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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thoughts on John Calvin

Five hundred years ago, John Calvin was born in Noyon France. Why should I worry about this?

Well, my first post stated that I am a follower of Calvin's theology, so I probably shouldn't let his 500th year pass without comment.

Like most 20th century Americans, I was raised with an image of Calvin as the fountainhead of all that is obscurantist and oppressive in American culture. Today, even supposedly sophisticated people I meet are shocked that I have a deep respect and admiration for the Genevan reformer.

Having had to read a little of the man himself and his followers in the wake of a college course on Tudor and Stuart England (Calvin did, after all, cut quite a swathe through that era), I learned that the "elect" of whom he spoke were all, rich or poor, in Christ; and that Calvin liked to go bowling after preaching. Moreover, he was such a pathetic excuse for an ecclesiastical dictator that he got run out of Geneva on occasion, and never could get his preference for weekly communion passed. Obviously, what I had learned in my earlier years was a hostile caricature; for all of 16th century life, whether in Protestant Geneva, Catholic Florence, the Jewish Shtetls of Poland-Lithuania, Ottoman Turkey, or Confucian Ming China would probably strike the modern, uprooted, supposedly "liberated" man as oppressive.

The real Calvin and his followers were among the founders of the constitutional liberty we enjoy in many North Atlantic states (and imitators outside the North Atlantic realm). Near the close of Book IV of the Institutes of the Christian Religion (I've read both the Battles and Beveridge translations), he states his preference for a mixture of aristocracy and democracy in civil governments, "for kings cannot always be trusted to do what is right". However, this is said without dogmatizing. Further, across Europe, his followers such as Francois Hotman, Theodore Beza, John Knox, George Buchanan, Philippus Marnix van Sint Aldegonde and others down through such men of later generations as Johannes Althusius, Andrew Melville, and Samuel Rutherford were invariably advocates of limited, constitutional government and rule of law. The Presbyterian church order these reformers established further gave the laity a voice in choosing ecclesiastical leaders. This thought was especially scandalous to John Maxwell, Charles I's bishop of Tuam, Ireland, when he considered how a tradesman or farmer, sitting as an elder on a Kirk Session, might sit in judgment on the behavior of a monarch.

In modern times, the political scientist Andrew Black, noting not only the Calvinists but Cyprian of Carthage as well (interestingly enough, one of Calvin's mst-quoted fathers when Calvin speaks of church polity), wrote of a republican strain in Western Christianity, and called on the social sciences to abandon an all-too-common tendency to see in the throne-and-altar alliance of royal absolutism THE Christian doctrine of government. Black also uses his reading of Christian history to challenge the view that modern republicanism and constitutionalism are products of the enlightenment. Indeed, comparing Samuel Rutherford's assertion in Lex Rex (1644) that absolute power is a burden too great for mortal shoulders with Voltaire's praise of "enlightened despots" such as Frederick the Great roughly a century later, one can easily see Black's point.

If Calvin is remembered largely as a fountainhead of intolerance, it is probably because American theology is largely the product of Arminian, Unitarian, and Modernist revolts against the theology of the Puritans and their 18th century Evangelical heirs. It also owes much to a century of Marxist historiography with its complete impatience with any form of theological exegesis (and hence a propensity to utter stupidities when trying to interpret Calvinism as a social phenomenon) and its relentless demand that all Christianities--regardless of their internal democracy--fit the mold of Tridentine Roman Catholicism in its most post-Napoleonic defensiveness. But this cannot be our stance in an age in which even the cannibal Mocetezuma II of the Aztecs is given a sympathetic hearing and Muhammad's faith is called a "religion of peace".

Perhaps Calvin's second 500 years will be better.


  1. Peter:

    Thanks for the heads-up. Will be following your comments routinely.

    Good comments, but also the note on Cyprian too.

    May your tribe increase.


  2. I think your observation about the departures and rebellions against Calvinistic thought is accurate and on the mark.


  3. Thanks Peter,

    I enjoyed reading this and thinking about our Calvinist heritage.


  4. You're welcome, readers. Come back for more!