John Calvin at 500: From Theocrats to Marxists, Calvin’s Vision of Joy and Cruelty Left Complex Legacy

Today is John Calvin’s birthday—a time to celebrate and to reflect on him, his work, and his legacy, though surely not without pause. One of the founders, movers, and shakers of the Protestant Reformation, the man born Jean Cauvin remains a lightning rod to this day, justifiably attracting both ire and admiration among those who have read his work and studied what he left behind; and no small amount from those who have done neither.

Birds “Flirting” with Their Creator at the Moment of Their Creation

It was a fall semester 39 years ago that I wandered tentatively into Dick Niebuhr’s “Knowledge of God” class. That day he read from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, on God the Creator. Even now I recall Dick intoning, “Though a crude saying, it can be said, if said piously, that nature is God.” He read on. At that moment I fell in love with Calvin. Even in English translation (a fine one by John McNeill by the way), the elegance of Calvin’s Latin, and the beauty of the French that he helped make a literary language shone through.

Little did I know then, as a Masters student at Harvard Divinity School, that I would later, as a doctoral student, go on to pore over almost every word the man wrote—thousands and thousands of pages of scriptural commentary and sermons in addition to several revisions of the Institute—not only in translation, but in Latin and Middle French, only to write my dissertation on someone else. The love affair has nevertheless persisted through the rest of my intellectual life, even as I berate him for his views on women, his conception of the Atonement, his fierce articulation of double predestination, and his support for the execution of Michael Servetus.

But, I didn’t just read him—I heard him; I saw his images. (How fitting the former, given his emphasis on the hearing of the Word; how ironic the latter, given his opposition to visual iconography.) To me, then, as now, he wrote poetically; and sensing his words so dramatically, so directly, has ineradicably shaped how I read everything I’ve read since. I had come to Harvard a philosophy and religion undergraduate, and a transfer student from a doctoral program in comparative literature, ostensibly to study Hebrew Bible; I switched my concentration to theology that very day. A student of what was then called the “New School” of literary criticism, philosophical and theological arguments were not uppermost in my mind. I wanted to know how language spiritually shaped and reflected our senses. Calvin fed that desire beyond measure.

So, for example, in the introduction to his cousin Olivétan’s translation of the New Testament, he wrote of birds “flirting” with their Creator at the moment of their creation. Having read his Plato inside out and backwards, he wrote of labyrinths throughout his work: the labyrinth of the human mind, how the thread of the Spirit and the light of the Word guided us through the mazes of our sin and corruption to redemption. In the Institutes he wrote of spectacles: the spectacles of Scripture that allow our dim eyes to see, he wrote of creation as a theater for God’s glory. He understood God’s accommodation to the human imagination, which he called “a veritable factory of idols,” an accommodation necessary to glimpse, taste, touch, hear, and feel the glory of God.

He knew that was what we were here for—to rejoice in divine beauty and holiness, to glorify it, to wallow in it, to sing with the rest of creation in praise of the Creator. He also knew how far short we had fallen from that joy, preoccupied as we are with the narrow concerns of our own egos. It was a loss he mourned. As for human salvation, a redemption that would restore humans to this task of giving glory to God for all eternity, it was so precious a glory that later Calvinists were willing to be damned for its sake. I can only liken his vision of glory to that captured in the poetry of George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and Anne Bradstreet.

This vision of human life and relation to God was not unique to Calvin. He stands in a long line of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim men and women whose practices of prayer, worship, study, and daily life bring them to their knees before some version of a burning bush, some moment when the seraphim and cherubim fly down from God’s throne to purge their lips with burning coals; lovers of God who in response leap to their feet and enthusiastically, like Isaiah (or, in Calvin’s case, like that of the prophet Jeremiah, more reluctantly) cry out “Here am I, Lord! Send me.”

Trained in the humanities, a student of law and letters, Calvin became a Reformer against his will, and then only after his most trusted associate threatened him with the fires of Hell. His life at risk, his soul at stake, Calvin built a legacy the cost of which was a gnawing at his guts that finally killed him. A relatively young man by today’s standards, he died after a turbulent life, at the age of 53 of severe, unspecified stomach disorders.

