Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Some Perspective on Calvin

I just came across this quote from an acquaintance on Facebook---the quote intends to give a more round characterization of Calvin (or maybe demonize him):

John Calvin
Most Protestant Christians know John Calvin (1509 – 1564) as the French theologian of the Protestant Reformation who fathered Calvinism, the theological backbone of the Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian churches. However few know the unflattering, intollerant & self righteous side of Calvin, whom had 16th century Geneva (1540s & 1550s) under such control that he was known as the "the Protestant Pope" and the "Dictator of Geneva". Following is a brief synopsis of Calvin's life in Geneva, with URL linked references. A picture emerges of a well educated, polemic defender of the Reformed faith, who's vast theological contributions are marred by instances of religious intolerance, jealousy & mis-use of power/authority over those who disagreed w/ him, theologically or otherwise.

It is true that Calvin was a human being, or Luther's simul justus et peccator; ‎but what's the point of highlighting such things, if not (usually) to marginalize and poison the material that Calvin offered the church, theologically? This is not to say that I agree with Calvin just because he is Calvin; indeed, I disagree with some fundamental things relative to Calvin's theology (like his construal of election ... I advocate for our Evangelical Calvinist understanding instead). But, if I quit paying attention to theologians and Christians because of some sort of heinous sin or character flaw in their person; then, there would be no one to pay attention to in the Christian faith---not to mention, David (in the Old Testament). I am not excusing Calvin's flaws, I am only trying to provide some perspective; Calvin was a man. Usually the mood that often prompts the kind of sentiment communicated in the above quote comes with something related to Calvin's handling of the Servetus incident. I have an old post on that here.

Does Christian character matter? Yes! Was Calvin someone who sought Christ, and yet remained a sinner? Yes! It would be very scary, indeed, if we all were studied, scrutinized, and scoped the way Calvin is. I would imagine that we would all be disqualified from the faith. I don't think it is wrong to try and know who Calvin was, for historical reasons; but it is the way that this kind of historical reconstruction is used that causes me to be wary in such instances.


  1. I use to feel the same way about Calvin before I was a Christ-follower and after for awhile. Calvin was a tyrant, a cold and ruthless man etc etc etc.

    I recently had a change of heart over this man and love him as a (flawed) brother in the Lord.

    There is some truth in every falsity and that is in some of Calvin's depiction here. He was called "pope of Geneva" and a "tyrant" because of the power he did in fact use but by his detractors. Calvin was called into Geneva to help write the laws of the city, he was publicly acclaimed much to the ire of two of the political entrenchments of Geneva: the Patriots (Swiss nationalists who were aristocratic) and the Libertines (quasi gnostic spiritualists who hated Calvin's discipline).

    Calvin was indeed responsible for the Servetus incident though the whole issue has blame on all sides (Servetus himself amongst them).

    I say Calvin committed heresy in his orthopraxy, he was not merciful to his enemies. He also continued on the Constantinian practice of State-Church fusion, though it was a benigner version of Rome, Constantinople or Canterbury.

    Yet despite our errors in "Right Thinking" and "Right Doing", it is our Lord who saves not our own works intellectual and active. I think Calvin is so heavily scrutinized because of the Moniker "Calvinist". I've read some pretty vitriolic books on Luther, who was much more disturbed than Calvin ever was. Despite our need to define, for the sakes of these men and ourselves, we probably should not carry their names as labels. Be it Wesleyan, Lutheran, Calvinist, Cambellite, Barthist or what have you.

    My 2 cents and love,

    1. Actually, Cal, I don't know if you read my linked post on Calvin and Servetus, but Calvin wasn't "responsible", per se in regards to the civil-theological charges brought against Servetus; Servetus was responsible for bringing that on himself. Yet, Calvin did condone the execution of Servetus, but we ought to make sure to read this through the ecclesiopolitical situation in which Calvin lived (which that post is trying to provide).

      As far as the "Constantinian practice;" I know that is popular nowadays--i.e. to use that phrase and charge--because of the work of folk like John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas et al; but, I think that caricature is often overplayed. I think Peter Leithart's more recent book Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom goes along ways in providing some historical perspective on why the Constantinian charge is not necessarily the reality it is made to be (in itself). And by the way, what should we expect from Calvin? He was a child of his time, conditioned by the socio-cultural parameters in which he lived; just like we all are.

      As far as using labels; we all do. So the question becomes what does "our" particular label intend to capture relative to its usage; that is, as far as the conceptual matter our particular label intends to signify? But to carry "Calvin's" name (or Barth's) only is intended to carve out the theological space and tradition in which we inhabit. It is shorthand for self-identification purposes, theologically. Some people say they are just "Christians" (and so we ought!), but within that broad label, there are obvious nuances, theologically and doctrinally etc. So labels are shorthand. Calvinism was actually a term Lutherans used as a snide label against folk who were prone to Calvin's teaching; he never wanted anyone to be known as such. Yet, given the reality of language---its fluidity---coupled with the forces of history, Calvinism has become a term used (for better or worse) to identify a particular "tradition" under the broader banner of Christendom. There are negative and positive connotations tied to any "label," even "Christian." That's just how it is.

