Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A John Calvin Make-over?

In yesterday's Dallas Morning News, columnist and Presbyterian churchman William McKenzie wrote on John Calvin, a man he feels to be under-appreciated, even in this, the 500th anniversary of his birth (story here.) McKenzie believes that Calvin suffers from even worse PR than Dick Cheney, and if people could just get over all that messiness associated with his burning Michael Servetus at the stake, then well, Calvin's reputation could be rehabilitated for the 21st-century.

First the disclaimers: I am not an authority on either Calvin or Calvinism. I have not read the Institutes, nor do I ever plan to do so. I also concur that Calvinism sometimes suffers cheap shots from its detractors, who know less about it than they imagine. And I have observed that you will often find some of the most intelligent and gifted people among its adherents.

That said, I am not a fan. This view does not rise from any dissatisfaction with a previous religious affiliation. Even back in my Protestant days, I was never, ever attracted to Calvinism. When I finally joined a church, my new tribe was equally and decided non-Calvinistic. My mother was the most nominal of Baptists. I always found this affiliation a bit ironic. To the extent that she thought about it at all, she disagreed with every one of the tenets that set them apart as Southern Baptists. I now realize that the things she disagreed with most were those beliefs rooted in Calvinism. And I agreed with her. Despite my lack of experience with Calvinism, I believe I can speak to the obvious fruits of Calvinist thought, not just in the religious sphere, but in the very formation and development of Americanism.

As to McKenzie’s defense of John Calvin, I found it surprisingly limp.

For starters, there's the fact that Calvin had a radical view of education. He thought that, heavens, people should read for themselves, including Scripture. He believed in truth being revealed through the mind, as well as the heart. He particularly had a passion for children learning to read and going to school, not necessarily the way things were done then. He began a school for children that grew into a university in Geneva.

Okay, so Calvin promoted education.

Calvin...embraced the intellect, which he personified by writing his landmark "Institutes of the Christian Religion." (The late historian Will Durant termed them one of the world's 10 most influential works.)

Well, I haven’t read Durant either. This also shows the limitations of list-making. From what I hear, the Institutes would also make the top-10 list for the most mind-numbingly unreadable works, as well.

"Calvin is to theology what Freud is to psychology: Love him, hate him, you have to deal with him."

Talk about being damned by faint praise…

The Frenchman got a closed sewer system built for his adopted hometown of Geneva, Switzerland. Like the pride Lyndon Johnson took in delivering electricity to rural Central Texas, Calvin considered that sewer one of his great accomplishments.

Again with the faint praise...(so far, McKenzie has compared Calvin to Dick Cheney, Sigmund Freud and Lyndon Johnson)

Similarly, his emphasis on the dignity of work is tied in the rise of capitalism. He didn't invent that economic system, but his challenging of the prevailing idea that work was drudgery reshaped the way people approached labor.

So Calvin is responsible for the Protestant work ethic, huh? I have been looking for someone to blame for that. Now I know who.

Like with Marx's communism or Freud's views on the mind, the rest of the world spins around the influence of Calvin, whether we know it or not.

Maybe…but if so, is that necessarily a good thing?

McKenzie closes with the thought that “John Calvin deserves a new look.”

Well, thanks…but I believe I will pass.

[To give equal time to Calvinists, I came across this article, which is actually in response to Jack D. Kinneer's "A Calvinist Looks at Orthodoxy." Apparently Kinneer spent some time at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary. The best I can tell, he takes us to task for supposedly not believing in "Justification by Faith" or "sovereign grace." Basically, he accuses the Orthodox of not being, well, Protestant. Guilty as charged!]


Darlene said...

You brightened up my day. I think Calvinists should have their own little island, where they can read Calvin's Institutes till the cows come home. :)

Milton T. Burton said...

The comparison with Freud is, in my estimation at least, absurd. Calvin believed what he wrote. Freud, on the other hand, described himself as a "buccaneer" and it is now known that several of his "case studies" were as fictitious as a Dick Tracy comic strip. And equally grotesque.

Calvin was not the first theologian to teach predestination and election. He did, however, take an idea that should have been liberating and turn it into something bleak and dark and negative. Or perhaps it was his followers who made it all so dreary.

No doubt the shrinks could come up with all sorts of explanations for this, but I prefer to think that John Calvin is simply what happens when a brilliant Frenchman turns his back on wine and nooky.

Magotty Man said...

Loved that last sentence, Milton!

However, to be far, it does seem that the most dreary forms of Calvinism were developed west of the English Channel - the Continental Reformed are less obsessive, it appears. I mean, the Dutch have (had?) the wonderful habit of meeting after church on a Sunday, drinking heavy, black coffee, smoking strong cigars and then going over the minister's sermon point by point...

As an ex-Calvinist, i think its weakest point, psychologically at least, is the drive to be able to intelectually grasp and then explain everything. Some thigs are mysteries, and rightly so. Not for the Calvinist. Hence Calvin's enourmous mental gymnastics in trying to maintain a position between Zwinglian symbolism and Lutheran Real Presence, when it comes to Holy Communion.

Milton T. Burton said...

