The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World by Douglas F. Kelly

The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World by Douglas F. KellyReviewed by Contributor Seth Simmons

The basic premise of The Emergency of Liberty in the Modern World is that the philosophical and theological seeds of a doctrine of religious liberty and its relationship with state power were developed first by John Calvin, and that his ideas so saturated and infiltrated the climate of Western thought that many today don’t even recognize his influence.
After discussing Calvin’s theological developments, the author describes how the French Huguenots in the late sixteenth century took Calvin’s ideas and expanded on them, recasting them in the language of natural secular rights. Running in parallel, Scotsman theologian John Knox expanded Calvin’s ideas further and developed a theology that practically obligated Christians to defy a government that oversteps its boundaries. Next, the history of medieval-to-modern England is a story of theological factions warring over the source and development of political authority and its relationship to the church. Eventually, the Puritans abandoned Europe (to a degree) and brought to a young America their views about state power.

One of the basic theological issues underlying the American Revolution concerned whether all political power flows from the people to Parliament–meaning that the state exercised authority over the church–or whether church and state are independent of each other, complementary in authority. The latter view–which both caused the war and served as a foundational conception of modern American liberty–was thoroughly the intellectual fruit of Calvin’s ideas going back to Geneva in the mid-sixteenth century.

This American system […] which provided historically unprecedented civil and religious liberties […] drew from many sources, including secular Enlightenment thought, but the Calvinist outworking of the two-powers view of church and state was prominent in the process. […] The two-powers view contributed much to the American establishment of consent of the governed, covenant or constitutional limitations of all civil power and all institutions, being seen in terms of God’s transcendent law, checks and balances of power in the political and legal structure, liberty of conscience, and the inalienable right to resist tyranny, no matter how powerful or legal its pretensions” (141).

I wavered between interest and boredom while reading The Emergence of Liberty, but I’m inclined to attribute any disinterest to my own insufficient knowledge and understanding of European history. The discussion of Puritan England in particular got pretty dense, but the chapter on colonial America was my favorite. I wouldn’t really recommend this to anyone unless they already have a solid grasp on European religious history, but I’m glad I read it.

The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World by Douglas F. Kelly 
Purchase Links: Paperback

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