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Calvinist America and the Catholic Contribution to Culture


The most powerful, the most imaginative, the most startling, and the most unforgettable refutation of Calvinism in America is found in Herman Melville's classic, Moby-Dick.

John Calvin

Calvinism is an ambiguous term that, historically, has had two distinct meanings. Initially it referred, simply, to the religious ideas of John Calvin. The word Calvinian is often used to distinguish the thinking associated with this form of Calvinism from its subsequent and more prevailing meaning. This latter meaning refers to the religious ideas of certain institutions (such as the Reformed Church) and particular individuals who were profoundly influenced by the person or the thought of John Calvin. This latter meaning of Calvinism is the one employed in this paper.

John Calvin was born in northern France in 1509 and died in Geneva, Switzerland in 1564. The Synod of Dort, in the Netherlands, held 154 sessions between November of 1618 to May of 1619 to settle the divisions that were pulling Calvin's Reformed Church in opposite directions. The decrees of the Synod are traditionally summarized as the Five Points, which, to English speaking people, are conveniently arranged in accordance with the felicitous TULIP mnemonic:

T - Total depravity of human nature
U - Unconditional election of the individual.
L - Limited atonement. Christ dies only for the elect.
I - Irresistible grace. God is able to effect what he wills.
P - Perseverance of the saints: those whom God elects will not defect from their calling.

The Synod of Dort, or the Consensus Helveticus, lent rigor and precision to the essential meaning of Calvinism by defining what constituted its orthodoxy But it also bred a certain degree of intolerance. Jacob Arminius and his followers, known as Arminians, did not accept the canons of Dort. As a consequence, they were exiled. The celebrated Five Points, however, remain, despite liberal reactions against them throughout modern history, a faithful synopsis of the fundamental principles that characterize Calvinism.


The influence of Calvinism

It was only a year after the Synod that pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. The Pilgrim Fathers were loyal disciples of John Robinson, who was a staunch defender of the Calvinist tenets defined by the Synod of Dort. Both Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies were decidedly Calvinist. The foundation of Harvard College in 1636 established the intellectual hegemony of Calvinism in New England, helping to insure its survival in the New World. In addition, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), Calvinism's most eloquent preacher in America and also the colonies' most outstanding theologian and scholar, received two degrees from Yale University and, in the last year of his life, became president of the College of New Jersey, later known as Princeton University.

The German sociologist of religion, Ernst Troeltsch, has remarked that at two points only has Christianity been able decisively to transform human culture - during the Middle Ages through the scholastic synthesis of Thomas Aquinas and in the early modern period through Calvinism.

Calvinism has influenced more minds and entered more nations than has any other reform doctrine. In America, it provides the foundational theology for the Congregational, Reformed, and Presbyterian Churches. It also has had a strong influence on many Anglican, Baptist, and independent churches. But denominations such as the Reformed Church, as well as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church of America, would claim to be the faithful conduits of Calvinist Orthodoxy in American life today.

The historian Vernon Louis Parrington contends that the immigrant Puritans brought in their intellectual luggage the system of Calvin rather than of Luther. He concludes that this importation of Calvinism to the New England colonies must be reckoned a misfortune, out of which flowed many of the bickerings and much of the intolerance that left a stain on the pages of early New England history.


Refutations of Calvinism

The roots of the bickerings and intolerance, which continues to plague Calvinism to this day, lies in the Calvinist contention that an immense gulf separates man from God. God's will, according to orthodox Calvinism as defined by the Synod of Dort, is sovereign and absolute. God is free, within the mystery of His own inscrutable will, to do whatever He pleases, a divine prerogative that includes electing some souls and not others to eternal life with Him. Reverend Thomas Hooker, the founder of Connecticut and a preacher whom Jonathan Edwards deeply admired, expressed the matter as follows:

The Lord to shew the soveraign freedom of his pleasure, that he may do with his own what he will, and yet do wrong to none, he denyes pardon and acceptance to those who seek it with some importunity and earnestness ... and yet bestowes mercy and makes known himself unto some who never sought him

Another early American defender of Calvinism, Reverend Charles Chauncy, represented the same idea in terms that are more poetic, yet more terrifying: You hang, as it were, over the bottomless pit, by the slender thread of life: and the moment that snaps asunder, you sink down into perdition. It is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without promise or obligation to all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being drunk with your blood.

