Calvin: the good, the bad, the ugly

I finished Godfrey’s short bio of Calvin last week before leaving for Chicago, but wanted to wrap a few thoughts on the book before thinking out loud about any others. Reading his bio was encouraging, but there was also several cautionary aspects.

The good first (things that struck me as I read the bio). Though many modern Calvinists have been accused of being more philosophical than Biblical (an accusation that can legitimately be aimed at Arminians as well – where does our concept of ‘free will’ come from?), that accusation certainly cannot be leveled against Calvin. Calvin certainly taught predestination, election, reprobation, and sovereign grace – he viewed those doctrines as foundational for understanding man’s relationship with God. Whereas modern Calvinists have often tried to pry into the God’s mind, Calvin himself cautioned against going beyond what the Bible taught. He wrote, “We should neither scrutinize those things which the Lord has left concealed, nor neglect those which he has openly exhibited, lest we be condemned for excessive curiosity on the one hand, or for ingratitude on the other.” Calvin taught predestination because he believed it was Biblical and profitable for the Christian, being a source of great comfort. Christians can know they are saved and know that this salvation will be final and eternal. Godfrey commends Calvin for the “balance that he maintained between his insistence on faithfulness in the real struggles of the battle and the assurance of victory.”

Related to Calvin’s teaching regarding predestination is his understanding of God’s providence. (Predestination is simply the outworking of God’s providence in the area of salvation.) Calvin, always the pastor, did not write or preach in a vacuum. He wrote of God’s sovereign control of all things in a city that had it’s share of sickness, in letters to those suffering persecution and in those facing martyrdom for their faith. He writes, “God regulates all things in such a manner that nothing happens except according to his counsel”, and again “there can be no such ting as a fortuitous chance,” and “not a drop of rain falls except at the express command of God.”

Calvin’s willingness to compromise on things nonessential is also admirable. He was more than willing to work with the Lutheran Melancthon. He compromised with the civil authorities on several issues related to church governance. In a letter to Reformed brothers living in Lutheran areas he argued that they should partake of the Lord’s Supper even though it was administered in a way that was not entirely biblical. Thus he makes a distinction between issues that affect ‘the substance of the faith’ and those that do not. He wrote, “it is perfectly lawful for the children of God to submit to many things of which they do not approve”, also “we ought to make mutual concessions in all ceremonies, that do not involve any prejudice to the confession of our faith, and for this end that tue unity of the church not be destroyed by our excessive rigour or moroseness.” He urges another church that was struggling with internal division not to be “overly scrupulous in details of church order.”

Yet, to get to the bad, it doesn’t seem that Calvin always practiced what he preached in that regard. Calvin was certainly a man of his times, that is to say a medieval man. As such, he fell into many of the same traps regarding the use of force and political power to manipulate/coerce right living. He was under no illusion that the use of such force could change someone’s heart, yet he was as committed to the task of a Christian civilization as every other medieval theologian. I’ll quote Godfrey at some length,

“For Calvin the ideal o a Christian society remained strong in Geneva. Calvin participated with the other ministers and the elders in the work of the Consistory to reform the moral life of the city. In cooperation with the city council, the Consistory tackled problems of drinking, dancing, and sexual immorality in the city. The council outlawed card playing and dancing in the city. (Calvin was not absolutely opposed to dancing but rejected the lascivious forms it had taken in Geneva.) Laws sought to reduce the amount of drinking in taverns and required a Bible to be place in every tavern [I do my best theologizing with a Sam Adams in hand]. Laws also restricted the wearing of extravagantly expensive clothing. Punishment could take a number of different forms depending on the seriousness of the offense and the sincerity of the offender’s penitence.”

To me, this goes against Calvin’s inclination on theological issues not to go beyond what the Bible says. Show me where Scripture is commands us not to play cards or dance. Moreover, where does the church get the authority to tell someone what dress is too expensive. In these issues Calvin and the Geneva church seem to have grossly overstepped it’s bounds. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for proper church discipline, yet it is not practiced much today in large part because the biblical practice is so often abused! The church has seemingly had a hard time drawing a line between properly exercising it’s authority in church discipline and overstepping and meddling. That’s the bad…

Now the ugly. Again, to makes some excuses for Calvin, he was a man of his age. The use of force to protect the purity of church and doctrine was the norm – and Geneva seems to have used force less often than other cities. Yet, Geneva did, and Calvin approved. In 1547 Gruet publicly criticized Calvin and the other pastors of Geneva. He was arrested, his home searched and heretical writings found. Gruet was tortured by the civil authorities and forced to confess and sentenced him to death by beheading. Calvin was not directly involved but, as Godfrey admits, he would have approved. Godfrey summarizes the spirit of the age, “Serious heresy was seen as a spiritual plague threatening the whole society and had to be quickly eradicated to prevent it from spreading.” In 1551 Jerome Bolsec publicly disagreed with Calvin on predestination and called Calvin a false interpreter of the Bible. He was arrested and eventually exiled from Geneva. The execution of Servetus (1553), the heretic who had been condemned to death by the Roman Church but escaped, is another embarrassing example. In this case, Calvin had sought the council of other pastors from other cities and the counsel was unanimous – he must be tried and executed if he clung to his heresy (a denial of the Trinity and deity of Christ). Calvin had tried over a period of twenty years to meet with Servetus and to dissuade him of his heresy. When he was condemned to burn at the stake, Calvin pleaded for a merciful beheading instead (he did not win this appeal).

This serves as a reminder that we are all deeply effected by our time and culture, no matter how brilliant a scholar or how caring a pastor. We must be aware of our cultural blind spots and pray for God’s grace to save us from such sinful blunders.