John Calvin: The Tyrant Who Never Was

calvinmodrefToday, July 10, marks the 500th birthday anniversary of the great Reformer John Calvin (French: Jean Cauvin). For most evangelicals today, his name evokes an image of a negative, judgmental and cold tyrant, because this is the Calvin whom high school teachers and university and seminary professors have portrayed before their students in the last several decades.

But this cold tyrannical image (some have ridiculed him saying that his wife died of boredom) has nothing in common with first-hand reports by friend or foe alike and the consensus of the world’s foremost Renaissance and Reformation historians. As Westminster President Dr. W. Robert Godfrey writes in his new book John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor,

Historians, by contrast, know that John Calvin was one of the most remarkable men who lived in the last five hundred years and that his influence on the development of the modern western world has been immense. Calvin and Calvinism have been linked to the rise of such diverse phenomena as democracy, capitalism, and modern science. Theologians and biblical scholars know him as a writer in theology and biblical studies whose work must still be carefully considered today. Church historians remember him as the principal theologian of Reformed Christianity–an expression of the faith that over four and a half centuries has attracted millions of adherents in countries throughout the world.

But he was not just a scholar whom many have caricatured as impersonal; he was also a pastor who cared deeply for his flock. Indeed, Theodore Beza (1519-1605) wrote in a biography of his friend and colleague,

Having been a spectator of his conduct for sixteen years… I can now declare, that in him all men may see a most beautiful example of the Christian character, an example which it is as easy to slander as it is difficult to imitate.

On May 27, 1564, Calvin died, only fifty-five years old. Dutch historian L. Penning described how Geneva reacted,

When late at night the news of Calvin’s death spread, there was much weeping in the town, as a nation weeps when it loses its benefactor. Cannon Street was crowded with people; it became a pilgrimage to the Reformer’s death-bed, and the Government had to take measures to prevent too great a pressure.

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Thousands of exiles, citizens, and foreign dignitaries followed the funeral procession. As he had requested, his body was placed in a simple pine box and buried in an unmarked grave, which “surely was not the funeral of a despot” (Horton, “Was Geneva a Theocracy”).

Was he the cold tyrant or the compassionate pastor of a church in Geneva? Was he the ruthless despot who ordered the execution of Servetus? Here are some resources that will help in sorting out these questions so the real John Calvin may be known:

“Was Geneva a Theocracy?” by Michael Horton
“Calvin on the Eucharist” by W. Robert Godfrey
“Calvin and the Worship of God” by W. Robert Godfrey
Modern Reformation. “Calvin at 500: Does He Still Matter?” Special Issue 18/7 2009.

The 500th Anniversary of Calvin’s Birth
Calvin’s Legacy, Westminster Seminary Conference

John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor, W. Robert Godfrey
The Legacy of John Calvin, by David Hall
The Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin


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4 thoughts on “John Calvin: The Tyrant Who Never Was”

  1. Unfortunately John Calvin did not know about the “prosperity gospel”.   Had he known that he would have bought at least 2 entire countries in Europe!!!

  2. Jose Ignacio Bravo

    Consistency and Trajectory…good stuff, did you thnk of that?
    One little tidbit that was interesting to me was his humanist influence. Authority and edification can totally be considered human faculties, but I never used them to describe a humanist before…ha i’ll ad them to my list!

  3. Calvin’s descendants are at it again, planting new Reformed churches in the eastern and western extremities of the United States.

    Read more about these two new churches here.

  4. One of the most common charges against the Reformed since the 16th century all the way to present evangelical period is that it has neglected missions.

    I found a paper that refutes this charge in Themelios: Kenneth J. Stewart, “Calvinism and Missions: The Contested Relationship Revisited,” Themelios 34:1 (2009): 63–78.

    Another paper that deals with the Reformed churches and missions is “Friends or Foes: The Mission and Confession of the Church” written by Dr. W. Robert Godfrey.

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