This week someone wrote me an email asking if I was able to give a defense of Calvin. This person had recently heard things about Calvin that he found “disturbing,” and wanted to know if they were true: harsh views on God and hell, abuse of intelligence and power in Geneva, sentencing people to death over theological disagreements, etc. Here is my response.
The impressions one often has regarding Calvin come from hearsay, and only rarely from Calvin himself. One wonders how many self-proclaimed Calvinists have actually read a substantial amount of Calvin. Even in the first 100 pages of Calvin’s 1521-page Institutes of the Christian Religion, the reader can hear not only the voice of a clear theological thinker, but the heart of a pastor. The very reason for writing was his concern to fulfill the office of a minister of the gospel. The Institutes began as a modest work of Catechesis but became more elaborate as Calvin’s own thought matured and his desire for “order” in Reformed theology increased, even though he continued to refer to it as a “compendium of doctrine.” Calvin came to regard the Institutes as a kind of theological key for Christian ministers, allowing him in his commentaries to do without elaborate theological excurses. It is partly because of Calvin’s personal style and pastoral motivation that the Institutes, though a great work of systematic theology, cannot be regarded as a textbook in theology. The Institutes, considered by outsiders to be a collection of syllogisms for predestination (aka, Calvinism), is more accurately one of the best pastoral exhortations to Christians about God, his Word, and the Christian life. Calvin exhorts his readers – the church – to be faithful to God in all things, down to the specifics. The Institutes are a display of theological consistency from start to finish, demanding that all things be connected to God and his Word, not least the will and affections of the believer. The students I have had read the Institutes over the last few years have been underwhelmed regarding the predestination of Calvin, and overwhelmed regarding the pastoral vision and passion of Calvin.
Beyond doctrine Calvin is often portrayed negatively because of the political and religious turmoil to which he was connected. This turmoil needs to be contextualized. Calvin believed, as many did in an era in which church and state were not separate, that it was the duty of the state to establish true religion and to maintain that religion once it was established. The state and its administration were in no way "secular" or unclean, nor was it neutral. The laws of civil government and the administrators of government are ordained by God for the benefit of the world. The government officials are "ministers and servants of God" and as such bear the authority of not only an earthly office but an office of the Lord by whom and for whom they ultimately serve. This explains much of Calvin's actions (and arguably all religion in that day) in regard to religious/theological disputes: they were a matter for the state as much as they were for the church. Calvin is nuanced enough to see a difference (Institutes 4.20), but he thinks ultimately that church and state are both in service to God. The difference between them is one of degree and not kind. Again, Calvin was being consistent, demanding that he, first of all, as well as the rest of his brothers and sisters, be held accountable to the ultimate authority: the Lord of heaven and earth.
I do not agree with everything Calvin wrote, but I read him not only because he is a clear theological thinker and reader of Scripture, but because he pastors me. In the prime of his ministry, when he was overwhelmed by pastoral and scholarly duties, Calvin was advised not to write so many personal letters without the help of a secretary. He would receive scores of letters from those seeking anything from pastoral counseling to answers to Protestant doctrine. Calvin would not allow another to write the letters. He saw it as his ministerial duty to write in his own hand and from his own heart to each person from whom he received a letter. Even in the privacy of his pastoral study Calvin was consistent with his duties and before the Lord. This does not sound like “Calvinism,” at least not how it is often painted by hearsay between outsiders. Rather, it is a pastor who served a holy God with his whole heart.