The unsparing eye of Calvin’s God is also that of the novelist coolly scrutinising creationby Andrew Brown / December 16, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
John Calvin did not, as it turns out, invent capitalism. But he might have made possible the modern novel. In the 500 years since his birth in a small town north of Paris, in 1509, Calvin has remained among Christian history’s most important and hated figures. “Calvinism” is a byword for guilt, and hatred of joy and art. It is also about predestination, which holds that God creates some to be damned, whatever their efforts to be good. It is Calvinism that speaks of the “total depravity of man” as one of the foundations of Christianity.
But in recent years Calvin’s legacy has been re-evaluated. Old enemies have spoken kindly of him, even in Scotland, a place his spirit is supposed to have blighted for generations. And while the churches that follow him in Europe are shrinking and changing—there is a woman pastor at his old cathedral in Geneva—his teachings flourish in Asia and Africa. According to some estimates, there are now more Calvinists than Anglicans in the world.
The idea that Calvinism gave birth to capitalism is one of those appealing myths that has a kernel of truth to it. It plays on the stereotypes of cold, northern, self-denying types getting rich while warm, happy southerners stay poor. It is true that the Calvinist version of the reformation spread among small businessmen and tradespeople, and its doctrines are still spreading today through the Baptist networks of eastern Europe. But Calvinists were too austere to end up the richest denomination. When Calvinist countries are analysed, the poorer parts tend to be the most fervent, while the richer warm to less austere forms of Christianity.
That the striving Calvinist businessmen believed in predestination seems a puzzle, for surely it is a reason to be fatalistic and lazy. But Calvinistic predestination is a complex thing, and in a curious way it came from an attempt to think rationally about God. Calvin was clear that no one can be saved by their own efforts. The gap between…