Love him or hate him, Calvin is a towering figure on the landscape of American Christianity
At a little over 500 years old, John Calvin has not aged well in the popular modern mind. Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer, in the late-1930s said Calvin was interchangeable with Adolph Hitler. Henri Daniel-Rops, a Roman Catholic historian, who apparently read Calvin’s assessment of the Roman Church, wrote of the great reformer: “Calvin was one of those terribly pure men who ruthlessly enforced his principles … a theological dictator of a town where there were too many policemen, too many pliable judges, too many prisons, and too many scaffolds (for hanging).” Less scholarly voices have provided a more foreboding assessment. Televangelist Jimmy Swaggart blamed the Genevan giant for increasing the citizenry of hell: “Calvin was responsible for causing untold millions to be lost — or seriously hindered — in their spiritual walk and relationship with God.” At the very least, Calvin might well benefit from a savvy public relations guru. When most people think of Calvin, most simply think of his soteriology, when, in reality, Calvin’s ethics and theology touched virtually every arena of life in sixteenth century Geneva and, later, in America.
Calvinism is cool among some young evangelicals today, but the prevailing popular assessment remains ice cold. The acidity and slanderous tone of the aforementioned comments not withstanding, the popular caricature of Calvin betrays a profound historical naiveté; Calvin played a formative role in the traditions of virtually every sector of American life from government to law, ethics and welfare. Borrowing categories from David W. Hall’s fine introductory volume on Calvin’s influence on the modern world, The Legacy of John Calvin (P&R), below are 10 major areas in which Calvin’s thought has shaped 21st century Western civilization. Suffice it say that Calvin might be precisely the man to straighten the crooked stick that is the prevailing mess on Capitol Hill.
Education. Previously, the Catholic Church viewed education existing as for the aristocratic elite alone. Calvin changed that by founding the Geneva Academy which included two levels of education: one for children and another for ministers. It was tuition-free, open to the public and stands as a precursor to modern public education. It was academically rigorous and taught students at the highest levels and became the standard bearer for education in all fields, with departments of law and medicine.
Welfare reform. Social Calvinism said we must teach men to fish and avoid alms giving without requisite accountability. Roosevelt’s New Deal and the resulting welfare system have argued precisely the opposite and have bloated government and national debt to astronomical levels. Calvin developed the Bourse (literally “purse”), expressing compassion to the poor through the church and its deaconate office.
Ethics and moral law. Not only did Calvin argue that the law of God as summarized in the Decalogue exposed man’s deep sinfulness and his need for a redeemer, but it also showed the need for a restraining presence in societies. Thus, countries need laws and a constitution to govern the people.
Freedom of conscience. The establishment and free exercise clauses in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution arise from Calvin’s doctrine of liberty of conscience. Though Geneva was inconsistent in its practice, Calvin held that the government’s domain was wielding the sword of steel and the church’s was brandishing the sword of the Spirit. The two should remain separate, for Christians are made by Gospel preaching and not governmental coercion.
Limited and representative government. When Calvin read texts such as 1 Samuel 8, he saw a divine limit on government. God is sovereign over man but humanity is sinful and thus there is a place for human kingships. These, however, must be limited and must not be tyrannical. Kings must govern justly and in a limited way. For Calvin, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, suggested a republican-type government that included senators who represented the populace. Geneva was governed by a council elected by the people.
Decentralized politics. Calvin argued that, given human depravity, various branches of the government could not act unilaterally; there should be at least two bodies or councils that approved measures before they were ratified — separation of powers which the U.S. enjoys in its three branches of government exemplifies this, which also tends toward a limited government.
The doctrine of vocation or calling. Calvin saw parity among professions and viewed all callings as sacred as a result of God’s good providence. Thus, work should be done to the glory of God. This doctrine fueled the Protestant work ethic, as developed more fully by the Puritans in America.
Economic development. Wherever Calvinism spread, so did a love for free markets and capitalism. Calvin saw that the Eighth Commandment condemned stealing, but it also presumed that the holding and protecting of personal property was normal.
The Psalter-music in the language of the people. Calvin believed that worship should teach the people the Bible, so hymns should be sung in the vernacular and not in Latin, in order that they could be understood by the masses. Calvin developed the Genevan Psalter to have Psalms rhythmically sung during corporate worship.
The printing press and the power of the media. The rise of the Gutenberg Press allowed men to publish sermons and other works, and no one seized that monumental moment quite like Calvin. His printed works flooded Europe and allowed the fires of reform to spread.
For further reading: John Calvin’s American Legacy (Oxford), edited by Thomas J. Davis; The Legacy of John Calvin: His Influence on the Modern World (P&R) by David W. Hall; Calvin in the Public Square: Liberal Democracies, Rights, and Civil Liberties (P&R) by David W. Hall; Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview (P&R) edited by David W. Hall and Marvin Padgett; Lectures on Calvinism by Abraham Kuyper (Eerdmans).