Would John Calvin have come to his own birthday party?

Even after an intense week of interacting with the legacy of Calvin on his "home turf," it is hard to really get a sense of his personality, but I am reasonably confident that I could have persuaded him to join the party.

July 17 th 2009

July 10, 2009, marked the 500th birthday of John Calvin, and celebrations were organized to commemorate all over the globe. For a man who insisted on being buried in an unmarked grave, Calvin has been getting a fair bit of attention. This past spring Time magazine included Calvinism in its list of ten ideas changing the world. A Washington Post column called Calvin "the man most responsible for our American system of liberty based on Republican principles of representative government."

These kinds of observations are not that new. A century ago, Max Weber credited the rise of capitalism to Calvin's influence and ideas. Churches that identify with Calvin's theology can be found in virtually every country in the world, and commemorative conferences, publications and memorabilia abound.

I was privileged to be among hundreds of Calvinists from around the world who gathered in Geneva last week for a series of scholarly papers delivered at Calvin's academy and expository sermons preached from Calvin's pulpit at St. Pierre Cathedral. These services were appropriately reverent, with psalms sung with the historic Genevan tunes echoing from the sanctuary into the courtyard, even as the mood throughout remained festive and celebratory. The quip of one participant seemed simultaneously oxymoronic and apt: "This is the Calvinist Woodstock."

Geneva itself seemed a little less enthused. One of the churches posted period cartoons highlighting prevalent caricatures of Calvin. The city of Geneva, while clearly taking advantage of the tourist opportunity that Calvin's birthday provides, advertised a city-promoted production as "a caustic look at Calvin" and assuring the audience that "the show is not redemptive towards Calvin." Director Francois Rochaix noted that Genevans "blame (Calvin) for all the shortcomings of the Geneva people, but abroad he's perceived differently. Apart from his image of being merciless and strict, he was one of the most important people who helped create a bridge from the Renaissance to modern times." Calvin's negative local press was confirmed by the fact that not one of the half dozen restaurant servers I asked—all within walking distance of the cathedral in Geneva's tourist district—could tell me anything about the celebrations.

Maybe Calvin would have preferred it that way. Geneva was intended as just a stopover for Calvin, but he was convinced to stay and help out his friend Guillaume (William) Farel in 1536. After just two years of ministry, Calvin was driven out of the city to Strasbourg and only reluctantly came back when begged to do so in 1541. He actually did not become a Genevan citizen until 1559, a mere five years before his death.

While accounts of his supposedly difficult personality, authoritarian tendencies and general unlikeableness are widespread, critics and admirers do agree that Calvin was a brilliant man and that his legacy is profound and far-reaching. Dr. William McComish, the Dean Emeritus of the St. Pierre Cathedral in Geneva, certainly belongs in the admirers' camp, and when considered together with the many historical assessments of Calvin's influence, his claim is not as hyperbolic as it sounds: "If it were not for Calvin and his successors, the modern world would be a much more primitive and barbarous place."

So what should twenty-first century sophisticates make of the Genevan reformer? Is the quintcentennary of his birth a reason for a party? And if the party were held, would Calvin, if he were able to, attend the party?

By any measure, Calvin was an impressive individual. Legally trained in France as a humanist, he converted to Protestantism in 1533. Not much is known about his conversion; the only direct reference he makes to it is in the preface to the Commentary on the Book of Psalms: "God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life." In 1534 he fled Paris for Basel in the face of religious persecution and it was in Basel that he wrote the first edition of his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion. Shortly thereafter he stopped in Geneva en route to Strasbourg when Farel persuaded him to stay and help with the growing needs of the Protestant church there. In 1538, Farel and Calvin were expelled from Geneva by the city council to Strasbourg, where by all accounts, he had a much more pleasant existence. He became a Strasbourg citizen, wrote extensively, and married a 30-year-old, educated, and by contemporary accounts, pretty widow with two children, Idellette de Bure. He was asked to return to Geneva in 1541 and after a time of convincing, returned there, where he lived until his death in 1564.

Although Calvin adopted and ended up providing for the two children of Idellette de Bure after her death in 1549, together they had only one child, Jean, who died as an infant. Hence Calvin had no biological heirs. When during the polemical debates of the period a Roman Catholic priest noted that Calvin had no children, in an attempt to discredit him, Calvin responded that he had "thousands and thousands of children." After five hundred years, the numbers are now measured in millions.

These children do not all speak of Calvin in harmonious tones, but that too should be viewed as part of his legacy. In contrast to the authoritarian caricature, the evidence is overwhelming that Calvin was opposed to authoritarianism. The political system he advocated was a mix of "aristocracy tempered by democracy." Some argue that the reason there is so much dissonant opinion in Protestantism is because of the freedom of speech and plural structures of social authority that are implicit in Calvin's teachings. While holding to a high view of office (in the church, and in government), Calvin's system is filled with checks and balances such that wisdom comes from a multitude of counselors.

Admittedly, some of the Calvinist celebrations in Geneva this year included an adulation of a man's accomplishments by which Calvin may well have been repulsed. In his sermon, closing the conference, Dr. Derek Thomas noted how, throughout the conference, he half-expected the ghost of John Calvin to come walking down the cathedral aisle and wag his famous finger at the audience, declaring "Non!" at these celebrations.

