Calvin’s Theological Communitarian Approach to Pastoral Training


Some weeks ago in this blog, I looked at Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s approach to theological education in the Confessing Church. As we think about pastoral education in the 21st Century, we should also look at how John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed tradition, approached pastoral formation. This will give us a better notion of how we can advance Reformed pastoral education in the 21st Century in San Antonio. I hope to follow this blog up with another in the future that deals with the Church Fathers and their views on pastoral preparation for ministry.

Calvin’s life and ministry was centered around the Genevan Church. In other words, all that he did in leading the Reformed movement in Europe was “church based.” This included training pastors to serve the Genevan and other Reformed churches. In training pastors, Calvin’s basic intent was to train pastors with a Protestant view of scripture, sound theology, the ability to lead worship and engage in pastoral care, and good character. Calvin did not ignore the importance of community in pastoral formation. His famous “Company of Pastors” was a deliberate attempt to build collegiality in the Geneva pastoral community.

Pastors and others interested in pastoral education and preparation may want to keep Calvin’s Genevan model in mind by:

  1. Maintaining a church-based model for theological education;
  2. Maintaining a focus on curriculum that is Biblical and Theologically Sound;
  3. Focusing on building pastoral character through something like a “Community of Pastors” among the staff and others to provide mentoring, support, and guidance to all those who study or participate in the Center.

Calvin’s Ministry in Geneva

Calvin was educated as a lawyer. His first work was on the Roman jurist Seneca, not on theology. His father had been an official with the church in France. Originally, he was being trained for ordination in the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but his father felt a career in law would be better for him and the family.  While in his academic years, he became active in the Protestant movement in a small way.  Unfortunately, France was not hospitable to Protestants at that time, so Calvin eventually fled to Basil, Switzerland, where he studied the Bible and theology in detail. During this time, he became an active Protestant. In 1536, he published the first edition of what became the Institutes of the Christian Religion as we know it today. [1] He began to be recognized as a brilliant scholar and became a leader in the Protestant movement.

Calvin eventually went to Geneva, where he was sought out by the leader of the Genevan Protestant movement, William Farel, who encouraged him to stay and work in Geneva. He did so, and spent the rest of his life in Geneva, except for a brief period of exile. In Geneva, he preached, taught, performed pastoral duties, and was active in public affairs. His commentaries, which extend to nearly every book of the Bible, were largely created through his teaching and preaching efforts.

Pastoral Formation in Geneva

During his years of ministry, Calvin maintained correspondence with many leaders of the Reformation all over Europe. His commentaries on various books of the Bible were published and widely read. Despite his devotion to scholarship, Calvin was active in the local community, particularly as an advisor to the consistory in Geneva.  Finally, he took a deep interest in the education of all Genevans. He taught regularly throughout his career.

His leadership in the Protestant Reformation made it inevitable that he would both engage in pastoral preparation and be consulted by others who desired to develop a Protestant clergy. His interest in education was to train citizens as well as pastors in both Christian faith and doctrine, but also with appreciation of classical and secular knowledge of his own day. It is because of this that Calvin is sometimes considered both a Reformation and Renaissance figure.

The historic commitment of Presbyterian and Reformed denominations to an educated clergy is a direct result of Calvin’s commitment to train well-educated leaders for the church with an understanding of the Bible and of Biblical principles, meaning Christian theology. If we believe, as I do, that Christianity in America is entering into a new phase, and that the historic ways Reformed pastors have been trained is becoming increasingly ill-adapted to the culture surrounding us, this commitment of Calvin and the Reformed churches to create new institutions and new ways to train pastors is an important inspiration to continue forward.

Church Based Nature of Genevan Academy

Calvin created the Genevan Academy to train students in Christian and humanist learning in preparation for both ministry and secular occupations. In particular, because of the antipathy between Protestants and Catholics, it was necessary for Protestants to form new institutions to train up a new generation of pastors. In areas under the control of Protestant leadership, properly educated Reformed ministers were often in short supply. Under these circumstances, church leaders came to believe that new ways were needed to educate clergy in the doctrines and practices of the Reformed faith. In particular, centers of the Protestant movement were encouraged to create places where pastors could be trained. Before Calvin created the Genevan Academy, he was aware than centers existed elsewhere, for example in Strasbourg and Wittenberg. [2]

The nature of the Genevan Academy was practical. Students were expected to preach and perform pastoral duties in addition to academic studies. This is a significant difference between the Genevan Academy and much contemporary pastoral training, where the seminary feels responsible only for intellectual formation, not for pastoral formation. This is a departure from Calvin’s vision, which involved the formation of the character of his students, not just imparting information. In contemporary language, Calvin’s approach was on the creation of a wholistic training experience for pastors.

