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?”