Love him or loathe him, Calvin helped shaped the world we live in

Calvinism was important in that sense in forging the modern economy and contemporary society. By stressing God’s command to work, Calvinists encouraged the essential capitalist belief that secular success was also a religious imperative, and that idleness and dependency were sins

I’M always leaving things behind on trains and planes so I was rather pleased to be the beneficiary of someone else’s absentmindedness a couple of weeks ago.

It could only have happened in the North. Taking the train from Bangor to Belfast a couple of weeks ago, I rifled through the newspapers someone had left behind on the seat. Beneath the Belfast Telegraph and the Daily Telegraph lay a book he or she had accidentally forgotten to take with them. I picked it up but will happily return it if it’s yours.

Calvin by Bruce Gordon is not everyone’s idea of light reading but I stuck with it. Can any significant Christian theologian have a worse reputation than John Calvin? Probably not. Some of the epithets used to describe him are also applied to his 350,000 or so followers in Ireland, more than 95% of whom live on the northern side of the border. Dour, funless, bloodthirsty, intolerant, dogmatic — and those are some of the more polite descriptions. The very word “Calvinist” is almost a term of abuse.

500 years after his birth — and 400 years after the Ulster Plantation which brought Presbyterianism to Ireland — it’s at least worth pondering how Calvin earned such a fearsome reputation, and whether it’s truly deserved. If he was as bad as some histories record, how did he and his apparently harsh and humourless creed manage to exert such a powerful influence?

Born Jean Cauvin in 1509, he was too young to be a leader of the Reformation: he was eight when Luther began his protest. He was born in the wrong place, too — in rural France. He originally began to train for the priesthood but changed to study law without ever being ordained.

1535 was the critical turning point. He converted to Protestantism, though the circumstances are buried in the mists of time, and fled to Geneva. His rejection of the idea of the priesthood as a distinct caste mediating between lay people and God became a defining element of Calvin’s Protestantism. A man did not have to become a priest in order to serve in pastoral office, any more than wine literally has to become Christ’s blood.

Calvin remained a refugee for the rest of his life though his workaholic habits took him to an early grave aged just 54. If anyone tells you that hard work never hurt anyone, remember Calvin. His reputation was made by a single book: The Institutes of the Christian Religion, which he gradually expanded from a short pamphlet in 1536 into a thumping 1,000-page systematic theology in 1559. Bruce Gordon’s selective quotations suggest it is a visceral attack on the Roman Catholic Church which Calvin held to be idolatrous through and through.

In the Institutes, Calvin develops his most distinctive doctrine, one which most Christians find hard to take. The concept of predestination suggests a God who arbitrarily sorts people into sheep and goats, and puts men and women in eternal fire according to His long-laid plan.

The idea that God has preordained the names of both the saved and the damned, who creates people with the intention of sending them to hell, doesn’t have much instant appeal.

Most Protestant denominations reject the notion, emphasising the possibility of salvation for all men and women, not just an “elect”. Calvin’s ideas on church government have probably been more influential. His emphasis on the equality of all ministers (and the rejection of priestly pretensions) remains the bedrock of Presbyterianism to this day.

More radical was his insistence that the elders of the Church — its leading elected lay people — should be their brothers’ keepers. Adulterers were shamed, quarrels (including domestic disputes) were patched up, dancing was banned, and unbiblical names for children were forbidden, even if Calvin was still enough of a Frenchman to love music and wine.

Still, many Genevans chafed at what this immigrant and his friends were doing to their city with their chilly authoritarianism. In his denunciation of those who engaged in the “sinful” practice of dancing, Calvin’s tone sounds like that of Mohammed denouncing the evil people of Mecca.

He was also, by all accounts, intensely argumentative. He could not abide to be crossed and could be vindictive, especially to his friends. Opponents, including those who rejected or disliked his moral strictures, were lambasted and driven into exile.

A worse fate was to befall Michael Servetus, a Spanish-born radical, who was burnt at the stake in 1553. Burning was a convention of state law at the time, but it rarely wins hearts. It might not have been Calvin’s personal doing — the city council of Geneva tossed him into the fire — but he approved of it, even if he would have preferred a more merciful beheading. Calvin’s reputation as a tyrant was secured.

In fairness to Calvin, however, virtually the whole Protestant world agreed that Servetus, an unrepentant heretic, deserved to die. His unorthodox views on the Trinity — the essential oneness of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — threatened to sweep away all that the Reformation had achieved. Calvin’s had hoped to see Servetus recant, something he refused to do. The same preference was expressed at the time by churchmen in England surrounding Queen Mary (“Bloody Mary”), who sent Protestants to the stake.

But there is a more positive Calvinist inheritance. His insistence that the authority of Scripture was grounded in both its divine inspiration and in the God-given inspiration of its readers contributed to a growing sense of individualism. Calvinism was important in that sense in forging the modern economy and contemporary society. By stressing God’s command to work, Calvinists encouraged the essential capitalist belief that secular success was also a religious imperative, and that idleness and dependency were sins. The market economy — with its emphasis on competition — was a product of Calvinism.

In politics, too, Calvinist writers created a literature that gave legitimacy to rebellion against unjust rulers. This emphasis on the rights of subjects underwrote the French Wars of Religion and the English Civil War — and helped frame modern ideas about democracy. He was also a bit of a proto-feminist, arguing that by appearing first to women after his resurrection, Christ briefly took the apostolic office away from men. In England, the association of Calvinism with opposition to monarchy contributed to a deeply divided religious culture. The Calvinistic Puritans left England’s shores to build colonies on the other side of the Atlantic. There his teaching on the sovereignty of God, election, and divine providence would find new expression.

Calvinism, then, was a hugely important force in shaping the world we live in today. He helped to create our economic and political systems, and proved instrumental in developing modern ideas about the individual and about individual rights.

Nevertheless, classic Calvinism’s strict communal regulations, distrust of art and emotion, and sharp division between elect and reprobate — the saved and the unsaved — can prove hard to sustain in a rational and democratic society. Perhaps that’s why, in the 21st century, the most famous Calvin of them all doesn’t write tracts but makes underpants. But it is the man born 500 years ago in northern France that we have to thank for Ulster’s particular culture.


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