Biblical and Theological Soundness

Calvin, like many of his Protestant contemporaries, was concerned about the perceived low quality of the clergy of his day. In the Institutes, he spends a good deal of time on the issues of pastoral character and formation. One of his primary critiques of the Roman Catholic clergy concerned quality. Decay in the teaching office of the church, characterized by “new doctrines” and “turning away from pure doctrine,” resulted in poor leadership and an inadequate church lacking in the first mark of the church: doctrine purely preached. Thus, Calvin concentrated on the creation of a clergy with sound doctrinal views necessary for a vibrant church:

“[O]nly those are to be chosen who are of sound doctrine and of holy life, not notorious in any fault which might both deprive them of authority and disgrace the ministry. The very same requirements apply to deacons and presbyters. We must always see to it that they be adequate and fit to bear the burden imposed on them, that is that they be instructed in the skills necessary for the discharge of their office” (4.3.12).

Calvin believed that the Roman Catholic Church of his day had failed in a central task training and providing good leadership for the church. Therefore, renewal of the church required first and foremost a renewed and restored leadership characterized by sound doctrine, good character, and with the skills and capacities needed to bear the burden of ministry.

Calvin understood that what he was doing in the Genevan Academy was nothing new.  From the earliest times, the church leaders took under care youths to be prepared for the pastoral office (4.4.9). This care can be traced as far back as the relationship between Paul and Timothy (See, Acts, and I and II Timothy). The purpose of this training was that “from early youth under sacred instruction and strict training they took on an exemplary life of gravity and holiness; and separated from worldly cares they became accustomed to spiritual cares and studies” (4.4.9).

Before such young people were admitted into the office of pastor, they were weighed as to their “merits and morals” in common council with the lay people of the church (4.4.10). Calvin realized that, in the initial life of the church, it was the local church that trained its pastors, and early church leaders considered it their responsibility to also train such leaders.

The first quality of those leaders was an understanding of the content of Christian faith and doctrine so that the “faith once delivered” was maintained. This meant that students at the Genevan Academy had to have an understanding of the Bible and Biblical theology. This is why he spent so much time and effort teaching students, writing commentaries, and revising the Institutes. If the church were to be well-led, it needed Biblically and theologically sound pastors.

Formation of Pastoral Character

As mentioned above, Calvin believed that there were both characterological and doctrinal requirements for church leadership. One of Calvin’ s most trenchant critiques of the Roman Church involved the growing characterological deficiencies of the clergy. In one passage he says:

This is certain, that for a hundred years scarcely one man in a hundred has been elected who has comprehended anything of sacred learning. I spare the previous centuries not because they were much better, but because our question concerns only the current church. If their morals are appraised, we shall find few or almost none whom the ancient canons would not have judged unworthy (4.5.1, emphasis added).

Calvin was a pretty harsh intellectual combatant, and he may have overstated the situation; however, his point is important: character is as important as learning when it comes to pastoral training and preparation for ministry.

Company of Pastors

In Geneva, before students were admitted into the office of pastor, not only their biblical and theological understanding was to be judged but also their character (4.4.10).

One practical way in which Calvin was able to encourage pastoral character was through his so-called, “Venerable Company of Pastors” formed as a part of the adoption of his Ecclesiastical Ordinances. [3] In 1559, pastors being trained in the Geneva Academy were included in membership. This Company of Pastors consisted of the ministers of Geneva’s three city churches and a dozen countryside parishes together with the students. Some estimates put the number of such members at over 100. [4] The Company of Pastors met weekly to examine candidates for ministry and discuss the theological and practical business of the church. Thus the pastors of the congregations for which Calvin was directly responsible and the students he was training had weekly meetings during which community was built among them, consistency was achieved in doctrine and morals, problems were solved, and character could be formed.

The purpose of the Company of Pastors was to create and maintain standards in ministry, to assist in maintaining the family life of its members, and to enhance and secure their personal piety. [5] It was a ministerial fellowship designed to create a better clergy than the Roman Catholic Church possessed and to give them love and support in the conduct of their affairs. One author put it this way:

The Venerable Company of Pastors was a disciplined community. Its meetings were more than conversation about abstractions, for their purpose was to encourage pastors to grow in faith and faithfulness. Once every three months the company engaged in a session of mutual support and correction. Among the faults that required correction were lack of zeal for study and an undisciplined life. All of this was for the sake of the gospel––its proclamation, reception, and fulfillment. [6]

One common critique of contemporary churches and their pastors has to do with the isolation of contemporary ministry and its lack of communal support, standards and spiritual protection for the local pastor. The problem was no less important in Calvin’s day, and he could see that there needed to be a mechanism to support, train, and hold accountable pastors, The Company of Pastors was his solution to the problem.

As we have analyzed the formation of a new program in San Antonio, one of the greatest issues we have faced has been how to create personal mentoring and communal learning in a world that is rapidly embracing digital learning. The Company of Pastors approach provides us with an authentic, Reformed alternative. Together with educational experiences in person and online, we should create a community of church leaders, a Company of Pastors, to provide the kind of intimate growth and accountability that is lacking nearly all contemporary pastoral education.

Interestingly, Reformed groups in both the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Presbyterian Church in America have recognized that need and formed such groups. [7] While in seminary and afterward for a time, I participated in such a group. My own experience is that it is difficult in our culture to create the kind of mentoring, accountability and discipline Calvin desired. On the other hand, one of the authors cited in this little review reminds readers that Calvin himself had difficulties. We will not create a perfect solution, perhaps it will be enough to create a workable one.


A study of the Genevan Academy and the work of John Calvin supports the creation of church-based, Biblically-centered, theologically-grounded, and pastorally-focused seminaries by congregations who feel the need for a new and different form of pastoral education. Almost every Reformed denomination has seminaries that teach a pretty sophisticated form of their essential doctrines. It will be a priority in the future for seminaries to  form alliances and in hiring staff to take time to ensure that candidates have appropriate pastoral character.

As I have visited with churches and seminaries, the most common deficiency I have found in the emerging model of seminary education is in the area of mentoring new pastors so that they develop the character and practical capacities needed to be successful in planting and leading local congregations. It is almost certain that this cannot be done online. It must be done personally. Calvin’s Company of Pastors gives us a model to follow in meeting this need.

Copyright 2021, G. Christoper Scruggs, All Rights Reserved 

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John T. Neill/Ford Lewis Battles, vol. II (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 4.4.1. hereinafter, “Institutes”. References will be to Book, Chapter and Section (i.e., “x/y/z”) using Arabic numerals to avoid confusion.

[2] Robert Vosloo, “Calvin, the Academy of Geneva and 150 years of theology at Stellenbosch: historical-theological contributions to the conversation on theological education” University of Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch, South Africa


(Downloaded, November 4, 2021).

[3] See, John Calvin, Theological Treatises, “Draft Ecclesiastical Ordinances,” John Baille, John P. McNeill, Henry P. Van Dusen, ed. J.K.S. Reid, tr. Vol. XXII (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1944).

[4] See, Scott M. Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church 536–1609. Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[5] Gospel Reformation Network, “Companies of Pastors” (downloaded November 4, 2021).

[6] The quote is form John Burgess, Jerry Andrews, Joseph D. Small A Pastoral Rule for Today (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2019) reprinted in Joseph D. Small, “All the Ministers Shall Gather Together,”  October 26, 2019. found at (downloaded November 4, 2021)

[7] See footnote 5 above for a PCA example. As to the PCUSA, it has a Company of Pastors for both pastors and seminary students. For more information, see

In the Year of our Lord 2021

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1).

In the Year of our Lord 1949

For many years, the Wall Street Journal reprinted an editorial written by Vermont Royster in 1949 as its Christmas Eve message. The title was “In Hoc Anno Domini” (“In this Year of our Lord”). [1] It is probably the most famous editorial ever written by a journalist. At the time the editorial was written, the Soviet Union was spreading Marxism throughout Eastern Europe and the world, bringing tyranny wherever it gained power. This ideology was often seen by Western elites as fundamentally outlining the inevitable future of human social organization. Many educated people silently believed in the eventual defeat of the West and an inevitable victory of some form of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” that Marx, Lenin and Stalin promised—with the loss of economic and other freedoms that victory would entail.

For those who believed in freedom and other historic ideals of the West, the outlook appeared bleak. It seemed an invisible “Iron Curtain” was falling upon the West as surely a material wall would be built between East and West Germany. [2] In Fulton Missouri, three years earlier Winston Churchill raised a solemn warning in a speech known for the phrase “Iron Curtain”. [3] He said:

We cannot be blind to the fact that the liberties enjoyed by individual citizens throughout the British Empire are not valid in a considerable number of countries, some of which are very powerful. In these states control is enforced upon the common people by various kinds of all-embracing police governments. The power of the state is exercised without restraint, either by dictators or by compact oligarchies operating through a privileged party and a political police.”

His warning has meaning in every age, including our own.

In this situation, Vermont Royster wrote his 1949 Christmas message, which ended with the verse I chose to guide this week’s meditation. The article was a meditation on the roots and meaning of freedom for Western society. Royster began by describing the situation into which Christ was born. Freedom, for the average person, was a distant dream. Most of human history, and especially Jewish history, involved a series of enslavements by conquerors, Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Median, Persian, Greek, and finally Roman. The Roman Empire was as violent a regime as existed before or since—given its technology as oppressive as totalitarian states of today. Narrow elites governed cold-bloodedly. There was darkness on the face of the earth, and fallen “Powers and Principalities” ruthlessly reigned through their equally fallen earthly embodiments (Ephesians 6:12).

In the First Year of our Lord

Then, one night (we know not when, but celebrate the birth on Christmas Day), an unwed mother gave birth to a baby, who cried his first cry and was placed in a manger (Luke 2:6-7). No one in Rome or Jerusalem, or any other place of power, noticed or gave the slightest attention to the birth or the first solitary cry of the baby born that night. The child grew up in absolute anonymity at the fringe of the Roman Empire. About the age of thirty, he had a short public ministry until the powers and principalities rose up and had him killed. His death by crucifixion also went unnoticed, though the Roman Centurion assigned to the execution reflected that that he “surely was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).