Placing such emphasis on the sovereignty of God inevitably raised serious questions concerning His justice and mercy. For many, it implies that God Himself was the author of sin. At the same time, the doctrine called into question whether human beings possessed freedom of the will in any meaningful sense and whether a life of virtue was of any utility in achieving salvation. Moreover, the notion that God elects only those He wants to save from all eternity is radically incompatible with the practice of democracy Those who are predestined to be saved, and those who are predestined to be condemned are so theologically disparate that they could hardly be regarded as political equals.

Calvinist leaders were not successful in preventing or effectively resolving the bickerings and the lack of tolerance by merely reiterating that God's will is entirely inscrutable and, as a consequence, obliging good Christians to accept Calvinist doctrine without question. T. Walter Herbert, Jr. has remarked that Calvinism's orthodox insistence in the inscrutable character of God's providence came increasingly to act as a defensive maneuver protecting key positions in a theological system that was famous for its inexorable logic.

In 1710, Daniel Whitby produced his Discourse, a commentary on the Five Points of the Synod of Dort, in which he demonstrated for each one that orthodox Calvinism is not only unscriptural, unreasonable, and plays into the hands of atheists, but, most importantly of all, invalidates all personal moral effort. If men are irresistibly predestined, is there any point in urging them to be good? Orthodox Calvinism, therefore, as Whitby argued, leads to moral paralysis. The poor individual is a humiliating and ineffective creature. Strictly speaking, he is incapable even of an act of obedience, because that itself would presuppose a freedom he presumably does not have. Whitby's critique was particularly devastating to Calvinists because it showed, contrary to their studied attempt to distrust every source other than Scripture, that Calvinism itself is unscriptural.

The Calvinist fusion of a God who is absolutely sovereign, whose will is unconditional and incontestable with human beings who are completely depraved and hopelessly unfree, has an artificial and mechanical quality, reminiscent of the Leviathan or artificial man of Thomas Hobbes' conception. Indeed, Calvin and Hobbes are kindred spirits. As a political structure, Calvinism is singularly unattractive, if not suffocating. According to Vernon Louis Parrington, That Calvinism in its primary assumptions was a composite of oriental despotism and sixteenth-century monarchism, modified by the medieval conception of a city-state, is clear enough today to anyone who will take the trouble to translate dogma into political terms. Calvin's God is anything but that of a loving father who ardently seeks to embrace his stray children. Political scientist Jean Bethke Elshtain has pointed out that the role of the father in the family, according to the Calvinist perspective, was akin to a paterfamilias with no doubts as to where his duty or authority lie. Thus, the father-child relationship focuses almost exclusively, she states, on instilling obedience and the fear of both God's and the father's wrath.


Melville's Moby Dick

The most powerful, the most imaginative, the most startling, and the most unforgettable refutation of Calvinism in America is found in Herman Melville's classic, Moby-Dick. Dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who himself has been dubbed Calvin's ironic stepchild, Melville's masterpiece is the first American novel to win a place in the literature of the world and has been called the greatest of American novels and the one undoubted classic of American literature. Nobel Laureate William Faulkner called it the book he would have liked to have written.

The substance of the drama emerges in the fierce tension that exists between the sovereignty of God and the depravity of man. Captain Ahab, who commands the whaling vessel, personifies man's depravity. He consider! himself already damned. He is the reprobate, the unelected soul who is forever doomed to perdition by an angry God. He visualizes the white whale as a monster embodying the features of that very God. He is determined not to allow God or fate to rob him of any claim he has to something that is his own. Ahab defies God in order to define himself.