I did participate in the celebrations and I recognize that to some, it may have seemed like Calvinists were returning to, rather than rejecting, ideas of pilgrimage (with several hundred making the journey and taking tours of the Genevan sites), relics (there was real excitement in the conference group when on one of the excursions an actual 1609 Genevan Bible was one of the attractions) and the magisterium (with the speakers and preachers list consisting, in the words of one organizer, "the all-star team" of contemporary Calvinists.) Even after an intense week of interacting with the legacy of Calvin on his "home turf," it is hard to really get a sense of his personality, but I am reasonably confident that I could have persuaded him to join the party.

How? Calvin was a lawyer, so I would have had to present a persuasive case, but there are at least five arguments—one negative and four positive—that I would have made.

First, the negative. Calvin's objection to having his grave marked and receiving much attention was that he feared that he might be sainted, as was commonplace in his day within the Roman Catholic Church. I think there is plenty of evidence that I could provide him, not only from his foes, but even among his so-called friends in twenty-first century Protestantism, that would convince him that his fear of being sainted is hardly a real risk. While some individual enthusiasts may go to excess, their excess fervour can be explained by means of the doctrine of total depravity. When measured in a larger scale, celebrating Calvin's legacy is a necessary part of promoting the truths that Calvin held dear, and for him to avoid it out of modesty would be to abdicate the cause and do disservice to the truths he sought so dearly to promote.

Secondly, I would suggest to him that the doctrine of providence required him to acknowledge what had happened in the 500 years since his birth. Objectively, the influence of his ideas has had a widespread reach. According to the doctrine of providence which Calvin taught, this is hardly an accident, but instead the gracious work of a God who upholds and sustains his creation, and to deny this is to deny God the glory due his name.

I would then, thirdly, appeal to Calvin's desire for the unity of the church. Yes, we must admit that Calvinists in our day are divided among many denominations. Old Calvinists and New Calvinists; neopuritans, Barthians, Calvinistic Baptists, soteriological Calvinists, cosmological Calvinists—the sad quip about three Presbyterians having five opinions is all too true. Yet, this celebration included many parts of the Calvinist family, and at the conclusion of the festivities we were able to pray in unison Calvin's prayer "that we may not continue torn asunder, every one pursuing his own perverse inclinations … (but) may we then add to the true and lawful worship of thy name brotherly love toward one another."

If Calvin were still not convinced, I would urge him to at least slip in the back door of the cathedral and listen for a moment to the worship that was taking place each evening. Not only were psalms sung (along with hymns, but I would time his entrance so he heard the Genevan tunes first), but there was also communal confession of sin, a pastoral prayer and the recitation of the creed, and the mainstay of the service was the expository preaching of the word. Calvin was convinced that the preaching of the Word was the key to the growth of the church and expansion of the kingdom. He preached twice on the Lord's Day and every second week on each weekday, working his way consecutively through the Scriptures. This can't quite be matched in five days, but I am quite confident that Calvin would have find himself quite edified listening to the fifteen sermons that were part of this conference.

Finally, I would make the point to Calvin, as so many speakers did throughout the celebration, that at the end of the day, it isn't about either John Calvin or the people who gathered to remember his legacy. Calvinists can only properly bow before the majesty of God and celebrate not the praise of John Calvin, but the praise of John Calvin's God. For those outside of the Calvinist tradition that may seem a difficult matter, recognizing that Calvin's God is the God of the "horrible decree," the doctrine of election. Calvin would have agreed with Rev. Geoffrey Thomas, who in his conference sermon "In Praise of Election," noted that in Calvin's doctrine—which he suggested was the Scriptural doctrine—of election, we have the throne on which God reigns, the heart of divine omnipotence, which, when we peel back the layers, we find to be a heart of love. "We cannot speak of God without speaking of him being in love with his people." God's love for his people results in his people living for his glory.

I think that were Calvin to hear these arguments, he would agree to join the celebration. Undoubtedly, it would be a "Woodstock" of a different character, and although the preaching and worship would be churchly, the impacts would be in every area of life—not just organized religion, but eating, drinking, doing art, politics, law and every part of life to God's honour and glory.

Happy birthday John Calvin!Soli deo Gloria.

Note, this article was written at the end of a conference commemorating Calvin, and the ideas presented are not original to the author but in fact an amalgam of thoughts presented throughout the week. Conscious of the biblical commandment against stealing and the fact that Calvin's ideas gave rise to the concept of intellectual property, I wish to acknowledge those whose talks give rise to these reflections and do not wish to receive credit for that which is not my own.

Topics: Culture Religion

Ray Pennings co-founded Cardus in 2000 and currently serves as Executive Vice President, working out of the Ottawa office. Ray has a vast amount of experience in Canadian industrial relations and has been involved in public policy discussions and as a political activist at all levels of government. Ray is a respected voice in Canadian politics, contributing as a commentator, pundit and critic in many of Canada’s leading news outlets and as an advisor and strategist on political campaign teams.