Marilynne Robinson on Christian Liberalism
Acton Institute Powerblog

Marilynne Robinson on Christian Liberalism

Earlier this month, prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson delivered the 2011 Kuyper Prize Lecture at the Kuyper Center conference, “Calvinism and Culture.”

In this lecture, Robinson explores and reframes our historical understanding of the Reformed tradition and its relationship to “Christian liberalism.” She says,

Contrary to entrenched assumption, contrary to the conventional associations made with the words Calvinist and Puritan, and despite the fact that certain fairly austere communities can claim a heritage in Reformed culture and history, Calvinism is uniquely the fons et origo of Christian liberalism in the modern period, that is, in the period since the Reformation. And this liberalism has had its origins largely in the Old Testament. This is a bold statement, very much against the grain of historical consensus. Though I acknowledge that it may be indefensible in any number of particulars, I will argue that in a general sense it is not only true, but a clarification of history important to contemporary culture and to that shaken and diminishing community, liberal Protestantism.

She traces this idea of Christian liberalism to the Reformation ideas about generosity and responsibility. She notes,

But in Renaissance French, libéral, libéralité, meant “generous, generosity.” And of course the word occurs in the English Puritan translations, the Matthew’s Bible and the Geneva Bible, which were followed in their use of the term by the 1611 Authorized Version. The word occurs in contexts that urge an ethics of non-judgmental, non-exclusive generosity.

The point here does not apply to non-exclusivity of doctrine (which is how it is typically understood, and applied as she notes in the context of figures like Adolf von Harnack). The point is rather that Christian liberalism, as informed by the Reformed reception of the biblical witness, is that it is focused on a vision of social life and culture.

As Robinson says, “All this is of interest because the verses I have quoted and the word liberal itself, supported by the meaning the verses give to it, are central to American social thought from its beginning.”

The audio of Robinson’s lecture is available in MP3 format here.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.