Should John Calvin’s Theology Be Decoupled from John Calvin’s Geneva?

Something that I’ve noticed about Evangelical intellectual culture is a certain nostalgic fond spot for John Calvin. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga, for example, calls himself a Reformed Calvinist. But I think, before adopting John Calvin’s theology, that it might be useful to think about how, exactly, John Calvin’s beliefs played themselves out in the real world. In this regard I think it is fair to say that absolutely none of us would have wanted to live in John Calvin’s Geneva, or under John Calvin’s spiritual governance. John Calvin’s Geneva was a place where the mind of human beings was simply not free. John Calvin may have been a brilliant theologian, but his theology led him to the destruction of art, iconography, books—and, ultimately, people—both of male heretics competing with Calvin in the intellectual realm, and females who were supposedly indulging in “witchcraft.” It was, for example, routine for Calvinist city supervisors to do spot checks of people’s homes in Geneva, searching them for such things as dissenting religious books. In short, John Calvin’s world was an authoritarian world, and his religion was an authoritarian religion. Here, for example, is a 16th century depiction of iconoclastic Calvinists taking it upon themselves, in the name of Jesus (of all people!), to trash and “cleanse” a Catholic church:

Okay, Jesus cleansed a temple too, so maybe that’s not the fair contrast. But it’s hard to imagine how someone living in the 21st century could have any desire to revive John Calvin’s pre-Enlightenment ideology, or to build his or her own intellectual religious structure upon ideas that fit so comfortably with authoritarian aggression. Sometimes what people say they believe should be thought about in the light of what they actually do. It’s informative, and shouldn’t be too quickly decoupled. If, for example, it is informative to ask how the French Revolution, under the ideological direction of Robespierre, played out (as conservatives are inclined to do), it follows that it is also informative to ask how, exactly, it might have gone for a lesbian or religious dissenter trying to live and think and thrive in John Calvin’s Geneva.

If, for instance, someone were to say, with regard to Robespierre or Lenin, that—“Their ideas were good, but their practices accompanying them were flawed”—we might perhaps think that rather an odd position to take, and wonder if ideology and practice, especially in the cases of these two men, can be so easily unweaved. Likewise, I think that the same question can be fairly asked with regard to John Calvin. Those who would like to see John Calvin’s ideas and mindset find a revival in the 21st century might at least pause and ask the simple question: “How did all that go the first time around?”

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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14 Responses to Should John Calvin’s Theology Be Decoupled from John Calvin’s Geneva?

  1. christianclarityreview says:

    interesting perspective:

    it leaves all truth behind in a rush to find a generalized environment for a generalized heart to flourish within as if no evil existed other than anything that gets in the way of the next emotional high. It ignores the destruction that is going on right now because of the presence of the very thing John Calvin destroyed. ..because of the lack of that very censorship.

    It is a very easy thing to play to an audience that has been emotionally trained that the mere phrase “censorship” is indicative of automatic evil. The fact is, that books, films, pills, shots, snorts, drugs, alcohol, procedures, art, politics and all other forms that depict, carry out or seduce others into moral evil in every way have done their damage under the very cloak your post is trying to maintain: that as a human being, your personal worth and value is maintained if and only if and only so long as, you can be idealized as a generic heart, that has no soul, no mind and no spirit that engages in mercantilism of said merchandise that destroys. You are nothing but a victim of the lastest wave of merchant-ism as a religious ideology while you say you are ‘free’.

    ..and don’t even try confounding Calvinism with lawless monopoly autocracy that was brought about by the very things you are defending and that has nothing to do with capitalism.

    You don’t live in a world that is devoid of things you cite that God through Calvin destroyed and protected the people from; you live in and defend those very things as if they were precious resources and in fact the only source of joy and that if anyone took it from you they have supposedly robbed you of your own morality and your worth as a human being because they would have left you with your own individuality instead of mere participation in a generic ‘life’ of debauchery.

    By all means, pass this comment around and ‘warn’ everyone of ‘the consequences of Calvinism’. While your leftist friends will rejoice to have ‘found out’ the Calvinists, very many more will look with hope to rescue from your depraved outlook that you idolize.
    You are very deceived if you think everyone wants to live in a ‘whatever’ world that constantly ends in death and idolatry of death as its ideal of escape from what it always wanted.

    There is a time when someone takes something from you not because they hate you, but becuase they love you. There is a time when you get slapped and genuinely mean it when you say “Thank You Sir, may I have another.”

    Proverbs 24:24,25 He that saith unto the wicked, Thou art righteous; him shall the people curse, nations shall abhor him: But to them that rebuke him shall be delight, and a good blessing shall come upon them.

