There’s more to Calvin than dour asceticism

We have forgotten that John Calvin was not only a severe Christian but also a key figure in the intellectual making of the modern world.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

This article is republished from the July 2009 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

This year is the five-hundredth anniversary of John Calvin’s birth, but while the occasion is being marked by his followers (1), in the wider world the Protestant reformer is remembered with little affection. ‘Calvinism’ is regarded as a harsh and humourless creed, whose founder lacks even the glamour of his German counterpart Martin Luther. While the French thinker influenced Protestant churches internationally, in Britain he is mostly associated with the strict Presbyterianism once prevalent in dreich old Scotland.

It is true that the Calvin-infused, Hellfire-preaching Kirk was a stifling influence on Scottish culture for centuries, and there are still parts of the Western Isles where the McTaliban holds sway; though the pious inhabitants of the island of Lewis have recently been shaken, first by Sunday ferry sailings, and then by the inevitable consequence: same-sex civil partnership! (2) But the name Calvin is rarely heard in modern Scotland outside the phrase ‘the dead hand of Calvin’, his legacy seen as a grim one best left in the past.

Intriguingly, though, the most enduring critique of Calvinism to be found in Scottish culture targets not its social conservatism, but rather the self-righteous individualism that can arise from its peculiar doctrine of the ‘elect’, the idea that the destiny of our souls is predetermined by God. James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) concerns a young man who is led astray by a devilish doppelganger who convinces him that, since he is surely one of the elect and thus guaranteed a place in Heaven, he can sin on Earth with impunity. Taken alongside Robert Burns’ satirical poem ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ (1785), this shows Scotland was the first country to make a morality tale of excessive religiosity, and by implication a pious duty of self-doubt. No wonder we drink.

‘Calvinist’ has nonetheless become a sort of lazy short-hand for certain aspects of the Scottish national character – thrift, dourness and a tendency to disapprove – and critics of prime minister and Scot Gordon Brown often note that his father was a Presbyterian minister, though what that has to do with Brown’s part in the rise and fall of New Labour and its uncanny economics is something of a mystery. In fact, Gordon Brown is no more a Calvinist than he is a Marxist. He is far too much a creature of the present – the long afterlife of the late twentieth century – to be moved by appeals to other worlds, whether divine or otherwise.

Indeed, given the poverty of serious thought in Brown’s post-Christian, post-ideological Britain, the fact that Calvinist Scotland was also a cradle of the Enlightenment should perhaps give us pause for thought. In fact, we don’t have to speculate about whether there was a direct connection to see that John Calvin was a key figure in his own right in the intellectual making of the modern world.

Calvin’s Reformation

Calvin originally began to train for the priesthood in his native France in the 1520s – just a few years after Luther had kickstarted the Reformation in Germany in 1517 – but after his father quarrelled with the local cathedral chapter, he changed to study law without ever being ordained. That he nonetheless went on to take an increasingly leading role in religious life provoked controversy even in the reform-minded universities where Calvin spent much of his early life. But a rejection of the idea of the priesthood as a distinct caste mediating between lay people and God (an idea that owed more to feudalism than scripture) would become a defining element of Calvin’s Protestantism. A man did not have to become a priest in order to serve in pastoral office, any more than wine literally has to become Christ’s blood in order to play its role in the Eucharist. Calvin was interested in practical, spiritual function rather than mystical, ‘ontological’ status.

Calvin’s challenge to feudal church hierarchy would eventually lead to a transformation of church government even more radical than Luther’s. But the Reformation was not about liberalising Christianity, or ‘modernising’ it: instead Calvin and others saw themselves as reasserting scriptural orthodoxy against the worldly corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. While Calvin’s theology emerged from the same intellectual soup as humanism (Erasmus, for example, was a contemporary of Calvin), its temper is explicitly anti-human, emphasising the sinfulness of mankind, and our utter dependence on God. It is an historical irony, then, that Calvin’s thought was in fact instrumental both in modernising the church, and in shaping a world in which humanist ideas would have far more purchase.

