Featured Post

Frank Viola Refutes “Strange Fire”

Frank Viola started a series of blog posts graciously critiquing John MacArthur’s book Charismatic Chaos which has been revised as Strange Fire. Viola writes: “In October 1994, I wrote a lengthy critique of John MacArthur’s controversial book Charismatic Chaos. I was in my 20s at the time. MacArthur’s...

Read More

CALVIN’S GENEVA – APPLIED CRITICAL THINKING

Posted by Radical Resurgence | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 15-03-2015

3

Written by Obie Ephyhm

Among the more difficult tasks in evaluating past opinions lies in viewing the ‘then’ through the values and ideals of the ‘now.’ This is both true in looking at John Hubbird’s essay from 1983 and at the life works of John Calvin from the mid-16th century. It is a common error, for example, to judge harshly based on what is unacceptable practice now when such may have been all too common nearly 500 years ago or to be overly critical of Hubbird’s equivocation of Calvin’s actions and motives based on the values I hold today set against his university values of 1983.

It should also be obvious to any real student of history that humanity glorifies its past out of all proportion to the deeds accomplished and raises many a pantheon of alleged virtuous nobles whose works extol the pinnacle of altruistic selflessness. Hubbird succeeds in raising the question as to whether Calvin rightfully belongs in that pantheon of great christian reformers.   I submit, however, that an even better question is whether followers of Jesus should have any pantheon at all – is there, was there ever a human whose virtues were so great that we should worship their utterances to the near exclusion of all others? Do we really know enough of history to make such heady gestures –or- do we give to ourselves too much credit in understanding things too old to be reliably known?

For example, Hubbird writes, “[John Calvin] a recent convert from Catholicism to Protestantism . . . gained notoriety as one of the major figures shaping the Reformation and Western Protestant consciousness and tradition. . . . [his] utter ostensive determination preventing the Protestant church from coming under secular state authority . . . attempted a unique historical experiment in Protestant Christian theocracy.” These are, indeed, the cornerstone historical assumptions of Calvin’s activities. But, if we are mindful that, history’s winners write their own histories while the losers’ voices are lost forever, then we are forced into considering alternative explanations for the things Calvin. Is not the alternative is to be (or continue to be) duped into believing a historical interpretation that conveniently ignores more true but less flattering aspects of a man driven to seek his own power over and above that of Jesus?

CALVIN THE MAN

We must put Calvin into an accurate historical context which means acknowledging that he was a member of the early modern French Aristocracy; as such, he was a member of a highly privileged class who took it as birthright their power and authority to command others. If such weeping religious words of his writings are stripped away, are we not confronted with Calvin, a man who clearly considered himself above most, by mere birth and by education which was reserved solely for the privileged elites? That he most especially considered himself to be superior to those who would, by modern terms, be classed as ‘tradesmen’ or ‘merchants’ and to the mere laborers below them? Does not Hubbird show us that there is no evidence supporting Calvin held to the ideals of equality espoused by Jesus at any point during his life? Surely, this is the natural attitude of aristocracy dating all through the middle ages into the Early Modern Period of his own time and not just in France, either. This is the way of this world even going back to Jesus’ time.

More historical weight may be lent to this idea when we also understand that to be a French Aristocrat is to be an heir of privileged classes going back to Carolingian Empires which were among the first to use Papal support in attempts to control the hearts and minds of its natural and conquered populations. Clearly, Charlemagne and his heirs held the belief that their governments were also ‘theocracy’ and such attitudes greatly infected the French nobility and aristocracy from the mid-8th century all the way to the French Revolution in 1789.   Theirs was government by divine right supported by the Roman Catholic Church for more than a thousand years.

Calvin was, therefore, a man who believed – and was raised to believe – that it was his divine right to tell others how they must live; not in the merest of outward appearances but even in demanding control of people’s thoughts and beliefs. There was no right to question or doubt or depart from the prescribed way laid out by those who claimed to ‘know best’ what others needed to do. This, too, is the way of the world and the worst curse that ever has been laid upon the backs of simple Jesus followers.

