Monday, 17 November 2008

So who was John Calvin? Neither a saint nor a murderer - or maybe a bit of both?

Tuesday last week saw the launch of a short series of lunchtime library conversations. Theodore Gill got us started with a brilliant lecture called "So who was John Calvin?"

Theo began by showing us some of the cartoons of Calvin you can find in the Calvindrier that The Protestant Church of Geneva has published for the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth.

So, who was John Calvin? La Vie Protestante, the magazine of the EPG or Protestant Church of Geneva, offers us one answer to the question. As the headline of this month’s editorial tells us, Calvin was Ni un Saint, Ni un Tueur – neither a saint nor a cold-blooded killer. It seems a rather negative assertion – attempting to explain what he was not, and quite defensively, rather than who he was. I prefer to commence in a different way…

I advance the proposition that John Calvin was very much a creature of the sixteenth century – a product of the high middle ages as they intersected with renaissance, a humanistic scholar whose academic concentrations had been in the fields of classical literature and law. But the basis of all education in those days was theology, and it was to this discipline that Calvin returned in earnest after he had completed his studies at the Collège de Montaigu in the University of Paris and made his way to the city of Basel.

The concomitant point I’m trying to make is that we are not creatures of the sixteenth century, not even the most Reformed among us, nor the most Lutheran or Anglican or Mennonite or Unitarian or Jesuitical. Our post-Enlightenment orientation and assumptions are so different from those of Parisians in the 1530s or Genevans of the 1550s that we do well to put a historical spin on the injunction, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” We lack the existential basis for judging 16th-century ancestors in the faith. To know John Calvin, much less to render judgment, we first would have to borrow a page from C.H. Dodd and enter into that alien era of Calvin, and Farel, and de Bèze, and Servetus, so as to live ourselves into its strangeness, and then return to our present. This is not likely to happen over one lunchtime, but let us try to go a few steps of the way.

The lecture was a birlliant reumé of Calvin's life and theology. Now you too can benefit from our lunchtimes in the library. The podcast and full lecture can be found on the website of the Ecumencical Centre Library (click on the links), and you can browse their site for other nuggets of fascianting information, a truly wonderful resource.