Adam Neder, “The Humanness of Calvin” – Part 2

[Ed. note: Adam Neder is associate professor of theology at Whitworth University, a graduate of PTS, an author, and a friend of DET.]

Calvin as he Exists in Popular Imagination

To most people, Calvin’s name is synonymous with the doctrine of predestination and the execution of Michael Servetus. And to the extent that people think about him at all, they think of him as a kind of bloodless misanthropic dictator, a sadistic genius, a sad and lonely man who never loved nor was loved in return. And there’s never been a shortage of critics ready to reinforce the caricature. To take just one influential example, in The Story of Civilization, Will Durant offers this little gem: according to Durant, “we shall always find it hard to love the man who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense.” And as far as Calvin-bashing goes, that’s pretty mild.

As for the Servetus trial, let me mention just a few things. The first is that while to us the idea of executing a heretic is unconscionable and unthinkable, that wasn’t as clear in the 16th century. Even the most enlightened civil leaders thought government had the power to execute heretics. Earlier in 1553 – the year Servetus was executed – French Roman Catholics had already convicted Servetus of heresy and were about to execute him themselves, but he escaped from prison before they could. Berne, Basel, Zurich, and Schaffhausen all agreed that Servetus should be put to death. And not only that, but Calvin even warned Servetus in a letter not to come to Geneva.

And in the 1530s – after Servetus published his first anti-trinitarian book – Calvin set up a meeting with him in Paris to try to persuade him that rejecting the trinity is a bad idea. Servetus never showed up for that meeting, but it’s important to mention, because at the time that Calvin traveled to Paris, he had already been condemned to death in France, which means that he literally risked his life to help Servetus. And even despite the snub, Calvin corresponded with Servetus throughout the 1540s. When Servetus eventually was tried in Geneva, Calvin served as a witness to his theology, not as one of the judges. And once the death-sentence was handed down, Calvin pleaded for a more merciful form of execution than burning.

Obviously, none of this excuses his role in this whole mess, nor does it make the 16th Century lack of tolerance in doctrinal matters any less repugnant, but it does add necessary background to the situation. The sad truth is that in the Servetus affair, Calvin was simply unable to rise above the majority mindset of his time.

And regarding predestination, whatever you think about that doctrine, and no matter how problematic Calvin’s elaboration of it might be, you should know that Calvin’s view isn’t particularly unique. In fact, his doctrine of election isn’t all that different from that of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, and a host of other traditional doctors of the church. And you should also remember that Calvin affirmed the doctrine primarily because he thought that Scripture plainly taught it – a view which, even if wrong, any fair-minded person who has read Romans 9-11 will forgive him for holding.

So predestination was obviously important to Calvin. But I’ve had far too many conversations with people who speak as though his writing can be reduced to that doctrine, which is just wildly uninformed and inaccurate. Because, to take just one counter-example, if there’s a more edifying and penetrating discussion of the Christian life anywhere in Christian literature than Book III of the Institutes, I don’t know what it is. This is from the chapter on prayer, the single longest chapter in the whole of the Institutes:
“It’s through prayer that we grasp those riches which are laid up for us with the Heavenly Father. . . . Everything God promises to give us, he also bids us to ask for in prayer. . . . Through prayer, we dig up the treasures that the gospel points us to, and which God allows us to gaze upon in faith. Words fail to explain how necessary prayer is, and in how many ways it benefits us. . . . In prayer we call upon God to reveal himself as wholly present to us, and from there comes an extraordinary peace and rest to our consciences. For having disclosed to the Lord everything that is pressing in upon us, we rest fully in the knowledge that none of our troubles is hidden from him who has both the will and the power to take the best care of us.”
I teach a class here at Whitworth called Great Christian Thinkers in which we read selections from a number of the church’s great theologians. And every semester the student-responses to Calvin are exactly the same. They say, “We had no idea Calvin was this good!” And they wonder why they’ve never read him before.

So the point I’m trying to make is that like, say, the Cathedral Basilica in Saint Louis, or the Taste of Thai restaurant here in Spokane, Calvin is an under-appreciated treasure. For all his fame, he’s simply not a vital voice for most people in our churches today, including most Presbyterian churches, for the simple reason that most ordinary church people don’t read Calvin. And yet the scraps that they’re willing to feed on in the “Christian Inspiration” aisle of Barnes and Noble can’t begin to compare with the feast of expert guidance available in books like Calvin’s Institutes or in his biblical commentaries.

Now I’m sure there are all sorts of reasons why this is the case. But I want to mention just one that explains why I decided to lecture today on “The Humanness of John Calvin” – a title that I borrowed from Richard Stauffer, who wrote an excellent book by that name 45 years ago which I’ll rely on in the third part of the lecture. (By the way, if you’re interested in reading a brief and helpful introduction to Calvin’s life, check out the first chapter of Randal Zachman’s book John Calvin as Teacher, Pastor, and Theologian. A few of the quotes from this talk are from that book.)

Anyway, having grown up in a Presbyterian church, taken all of my education in Reformed institutions, and now teaching at Whitworth, my sense is that for many people in the Reformed tradition, Calvin is someone universally respected, but not much loved. And I think that at least partially explains why he’s neglected. People don’t read him because they’re not attracted to him as a person. Of course there are strands within the Reformed tradition that are over-zealously attracted to him. But I’m not talking about them – people who, frankly, persuade more people to hate or ignore Calvin than any of his supposed enemies ever could.

