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Calvinists, entangled and not

23 May 2014

Alec Ryrie finds this account strongest on church-state issues

Calvinism: A history
D. G. Hart
Yale £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT193 )

DARRYL HART is a conservative Presbyterian, well-known in the United States for defending the separation of Church and State against politicised Christianities (on Right or Left). So he would seem to be ideally placed to write the history of the tradition that he has so long defended.

Certainly, this book is peerless as a guide to Calvinist and Presbyterian struggles with the state, and with structure and polity. As well as on his American home turf, Hart is authoritative on the disputes that have riven the Reformed Churches of Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, and Geneva itself.

Institutional history can be a little dry, but Hart keeps the larger point in view: that Calvinists who have resisted political entanglements have prospered far more than those who have succumbed to the lure of Constantine. And on this theme he is passionate and lively. The crisis in Heidelberg in 1719 becomes a symbol of how the Faustian bargain of political establishment turns sour: beleaguered Calvinists barricaded themselves into their church, only to find Catholic officials descending from the tower into the nave by ropes to expel them.

Unfortunately, this is not really enough to sustain a full-scale history of Calvinism. The book repeatedly describes its scope as "global", but for that read "North Atlantic". The rest of the planet gets swift brushstrokes at best. If you want to know about the indigenous Calvinist consistories of 17th-century Taiwan,or the South African Reformed Churches and apartheid, you will be disappointed. His chapter on foreign missions turns out to be about European and American mission agencies and their structures.

The earlier chapters of the book, indeed, read like a slightly awkward prelude (and are dotted with minor factual errors): a narrative without much sense of direction or purpose, which periodically comes alivewhen his political theme comes into view.

There is frustratingly little on the ordinary life, piety, devotion, or social experience of Calvinists in any age. And there are virtually no women at all.

If you care (and you should) about how Christians should relate institutionally to political power, read this book. But do not mistakeit for a rounded history of Calvinism.

Dr Alec Ryrie is Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University.

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