Moreover, we must suggest there are grounds to suspect Calvin’s religion was, at best, confused. There appears no reliable record of Calvin’s ‘conversion’. It further appears that Calvin’s consideration of reformed theology was driven at least as much, if not far more, by personal issues attached to his father’s conflict with the Bishop of Noyon and Gerard Calvin’s excommunication for personal and petty reasons under which he died. In this context, do we not have the right to suggest that this looks less like strong spiritual conviction and, to put in modern terms, more like someone switching political parties?

Calvin’s education was steeped in French Catholicism and that peculiar form of academic humanism which it was known for during the Early Modern Period. Throughout his life, however, he seemed to have little difficulty drawing authority from papal traditions as much as from the fledgling reformation. His reliance upon catholic and papist doctrine and law to convict Servetus seems worthy of note. How is it that a true reformer would so conveniently relapse to the old ways when it suits his fore-ordained purpose? More concretely, why has history failed to clearly delineate his actions against Servetus in the context for pre-mediated murder under the guise of his own or his catholic beliefs?

Undoubtedly, Calvin got caught up in the reformation activities of his day, educational background and locale. Many a person has been swept up in the tide of current events, temporarily reflecting ideals more strongly held by others yet curiously untouched within one’s own beliefs. It is possible, is it not?   For most, the strongest argument against this would be ‘An Instruction in Christian Piety’ also known as Calvin’s Institutes.

The scope of this article is not appropriate for detailed analysis of what is arguably Calvin’s seminal work for two reasons: first, there simply isn’t space and second, Hubbird’s paper didn’t really deal with it beyond its mention. It’s worth noting, however, that Calvin’s writings may have had much less to do with spiritual conviction and far more to do with the general expectations the French Aristocracy had for university graduates to write books and do translations taking advantage of their modern miracle of the printing press. An objective historical analysis of his Institutes might show the writing, even for its day, was not particularly insightful nor theologically useful beyond the ability to mass produce it. It was merely another, perhaps even the last, in a series of Catholicism-infused religious pseudo-philosophy cum theology works which ran rife through the middle ages and early renaissance periods. It relies heavily on the presumed authority of church hierarchy, traditional interpretations, proof-texting and utterly fails (as do most works during the aforementioned period) to address the presuppositions held by its author.

Certainly, for its time, it was something above the normal cut of cloth. I cannot help wondering, however, if history hasn’t been overly kind in its interpretation of it especially in light of the violence done by Calvin during his life in the name of Jesus. Had he merely been another typical European despot, there wouldn’t be much to wonder about. When things are done in the name of God, however, one is asking to be judged by a far higher standard — even through the imperfect lens of historical re-interpretation.

CALVIN AND GENEVA        

         According to Hubbird’s Genevan history, the most remarkable thing about it was the city/state’s early attempts at codifying itself as a proto-democracy — indicating the general Swiss ideals holding sway over the larger French influences for the hundred years or so before widespread Protestant Reformation activities or the arrival of Calvin. It is also true that the ideals of separation between church and state would not evolve for another 200 years or more. Conversely, such ideals would arise principally from nearly 1500 years of Papist State abuse and Calvin must bear his responsibility for using the reformation as a platform upon which such abuse continued. 

Here, again, Hubbird touches upon a critical point in seeing Calvin for what he really was:

When Calvin ventured into Geneva to meet Farel in July of 1536, he found a newborn city-state, “freed from Episcopal control, but as yet provided with no political substitute; she was liberated from Papistry, but as yet provided with no religious substitute. Geneva was, therefore, a tabula rasa, freshly emerged from the culmination of a dual revolution.

