Calvin the Man: Philip Schaff on Calvin…with some commentary

Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume 8, The Swiss Reformation, The Protestant Reformation in German, Italian, and French Switzerland up to the Close of the Sixteenth Century, 1529-1605 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2002 [orig pub. 1892]): §65.
Calvin was twenty-five years younger than Luther and Zwingli, and had the great advantage of building on their foundation. He had less genius, but more talent. He was inferior to them as a man of action, but superior as a thinker and organizer. They cut the stones in the quarries, he polished them in the workshop. They produced the new ideas, he constructed them into a system. His was the work of Apollos rather than of Paul: to water rather than to plant, God giving the increase. (257-8)
Saying that Calvin bequeathed to us a "system" is a bit of a stretch, even if his material is remarkably coherent and consistent. Also, I’m not convinced that Calvin had less “genius,” although I think it demonstrably true that he had more “talent” and was “superior as a thinker.” Which, I ask you, is harder? To stumble upon a new insight, or to wrestle that insight into a coherent position? Or, try the question on this way: which is harder - to come up with a decent thesis for a paper, or to actually write the paper and argue the thesis convincingly? Maybe answers to these questions depend on temperaments. However, my limited experience in teaching theology suggests to me that it is easier to come up with a decent thesis than it is to translate it into a decent paper. For instance, I’ve seen many papers with solid ideas behind them, but I’ve seen relatively few solid papers.
Calvin’s character is less attractive, and his life less dramatic than Luther’s or Zwingli’s, but he left his Church in a much better condition. He lacked the genial element of humor and pleasantry; he was a Christian stoic: stern, severe, unbending, yet with fires of passion and affection glowing beneath the marble surface. His name will never rouse popular enthusiasm, as Luther’s and Zwingli’s did…no statues of marble or bronze have been erected to his memory; even the spot of his grave in the cemetery at Geneva is unknown [WTM note: this by his request]. But he surpassed them in consistency and self-discipline, and by his exegetical, doctrinal, and polemical writings, he has exerted and still exerts more influence than any other Reformer upon the Protestant Churches of the Latin and Anglo-Saxon races. History furnishes no more striking example of a man of so little personal popularity, and yet such great influence upon the people; of such natural timidity and bashfulness combined with such strength of intellect and character, and such control over his and future generations. He was by nature and taste a retiring scholar, but Providence made him an organizer and ruler of churches. (258-9)
Calvin is often viewed, and Schaff furthers this, as a hard-nosed killjoy who loved to crack the whip. I have some reflections on this:

  • This picture of Calvin was first disseminated by his enemies shortly after his death; it has very little basis in more or less neutral sources from his lifetime.
  • During his stay at Strasburg, Calvin served as pastor for the French refugee church there. The congregation was very fond of him.
  • Calvin had a warm an affectionate marriage, and cared for his step-children after his wife’s death as though they were his own (his only son died in infancy). You can’t be that big of a jerk and still love your step-kids.
  • Schaff sort of gets at this when he mentions Calvin’s self-discipline. He never required of others’ conduct something that he did not require of himself. Even if you think he took things a bit too seriously at times, you have to respect him for this. Indeed, he held himself to a higher standard than he demanded of others. As Schaff elsewhere notes, "Severe against others, he was most severe against himself" (837).
  • For all this, Calvin was no stoic, except perhaps in the most formal sense of practicing self-discipline. But, you might as well use the term ascetic instead for it carries none of the philosophical connotations.
  • We must remember that Calvin was often severely ill (migraines, various digestive problem, kidney stones the size of walnuts that had to be dislodged through horse riding…just think about that one for a while), and that would put anyone in a cranky mood.
  • The language of “ruler” in the last sentence can play into the notion that Calvin basically ran Geneva. In point of fact, he was not even a citizen until citizenship was given to him as a gift by the magistrates in 1559, which means he could not vote. He was French, not Swiss, and therefore a stranger in a strange land, and often vilified as an immigrant. He was frequently opposed by large segments of the population. Furthermore, in an age when the upper ranks of society routinely carried swords, and violent riots were a standard way of conducting political business, Calvin went about unarmed and wielded only the power of his intellectual and rhetorical skill. The only influence Calvin ever had on Geneva rested on his ability to convince people. As Schaff puts it elsewhere, "The Genevese knew him well and obeyed him freely" (484).
  • Finally, Schaff hits the nail on the head when he calls Calvin bashful, timid, and by nature a retiring scholar. Note the next phrase, however: “Providence” forced him into a leadership role. Combine this with the above point, i.e., it wasn’t an easy leadership position. Some people like to argue. Among the Reformers, Zwingli, Luther, Knox, and Farel would fall into this category. Calvin disliked being the center of attention, or getting into arguments (except for the cerebral kind), AND YET he was forced to spend his life engaged in precisely these enterprises. Imagine a nerdy sophomore in High School who is very shy and afraid of public speaking, but who's own conviction requires him to stand up and oppose the jock and cheerleader set in front of everyone, repeatedly. The emotional strain that Calvin labored under was immense. Now, imagine that nerdy kid actually facing down those others and sending them running. That’s what Calvin did over the course of two decades.

All of this may sound a bit defensive, and perhaps it is. I’m not interested in whitewashing the problematic aspects of Calvin’s theology or biography. I am, however, interested in getting to know him as a man – as much as I am able these 450 years later. And Calvin the man is very different than his image in popular imagination. He is, in many ways, a tragic figure, far more deserving (in my mind) of pity than scorn, and nonetheless to be admired for his achievements. Calvin – the man, the theologian, and the churchman – still has much to teach us today. The above is an exercise in attempting to gain him a fair hearing.



Good stuff! I think some people in my systematic theology class
could do themselves a service if they tried thinking along these lines...
chronological snobs, or better, tool bags... = )
Jason Goroncy said…
This is a good post. Thanks.
Alex said…
Great post, thanks! I was reminded of Barth saying, that Calvin might not be as easy to love as a person and theologian but that he is a great teacher. I always try to keep that in mind when being set back by some of the "less likeable" parts of Calvin's theology...
Here is a nice audio of Barth speaking on Calvin:

Popular Posts

Abortion, Authoritarian Self-Deception, Evangelicals, and Trump: a collected Twitter essay from Christopher Stroop

Brief Reflection on the Suicide of a Pastor

Marilynne Robinson on Theology

Does God "Exist"? Meh. (With Apologies to my Atheist Friends)

Jürgen Moltmann on lecturing at the beginning of his career