Tag Archives: John Calvin


FOURTEEN days to Thanksgiving and counting. As an alternative to the ubiquitous countdown to Black Friday, each weekday between now and Thanksgiving I will be posting brief essays on the history of the First Thanksgiving and its place in American memory.  We have often remembered both the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving inaccurately, with the result being that we learn almost nothing from this iconic episode in the American past. A case in point would be Kirk Cameron’s well-intended but misguided documentary Monumental, which I began to review yesterday.  Here are some concluding thoughts.


As we strive to study the past Christianly, one of our goals should be to identify heroes without manufacturing idols.

We all need heroes, individuals to look up to who model the character and accomplishments we aspire to.  There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact we have biblical warrant for it.  In his first letter to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul taught and admonished the fellowship there regarding a number of topics and then offered the audacious suggestion, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (I Corinthians 11:1).  It is as if Paul was saying, “Look, I realize that this teaching can be difficult, so if you’re having a hard time, just follow my example as I try to live it out before you.”  He even promised to send his “son in the faith” Timothy to “remind you of my ways in Christ” (I Corinthians 4:17).

But note the constant qualifiers: the Corinthians were to follow Paul’s example because he was following Christ’s; they were to study Paul’s ways because his ways were “in Christ.”  Heroes are fine, in other words—the great “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11 is full of them—but the traits that we admire them for should be traits consistent with the example of Christ and the teaching of scripture.

Needless to say, this is not the pattern we find in contemporary American culture.  There are admirable exceptions, but a quick glance at who we reward with fame and imitation suggests that character is all but irrelevant.  Our heroes are typically young, attractive, sexy, and thin.  Their contribution to society lies mostly in their ability to perform for us on the movie screen, the concert stage, or the playing field.  Like gushing Miss America candidates, we may claim to desire world peace and a cure for cancer, but what we really value is entertainment.

Before this turns into a self-righteous rant, let me add that we who name the name of Christ bear our fair share of responsibility for this cultural shallowness.  What is more, when with the best of intentions we turn to history to resist this superficiality, we are often lured into a pattern of thinking that comes close to idolatry.

Kirk Cameron’s 2012 documentary Monumental comes perilously near to crossing this line.  As I mentioned in my last post, I share many of Cameron’s values and I don’t doubt that his motives are honorable.  In this sense I want to stand with him as he strives to uphold biblical principles in our fallen world.  But I have to stand against him in his approach to American history.


The message of Monumental will resonate with evangelicals who are distressed by the amorality and immorality of contemporary American culture.  It will inspire many who are looking for a better way, and it will probably persuade many with its message that we can only move forward by looking backward.  In a certain sense I agree.  But before embarking on this project, Cameron would have done well to remember John Calvin’s centuries-old warning (in his Institutes of the Christian Religion) that the human mind is “a perpetual forge of idols.”  Had Cameron taken that warning seriously, his documentary might have conveyed a very different message.

The propensity to forge idols that Calvin warned against is something that we fallen humans carry with us at all times, including during our excursions “into” the past.  This means that one snare that awaits us when we study non-Biblical history is the temptation to fashion idols out of the admirable figures we encounter.

But what would that look like, specifically?  In context, Calvin was addressing the literal worship of physical objects as a substitute for God, but that’s clearly not the pitfall that concerns us here.  Other writers have broadened Calvin’s insight to apply more generally, pointing to our tendency to waver in our allegiance to God, to elevate things or people or desires to the position of primacy in our hearts that belongs to God alone.  That’s always a valid concern, but again not what I have in mind.

In my experience, if we would keep from forging idols in history, there are two related responses that we must especially guard against, both of which effectively clothe the humans that we study with divine attributes.  First, we must beware of describing any figures from the past other than Christ Himself as if they were above reproach—or to put it another way, as if they were without sin.

None of us would ever come right out and say this of a historical figure, and yet there is a subtle temptation to gloss over the flaws in our heroes that their virtues may shine the more brightly.  To take even a single step down this path is to begin the gradual descent from history to hagiography, from the admiration of heroes to the worship of ancestors.

Second, we must be careful never to act as if we are morally bound to follow the example of figures from the past, for this is to impute authority where God has not granted it.  Trust me, Christians fall into this trap all the time.

To give but one example, we strain to prove that the Founding Fathers were predominantly Christians, as if that is somehow supposed to matter to our unbelieving contemporaries.  They’re entirely justified in replying, “Why should we care?”  Why should they, indeed?  If the United States needs to foster religion as an “indispensable support” of the republic, it is not because George Washington told us so in his farewell address (although he did, by the way).

