book reviews

Why John Calvin is still relevant

A compelling argument as the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation approaches



By Bruce Gordon

Despite deep divisions over the man and his doctrines, the Christian heirs of the Protestant Reformation have always considered John Calvin a key figure among their founding fathers. But for outsiders, from Roman Catholics to atheists, the French theologian, born in 1509, is perhaps the iconic Protestant thinker, more so than Martin Luther. Calvin and Calvinism have been credited or blamed for formative building blocks in Western culture. These range from religious revolution—Calvin’s doctrine of predestination proposes that God has selected a handful of humans for salvation (one in 100, Calvin often suggested) and condemned the rest to perdition without regard for their good works or merits—to capitalism and its work ethic, modern democracy and sexual repression.

The roots of these responses lie in the Institutes, Calvin’s multi-decade work about Christian salvation, human worth and divine arbitrariness. As Gordon, a Winnipegger and professor of ecclesiastical history at Yale Divinity School, points out, predestination, for Calvin, was not about the doom of the 99, but the assurance it gave—in the teeth of medieval Catholic uncertainty—of God’s grace and salvation for the one elect.

That wasn’t the way it was seen by everyone, then and now. Even those who didn’t quarrel with the theological reasoning were troubled by Calvin’s forceful and unapologetic attitude: “That is not what the people need to hear in church on a Sunday,” said his friend and fellow reformer Philip Melanchthon. Theological opponents were appalled, seeing in Calvin’s teachings a God who is the actual author of sin, a supreme being who created humans in the full awareness of which of them would be punished for all eternity.

But the afterlife of the Institutes is much broader, argues Gordon. Calvin’s Renaissance humanism, his appreciation of a natural world tailor-made for humanity and his insistence on individual conscience, infuses the novels of Marilynne Robinson, as it did many earlier American classics, like Moby-Dick. The theologian’s uncompromising defence of God’s law may have stiffened the spines of slave owners in the past, but it has also proved a bulwark for Christians under duress, from black churches in apartheid South Africa to the house churches of communist China. As next year’s 500th anniversary of the Reformation approaches, the Institutes is as vibrant a text as ever.

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