Saturday, March 03, 2007

John Calvin: Tyrant or Pastor?

Since Jerome-Hermes Bolsec wrote his slanderous biography of Calvin in 1577 there has been a sustained polemic against the reformer. To this day Calvin resides merely as an enigma of a stern and heartless authoritarian--that is if he is remembered at all. The question we are faced with is simple: Is the stereotype true? Was Calvin a heartless “autocrat with a quick temper” or is this merely a gross caricature that still haunts our conceptions of the reformer? It is my intent in this paper to show that the above caricature is wrong-headed and unfair. Further, I hope to demonstrate that Calvin, rather than being a cold-hearted despot, was a devoted pastor. I will show this by contextualizing Calvin within his personal history and public theology. By doing this I hope demonstrate his pastoral-theology as both very consistent and positive. Furthermore, I will argue that Calvin’s actions within society along with his social thought were largely the products of a pragmatic and edifying theology, thus, showing Calvin to be primarily focused with the spiritual growth of the Genevan church.
However, before entering into the argument proper it seems important to dispel some ghosts haunting the stereotypes of Calvin. Alister McGrath, in his work A Life of John Calvin, remarks that, “it is probably fair to suggest that Calvin was not a particularly attractive person […]”. From this it seems untenable to maintain that Calvin was particularly jovial. But before making too many assertions regarding Calvin’s chilly disposition we must look at his life—particularly his adult life, in the hope that we might understand him more fully. Here it’s important to note that Calvin had never intended to stay in Geneva (the town he is so closely associated with); he was originally just an exile passing through en route to Strasbourg. However, Calvin met Guillame Farel who he describes as “burn[ing] with a marvelous zeal for the gospel.” Farel convinced Calvin that it was more or less God’s will that he stay in Geneva. Calvin stayed. No matter what a compliment Farel’s plea must have been we must understand that Calvin’s personal desires were far different from that of public life. Calvin clearly states his hope for what he might find in Strasbourg: “I had several private studies for which I wished to keep myself free.” Further, Calvin’s desire to lead a scholarly life is apparent by his authorship at this point in his life, he had written three works (including the commentary of Seneca’s De Clementia and his Institutes of Christian Religion). So from the very beginnings of Calvin’s ministry we see the sacrifice of a desire. This theme is evident throughout Calvin’s life. In May of 1538 both he and Farel are exiled from Geneva. Calvin finally makes his way to the destination he had originally intended: Strasbourg. Once there he begins to actually enjoy it, though he is now twice an exile. Then, in 1541 Calvin, upon the invitation of Geneva and the convincing tongue of Farel, returned to Geneva, he expresses his distaste for this return when we says, “[I] prefer[ed] a hundred deaths to this cross”. His distaste for returning to Geneva is quite understandable being that he was invited back by the same group who had exiled him, but also while in Strasbourg Calvin seemed to have been easily able to balance his scholarly ambitions with his pastoral responsibilities, thus the return to Geneva, as poignantly expressed above, is again a sacrifice. This vocational sacrifice is coupled with relational sacrifice. Calvin married the widow Idellette de Bure in 1540 ; two years later she gave birth to a son, Jacques who quickly died. Idellete then plunged into sickness only to eventually die in 1549. Calvin’s reflections on this loss are expressed in a letter to his friend Viret:
Though the death of my wife has been a very cruel thing for me, I try as much as possible to moderate my grief. And my friends fulfill their duty in a fine way. But I confess that for them and for me, the results are less than might be hoped for. However, the few results that I obtain help very little. Actually, you know the tenderness of rather the softness of my soul….Of course, the reason for my sorrow is not an ordinary one. I am deprived of my excellent life companion, who, if misfortune had come, would have been my willing companion not only in exile and sorrow, but even in death.

From an understanding of Calvin’s vocational and relational sacrifice we can safely posit that he endured a high level of personal pain and emotional turmoil. Calvin’s sacrifices coupled with his waning health in his later years provide a possible explanation why he became progressively bad tempered. In this light Calvin’s actual petulance (not merely the specter kept alive by his enemies) is placed in a personal context of: (1) geographic exile, (2) vocational sacrifice, (3) and deep relational loss. Moreover, there seems to be a continual element of relational unrest between Calvin and the political leaders in Geneva. This then demonstrates Calvin as man whose life warrants much more empathy than disdain.