Ahab is a Nietzchean figure who rages against the God who renders him insignificant. He struggles fanatically against the thought that he might be nothing more than an ineffectual trifle. He sees malice in the attack of the whale, the same malice that Calvinism's God directs against those whom he chooses not to redeem. The fate of the reprobate, in Calvinist teaching, is to suffer a horrible existence both in this life and in the next, one characterized by reciprocal hatred, God hating the sinner as the sinner hates God. Calvin himself referred to this predicament as dreadful. To Ahab, the dreadful situation was intolerable -thus, the ferocity of his rage.

In his probing study, Moby-Dick and Calvinism: A World Dismantled, T. Walter Herbert, Jr. asserts that Melville ... uses Ahab to explore the fate of human dignity in a world seemingly controlled by an enraged Calvinist God. The only dignified act of depraved man is to revolt against the misery of life that is preordained by a cruel God. Ahab is desperately seeking dignity by destroying the whale that symbolizes for him the source of all his sufferings.

Starbuck tries to reason with Ahab, suggesting that seeking vengeance on a dumb brute seems blasphemous. But for Ahab, everything in the cosmos is a kind of pasteboard mask behind which lurks the malevolent will of an unseen and inscrutable deity. The inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate, Ahab retorts. And be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man: I'd strike the sun if it insulted me.

Calvin had assured that Those who seek to know more than God has revealed are madmen. For Ahab, it is a greater madness to submit to a force that one can neither understand nor respect. I see in him outrageous strength, Ahab declares, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate.

Melville, during the composition of Moby-Dick read Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin. In this 1740 work, the author sates that Calvinist teachings, represent the Divine Dispensations as unjust, cruel, and tyrannical.

In Melville's description of the whale's final and fateful attack, we find allusions to Calvinism's core tenets: predestination, retribution, malevolence, and the helplessness of men in the face of the divine dispensations. The author writes:

... the whale, which from side to side strangely vibrating his predestinating head sent a broad band overspreading semicircular foam before him as he rushed. Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect, and spite of all that mortal man could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship's starboard bow, till men and timbers reeled (Chapter 135).

In a subsequent novel, Pierre, Melville confessed his own faith when he rhapsodized about Love as the loftiest religion on this earth. Melville, in the person of Captain Ahab, assailed Calvinism in the white whale because it blocked the path of love and contradicted human dignity. Ahab, of course, is more tragic than heroic. He exemplifies the sin of trying to overcome evil with power rather than with love. He had pursued Moby-Dick with a frenzy and rage to match that which the Calvinist God had expressed form the beginning of time. He [Ahab] piled upon the whale's white hump all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down (Chapter 41). Nor is Ahab any better than what he denounces: The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. I am the Fates' lieutenant, I act under orders, he cries to his first mate. Look thou, underling! That thou obeyest mine. Ahab despairs in trying to reconcile authority with love.

The Calvinist frame of reference in which Moby-Dick is set permits Melville, particularly through the character of Captain Ahab, to indict God as the author of sin and portray man as his helpless victim. In this way, Melville allied himself with the liberal critics of

Calvinism who objected to a relationship between man and God that was loveless and mechanical. As Professor Herbert has stated, this liberal protest in favor of human `freedom' gained its force from the recognition that the Calvinistic view of God's sovereignty bleaches all the meaning out of human activity, that it dissolves the moral tangibility of the self.


The concept of Catholic culture

Melville may have discovered the loftier religion of love he yearned for, one that affirmed both freedom and selfhood, in Catholicism, or at least in the Catholic concept of culture. Pope John Paul II asserts in his encyclical Ex Corde Ecclesiae that the most important factor of culture is the meaning of the human person, his or her liberty, dignity, sense of responsibility, and openness to the transcendent. These are the very factors that Calvinism suppresses.

The Holy Father is a personalist. He developed his views of the person as a philosopher prior to assuming the Chair of Peter, and then incorporated them in various encyclicals and papal addresses. According to his view, every human being is a person of inestimable value, one who is unrepeatable, irreplaceable, and inviolable. Each person fulfills his destiny through the integration of freedom, truth, and conscience. But a person is also communal and has a rich capacity for loving participation in the lives of others. Through their inter-relationships within a community, persons are able to become more human. This is the fundamental purpose of culture.

