John Calvin, we hardly knew ye

William McKenzie

If you think Dick Cheney has suffered from bad PR, man, think about John Calvin’s image.

The father of Calvinism had a heretic burned at the stake in 1553, and it’s been downhill ever since. The burning is what many people remember about the Protestant reformer. Modern drawings of a dour-looking Calvin make Ebenezer Scrooge look like a fun guy.

This year being the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth and Reformation Sunday coming up later this month in some churches, maybe it’s time we rethink his legacy. Our view of the theologian who, with Martin Luther, launched the Reformation could change.

For starters, Calvin had a radical view of education. He thought that, heavens, people should read for themselves, including Scripture.

For the 1500s, that was one counter intuitive idea. Priests were supposed to read Scripture for the average person. And the last thing any cleric, or ruler, wanted was for people to read and think for themselves.

Not Calvin. He believed in truth being revealed through the mind, as well as the heart. He particularly had a passion for children learning to read and going to school, not necessarily the way things were done then. He began a school for children that grew into a university in Geneva.

Even now, there remains a strong anti-intellectualism in some church circles. Philosophy, the sciences, the arts – these are Satan’s realms.

Calvin, instead, embraced the intellect, which he personified by writing his landmark “Institutes of the Christian Religion.” (The late historian Will Durant termed them one of the world’s 10 most influential works.)

Five centuries later, Calvin’s musings on the essential doctrines of the faith remain must-read theological works.

Next, there’s the fact he got out of the ivory tower and dealt with the mud of life. Literally.

The Frenchman got a closed sewer system built for his adopted hometown of Geneva, Switzerland. Like the pride President Lyndon B. Johnson took in delivering electricity to rural central Texas, Calvin considered that sewer one of his great accomplishments.

In other ways, he involved himself deeply in Geneva’s legal, political and economic affairs. He considered the roles of church and state as different. He didn’t draw quite the lines we do today, but his thinking on their different roles gave rise to secular democracy. His views on church governance certainly influenced our democratic form of government.

Similarly, his emphasis on the dignity of work is tied in the rise of capitalism. He didn’t invent that economic system, but his challenging of the prevailing idea that work was drudgery reshaped the way people approached labor.

Now, about that burning of Michael Servetus. What can you say? Horrible decision. The two quarreled over theological issues, and, although Calvin opposed his beheading, he agreed to Servetus’ death. Through our modern eyes, he looks like an Iranian mullah.

We could stop there, but we would misunderstand one of the few people who have distinctly shaped our world. Like with Marx’s communism or Freud’s views on the mind, the rest of the world spins around the influence of Calvin, whether we know it or not.

Actually, there’s been a Calvin resurgence of late. The novelist Marilynne Robinson recently wrote essays about him. Time magazine made note of him earlier his year. And conferences have been held to commemorate the anniversary of his birth.

I wouldn’t bet on that happening to Dick Cheney, but John Calvin deserves a new look.

The above column was originally published Oct. 12 in the Dallas Morning News. Content was made available by MCTCampus.