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Sticking by the Bible

A 500th birthday biography of Calvin shows a complex man with a singular belief who delivered the church from medievalism


A statue of John Calvin along the Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland Engraving by I. Covens and C. Mortier/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sticking by the Bible
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A biographer's task is to narrate the arc of a life, not merely assemble a set of facts. He needs to enlist not just mind but heart, building sympathy for his subject while retaining sufficient critical distance to see him not as he saw himself, but perhaps as God sees him. Dutch scholar Herman Selderhuis accomplishes those tasks admirably in John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life. Relying heavily on Calvin's letters to friends and associates, he portrays him as not merely the great brain but a pilgrim with hemorrhoids, a man who knew his flaws but also knew that God, for Christ's sake, had forgiven him.

Secularists and some Christians think of Calvin, born on July 10, 1509, as a person who wanted to force theological conformity, but Selderhuis notes, "For Calvin, conversion meant freedom, a liberation from the torments of the conscience, from the feeling that whatever he did was sinful and wrong." He realized that the disciplines celebrated by medieval Catholicism-penance, fasting, and other forms of self-flagellation-were not required and could be harmful. He proposed instead, and modeled in his life, the discipline of work in a calling, and the discipline of service, particularly to the poor. Calvin's emphasis on godly work outside of ecclesiastical pursuits opened the door to many vocations. He saw God's grace in scientific discovery, because learning more about the created world taught us about the Creator. He argued that biblical opposition to usury referred to interest-free charitable loans, and that extending this ban to regular economic activity would reduce opportunities to promote business expansion and human flourishing. He thought the best way to tackle poverty was not to distribute alms but to open a business and employ those who would otherwise beg.

Selderhuis also shows how Calvin emphasized not just theoretical study but careful observation of all that happens: Terrible events show "that the world is passing away, that one must seek true rest elsewhere, that with God even setbacks aim at the good, that one must be humble, that one needs forgiveness of sins, and the list goes on. If God does nothing random, there must always be something to learn." For this reason Calvinists founded newspapers and colleges.

Calvin wrote and preached in a way accessible to the broad public, not just scholars: He used "short, clear sentences. This was apparently so remarkable at the time that he is considered the inventor of modern French sentence structure." Calvin's appreciation of music-it "has a mysterious and almost unbelievable power . . . to turn hearts"-led him to introduce congregational singing.

In politics, Selderhuis shows that Calvin did not care much for monarchy, where birth rather than ability determined rulers, and where one person had too much power: Given sin, how many could resist grabbing and killing to get what they wanted, or at least taxing heavily? Others in his time still saw monarchs as limitless in their power by divine right, but Calvin argued, "If [note the if] kings want to be considered legitimate and as servants of God, they need to show that they are real fathers to their nation."

When the powerful demanded what was not theirs, Calvin recommended passive resistance highlighted by the patient bearing of wrongs. Giving God His due, though, might require active resistance: "If princes demand that we turn from honor of God, if they force us into idolatry or superstition, then they have no more authority over us than frogs and lice do." When Catholics tried to wipe out France's Huguenots and these Protestants took up arms to defend themselves, Calvin "actively engaged in the collection of funds for the Huguenot armies."

Selderhuis also shows that Calvin thankfully made use of many of God's blessings. When Calvin reformed Geneva's law code, the town fathers gave him a barrel of aged wine as a reward: He enjoyed it and later wrote, "If wine is a poison to the drunkard, does that mean we are to have an aversion to it? Please, no. We do not let that spoil the taste for us, for on the contrary, we delight in the taste of wine!" Calvin argued that those who promoted lifelong celibacy and thought sex was bad were opposing God's will: Sex, not solely for the purpose of procreation, was part of a healthy marriage.

Calvin's views of marriage generally seem more modern than medieval. He argued that prospective marriage partners should spend time together to gauge compatibility, and that marriages should not be arranged against the wishes of the prospective partners: If they "do not love each other, it is a desecration of marriage and actually is no marriage at all. For the most important bond is that they both want it." Nor was it wrong "that men in the choice of a wife take into account their beauty"-and women also could consider men's looks. Calvin even stated that although sex before marriage was wrong, life was complicated and it was foolish for men to insist that women they marry be virginal.

Calvin's goal in all this was to stick by the Bible inspired by God who understands the weakness of our frames. Earning our food by the sweat of our brows was hard enough without adding on extra-biblical practices that allowed us falsely to assert our holiness. He worried about extremism: "When you begin to doubt whether you may use linen for sheets, shirts, handkerchiefs and tablecloths, you . . . will also have doubts about using flax." He believed in simple living but worried about making it a church imperative: "If you suppose that you may not permit yourself a nicer meal, in the end you will not eat normal bread or an ordinary dinner with a clear conscience before God when you realize that even more simple nourishment would do for your body. . . . Finally, things will go so far that you think it sinful to step over a straw that blocks your path."

Selderhuis notes that Calvin was very engaged with the Anabaptists and even married an Anabaptist widow, "providing a symbol of the way he dealt with them theologically. One had to win them over and bring them into one's own house. In terms of the church, one might even marry them by taking into one's own theological house the good that they bring with them." The problem was their perfectionism, Calvin contended: "They go too far. For where the Lord demands meekness, they drop it altogether and give themselves over completely to an immoderate severity."

