It’s Not Just the 200th Anniversary of Charles Darwin’s Birth, It’s Also the 500th Anniversary of John Calvin’s!

John Calvin was born 500 years ago, in 1509, but I have a hard time understanding what, exactly, we should celebrate about it, or how to celebrate it. John Calvin, afterall, looked askance at merriment, drinking, and dancing, so what exactly do you do to celebrate John Calvin’s birthday? In terms of what to celebrate, I know that John Calvin put quite a spin on the theological world, and I find some of his ideas interesting. I also know that Emile Durkheim used to attribute the evolution of capitalism to Calvinism, but really now! What does one celebrate about John Calvin in the 21st century? A Reader at Trinity Church, Norwich, said this about the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth:

Somewhat to my regret, I’ve made rather more this year of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth than I have of the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’ s birth.

What’s to regret about it? I don’t get it. Some help here? Wasn’t, for example, John Calvin’s Geneva a theocracy? What can be learned from such a social model in the 21st century (except to avoid it)? And Calvin was so retrogressive, even in his own time, that he didn’t even accept Copernicus’s science! I mean, aside from his theology (which you either believe, or you don’t), does Calvin really have anything to teach our global civilization, half a millenium later?

What exactly?

Below is a 16th century image of Calvin’s zealous followers trashing a Catholic cathedral. Do we celebrate John Calvin by simply looking the other way with regards to his actual practice of religion in 16th century Geneva? What does it mean to celebrate a theocrat and iconoclast who had no compunction about cutting off the heads of heretics and murdering “witches”? Maybe I’m missing something simply wonderful about John Calvin, but if so, what is it?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to It’s Not Just the 200th Anniversary of Charles Darwin’s Birth, It’s Also the 500th Anniversary of John Calvin’s!

  1. Byron Curtis says:

    Dear Prometheus,

    True, Calvin looked askance at a life defined by merriment, though he was not above making the sly pun from time to time, and enjoying a good glass of French wine. However, most of your charges are now completely discredited by historians.

    1) Calvin never pronounced upon Copernicus’s heliocentric theory. At least, no extant document attributable to ol’ JC does so.

    2) The illustration you publish–the trashing of a Roman Catholic cathedral — has nothing to do with Calvin. He discouraged such practices as nothing better than mob violence, and denounced those who did so in France.

    3) About the murder of heretics–let’s be fair, now. One heretic (and only one) was put to death in Geneva during Calvin’s tenure there. Calvinists aren’t proud of that fact today. But Calvin didn’t do it: it was the act of the city council, the real political power of that time and place. However, every European power of the sixteenth century had the same practice: heretics murdered souls, and so the state had the mandate (so most 16th century folk thought) to suppress heresy. Here’s a puzzle: why does no one remembers the thousands of Protestants murdered in Paris in August 1572? No one thinks of that when they touch down at Orly Airport today. But they remember poor Michael Servetus when they land at Geneve. So your charge, while almost true, is deeply anachronistic and applied unfairly.

    4) As for the theocracy description, not quite fair either. Geneva was ruled by a series of graded courts or councils that were elected by the citizenry of the city. There were four “syndics” at the top, then a “little council,” then a council of 200, then a council of 600, then the voting citizenry. Calvin did not even gain citizenship until the last five years of his life (he was a French-born foreigner), never served on one of the councils, and was never a syndic. Geneva was, therefore, a republic. The citizens of this republic in general revered the Bible, and so sought to bring the laws of the city into conformity with biblical principles. Maybe “bibliocratic republic” might serve your purpose better as a descriptor of Geneva.

    So, what is so wonderful about John Calvin what makes so many honor his memory 500 years after his birth? Try reading him directly instead of relying upon poorly reported history about him. I recommend _The Institutes of the Christian Religion_ (1559). A pretty good read.

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