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Marilynne Robinson on Christian Liberalism

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Earlier this month, prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson delivered the 2011 Kuyper Prize Lecture at the Kuyper Center conference, “Calvinism and Culture.”

In this lecture, Robinson explores and reframes our historical understanding of the Reformed tradition and its relationship to “Christian liberalism.” She says,

Contrary to entrenched assumption, contrary to the conventional associations made with the words Calvinist and Puritan, and despite the fact that certain fairly austere communities can claim a heritage in Reformed culture and history, Calvinism is uniquely the fons et origo of Christian liberalism in the modern period, that is, in the period since the Reformation. And this liberalism has had its origins largely in the Old Testament. This is a bold statement, very much against the grain of historical consensus. Though I acknowledge that it may be indefensible in any number of particulars, I will argue that in a general sense it is not only true, but a clarification of history important to contemporary culture and to that shaken and diminishing community, liberal Protestantism.

She traces this idea of Christian liberalism to the Reformation ideas about generosity and responsibility. She notes,

But in Renaissance French, libéral, libéralité, meant “generous, generosity.” And of course the word occurs in the English Puritan translations, the Matthew’s Bible and the Geneva Bible, which were followed in their use of the term by the 1611 Authorized Version. The word occurs in contexts that urge an ethics of non-judgmental, non-exclusive generosity.

The point here does not apply to non-exclusivity of doctrine (which is how it is typically understood, and applied as she notes in the context of figures like Adolf von Harnack). The point is rather that Christian liberalism, as informed by the Reformed reception of the biblical witness, is that it is focused on a vision of social life and culture.

As Robinson says, “All this is of interest because the verses I have quoted and the word liberal itself, supported by the meaning the verses give to it, are central to American social thought from its beginning.”

The audio of Robinson’s lecture is available in MP3 format here.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Dan H,

    The idea of Calvinism as the source of Christian Liberalism seems uncontroversial to me. It’s important to note that Schleiermacher was both the son of a Reformed Churchman and one himself.

    The Old Testament claim seems more controversial. Schleiermacher himself was famously negligent in his studies of the Hebrew Bible.

  • Dan, it depends on what you mean by “liberalism,” of course. The connection here isn’t to “theological liberalism” along the lines of Schleiermacher, but rather to a kind of social “liberalism” or even “liberality.”

  • oft

    If the connection of “liberalism” is to social liberalism, does that refer to a liberalization of biblical morals? Is the author referring to “social” morality in the sense of charity, environment, the poor, etc?

  • Stan1026

    The problem here is that if the discussion is about generosity, than modern liberalism of any flavor needs to change its name. Modern liberalism is about being generous with other people’s money, not your own. Any such association between government and religion, if it needs to exist at all, should only be at the local, community level of government where everyone has a better chance of expressing their views directly to one another rather than having them filtered through a biased media.

  • Winston C. Boelkins

    I prefer to think of social justice. Ala Charles Colson, etc.
    I would hope that all would agree that social justice has historical roots in both the Old and New Testaments. Calvinists who promote social justice are in a biblical mainstream.

  • Roger McKinney

    I don’t agree at all that “Calvinism is uniquely the fons et origo of Christian liberalism in the modern period…” It simply flies in the face of history. Read about Calvin’s Geneva. It was very oppressive. For crying out loud Calvin had spies snooping around at night and listening into conversations in people’s homes to catch them in “illegal” speech!

    Our modern ideas on liberty came from the Church Scholastics, especially those of Salamanca, Spain. They were never implemented until the Dutch Republic and the Dutch implemented them over the strong objection of the nation’s Calvinists. The Erasmian Protestants forced liberty on the Calvinists who fought it every chance they could.

  • Ray Hooker

    @Roger, Don’t confuse the difference between modern ideas of freedom of expression and liberalism relative to the government programs for the poor. Clearly Calvin did not promote freedom of expression, but he may have laid the basis for trying to build justice into society.

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  • Roger McKinney

    Ray, did I take her use of liberalism in the wrong way? I took it to mean classical liberalism. I didn’t listen to the mp3. Was she referring to socialist liberalism?

    If she was referring to the modern, socialist version of liberalism she is still very wrong. Modern liberalism is socialism and socialism began with atheism. See Hayek’s “Counter-Revolution in Science.”

    While the OT includes commands to help the poor and laws like Jubilee and the poor laws, notice the absence of an enforcement mechanism. There was no executive branch of government, no police or standing army. There was no legislative branch either. Taxation consisted of giving to the temple, but again there was no enforcement mechanism. It was totally voluntary.

    Helping the poor has always been voluntary in God’s eyes and a litmus test of one’s love for God. Modern liberalism has nothing at all to do with the OT.