Everyone in power expected things to go back to normal, and for a long while as history unfolded, it seemed they were right. However, Love and Wisdom had come to dwell on earth in the person of that Babe of Bethlehem and begun a slow, patient, self-giving, and often sacrificial struggle for a place in every human heart. Where that Wisdom and Love grew, truth, goodness, beauty, justice, freedom, and true community slowly grew as well.

The disciples of the Man from Nazareth, declared that death could not and did not hold their teacher. They spread out into the known world to share the message that a personal Word of Grace and Truth had come and dwelt upon the earth with wisdom and love—albeit a wisdom and love the powers and principalities easily ignored. Most people disregarded the message, as did many who heard the message first-hand. However, the message had a mysterious power behind it. Men and women changed as they came into contact with the Babe.

The mysterious wisdom of God, what Apostle Paul declared to be “foolish to the Gentiles” (I Corinthians 1:23), had begun a slow march through history among those who responded. The love of the Man of Sorrows had a power to change hearts. Wherever the message gained traction, it slowly created a future of hope, justice, freedom, justice, and peace. People, families, towns and eventually an empire were changed. A kingdom of wisdom and love slowly formed in history and outlived the Roman Empire and many empires since.

In This Year of our Lord 2021

We are near the end of this “Year of Our Lord” 2021. The powers and principalities are on the loose, as always. Forces of darkness always seem to have grabbed a march on the forces of light in human history. Wisdom seems a powerless thing in the face of shrewdness and deceit. Love appears weak in the face of social, military and political power. However, for those who gaze at the manger and see a light the world cannot see, victory has already come “In Hoc Anno Domini.” The powers and principalities will not finally or forever withstand the Newborn King and his kingdom of love and light.

Merry Christmas,


[1] Vermont Royster, In Hoc Anno Domini (Wall Street Journal, December 24, 1949) To read a copy, see (Downloaded December 15, 2021).

[2] By 1948, the Russians had determined to drive the Western powers out of Berlin. The blockade of the West occurred prior to Royster’s message and was over by Christmas 1949. The wall itself was not built until 1961, and was finally torn down in 1989. See, Berlin Wall History.Com at (downloaded December 22, 2021.

[3] Winston S. Churchill, “The Sinews of Peace” (Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, March 5, 1946). This speech is popularly known as the Iron Curtain Speech. I have made minor typographical corrections for readers of the text. Churchhill wrote “The Sinews of Peace” as a speech with conventions that appropriate to that genre.

From Darwin to Social Darwinism

Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882) is without question one of the most important intellectual figures of what we call the “modern world.” His work in biology is the counterpart to the work of Isaac Newton in physics. In fact, his influence was not only felt in his own day, but continues to be felt in a number of areas, including philosophy. After Darwin, mechanistic metaphysical theories fell into dispute and organic metaphysical theories emerged. After Darwin, social organization and politics began to be visualized in ways that were compatible with evolutionary ideas. Darwin was, therefore, not just an important figure in his own day, but a seminal figure who has impacted many disciplines.

Before Darwin, others, including his ancestor, Erasmus Darwin, speculated on ways in which species might have developed through a process of emergence.  It was Darwin who gathered and organizes such a weight of evidence that his conclusions could simply not be scientifically ignored. Darwin was well-equipped for his discovery having studied medicine before his voyage. His views on evolution began to crystalize in 1837 when a young Charles Darwin left Plymouth Harbor aboard the H.M.S. Beagle on what was a five-year voyage around the world. The long voyage allowed Darwin to amass a huge amount of data which would support his version of the theory of natural selection, and especially this notion that small evolutionary changes were introduced as certain organisms showed a greater ability to survive and reproduce. During the course of his voyage, he was able to observe the differences between various species and the struggle for existence that characterizes much of the natural world. When he came home, he began to review his notes, thinking about his observations and making his scientific conclusions.

The exact nature of Darwin’s religious views is open to question. He was a self-proclaimed agnostic, disclaimed atheism, yet was somewhat active in his local Anglican parish. His wife was a devout Christian.  He suffered greatly from the death of his father and daughter, events which impacted his religious views. Darwin rarely attended religious services, and was not a believer in Biblical revelation or conventional trinitarian theism. He seems to have believed in a Creator God who set up the basic laws of the universe that allows the emergence of human life. He believed that there must be some First Cause of the world. [1] It might be best to consider as fundamentally Darwin a skeptical deist.

Origin of the Species

Darwin’s master-work, On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Species in the Struggle for Life published in 1859 was one of the most important pieces of scientific literature of the modern age. [2] The fundamental insight of Darwin was to recognize that random variations either increased or decreased the potential for a particular animal to survive and multiply, and over great lengths of time, those species or variants which had increased potential for survival would pass those qualities on to another generation, eventually producing an evolutionary effect. The process he described as the “struggle for existence” is the origin of the famous term, “survival of the fittest.”

