John Calvin (Spiritual Leaders and Thinkers)

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Some copies were sent to Geneva. In February, a French refugee of Geneva, Guillaume Trie, wrote a letter to a Catholic cousin at Lyon who had tried to win him back to the old faith and had reproached Geneva for lack of ecclesiastical discipline and order. In writing to his Catholic cousin, the Protestant turned his reproach against him by pointing out that in Lyon a dangerous heretic, Servetus, was allowed to live and print blasphemous books.

He enclosed some leaves from Servetus's book. This led to the questioning of Servetus by the Inquisition, but this questioning revealed nothing. In order to get evidence, a letter was sent to Trie in Geneva, who in reply sent several sheets in Servetus's handwriting, which had been in Calvin's possession and which, he said, he had obtained from Calvin only with difficulty.

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Calvin is thus seen to have supplied material to the Inquisition for the purpose of trapping Servetus. Later he denied having any part in this. Early in April Servetus was arrested, examined, and imprisoned. A couple of days later he escaped. He was tried in absentia and burned in effigy.

In August, he appeared in Geneva on his way to Italy. Here he was recognized, and the news of his presence was conveyed to Calvin, who had him arrested. On the basis of charges preferred by Calvin, Servetus was put on trial. The trial was carried on by the civil authorities, but the accusations were all based on Servetus's writings and theology.

Much of the proceedings consisted of direct encounters between Servetus and Calvin himself, during which Calvin was not always fair or just. The same can be said of the civil authorities, who refused Servetus's request for counsel and kept him imprisoned under filthy and uncomfortable conditions.

On October 26, he was condemned to death for decrying the doctrine of the Trinity and infant baptism in other words, as a heretic.

John Calvin

This means that he was to be burned at the stake. Calvin tried to get the sentence changed to death by the sword, but failed. On his way to the stake, Servetus was privileged to enjoy the company of Farel, who was in Geneva at the time. Servetus was bound to the stake and the fire was lighted. According to some accounts, the wood did not burn quickly, and he suffered horrible agonies. This combination of civil and ecclesiastical authorities, of Catholics and Protestants, in hounding to death one radical thinker is generally agreed to be one of the unloveliest episodes in the history of the Reformation.

It did not go uncondemned even in its own day. In fact, it aroused so much opposition that Calvin felt compelled to issue a defense in both Latin and French versions in ; here he argued for the right to put to death those who dishonored God by teaching false doctrine. The author's name was given as Martin Bellius. His real name was Sebastian Castellio, and his book makes him one of the most illustrious defenders of the idea of religious toleration. Castellio, a native of Savoy, was an accomplished scholar who had been a follower of Calvin and for a time the head of the school at Geneva.

His desire to become a minister in the city was thwarted, however, because of his disagreement with Calvin on points of Biblical and doctrinal interpretation. From Geneva he went to Basel, where, among other things, he published his own Latin and French translations of the Bible, each with a dedication containing a plea for religious liberty. He pointed out that in religion it is so difficult to be certain of knowing the truth that, in persecuting religious dissenters, there is a danger of destroying the innocent with the guilty.

Many prophets and apostles, thousands of martyrs, and even the Son of God have been put to death under color of religion, and the world today is no better or wiser or more clear-seeing than it has been in the past. To use earthly weapons for the sake of religion is far from the teaching of Christ who commanded us to turn the other cheek and return good for evil. In he was appointed professor of Greek at the University of Basel. In the same year Servetus was burned at the stake, and Castellio published his work on the persecuting of heretics, in both Latin and French versions.

It consisted of a number of passages from the works of the church fathers and modern writers including Calvin against persecution. He brings out vividly the idea that purity of life is more important than the doctrinal orthodoxy for a Christian, and that it is a horrible thing for men to kill each other over doctrinal points in the name of Christ, who commanded them to love each other. Meanwhile, he finds that no attention is being paid to the charity and holiness enjoined on Christians, but that instead of this men are fighting over such matters as the Trinity, predestination, free will, "and other similar things, which it is not greatly necessary to know to acquire salvation by faith.