Remember the proviso in Paul’s exhortation: “Imitate me,” he told the Corinthians, “as I also imitate Christ.”  Anytime we forget that stipulation, acting as if a non-canonical figure from the past intrinsically deserves to be followed, we take a long step toward erecting an idol.

Monumental violates both of these strictures.

The heart of the documentary’s argument comes in a fifteen-minute segment in which co-producer Dr. Marshall Foster and Cameron stand at the foot of the little known National Monument to the Forefathers in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  (You can view the segment here.)  The monument is undeniably impressive.  Carved from three hundred tons of granite and rising eight stories above the earth, it features a massive octagonal pedestal surmounted by a thirty-six-foot tall female figure labeled “Faith.”  Seated in a circle around the pedestal are four other immense figures, each classically draped and bearing the names Liberty, Law, Education, and Morality.

As they walk around the massive sculpture, Cameron plays the role of the zealous Christian eager to learn how to turn America back to God, while Foster plays the historian ready to unlock the secrets of America’s hidden Christian past.

National Monument to the Forefathers, Plymouth Massachusetts

National Monument to the Forefathers, Plymouth Massachusetts

(And to be clear, Foster is “playing” at being a historian.  He has no formal training in history at all.  Despite his impressive sounding title of founder of the “World History Institute,” all of his graduate study is in theology, and even in that sphere his credentials are questionable.  According to his organization’s website, Foster is “Dr. Foster” because he holds a Doctorate in Divinity from Cathedral Bible College, a tiny open-enrollment school currently located in Marion, South Carolina.  In May of last year, the school’s founder and president pleaded guilty to federal charges that he systematically forced international students to work for a fraction of minimum wage or face deportation.)

Before going to the Forefather’s Monument, however, Foster takes Cameron to the top of Burial Hill in Plymouth, the site overlooking the harbor where the Pilgrims built their original meeting house and fort.  “There’s nothing like bones to remind you of your heritage,” Foster ruminates.  “That’s why I like bringing people up here, because it reminds us of our own mortality.  It reminds us that we are in a relay race. We are in a generational relay race.  And they understood that.”

They are the Pilgrims, of course.  Here the documentary is a bit misleading, as most of the graves on Burial Hill belong to later generations of Plymouth colonists, not the original passengers of the Mayflower, but no matter.  Foster’s point is that the Pilgrims took seriously their responsibility to bequeath their faith and their identity as Christ followers to their descendants, and there is no doubt that he is right.  In large measure, their determination to risk their lives to come to America was with their children and their children’s children in mind.

Cameron’s job in this segment is primarily to serve as Foster’s set-up man, posing questions to guide what is essentially a lecture from the director of the “World History Institute.”  “I wish they had left us some kind of a training manual,” the former teenage star of Growing Pains says wistfully, “some kind of secret sauce recipe card that we could pick up and go, ‘Here’s what it is!  Here’s what we do!’”

The good news (gospel?) at the core of Monumental is that there is such a “training manual” or “secret sauce recipe card” (what an awful metaphor), and that it is hidden in plain sight near the spot where America was “founded.”

Before taking Cameron to the National Monument to the Forefathers, Foster sets the stage with an allusion to scripture.  “When the children of Israel are going into the Promised Land,” Foster reminds Cameron, “they cross the Jordan River and God stood it on end and they walked across.  And before the waters stopped parting, God told them to take twelve stones from the bottom of the river and put them up on the top of Mt. Gilgal and make a monument so that when your children ask, ‘What are these stones?’ you will be able to tell them, ‘This is where God parted the sea.’”  This is a mostly accurate re-telling of an episode in the history of Israel recounted in the book of Joshua, chapter four.

Now comes the segue.  “And that’s what the Pilgrims left us,” Foster explains.  They left us a monument that not only gives tribute to what was accomplished here, but it gives us a specific strategy, a breakout of a blueprint [so that] if we would ever forget what made America great, what made us free, we can go back and follow that strategy—and it’s right up on a hill a half mile from here.”  At this point the scene shifts several hundred yards to the northwest, to the site of the National Monument to the Forefathers.

I cannot overstate how deeply flawed this comparison is.  To begin with, the monument described to us in the book of Joshua calls attention to the work of God on behalf of His people.  When the Israelites’ children asked them what the twelve stone stones meant, they were to explain to them what God had done, “that all the peoples of the earth may know the hand of the Lord, that it is mighty” (Joshua 4:24).