Darwin was aware that Origin of the Species contained views that cast doubt on some features of conventional thinking. Four of these implications are:

  1. Members of a species or variety develop “individual differences,” some of which may be favorable to survival and others of which may be unfavorable. Over time, the favorable survive while those with unfavorable characteristics become extinct. This is the process of natural selection.
  2. Since all species and varieties are capable of reproducing at a rate greater than the environment can sustain, there is an inevitable struggle for existence, a struggle in which the weaker species or varieties eventually die out and those species more favored survive.
  3. The time frame involved in the evolution of the animal kingdom by an evolutionary process implies that the world is much older than traditionally believed. The slow process of natural selection would take immense amounts of time to produce the variety of species that inhabit the world.
  4. Evolutionary theory implies that the creative process is still on-going, for evolution has not stopped and new varieties and species of animals continue to develop over time. Thus, there is no fixed number of species or fixed characteristics of any species.

In Origin of the Species Darwin does not deal with the evolution of the human race, but restricts himself to defending the view that animal species developed in a long process of random modifications which over time allowed those species which were most adapted to survive and reproduce to emerge and thrive.

Decent of Man

In a second book, Descent of Man Darwin undertook to show that the human race was undoubtably descended from more primitive animals via the process of natural selection, the most recent of these being some form of ape. [3]Once again, in this book, Darwin sets out an incredibly complex and complete argument, sustained by massive amounts of evidence, that the human race is descended from members of the animal kingdom, in his view probably apes from the African continent.

There are many aspects of the Decent of Man that have interest for moral and political philosophy interesting connections between Decent of Man and the utilitarian movement previously discussed. The notion that human beings are the product of a long evolutionary history, includes the idea that there must have been biological impulses that led to the development of human moral and political capacities. Among Darwin’s most important observations are:

First, as the race developed, the increased intellectual abilities of human beings combined with the ability to reflect upon decisions made in the past allowed human beings to grow, change counter-productive instincts, and adjust behaviors to environmental changes. With the increased mental powers of human beings came also increased ability to feel shame, regret, remorse and repentance, all powerful agents of change. [4] These abilities convey important evolutionary advantages.

Second, among important human facets for morals and politics is the fact that human beings are instinctively social as are the apes from which the human race is descended. “Everyone will admit that man is a social being.” [5]Darwin considers the human social instincts central to human moral development. The instinct of sociability, inherited from his ape ancestors, is more highly developed in human beings because of their increased mental abilities and the nature of social pressures put on human beings in society. The development of a moral sense in society leads to the sense of duty that Kant emphasizes.  The ability to cooperate and discipline self-seeking in the interests of the community and obey the dictates of an abstract duty, of course, also convey an evolutionary benefit upon the human race. [6]

Third, Darwin embraces a version of utilitarian thinking. As the human species developed, the instinct to maximize pleasure and minimize and avoid pain would have guided the moral development of the species. [7] This guidance is not contrary to the social instincts of the human race but consistent with its social instincts:

No doubt the welfare and the happiness of the individual will normally coincide; and a contented, happy tribe will flourish better than one that is discontented and unhappy. We have seen that, even at an early period in the history of man, the expressed wishes of the community will have naturally influenced to a large extent the conduct of each member; and as all wish for happiness, the “greatest happiness principle” will have become a most important secondary guide and object; the social instinct, however, together with sympathy (which leads to our regarding the approbation and disapprobation of others) having served as the primary instinct and guide. [8]

The point that Darwin makes is that our natural instinct to avoid pain and death and to enjoy pleasure and success drives human beings in fundamental ways. A communal creature naturally considers the needs and desires of others and of the community as a whole, for in so doing that creature lives out the social instinct. Over time, other individuals and communities praise socially advantageous behavior and critique socially disadvantageous behavior. The result of this is the moral development of the individual and of society.

Roots of Social Darwinism

It Decent of Man that is most important from the perspective of the history of political thought.

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with a certain and great present evil. Hence, we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely the weaker and inferior members of society not marrying so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased, though this is more to be hoped for than expected, by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage. [9]

In these paragraphs, there is found much of the underlying thought that would result in a kind of “Social Darwinism,” popular in the 19th Century. The underlying notion is that protection of the weak is socially counterproductive, prevents the natural consequences of weakness, and allows the continued propagation of the weak. The popular philosopher, Herbert Spencer popularized these ideas and developed what is popularly called, “Social Darwinism.”  I hope to deal with social Darwinism at a later time, for it continues to influence the behavior of political actors, even actors who disclaim its importance. For the time being, it is enough to observe that a Christian view of reality reaches different conclusions.

Consequences of Darwin’s Thought

The 18th Century ended with reason enthroned, a mechanical vision of the universe in place, and the human race enthroned as the capstone of creation. Human intelligence would eventually eliminate all the ancient evils of human existence. Science would explain nature and enable human beings to master nature, including the ancient enemy of disease. Human beings were created equal, and had equal rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Liberal republican democracy was the best method of political organization. Rational politics would eliminate the suffering of the masses.

Darwin was the first piece of intellectual sand to begin to erode the false optimism of  this vision—a mechanistic vision of reality would be replaced by an organic vision. The human race seemed dethroned as unique among creatures. Finally, the foundation of the political ideas of the Enlightenment was undermined–and would continue to be undermined by Marx, Nietzsche, and others. With Darwin, history began a slow entry into a new era.

