"Hero or Villain? Interpretations of John Calvin and his Legacy"
Karin Maag, Director of the
Given on March 3, 2005
The name John Calvin conjures up various conflicting images in the minds of hearers. Some (perhaps a minority in this modern day) see all sweetness and light, a man who established the fullest expression of the Protestant Reformation during the sixteenth century. Others see John Calvin as a close-minded monster who forced his will upon the hapless citizens of Geneva, Switzerland. How is it that Calvin’s name can evoke such powerful and conflicting images in the minds of both the educated and the laity? In her lecture entitled “Hero or Villain? Interpretations of John Calvin and His Legacy” Dr. Karin Maag, director of the H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies, explored Calvin’s conflicting, and often dark, reputation.
So what explains Calvin’s reputation? First, Dr. Maag argued that the debate goes beyond Calvin’s actions and doctrines; it centers on his role as Reformer: how does Calvin fit into the overall scheme of the Protestant Reformation? According to Dr. Maag, Calvin suffered from being a second-generation
Reformer; unlike Luther, Calvin did not stand alone against the crowd nor did he enjoy the sort of honeymoon that Luther enjoyed while transitioning from Catholicism to Lutheranism. Calvin appeared in Geneva after the city had already accepted the Protestant Reformation. What was left for Calvin was to establish Protestant institutions to meet the needs of Geneva. Indeed, that is what Calvin is most known as, an organizer and systematizer. Not exactly the stuff of epic poetry.
While organizing the Genevan church, Calvin engaged in highly polemical writing against his opponents (both Catholic and Protestant). Dr. Maag rightly noted that these writings contributed to Calvin’s reputation as close-minded and undoubtedly led to his reputation as one who would not hesitate to end the life of dissenters. This perspective has also led to Calvin’s reputation as a kill-joy, one who was more than willing to kill those who challenged his theological leadership (such as Michael Servetus). And because Calvin was successful, both through organization and polemical literature, in establishing his presence in Geneva, “posterity has judged him a tyrant, ushering in a theocracy,” said Dr. Maag.
Yet assessing what posterity actually thinks about Calvin is more complicated than it first seems. Dr. Maag’s second argument is that it is extremely difficult to distinguish whether one is criticizing John Calvin or his followers. For instance, many often criticize Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, an idea that Calvin certainly endorsed and taught, but one that was systematized by his followers and not by Calvin himself. Or, many will claim that Calvin, through the Genevan City Council, exercised harsh discipline against the citizens of Geneva. Dr. Maag, however, argued that such conflations between Calvin’s actions and the actions of the city council are often the result of poor scholarship, and she provided several examples that very adequately proved her point. Yet, she also recognized that Calvin played a role in the trial of Servetus (he testified against the Spaniard before the council), proving that Calvin was not blameless in terms of what occurred in Geneva.
In the end, then, Dr. Maag believes that for Calvin to finally have a reputation he deserves, a reputation that does not exalt him to the highest heavens nor lower him to the lowest hell, it is necessary that he be viewed as human, fallen and sinful, living in the sixteenth century, complete with all the advantages and disadvantages that go with living during that time. And in the end, she is right. For history belongs to posterity (a point Dr. Maag made at the beginning of her talk), and posterity has a right to see those who went before as they truly were. It does no good to vilify the righteous, and yet one should not ignore the sins and humanness of our predecessors. John Calvin was a godly man, yet he was also human. Dr. Maag quite capably pointed that out, and we would all do well to listen to her as we seek to understand the legacy of this Genevan Reformer.
Matt Barker, Calvin College history major