And, worst of all, they cover all this with the robe of Christ and claim to be serving His will by these cruelties. Theodore Beza, Calvin's friend and later successor, wrote an answer to Castellio which attempted to prove that the magistrates have the duty of punishing heretics, and may put them to death. To this Castellio paid no particular attention, though he wrote a book against Calvin's defense of the execution of Servetus.

Castellio's freedom of expression was somewhat curtailed thereafter, but he lived on in Basel until his death in The execution of Servetus helped to solidify Calvin's hold on Geneva. In , his friends were victorious in the elections, and a riot gave an excuse for crushing his enemies, some of whom fled while others were put to death.

From to his death in , Calvin was supreme in the city. Not only in the church but also in the state was his influence dominant; the councils treated him with great reverence and respect, granted his requests, and consulted him on matters of public policy. In he was asked to accept citizenship in Geneva, which he had previously refrained from doing to avoid the appearance of self-seeking. One of the most significant signs of his victory was that the right of excommunication was acknowledged to belong to the Consistory. This was something that Calvin had wanted since his first appearance in Geneva; until this time, however, the council had always insisted on taking part.

From now on, the Consistory received the wholehearted cooperation of the civil authorities and the full Calvinist regime, as described earlier, was imposed on the citizens. Regulations were made more strict: For example, ministers were to have their dwellings throughout the city, in order to watch over vice more effectively.

In , edicts were issued that closely regulated clothing and food, to repress the extravagance that had prevailed in these areas. In , the Ecclesiastical Ordinances of the Church of Geneva of were revised in such a way as to conform more closely to Calvin's wishes. The press was censored by the ministers. Crosses that remained on the church spires were removed.

The number of excommunications rose. There had been eighty in the four years from 54; in there were nearly a hundred; in , the number reached one hundred forty; and in over three hundred were excommunicated. Another result of Calvin's ascendancy after was the greater hospitality of Geneva toward refugees. In earlier years, as we have seen, there had been resentment of their growing numbers and influence, and it had not been easy for them to become citizens. Now they were welcomed, and by the immigrant citizens considerably outnumbered those who were natives. One of the great achievements of Calvin's last years was the founding of an academy at Geneva in Calvin's high regard for the importance of good education is shown in his provision for a special rank of teachers in his church in the Ecclesiastical Ordinances of However, his educational plans were not fully realized, despite his constant efforts, for eighteen years.

Since the council could not supply money out of public revenues to build the new building he wanted, he raised funds by soliciting gifts and legacies from private individuals. Calvin modeled his school on the famous one at Strasbourg developed by the humanist Johann Sturm, where Calvin himself had lectured.

In accordance with this model, the school at Geneva consisted of two parts: the college schola privata , and the academy itself schola publica , which was a university, devoted chiefly to training ministers. Work in law and medicine was contemplated, but not actually offered during Calvin's lifetime. The training in the college was specifically humanistic. The pupils were thoroughly grounded in reading the Greek and Latin classics, and in speaking and writing good Latin. Attention was paid also to religious instruction. The teachers were charged with seeing that the students learned to love God and hate vice.

Students in the higher school, or academy, were generally free from this discipline, although they had to subscribe to the confession of faith to be admitted. The humanist influence remained strong in the academy, which had professors of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Theodore Beza, who had just come from Lausanne, was made first rector, or head, of the new establishment.

The school was a great success. It started with pupils, mostly French, and in about six years it had ten times as many, with students from all over Europe. Calvin's activities, in fact, were by no means circumscribed by the boundaries of Geneva. He was very eager for Protestant unity. As far as the Lutherans were concerned, he failed, in spite of his close friendship with Melanchthon. Unfortunately, it was Melanchthon's Lutheran opponents, who were far less conciliatory, who got the upper hand, and the result was a permanent split between the Lutheran and the Reformed churches. Calvin was more successful in Switzerland; in he and Bullinger, the successor of Zwingli, reached agreement, embodied in the Zurich Consensus, which in time was accepted throughout Protestant Switzerland.