Social Darwinism

Politically, Darwin was a progressive, familiar with the work of Bentham and Mill and sympathetic to the utilitarian movement. However, the implications of Darwin’s theory were not entirely compatible with the progressive ideals of the Enlightenment. The following is a brief outline of the problems evolutionary theory possess for classic 18thCentury (and American) political ideals:

  1. If human beings, and the differences in intelligence and ability, were the results of random variations and the struggle for existence, then in what way is it proper to speak of human beings as created equal? The American Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the those of other nations were dependent upon a fundamental equality among human beings.
  2. If human beings are the result of chance variations which gave some individuals superior potential to survive and thrive, and if human institutions are the result of this same struggle, then by what logic should government protect the weak, the helpless, the unfortunate, and disfavored, who it would seem are simply the losers in the evolution of the world and society.
  3. If some human beings are more gifted, stronger, more intelligent, more capable, then should these individuals not rule, since they are the superior product of the evolutionary process?

While many scholars find these difficulties insuperable, I do not. [10] As this series of blogs enters the 20thcentury, my reasons will become clear. For the time being, it is enough to indicate that the kind of “equality” that justifies democracy is not an equality of physical, mental, or moral endowments. The fact that human beings are not equal in many areas does not mean that human beings are not fundamentally conscious beings capable of reason and feeling with an underlying common humanity.

The fact that human society and human political structures have evolved over time and will continue to evolve over time, does not mean that in each time there are not substantial and permanent improvements. While an evolutionary approach may (and I think does) cast doubt upon the general wisdom of radical changes in society the consequences of which are not understood, changes do occur and many of them are for the best. For example, I have critiqued “contract theory” of government as relying on a non-existent “first contract” that took the human race out of a hypothetical “state of nature.” This does not mean that social thinking and institutions did not in the 17th and 18th Century reach a point in which it was both reasonable and important to think of society and involving a kind of contract between those who rule and those who are ruled in which there are mutual obligations and responsibilities.

Finally, in every area of life there are structures of leadership, and functional organizations promote the best leaders and place every person in the organization in such a way as to maximize the benefit of the organization to all participants. I see no reason why such structures undermine democracy or democratic institutions. For example, most private corporations have mandatory retirement ages. Were our governments to have such constitutionally enacted restrictions, it would not undermine its fundamental democratic structure.


In the end, it is my view that the social instincts of human beings led to the development of families, tribes, and very small societies, all of which had internal rules and guides that had built up over the years for the safety and security of the community. From these fundamental units, over the long history of human society and political thinking and action, more and more complex structures of relations have emerged, as have a clearer understanding of both the reality of power and the need to limit the political power of elites. Thus, human social instincts have guided and still guide our thinking, and can guide wise societies into a better communal future. We need not despair of democracy or our democratic institutions, for the very discoveries that some people believe undermine them actually support their existence and future.

From a religious perspective Darwin’s scientific achievements do not undermine religious faith, though some aspects of religious dogma’s may need a restatement.  In many respects, the insight of Darwin and his followers give credence to seeing creation as a slow process put into motion by an all-wise, and particularly all-patient God. In a time like ours, when over-reaction seems to be the order of the day, the long view of evolutionary theory might be a tonic against the revolutionary impulses of a passing age.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Kevin Padian, “Ten Myths about Charles Darwin” Oxford Academic: Bioscience Volume 59, Issue 9, October 2009, Pages 800–804, (downloaded December 4, 2021).

[2] Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species (New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004).

[3] Charles Darwin, Decent of Man Ed, Mortimer J. Adler (New York, NY: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952). In Decent of Man, Darwin speculates that some form of African ape was the original ancestor, a conclusion current science is inclined to accept based upon scientific discoveries of the 20th Century.

[4] Id, at 313.

[5] Id, at 310.

[6] Id, at 318.

[7] Id, at 316. In this passage, Darwin evidences a familiarity and sympathy with John Stewart Mill’s work.

[8] Id, at 316-317.

[9] Id, at 323-324.

[10] See, Bertand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1945),725-719. Russell, in his work, reveals his own philosophical stances and I think the impact of his own religious skepticism. I have tried to follow faithfully the outline of his views as to the impact of Darwin’s thought on democratic theory, though I do not agree with it.

Bentham and Mill: The Utilitarian Movement

Two of the most important political thinkers impacting the 19th century were Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who represent the first outstanding figures of the utilitarian movement. Their influence, like the influence of Darwin was already being felt in the political world by the time of the American Civil War, but in America the full impact of their thought was not felt into later, though the political tendencies they represent are archetypically American.