Calvin, under the bombastic authoritarian influence of Farel, a man who clearly wanted clerical power but in reformation clothing, entered into a political not a spiritual task of creating a functioning government by seeking to fill the power-void left in the wake of departing papists. Together, the two sought control by infiltrating the local political structures to get themselves a piece of power. This is the way of this world and does not reflect the values Jesus spoke of or lived by. Nor was this some accident, something that innocent reformers merely tumbled into by mistake. This is clearly a conscious choice to pursue the things of this world, in the name of spiritual values, in order to force others to think and act as they (Farel/Calvin) see fit. How is this different from Roman Catholic Papist history which precedes it?

This is further supported by looking at the political manner with which they used their spiritual position — seeking to defeat the remnant Catholics and branding those who disagreed with them as ‘heretics’ (sadly, an all-too-common behavior both pre- and post-reformation) using the church (that is, the bride of Christ) as their principle weapon by “a comprehensive reorganization of the Church of Geneva . . . and a public confession of the Reformed faith” and which was intended to include the “Farel/Calvin inspired religious loyalty oath”.      The remainder of the Farel/Calvin period in Geneva amounts to little more than endless political machinations until they got themselves banished from the city.

It would have been best, perhaps, had this been the end of the story. Calvin’s political recall to Geneva, as related by Hubbird, spends too much time in the insignificance of how it happened and too little upon what Calvin did when he was approached to return. Hubbird writes that,

Calvin’s final decision to accept Geneva’s offer was the pro­duct of careful and long negotiations regarding the terms of his return. He understandably wished to be sure that there was enough real support for his return to render him reasonably effective in shaping policy.   Upon arriving in Genevain September of 1541, Calvin warned that “the church could not hold together unless a settled gov­ernment were agreed on, such, as is prescribed to us in the Word of God and as was in use in the early church.

These were political power negotiations – not, repeat not spiritual. Calvin was, in modern terms, ‘consolidating his power position’ and garnering enough authority to do as he willed as Geneva’s Chief Political/Religious Architect. There is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING of Jesus in such acts. The only design here ultimately boils down to using the bible as a proof-text for establishing a religious dictatorship, to limit free communication about spiritual values and to utterly squelch debate. Its purpose, in short, is to remove the freedom Jesus purchased for us at such a great cost. It is a bald-faced attempt to put THE LAW back in preeminence over the individual’s place in Christ.

Certainly, on a very superficial basis, it appears as if there is a system of checks and balances being put in place. That was then and remains now, nothing more than window-dressing designed to deflect objections. The real power in Geneva was to be Calvin and he manipulated the council and ministers according to his aristocratic sense of entitlement to power.   Even though Hubbird notes,

Calvin’s early failure to secure a less ambiguous arrangement with the Council on this point, “lay at the root of some four­teen years of future struggle with the Council, which often threatened to create a rupture between the Reformer and the Government.”

does not imply we should consider Calvin more innocent of the charges I am suggesting.   That Calvin negotiated and failed to gain all that he sought does not absolve him of the intention of having totalitarian-like control. It may simply mean he was incompetent at fore-seeing sufficient areas of potential conflict to have adequately bargained in the first place.

Nonetheless, the important point, really the very critical point, is that Calvin was operating in politics, engaged in activities which clearly belong to this world and were completely at odds with the new found ‘truth’ being rediscovered by reformers elsewhere and earlier (e.g. Erasmus, Luther, etc.). He is behaving far more like the Papal representatives of the Carolingian Empire and is seeking, via political means, to enforce a state religion upon the Genevans.

CALVIN AND MICHAEL SERVETUS

I believe there is nothing in Calvin’s life which so clearly shows his true nature than his manner of dealing with Servetus. Michael Servetus, born Miguel Serveto (29 September 1511 – 27 October 1553) was a Spanish theologian, physician, cartographer, and humanist most notable for being the first European to describe pulmonary circulation. He excelled at mathematics, astronomy and meteorology, geography, human anatomy, medicine and pharmacology, jurisprudence, and the scholarly study of the Bible in its original languages. He was renowned in the history of several of these fields, particularly medicine and theology. He participated in the Protestant Reformation, and later developed a Unitarian Christology. Condemned by Catholics and Protestants alike, he was arrested in Geneva and burnt at the stake as a heretic by order of the Protestant Geneva governing council where Calvin was the chief prosecutor and accuser.