Geneva also became the center of a great missionary activity. One reason for the founding of the academy was a desire to send out pastors to other countries. Many requests came from France, and so many ministers were sent there that in the French king, Charles IX, protested in a letter to Geneva, accusing these preachers of causing religious disturbance and inciting sedition. Calvin's widespread correspondence attempted to influence governments in favor of his cause. He failed to ingratiate himself with Queen Elizabeth, who associated him with John Knox. He dedicated works to the kings of Denmark and Sweden.

He remonstrated unsuccessfully with Henry II of France over the latter's persecution of the Huguenots. In , Beza represented him at the Colloquy of Poissy.


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Calvin died on May 27, , to the great sorrow of the councils, the ministers and the people of Geneva. He was then, and has remained, the object of great admiration and intense devotion on the one hand, of bitter dislike and even hatred on the other. One fault that Calvin himself admitted and deplored was his violent temper. Toward those who disagreed with him he could express himself with the bitter vituperation that was characteristic of controversy in his day.

He was extremely sensitive to any personal criticism or any sign of disrespect. After he had gained ascendancy in Geneva, the citizens were punished or reprimanded for criticizing his preaching or even for greeting him without calling him "Master. His devotion to what he conceived to be his mission was heroic. He accomplished in his lifetime a stupendous quantity of work. Although harassed with countless practical cares, he wrote and revised several times his masterpiece, the Institutes of the Christian Religion.

He published commentaries on every book of the New Testament except the Apocalypse, and on several books of the Old Testament. He wrote many other works of theology, of religious instruction, of controversy. He wrote thousands of letters. Every week he regularly gave three lectures on theology and preached several times. He was the leading figure in the Consistory, and generally gave an address every Friday at the regular meeting of the Company of Pastors, of which he was moderator, or presiding officer.

This amazing activity was not the work of a man bursting with health and energy. From his thirties, he was plagued with a variety of illnesses, and only an indomitable will enabled him to go on working under all conditions. His numerous ills no doubt contributed to his bad temper, as Beza said. He did not use his ill health as an excuse to spare himself: He slept little and took little recreation.

He completed his final edition of the Institutes while sick and not sure that he would survive. Even during his last illness he continued to work. He lived very simply. His salary was not large, and he gave away in charity much of what he did receive. He refused additional sums of money offered by the council. Like Luther, he did not benefit financially from his writings. He was known for his hospitality in entertaining visitors to Geneva. At his death, he left very little money or property. In appearance, he was slight and frail. In temperament, he was basically timid and reserved, and like other men of this sort, he did not show the softer or more informal side of his nature to many people.

Nevertheless, such a side did exist. He considered himself to be tenderhearted. To be reproached by a friend, as he once was by Bucer, agitated him and kept him awake at night. To his friends he could be kind and affectionate, taking a deep personal interest and helping them in their affairs. He found servants, jobs, and wives for friends who needed any of these. He enjoyed laughter and was a witty conversationalist. He responded to the beauty of nature and the pleasures of the countryside, feeling that these were God's gifts and that men should accept them gratefully and enjoy them.

His marriage was happy, and his grief at the death of his wife was profound. It has been suggested by some scholars that the sweeter side of Calvin's nature is more apparent in his youth, and that as time passed the sterner features became ascendant. Perhaps some of the qualities of the man are reflected in his theology.

No account of Calvin would be adequate without some discussion of his theology. It may be conveniently summarized by following the order of topics in the last edition of the Institutes. In writing the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin produced a systematic, comprehensive, and lucid statement of Christian theology.

The first edition in Latin was published in , and later Calvin produced a French version. He continued to revise and enlarge the book until a few years before his death; the final Latin version appeared in In its impact on its age and later ages, Calvin's Institutes must be considered one of the most significant books of the sixteenth century. He begins by emphasizing the greatness and goodness of God and the depravity of man. Men should submit to Him and trust His paternal care. Everywhere we look, there are signs of God's glory.

To these, because we need a better help to direct us to Him, He has added the light of His Word. The most important proof that God is the author of Scripture is the testimony of the Spirit in our hearts. Original sin, which is explained in Book II, Calvin defines as a hereditary corruption of man's nature, which renders us worthy of God's wrath. Our nature is not only destitute of all good, but also ceaselessly fertile in all evils. As a result of the Fall, man's will is no longer free but in bondage to sin.

