FC85B: The Reformation Fragments II: Calvinism




As important as the Zwinglian, Anabaptist, and English reformers may have been, it was Calvinism that would have the most profound and revolutionary impact on Western Civilization. Although the Calvinists' primary concerns were religious, their reforms would radically alter the political and economic institutions of Europe, helping lay the foundations for the eventual triumph of capitalism and democracy.

Luther's break with the Church was especially difficult since he had grown up without any religious alternatives to Catholicism or examples to follow in his reforms. The next generation of reformers, led by John Calvin, grew up in a world that offered alternatives to Catholicism, thus making it easier to break with the Church and carry religious reforms much further than Luther ever had.

Calvin himself grew up in France as the first shock waves of the Reformation rocked Europe. Although not officially allowed in France, Protestant ideas still filtered across the border and won converts. Unlike Luther, whose tormented soul provides fascinating reading, Calvin was a much calmer individual. He seems to have been plagued by none of Luther's self doubts and his personal character was described as nearly flawless. After receiving a good education in theology, law, and also humanist studies, which prompted him to read the Bible more carefully, he seems to have arrived at some sort of conversion in 1533.

Calvin's religion

The cornerstone of Calvin's theology was God's all encompassing power and knowledge. There was nothing God did not know or have control of: past, present, or future. As a result, God knew and controlled from the beginning of time whose souls would be saved or condemned for eternity. This doctrine, known as predestination, had scriptural support and was a logical outgrowth of what Luther had said about faith and salvation being a free gift of God. Predestination raised several disturbing questions. First of all, if God were all-powerful, could we have any free will in choosing between God and Satan? Quite bluntly, Calvin said no. Second, if God were good, how could he let evil exist in the world? Calvin answered that these were mysteries of God that we cannot know the answers to and probably have no business asking.

Finally, can we know we are saved and how? According to Calvin, there is no way for us to know for sure. However, if we meet the requirements of living an upright life, profession of faith, and participation in the sacraments, we could become pleasing to God and be saved despite our sinful nature, if predestined to do so. Such a puritan lifestyle might not ensure salvation, but it could be a sign that one might be one of the few elected by God to go to heaven. However, Calvin said our primary concern should not be going to Heaven, but rather carrying out God's plan for us in this life. As fatalistic as Calvinism with its denial of the existence of free will may sound, its adherents felt empowered by this idea that they were the special instruments for carrying out God's plan. This gave them an unshakable faith in the utter rightness of their cause and made Calvinism the most dynamic movement of its day.

Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, published in 1559, became one of the most popular and influential books of its day. However, Calvin went beyond words in trying to make a point about his religion. To ensure that as many people as possible had a chance to be saved, he established a model Church and community in Geneva, Switzerland to enforce the proper lifestyle needed for salvation. Naturally, Calvin's reforms met resistance and it took him nearly twenty years to get control of Geneva and reform it.

Although the city government still functioned, the Consistory, a church council of twelve elders, wielded the real power over people's lives in Geneva. All citizens were members of the church and had to attend services three or four times a week. This was because there was no telling who was predestined to be saved, and so all must be given a chance. Such acts as fighting, swearing, drunkenness, gambling, card playing, and dancing were outlawed. Even loud noises and laughing in church were fined. Theaters and taverns were closed and replaced by inns allowing moderate drinking accompanied by sermons and church propaganda. Members of the Consistory would make annual inspections of homes to ensure they were morally run. People were even expected to report their neighbors for any behavior that was less than saintly.

The Consistory also ruled the more trivial aspects of peoples' lives. Jewelry and lace were frowned upon, the color of clothing was regulated by law, and women were fined for arranging their hair to immodest heights. Children were to be named after Old Testament figures, and one man was jailed for four days for naming his son Claude instead of Abraham. Punishments were equally harsh, with fifty-eight executions between 1542 and 1564, mostly for heresy (especially Catholicism) and witchcraft. Fourteen witches were burned in one year and one boy was beheaded for striking his parents. Not surprisingly Geneva was called "City of the Saints".

Geneva served as a model to other reformers in Europe, helping make Calvinism the most popular form of Protestantism in the Netherlands, Scotland, and England. This was in spite of its lack of support from rulers who feared both Calvinism's emphasis on God's absolute power, which might undercut the doctrine of Divine Right of Kings, and its lack of being associated with any particular nation. In Germany and Scandinavia, Lutheranism was quickly identified with strong nationalist sentiments that rulers could exploit for their own political purposes. However, Calvinism had no particular national ties, thus depriving it of the strong state support that Lutheranism enjoyed.

However, this lack of state support forced Calvinists to form independent local congregations without any real central organization, making it virtually impossible to uproot and destroy their movement by concentrating on a few leaders. These congregations were somewhat democratic, thus inspiring greater loyalty in all their members, even when facing intense persecution for their beliefs.

Long range effects of Calvinism

Two of Calvin's ideas would have far reaching effects going far beyond religion. First, the idea of predestination meant not only that Calvinist merchants were allowed to do business and make money, they were predestined to do so and should do so fervently as God's will. Of course, as devout Calvinists, they were to make money for the good of the church and community, and at first that was what they did. However, later generations, lacking the intense fervor of the first generation of reformers (a normal pattern with any revolutionary movement), came to feel justified in pursuing profits for their own personal good. The result of this was the triumph of capitalism, especially in England and the Dutch Republic where Calvinists predominated, as the dominant economic system in Western Europe. This in turn would make Western Europe the economic center of the world and home of the Industrial Revolution.

The second Calvinist far-reaching effect of Calvinism was the concept of God's absolute power that, along with the idea that God sees all useful occupations as equal, discredited the doctrine of Divine Right of Kings. Calvin himself preached obedience to authority unless religious conviction forced civil disobedience. But it should never involve open resistance, since God alone would punish any evil rulers. However, some Calvinists, such as John Knox, the fiery leader of the Scottish Calvinists, preached people could overthrow a corrupt prince to defend their religious beliefs and God's law. The revolt of the Spanish Netherlands (1566-1648) and the English Civil War (1642-45) were two prime examples of such Calvinist religious revolts.

Later, these two ideas, capitalism and religious revolution, combined into an even more powerful idea discussed in John Locke's Two Treatises on Government (1694). Much as middle class contracts define obligations in a business deal, Locke saw government as an implied contract especially defining obligations for the king who acted as caretaker of the state for the good of the people, protecting their lives, liberties, and property. If the king failed in these duties, the contract was null and void and the people had the right to overthrow him. This combination of middle class contracts and the belief in religious revolution would become the cornerstone of democracy. And within that idea lay the seeds for the democratic revolutions that would sweep through France, Europe, and eventually the entire globe in the 1800s and 1900s.