The National Monument to the Forefathers, in contrast, calls attention not to God but to the PilgrimsGranted, the monument implies that the Pilgrims were people of faith, but they also had the wisdom to recognize the four other indispensable pillars of a great and free nation and the purity of character necessary to model them rightly for us.  Both the monument and the documentary have the same message: Want to be a great, free, and prosperous nation?  Look to the Pilgrims.

Implicit in the comparison is also the suggestion that ancient Israel and the United States are analogous.  Think about it: Foster begins by alluding to a monument erected by God’s chosen nation of old at the point at which they entered their Promised Land.  He then likens it to a monument erected supposedly by the Pilgrims near the point where they entered the future United States.  Lurking in the comparison is a portrayal of the United States as God’s “New Israel,” a theologically disastrous conclusion that well meaning Americans have too frequently embraced.  (To cite one example, this was the message of The Light and the Glory, by Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel, the book that remains the single most popular Christian interpretation of American history ever written.  For my review of that book, click here.)

Finally, as a historian, I cringe at Foster’s nonsensical statement that “the Pilgrims” were the ones who “left us” the monument at Plymouth.  The National Monument to the Forefathers was dedicated in 1889, two hundred sixty-nine years after the voyage of the Mayflower.  Completed the same year as Jane G. Austin’s fabulously popular and romanticized account of the Pilgrims, Standish of Standish (see my prior post on this novel), the monument primarily tells us how Victorian America wanted to remember the Pilgrims a quarter of a millennium after they passed from the scene.

Writing at the height of the Pilgrim’s popularity during the early years of the Cold War, Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison wryly observed, “One price the Pilgrims have to pay for their popularity is the attribution to them of many things or trends popular now, but of which they knew nothing and cared less.”  The National Monument to the Forefathers reveals much more about the values of the late-nineteenth century than it does about the worldview of the Pilgrims, just as Foster’s interpretation of the monument primarily reveals to us the values of Marshall Foster and Kirk Cameron.

I am convinced that the Pilgrims would be distraught if they could view the National Monument erected in their honor.  In my next post I will explain why I think so.



Wheaton College undergraduates attend chapel services three times a week during the academic year.  Typically, the entire student body meets together in our beautiful Edman Chapel, but once each term students gather in smaller groups within their home departments–biology majors with biology majors, philosophy majors with philosophy majors, etc.  Today was the appointed day for departmental chapels, and it was my privilege to be the featured speaker in the chapel service hosted by the Department of History.

The title of my talk to our majors was “Thinking Historically About Vocation.”  At the beginning of the year my History Department colleagues and I decided that we needed to do a better job of helping our students think about life after graduation and the range of career paths they might follow.  Toward that end, we plan to bring back a number of History alums to campus for a series of panel discussions about possible vocational paths.

Before we launch that initiative, however, I thought it was important to help our students think about vocation at a more foundational level.  Before asking “What is my specific vocation or calling in life?” I want them to ask, “How, as a Christian, ought I to understand the concept of calling?”

In preparing my remarks, I relied heavily on a work that I would recommend to anyone wanting to think Christianly and historically about vocation.   The book is Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation, edited by the late William C. Placher.  Placher was a long-time philosopher and theologian at Wabash College, and Callings is an an anthology of fifty-seven selections from prominent Christian thinkers of the past two millennia from the first-century bishop Ignatius of Antioch to the twentieth-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth.


In her marvelous little book The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, Christian historian Margaret Bendroth observes that most modern-day Christians are “stranded in the present.” Dismissing what the Apostles’ Creed refers to as “the communion of saints”–the fellowship of believers across the ages–we cut ourselves off from the hard-won insight of believers across the centuries and rely instead on the trendy and popular musings of the moment.

Callings assaults such arrogance head on. (And it is a form of arrogance, if we’re honest about it; C. S. Lewis called it “chronological snobbery.”) As we read systematically through the selections, we join a conversation that began long before we came on the scene and will continue long after we are gone.  In doing so, we discover that intelligent, devout believers have differed dramatically over the centuries about a concept we tend to take for granted.

Placher identifies four broad periods in history in which “calling” has had different meanings.  The first was the Early Church Period, say 100-500 A.D.  During these years it was far from easy to be a Christian.  Most Christians were in the minority in their communities.  It was common for followers of Jesus to come to faith as adults, and their decision to profess faith often came at great personal cost, sometimes meaning a break with family, sometimes leading to persecution.  During this period, when individuals wrestled with calling, they were confronting the basic question of whether to profess faith and, if they did so, how open to be in their declaration.  One of my favorites selections from this period is an excerpt from Augustine’s Confessions, written around the close of the fourth century.

