Calvin: the Great Re-Former

John Calvin probably never heard of the Western Isles, and many in the Western Isles certainly wish they had never heard of him.

There’s no point in re-traversing the old familiar allegations of his baneful influence on the arts; nor is there any point in defending him from the charge that it was his fault that in the 1970s a man from Barvas had to trudge the seven miles to Galson if he wanted a ‘Christian drink’.  What really bugs me is that scarcely a day passes but the phrase ‘a narrow Calvinism’ walks across my computer-screen.

I have two problems with this.  One is that Calvin never saw himself as the founder of an -ism.  In his own lifetime, there is only one single instance of the word “Calvinism” being used, and that was as an insult, as if we today were to call someone a Nazi.  In this respect things aren’t much better in 2013.

Yet the man himself was never an innovator, and even less was he an iconoclast bent on destroying all that had gone before.  He was a re-former, and by that he meant that his one great concern was to restore the church to the form it had in the New Testament and in the first four Christian centuries.

The result is that it is hard to find in Calvin a single idea that had not been part of Christian tradition from time immemorial.  He shunned originality, and if his -ism has any one distinctive it is that it has no distinctives at all.  It is simply, as one great 19th century scholar put it, “Christianity come into its own”.

Nor did Calvin ever demand personal loyalty.  It never occurred to him, for example, that his “Institutes” should become the creed of a church in the way that Wesley’s Sermons became the creed of Methodism, or a papal encyclical commands the loyalty of all the Catholic faithful.

One curious result of this is that in the decades after his death Protestant theologians felt no need to back up their views with quotations from Calvin.  His own age didn’t see him as a giant, and even in the 19th century a classic, four-volume work from a Scottish theologian quotes him only once.

But what bugs me even more is that whatever “Calvinism” was, it wasn’t narrow.  The lazy modern mind, of course, reduces it to one thing: predestination, and I’m certainly  not going to disown that doctrine.  It affords gives us a magnificent view of a world which was carefully and lovingly planned, and which runs on schedule despite the fact that every sub-atomic particle behaves randomly and every human being makes her own free decisions; and it helps us understand why some people accept the Christian message even though it cuts across every prejudice with which they were born.

But in Calvin’s own teaching, predestination is but one subject among many, the sixty-seven pages he devotes to it in his “Institutes” dwarfed by the five-hundred devoted to the doctrine of the church and by the many others devoted to the foundations of knowledge, the value of pagan writings, the humanity of Christ, self-denial, and the freedom of the individual Christian conscience.

But he was no mere theologian, poring over ancient tomes four floors above the roar of the traffic.  Calvin was as practical as he was logical.  Such was the academic renown of his university at Geneva, for example, that even the Jesuits paid it compliments.  Poor children and orphans received a free education in the city school, and Calvin even managed to set up a kind of public health service by securing the appointment at public expense of a physician for the poor.  Everyone knows that compared to the mediaeval church Calvin had a relaxed view on lending money at interest.  What is less well-known is that once, at a time of high unemployment, he persuaded the Council to establish a silk-factory.

All this reflects Calvin’s firm belief that the church could not disclaim responsibility for social welfare; and to promote that welfare he was happy to see women as well as men employed as deacons.

When it came to arrangements for worship, Calvin was a stickler for order, reverence and propriety.  The whole service had to take its tone from the fact that they were gathered in the presence of the Almighty.  Confusion and flippancy were anathema, and what he called theatrical props, trifling pomp and useless extravagance absolutely banned.  Modern Evangelical worship would have driven him nuts.

Yet at the same time Calvin recognised that decorum and order mean different things in different cultures.  What is appropriate to North Atlantic communities would be ridiculous in the Australian outback.  What mattered, therefore, was not that there should be any one particular order, but that there should be an agreed order, and that all involved should observe it.

For example, Calvin believed that we should kneel at prayers and have Communion every week, but he would never have left a church just because people stood for prayers and had Communion only once a year; and when he heard that his Anglican friend, Bishop Hooper, had refused to wear the prescribed episcopal robes at his investiture he was highly irritated.  It was daft, he thought, to make such a fuss over an agreed piece of ceremonial.

Because, more than anything else, Calvin longed for unity among all the Protestant churches.  He was no Episcopalian, but he happily addressed Thomas Cranmer as “most illustrious Archbishop” and warmly endorsed his proposal for a Council of all the Protestant churches to draft a statement of common belief.  Four years later, Cranmer was burned at the stake and the proposal came to nothing, but this did not prevent Calvin declaring that he would be happy to see the Pope preside over a General Council of all the churches, provided he would accept the authority of scripture.

The 19th century Scottish theologian, Hume Brown, once pronounced Calvinism and Catholicism the only two “absolute types of Christianity”, and there is enough truth in this to rebut the charge of narrowness.  No one ever accuses Romanism of narrowness.  It is a monumental and encyclopaedic intellectual construction.  But Calvinism matches it point for point, ranging from the doctrine of original sin to the theology of art, science, commerce and even civil disobedience.

Which may explain why not much in modern Europe escaped the influence of the great Genevan re-former.

This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press on Friday 28 June 2013