Jeremey Bentham

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was born more than a century before the American civil war and died the year after De Tocqueville visited America. He is credited with being the founder of Utilitarianism, a movement whose most famous exponent is John Stuart Mill. Bentham’s father was a lawyer, and Bentham was a child prodigy—brilliant from his youth. Like others we have studied, Bentham studied but quickly became disillusioned by the law, preferring legal theory and philosophy to the daily drudgery of legal practice. He never married, lived alone, and after his father’s death was able to devote his life to scholarship. [1]

Enlightenment Skepticism. Bentham was deeply influenced by Hume’s skepticism about religion and knowledge and by Bentham’s political theory. He was an empiricist, connecting all knowledge to sense impressions, a nominalist, denying the reality of universal concepts, a hedonist, building his ethical theory on pleasure, and inclined to distrust tradition, as is characteristic of Enlightenment figures. His movement towards utilitarianism began while listening to the lectures of the British jurist, William Blackstone, who was a defender of the common law and natural law traditions. He came to believe that there is no natural law apart from human decisions, making him a forerunner of what is called “Legal Positivism,” that is that all law is man-made.

Bentham was deeply influenced by the French Enlightenment and embodies many of its fundamental ideas. He was deeply skeptical of tradition, optimistic about the powers of human reason, confident of the human capacity to structure a better society, and saw no need for religious faith in building a human life. He believed in the Enlightenment ideal of progress, which is achieved by a consistent process of rationally seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.

Egoistic Hedonism. Underlying Bentham’s work is an “egoistic hedonism.” The primary motive of human action is the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain. He rejects any kind of fundamental social relationship between people, and embraces what might be called, “modern radical individualism.” Communities are merely combinations of individuals seeking their own self-interest. The identity of a community is simply the sum of the interests of the individuals that compose it. For Bentham, human beings are “social monads” bound together by passing hedonistic encounters of self-interest motivated by natural desire and restrained by rational calculation of interest and human law.

One can stop here and reflect that Bentham rejects the entire classical picture of human beings as embedded in a family and society and emerging from the influences of that family and society. He fails to see how much his views are formed under the influence of the Enlightenment philosophers and community to which he himself belongs. He ignores the facts of the way in which human beings are in fact formed, preferring a radical individualism in which human beings are monads, cut off from one another, joining in social relationships for the purpose of achieving their own pleasure. In such a view of human nature, human beings become radically individual and human striving is to be solely constrained by the power of the state. It is the limitations and ultimate danger of this particular view of human nature and society that is the constant subject of this series of blogs.

Utilitarian Principle. Given the radical individualism Bentham accepts, he believes that societies can only be wisely structured around the “utilitarian principle” that the approves an action, social structure, or political decision based upon whether it increases or decreases the pleasure of the parties impacted, in other words whether it effects the greatest happiness or good for the greatest number of those impacted by the decision.

Utilitarian Calculus. Bentham created a “utilitarian calculus,” a potentially quantitative way in which a utilitarian might calculate the correct decision on the basis of what we might call “a reductive utilitarian calculus” consisting of the intensity, duration, certainty, and propinquity of the anticipated pleasure or avoided pain. On matters of social consequence, the task was to calculate the anticipated results for the greatest number of people. As a radical individualist, Bentham does not believe that there is any “Group Interest” or “Common Good” separate from the goods of individuals, which for social decision making are simply added together and averaged for the purpose of public policy.

It is this aspect of what might be called “Simplistic Utilitarianism” that is most subject to criticism. On practical grounds, such a calculus is impossible not just for individuals, who often do not know or understand what is in their best interests, and for societies, who are even less subject to such a reductive calculation. More fundamentally, the calculating the good of individuals and then the good of mass numbers of people in a modern society is practically impossible. It is also theoretically impossible. Human beings are simply not subject to such a reductive analysis as Bentham proposes. Human beings are inclined towards rapidly changing ideas of what might bring them pleasure and human freedom makes such a calculation impossible.

Bentham did not originate the fundamental ideas of utilitarianism, which he took from Hume, Hutcheson, and others, but he was its most brilliant and systematic popularizer and employed the method as a part of his pollical and social critiques of the status quo in England and Europe. The culture, history, traditions, and existing social structures of a society all must be judged and modified strictly according to the utilitarian principle. Denying traditional morality and natural law, Bentham was left without a theoretical basis to deny the application of power to any social issue, a position that would be further embedded in American jurisprudence by Oliver Wendall Holmes and the “legal realist” movement we will look at in subsequent blogs.

John Stewart Mill

John Stuart Mill’s life (1806-1875) spans the period before and immediately after the American Civil War. Mill’s father became a follower of Jeremy Bentham shortly after Mills’ birth. Mill was early indoctrinated into the thought of Bentham and the Utilitarian principle. At seventeen, he attended Bentham’s lectures and founded the “Utilitarian Society.” Mill was rigorously educated under the care of his father, and studied law under the Benthamite legal thinker, John Austin. In adulthood, after a brief period of rethinking his commitments, he became the primary and still most famous and influential follower of Bentham and defender of the Utilitarian principle. He was never a professional philosopher, but employed his entire life by the East India Company.

