Review: Calvin: A Biography

Bernard Cottret’s Calvin: A Biography explores the life and times of John Calvin.

As I have explained in previous articles, I have become interested in morality in recent months and how it has changed across history. Shortly after I began my research, I realized the scope of this subject was too broad to study. I was really interested in how Western morality has changed since the Middle Ages and the process by which it has degenerated into what it is today.

After giving this some further thought, I concluded that the rise of liberalism is synonymous with this process of moral decay. The origins of liberalism can be traced back to Early Modern Europe which is roughly the years from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the French Revolution in 1789. There is no point in going back further than that because Western Europe more or less emerged from the Middle Ages with a common culture at the beginning of this period.

In this period between the Middle Ages and the French Revolution, the culture of Western Europe was transformed by the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. I decided to start at the beginning with the Renaissance and the Reformation and gradually work my way up from 16th century to the 21st century.

In studying the Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin are easily the two leading figures in the Lutheran and Reformed branches of Protestantism. I already knew a great deal about Luther. I wanted to learn more about John Calvin, who had such a greater impact in the English-speaking world, and so I bought this biography of Calvin by the French historian Bernard Cottret:

It seems to be hard for many of the atheists and agnostics on Gab to grasp how Christianity was synonymous with morality in Europe at the outset of this period. It was the foundation of the social order. We’re so accustomed these days to thinking of morality as something separate from religion that we forget that this modern distinction emerged during the Enlightenment.

John Calvin came of age in northern France in the turmoil of the Reformation in the 1520s. He was a generation younger than Martin Luther. There was already a ‘Lutheran’ movement in France at the time when the young John Calvin was in Paris studying to become a lawyer. Calvin was a Renaissance humanist at this point in his life and his first work was a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia.

The young Calvin was already a quiet introvert, a scholar and an intellectual. One day he was accosted on the street by one of these evangelicals who grabbed him to tell him about the movement in France. He later witnessed that man being burned at the stake and the experience had a transformative impact on his life. It was around this time that he converted and got involved in this underground ‘Lutheran’ movement in France. In his words, God reached out and changed him and inflamed him with a desire to become more godly. It wasn’t through his own agency that he embarked on this course.

John Calvin ended up living in exile in Geneva in Swizterland along with lots of other French refugees. It was during his exile in Geneva (he left for Strasbourg only to later return) that he changed the course of history. He didn’t become famous for boldly defying Pope Leo X or the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V like Martin Luther. Calvin’s great achievement as a scholar and an intellectual was to take the inchoate Protestant movement outside of Germany and give it a systematic theology, liturgy, culture, unity and institutional structure. He built a new church from the ground up and a college in Geneva to train disciples that fanned out across Europe from France to Scotland to Hungary.

Calvinism was an international movement that had great appeal to educated urban elites. It also had great appeal to the French nobility. There are few places in 16th century Europe that the modern liberal would have found more uncongenial than Calvin’s Geneva. Calvinism is exclusive, not universalist – Christ died for the Elect. It is collectivist, not individualist – the community and church elders work together to discourage moral backsliding. It is hierarchical, not egalitarian – a pyramid of saints are on top of the visible church. Calvin’s Geneva wasn’t technically a theocracy, but church and state worked alongside each other to enforce rigorous moral discipline in a way that is unheard of today.

While both Luther and Calvin wrote sharp polemics against the antinomian fanatics who they both detested (antinomians believe they are not bound to follow moral law), Calvin was the more systematic theologian. He spent decades revising, polishing and sharpening his masterpiece, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Philip Melanchthon played a similar role within Lutheranism.

I’m not going to bother to list all the various differences that I have with Calvinism. I think Calvinism goes way too far in the realm of art, music and liturgy. After reading this book, I can’t help but admire Calvin’s achievement though. In fact, I would go so far as to say that one of the reasons that our movement is stuck where it is at today is because we haven’t produced an intellectual of Calvin’s stature who is capable of conceptualizing and articulating an ideology and lifestyle that can rival liberalism. We haven’t produced a figure like Luther either who is capable of seizing the public imagination.

The most intriguing thing that I enjoyed about this book was reading about Calvin’s frustrations with the “Nicodemites.” The Nicodemite is a reference to the Gospel of John where the Pharisee Nicodemus was a secret disciple of Jesus Christ. This was a time when the Huguenots in France suffered persecution on a scale that dwarfs anything the Alt-Right suffers from today. Calvin had to deal with people in his time who conformed as Catholics by day, but we were Reformed by night. He scolded the Nicodemites and advised them to flee France and go into exile where they could serve God with a clear conscience.

It is food for thought. White Nationalism or the Alt-Right is an underground movement that suffers from Nicodemism on a massive scale. Maybe John Calvin had the solution? What if the answer is to go into exile from the American Babylon and seek out some new place to live like Geneva? That’s what the Pilgrims and the Puritans were doing in New England. It’s something to think about.

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