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 ...1