Only divine grace can change the will from bad to good and perform good works in us. Grace is given only to the elect, and purely gratuitously, not because of man's merits or works. Calvin's doctrine of Christ follows traditional orthodoxy. Christ became man for our sakes, possessed the nature of God and the nature of man, overcame death for us, and opened the way to the kingdom of Heaven. Faith is the chief work of the Spirit. Calvin follows Luther on justification by faith.

Seeking the Lord's Face - John Calvin Sermon

Man is justified by faith through the righteousness of Christ, and we must not have confidence in works, because they cannot justify us in the eyes of God. It is also in Book III that Calvin takes up the crucial doctrine of predestination, by which every man is chosen for either eternal life or eternal death. Election that is, being chosen for salvation does not depend on merit; it is a purely gratuitous gift of divine grace. According to Calvin, this doctrine does not, as many assert, diminish the need for moral exhortation and a good life. Since we do not know who is predestined, we must desire and work for the salvation of all, leaving the rest to God.

Book IV, the final book of the Institutes, deals with the church.

Calvinism Vs. Arminianism - Definition and Comparison

In the church the Gospel is preached and the sacraments administered, both for our faith. Outside the church there is no salvation. The pope's church is not a true church but the kingdom of Antichrist. Calvin devotes several chapters to an attack on the papacy.

Calvin, John

As for the sacraments, Calvin accepts baptism and the Eucharist. Like the other Reformers, he defends infant baptism, though he denies that baptism is necessary for salvation. In discussing the Lord's Supper, he rejects the Real Presence in both the Catholic and Lutheran forms, but maintains that, by faith, we actually partake of the real body of Christ. The Institutes conclude with a long chapter on civil government.

Christian liberty does not, as some contend, mean throwing off the restraints of civil government, which, in the present state of things, is one of the necessities of man. Magistrates have their offices from God, and they are His vicegerents. Their calling is the most sacred and honorable of all. Calvin, who shared the distrust of monarchy held by some of his most distinguished contemporaries, prefers either aristocracy or a mixture of aristocracy and democracy. No one polity is suitable for all countries. Magistrates must be obeyed, honored, and esteemed.

But what if they abuse their authority? This brings up the question of obedience to tyrants. Calvin's answer is that tyrants must be obeyed in the same way as good rulers, because they are sent by God to punish the iniquity of the people. Sometimes God raises up some of His servants as public avengers to deliver His people from oppression.

Private persons may not undertake vengeance on wicked rulers, but there may be magistrates whose duty is the protection of the people and the moderation of the power of kings. Among these are the assemblies of estates of the various kingdoms. But obedience to earthly authority must never be allowed to divert us from our supreme allegiance to God.

When the magistrates command anything against God, we should pay no attention to it or have any regard to the dignity of magistrates. This may subject us to great danger by exposing us to the wrath of kings, but we should suffer anything rather than deviate from piety. As Peter says, "we ought to obey God rather than men. For him, man lived directly under the command of Almighty God for the purpose of doing His will. Servants of such a Master were not likely to be unduly impressed or overawed by the trappings of mere human power; thus there was something in the constitution of devoted Calvinists that equipped them to defy their rulers when the latter oppressed them.

The Calvinistic consciousness of being among the elect armed its possessors with a formidable courage and determination. The history of Calvinism has proved that the armies of the saints, especially when well disciplined and equipped with good weapons, are likely to be well-nigh invincible. Not all of these developments are explicitly provided for in Calvin's thought, but they all proceeded logically from it under the influence of actual historical crises.

An issue that has been much discussed is the relationship between Calvinism and capitalism. The relationship was first postulated by Max Weber in his famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, first published in Weber found in the capitalistic spirit a duty of the individual to increase this capital, as an end in itself.

The summum bonum of this outlook was earning more and more money while avoiding pleasure. Weber finds in Calvinism an important contributing factor in the development of this point of view. According to him, the Calvinists, intensely eager to achieve assurance of salvation, came to the conclusion that this assurance could be best attained through intense worldly activity and a life of good works; thus the believer carried out his true function of glorifying God. Each individual should work incessantly in his own calling. This is a type of worldly asceticism.

