Tuesday 17 March 2015

Taking Calvin's name in vain

It is remarkable how easily figures of the past are appropriated to suit the agendas and prejudices of the present. Calvin is a case in point. From time to time he plays the moderate scholar to Luther’s firebrand polemicist or the warm pastor-scholar whose intellectual children did him the disservice of creating cold and contractual Calvinism, but he has generally played the villain.

A fascinating survey of this theme is ‘Images of Intolerance: John Calvin in Nineteenth-Century History Textbooks’ by Thomas Davis (Church History, Volume 65 June 1996, 234-248) which highlights how type-cast Calvin became and gives an account of why that should be so.[1]  

To give a few examples:

Universal History, in Perspective (1850) gives prominence to only one fact about the Reformer: “Calvin, about 1542 [the wrong date], caused Servetus to be burned as a heretic.”

In Outlines of History (1873) it is suggested (quite extraordinarily) that Servetus was burned on the grounds that had denied that Judea was a beautiful, rich, and fertile country; and affirmed, on the authority of travellers, that it was poor, barren, and disagreeable.” I mean, what’s with this Calvin guy?

Servetus’ scientific research also comes to the fore (he was among other things a keen scientist). In The Story of Modern Progress (1920) it is alleged that the suppression of his theological views also led to the suppression of his discoveries relating to the circulation of blood, on account of which “hundreds of thousands of lives” were lost throughout Europe over the next fifty years (quoted in Davis, 238).

Then there are Calvin’s predestinarian views. Although not unique to him he stands alone “because of certain stern doctrines on the subject of God’s sovereignty” (Outlines of General History, 1899)

Ultimately the sternness extends to the man also: he is represented as “the constitutional lawyer of the Reformation, with vision as clear, with head as cool, with soul as dry, as any old solicitor in rusty black that ever dwelt in chambers in Lincoln’s Inn. His sternness was that of the judge who dooms a criminal to the gallows.” (The Beginnings of New England; or the Puritan Theocracy in Its Relation to Civil Liberty, 1889).

The oddity of all this is that these works were self-consciously Protestant in many cases. But as Davis argues there are several other narratives in play which force Calvin into that dark corner, many of which circle around the question of American identity. Throughout the period, independence of thought and the freedom from external pressure was paramount. In that context Luther could easily play the hero, facing off against Rome. But Calvin? He finds himself in the role of the oppressor. And the doctrine seemingly most oppressive to human freedom – predestination – is hung round his neck.

In addition, evident in the titles already mentioned, there is the myth of human progress:

“All events in Western civilization were to be judged, according to one author, ‘by how they contributed to human progress.’ Another author concerned himself with those things that contributed to the ‘developing spirit of humanity.’ Still another offered textbooks to the American public to give readers ‘general view of human progress.’” (Davis, 241)

Servetus, therefore, gets to play the hero in two senses, not only as the martyr to independent thought but also to scientific progress.

As Davis highlights, in the attempt to retain some connection with the Reformation, two strategies were developed. First, the ‘spirit of the Reformation,’ identified as the supremacy of human liberty etc., was separated from the Reformers who (Calvin chiefly) failed to live up to the ideals consistently. Secondly, Luther is elevated as a foil to Calvin, serving as “a symbol of freedom of thought because of his stand against the pope” (Davis, 245). By contrast, and in a remarkably polemical twist, Calvin is placed “not in the camp of Luther, the Reformation, and freedom of thought, but within the ranks of the papacy” (Davis, 246). Thus in General History for Colleges and High Schools (1889) he is styled as the “Protestant Pope.”

All in all it’s a striking reminder that the past is far too easily appropriated to support our presuppositions. The past rarely agrees with us as much as we’d like, and we’d do well to go looking for things that challenge us in the works of our heroes and for things we’ve overlooked in the works of our villains. Oh, and skip the textbooks.

[1] I was put on to the article by a Fred Sanders lecture on Calvin available here: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/itunes-u/torrey-honors-theology-audio/id391217366?mt=10