13 June 2016

Convivial Thoughts Part 5: Francis Turretin and the Possibility of Pagan Virtue

I was moderator for the presentation by Stephen Wolfe on Francis Turretin and the Possibility of Pagan Virtue. Wolfe undertook two significant arguments. First, he wanted to correct the continuing misapprehension of many contemporary theologians and political philosophers about early modern Calvinist political thought. And, second, he articulated Turrentin's rationale for the conclusion that pagans could produce real civic good(s) yet even so stand condemned as unrighteous before God.

Michael Walzer and, to a lesser extent, Charles Taylor were the objects of Wolfe's first argument. Walzer's classic "The Revolution of the Saints" continues to stand for the proposition that John Calvin's political philosophy was proto-Hobbesian, a world in which the effects of sin were so devastating, both morally and epistemically, that the post-lapsarian social life of human beings could be arranged only by rulers who imposed their will on the recalcitrant masses. According to Walzer, Calvin's only addition was to add God's revealed positive law to the mix to the end that a Christian ruler would rule by imposing God's will on an atomized political community.

Walzer's account clearly fails to do justice to Calvin. My own take on the subject can be found by reading God's Bridle: John Calvin's Use of the Natural Law (download here) published in 2007 in the Journal of Law and Religion. My 2007 review of David VanDrunen's "Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought" (download here) also sheds light on this topic.

In short, Turretin, like Calvin, argued for a natural-law basis for human society, one in which pagans and Christians (and pagans at least as often as Christians) could arrange their individual and communal lives in accordance with the pattern implanted in them by nature and observable from the successes and failures of human societies in general. Turretin asserted that human beings were not utterly fallen with respect to the ends of creation; man can naturally do good with respect to earthy goods, those that pertain to our essential human nature. With the Fall, however, humanity’s orientation toward God was gone so that our accidental nature has been lost. It is thus in the distinction between essence and accidents that Turretin finds the power of the pagan to do good while simultaneously being unrighteous.

Wolfe went on to drawn four contemporary applications from Turretin. First, and what should be obvious to anyone, the external actions of those converted to the Christian religion may not be any different than those of unbelievers. Second, that the long-forgotten appeal to the “consent of the nations” should be revitalized as a means of discerning right political and social order. Third, focused as it is on the accidents of human nature, Christianity is not so much world-forming as it is world-perfecting. And, finally, contemporary Christians in the secularizing West should emphasize the revitalization of their local communities rather than on national politics.

Wolfe’s conclusions were met with varying degrees of assent by those who listened to him present his paper but it seems that everyone in attendance had concluded that triumphal “Christian transformationalism,” whether of the Left or the Right, had obscured more than it had accomplished. Whether the now-passing generation of the Religious Right or the momentarily ascendant Social Justice Warriors, the power of the Christian faith to restore our Godward orientation is often downplayed in an effort to change the world. Gaining the levers of power is not the means of bringing the Kingdom of God. Thus, a two-fold account of human nature like Turretin’s may provide a better platform for moving forward on both human essentials and accidentals.

Part 5 is the final of these Convivial posts. All in all, I adjudge the Convivium Irenicum 2016 to have been a great success. I know I had a great time and I’m confident others in attendance were encouraged as well. Kudos to The Davenant Trust for its work to bring ressourcement to the Reformed world.

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