Rethinking Calvin

The unsparing eye of Calvin’s God is also that of the novelist coolly scrutinising creation
December 16, 2009

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 man and God was too great: salvation was impossible if God did not will it. Since not everyone can be saved (a point on which almost everyone in the 16th century agreed) then God cannot want to save everyone. Since God is also omniscient and just, then He must also know which of his creatures has been created to which end.

The great, terrifying and urgent question then becomes: “How could we know which we are?” When the Calvinists were a tiny, persecuted minority, it was obvious. But as they grew in number, there were not enough Catholics and other heretics to supply the necessary legions of the damned. Even members of Christ’s own church could no longer be sure of salvation. So Calvinists constantly checked for signs of God’s love, like people checking a potentially winning lottery ticket. Worldly success might hint at God’s favour. This desperate need to test God, to find out what He thought, perhaps explains some of the political extremism that Calvinism fostered, and the stiff-necked courage. What could be a greater sign of God’s favour than to triumph, like the Israelites, against an overwhelming horde of enemies?

Calvin himself wasn’t a fundamentalist. He was too well-educated for that. He believed in infant baptism, and the doctrine of the Trinity, neither of which are in the Bible. He was, of course, also prepared to burn those who denied his doctrines. His real originality, however, was to invent a working form of theocracy that didn’t depend on converting the king.

Lutheran and Anglican protestantism were basically top down, but Calvinism spread from the people upward—rather like Shiism in Islam. It wasn’t democratic; but it was populist. The preacher was enormously important—Calvin often preached daily and twice on Sundays in Geneva—but his theological novelty was to say that Christians need not obey, indeed must disobey, the ungodly magistrate.

In Geneva, Calvinism was also a highly collective form of Christianity. The system was so rigorous that by the end of the generation after Calvin’s death, almost everyone had been excommunicated for a while, for one thing or another. After that, things grew a bit more relaxed, and by the 18th century, Geneva even became the sanctuary of Voltaire, while Scotland combined with Calvinism’s faith in reason and argument to give us the iconoclasm of David Hume and Adam Smith.

It was only in countries where the Calvinists were a persecuted minority (like England) that the church elders went quiet; in turn, this most collective of religions also became one of the most individualistic. English Puritans kept diaries full of self-examination. Some say that Shakespeare invented the modern idea of the individual, others credit Montaigne. But it was Calvinism that said everyone could be an individual. The idea that each of us is a precious, distinct snowflake isn’t entirely an illusion. But I don’t think it would have arisen without Calvin’s fierce sense that we are all under God’s direct scrutiny.

The American novelist Marilynne Robinson, a Presbyterian, says that the Calvinist doctrine of the total depravity of man is actually an account of our warped perceptions of the world, rather than a claim that we are all completely evil. Calvin, she says, saw that we are all unreliable narrators, and in that sense he also helped to make the novel possible. The omniscient, unsparing eye of Calvin’s God is surely the eye of the novelist, too, as he watches his creations wriggling.