In practice, private profit came to be considered a sign of a good life, wealth was seen as a result of God's favor, and a sanction was found for the zealous pursuit of profit for the glory of God. But Calvin was different. Shy to the point of being unsociable, he would not have done well with small talk at a modern party.

He had to be pulled, kicking and screaming as it were, into the ranks of the reformers. Yet the God who had subdued his heart to teachability would also steady his nerves for the momentous task to which he had been called. Some psycho-historians have pointed to the fact that Calvin lost his mother when he was just a young boy, and that this loss left him isolated, introverted, and emotionally distant. Others have found him torn between orthodoxy and dualism, disparaging the body and sexuality, with a devalued sense of the aesthetic and artistic.

This is part of the Calvin myth that careful scholars like Richard Stauffer have worked hard to dispel. In his book, The Humanness of John Calvin, he shows that Calvin did have a strong appreciation of the visual arts, that he had enormous capacities for friendship and tenderness, that he dearly loved his wife, Idelette, by whom he had a son, Jacques, who died in infancy. While Calvin may well have scored an INTJ on the Myers-Briggs personality test, the motive for his ministry is better sought elsewhere.

Calvin's reticence reflects his humility and his desire to champion the cause of God and truth rather than to turn the Reformation into a personality cult. Calvin's seal, which he designed himself, says much about how he understood his own life and vocation. This seal depicted an open hand holding a flaming heart with the words prompte et sincere-"willingly and honestly"- written around the image. His ministry was a response to a divine summons. He offered his life and his gifts diligently, unfeignedly, and openheartedly to the service of Jesus Christ and his church.

Apart from a three-year exile in Strasbourg , Calvin served as "a minister of the divine Word" in Geneva for 28 years.


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Biographer Bernard Cottret has pointed out that Geneva was a frontier city, squeezed between France, the Swiss cantons, and the Duchy of Savoy. In the 16th century Geneva began to attract the international reputation it still enjoys today as thousands of "immigrants" flocked there from persecutions in France, Italy, England, and parts of Germany.

Calvin's ministry was thus developed "on the boundary," to use Paul Tillich's phrase. Calvin himself was a refugee and always looked with longing toward his native France. The first mention of Calvin in the registers of Geneva refer to him as ille Gallus, "that Frenchman"! A sense of displacement, homelessness underlay his difficult dealings with the local authorities in the city. Yet his role as an outsider on the inside gave him a special appeal to the "company of strangers" who crowded into the Cathedral of St. Pierre to hear his sermons. Theodore Beza reported in that more than one thousand persons were coming to hear Calvin expound the Scriptures every day.

Calvin was a preacher of enormous vitality and his sermons bristled with piercing application as well as exegetical insight. He was not afraid to speak truth to power and on one occasion referred to Genevan officials as "gargoyle monkeys" who have become so proud that "they vomit forth their blasphemies as supreme decrees. Calvin was not only a teacher of the Word but also a master of words. In addition to his Institutes, which went through eight revisions in Calvin's lifetime and was soon translated into all the major languages of Europe Thomas Norton's English version had gone through eleven editions by , there were his published sermons, letters, treatises, catechisms, psalm books, liturgies, and, most importantly, his commentaries on nearly every book in the Bible.

Geneva became the center of a thriving publishing trade that spawned a network of colporteurs, book smugglers who took Bibles and religious tracts into every corner of Europe. The most remarkable thing about Calvin's theology is how unremarkable it is, especially when set against the Catholic, Augustinian, and Lutheran traditions he inherited, reframed, and passed on to others. In retrospect, Calvin stands out next to Luther as one of the two great shaping theologians of the Protestant movement.

But we should not detach him from other seminal thinkers with whom he shared certain basic assumptions about God, the Bible, human beings, and the work of Christ in the world. Unlike the Anabaptists who sought a New Testament church unencumbered with the baggage of history, Calvin and his peers wanted to be nothing more than faithful and obedient members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. This church, they believed, had fallen into disrepair. It had been led into captivity by the Roman Catholic hierarchy.


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Yet there were points of continuity as well as discontinuity with the Catholic past and the church needed to be reformed on the basis of the Word of God. The Catholic historian Alexandre Ganoczy has said of Calvin: "He never stopped claiming his unshakable attachment to the unity of the Catholic church which he did not want to replace, but to restore.

Mark Twain has Huckleberry Finn refer to a perplexing Calvinist sermon he once heard on "preforeordestination. Calvin held this view not because he was a mean man or a dour despot, but because he thought he found it clearly taught in Holy Scripture. For Calvin, however, the doctrine of predestination was not an a priori metaphysical axiom from which everything else was derived. It had rather a Christological focus with Christ as the mirror of election and a pastoral import. In discussing predestination, Calvin followed the method of Paul in his Epistle to the Romans.

One does not begin with the inscrutable decrees of God, but rather with God's general revelation in creation and the conscience Rom. This leads to a discussion of human sinfulness chapters , God's atoning work in Christ and justification by faith chapters , followed by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit and the declaration of God's unfathomable love chapter 8. Only then is it fitting to consider the theme of God's electing grace in the history of Israel and in our own lives chapters Only then,as we look back on our rescue from sin, can we exclaim with the non-Calvinist Charles Wesley, "Amazing love, how can it be, that thou my God shouldst die for me!

The elect are not the elite. In Calvin's day, Geneva became a great center for church planting, evangelism, and even "foreign" missions: a group of Protestants supported by Admiral de Coligny carried the message of Christ to the far shores of Brazil in , more than sixty years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. William Carey, the father of modern missions in the 18th century, went to India with a Calvinist vision of a full-sized God-eternal, transcendent, holy, filled with compassion, sovereignly working by his Holy Spirit to call unto himself a people out of every nation, tribe, and language group on earth.

In Book Three of the Institutes, Calvin treats predestination and prayer in contiguous chapters Institutes 3. The universal appeal of Calvin's thought is expressed clearly in this petition he prepared for his liturgy, "The Form of Prayers":. As it is your will to be acknowledged as the Savior of the whole world, through the redemption wrought by your son Jesus Christ, grant that those who are still estranged from the knowledge of him, being in the darkness and captivity of error and ignorance, may be brought by the illumination of your Holy Spirit and the preaching of your Gospel to the right way of salvation, which is to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent John One of the mysteries of the mystique of Calvinism is how such a high predestinarian theology could motivate so many of its adherents to such intense, this-worldly activism.

Calvinism was certainly a dynamic force in shaping the contours of the modern world including features of it most of us would not want to live without, such as the rule of law, the limitation of state power, and a democratic approach to civil governance. Though Max Weber was off the mark in identifying the "spirit of capitalism" with the Puritan desire to find assurance of election in a joyless acquisitiveness, he was right to point to the importance of Calvinist ideals-thrift, hard work, fair play, personal responsibility-in the development of a robust economic system.

Calvin's theology was meant for trekkers, not for settlers, as historian Heiko Oberman put it. In the 16th century Calvinist trekkers fanned out across Europe initiating political change as well as church reform from Holland to Hungary, from the Palatinate to Poland, from Lithuania to Scotland, England, and eventually to New England. In its drive and passion, in its world-transforming vision, Calvinism was an international fraternal comparable only to the Society of Jesus in the era of the Reformation.

It is ironic perhaps that Calvin and Ignatius Loyola studied together at the same school in Paris. Like Franciscans and Dominicans in the Middle Ages, Calvin's followers forsook the religious ideal of stabilitas for an aggressive mobilitas. They poured into the cities, universities, and market squares of Europe as publishers, educators, entrepreneurs, and evangelists. Though he had his doubts about predestination, John Wesley once said that his theology came within a "hair's-breadth" of Calvinism. He was an heir to Calvin's tradition when he exclaimed, "The world is my parish.

And so was the Baptist Walter Rauchenbusch in his concern for the social gospel which as Rauchenbusch used the term did not mean another gospel separate from the one and only gospel of Jesus Christ, but simply that that gospel must not be sequestered into some religious ghetto but taken into the real ghettos and barrios of our world.

With only slight exaggeration, we can say that while the Anabaptists rejected the world as a realm of darkness to be shunned, and Luther accepted the world as a necessary evil, Calvin sought to overcome the world, to transform and reform the world on the basis of the Word of God. This world in all of its squalor and sin is nonetheless the "theater of God's glory. One reason that Calvin's legacy is ambiguous is that his thought is complex and sometimes inconsistent.

For example, in his commentary on Romans 13, Calvin urges obedience even to wicked and unjust rulers whose tyranny may be "the Lord's scourge to punish the sins of the people. Acting on this principle, followers of Calvin sought to replace the Catholic monarchs of France with Protestant princes, led a revolt in The Netherlands against Philip II of Spain, and, in , chopped off the head of Charles I, the duly anointed king of England. As historian William Bouwsma said, Calvin was a revolutionary in spite of himself.

Likewise, while Calvin strongly defended private property, he was also concerned about social justice for the poor. He turned the office of deacon in Geneva into a ministry of mercy and opposed exorbitant rates of interest and other abuses that pinched the poor. Calvin also set forth a complex theory of Christian liberty that helped provide a basis for legal protections of freedom of conscience and the free exercise of religion. He spoke about "the rights of our common human nature," rights granted by the sovereign God to all persons made in his image.

However, his commitment to liberty and his opposition to tyranny did not prevent him from acquiescing in the death of Michael Servetus who was executed in for calling God a three-headed monster. Calvin's fear of anarchy and his dread of heresy came together in the fate of Servetus. Today, "heresy" is hardly an operative term in Protestant church life, but in Calvin's day to deny the Trinity was tantamount to committing treason against the basic foundation of society itself.

Servetus was a hunted man all over Europe. He had been burned in effigy by the Catholics before he was burned in reality by the Protestants, and it could just as easily have been the other way around. Calvin believed that the civil magistrate was the custodian of both tables of the law and should punish heresy, blasphemy, and idolatry no less than murder, theft, and perjury.

Roger Williams, a 17th-century Calvinist who preached and practiced religious liberty in early Rhode Island, denied the state any role in compelling obedience to the first table of the law, securing a firmer basis for freedom of conscience. Calvin worked with a more medieval understanding of the unitary nature of society and thus limited the degree of liberty he was willing to concede to religious dissenters.

We can note that the Genevan officials who condemned Servetus to death were actually Calvin's opponents not his henchmen. We can also point out that religious persecution was commonplace in Calvin's century: Mary Tudor sent hundreds of Protestants to their deaths in England, thousands of Hugenots were killed in the massacre of St. All this is true, but the fact remains that Calvin should have known better. The logic of his own thinking could and should have led him to agree with Sebastian Castellio, his sometime friend and later critic, who declared: "To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine; it is to kill a man.

Calvin and his ideas have had a shaping role in American history, one that goes far beyond matters of church polity and religious doctrine. From Jonathan Edwards to William Faulkner, American writers have worked within an intellectual framework marked by beliefs and attitudes shaped by Calvin's Institutes and the Geneva Bible, both of which came to America with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. Yet this Calvinist heritage is not straightforward at all.

Calvin emphasized the sacredness of human life and the capacity of human beings made in the image of God to think, to know, and to act with nobility. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the grandson of Puritans, picked up on this theme and expanded it into a kind of cosmic optimism declaring in his Harvard Divinity School address, "If a man is at heart just, then insofar is he God.

This is the root of all utopian politics and perfectionist theology. But the deeper channel of Calvinist influence has emphasized the tragic sense of life rooted in a skepticism about unredeemed human nature and its capacities for self deception and self justification. As the character Willie Stark says in Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. But, according to Calvin, only by seeing ourselves as we really are, in our utter perversity and alienation, can we enter fully salvations benefits.

A serious doctrine of original sin calls for a radical doctrine of redemptive grace. This dialectic of sin and grace also excludes any notion of boasting, as St. Paul repeatedly said. There is no place for priggishness in a Calvinist worldview, no pitting of us "good guys" against "all them others.


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