That pinpoints the crucial difference: Calvin believed that we should be severe with ourselves in our callings, using our limited time wisely for God's glory, but that we should not take on hard practice that will supposedly cleanse us of our sin. That was impossible: Calvin believed, as did Martin Luther, that believers are simultaneously justified and sinful (simul iustus et peccator). Selderhuis' conclusion: "We do our best to live perfectly as Christians, but we know that we will never attain that level. In this way one does one's best without becoming anxious the minute things go wrong."

Calvin saw lots of things go wrong. His one child died at the age of 22 days, and his beloved wife died 8 years into their marriage. Calvin probably had malaria and certainly had terrible migraine headaches, kidney stones, hemorrhoids that made it painful for him to ride a horse, stomach pains, insomnia, and much besides. And yet, he did not accuse or blame God: As Selderhuis puts it, "He tried to turn the question, 'Why?' into the question, 'What for?'"

The "what for" answer he arrived at was an imperative not to waste the time God gave him, so Calvin kept writing and preaching even when ill. He avoided big meals and leisurely pursuits other than walking, but the mistake he sometimes made was in attempting to mandate others to be like him. He wrestled with God, yearned to discern how God governed both the world and individual lives (including his own), and came away grateful despite all his sadness and torments: "From my very birth, God has cared for me. I have gone through a million dangers, and he has delivered me."

John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life is by no means a whitewash of Calvin-see the sidebar for notes on the ammunition he provided to his enemies in the 1500s and now-but Selderhuis reminds us well of what Calvin did to deliver the church from medievalism.

The other Calvin

The March 12 issue of Time included "The New Calvinism" in its list of "Ten Ideas Changing the World Right Now." Author David Van Biema wrote that "Calvinism is back" and called it "Evangelicalism's latest success story, complete with an utterly sovereign and micromanaging deity, sinful and puny humanity, and the combination's logical consequence, predestination." He wondered, in a snarky conclusion, if "during these hard times more Christians searching for security will submit their wills to the austerely demanding God of their country's infancy."

As John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life points out, Calvin wanted security rather than anxiety: He wrote, "If one had to contribute even only a pebble to one's own salvation, one would lie in lifelong fear that one's pebble was just not big enough." But what Calvin wanted even more than security was truth: Selderhuis writes, "He wanted nothing more than to defend God against any attack that deprived him of his due, that made him appear small, or portrayed him as a tyrant or conversely as some kind of Santa Claus."

Some today who see God as Santa Claus (but with a longer beard and bigger belly) criticize Calvin for purportedly worshipping a tyrannical God and for being a tyrant himself. Selderhuis does not hide the evidence that has contributed to this notion.

Exhibit A is made up of Genevan restrictions on conduct. Some-a ban on dancing in the city's streets, and a prohibition of card and dice playing when preaching was going and after 9 p.m.-predated Calvin's arrival in Geneva in 1536. But the city council, sometimes at odds with Calvin but nevertheless under his tutelage, prohibited in 1546 dancing, dice, card-playing, and ball games. It also passed regulations stating how many plates and how much cutlery could be used at dinner, and how much fanciness in clothes was allowed. Starting in 1558 dinners of all kinds were to include no more than three courses, each course having a maximum of four different dishes. Starting in 1560, the wearing of gold or silver necklaces, or other jewelry, was also forbidden.

Selderhuis explains that Calvin supported such restrictions and may have proposed some because he "was like an architect who, after the extravagance of the baroque era, wanted a return to straight lines, simplicity and efficiency." He also wanted native Genevans to spend less money on themselves and provide more help to the poor refugees who flooded into Switzerland, as France persecuted Protestants, and eventually outnumbered the native Genevans. Calvin reacted as many American Christians would if the United States now had over 300 million immigrants living in great poverty, while the owners of Park Avenue penthouses regularly put on parties for pooches.

Calvin had seen the affluent sometimes strip the indebted poor of their furniture and even their clothes. He could not stomach grand parties and rich clothes-"Jesus Christ was not a tailor," he said-when others were starving and dressed in rags: He wanted the rich to dress simply and spend the money they saved on new businesses that would employ the poor. But attempts to mandate compassion fostered resentment, not changed hearts. Calvin should have allowed more liberty.

Exhibit B is Calvin's limited role in the execution of Michael Servetus in 1553. When Servetus called the Trinitarian God a three-headed monster, he became a dead man by law in Cologne, Antwerp, and a hundred other cities-but he came to Geneva and by order of the city council, with Calvin's complicity, was executed. Selderhuis writes that the Genevan government-and Calvin did not oppose it-"saw no other option but to carry this punishment out. Any city that became known as tolerant of those who would deny the Trinity would be abandoned by friend and foe alike."

That's true historically, yet unsatisfying. The biographical point is that Calvin had left medievalism behind in many ways but not the idea that a city with a variety of religious views was a house divided, on its way to collapse. (The United States is now testing the theory that a nation can survive when religious and cultural divides proliferate.) He may also have seen Geneva as a new Israel that needed laws to help it become or remain clear. We've seen over the years that neither Geneva nor the United States is a new Israel-and in any case, the history of the old Israel shows the inadequacy of even the best laws. Only Christ truly makes a difference.


Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.

@MarvinOlasky

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