The Pope's personalism stands in sharp contrast against the Calvinist view of the total depravity of man and his incapacity of being an agent of moral responsibility. At the same time, the Pope's view of God as a loving Father is radically different from the Calvinist emphasis on God's absolute sovereignty.

In his encyclical Dives in Misericordia, John Paul draws attention to the mercy of God, a divine quality whose essential purpose is to reconcile man with God. Although he does not mention Calvinism by name, he does make an oblique reference to it when he points out that while the various currents of human thought both in the past and at the present have tended and still tend to separate theocentrism and anthropocentrism, and even to set them in opposition to each other, the Church, following Christ, seeks to link them up in human history in a deep and organic way.

God is solicitous and responsive to the needs of men. There is no radical separation between the spheres of God and man. Through Christ, the Holy Father goes on to explain, we come to know God in His philanthropy. Mercy is the way love manifests itself when it comes in contact with suffering, injustice, and poverty. Making the Father present as love and mercy, he writes, is, in Christ's own consciousness, the fundamental touchstone of his mission as the Messiah.

The Calvinist notion of father is one of fearful majesty, one who subjects his children to his harsh rule. It is not the more tender and affiliative notion of father we find in the Hebrew abba, the Spanish papacito, the Italian babbino, or the English daddy. These endearing terms make it only too clear that the father has a warm and friendly place in the hearts of his children.

In both Dives in Misericordia and Redemptor Hominis, John Paul stresses the intimate and harmonious relationship that is possible between God and man. Christ came to save everyone, he proclaims, and his advent reveals man to himself. In Redemptor Hominis, he states, By His Incarnation, He, the Son of God, in a certain way united Himself with each man.


Mary and the culture of life

Melville believed that the literary figure he most admired, Nathaniel Hawthorne, was unfortunately stricken by what he termed that Calvinist sense of Innate Depravity and Original sin. Hawthorne may not have been affected by Calvinism as much as Melville feared. Hawthorne was attracted to Catholicism and had a special admiration for Mary, who is the Mother of Mercy He wrote: I have always envied the Catholics that sweet, sacred, Virgin Mother who stands between them and the Deity, intercepting somewhat His awful splendor, but permitting His love to stream on the worshipper more intelligibly to human comprehension through the medium of a woman's tenderness.

Mary is a medium of tenderness that helps to reconcile man with God. But she also challenges Calvinism in other important ways. Her fiat represents her free (not predestined) acceptance of her role as mother of God. Her Immaculate Conception refutes the doctrine of the total depravity of all human beings. Her universal motherhood contradicts the Calvinist belief that only the elect can be saved.

Melville's ship, the Pequod, is a microcosm of a culture of death. The moral pessimism that issues from its captain and its crew flows from two sources: a contempt for what is perceived to be a cruel God; and despair in the face of what is believed to be the irredeemable depravity of man. Those two factors are still operative in contemporary society and are used with deadly force, particularly in the cases of euthanasia and abortion. Captain Ahab's harpoon has returned in the form of the mercy killer's syringe and the abortionist's curette. Without faith that man and God, or nature and grace can be reconciled, people lash out in anger and desperation at what they mistake to be their enemy-life itself.

But life is a gift of love, flowing from a God who is not only all-powerful, but also most eager to redeem His fallen creatures. The Catholic contribution to culture, then, is a perspective and a plan that allows people not only to recognize sin and the majesty of God, but also to perceive human dignity, practice inter-personal love, and accept divine mercy. Catholicism does not shrink from acknowledging realities; it endeavors to understand all realities, both in their depth as well as in their direction.



DeMarco, Donald. Calvinist America and the Catholic Contribution to Culture. The Catholic Faith 5, no. 6 (November/December 1999): 20-24.

Reprinted by permission of The Catholic Faith. The Catholic Faith is published bi-monthly and may be ordered from Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 591090, San Francisco, CA 94159-1090. 1-800-651-1531.

The Author

Heart-of-VirtueMany Faces of VirtueDonald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. Donald DeMarco continues to work as a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.  DeMarco is the author of twenty books, including How to Remain Sane in a World That is Going MadPoetry That Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1999 The Catholic Faith
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