However much Calvin suffered during his life it seems that his mind was never suffering from a lack of erudition. This is, perhaps, seen most obviously in his seminal work The Institutes of Christian Religion (from now on The Institutes). Most salient to our present purpose within The Institutes is the opening where Calvin articulates a type of double-reflection; he argues that there is no true knowledge of God without self-knowledge, and conversely he states that there is no true self knowledge without knowledge of God. Both sections of his argument are rooted in two theological assertions: humankind’s “depravity and corruption” and the “purity and righteousness that rest in the Lord alone.” A man or woman can only truly know God if they first recognize their inability and insufficiency and a man or woman can only know themselves if they first know the true goodness of God, thus stifling the growth of undeserved pride. Further, Calvin opens up The Institutes maintaining that, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Here Calvin shows us the importance of our predicament, both our knowledge of God and of ourselves are simultaneously important but given that humankind cannot know God without knowing itself and humankind cannot know itself without knowing God we are left wondering how it all happens. Simply put, Calvin’s answer to the apparent dilemma between God’s holiness and humankind’s sinfulness is obedience. It then makes sense that the following section of The Institutes is written emphasizing the importance of complying to God’s law; Calvin seems to be articulating his thesis when he writes, “[…] all right knowledge of God is born out of obedience”. So, from this section of The Institutes we begin to see how Calvin’s belief in humankind’s “depravity” and God’s “purity and righteousness” would inform Calvin’s pastoral theology.
Upon Calvin’s return to Geneva it seems that he was better prepared for pastoral leadership. The strong and idealism that had caused such conflict was now tempered with a much more practical Calvin, as McGrath says, “The inexperienced and impetuous young man who had left in 1538 was now replaced by an experienced and skilful ecclesiastical organizer.” It is this “experienced” Calvin that is truly the pastor—the idealism is tempered with a biblical pragmatism. For example Harro Hopfl concludes in The Christian Polity of John Calvin that regarding scripture Calvin’s primary “[…] concern was with the ‘use’ and ‘edification’ to be derived from the texts”. Along similar lines McGrath sees Calvin’s “ordering of the church [… as] thoroughly pragmatic.” And Calvin’s pragmatism is not restricted to theology and the church he “saw the value […] of formal arrangements that facilitate commercial transactions,” in this we see that Calvin understood the importance of governance, a mark of a pragmatic mind. Further, it is safe to assert that Calvin’s emphasis on practical matters is rooted in his theology of humankind’s falleness; it is only a theology rooted in edification and obedience that can deliver man to God. William J. Bouwsma highlights a number of situations in which Calvin’s emphasis upon utility is apparent:
The utilitarianism is basic to Calvin’s program for a society that exists to serve fundamental human needs; without society human existence would differ little “from that of cattle and beasts of prey.” Calvin regularly evaluated human arrangements for their utility. In this perspective marriage is good because it “preserves respectability and checks lascivious wanders,” and monogamy is better than polygamy because “there can be no conjugal harmony where there is rivalry among wives.

In further support of Calvin’s pragmatism he ridicules medieval scholasticism because “[…] anyone can easily […] and readily prattle about the value of works in justifying men. But when we come into the presence of God we must put away such amusements! For there we deal with a serious matter, and do not engage in frivolous word battles.” By way of contrast this provides with an interesting picture of Calvin’s theology. Indeed Calvin being deeply informed by his humanist background sees scholasticism as “frigid speculations.” As mentioned above, knowledge of God comes not from rationality but from obedience. Again, this places Calvin’s theology as pastoral and pragmatic.
It is, as I briefly mentioned above, in Calvin’s emphasis on practicality and utility that he takes the “depravity” of humankind and the “purity and righteousness of God” truly seriously. Calvin is aware of the self’s skill in turning away from God to gratify its own desires so his theological program provides bulwarks for the believer. It therefore seems that by focusing on practical matters Calvin hoped to pastor his fellow Genevans to a deeper faith in Christ. Moreover, Calvin’s theology though engaging and clearly the work of a great mind is not, strictly speaking, only for the schoolman—it is a theology for the schoolman and the lay woman. This theme is apparent when examining Calvin’s sermons and his commentaries, Hopfl writes, “[the] lessons he found in the various texts are much the same in both sermons and commentaries: they are always the uplifting themes of God’s providence and mercy, especially towards the church, of justification […] of the need to curb passions both en gros and en detail.” Hopfl also notes that often times Calvin took sermons verbatim from his commentaries. This shows us that even in Calvin’s scholarly writing the aim was to build up the church. Even The Institutes, a work usually coined as the first protestant systematic theology, often reads more as book on discipleship; for example:
But if in the believing mind certainty is mixed with doubt, do we not always come back to this, that faith does not rest in a certain and clear knowledge, but only in an obscure and confused knowledge of the divine will towards us? Not at all. For even if we are distracted by various thoughts, we are not on that account completely divorced from faith. Nor if we are troubled on all sides by the agitation of unbelief, are we for that reason immersed in its abyss. If we are struck, we are not for that reason cast down from our position. For the end of the conflict is always this: that faith ultimately triumphs over those difficulties which besiege and seem to imperil it.