It was during his ministry in Geneva, from 1541 till his death in 1564, that Calvin was able to begin putting his ideas into practice. Calvin’s Geneva was downright theocratic. He certainly was no champion of free speech, and famously had fellow reformer Michael Servetus executed because of his wayward teachings on the Trinity. Calvin was more keen on self-determination for Geneva’s ecclesiastical authorities against the civil and political authorities, including those in the more powerful city of Berne. This meant the dubious freedom to ban theatres and luxury goods, but also social reforms and progress in living conditions; notably, Calvin’s Geneva allowed moderate interest to be charged, enabling the formation of capital and the development of the city’s textiles industry (3).

Max Weber famously identified the ‘Protestant work ethic’ as the crucial cultural element in the development of capitalism. Of course, capitalism is not simply an idea, and Calvin hardly invented it – in fact, he certainly would have disapproved of the pursuit of profit for its own sake – but neither did the new social system emerge with a readymade ideology; the relationship was dialectical, and very gradual. It is striking, though, that those countries in which capitalism first flourished were those also infused over time with Calvinistic Protestantism. (In the case of England, there are important theological differences between mainstream Calvinism and the Wesleyan Methodism that held sway in many industrial areas, but the latter served a similar social function.)

Protestantism gave Christians the intellectual and cultural resources to cope with a more individualistic and often precarious way of life while retaining a shared framework of meaning and sense of existential security based on religious tradition. In theological terms, the doctrine of the elect, to take a particular example, effectively separates earthly virtue from eternal self-interest by rejecting the idea that salvation is a reward for good behaviour. It frees mankind to pursue earthly self-interest in earthly terms, and to do God’s will on Earth for God’s sake (to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s). In more secular terms, this kind of thinking also paved the way for the separation of church and state, though in a form that suited capitalism more than it reflected Calvin’s (theocratic) preferences.

Indeed the Protestant work ethic was very much a social rather than strictly religious phenomenon. For example, the ideological assumption in capitalist society that hard work is always rewarded, and that failure reflects laziness or some other moral weakness, finds scant support in Calvin’s writing, where you are more likely to read about the undeserved suffering of poor Job. Success might be seen as a sign of grace, but no more than that. The suggestion that one can earn redemption through good works is heretical, and there is no more reason to believe that success on Earth can be guaranteed by hard work. Everything is predestined by a God whose intentions are beyond mortal comprehension, so who do you think you are?

Calvinism today

There is of course another strain in Christian thought, sometimes known as the ‘social gospel’, which emphasises the Christian duty to challenge injustice in the here and now. One might think this would begin to come to the fore at a time like now, when capitalism is not a new and dynamic system transforming the world, but a decrepit and failing one whose injustices are all too evident. Indeed, many churches are involved in ‘social justice’ campaigns today, though more often on issues like the arms trade or climate change rather than anything overtly anti-capitalist. Lapsed-lapsed Catholic Terry Eagleton’s new book Reason, Faith and Revolution, an elaboration of his scathing 2006 review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, is more explicitly political. Tellingly, in one of only three references to ‘sin’, he emphasises injustice and exploitation as much as greed and idolatry, and overall the book suggests authentic Christianity means little short of revolutionary socialism (4).

The reason a writer previously known for his Marxism has turned to theology, however (beyond his annoyance at Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens), is precisely because revolutionary socialism is off the political agenda. In this context, Eagleton contrasts the ‘liberal humanism’ of the secular left, which retains a naive faith in the inevitability of social progress, with what he calls ‘tragic humanism’, one based on a recognition of humanity’s manifold historic failures and inadequacies. Eagleton suggests the secular left should learn from religion rather than arrogantly dismissing it. It is doubtful, however, whether the revolutionary aspect of Christianity, with its otherworldly demand for justice, can be of much use here. Perhaps a ‘radical humanism’ could do with being tempered by something a bit more of this world? It is worth asking what religion actually offers today that politics, even at its most idealistic, does not.

One of the most successful and dynamic emerging churches in the US today is Mars Hill in Seattle, founded by pastor Mark Driscoll, who stands firmly in the reformed tradition. As he explains in his book Confessions of a Reformission Rev, ‘If you don’t know what that means, the gist is that people suck and God saves us from ourselves’ (5). Driscoll is a twenty-first century Calvinist. Seattle is far from being a traditional bastion of the Christian right, however, so the success of Mars Hill is significant. Driscoll started the church in his own home in 1996, but has since built it up into a multi-campus megachurch with a congregation of thousands, drawn in large part from Seattle’s grungy art and music scene, and now including many young and not-so-young families. Driscoll describes the church as culturally liberal and theologically conservative, and there seems to be an appetite for that.

