Yale University Library
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of the French Protestant Reformer John Calvin. To mark the occasion, conferences and seminars weighing Calvin’s thought and legacy are occurring apace across the globe. Calvin has been enormously influential, if mostly forgotten today. He is credited or blamed for all manner of things from capitalism to democracy, from religious intolerance to religious freedom. It's time for a reappraisal, maybe even a comeback.
Calvin has his contemporary admirers. They are diverse, ranging from the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and UW graduate, Marilynne Robinson (Gilead and, most recently, Home) to the Seattle pastor, Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church, the city's largest congregation. In a time when religion’s star is not on the rise, it is interesting to find a novelist of Marilynne Robinson’s stature and gifts locating herself as both a Christian and someone instructed by Calvin.
As with any such figure, Calvin’s corpus and genius resist easy summary. Still there are some themes that are more prominent than others. More important, there are themes that may be especially relevant in times, such as our own, when a certain sober chastening and new humility are in order. Here are three.
Calvin’s description of his own conversion may come as a surprise to those who associate him with the grim, grey, or intolerant. Trained as a lawyer, Calvin described his conversion as receiving the gift of “a teachable spirit.” Here’s Calvin: “God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life.” In contrast to understandings of conversion as having reached rock-hard conclusion or complete certainty, Calvin’s account emphasizes the softening of his heart and a new openness of his spirit.
Calvin is also associated with the Christian theme of sin and the doctrine of “Original Sin.” Many times I have quoted Calvin in this regard saying, “Confession of sin begins with the house and people of God.” In other words, if you wish to take the measure of things and assess responsibility, start by looking in the mirror and owning your own part in the mess. Like Pascal, and unlike George W. Bush, Calvin understood the world does not divide between saints and sinners, but between saints who know themselves to be sinners, and sinners who believe themselves to be saints. All the business about sin is essentially a way to say, “Let’s be honest here folks.”
Novelist Robinson finds the Christian teaching of original sin and Calvin’s stern claim of human “depravity,” not so much harsh as compassionate. “Maybe not coincidentally, I now consider sin both radically compassionate and, as doctrines go, fairly verifiable. This is not to say that I would follow Edwards [Jonathan Edwards, Puritan divine and, at his death, President of Princeton University] in tracing our condition back to an actual Adam. It is to say, rather, that we do all err and fail, are in some degree helpless against our human weaknesses, and that we owe ourselves and one another a chastening awareness of this fact, and forgiveness on these grounds.”
Perhaps if we joined Robinson in taking this Christian and Calvinist teaching more seriously we would not be quite such suckers for the media’s favorite story line, which goes, “Watch celebrity rise to god-like stature and radiance; now watch celebrity fall to wretched depths.” Moreover, an assumption of human fallibility might have caused us to place less blind or absolute faith in the market and to imagine that some level of regulation of financial institutions was both necessary and important. Everyone is bent.
No doctrine is more frequently attached to Calvin’s name than that of predestination. In truth Calvin did not place predestination at the center of his work in the way that subsequent “Calvinists” did. But still it’s there, and often proves galling to Americans with our devotion to the contrary tenet of free will. Calvin intended predestination to be reassuring to the faithful, setting them free from anxieties about their eternal destiny or from constant efforts to ensure their future. But it has seldom been interpreted that way.
While acknowledging that “free will is an attractive phrase. It has a very humanistic sound,” Marilynne Robinson dissents: “Predestination is more attractive to me because it makes everything mysterious. We do not know how God acts or what he intends, toward ourselves or toward others. We know only that his will precedes us, anticipates us, can never forget or look away from us.” This sense of the mystery of things pervades Robinson’s fiction and provides a contrast to all the earnest schemes for this or other-worldly salvation, with their consequent notion that we are the ones who are in charge here. Robinson, like Calvin, wishes to let God be God.
Robinson is very much Calvin’s child in commenting, in an address at Harvard Divinity School last fall, “Predestination puts self-interest out of the equation, and this seems to me to liberate one to act on motives more consistent with Christ’s teaching.” A certain self-forgetfulness is the point. Like Calvin, Robinson’s cause may be suggested by the word “reverence.” Her work brims with a deep reverence for life, for our own lives, for others, and finally for the mystery of a God whom we cannot fully comprehend but whose unmerited grace towards us is the one fact that abides.
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