Here Calvin is most clearly a pastor, and here Calvin takes his theology most seriously. Here Calvin is truly the consistent theologian, because he is writing in regards to human “depravity.” Calvin is here a pastor because he comforts the doubter declaring that doubt never “ultimately triumphs.” This theme is further developed when we look at the placement of his doctrine of predestination within The Institutes. McGrath writes,
[predestination] follows his exposition of the doctrine of grace. It is only after the great themes of this doctrine—such as justification by faith—have been expounded that he turns to consider the mysterious and perplexing subject of predestination.
Calvin seems to be very conscious of the importance of this placement since in preceding editions of The Institutes he places it under the doctrine of providence, not salvation; it is only in the final edition that he places it under the doctrine of salvation. McGrath goes onto argue that logically it would make sense to place predestination prior to “the great themes of [grace]” instead Calvin gives it to us afterwards, it is then—in a loose sense—an afterthought. This then demonstrates again The Institutes pastoral element; Calvin denies predestination its logical placement to appease his pastoral sensibilities .
Therefore, in the representative text above and in his placement of the doctrine of predestination in The Institutes Calvin is the typical pastor-theologian. This point might at first seem small but it is important to remember that the quoted text was not from a sermon but The Institutes; also we might recall this in contrast with the scholastics with their propensity to wax towards abstraction.
It does not instantly follow, however, that because Calvin was consistent he must have been amiable. Indeed, I have already conceded that it seems that Calvin did not at all times have a particularly cordial disposition. Yet, while that might be the case we still have record of many of Calvin’s interactions, many showing deep kindnesses. For example, in writing a letter to a father on the death of his son, he writes: “When the news first reached me of the death of Master Claude and your son Louis, I found myself so distracted and confused in spirit that for several days I could do nothing but cry.” Further, Calvin “accepted the responsibility of the guardianship of the orphans” after his friend Guillaume de Trie had passed away. Though it seems that Calvin was a bit colder in disposition we now have many windows by which we can see a visibly more gentle Calvin than the tyrannical enigma passed down to us.
However, even if Calvin was proved to be the kindest man in Geneva, to judge his pastoral efficacy strictly on his kindness is not altogether sensible. I propose then that we assess Calvin’s pastoral efficacy with two standards: (1) consistency, (2) trajectory. These two standards function well as a measure because while consistency between thought and action does not necessitate merit and is only valuable if it is focused towards a worthy trajectory, having a good trajectory is only truly valuable if it is coupled with consistent action. I have already stated that Calvin is largely consistent in regards to his theology and pastoral practice. His view of humankind’s depravity informs his pragmatic theology the end of which is focused towards edification, and consequently a movement away from depravity and towards God. Undoubtedly Calvin had many trajectories for his reform but it seems that among them obedience to God features very prominently. Therefore the consistency so noticeable in Calvin is focused clearly towards obedience to God. So it seems to be the case that Calvin had a high level of consistency between his thought and action, also we can see that his trajectory was aimed at obedience, via edification. From this it is safe to say that Calvin as a pastor was very efficacious, often at the cost of his personal life.
At the “Reformer’s Wall” in Geneva, Switzerland John Calvin is looking downward, his finger is slipped between pages of the Bible showing apparently both his love for scripture and learning. Also he seems more solemn and reflective than the other reformers. Perhaps the sculptor catches something vital here because the look is not of a cruel tyrant; instead it is one of a man bordering on exhaustion. The fatigue is certainly not without understandable reasons, especially taking his considerable hardships to mind. Despite the challenges that Calvin was presented with throughout his life, in this paper we have seen that he was an advocate and proponent of a theology that was simultaneously steeped in learning and purposed towards the edification of the church. From this it seems tenable to say that Calvin was a thoroughly devoted and caring pastor. The Calvin of history and his statue at the reformer’s wall possess one last likeness, it is: their propensities to cast shadows. But shadows have an unfortunate ability to draw the eyes away from the person. This has happened with Calvin, the unfortunate stereotype is the result. When we look more at Calvin’s influence in contemporary politics or what became of predestination in later expressions of ‘Calvinism’ we miss the man who was both an exile in Geneva and a pastor, we forget the man whose life was run through with sacrifice but still pointed towards redemption.