The 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birthday is here, and Christians — especially of the Protestant fundamentalist sort — are gleeful about it. His career and teachings anticipated by a few centuries what would eventually become modern Protestant fundamentalist Christianity, even if it lacks one of his own primary principles, predestination. Some — like Henry G. Brinton, writing in USA Today‘s Religion blog, believe his life has a lot to say to Americans. I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry at his raging ignorance of who and what John Calvin really was and what he really did. Here is some of what Brinton had to say:
The Protestant Reformer, born 500 years ago, could teach us a thing or two about fiscal idolatry, diplomacy and democracy. But would we listen?
At times of crisis, we look to our leaders to find just the right words, just the right tone, and just the right insight and wisdom to guide us through the tumult. Yet often, the wisdom has been there all along, if you just know where to look — or rather, when to look. Say, about 500 years ago.
John Calvin, the Protestant Reformer who was born in 1509, could have seen the global financial meltdown coming from a mile — or mere centuries — away. No, he wouldn’t have foreseen derivatives or credit default swaps or the other financial instruments that would have given even Albert Einstein a migraine. But he knew human weakness. Indeed, we are entering a Calvinistic period in American life, one that is falling into line with the insights and innovations of Calvin. Although often depicted as a stern theologian with a pointed beard and strong views about eternal damnation, Calvin was interested in a wide range of issues far beyond the walls of the church, and his ideas reshaped the economic, political and educational life of the Western world. His perspective can benefit us today, in this time of political change and economic crisis.
Folks, let me be brutally honest with you about Calvin. He was above all else a theocrat.
That’s right … a theocrat. He was invited to help reform the church in Geneva (in modern Switzerland), and stayed long enough not only to reform its church, but to make its church into the city’s government. By 1541 he was essentially the city’s dictator — ruling with absolute authority — and remained so until his death.
During his career he encountered enemies, and he destroyed them methodically. Despite his popularity in Geneva, there was a party opposed to him, which he called “the libertines” (because they believed God’s grace had freed them from ecclesiastical control). He spent years plotting against individual “libertines,” sometimes getting them prosecuted for what might otherwise have been minor infractions — and in a couple of cases, for fabricated infractions — until their resistance to him was worn down.
Real nice Christian there, eh
Perhaps Calvin’s shining moment came in his dealings with another ecclesiastical reformer — though of a different sort than Calvin himself — Michael Servetus of Spain. The two had conducted a brief debate via correspondence, which lapsed after Calvin gave up on it, having decided Servetus was an outrageous heretic (mainly because the Spaniard was anti-trinitarian). Servetus, trying to re-establish contact with Calvin, in 1547 offered to venture to Geneva himself to resume their debate in person. Servetus’s own problems with the Church, plus Calvin’s failure to grant him safe-conduct, meant this visit was put off for several years.
But in 1553 Servetus finally did arrive in Geneva — and Calvin made sure that was the end for him. Servetus was arrested, and Calvin arranged for him to be prosecuted by one of his few remaining “libertine” opponents. Since the city of Geneva itself, by then, was pro-Calvin and decidedly anti-Servetus, the libertine had no choice but to press the matter … but Servetus was popular elsewhere in Europe, and having to prosecute him jeopardized the libertines’ relations with other cities. Late that year, Servetus was condemned and burnt at the stake, and the libertines’ fortunes fell further.
Calvin, you see, used one opponent to destroy another, forcing them to damage each other, and leaving him standing even taller. Yes, indeed, that is the sort of Christian John Calvin was.
Getting back to Brinton’s ignorant lauding of this reprehensible man:
Finally, democracy itself owes a debt to Calvin because he established a form of church government in which clergy and lay leaders had equal power.
Again, there is little to nothing “democratic” about Calvin. He wedged a synod of clerics into the city government and arranged for it to gather increased authority, as an interim step in getting himself into a position of absolute power over the city of Geneva (because once this synod was in office, they chose him as a leader, and the rest — as they say — is history). Brinton thus assigns Calvin a motive he simply never possessed.
As a matter of fact, there was nothing unique or novel about the government structure Calvin designed … it was patterned after the Estates-General of France (his homeland, please note). Thus, Geneva’s government under Calvin was no more “democtratic” than the Estates-General had been in France, where it had been an arm of the monarchy, not of democracy.
As I said initially, it’s to be expected that modern Protestant fundamentalists rally around Calvinistic Christianity, and hold up its founder, John Calvin, as a saint to be emulated. But they do this only because they know next to nothing about him other than that he was a rigid fundamentalist Christian whose teachings presaged their own.
Far from being the “ideal Christian,” Calvin was a crass manipulator who maneuvered to get people killed because they got in his way and made him look bad. He also engineered a takeover of the Geneva city government, by careful, years-long planning, and by pitting foes against each other. There is nothing “Christian” about such a person. Not one thing. To celebrate his 500th birthday, is an insult to Christ, not an homage to him. Brinton and his ilk ought to be ashamed of themselves.Tags: 500th, birthday, calvin, calvinism, christian, Christianity, christians, geneva, john calvin, libertines, michael servetus
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