At the end of this month, I will be traveling to Geneva to celebrate John Calvin’s 500th birthday, and I suppose the occasion of my pilgrimage to that city on a hill above the place where the Rhone leaves Lac Léman and begins its journey to Provence is as good a time as any to say what I like so much about John Calvin, a man remembered primarily for his stern demeanor, his commitment to the doctrine of predestination, and his abiding ability to make people feel guilty.
Calvin’s popular reputation is not without merit. Calvin is, after all, the man who used the weight of his spiritual authority to convince the Geneva city fathers to pass a law requiring bar patrons to say grace before having a drink; Calvin’s writing can be acerbic and obtuse, and many of his ideas have not withstood the test of time.
Yet despite his enduring grumpiness, Calvin was capable of great beauty. He had progressive ideas, such as the then-radical notion that everyone was equal before God, and that all faithful, honest work is of equal value—so that the craftsmanship of a bricklayer is just as important as the state craft of a prince. Calvin truly wanted the world to be a better, more just place. He believed that the rich had a responsibility to care for the less fortunate, and he insisted that governments should exist for the wellbeing of the people and not the other way around. That’s obvious to us now, but it was radical in the sixteenth century.
Calvin’s writing can be tedious and sour, but it also has moments of sublimity, especially when he celebrates the wonder and magnificence of the natural world. Calvin lived and worked in a place of exquisite beauty. His home had a view of Mount Blanc and countless other Alpine peaks towering over the lake, and his writing communicates that wonder with eloquence and joy. In the beauty of the place where Calvin lived and worked, he saw nothing less than the artistry of God and he encouraged his readers to look upon God’s creation as a revelation of God’s truth, goodness, and beauty. Consider, for example, the following passage from The Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book One, Chapter Five, Section One):
Since the perfection of blessedness consists in the knowledge of God (cf. John 17:3), he has been pleased, in order that none might be excluded from the means of obtaining felicity, not only to deposit in our minds that seed of religion of which we have already spoken, but so to manifest his perfections in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place himself in our view, that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to behold him. His essence, indeed, is incomprehensible, utterly transcending all human thought; but on each of his works his glory is engraved in characters so bright, so distinct, and so illustrious, that none, however dull and illiterate, can plead ignorance as their excuse…. And, first, wherever you turn your eyes, there is no portion of the world, however minute, that does not exhibit at least some sparks of beauty; while it is impossible to contemplate the vast and beautiful fabric as it extends around, without being overwhelmed by the immense weight of glory. Hence, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews elegantly describes the visible worlds as images of the invisible, (Heb. 11: 3,) the elegant structure of the world serving us as a kind of mirror, in which we may behold God, though otherwise invisible.
If someone so grouchy as John Calvin was able, from time to time, to write with such profound grace in support of fine ideas, then maybe regular people of generally amiable dispositions can hope to create even greater beauty. If Calvin was capable of loveliness, than so are we, and from where I sit, that’s reason to celebrate the old reformer’s birthday.