    Proverbs 27:5 Open rebuke is better than secret love.

    True Christians live a life of constant rebuke in their private lives from God. We are rebuked because we are loved. Sinners love debauchery and idolize generic freedom in a generic heart to seem to get away from the straight fact they hate God, life and their own soul.

    By all means, wrap this comment in a flag of “warning” and scorning. But the day of the unrestrained debauchery as idealized government is over.

    I will ask you to notice exactly how many true Calvinist were involved in the government over the last 60-100 years. Everything you complain about was brought about by the supposed pro-Christ anti-Calvinist.

    All of it.

    ..while you made fun of ‘fundies’. ..while you denigrated anything other than what has resulted in the way you have to live now and are literally scared that it will be taken from you.. (!)

    Proverbs 9:10 The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.


    In the Name of Jesus Christ, Amen

  2. Catholics had traditionally strangled their victims first before burning them at the stake. John Calvin dispensed with that little nicety and so the Calvinists burned their enemies alive.

    I mean seriously, who would have thought it possible that someone could actually do one better than the Medieval Roman Catholic Church when it comes to savagery in the suppression of freedom of thought??

  3. christianclarityreview says:

    perhaps we could ask ourselves when the last Calvinist raped little boys and girls under their spiritual care, then tried to simply move the rapist to another ‘church’ so unsuspecting parents could ‘put their faith’ in ‘father rapist’ ..again.

    At that point, we dispense with the strangling..

    We can easily keep this up all day.. all election cycle, all century.

    Every time you post a nifty anti-Calvinist ‘point’, you only reveal who and what you are and that you are an integral part of why society is the way it is right now. And that you want it that way and have every intention of keeping it that way in perpetuity.

    so please, go find another anti-Calvinist, even one that is supposedly pro-Christ ( the right and the left are full of them ) .. everyone now knows who you all are –you got to do what you wanted to do and look at the result..


    Proverbs 27:3,4 A stone is heavy, and the sand weighty; but a fool’s wrath is heavier than them both. Wrath is cruel, and anger is outrageous; but who is able to stand before envy?

    In the Name of Jesus Christ, Amen

  4. “Everyone else does it” is the excuse of a child.

    “Let’s move on, that’s all in the past” is the excuse of the gangster who now wants to be considered a legitimate business man.

    There is no excuse for the likes of John Calvin, and no excuse for anyone who would willingly be associated with such an evil creature, or apologize for such evil deeds.

    It is, of course, absolutely true that there was nothing at all unusual about Calvin as a Christian leader. Christianity is a religion that has always and everywhere been spread and maintained by bloodshed.

    In fact, of the the 2 billion Christians in the world today, about half are descended from those whose “conversion” happened to coincide with enslavement, conquest and colonialism — and the other half are descended from the perpetrators of slavery, conquest and colonialism.

    Nice religion ya got there.

  5. santitafarella says:


    Interesting colonial statistical reflection. Hmm.


    • Here are some very rough numbers:

      Category 1: People who are Christian as a direct result of the fact that they or their ancestors were enslaved, conquered or colonized by European Christians over the last 500 years:

      About 450 million Christians in Africa as a direct result of European colonization over the last 125 years (There were only an estimated 9 million Christians in Africa in 1900 – roughly 4% of the total African population. Today Christians comprise approx. 45% of Africa’s 1 billion people.)

      220 million indigenous/mestizo/latino Christians in the Americas

      180 million African American Christians in the Americas (not just the US, but also Brazil, Haiti, etc)

      80 million Filipino Christians

      Category B: The descendants of the European Christians who were the perpetrators of the enslavement, conquest and colonization of the people who were thereby converted to Christianity.

      600 million white European Christians in Europe itself.

      At least 200 million white US Christians of European descent.

      At least another 200 million white Christians of European descent in the rest of the Americas.

      At least another 100 million Christians scattered around the world. For example, there are over 5 million Christians of European descent in Kazakhstan, most of whom are Eastern Orthodox Christians of Russian or Urkranian descent.

  6. santitafarella says:


    If your Calvinism is akin to a military induction in which you endure your discipline freely, fine. I’m just happy to live in a place where I have the choice of whether to submit to such a discipline. The people living in Geneva at the time that Calvin won power there were not given any such choice. It was Calvin’s way or the highway (banishment from the city, or worse).

    By the way: What is your relationship to food, as a Calvinist? Can a Calvinist of your stripe eat as much as you want, and go to, say, Hometown Buffet and McDonald’s with abandon?