From Theocrats to Marxists, Calvin’s Legacy

At the same time, if Calvin’s God the Creator was awesome, his God the Redeemer, in the divine roles of both perpetrator and victim of cruelty, horrified me. Even in 1970, I found Book II of the Institutes on God the Redeemer deeply disturbing. I loathed Calvin’s doctrine of the Atonement, in which Jesus’ death served as perfect sacrifice for my sin. In many respects a legal transaction, Jesus’ righteousness stood in the place of my corruption so that God would not hold that sin, so thoroughly permeating my will, against me. Thus, if elect, was I justified. I wanted no part of the deal. A father-God who would not simply allow, but would will such a thing to happen was and is a child abuser of the worst kind in my eyes. I recall marching into Dick Niebuhr’s office, Institutes in hand, appalled; in a weird sort of way I held Dick responsible. He blinked at me speechless. It wasn’t his fault.

I have stuck with Calvin anyway, reading and re-reading him. Always wondering in the face of his words, though the reasons have changed over the years with every visitation. I no longer wonder at his painful death, however. Such a vision of joy and cruelty, sustained throughout a lifetime, can eat a person alive.

The legacy Calvin left is ambiguous at best. The dominant strain that runs through consists of an accentuated Augustinian proclivity to transform the world, a stewardship characterized by leaving the place better than one found it. “Better” is subject to interpretation and debate, of course. Many of his followers, somewhat more scholastic and ever more into policing human life and less into rejoicing, were and are a tough and all-too-often nasty lot, to say the least. In fact, Calvin, with others (that fiery redhead John Knox who smashed the stained glass windows of St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, to name the most notable among them) gave birth to the various denominations that make up the Reformed Protestant Church: Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and others all share the name Calvinist. In this country, these Calvinists range in their political and social world-transforming behaviors from avid theocrats, still capable of spewing a vituperative anti-Catholic polemic, to equally avid radical supporters of gay and lesbian marriage.

The history between then and now is no less multifaceted.

More often it has been marked by tragedy, brutality, and cruelty on the part of the Calvinists. If one buys Max Weber’s thesis—and in a qualified way, I do—Calvin’s theology, with its focus on work for the glory of God, eventually transmorphed into a Protestant work ethic. As a central feature of capitalism and of American secularism, this ethic has helped produce wide gaps between the poverty of the many and the wealth of a few around the globe; a gap that I imagine has Calvin writhing in his grave that God’s glory should be so abused.

And Calvinists, in something of a confusion over God’s election (namely, for Calvin, it was God’s job to save and damn, not humans’), worked tirelessly as missionaries, often aiding and abetting, intentionally or unintentionally, a steady stream of colonizers tramping through Africa and the New World, covering exposed indigenous body parts with their misplaced prurient interest in “civilizing the savages.” Perhaps the best evidence of what Calvin called the utter depravity of the human will lies in the practices of these Calvinists themselves.

No one talks much about the more left-wing version of Calvinism these days. It is just way too much fun to caricature both founder and followers. In fact, there is also a long history of Calvinists across the denominations of Reformed Protestantism slogging it out in the trenches on behalf of social justice, the glory of God captured in their radically egalitarian visions of the Kingdom of God on Earth: Abolitionists in England and the United States; French Huguenot villagers and clergy who smuggled fleeing Jews to Switzerland during World War II; Civil Rights marchers; anti-war protesters of several generations; Argentine Presbyterians who work with Catholics as liberation theologians; and pastors and congregations in San Antonio, Texas, who form base communities among Latino and Latina poor, to name a few. And I have always suspected that many non-German European Marxists, albeit avowed atheists, reflected and continue to reflect the same diligent work ethic, fixated this time on the Classless Society, as well as the same Puritanical bent that such a work ethic can produce (though I have done no research to support this suspicion).

In any case, here we sit, five hundred years later, in the aftermath of the whirlwind that was Calvin’s life, left with the consequences for better and worse. I propose we critically take a page from him and focus this celebration on the glory of God. A very private man, whose personal life we know little about, John Calvin would have preferred it that way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *