Michael Jensen on John Calvin

Jarrod Saul McKenna has drawn attention to an interesting article on John Calvin by Michael Jensen, son of the Archbishop of Sydney and sometimes visitor to this blog.

If you have hung out at my blog for any length of time you would know I am not a huge fan of Calvin, that I identify far more with the Anabaptist reformers that Calvin is known to have opposed. But you would also know I am an advocate of conversational unity within the church and that this means listening to one another. I think Michael’s call for a more balanced understanding of Calvin deserves attention by non-Calvinists.

Michael Jensen writes:

HE is a byword for bigotry cast in the role of the austere, humourless and cruel preacher of an austere, humourless and cruel God. He was held responsible by Max Weber for the rapacity of late capitalism. He is remembered as the persecutor of his opponents, including the hapless heretic Michael Servetus, for whose burning John Calvin is held responsible.

Calvinism, the form of Christianity he spawned, allegedly shares its fatalism with Islam. It is a church of prigs and wowsers, of Talibanesque idol-smashers and woman-haters, of middle managers and bean counters. It is a faith that broods on the depravity of humankind rather than celebrating its glorious capacity to build, to create and to redeem. It is the religion of Ned Flanders and the ironically named Reverend Lovejoy.

In his famous series of novels, His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman placed the headquarters of the demonic anti-church in Calvin’s city, Geneva.

But if this is how we think of Calvin, it is only because we are happier with the cardboard cut-out version of history mainly written by Calvin’s detractors than with what history actually records. It is like accepting a biography of Kevin Rudd written by Malcolm Turnbull (or vice versa).

The real Calvin was a scholar steeped in the humanist intellectual culture of his day. In this he followed the great Erasmus. He was a man of texts, of the original sources read in the original languages. He was expert in classical literature as well as in the Bible. Not only did he learn Greek but also Hebrew and he consulted Jewish scholars about their interpretations of ancient writings. He was no obscurantist, no anti-intellectual.

Calvin’s great work was his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which must surely count (with the Bible) as one of the great unread classics of Western thought.

It was translated into English as early as 1561 and has been of inestimable influence in Anglo-Saxon politics, science, liturgy and literature since. The God of the Institutes is not the remote, harsh deity who delights only in his exercise of arbitrary willpower. Actually reading the text, you encounter everywhere a tender-hearted father-figure, a divinity overflowing with love for his creatures. Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson wrote: “Any reader of the Institutes must be struck by the great elegance, the gallantry, of its moral vision, which is more beautiful for the resolution with which its theology embraces sorrow and darkness.”

Calvin is a moral realist. For all their created nobility, human beings are tragic figures, impaled on their own pride. That is why, although Calvin upheld the freedom of the individual conscience, he was also an advocate of collective and democratic decision making. It is not accidental that his followers have been some of the greatest promoters of republicanism and democracy in the modern era.

Calvin was not without flaws, some of them serious. Yet if we are to judge him cruel, we are failing to recognise that he was a man of remarkable moderation in an age of often extreme judicial cruelty. If we are to judge his view of humanity too bleak, we are seriously overestimating our own capacity for moral heroism. If we are to celebrate the waning of his influence, it is quite possibly because we have accepted too lazily the caricature of his critics. As Robinson reminds us: “There are things for which we in this culture clearly are indebted to him, including relatively popular government, the relatively high status of women, the separation of church and state, what remains of universal schooling and, while it lasted, liberal higher education, education in the humanities. How easily we forget.”

Summary Reflections

Michael Jensen is surely correct in challenging the lazy caricatures of non-Calvinists. On the flip side, it is very refreshing to hear a humble assessment of Calvin by a Calvinist. If I have any criticism it is that the article is too short and leaves me wanting to hear more. I am not quite sure where to find separation of church and state in any of Calvin’s teaching (he was a magisterial reformer wasn’t he?), and I would like to know what Michael does acknowledge as Calvin’s flaws (does the “byword” have any basis in reality in Michael’s estimation?) but the very acknowledgement of a mixed legacy opens up a lot of space for conversation and that is something I appreciate.

So I’ll leave you with a cheeky suggestion. Maybe we have to admit John Calvin was not so totally depraved after all 😉

3 thoughts on “Michael Jensen on John Calvin

  1. Thanks Matt. Being a magisterial reformer doesn”t mean you are Erastian. Don’t forget it was Calvinist non-conformists who sailed to the new world.
    And no, I don’t think he was a bigot – or at least, by the standards of the day he was a model of tolerance! The Servetus incident was an abberation rather than a pattern.
    I do think that the Sovereignty of God, is held in a rather abstract way by Calvin. And I think his method and practice of church discipline (not unknown to many anabaptists either) was problematic.


  2. Ok, interesting, because one of my primary criticisms of Calvinists has been the tendancy towards abstractionism, particularly with respect to God’s sovereignty. I prefer to begin with more concrete reflections on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus before opening up to sovereignty. As for the mennonite entry, in the spirit of mixed legacies I thought I’d link a mixed review!


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