  • oft

    I don’t agree at all that “Calvinism is uniquely the fons et origo of Christian liberalism in the modern period…” It simply flies in the face of history. Read about Calvin’s Geneva. It was very oppressive.>>>>

    You call searching if people are in sin oppressive? It is sin that destroys a nation. Chief Justice John Marshall ruled in the affirmative in a similiar case. Calvin is responsible for Republicanism, the Bill of Rights, etc. through the Scriptures. Some of the leading tracts by Protestants from the Reformation period that had wide and enduring political impact in support of liberty were Calvinists: The Right of Magistrates (1574) by Theodore Beza, The Rights of the Crown of Scotland (1579) by George Buchanan, Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (1579) by Phillipe du Plessis Mornay, Politica (1603) by Johannes Althusius, and Lex Rex (1644) by Samuel Rutherford.

    Calvin basically formed the United States! People view burning Servetus as Calvin’s fault, when Calvin had little to do with it. The guy blashemed, and was guilty under the Law. The leaders of Geneva burned Servetus despite Calvin’s attempt to get him to recant.

    The scholastics? Could you be referring to Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621)? That guy was crooked as a three dollar bill:
    “On 11 Nov. 1590, Bellarmine returned to Rome…Personally relieved that Sixtus, who had wanted him on the Index [of forbidden books and authors], was dead, he feared for the prestige of the papacy….Bellarmine advised the [new] pope to lie. Some of his admirers have disputed this. Their task is formidable. The options were plain: admit publicly that a pope had erred on a critical matter of the Bible [his translation] or engage in a cover-up whose outcome was unpredictable. Bellarmine proposed the latter.”
    –Vicars of Christ: The Dark Side of the Papacy, Peter de Rosa (Crown Publishers, 1988), pp. 217-219.

    Most of the Founding Fathers were Calvinists apart from freewill: Madison, Ellsworth, Wolcott, Sherman, Dickinson, Lee, Jay, Boudinot, etc.

  • Roger McKinney

    You have to distinguish between the theology of Calvinism and the politics. Geneva was a very oppressive place to live. People had little freedom. Calvinists tried to remake the Dutch Republic in the image of Geneva but faced severe opposition from the Erasmian protestants. Eventually, Calvinists gave up their attempts to follow Calvin’s politics and followed his theology. You won’t find anything like the freedom the Dutch enjoyed, or the freedom’s in colonial America in Calvin’s writings or his actions. He believed in state control of the economy and of thought.

  • Roger McKinney

    PS, William of Orange insisted that Catholics be allowed to live and worship freely in the new Dutch Republic. His greatest enemies were Calvinists who wanted to purify the country of Catholics.

    Also, one of the great mysteries of Weber’s line of thought about Calvinism being the fount of capitalism is the lack of development in Calvinist Scotland. Scotland was very late to the development game even though they had been Calvinist a long time. But it was because of Calvin’s politics and views on economic liberty that they did not develop.

  • Roger McKinney

    PSS, for more on the late scholastics, check out the wikipedia article on the school of Salamanca, Spain.

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  • Rich

    I generally agree with her.
    Google Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS).
    It is my denomination. A liberal split occurred in the 30’s. It was a huge split and is quite a contrast to the conservative nature of the RCUS today.

  • Dan B.

    Biblical (both Old and New Testament) generosity comes out of the heart (love)–not the “barrel of a [name your enforcement mechanism].”  In America, the conversation, from its beginnings in sparsely located flavors of religious utopianism, had largely resolved into religious “toleration” by the time of the Revolution.  Calvinism and a whole slew of other approaches were there at the Revolution and became a part of the “marketplace of ideas” in the 19th century.  By the time of the 1st Amendment, it was evident that the oft tried way of marrying state and religion for the sake of social order was unworkable.  So…how could fervent Calvinists and Catholics, for example, “get along?”  My point is the centuries-long search for an answer to what had destroyed so many was concluded in the 1st Amendment.  Not so much as a solution as an agreement to tolerate.  No exclusive civil power over the religious conscience of citizens.

    • Wes

      Agreement to tolerate? The only agreement to tolerate that has ever been made is or the powerless to tolerate the powerful. It’s never the other way around. Witness the lack of willingness to tolerate traditional Orthodox Christian values by those who originally appealed for tolerance but found it difficult to attain. “Tolerance” is as an oppressive an ideal as has ever been conceived, primarily because it works to stifle free speech. In practice, no one has to be told to “tolerate” someone else if there is true free speech. In practice, “tolerate” is code for “shut up”. Time to grow up, politically speaking. Calvinists and Catholics shouldn’t have to be made to get along in a state of cold civil war (democracy) wherein the one that ‘must be tolerated’ is invariably the one with the most overt/covert political power. They should each be given their sovereignty. That’s freedom.

  • Justin Gaynor

    “Modern liberalism is socialism and socialism began with atheism. ”

    Begging the question. The first half of this statement is not factual, and the latter is questionable.