Book Review: "The Revolution of the Saints: Study in the Origins of Radical Politics"

Michael Walzer is one of the most eminent political theorists around, and I read some of his other books while I was in school, so I thought I would pick up “Revolution of the Saints” to see what he had to say about Calvinism. In the book, Walzer sets out to examine how Calvinism changed Western society and made modern political concepts possible, primarily using the French Huguenots and English Puritans as examples, with some references to Calvin’s Geneva and Scotland.

The premise was good, and in the introduction Walzer purports to have overcome his initial revulsion towards Calvinism and replaced it with a guarded respect for Calvinists. However, as the book progresses, it becomes clear that in spite of his obviously extensive study, Walzer neither understands Calvinism, nor respects Calvinists. One of the more interesting aspects of the book was noting how Walzer flirts with crediting Calvinists for their positive impact on the world (for example, the doctrine of vocation leading to working hard and making an impact no matter what your job, versus the previous mindset that only the opinions of clerics and noblemen were worth hearing), and then turns around and indulges in ad hominem attacks. For example, in the section on the Marian exiles in Geneva Walzer writes that “exile provided them with an environment as narrow, intense, and restricted as were their own minds.” In another section, he claims that the Calvinist rejection of the Anglican obsession with “angelology” stemmed from the Calvinists’ lack of imagination. Hm.

Walzer does bring up some interesting points, such as the difference between the Huguenots and the Marian exiles (early English Puritans). He points out that the circumstances of the Huguenots, who were mostly from the nobility and therefore seriously concerned with preserving their status, greatly stunted the political possibilities of their movement. By contrast, the Marian exiles were intellectuals exiled from their former realm, which gave them greater freedom to question the old order of things.

Although Walzer was clearly made uncomfortable by the convictions of the early Calvinists, he admits that modern political liberalism (in the vein of John Locke and the like, not in the American Democratic party sense) could not have come into existence without the Calvinists. By the close of the book, Walzer all but admits that political liberalism coasts on the fumes of the Reformation, even while denying the foundation of Reformed thought, belief, and practice.

This book might be of interest if you are a political theory junkie like I am, or if you would like to get a secular perspective on how Reformed thinking impacts the political realm. Hopefully readers would be inspired to think of how Reformed thinking could and should be influencing political realities now. That said, the latter purpose might be better achieved through reading books about the early Reformers written by people who actually understand the the Reformation and Calvinism…

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