Part I – Learning from the Past
Chapter 3 – Evangelical Denominations at the Foundations of Modern American and British Social-Political Structures and Policies: A Philosopher’s Perspective.
By Paul de Vries, founder and president of New York Evangelical Seminary Fund; author.
Our purpose is to develop a working comprehension of the key eighteenth and nineteenth-century American and British Protestant evangelical denominations and their perspectives and influences on modern social political thought, structures, and issues. (64)
De Vries writes that in the two centuries before the twentieth century the vast majority of Protestants were evangelical “trusting the Bible as the final authority for behavior and belief.” (64) Their beliefs have had a profound impact in the US and UK for both good and bad. He identifies four major families of denominations and each family's particular relationship with social policy issues. Lutherans, Calvinist (Presbyterian and Reformed), Baptist/Anabaptists, and Methodists are his four families
There are three marked tendencies that he believes each grouping has had to resist.
“First, they have to resist the temptation to separate from society and develop a socio-political ethic just for themselves.” (65)
“Second, they have to resist the temptation to oversimplify the gospel by concentrating on ‘saving souls.’” (65)
“Third, they have to resist the temptation simply to repeat earlier formulations of Christian ethics that were formed for another time and place.” (65)
Here is a summary of his thoughts about each family.
The “two kingdoms” perspective is identified as the driving force in Lutheran social-political thought. Since Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world the church should not get entangled in the matters of state. De Vries maintains this has led Lutherans to be both less critical and less transformative of societal structures, though they have tended toward instilling strong personal pietism.
Calvinists (Presbyterian and Reformed)
In contrast to Lutherans, Calvinists have seen themselves as reformers with a “desire to reshape the social world so that it would no longer be alienated from God.” (67) I like de Vries observation,
While Lutherans believe that we should obey the Lord in our daily occupations, Calvinists believe that we should seek to obey God through our daily occupations, because we cannot blindly assume that our occupations actually serve the common good. (67)
Also mentioned is the idea of “sphere sovereignty,” that God is sovereign over the various “spheres” of life (church, state, economic, and education) with none of the spheres being superior to another. Each sphere has its own authority and is answerable to God.
Anabaptists and Baptists
De Vries identifies a distinct separatist tendency among these folks. They have sought to establish holy communities away from government control. There has also been a tendency toward non-violent resistance to the state when it has acted unjustly. They have been champions of religious liberty.
The Methodist movement began as an evangelical movement within the Church of England. They have tended to focus more on social justice and caring for the outcasts combined with expectation of seeking Biblical ethical perfection. There emphasis on justice and ethical behavior has often placed them at the leading edge of justice and civil rights causes.
From all this de Vries concludes that there are strengths and shortcomings of each family but working in unison as members of one body each has important contributions to make to an evangelical engagement of public policy.
This summary of de Vries essay is a distillation of what he himself admits is a discussion of generalities, not hard and fast divisions between families. Keeping that in mind, I think his essay gives some helpful “hues” to consider as we think about public policy.