Hubbird tells two notable things which reveal Calvin’s character and motivations:

[Servetus] had corresponded many times with Calvin from around the mid-1530’s. Calvin, having lost patience with Servetus, claimed his letters had an edge of hostility and bombast about them in a letter to Farel.

This Calvin-Servetus debate was (and remains to this day) another in the long-running battles over the nature of God and God’s means for revelation to humanity. Specifically, it centers upon the validity of representing Him as being One God ‘being manifest in three persons’ (aka Trinitarian) verses the idea that God is One God and all representations of Him are subsets of that One God or are not God at all (Unitarianism).   Forgive me for this gross over-simplification of 2000 years worth of argument but, for the most part, human-finite-beings discourse on the nature of God-the-Infinite are doomed to be incomplete and unsatisfying if one’s purpose is to positively identify the ultimate nature of God. Infinity simply cannot be contained by a finite vessel.   Which is why the Trinitarian verses Unitarian debate has never been (and never will be – in this world) resolved.

The second point is contained in the continuation of Calvin’s quoted letter to Farel, above:

If Servetus comes to Geneva, I will never let him depart alive if I have any authority.

But it gets worse. Much worse, when Hubbird tells us that:

Calvin made an unusual appeal to Roman Law and Justinian for justification of civil authority to punish heresy as a criminal offense against the Empire.

Since their debate could not be resolved and certainly hadn’t been by 1553, I strongly suspect that Calvin’s distaste for Servetus was rooted in Servetus having made intellectual arguments equal or superior to Calvin and it made Calvin so frustrated because he wasn’t able to win the argument that he purposed to kill Servetus. Again, even back then, that constitutes pre-mediated murder.

I’m no saint and I am known for not being able to ‘suffer fools lightly’. I can and do get extremely annoyed and irritated at all manner of stupid things ‘christians’ say and write. But I don’t pre-mediate murder of those who disagree with me (superior arguments or not) because that is NOT what Jesus would do. That attitude should have been part and parcel with the ‘church’ from its dawning so Calvin has no more excuse for his lack of following Jesus’ example than I would if I manipulated the state into executing someone for heresy (which is one of the reasons the separation of Church and State is such a good idea).

Calvin, being unable to use prevailing Reformation principles to roast Servetus, abandoned them to fall back upon Catholic-based civil law – again, harkening back to the Carolingian Dynasties – in order to affect the State to kill Servetus where Calvin could not from claimed spiritual principles. How can we look at such actions with such clear intent and not question the validity of everything else Calvin did?

CALVIN: THEOCRACY, DEMOCRACY OR OLIGARCHY?

Hubbird goes into some discourse attempting to identify whether Calvin’s Geneva was one of these three forms of government.   The general Calvinist claim being that it was an attempt at Theocracy and Calvin can be justified in his actions on that basis. In modern political parlance, such an argument ‘hasn’t got legs’ — it doesn’t add up on several grounds. We can dispense with the idea of Calvin being interested in democracy as trivially inappropriate. Under no guise, ancient or modern, can democratic ideals been espoused to by Calvin or anyone who he was influenced by.

Likewise, Theocracy is almost as easily dismissed by Hubbird’s own historical accounts. Theocracy is defined as a government is understood to be under immediate divine guidance especially a state ruled by clergy or by officials who are regarded by the governed as divinely guided. The general populace holds the perspective where, in the theocratic government, “God himself is recognized as the head” of the state. It is a term from the Greek, θεοκρατια “rule of God”, used by Josephus of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in his historical writings.)  Moreover, the self-proclaimed ‘ordained by God’ or ‘Grace of God’ claims by power-hungry individuals is insufficient to render the claim of Theocracy legitimate in most scholarly sources.

