Reformed Foundations for Social Concern: A Comparison of Sixteenth-Century European Ideas -- By: Paul Frederick Scotchmer

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 40:2 (Spring 1978)
Article: Reformed Foundations for Social Concern: A Comparison of Sixteenth-Century European Ideas
Author: Paul Frederick Scotchmer


Reformed Foundations for Social Concern:
A Comparison of Sixteenth-Century European Ideas

Paul Frederick Scotchmer

We must remember that stern old John Calvin like John the Baptist of old stood at the threshold of a new world, into which he himself never really entered, and that the least in this new kingdom of God can look out with clearer eye and lighter heart than was possible to the fighting prophet of an older dispensation.”1 This epitaph by Thomas Cumming Hall was pronounced in 1909 at a service in commemoration of the four-hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Calvin. In the nearly seventy years that have intervened since then much has changed, while only a few precious things have remained the same. The sparsely populated vista above the Hudson on Manhattan’s upper West Side, where Union Theological Seminary, moved only months after that commemorative service, has degenerated from one of America’s most fashionable neighborhoods to one of its most feared. A short walk north along the rusty girders of the elevated subway takes the pedestrian to 125th Street, the commercial center of Harlem. A slightly longer walk south leads him to the high fences surrounding the asphalt playgrounds familiar to most as the location for West Side Story. And the Hudson, once a popular place to swim and fish or stroll, is now almost too polluted even for boats. Meanwhile, the prophets of Geneva—whose city straddles the still clear waters of the Rhone and remains one of the few cities of this new world without slums—still speaks. Is it possible that even the greatest in this new world “can look out with clearer eye and lighter heart” bv learning from the wisdom of this “fighting prophet of an older dispensation”—and the accumulated

wisdom of his theological kinfolk, who have fought and spoken beside him? That is the question which provokes this essay in definition: that of the Reformed tradition of social concern.

The theological canons used by Reformed theologians to decide social questions are chiefly four: God’s sovereignty, man’s depravity, the authority of Scripture, and the consequent mediation of God’s sovereignty. Stated as such these beliefs are shared by the vast majority of the members of every Christian tradition, if for no other reason than that most truly new and anomalous doctrines have been rather universally condemned as heresies. But, by comparing the Reformed use of these principles with that of other theological traditions within Western Christendom (viz., Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Anabaptist), the theological underpinnings of the Reformed social tradition should become vastly more clear than would be the case if ...

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