    I’m not asking the question in a frivolous fashion. I’m curious. Calvin himself (as I’m sure you know) was quite a watcher of his food intake, and it was a legislated thing in Geneva (not to eat in excess).

    Is that something that a contemporary Calvinist like yourself pays any attention to?


  7. aunty dawkins says:


    I never really understood the doctrine of pre-destination and the ‘elect’. It always smacked of totalitarianism both as ideology and practice.How this all fitted into following the two prime commandments of Christ :love God but love your neighbour too I couldn’t fathom. Maybe my theology is a bit naif but if the theology of predestination precludes loving your neighbour and living in toleration of him as an individual then it is not a theology for the 21st century.

  8. christianclarityreview says:


    As a matter of fact I do eat too much. Thanks for reminding me. I have asked God about that, but I have to wait. I perfectly understand that in your speech / mind / being, there is no such thing as waiting on God, supposedly get to run out and do as you supposedly please ..within the confines of such ideology as you may have at hand.

    Everything in your comments screams “I’ve got free will and someone is trying to take it away!”. That would mean that you have not realized at all that no one can control anyone else unless, until and only as long as that target to be controlled is deceived they have free will. When they are so deceived, they need to know what to do with that freedom. Those who write the directions on ‘what to do’ with the free will and the emotional goals of the free will such as ‘happiness’ and what to buy with your time and such are the subtle priests of that class.

    Calvin understood the will is not free ..and thus he was free from the control of men, but not God. You then cannot, at least not honestly, look at Calvin, pretend to place your mind and heart as his and pretend to ‘see’ through his eyes a power hungry tyrant who went around ‘taking away’ ‘part’ of what in reality does not exist. You have to pretend he stole ‘free will’ and ..never gave it back, when your initial pretense about having free will at all is that God forced it on you ( or ‘evolution’ if you do not know God exists ) and you can’t get out of having it. How can someone steal something you can’t out of having? Supposedly, because you are a unit human being, your subtle priest have told you that you can’t get out of having free will, because you would have to stop being human to do so ( as an attempt to control you all of your life in the flesh. )

    Human beings do not have free will. That means no human being can rule over another by degree of God. You can’t win that argument: not philosophically, not Biblicaly. I’ll grant you that very many have thought to do just that over the centuries order to control other people. Cult of personalities, cult of particular immoralities, raping children, things like that..

    As for the rest, your actual honesty about being anti-Christian and hating Christians is refreshing. Perhaps you could share some more anecdotes for this election cycle? The purpose of the blog is to tell the world what you really think. Right?

    Act 19:18-20 And many that believed came, and confessed, and shewed their deeds. Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed.


    In the Name of Jesus Christ, Amen

  9. santitafarella says:

    Aunty Dawkins:

    You said: “I never really understood the doctrine of pre-destination and the ‘elect’. It always smacked of totalitarianism both as ideology and practice.”

    If that’s true of Calvinism, I think that it could also be true of strict materialism of the atheist variety. What is strict materialism, afterall, but a form of physical and chemical determinism combined with “natural election” (natural selection)? Put those two together and you can run straight to eugenics, the denial of human freedom, behaviorism, and Machiavellian-Nietzschean power politics (were you so inclined—or determined!).


  10. santitafarella says:


    You wrote: “Everything in your comments screams ‘I’ve got free will and someone is trying to take it away!’”.

    Yes. I agree that is what I’m saying. What I think is interesting is that you see free will as not conducive to non-totalitarian politics. In other words, you seem to think that belief in free will leads to totalitarian politics. Could you explain that? Is it because submission to a determinate God means that you can’t then submit to determinate humans? Do you mean that God functions as a strong block to human submission to human forms?


  11. aunty dawkins says:


    Natural selection ‘determined’ by the random operation of hazard, as per Darwinian evolution would seem to be the polar opposite of dogmatic ‘natural’ election ,predestined and immutable.
    We are both singing from the same hymn sheet here as would any rational human in this era.

  12. aunty dawkins says:

    AND as you say in your other post– natural evolution could now soon be interfered with and ‘determined’ by other than random means. Man’s intelligence and knowledge has evolved to the point where this is soon possible so is this itself part of the bigger evolutionary picture? However how significant this will be we cannot yet say . Others random factors may yet interfere again.

  13. santitafarella says:

    Aunty Dawkins:

    I agree with you that the idea of free will is necessary for nonauthoritarian and nontotalitarian societies to function.

    Rejecting free will, it seems to me, leads to an excess of behaviorism in social policy, and in religious contexts, authoritarian forms of Calvinism.

    I wonder what Islam’s position on free will is. Is there just one position, or are Muslims sharply divided on the question? That would be interesting to discover.


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