Scottish Calvinism: A Dark, Repressive Force?

Donald MacLeod has an article to answer the question raised in his title “Scottish Calvinism: A Dark, Repressive Force?” What is not surprising is the answer, which is no, but the admission he makes in order to achieve it.

The three main literary detractors are Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Edwin Muir. Scott went after the Covenanters, after all. What MacLeod does brilliantly is to demonstrate how the Covenanters are treated much as modern day Israel is. They were subject to horrors and persecutions and subsequently developed with that nightmare haunting their dreams. He argues that a fair historical consideration would greatly amend common prevailing notions of the Scottish Covenanters. And in this he shows how little Scott was a historian, and how much he was a historical novelist. It is a good argument MacLeod makes, for historiography, but it is not convincing in terms of literature. It is not the business of literature to correct our ideas of history.

This is the main thing his article gets wrong. Art lives in its effects. In order to achieve these effects, an artist takes from a common stock. If the common perception of a Calvinist, as the common perception of the Puritan, lends itself to certain symbolic associations, then that is what the artist will do with it. Can other things be done? Certainly, but why should the writer be blamed if one and not another suggests itself to him? It is for historians to set the record straight, it is for the Calvinist writer to use his literary imagination to other purposes than those Scott did.

Ah, but what Calvinist writer? Pilgrim’s Progress is the only successfully Calvinist work of literature that springs to mind, and that is accepted all around—there is a way of saying that for all its Calvinist author and background, it isn’t explicitly Calvinist. Is this what saves it? I think it is rather that it is a successful series of continuous Calvinist sermon illustrations that makes it Calvinistic, and that we ought not to deny it is a Calvinist work of literature. It may be argued that the peculiarities of Bunyan’s education, or the lack of higher education, saves it.

This is the argument MacLeod does make: Calvinism doesn’t idolatrously value art above theology, and yes, MacLeod equates theology and truth. Rather than making theology answerable to truth, as art is, he makes art answerable to theology which itself is true. He himself states that Calvinism holds this, and that is where he makes his fatal argument. Both theology and literature are human artifacts, and what you get by exalting theology above all other human artifacts artificially is the resulting denigration, the lower and wrong valuation of art. No wonder Calvinism does not produce anything better. And no wonder it does theology so well!

I do think MacLeod makes a good case, however badly he botches the conclusion, for rethinking the idea that Calvinism in itself is a dark oppressive force. There is nothing in Calvinism that requires that theology be placed above other human endeavors, it has simply been construed that way by both detractors and, in MacLeod’s case, defenders. Thomas Boston did not take it that way, and his more humane approach influenced at least one writer to come from the same parish, James Hogg. Hogg avails himself of a popular notion of Calvinist antinomianism in his Memoirs and Confessions, but he obviously distinguishes it from normal Calvinism.

Here, however, is where I really think the issue lies, and this is something I’m still exploring. There is a scholarly argument still ongoing as to whether Calvinism is just late-medieval Scotist Voluntarism deliberately (a Dutch view) or eclectically (Muller/Trueman). Voluntarism is the idea that good and evil are so because of God’s decree, independent of God’s mysterious being, arbitrarily decreed though not arbitrarily enforced, as opposed to early medieval and ancient Intellectualism where God is by his nature good. It is a system that emphasizes legal categories and makes power fundamental. The Reformation owes much to it, because those legal categories are how we see the doctrine of justification come into focus. But that does not mean that we need to endorse Voluntarism.

The problem with Calvinists, my experience at Westminster and in Reformed circles in general and also what I’m reading leads me to observe, is that for them the issue of Voluntarism is not deliberated one way or another. Their system and emphases eclipse consideration of the issue. They can live with metaphysical inconsistency, and shrug, and do. The result is that they do not think carefully about it, but rather mangle around in the effects, choosing among those rather than settling the issue at the real level of determining debate. The further result is a smuggled in Voluntarism which is a dark oppressive force, unexamined sympathies for its tendencies, misgivings, misjudgings, and a general flailing around that will never yield the kind of Calvinism that might aspire to add to Pilgrim’s Progress the odd tome, other than the Barthian Updike.

Were it to be faced, addressed, and allowed to shape a distinguishable section of Calvinism the result might be otherwise. At least, that is what I think.

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