Will the Real John Calvin Please Stand Up?

There have been wildly differing assessments of John Calvin, some very wide off the mark.

In his latest book, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: A Biography, Bruce Gordon—professor of ecclesiasitical history at Yale University—traces the fate of Calvin in general and his Institutes in particular all the way to the present day. As author of the standard biography on Calvin, Gordon is well equipped to do this.

 

Ever since his own time there have been wildly differing assessments of John Calvin, some very wide off the mark.

In his latest book, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: A Biography, Bruce Gordon—professor of ecclesiasitical history at Yale University—traces the fate of Calvin in general and his Institutes in particular all the way to the present day. As author of the standard biography on Calvin (Yale University Press, 2009) [review], Gordon is well equipped to do this.

Predestination and Democracy 

Since the 18th century there have been two dominant pictures of Calvin. For Voltaire, Calvin was “the man who killed Servetus and created a God who delighted in the damnation of most people” (91). Servetus and predestination are constantly recurring themes in portrayals of Calvin. The execution of one notorious heretic in Geneva is the act that defines Calvin, while the fact that heretics were executed almost everywhere in Europe at the time—that the supposedly saintly Thomas More (to take but one example) was responsible for many such executions—is completely ignored. Gordon provides a helpful appendix that sets the Servetus affair in its historical context (223–25).

With predestination, Calvin was mostly following Augustine and Aquinas. As Gordon notes, the doctrine was taught by every major 16th-century Protestant Reformer (87), though Philip Melanchthon did change his mind on it. This is true, but Calvin did also go beyond Augustine and many of his fellow Reformers. He taught not just that God elects who will be saved, but also that he predestines the lost to damnation—what some refer to as double predestination. Of course, the former statement implies the latter—at least to the extent that God allows the reprobate to be lost—but Calvin goes beyond this. God didn’t merely allow the fall of Adam to happen (Augustine) but positively predestined it, as with the damnation of the lost. Calvin wasn’t the first to argue this, but was merely following in the wake of Luther and Zwingli, and they in turn were following one strand of late medieval Augustinianism.

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