In his early twenties, Mill suffered a “mental crisis” in which he was forced to confront the danger of the “dissolving effect” of analysis on reason and human happiness. Mill’s father, whom he loved and respected, neglected the moral and emotional side of his son’s education, making reason his religion. Mill was to say that Bentham and his father made Utilitarianism into a “a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy, a religion.” [2] He was left without emotions and moral sentiments important for a balanced human life. He recognized that there were problems with his education and with the views of Bentham and his father. When he emerged from the crisis, Mill defended a more moderate form of utilitarianism than Bentham. There have been questions about the exact nature of Mill’s relationship with the Anglican church and with Christian faith. There are those who believe he was an agnostic. Others believe that he had a friendly relationship (which he did) with the Anglican church, having a close friend who was an Anglican priest, giving generously, attending frequently, and near the end of his life taking on some small responsibility. [3]

Rejection of Bentham’s Moral Calculus

Mill rejected Bentham’s moral calculus formula, which Mill felt was impossible for reasons already mentioned. Fundamentally, Mill rejected Bentham’s quantitative approach for a qualitative approach that judges pleasures according to their “higher” or “lower” quality. One cannot simply judge pleasure as a generic concept according to a fixed formula. A moment’s reflection shows that Mill is correct. Is there any kind of commensurability between the pleasure of eating a good meal, watching a baseball game, playing a game of cards or chess, winning a court case, reading a great novel, discovering a cure for cancer, solving a social problem, and contemplating the Eternal Goodness, Beauty, and Justice of God? How could one compare them in such a way as to judge between them? Obviously, the task is impossible.

Rejection of Totalitarian Majoritarianism

Mill also recognized that Bentham’s formulation of the Utility Principle was subject to misuse by majorities to create a form of majoritarian tyranny.  Mill formulated his version of utilitarianism with a strong ideal of the importance of human freedom and liberty, which liberty states are not to infringe upon to the maximum extent possible. His work, On Liberty will be the subject of another blog. In my view, Mill is correct in this fears that the utilitarian principle can and sometimes is used in ways that actually undermine the kind of liberty that both Bentham and Mill are trying to defend. Mill’s formulation is more humane and sensitive to the human person than is Bentham’s formula but both suffer from the defect inherent in the principle itself. The principle is best conceived as a principle of decision among policy alternatives, not an ultimate principle of political decision per se. In other words, lacking a notion of the common good that is beyond a calculation of individual self-interest, there is not overarching notion of the Common Good to guide policy makers.

A Christian Utilitarianism?

In Utilitarianism, Mill defends his doctrine against religious objections in a most original and profound way:

If it be a true belief that God desires, above all things, the happiness of his creatures, and that was his purpose in their creation, utility is not only not a godless doctrine, but more profoundly religious than any other. If it be meant that utilitarianism does not recognize the revealed will of God as the supreme law of morals, I answer that a utilitarian who believes that whatever God has thought fit to reveal on any subject of morals must fulfill the requirements of utility in a supreme degree. But others besides utilitarians have been of the opinion that the Christian revelation was intended, and is fitted to inform the hearts and minds of mankind with a spirit which should enable them to find for themselves what is right, and incline them to do it when found, rather than to tell them except in a very general way, that we need a doctrine of ethics, carefully followed out to interpret to us the will of God. [4]

There is a great deal in this section of Mill’s Utilitarianism, with which a Christian can agree. Mill is correct that the human race was created for happiness, and a Christian can accept this postulate with the provisothat relationships with God, other human beings, and creation are all grounds for human pleasure and the achievement of the kind of happiness human beings were created to enjoy.

Christians would also agree that God did not create human beings as “automons” who mindlessly follow a set of prescribed rules. This, in fact, is the exact critique Jesus made of the religious leaders of their own day, who substituted obedience to a set of rules for service to God and others in love. Both Kantian conception of duty and the Utilitarian concept of maximizing the greatest good for the greatest number of people can be incorporated into a functional Christian approach to politics and morality, which requires Christians to act in wisdom and love towards God, themselves, their community, and the world.


We will return to Mill when we look at his defense of individual liberty in On Liberty. For now, it is enough to remember the basics of his approach to morals and public policy, and to internalize the truth that is embodied in the utilitarian principle: those who must make political decisions are often forced to make decisions in unclear and morally difficult circumstances. In such circumstances, the choice between options may boil down to which choice has the maximum potential to increase human happiness and minimize harm.

The utilitarian impulse also reminds policy makers and those who implement policy that there are limits to what can be accomplished, however worthy the goal. The inevitable limitations on the power of government and policy makers forces utilitarian calculations concerning how much power and political capital should be spent on any given initiative given the likely potential of the initiative to increase human happiness or avoid human suffering.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Much of this blog as it relates to Bentham is based upon “Jeremy Bentham” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (downloaded November 30, 2021).

[2] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty edited by Currin V; Shields (Indianapolis Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill, Library of the Liberal Arts, 1968). I have relied on the introduction for the quotations from Mill.

[3] See, Timothy Larsen, John Stuart Mill: A Secular Life (Oxford England: Oxford University Press, 2018.)

[4] John Stewart Mill, Utilitarianism (New York, NY: Bobbs Merrill, 1967). 28.