Monstrous Fictions

Reflections on John Calvin in a Time of Culture War

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Carl J. Rasmussen
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  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , September
     2016.
     198 pages.
     $85.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780739193594.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In this book, Carl J. Rasmussen argues that John Calvin would reject the theological rationales (e.g., worldview thinking, virtue ethics, natural law) of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) for their stance in the current American culture war. First of all, Rasmussen states that for Calvin, “faith is a divine activity, belief is a human activity” (70). In addition to this, by asserting that “for Calvin faith is ineffable, beyond the capacity of language to express it or of our minds to grasp it” (11), Rasmussen maintains that faith is neither a coherent set of beliefs that modern and postmodern theologians (e.g., respectively Alvin Plantinga and George Lindbeck) assume nor a comprehensive worldview on which Abraham Kuyper and the ECT base their public theology. Second, against ECT’s attempt to revive virtue ethics, Rasmussen finds in Calvin’s theology of the cross that Christian virtue is impossible or hypocritical if presumed, and thus the fruit of sanctification is “not a life of virtue but a life lived for others” (14). Third, Rasmussen, dissecting ECT’s involvement in civil matters in terms of John Courtney Murray’s natural law theory (i.e., the jurisdiction of the church or individual conscience over the natural law), provides Calvin’s doctrine of natural law as a critique to Murray’s. For Calvin, “government has exclusive jurisdiction to interpret the natural law and to instantiate it in human law. Neither the individual conscience nor even the church has any such authority” (114). According to Rasmussen, however, Calvin would affirm ECT’s spiritual ecumenism because of his view of the church as catholic. 

Despite Rasmussen’s insightful interpretations of both Calvin’s texts and the American culture war, this book leaves something to be desired. By making no attempt to place Calvin’s notion of faith in its historical context or to examine its possible development, Rasmussen hastily creates a dogmatic account of “Calvin’s understanding of faith beyond recognition” (60). It is true that Calvin considers faith as being much higher than human understanding, but most of studies of Calvin’s notion of faith conclude that Calvin could not conceive of faith apart from knowledge. Calvin used terms like “knowledge” (cognitio), “recognition” (agnitio), and “science” (scientia) for faith (see, for example, R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, Oxford University Press, 1978, 19). 

Rasmussen intentionally ignores the intellectual element of faith in Calvin’s terms because of his hypothesis that a comprehensive belief system expressed in logical form distorts Calvin’s notion of faith beyond recognition. In addition to this, reflecting Karl Barth’s criticism of virtue (conscientia) ethics and natural law theory, Rasmussen considers virtue a Stoic, not a biblical concept. This is problematic because a virtue concept leads “the elect to justify themselves or to judge others” (94). In his commentary on Seneca (Calvin, DeClementia I.i), however, Calvin admires the Stoics for their virtue ethics, distinguishing Stoic virtue from Christian true virtue. In addition, in his commentary on Romans 2, Calvin argues that God implanted in the conscience of all human beings a fundamental conception of vice and virtue, as well as justice and injustice. In this sense, Calvin would prefer Murray’s natural law theory to Rasmussen’s.

Overall, I can not understand why Rasmussen would suggest that Calvin is “the best single authority” for the ECT initiative (5). In fact, the ECT has rarely employed Calvin for their public theology. More specifically, why should we follow Rasmussen’s Barthian reading of Calvin? If we or the ECT slavishly followed Rasmussen, it would be a “monstrous fiction,” as his title suggests.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eundeuk Kim is a doctoral candidate in Systematic Theoloyg at the Calvin Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
June 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Carl J. Rasmussen is a lawyer with the firm of Boardman & Clark LLP in Madison, Wisconsin. He received his Ph.D. and J.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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