During the Middle Ages, 500-1500, Christian writing on calling changed significantly.  In those areas around the world where Christians were to be found, they were usually in the majority in their communities.  Christianity was pretty much the dominant religion wherever it existed at all.  Most Christians lived under the authority of the Church and were surrounded by other believers.  As a result, when Christian writers reflected on the concept of calling, they rarely had in mind the question of whether to become a Christian.  They were much more preoccupied with the question, “What kind of Christian should I be?” Specifically, now the decision at the heart of finding one’s calling was whether to pursue a “religious” life.  During these centuries, to have a calling meant to serve in the priesthood or a monastic order, becoming a priest, monk, or nun.  Not coincidentally, individuals who wrote on calling tended to belong to monastic orders themselves, such as the Italian Dominican Thomas Aquinas or the German monk Thomas a’ Kempis.

As Placher notes, it’s unlikely that either of these periods offers a perspective on calling that feels right to us.  If you’re like me, when you think about calling you’re probably not thinking about whether God might be leading you to join a monastic order, as would have been the case during the Middle Ages.  At the same time, you probably do have in mind something more specific than the general call to faith in Jesus as Lord, as calling was typically understood during the Early Church Period.  Don’t we typically think of something between these extremes–a general sense that God is summoning us to do a certain something with our lives, and that doing that something will give our lives greater meaning, purpose, and fulfillment?

This understanding of calling dates to the third period that Placher identifies, namely the four a half centuries or so during and after the Protestant Reformation, say from the early 1500s to the late 1800s.  Two crucial things were happening during these years that transformed thinking about calling.  First, early reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin began to push back against the Catholic teaching that only priests, monks, and nuns were pursuing a calling from God.  Any task undertaken as unto the Lord is “reckoned very precious in God’s sight,” Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Second, much of the western world was undergoing a period of increasing commercialization and economic sophistication that historians call the Market Revolution.  When Calvin wrote in the 1530s, he still inhabited a world of severely limited options.  He could take for granted that almost all females would labor as wives and mothers, while almost all males would inherit the occupations of their fathers.  The son of a peasant farmer would be a peasant farmer; the son of a craftsman would be a craftsman.  In contrast to Christian writers in earlier centuries, both Calvin and Luther tended to equate “calling” with “occupation.”  Neither, however, offered advice to Christians about how to figure out the occupation to which God was calling them, because neither really expected their readers to have much choice in the matter.  Their goal was to teach Christians that, whatever kind of work they had inherited as their lot, they could quite literally think of it as a calling fraught with religious significance.

Over time, thanks in large part to the economic changes swirling around them, the heirs of Luther and Calvin began to modify or elaborate on their teaching.  They began to distinguish between “general calling” (the calling to faith in Christ) and “particular calling,” the calling to a specific walk of life or job.  More significant, they began to offer advice for discerning the latter.  English Puritans like William Perkins (writing at the close of the sixteenth century) and Richard Baxter (writing in the latter half of the seventeenth century) pinpointed a series of criteria for identifying an appropriate “particular” calling.  Any line of work we would pursue, they taught,  a) must be something we can practice with integrity and conformity to Biblical principles;  b) should in some way serve the common good; c) should express the desires of our heart; and d) should mesh with our particular abilities or skill set.  These criteria would not point the Christian to one and only one possible line of work, but they would be helpful in narrowing down the range of acceptable particular callings.

The fourth and final period that Placher identifies is what he calls the “Post-Christian” era of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  In this period it has no longer been a given that Christians are in the majority in the communities where they reside.  (In this sense our world resembles the Early Church Period.)   During these years a number of Christian writers have consciously tried to return the focus of “calling” to the divine summons to live a life of obedience to Christ and to take the focus away from paid work.  A key writer in this vein is the late Karl Barth, whose writing on the topic is one of my favorites.  Barth argued that the early Reformers were right in insisting that the Catholic definition of calling during the Middle Ages was far too narrow.  In seeking to redress this, however, they committed their own error by equating the concept of calling so exclusively with work.  According to Barth, the divine calling applies to the totality of our existence, cutting diagonally across every dimension of our lives.

