The occasion of John Calvin's 500th birthday has spawned several books on the much discussed, less understood pillar of the Protestant Reformation. Interest in the Genevan pastor and theologian has surged of late, yet even many of his devoted followers are more familiar with caricatures than history. Westminster Seminary California president and professor of church history W. Robert Godfrey seeks to counter this problem with a new popular-level biography, John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor. He was interviewed by CT editor at large Collin Hansen.
Why did you organize your biography around the themes of "pilgrim" and "pastor"?
Many approach Calvin first of all as a theologian, and he certainly was a great theologian. But his theology emerged out of his own spiritual journey and struggles. In the first part of the book I focus on that spiritual pilgrimage of Calvin, because his experience and his reading of the Bible are critical to understanding his vision of Christianity. In the second part of the book, I follow his pastoral career because he regarded his calling as primarily that of pastor. His work as theologian and biblical commentator really served his work as pastor. Organizing the book as I did also allowed me to try to integrate Calvin's life with his thought more than most books do. We have biographies of Calvin that contain little theology and we have introductions to his theology that have little of his life. I have tried to provide an introduction to both and to show how interrelated they are.
To what do you attribute the disparity between how most people remember Calvin and how historians view him?
Most people do not know Calvin's life or work. He has become a symbol or perhaps an epithet for what is narrow, judgmental, joyless, and intolerant. Calvin inspired a great and vital movement that led to the founding of Reformed churches in many parts of the world. Those churches were disciplined and serious in their pursuit of the Christian life. In some countries those churches or their members had a great influence on the life and laws of their lands. For those outside the Reformed churches, some of that life and culture did feel restrictive and intolerant. But the modern, often liberal, aversion to Calvinism has often been simply transferred to Calvin as a way of expressing distaste for a whole movement. Historians of Calvin know better than this, but often have not written in a popular way to challenge widespread misconceptions.
You quote Calvin's friend Theodore Beza, who said of him, "I can now declare, that in him all men may see a most beautiful example of the Christian character, an example which it is as easy to slander as it is difficult to imitate." What is it about Calvin that has attracted so much criticism?
In his own day Calvin was attacked primarily by two groups. First, his theological opponents' passion was provoked in part by the effective, clear, and persuasive way in which Calvin presented his thought. The force of his ideas led those who disagreed with him sometimes to attack him quite personally. Second, his political opponents, especially in Geneva, attacked the kind of disciplined Christian society that he tried to build there. He believed that all citizens ought to be Christians, that they ought to live like Christians, and that they ought to be disciplined by the church and/or the state if they failed to live like Christians. A number of rich and influential leaders in Geneva thought that such ideas were fine for common people, but ought not to apply to the rich.
You write that Calvin "lived to make Christians, not Calvinists." Why do we so often miss this point?
Calvin did not live and work to make followers of himself, but to make followers of Christ as he is presented in the Scriptures. He worked hard to reform the whole church according to the Word of God and especially labored to unite Protestants. Today I fear that Christianity is so divided that it is very hard to maintain a vision of the church as a whole. Also Calvin was good at seeing priorities in the life of the church. He knew where compromise was appropriate and where it was not. Too often today we fall to squabbling about things in the church because we do not have a sense of priorities.
Did Calvin indicate that he had any regrets?
Calvin had some regrets in his personal life. He certainly regretted that his wife had died after only a few years of marriage and that they had no children survive infancy. He regretted that he had trouble controlling his temper, although the evidence suggests that he saw this as more of a problem than those around him did. He regretted that the church in Geneva did not have communion more frequently than four times per year. In general, however, Calvin did not regret the basic direction and decisions of his life.
How are we to understand Calvin's confrontation with Michael Servetus?
For many, Servetus is the ultimate example of the intolerance and cruelty of Calvin. I have no desire to try to justify the persecution or execution of heretics, but in fairness to Calvin the Servetus episode must be seen in historical context. Servetus denied the doctrine of the Trinity, and that was a capital crime almost everywhere in Europe. When Servetus came to Geneva, he had already been sentenced to death in France. Calvin had warned Servetus by letter not to come to Geneva because of his views. After Servetus was arrested, Calvin and other ministers tried to convince him that his views of the Trinity were unbiblical. Servetus was put on trial before a civil court in Geneva. Calvin was the prosecutor in the trial, but was not one of the judges. Calvin agreed that Servetus should be executed, but unsuccessfully asked that he be beheaded instead of burned alive.
Almost all Europeans in Calvin's day believed that heresy was as dangerous as the plague and that civil governments had the obligation to eradicate it. Calvin was a man of his time on this matter. He is not to be excused for this reason, but he must be seen as holding views that most others of his time held. The case of Servetus provides no evidence that Calvin was unusually cruel or intolerant. Rather he like most others believed the civil government had a responsibility to protect the public from false religion, even by using its coercive powers.
How might history have turned out differently if Calvin had never been born?
Calvin has been seen as an influence in the rise of modern education, modern science, capitalism, and democracy. All of these developments in the history of the West would probably have occurred if Calvin had never lived, but he probably helped the development occur somewhat more quickly. Others were leading a reform of the church and without Calvin there still would probably have been a vital movement of Reformed Christianity. What Calvin did uniquely contribute was a remarkably articulate and passionate presentation of Reformed Christianity that centered and energized the movement in a way no one else in the sixteenth century could have done.
If people want to learn more about and from Calvin, how do you suggest they proceed?
I hope people will not neglect to read Calvin himself. The best places to begin are with his sermons and his commentaries. He is very accessible. His Genevan Catechism and his Reply to Sadoleto are also good beginning points. The Institutes of the Christian Religion is, of course, his greatest single work, but in its final form it was intended for theology students. It is heavier and more polemic than some of his other work, but certainly well worth reading.
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
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Recent Christianity Today coverage of the John Calvin quincentenary includes "Long Live the Law: What would John Calvin say to Dick Cheney?" "The Real Prosperity Gospel," and "Reverence for the Mystery."
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