John Calvin: Comeback Kid
Few figures in Christian history have been esteemed so highly or despised so meanly as the shy French lawyer born 500 years ago this summer. John Calvin became not only the greatest theological genius of the Reformation, second only to Luther, but also, as French historian Émile G. Léonard dubbed him, "the founder of a new civilization." Some have gone so far as to depict Calvin as both the greatest teacher of Christian doctrine since Paul and a near-infallible guide in every arena of human endeavor, from art and architecture to politics and economics.
But his detractors have been vocal and numerous. Many think of him as the cruel tyrant of Geneva, a morose, bitter, and utterly inhuman figure. Some of his contemporaries called him "Cain," taking out the two middle consonants in his name in order to smear him as a murderous misanthrope. TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart once alleged that Calvin "has caused untold millions of souls to be damned." More often than not, though, Calvin has simply been ignored, especially by his cultured despisers. Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize—winning novelist (Gilead) who has tried to rescue Calvin from his detractors, reports that she has "encountered an odd sort of social pressure as often as I have mentioned him. One does not read Calvin. One does not think of reading him … Calvin seems to be neglected on principle."
There is evidence, however, that Calvin is making a comeback. This past year has seen numerous conferences, lectures, and publications evaluating Calvin and his role as one of the most consequential thinkers of the last millennium. A few months ago, Time magazine published a story on the top ten forces that are currently changing the world. In addition to expected trends like the increasing role of the Internet and the global financial crisis, the renaissance of Calvinism in America came in as number three on the list. The evangelical blogs are abuzz, and Twitter is atweet, with comments on free will and predestination, original sin and sovereign grace.
Last year at Beeson Divinity School, two of our finest professors were cajoled (somewhat against their will, I think) by the students into a public debate on limited atonement. Even the David Crowder Band has a lyric, "I am full of earth / you are heaven's worth / I am stained with dirt / prone to depravity." And U2's 2009 album, No Line on the Horizon, chimes in with, "I was born to sing for you / I didn't have a choice but to lift you up," with the refrain, "Justified until we die / you and I will magnify / the Magnificent." Who knew that Bono was at least a three-point Calvinist?
Still, the question remains: Why does Calvin persist as such a controversial—and monumental—figure in the Christian story? Why does he still generate such contrary emotions? What has kept Calvin from fading into the shadows of church history?
Calvin was a second-generation reformer. He was born on July 10, 1509, in Noyon, France, 50 miles northeast of Paris, and was barely eight years old when Luther posted his 95 theses on the castle church door at Wittenberg. The son of a church official in the cathedral city of Noyon, Calvin seemed destined for a priestly career. His father pulled strings to acquire a benefice for him to continue his education in Paris, at a school Erasmus had also attended a few decades earlier. But his father suddenly changed his mind midcourse and sent Calvin to study law, first at Orléans and then at Bourges. Remember that Luther, in defiance of his father, gave up the study of law to become a monk, whereas Calvin, in obedience to his father, left the study of theology to become a lawyer.