Scylding, in reference to intellectuality I will say that theology in general leaves me somewhat cold though Lord knows I have read enough of it. And you are right when you say some things are mysteries. In fact, a lot of things are. The truth is that there is on explanation for the existence of the universe that is emotionally satisfying. To say it popped into being as the materialists claim is the least satisfying of all. And these people accuse theists of believing in magic!! Yet when it is said that God created it the human mind naturally asks for the origin of God. To say that God has no beginning and lives in the timeless state of Divine Eternity sounds good, but getting around the handle of it emotionally is like trying to chew a mouthful of air. Thus we are condemned in this life to live in a state of perpetual bafflement, which means that whether theist or materialist, we must admit the limits of human understanding. There are simply some things we will never grasp this side of Jordon. This does not stop a pretty girl from being pretty or kittens from being fun to play with or Christ from being our redeemer. Maybe we all need more of that child-like simplicity that Jesus spoke of.

Kirk said...

Nice article, John. Milton, Dick Tracy?? LOL.

I've found that there is nothing more maddening than arguing with a Calvinist. Must be my depravity coming out.

JLB said...

"Similarly, his emphasis on the dignity of work is tied in the rise of capitalism. He didn't invent that economic system, but his challenging of the prevailing idea that work was drudgery reshaped the way people approached labor."

Actually, the so-called "Protestant work ethic" existed only in the mind of Max Weber, who fudged his numbers to fit the thesis. Capitalism comes, really, from the tremendous success of, among others, the Italian merchant class in the late middle ages/Renaissance.

I can't recall the name of the book I'd recommend, but I'll let you know as soon as I get home to find it.

JLB said...

"You brightened up my day. I think Calvinists should have their own little island, where they can read Calvin's Institutes till the cows come home. :)"

And the Bible!! Don't forget the Bible!!! ;)

Terry (John) said...

JLB, what you say is undoubtedly true. Something that fascinates me is how American historians in the past have taken the Puritan/New England-hard-working-frugal-pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps experience, and have used it as a template to mold and create our nation myth. And I don't mean "myth" necessarily in a bad way, just our self-image, our "meta-narrative," to use a current buzzword. And Calvinism really plays into that. Speaking broadly, of course.

And do send the name of that book. It's been years since I've read Max Weber--something I never intend to do again, ha!

JLB said...


The book is Religion and Economic Action: The Protestant Work Ethic, the Rise of Capitalism, and the Abuses of Scholarship by Kurt Samuelsson. My copy was translated from the Swedish by E. Geoffrey French. Apparently, it was written in the late 50's. I liked it very much, even though it was required reading for a college class! ;)


Steve Hayes said...

I too have not read the Institutes, and what I know of Calvinism comes from encounters with his most ideological supporters, sometimes called ultra-Calvinists, or hyper-Calvinists or TULIPs. They have put me off wanting to read any more.

I haven't read all the works of St Basil yet, and life's too short to waste on reading flaky theologians like Calvin.

Ranger said...

Surely a good portion of American history is revisionist, whether painting Native Americans as savages or saints, the same can be said for all those who promoted puritan thought. Somehow there are those who feel the need to make ammends for the lackluster character of historical figures. Let's face it, there certainly have been saints, and the majority of them were not involved in the protestant reformation, and I don't think anyone will become a saint by promoting the value of war, capitalism, and total depravity.

Clint said...

Not a calvinist and never was and never plan to be. He is an interesting character to study, from an historical point of view, but theologically, I found the Institutes to be the cure for insomnia.

I do want to shout out about Durant, though. I found his historical studies to be very good. Certainly not light reading, but very fair toward Christianity (he was not a Christian, as best as I can recall).

I enjoyed reading him, though. He wrote a huge series of books that covered history from the beginning to the end (or at least to where he was). There are multiple volumes and he wrote them with his wife (I think her name was Astrid or something like that - I could be wrong). I have not read all of the volumes, but have read two or three of them and enjoyed them all.

For what its worth.

Clint said...

I just checked and her name was Ariel...

margaret said...

I had a 90 minute fling with calvinism once, that's about long enough for two prayers, two metrical psalms and a sermon. The 'soft' Protestants I knew were horrified at me going to a Wee Free church (offshoot of the Church of Scotland, reformed, stand to pray, sit to sing, extempore prayer and metrical psalms only and in these days men wore suits and women wore hats) but the whole contract God thing of the evangelicals was about to send me running from Christianity. I'd rather have spent my whole life trundling into the shul every year on Yom Kippur saying, “Okay, God, I only managed to perform 7 out of the 13 mitzvot again this year” (or howevr many are incubment upon women) than be an evangelical and have to produce an upbeat, zippy account of what the Lord had done for me every day. Calvin doesn't tolerate this contract God nonsense whereby we wheedle God into accepting us and go through our whole lives attempting to prove it to ourselves experientially. He argues forcefully, I think in Book 3 of the Institutes, that the indicatives of grace are prior to the imperatives of obedience and, of course, he's just echoing the Greek Fathers but evangelicals in general hardly ever do, with them it's all about managing God, saying the magic prayer words, and living off the experience forever. He also understood that business doesn't work without interest and applied himself to controlling it (rather than simply bewailing the evil of it) and refused to deny the ever-virginity of Our Lady. To paraphrase Wild, Calvinism has awful moments but most of evangelicalism has awful quarter hours either taken up with singing banal eight word choruses or listening to gratingly stupid people saying, “Lord, we just pray Lord, you will bless Naomi's new linoleum, Lord”.

Milton T. Burton said...

We should all check our pyloric valves.

Terry (John) said...

Margaret--Well, I am certainly impressed with your having read the "Institutes," or at least Book 3. I will still demur on reading it myself--but I know now whom to ask if I have a question :) And I as still laughing about poor Naomi's linoleum.

Milton--I had to look up the definition of "pyloric valve." I should have known.