John Calvin’s 500th Birthday: Reason to Celebrate

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.

6 thoughts on “John Calvin’s 500th Birthday: Reason to Celebrate

  1. Thanks, Ben, for a new look at an old character. I wonder if we might better appreciate his writings if we had them in translations that were themselves graceful? I don’t know when the “standard” translations were made, but the one cited above doesn’t seem very contemporary or very graceful or even very idiomatic in English. I’ve noticed the same problem in trying to read the more ancient Fathers of the Church–Chrysostom, Basil, et al. If the translations get in the way, we really can’t connect with these spiritual giants who are our ancestors in the faith. To be fair, of course, translation is a very difficult task to accomplish at all.

    Peace, in Christ who is risen from the dead for our salvation,
    James

  2. Hi Ben,
    Love this contribution. It so happens that i was accused of being a pantheist by someone on my CPM because I was extolling the wonders of the world. I said that I think Calvin would agree with me on this and looked up the very passage you cite to prove my case.

    And congrats again on your award and trip! Woohoo!

    Hope you have a great time.
    Love,
    Geoff

  3. Good blog, Ben.

    Seems to me that Calvin has been particularly misunderstood since the mid-20th century. The dour, puritanical side has always been stressed by the likes of Hugh Hefner and those in his amen corner.

    The thing least appreciated about Calvin, I suspect, is that some of his ideas were not just radical in his lifetime; they were dangerous. The idea that all men are equal before God is not even a short step away from the notion that the divine right of kings — i.e., kings are selected by God to rule — is nonsense. Is there any way to count the early Reformed Church martyrs who died for holding exactly that view?

    Bill

  4. Thanks for the notes!

    James, there are several translations of Calvin out there. I chose this one less for its elegance than for my ability to copy and paste it (I have a hard time copying things out of books–dyslexia strikes again!). I find that each translation has it’s merits and demerits. I’m told that Calvin’s French is lyrical, but I pretty much only read menus in French.

    Geoff, I love the idea that Calvin was in your corner on the accusation of pantheism. One of the reasons I like being part of a Calvinist tradition is that Calvin, because he is from another age, has no particular allegiance in our modern quarrels. In fact, there’s a little something for everyone in Calvin’s writing. He’s a Progressive, a Fundamentalist, an environmentalist, a capitalist, a Theocrat, a champion of the separation of church and state, and so much more.

    Bill, you’re right about Calvin and the right of kings. It was dangerous stuff, and you can see the effect Calvin had in the establishment of America.

    Thanks for reading!

    Ben

  5. I shall wear my John Calvin face mask that you gave me in honour of the man.

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