    2. I'm not blaming Calvin as the executioner of Servetus or some merciless killer. Calvin certainly did want Servetus arrested and tried but he also never wanted the man to come to Geneva. Most of what happened in that odd trial is the fault of Servetus and his allies. I've read Schaff's account who, clearly favoring Calvin, was pretty fair I think.

      Perhaps I should've said Sacralism so I don't sound like I'm using just another trendy term; but I am no friend of christendom and it has invited all scorn on Christ's Kingdom. You can't get away with "he's a man of his times", that's ignoring all the wealth of history of all the "heretics" that existed hundreds of years before Calvin and those of his own day. Calvin followed in the mold of Medieval christendom, he did not necessarily have to. Luther's 'Two Kingdoms', which Luther failed to practice, was a paradigm that existed. It's sad that Calvin either was blind to what the Anabaptists were trying to explain by their "rebaptism" of a credo-sort. For them it had more to do less with paedo vs. credo but more to do with society and sacralism. The nature of Christ's kingdom. Their arguments were much more complex and nuanced than the run of the mill reformed v. baptist that goes on today.

      Like many other medieval thinkers, Calvin could not escape the paradigm of a state-church. His reforms in Geneva made something much softer, but it was the same beast hybrid and is something that Calvin failed.

      I understand the justification, please, I'm not a total fool. I know that's just how it is. However, it doesn't mean we ought not to think about it and consider the repercussions. There is a reason why some prefer to call themselves "Reformed" than "Calvinist", though they generally mean the same thing. And both underneath "Christian".

    3. Cal,

      I never presumed you were a "fool," what?! Yeah, I know why folk prefer "Reformed," of course it too has negative connotations, and it really is quite broad in orientation (at least historically). I prefer "Reformed" myself, but most people who know today, know that this is also code for Calvinist ... so being blunt is obviously the option we've taken with taking the name Evangelical Calvinist.

      So are you prone to Anabaptist theology, Cal?

      There are political and social repercussions tied to names etc. But it is ... I don't necessarily like being tied down and identified as a 'Calvinist' per se, precisely because of how it is. BUT, we seek to redress the negative associations that Calvinism has accrued over the years, and then recast Calvinism in its best light through Trinitarian and Christ conditioned categories. So I guess, for me, the labeling is worth the cost (not to be melo-dramatic, really).

    4. The whole explanation of why people use descriptors like 'Calvinist' I took as overkill. I was bit testy in my response.

      The point on the names is to answer the question of why people go after Calvin or Luther (the big two). Their names are used so frequently that they are under constant scrutiny and lo, they have some character flaws that are exploited to no end. Just being careful, and perhaps not continuing the trend, may take away such odd fixture of these men. However, the damage is done already.

      I joke and tell people I'm a "Freewill Calvinist"*, so I engage in it a bit as well. Just something I considered as you posted your quandary on folks so scrutinizing Calvin.

      I do consider the Anabaptists some of those who got it right. It's easy to forget that Grebel was a friend and student of Zwingli and so were the other original Anabaptists. I don't know how much you know of the era, but the sad part is that they are so misunderstood anymore. Not just them but their predecessors which are anachronistically named 'Proto Protestants'.

      Even the label 'Anabaptist' is confusing in that era. The blasphemous and terrifying episode at Muntster was condemned by many Anabaptists even though those who partook in such madness were called such. Menno Simons fought very hard to prove the point that those at Munster were not true Christians, and certainly not apart of the 'radical reformation'.

      I'd recommend, if you have not read it, Leonard Verduin's "The Reformers and their Stepchildren". Verduin himself is Dutch Reformed but found sympathies with them.

      Just so you know, I'm a credo-paedo-baptist ;).


    5. Cal,

      I like to be clear as to my rationale, and thus the verbose explanation.

      Nevertheless, in theology there are really only two traditions that stand at the fore; Calvinism or Lutheranism (relative to thinking about christology etc.).

      My seminary years were dominated by historical theology, esp. The prof I TA'd, for, Dr Ron Frost is a Purtian expert, and really an expert in the whole medieval period. And so this I was exposed to early on in my studies (I am still friends with Ron to this day). I know all about the radical reformation etc., and understand the formation of the language of anabaptist and its heritage. Someday I will have to read Verduin's book (I've heard of it before), but I have massive other books that I need to read first :).

      I'm credo-baptist.

  2. Haters gonna hate. Funny how after writing thing alike this they usually can only point to the Servetus episode (the explanation of which would require more than a comment on a blog post.

    Calvin admitted his own pettiness and worked to overcome it, but he wasn't guilty of anything more than any other sinner saved by grace.

    You're right that this is merely an attempt to poison the doctrine. Such ad hominem attacks are clear proof that they can't answer the theology on textual grounds and so must resort to name-calling.

    1. Agreed, Michael. And congrats on your PhD acceptance, sweet!


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