It is arguable that Calvin attempted to enact theonomic (from the Greek words “theos” God, and “nomos” law) rules to control the general population. It is not at all clear, in fact highly doubtful, if the people themselves agreed with Calvin’s alleged divine right to rule them, especially early on when the various syndics attempted to reign him in and directly challenged his attempts to institute his own particular vision of state-controlled religion. Nor can there be much doubt that Calvin’s attempt at theocracy was monist in form, where the government’s administrative hierarchy was modeled after the religious administrative hierarchy with the state administration subordinate to the religious rules.

The argument for/against Oligarchy is muddied considerably by lack of unbiased histories currently available. Religious history has painted Calvin as a principle reformer and so has thereby excused and left undocumented large portions of what political opposition he may have experienced in his own time. Clearly there was a great deal during the early years of his Genevan political activities. It seems quite reasonable to assert that, if there was a tendency for shared political power prior early on, it greatly diminished over time.

At best, there are many confusions as to Calvin’s real purpose and motivations where beyond his natural aristocratic penchant for control over the ‘unruly masses’ and the long-standing French tradition of state-controlled religion in concert with largely unchallenged political control.   In any case, it fails to qualify as an ‘experiment in Theocracy’ as is so often cited and, most importantly, Calvin’s positions on believer’s involvement with politics and government go in stark contrast to the examples left to us by Jesus, himself. The idea that Calvin’s political acumen somehow becomes:

the champion of all faiths, through a deliberate disestablishment of all as attempted by the framers of the United States Constitution envisioned for America two hundred years later?

is completely specious and fallacious. There was nothing of ‘freedom’ or ‘choice’ or individual rights within or leading from Calvin’s Geneva except by virtue of its magnificent failures in those very same regards.

HUBBIRD’S ‘CALVIN IN GENEVA’ CONCLUSION

John Hubbird’s writing raises questions about very nature and accomplishment of Calvin’s life and does so in stark relief to the generally biased nature of sanitized christian history.   In his own conclusion and most telling moment, Hubbird wrote:

Calvin’s presupposition that his church was the One True Church, driven by his own passionate vision, led him to employ inhumane means to achieve his desired ends. Was this inhumanity an inescapable conclusion to Calvin’s view of the church, or just an instance of cultural hang-over from an earlier in­quisitional milieu?  Or is it, perhaps, the nature for absolute power to corrupt even the most well-meaning of souls?

It is not, however, particularly constructive to compare Calvin with others within his own cultural context. History is not a perfect portrait of what really happened and all — repeat ALL of its nuances are forever lost to us. Mistakes made by others do not justify anything. The use of ‘heresy’ as the millstone against those who question or doubt or search or wonder is and should be anathema to those who follow Jesus.

Calvin gave rise to generations of followers who slavishly held and hold to his ways as being on the same level with revealed gospel truth. So much harm has been done by this, that it staggers the mind and very nearly slays the spirit.   I am not condemning Calvin to the loss of his salvation — that is something only God knows and can deal with in whatever way He feels is appropriate. From the standpoint of the ekklesia, the damage is incalculable.   Any attempt to whitewash the truth of what Calvin did isn’t a debate about his motives, means and opportunities — those are things of this world.

That’s what it all boils down to. Whatever else you take away from the Bible, you cannot get around this: what Calvin did had absolutely nothing to do with life, work and words of Jesus as preserved for him and us in the New Testament.

Comments (3)

[…] Click here to read the response to this article […]

[…] [1] All of the above information about Geneva can be found in Will Durant, The Reformation, pp. 472-476. Durant cites his sources. See also Calvin’s Geneva: An Experiment in Christian Theocracy – published in The Radical Resurgence andCalvin’s Geneva: Applied Critical Thinking – published in The Radical Resurgence […]

[…] [1] All of the above information about Geneva can be found in Will Durant, The Reformation, pp. 472-476. Durant cites his sources. See also Calvin’s Geneva: An Experiment in Christian Theocracy – published in The Radical Resurgence andCalvin’s Geneva: Applied Critical Thinking – published in The Radical Resurgence […]