Monday, July 13, 2009

John Calvin at 500

John Calvin (born July 10, 1509, died May 27, 1564) was born 500 years ago last Friday.

I missed it. My oversight, of course, was predestined from the beginning of the world. And yet, it’s still my fault! Ironically and appropriately, on Calvin's birthday I was writing about the limitless grace and compassion of God.

The Calvin Quincentenary was (and is) very big among those in the Reformed tradition. Not so much among Methodists. I share John Wesley’s disdain for the doctrines of Election and Predestination (and Wesley’s disdain for doctrines in general), but if you want to think deeply about the sovereignty of God, Calvin is your man. And the Reformed tradition, which starts with Calvin, brought us Karl Barth, and the Niebuhrs, H. Richard and Reinhold, as part of a vast theological legacy.

Calvin was the major theological influence for the Puritans who founded this country. His idea of covenant is imbedded in the Mayflower Compact, as well as in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber argued that Protestantism in general and Calvinism in particular was a necessary precondition for the rise of Capitalism.

Calvin’s understanding of vocation gave sacred meaning to all work. Building a factory was not just a job, or a way to earn money, it was a calling. And Calvinism led to a this worldly asceticism, in which the denial of self led naturally to the accumulation and reinvestment of capital (I can’t spend the profit on myself—at least not all of it—and I can’t just give it back to the workers, that would tempt them to all sorts of vices, so I will reinvest it in the business). Material success was not a guarantee of one’s Election, but it tended to be seen as an indicator of God’s blessing, adding another strong motivator for the capitalist.

It was not entirely Calvin’s fault that one of the results of his doctrine of Predestination and Election, as applied to the conditions of society, is that people who saw material blessings as a sign of God’s favor would also see poverty as a sign of God’s rejection. So in the popular mind, the rich deserved their wealth and the poor deserved their poverty. One’s outward material success, or lack of it, was a sign of one’s inner spirit. And this meant that helping the poor was actually working against the will of God. A little charity might be good for one’s conscience, but social reform was unthinkable.

John Wesley’s argument against Predestination and Election was both theological and practical. For God to choose who would be saved and who would be damned, apart from anything that the persons had done, was completely immoral. My sisters and brothers in the Reformed tradition will point out that Wesley did not understand the depth or nuance of Calvin’s position. But Wesley could see the practical results. And that was enough for him.

I am amazed by the towering achievement of Calvin’s theology. Really. On the sovereignty of God, he has no equal. And his contributions to our civic life are huge. Yet I could not even write my birthday greetings without spending more space on criticism than on praise. But then again, that was Predestined.


  1. Very clever Bill. I do enjoy your presentation! If one's future has already been determined, there would be no need to be conserned or involved in choise or action. We should all remain fetal next to the womb, breath deeply until we starve and join the Lord quickly. My feeling is that life is a gift. God has provided us with the ability to create a bit of heaven for one another. What we do with this gift is the deciding factor.

  2. When I think about free will vs. determinism I like the image of the river. Certainly there are a variety of people who have used this imagery before. I am certain I have borrowed some of these ideas from other places but here is how I see it (with obvious limits to the metaphor):

    Life is like a river.

    God creates the river. God knows where it begins and where it ends. God knows the shape of it and the obstacles it contains.

    Certainly we are born into conditions beyond our control. We all have gifts, limitations, strengths and weaknesses. In many respects we are subject to our circumstances. We are not self-made and there are conditions beyond our control.

    You can look at all that and choose to do nothing. You can give up all responsibility and just say "This is how I was born. This is just how life works. This is what God determined" but ultimately you will get smashed into rocks and the river bank if you do not take any personal responsibility. This path of determinism also endangers others as you smash into people or speed by those in need as you shrug, "Sorry, wish I could help but life moves too fast."

    You can choose to fight the river. Some spots are easier than others to fight but eventually you will tire and get swept along.

    I think the best life is one in which we take responsibility to navigate our own course and claim responsibility for avoiding the rocks of life while at the same time traveling in the direction in which we are sent.

    I think along the way we are responsible to help those around us who are stuck or drowning.

    So I think he big picture is determined with lots of free will in the details and the journey.