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180px-John_Calvin_-_Young WikipediaJuly 10, 2009 marks the quincentenary of John Calvin’s birth.  Calvin’s adopted ‘home town’ of Geneva, Switzerland, is busy right now in making final preparations for Calvin 500, which will take place between June 30 and July 10.

The Revd Peter Wyatt is a past principal of Emmanuel College in Toronto.  He is also the chairman of the Rediscovering Calvin conference taking place in Toronto prior to Calvin 500.  He has written an article for The United Church Observer about the myths surrounding Calvin. 

Here is a summary of Revd Wyatt’s article:

  • Myth — Calvin ruled Geneva as a theocracy: The only public office Calvin held in Geneva was that of chief pastor and then only for two years.  The city council might have dismissed him, but they invited him back in 1541. Upon his return, he became somewhat of a celebrity and those fleeing Catholic persecution wanted to hear him preach. His writing made him internationally famous.  Yet, ironically, those who were opposed to him actually governed the city during this time.   
  • Myth — Calvin believed goodness was alien to human nature: Calvin’s doctrine of ‘total depravity’ means that the mind as well as the body is susceptible to sin.  This goes against Catholic teachings of the Middle Ages about a ‘body-mind dualism’, whereby sin is in our bodies and it is up to the mind to rise above physical temptations.
  • Myth — Calvin was an unforgiving disciplinarian: Minutes from the Genevan Consistory Panel reveal that Calvin and the panel’s members wanted to achieve ‘healing and understanding’ from the punishments they meted out.  (What the article doesn’t say is that similar ‘vice patrols’ were in operation in most European cities at the time.  Geneva was not an anomaly.)
  • Myth — Calvin was obsessed with personal morality: Calvin strongly believed that ‘Christ came as the transformer of individuals and cultures’.  Whilst Calvin was concerned with personal morality, he also taught Genevans the importance of social solidarity and worked tirelessly on behalf of refugees and the city’s poor. 
  • Myth — Calvin was a champion of self-denial: Calvin actually encouraged the rich to be more charitable, believing that the poor were ‘God’s proxies’ sent ‘as agents to gather in what is God’s’.
  • Myth — Calvin was the spiritual father of capitalism: Although the Catholic Church criticised Calvin for encouraging the charging of interest, the kings of England and France were already lending out money at 12% or 14% interest.  Calvin, on the other hand, instructed his followers to charge no more than 5% (and, what the article doesn’t say, never to collect interest from the poor).
  • Myth — Calvin was the source of a debilitating work ethic:  Although Calvin said that one’s money may be a secondary indicator of being among the ‘elect’, people can only be fully ‘confident of their work and destiny’ if they have a true relationship with Christ. Any rewards for achievement must be viewed in light of God’s saving grace. 

For the full story, click here.


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