the terrifying doctrine of john calvin -- 8/22/16

Today's selection -- from Tudors by Peter Ackroyd. In the sixteenth century, just as Martin Luther's reformation seemed to be in retreat under the pressure of the all-pervasive Catholic establishment of popes and kings, a remarkable twenty-six year old Frenchman named Jean [John] Calvin arrived to give the reformation new life. We think of him today as the stern progenitor of the doctrine of predestination -- the belief that God has pre-ordained all outcomes, a doctrine terrifying to some and comforting to others:

"Jean [John] Calvin ... established a reforming movement of great sternness and discipline. He was a French scholar who discovered within himself a gift for systematic thought and a huge capacity for government; in 1536, at the age of twenty-six, he published the Institutes of the Christian Religion in which he established the principles of what was essentially a new city of God. Working in relative isolation, and in a short period of time, he created an entire system of theology at once authoritarian and impersonal. There was nothing private about Calvin; he was always a public force. That was the source of his greatness.

Portrait of Calvin by Titian

"He travelled to Basel, and to Strasburg, in order to escape persecution from the French king and church. At Geneva, through the power of an unyielding will yoked with moral fervour, he created a new republic founded upon faith. He regulated worship and created a liturgy; by means of a council he watched over the morals of the city. It can be said that single-handedly he revived the spirit and the progress of the European reformation, at a time when it seemed to be in retreat from the forces of the Catholic powers.

"At the heart of Calvinism was the doctrine of predestination, derived ultimately from the texts of Paul and Augustine. Before the foundations of the earth had been created God had decreed that some should be saved for everlasting life and that others should be damned eternally. If God was Almighty, then of course he already knew the identity of the elect and the reprobate. The divine potter had created some vessels of honour and of mercy, and other vessels of wrath and dishonour. Some, on embracing this doctrine, might fear for the fate of their souls and fall into despair. But for most believers the doctrine of foreknowledge and predestination was a sovereign cure for anxiety and apathy; it was an inspiring and animating doctrine that encouraged self-sacrifice and moral courage. What joy was to be found in the knowledge that you are saved? ... The true Church consisted of the elect, known only to God; once you had been saved by God's grace you could not relapse into sinfulness. It lent status to those who might have felt themselves to be otherwise deprived. ...

"It was a doctrine that naturally attracted enthusiasts and idealists; since they are the people who work wonderful changes in the world, Calvinism rapidly spread. It became the dominant theme for the 'hotter' breed of reformers, and soon established itself in Poland and in Bohemia, in the Palatinate and in the Dutch Netherlands."


Peter Ackroyd


Tudors: The History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I


St. Martin's Griffin


Copyright 2012 by Peter Ackroyd


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