The Magazine

Great Reformer

Is freedom of conscience indebted to John Calvin?

Nov 9, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 08 • By BARTON SWAIM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts


by F. Bruce Gordon

Yale, 416 pp., $35

There are a few great historical figures whose names can provoke denunciations even from people who have little more than vague impressions of who they were. John Calvin is foremost among these. The variety of pejorative mischaracterizations attaching themselves to the name Calvin is incredible. He is regularly described as a bloodthirsty persecutor of heretics, a crank obsessed with predestination, a pugnacious killjoy, a religious extremist, and a totalitarian dictator.

Calvin's association with the persecution of heresy is especially puzzling. It's certainly true that he believed in the suppression of theological heresy by force--as, indeed, did the overwhelming majority of Protestants and Catholics in the 16th century. Thousands were executed elsewhere in Europe during his lifetime. Calvin himself reluctantly approved the execution of one anti-Trinitarian heretic, a man whose demise Calvin could not have prevented even if he had wanted to. And as Calvin scholars have never tired in pointing out, he pleaded with the council, unsuccessfully, to carry out the execution in a more humane way than by burning. Yet Calvin has somehow acquired the reputation of Tomás de Torquemada.

That he is so frequently called Geneva's "dictator" is slightly more reasonable, but only slightly. Calvin had a great deal of moral authority over both church and the civil government, especially after the 1555 council elections drove most of his opponents from power. But even at the height of his influence, Calvin had far less power over one city-state than Archbishop Laud had over England or Cardinal Richelieu had over France. Indeed, unlike these, Calvin spent virtually his entire career fighting for the church's independence from the civil authority. One of his aims, in fact, was never achieved: the weekly celebration of the Lord's Supper--a curious failure on the part of this "dictator."

Nor was Calvin fixated on predestination, the doctrine that God elects some but not others to salvation. He certainly taught the doctrine, inasmuch as the New Testament does so straightforwardly, as had Augustine and Luther. But predestination occupies only a small segment of Calvin's writings, and he labeled those who brood and speculate on the subject "insane."

The popular equation between Calvin and predestination tends to perpetuate the idea that Calvinism gave birth to capitalism. Max Weber's famous Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) argued that Calvinism fostered an acute sense of "inner loneliness" and so created a culture in which outward productivity signified election. Weber's thesis had to do with later generations of Calvinists, not Calvin himself, and anyhow it has been demolished many times over.

There is a reasonable and persuasive argument to be made that Calvin's doctrine of the calling--the idea that all forms of honest work, not just ecclesiastical or spiritual forms, bring honor to God--hastened the evolution of the division of labor in western societies. But Calvin's relationship to "capitalism," to the extent such a thing exists outside the realm of academic theory, is vastly more complicated than is commonly assumed.

Nor was Calvin anything close to the humorless ascetic he is frequently described as having been. He wrote powerfully about the beauties of the human body, approved the use of alcohol "not only for necessity, but to make us merry," and spoke frankly about sexual matters. Not untypical is a remark in one of his biblical commentaries: "The intercourse of husband and wife is a pure thing, good and holy."
"For Calvin," writes William Bouwsma in his magisterial John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (1988), "every aspect of human sexuality was valuable and deeply moving."

Calvin could be described in many ways, some of them unflattering. He was hypersensitive to criticism, dismissive toward those with whom he disagreed, frequently irritable, and he held grudges long past their expiration date. But a crank he was not.