Here’s a helpful assessment of John Calvin by Professor Donald McLeod of Free Church College. With characteristic lucidity, he cuts through to the main issues in a way that ordinary punters can understand.
Last week the words, ‘Temple of Evil’ were daubed on the walls of Stornoway Free Church. It would be wrong to read too much into it. It was probably no more than a temporary aberration on the part of one individual, and the Church made light of the incident.
Yet, though they might express it differently, there can be little doubt that this is how many islanders view Presbyterianism and the culture it produced. But the feeling is not confined to islanders. Many Scots, if asked who were the three most scary people in history, would probably reply, ‘Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler and John Calvin.’ Legend portrays him as, ‘The black ghost with the icy countenance’, and Calvinism itself has been described as ‘a psychopathic projection of sublimated cruelty’.
But why? Few of those who hate Calvin have ever read a single page of the fifty-nine thick volumes of elegant Latin and even more elegant French which he bequeathed to posterity; and even those who become apoplectic at the way he governed Geneva have not a clue as to what that government actually was. Yet everyone ‘knows’ him, and the hatred is passed down by some sort of osmosis.
What about Servetus? Servetus was a heretic who was burnt near Geneva in 1553, and Calvin acquiesced in the death-sentence, though not in the way it was executed. This is, indeed, the great blot on his memory, and I have no wish to extenuate it. It is abhorrent that anyone should be put to death in Christ’s name. But it should be seen in context. Every country in Europe at that time burnt heretics, and Servetus would have been executed wherever he was caught. None of Calvin’s modern followers would condone what happened, which is why, in 1903, they erected an ‘expiatory monument’ at the spot where Servetus died, recording his execution and condemning it as an infringement of liberty of conscience.
It may be but a slender atonement, but history offers few parallels. Catholicism has erected no expiatory monuments at the spots where Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart were burned around the same time as Servetus, nor has the Scottish Landowners’ Federation ever seen fit to erect a monument to the thousands they forcibly evicted during the Clearances.
A hater of human nature?
But wasn’t Calvin a hater of human nature who believed that all human beings are depraved from birth and utterly incapable of any good?
If this means that Calvin believed in Original Sin, it’s true, but then so did St. Augustine and St. Thomas. Even Immanuel Kant believed in ‘radical evil’, and everyone I know looks at me and boldly affirms, ‘No one is perfect’. Very odd, that, if humans are not depraved.
Calvin didn’t mean that all humans are equally bad, or that all humans are devils or that all humans are as bad as they could be. Nor did he ever suggest that humans could never be good parents, loyal citizens or heroic patriots. What he did say was that no human, unaided by grace, could ever love God with all his heart. It would be interesting to know how many of those who hate both Calvin and his doctrine are prepared to stand up and protest, ‘But I do love God with all my heart.’
But there’s more to Calvin’s view of the human race than belief in its depravity. Calvin was by education a Renaissance humanist who never lost his love for classical culture. Part of the reason for this was that he firmly believed that even pagans still retain the image of God; and over and above this he maintained that God’s general grace still reaches every human being. In every area except religion, man’s intellect was still reliable, and, thanks to general grace man was still capable of remarkable scientific, political and cultural achievements. Calvin would have thanked God for the pleasure given by the poetry of Sorley Maclean and the music of Mozart.
But what of the elephant in the room: predestination? Calvin certainly believed that God had foreordained the whole course of history, but then, so again did the lovable St. Augustine and St. Thomas. Besides, predestination was never the main idea in Calvin’s thought. In his key work, his famous Institutes, it is treated only in Book III, after fifty-five chapters dealing with other subjects; and even then he takes it up not as a master principle, but in an attempt to explain why some people become born-again Christians and others don’t.
Nowhere has Calvin been more misrepresented than on this subject, as if he taught that many humans were born simply in order to be damned, or that we poor humans are helpless victims of an inescapable fate. In fact, it is modern science, not Calvin, which portrays humans as prisoners of necessity. Our genes, our biochemistry, our infantile experiences, determine everything. Even our religious convictions are simply psychological precipitates, and great events like the Disruption mere outcomes of social conditions.
Calvin, by contrast, believed that God had foreordained freedom: a point I can better explain in my own terms. We always have a choice, we make these choices freely, every single choice is unpredictable, and I could always have made a different choice. The wonder is that through this series of free choices God is able to work out his own designs.
The best way to understand Calvin is to read his Letters, now available in a handsome modern edition. There are 1,163 of them in four volumes, written to parties as diverse as the King of England and young friends awaiting martyrdom in French prisons. They breathe a warm humanity, but what comes through above all is a man who knows he is engaged in a spiritual war; a war in which he knows he will be a casualty, but a war that must be won. This is why he cannot decline a call to Geneva simply because he is happy where he is, or because he knows it will destroy his health and ultimately kill him. This is why what people think of him doesn’t matter; and this is why, at the end, suffering from malaria, ulcerated haemorrhoids, tuberculosis and cruel migraines, he insists on being carried to his pulpit to preach.
The great failure of my own life has been the failure to pass the vision of such a ministry on to my students.
This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press, Friday, 8 October, 2012