Instead, I’m talking about what I imagine to be the view shared by many people in this room. We think of Calvin as a scholar-genius, a man of world-historical importance, and a churchman par excellence. And in that sense, we think of him exactly like we think of his great colleague Martin Luther. But no one would ever think of writing a book called “The Humanness of Martin Luther.” Because that would be like writing a book about the building-ness of the Space Needle or the liquid-ness of beer – things so obvious they simply go without saying. So whereas Luther looks up at us through the well of history in full Technicolor – in 3 dimensions, earthy and vivid and human – Calvin observes us with cool detachment – in black and white, bloodless, severe, and perfectly rational. We can perhaps imagine ourselves having a conversation with Luther or even sharing a joke with him. But Calvin . . . not so much. Because despite their similarities, our sense of the personal ethos of these two men could hardly be more different.

To put it crassly, if elements of Luther’s personality remind us of Will Ferrell or Chris Farley, elements of Calvin’s personality remind us of Peter Singer. Because like Singer, you respect Calvin and you know how important and wicked-smart he is. But you’re also tempted to think of him as a kind of brilliant fascist, someone whose mind is as sharp as a razor, but whose heart is tiny and desiccated, if he has a heart at all. So the point is just that we somehow intuitively connect with Luther, whereas Calvin remains a stumbling block for us, an alien. And that, I’m arguing, is part of the reason more people don’t read him.

Here’s how Karl Barth once put it in a letter to his friend Eduard Thurneysen:
“Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from the Himalayas, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately.”

But where Barth continued on to write that he could “gladly and profitably sit down and spend the rest of my life just with Calvin,” we’re pretty sure we’d never say that.

Have any of you ever been to Geneva and seen the Reformation Wall? The statues of some of the Reformers on the campus of the University of Geneva? One hundred years ago that monument was built to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Calvin’s birth. Well, I’ve been there. And for me, the experience of seeing those statues for the first time was something close to terror. The wall is over one hundred yards long. And the image you’re looking at is at the center of the monument. That’s William Farel on the left, then Calvin, Theodore Beza, and John Knox.

I mean just look for a second at Calvin. He makes you want to run away and hide – like Adam and Eve in the Garden after they sinned. And as you stand there with Calvin staring at you, the possibility becomes more and more plausible that at any minute laser beams are going to shoot out of his eyes and disintegrate you. The statue just couldn’t be any more menacing and unapproachable.

In fact, to my mind, it’s even more frightening than the statue of the other giant of the Reformed tradition – Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich. Granted, Zwingli’s wielding a sword that would make any gladiator proud. But his features are human, and if you look closely, you can see that he’s almost smirking.

But Calvin looks hypnotized . . . almost possessed.

Obviously, I’m painting in broad strokes here, and speaking with more than a little hyperbole. But you get the basic point. Our natural instinct is not to think of Calvin as one of us – as a flesh and blood person with affections and feelings and vital human relationships. We just think of him as Calvin – the great and imposing and important man – severe, sober, and scholarly. And I’ll admit that to some degree those impressions are justified. Calvin was scholarly and serious and determined. And unlike Luther, he wasn’t loud and animated. He was moderate and measured and somewhat reserved. He also had plenty of enemies, which is perhaps understandable given his public position and the nature of the Genevan reform.

But it’s easy for us to forget that we encounter Calvin as people who inhabit a semi-literate popular culture that is largely adolescent in its sensibilities. Which means that most of us are not naturally attracted to patient and disciplined reflection on serious matters. We prefer sound-bites and talking-points to real analysis. We like CNN and USA Today, not Charlie Rose and The Economist. And what we really like, even more than babbling about celebrities, is babbling about ourselves, which, for all their positive uses, is endemic to technologies like Twitter and Facebook.

And so Calvin’s reticence to talk about himself makes no sense to us – especially when Luther was ready to describe his inner-life at the drop of a hat. And let’s be honest: compared to the celebrities that occupy our imaginations, Calvin’s public persona wasn’t exactly scintillating.

Let me illustrate this with an anecdote.

Calvin usually preached in a lectio continua style, where he’d work his way through an entire book of the Bible. So just before he was abruptly expelled from Geneva in 1538, he was, as ever, in the middle of a sermon series. When he triumphantly returned to Geneva from Strasbourg three years later, he began preaching at exactly the chapter and verse where he left off – as if nothing had happened. So after a few opening remarks, do you know how he started his first sermon?


But there’s another side of Calvin that few people know anything about. And that’s Calvin as an affectionate husband and father, a patient and paternal teacher and pastor, and a person with a remarkable capacity for developing and cultivating vital friendships. And that leads us to the next part of the lecture – Calvin’s friendships.


Pat said…
This is wonderful, Adam. Rich content, thoughtful and well written. I look forward to more.

Note: I'm giving a presentation today on a Reformed approach to sanctification at a local seminary and am grabbing that jewel on prayer from ICR III - thanks!
Bobby Grow said…
Another good piece, Adam!

I've read that book by Zachman, it's really good! What do you think of Bruce Gordon's recent biography on Calvin? I thought it was quite good, and painted a picture of the man, Calvin, in similar tones to yours. I've also posted on the Servetus piece, The Calvin and Servetus Drama: The Ecclesiopolitical Tale, that issue really does need more context (instead of the usual anecdotal stuff thrown around); so thank you for drawing out even more fruitful background on that point! Oh, and I just read through (not too long ago) that section in the Institutes; one wouldn't typically think that prayer and predestination could be so closely related (by way of order) as Calvin has them. Which is what is so lovely about Calvin's style, that of a Confessor (per Partee) vs. a Dogmatician, per se.

I look forward to the next installment!!

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