more to a society's (or simply a magistrate's) obligations.

I guess the distinction becomes most vivid in Hobbes: individual citizens have no rights at all (i.e. no subjective rights), but the prince has certain rights and obligations regarding the people.

Shane said...

Ah. I see.

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