Culture At Large

The Calvin I Never Knew

Paul Vander Klay

Tim Stafford recently wrote a very nice blog post on not being remembered for his writing. John Calvin doesn’t have that problem. After 500 years he still makes press and people still read his books.

I grew up in a tradition that revered Calvin, I went to Calvin College and Calvin Seminary, took a class on his Institutes, yet I am only getting around to reading a biography of him in my 46th year. I chose Herman Selderhuis’ biography of Calvin for a small group study because the Amazon reviews of the book seemed nicely divided. Some thought the book was truthful and honest, others thought he wasn’t sufficiently laudatory.

John Calvin gets a lot of bad press. I’m a big fan of Rachel Held Evan’s blog and I’m currently reading her new book where she airs some of her issues with John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards and “Calvinists” in general. I know she is not alone. After 500 years Calvin is still a polarizing figure.

Calvin’s name was recently cast into the American text book culture war when conservative Christians wanted to include him in their survey of western history. In a very interesting article on The Huffington Post a Senior Lecturer from Stanford suggested that American youth should have some awareness of Calvin’s significant contribution to our notion of separation of church and state, something most of Calvin’s contemporary critics might not be aware of. Counter to the image of Calvin as the theocratic tyrant of Geneva he battled endlessly with the civil authorities for a legitimation of this separation in an age where such notions were alien.

Selderhuis writes a rather topical biography rather than a straight chronological narrative. What I find most helpful in his biography is how he both helps to show Calvin to be a rather difficult and complicated man within the context of his very volatile and complicated times. It seems to me that Calvin must have been a rather difficult man to get along with yet someone whose rather obsessive passion for God and extraordinary writing skills gave practical voice and shape to generations of Protestant theology and practice even to many who would be offended to be called “Calvinists” today.

Most Calvin biographers call Calvin a “humanist” within the movement of Renaissance Humanism but there seems little consensus on how precisely apply the definition. Calvin believed in rigorously pursuing the sources of his theology which meant studying the Bible in Greek and Hebrew, prioritizing his discoveries from this channel over any other source of authority from within church history. How many today share this spirit whether or not they agree with the conclusions Calvin derived from his study.

Much for which Calvin is vilified were simply common characteristics of his day. We seem to have an amazing capacity to be critical of those in the past for being moral and ideological captives of their contexts while ironically failing to realize that this habit itself bears witness to our own captivity to our moral and ideological filters. What does this then say about us when we judge our ancestors for being unable to see beyond their own prisons of conventional wisdom?

Calvin remains a foundational figure in the development of the Protestant church. Seeking a bit more accurate information on this complex man might help us to see our own times and our own biases a bit more clearly.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith