In 1913 Herman Bavinck penned a little essay “On Inequality”, in which he directed his attention to the subject of social inequality, especially the tragic sort. The study begins by examining the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who, in the modern period, was the first person to really broach the question, and do so in such a way that his thought has reverberated throughout revolutions and societies ever since. After giving a sympathetic brief biography and exposition of his thought–especially his basic answer that the wicked development of human culture has corrupted natural human equity–in an arresting passage Bavinck unexpectedly turns his attention to set up a contrast between Rousseau and another intellectual titan of Geneva:
The name “citizen of Geneva,” as Rousseau liked to call himself after his second discourse, makes us think of another man who lived and worked in Geneva two centuries earlier: the powerful Reformed John Calvin. But what a tremendous contrast arises the moment these two names are mentioned together. Calvin, the classically formed humanist, a man distinguished in manners and appearance, with sharp mind and an iron will; over against Rousseau, the restless wanderer, who was often moody, whose thinking lacked logic, whose life was rudderless, who was a dreamer and a fanatic, and the first great romanticist of the eighteenth century! Both experienced a transformation in their lives, but with Calvin it consisted of turning away from the errors of the Roman Catholic Church and an embracing of the truth and the freedom of the gospel, which with Rousseau it was no more than a breaking with all culture and return to the instinctiveness of nature. Calvin had learned to see human nature as culpable and polluted in the light of Scripture, while Rousseau taught that nature, before it was contaminated by culture, was good and beautiful and without any corruption. Calvin sought the cause of all misery in sin, which was a personal act consisting of disobedience of God’s law. Rousseau blamed society and civilization, and he was moved to tears when he thought of his own goodness; no one had ever existed who was as good and compassionate as he! Calvin did not expect anything from nature but expected everything from God’s grace in Christ. In one word, Calvin cast man and all creatures in the dust before the overwhelming majesty of God. Rousseau, on the other hand, put man on the throne, himself first of all, at the expense of God’s holiness and justice.
–“On Inequality” in Essays on Religion, Science, and Society (pp. 155-156)
Clearly Bavinck had his preferences. But aside from the excuse to pen a bit of stunning prose, why bring up Calvin? Well, to set up a bit of a paradoxical contrast in their approaches to the issue of inequality.
Calvin, according to Bavinck, was also concerned with inequality, but contrary to the social leveler, Rousseau, it was religious inequality that bothered him most. Why do some respond to the gospel and others turn away in their sin and folly? Calvin, Luther, and others, after examining Scripture and all the other options, could ultimately only acknowledge God’s sovereign good pleasure.
Beyond establishing the certainty of faith, Bavinck says that this insight into the sovereignty of God as the deepest cause of all things gave Calvin foundation from which to build a theology of multiplicity, difference, and yes, even inequality. Nature, culture, and human choice do play their roles, but underlying them all is the sovereign good pleasure of God which sustains nature, culture, and even human choice.
Of course, Bavinck knows this isn’t an immediately palatable thought; only “a strong generation can accept” it. Still, Bavinck thinks it offers a number of blessings. First, it teaches peaceable acceptance, submission, and contentment in times of struggle and hardship. Rousseau stirred up rebellion and resentment in their hearts by blaming society and culture, which set people up for the disappointment that inequality still exists on the other side of the Revolution.
Second, Calvin’s teaching on sovereignty assures believers that no matter how opaque or inscrutable his purposes may be, they are where they are by the will of their loving Father, who cares for them and has provided a gracious salvation in Christ, not blind fate or pitiless nature. These are the comforts of the martyrs, the imprisoned, the simple suffering children of God, which Rousseau’s gospel could never offer.
At this point, Bavinck points up a third and initially surprising contrast between the two philosophies, or rather the two thinkers. Rousseau might have indeed complained, stirred the populace with his fiery writings, and turned people against their monarchs, but at the end of the day, he walked away from them. He ended up retreating to reclusion “without moving a finger to reform society.” Calvin, on the other hand? Well, he got down to business. While some might see predestination and sovereignty as cutting the nerve of social reform, it actually funded it:
If we steadfastly believe that the will of God is the cause of all things, then our reverence for that same will, which has been revealed in Scripture as the rule for our lives, must compel us to promote its dominion everywhere and as far as our influence reaches. If you believe, with Rousseau, that society is the cause of all evil, then you have pronounced its death sentence; you have given man the right to execute people, and you have legitimized the Revolution. But if you believe with Calvin that the will of God, his will of good pleasure, is the cause of all things, then that same will becomes his revealed will and the moving force and rule for our living. The words “Your will be done” encompass and provide not only the strength to acquiesce but also strength to act. (158)
A bit later he goes on to substantiate his point further by pointing out the substantial reforms initiated in Geneva and the admirable commonwealth to be found there. Indeed, in Bavinck’s opinion, Rousseau was proud to be a Genevan largely because of the ripple effect of the Reforms initiated by Calvin’s very different theology of culture, nature, and inequality.
Now, at this point, some of us may question Bavinck’s presentation of Rousseau. I suspect some of us–especially us Americans–might not understand his hostility to the Revolution, or understand the horror with which many Europeans regarded it. Still, it’s a remarkable essay and a paradoxical argument worth considering. A strong appreciation for the sovereignty of God can both keep us from the anxiety that causes us to revile the good gifts of God by identifying them with the source of evil (culture), comfort us in the midst of its difficulties, as well as the moral energy to work for its good.
Soli Deo Gloria