Driscoll has written a series of books branded ‘A book you’ll actually read’, each designed to be read in an hour, but he could not be accused of dumbing down or softening the message. He begins his book on church leadership by warning the reader, ‘You will not read a bunch of cute stories about bunny rabbits giving their lives to Jesus and such, because I do not want to waste any of my words or any of your time’ (6). That book is an attempt to explain the idea of religious authority to a generation more used to thinking of Jesus as a hippy than an authority figure, and likely to be uncomfortable with the idea. Meanwhile his book on ‘Who is God?’ explains, ‘Because there is both a Lawgiver and Law, we are able to rise above the incessant postmodern pluralism that says there is no Law but only cultural perspective on morality’ (7).

Driscoll offers a sense of moral surety in a society more often characterised by prevarication and obfuscation. More than that, his church offers moral leadership to a generation used to being flattered by authority figures. While schools and even other churches seek to boost self-esteem by telling kids they can achieve whatever they want (or conversely that they should be happy not to achieve anything), Driscoll’s Calvinism tells them what they already know: deep down they’re not so great, and that’s not good enough. In fact it’s a message that appeals to all ages, because whatever you achieve, it never stops being true.

You don’t have to approve of Driscoll’s stark anti-humanism, or believe like him that Jesus Christ is the only answer, to see the truth in his message. And if nobody else is willing to say it, no wonder his church is so successful. (I might note in passing that the appeal of Islam to Western youth of the right background is surely also a result of this blindspot in secular liberal culture.) By contrast, a humanism premised on a naive view that people are essentially good and everything will turn out right is simply unconvincing. Driscoll even argues that his is a gospel of freedom, since the freedom we really need is to be released by God from slavery to evil (8).

Sin and freedom

In lapsed-Calvinist Paul Schrader’s film Hardcore (1979), a Midwestern businessman goes to California disguised as a porn producer in order to track down his wayward daughter. He is helped by a young prostitute, who at one point observes that he is a very negative person, but surely must believe in something. She asks him what his Dutch Reformed Church teaches; ‘Tulip’, he tells her. He explains that this is an acronym derived from points established at the Synod of Dort in 1619 to distinguish Calvinist doctrine from Arminianism. We needn’t dwell here on that distinction, but the five rather splendid points are: Total Depravity (of mankind), Unconditional Election (of the lucky few who are saved from damnation), Limited Atonement (no luck for the rest), Irresistible Grace (the elect can’t reject the gift), and the Perseverance of the Saints (God won’t take it back even if they’re really bad). ‘I thought I was fucked up,’ says the prostitute, ‘That’s what we Venusians call “negative moral attitudes”.’

Calvinism is of course a world away from such hippyish New Age thinking, but also from just about any recognisably modern sensibility. The first of the points above is of course particularly offensive to humanist sensibilities: mankind is ‘totally depraved’. But this is not to say that people are bad all the time and never do good: the emphasis is on the ‘total’ – every part of human nature is flawed, ‘from the intellect to the will, from the soul even to the flesh’ (9) – and sometimes T is rendered as ‘Total Inability’; that is, we are unable to do any good without God. This is really just a clarification of the Christian doctrine of ‘original sin’, which holds that human beings are inherently sinful, having fallen from grace when Adam defied God. While for some Christians we can earn redemption by doing good works, and for others we were all saved by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, Calvinists insist that atonement is limited to an elect few chosen by God, despite their depravity.

Calvin himself noted of original sin that: ‘The subject gave rise to much discussion, there being nothing more remote from common apprehension than that the fault of one should render all guilty, and so become a common sin.’ But since even King David confessed that he was ‘shapen in iniquity’, the same must go for all of us. ‘No, before we behold the light of the sun we are in God’s sight defiled and polluted. “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Not one,” says the book of Job (14:4)’ (10) If it seems unfair, we should remember that God is under no obligation to seem reasonable to our ‘common apprehension’.