The selections in Callings will not lead you to simple answers about the concept of Christian vocation.  Like any fruitful conversation with the past, however, it will help you to discern your own position more precisely and think about it more perceptively.  As Placher put it,

The past does not always have the right answers, but its answers are often at least different from those of the present, and the differences cause us to question our own previously unexamined assumptions. . . . After traveling in other countries, we come back to our own with new questions. But the past too is a different country, and, voyaging in it, we gain richer perspectives on our own time.


One of my favorite Christmas presents this year was the book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.  Since I almost never read the Times, I was not familiar with Douthat, but I was intrigued by the title and I was encouraged to read it when I spotted endorsements on the back cover by pastor Tim Keller and fellow Wheaton faculty member Alan Jacobs, among others.  The thrust of Douthat’s argument is neatly captured in the book’s title: “America’s problem isn’t too much religion,” he contends, “or too little of it.  It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place.”  I don’t agree with all of the particulars of the argument, but Bad Religion is engagingly written and thought provoking, and I think there is much in it that American evangelicals need to hear.  There are far worse ways to spend your time at Starbucks (or Caribou Coffee, which happens to be my personal “third place”).

If you are interested in the relationship between religious faith and American history—as you probably are if you are reading this blog—I think you would find the book especially intriguing.  Bad Religion is essentially a lengthy interpretive essay about the changing contours of American religious belief since the middle of the last century.  Equally interesting to me, the book concludes with a chapter that touches on how Americans have remembered their past.  This latter may sound esoteric, but it is extremely relevant to any believer interested in what it means to think Christianly about history.  As I always stress when speaking to Christian audiences, “Christian history” is not just ransacking the past for evidence of Christian influence or for stories about Christian heroes.  More broadly, and far more importantly, any “Christian history” worthy of the name should involve the conscious application of Christian precepts to our study of the past in all its breadth and complexity.

So which Christian precepts are particularly relevant to the study of the past?  Christian historians surely wouldn’t all agree on an answer, and I haven’t arrived at a definitive list myself.  Indeed, one of the reasons that I started this blog was to create a context for my own working through the question.  (As I stress to my classes, the questions that bring life into the classroom—and with it the potential for life-changing insight—are the questions that we grapple with together.)

For my part, one of the most important Christian principles to keep in mind when studying the past involves what the Bible has to say about us.  My understanding of Christian theology tells me that ever since the Fall, human beings come into the world with two overriding desires: the desire for self-rule and the desire for self-gratification.  These twin drives are related, of course.  We want to rule ourselves in part because we are determined to please ourselves.  What this means when it comes to the study of history is that we will always struggle with the temptation to interpret the past in self-justifying ways.  Orthodox Christianity has also long pointed to our propensity to idolatry.  In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin observed centuries ago that the human mind is “a perpetual forge of idols.”  In context, Calvin was addressing the literal worship of physical objects as a substitute for God, but other writers have broadened Calvin’s insight to apply more generally, pointing to our tendency to waver in our allegiance to God, to elevate things or people or desires to the position of primacy in our hearts that belongs to God alone.  This need not be conscious.  It is so easy to intertwine our Christian faith with some other seemingly compatible allegiance—to a particular social cause, economic system, approach to education, or political party, for example—until the former becomes merely a means to promote the latter.  (In his Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis called this heresy “Christianity And . . .”)  When it comes to thinking about the past, however, I think that this temptation to idolatry is most often manifested when we grapple with the relationship between our identity as Christians and our heritage as Americans.

Here is where Douthat’s concluding chapter—titled “The City on the Hill”—is most relevant.  Douthat’s focus is on “the heresy that increasingly disfigures our politics, on the left and right alike: the heresy of American nationalism.”  Douthat’s choice of words is intentionally provocative, but he is not attacking a Christian patriotism that expresses gratitude for God’s blessings to our nation, an appreciation for figures from our past, or a conditional loyalty to our government.  He has in mind instead a constellation of values that, whether explicitly or implicitly, equates our nation with the new Israel, conceives of Americans as God’s “chosen people, or assigns to the United States a missionary role to the world that the Lord has reserved for his Church.”  You may or may not agree with his theological assessment, but as a historian I would assert that this form of nationalism has regularly distorted our understanding of the past.  One simple example, which Douthat highlights, is the way that we frequently misremember Puritan John Winthrop’s famous allusion to a “city on a hill.”  The Massachusetts Bay governor’s allusion is simultaneously one of the most quoted and least understood statements in all of American history.  We’ll turn to it next.

Here’s wishing you and yours a blessed 2013!