Posts Tagged “john calvin”

Luther posting his 95 Theses in 1517, by Ferdinand Pauwels [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsToday is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his “95 Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. As the Associated Press reports via Religion News Service, Germany is celebrating “Reformation Day” as a holiday (Archive.Is cached article).

The history of Luther, his Theses, and the resulting schism — which continues to this day and is as entrenched as ever — is well known. The point of the Augustinian monk’s protest was to criticize the sale of indulgences. These are ways of reducing the time one must spend in Purgatory, after death, atoning for sins before reaching Heaven. It wasn’t indulgences Luther objected to per se, but rather, the Church’s sale of them.

This objection led to Luther, and others (including his friend Philip Melanchthon, who arguably was Luther’s intellectual superior and had more to do with the direction Luther’s movement would later take) to differ from the Church on more topics than just the sale of indulgences. Among the more important of these were the so-called Five Solas, declaring that salvation came from 5 interconnected sources — none of which was the Church itself or any of its personnel. The Christian didn’t need a priest, a church, or anything of the sort.

This approach to Christianity knocked the theological legs of the Church right out from under it, rendering it useless. Those who disliked the Church and competed with it for power, certainly found this sort of thinking attractive. Luther and Melanchthon made their reform movement more appealing to the numerous princes in Germany by advocating nationalizing Church treasuries within each realm. Many of them ultimately signed on, and effectively became heads of both church and state within their domains. In the 1530s, King Henry VIII of England would follow a similar philosophy in seizing control of the English Church.

But for all that came of the movement Luther launched (and for which Melanchthon, then John Calvin became the chief proponents, along with many other reformers like Ulrich Zwingli), what’s forgotten are the reformers who came before Luther and had raised similar issues themselves. Perhaps the most important of these was Jan Hus, executed for his “heresy” just over a century before Luther posted his “95 Theses,” who in turn had been inspired by John Wycliffe of England. The ideas of both these men actually continued on, through Luther’s time, and even beyond. Hus’s movement led to the establishment of a separate organization (i.e. the Moravian Church), which still exists.

And these, in turn, had forebears in the Waldenses of France in the late 12th century. Church reforms, you see, were not new. Some reform movements were internal, taking place within and inside the Church, such as the Cluniac reforms, the rise of the mendicant orders, etc.

It is true that the Church’s power was broken by the onset of the Reformation sparked by Luther’s protest, but the stage had been set for him, already, by others. What’s more, the Church had, by then, already undermined itself and its credibility as an institution, e.g. the Great Western Schism and its other attempts at meddling in European politics, like Boniface VIII’s issuance of Unam Sanctam. It’s possible to make too much of what Luther did, and to fail to realize that it’s the inherent irrationality and uncertainty of the many precepts of Christianity which helped the Church grow in power and become mighty in the first place, then to collapse as an institution subsequently as European Christendom fractured into many competing sects.

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Line drawing of John Calvin, published in 1892 bookThis is the second of my posts on “great Christians” of history (and in case you didn’t know it, that “great” is intended as facetious). My first post in this series was on the conniving Cyril of Alexandria. This time I’ll go over John Calvin, that mighty reformer of Geneva and one of the chief figures of the Reformation. I already covered him in a prior post, which dealt with Christians who actually believe him to be someone to be emulated, and whose 500th birthday must be celebrated by all good Christians. I will therefore crib from my own prior remarks on this vicious, cruel, and murderous creature:

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. …

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.

Christians … you can emulate Calvin if you want, but if you wish to be morally upright and obedient to the God who said (among other things) “turn the other cheek,” “hand over your shirt and your cloak,” and “walk two miles instead of one” … well … I’d advise against it. (But then, what would I — a godless agnostic heathen — know about being a humble and obedient Christian?)

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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. And tyrant. 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.

Yeah, 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 “democratic” 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.

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