And taking a step back from the argument, it’s important to recognise that these ideas are an attempt to square the undeniable fact of human imperfection with the belief that we were created by a perfect God. We must have gone wrong somewhere, somehow. Those of us who believe humans are evolved beings rather than created ones ought to have no problem acknowledging this ‘depravity’ without getting hung up on it. Indeed, the doctrine of original sin captures a profound truth about human nature: we are not nearly as good as we wish we were. And if we were never in fact ‘meant’ to be civilised, perhaps we should not be surprised that it doesn’t come naturally, or lose heart because of it. For many contemporary atheist thinkers, human society is no more than a product of evolution, and we are prisoners of our own immutable nature. Calvinism at least holds out the possibility of redemption, even if it’s out of our hands. For the rest of us, the one credible means of moral improvement remains politics.

You don’t have to embrace either theological pessimism or evolutionary fatalism, however, to acknowledge that human history since the Enlightenment has dealt many blows to a simplistic belief in progress and human perfectibility. Clinging to the notion that all human problems are caused by ‘the system’ means neglecting the fact that all social systems are made and reproduced by people, and that remaking society means remaking ourselves rather than simply emancipating ready-made perfect human beings. We will never be perfect, and so there will never be a perfect society. Indeed it is those of us most committed to social and moral progress who must take this most seriously, look into the depravity in our own hearts, even, and not repent but resolve to go on.

Perhaps most of all this means having the courage to be free. If modern history shows social progress is not a simple matter, and that people are capable of catastrophic mistakes as well as downright wickedness, it surely also shows that surrendering our freedom to the authority of states is no solution. Mark Driscoll’s Calvinist gospel of freedom is premised on a belief that we were created by God and that our only chance of redemption is in submitting to His authority. For those of us who don’t share that belief, freedom is in our own hands, and however constrained our circumstances, it is our responsibility. I must finally differ from Calvin on the question of free will, then. Calvin argued that God gave free will to Adam, who then lost it because of his defiant decision to eat the forbidden fruit. But Calvin’s description of that moment is fascinating:

‘At first every part of the soul was formed to rectitude. There was soundness of mind and freedom of will to choose the good. If anyone objects that it was placed, as it were, in a slippery position, because its power was weak, I answer, that the degree conferred was sufficient to take away every excuse.’ (11)

The objection is logical – God made Adam and endowed him with free will, so if his resolve was weak isn’t that God’s own fault? Calvin simply insists that the degree conferred was sufficient. Isn’t that a good description of any situation in which moral courage is called for? God knows we can’t be held responsible for everything we do; very often circumstances constrain us. But however slippery our position, we know sometimes that there are no excuses, and at those moments we are at our most human, which in religious terms is to say we are closest to God. For all our undeniable depravity, I believe we are more human than Calvin thought. But the decision always remains ours.

Dolan Cummings is a co-founder of the radical humanist campaign group the Manifesto Club and editorial director at the Institute of Ideas. He is chairing the session Rethinking freedom at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 31 October and 1 November.

This article is republished from the July 2009 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

The Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin, is published by Forgotten Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) See the Calvin Quincentenary website.

(2) Isle set for first civil-partnership ceremony, the Herald, 27 July 2009

(3) ‘Calvin’s life’, by Alexandre Ganoczy, in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, edited by Donald K McKim, Cambridge University Press, 2004

(4) Faith, Freedom and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, by Terry Eagleton, Yale University Press, 2009. See also Lunging, flailing, mispunching, London Review of Books, 19 October 2006

(5) Confessions of a Reformission Rev: Hard Lessons from an Emerging Missional Church, by Mark Driscoll, Zondervan, 2006

(6) On Church Leadership (A book you’ll actually read), by Mark Driscoll, Re:Lit, 2008

(7) On Who Is God? (A book you’ll actually read), by Mark Driscoll, Re:Lit, 2008

(8) Confessions of a Reformission Rev: Hard Lessons From An Emerging Missional Church, by Mark Driscoll, Zondervan, 2006

(9) Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin (translated by Henry Beveridge), Hendrickson Publishers, 2008, p153

(10) Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin (translated by Henry Beveridge), Hendrickson Publishers, 2008, p150

(11) Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin (translated by Henry Beveridge), Hendrickson Publishers, 2008, p111

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