John Calvin, and Calvinism, have drawn many interpretations, few recognisable to the Great Reformer himself. Our vision is shaped by the sight of dour ministers of the Kirk pronouncing thundering condemnations from the pulpit, and those schismatic free churches which shake the dust of their feet when they leave divide from the Church of Scotland and its over such matters as scandalously allowing music in worship. The word “Calvinist” is associated with joylessness and Christianity stripped to bare essentials.
However in theological terms Calvinism is just one of the branches of the Reformation, sitting beside Lutheranism. The Thirty-Nine Articles which define the doctrine of the Church of England, with its robed priests and mitred bishops, is Calvinist.
John Stuart Mill in On Liberty wrote of his idea of it:
It is so, on the Calvinistic theory. According to that, the one great offence of man is self-will. All the good of which humanity is capable is comprised in obedience. You have no choice; thus you must do, and no otherwise: “whatever is not a duty, is a sin.” Human nature being radically corrupt, there is no redemption for any one until human nature is killed within him. To one holding this theory of life, crushing out any of the human faculties, capacities, and susceptibilities, is no evil: man needs no capacity, but that of surrendering himself to the will of God: and if he uses any of his faculties for any other purpose but to do that supposed will more effectually, he is better without them. This is the theory of Calvinism; and it is held, in a mitigated form, by many who do not consider themselves Calvinists; the mitigation consisting in giving a less ascetic interpretation to the alleged will of God; asserting it to be his will that mankind should gratify some of their inclinations; of course not in the manner they themselves prefer, but in the way of obedience, that is, in a way prescribed to them by authority; and, therefore, by the necessary condition of the case, the same for all.
It may be better to be a John Knox than an Alcibiades, but it is better to be a Pericles than either; nor would a Pericles, if we had one in these days, be without anything good which belonged to John Knox.
He got it wrong – he hits the mark on how many ministers treated morals, but that is not Calvinism, properly defined. The idea Mill identifies is “whatever is not duty is sin”, and duty is in the eyes of the minister. There is no such doctrine in the Scriptures. I have not read in intense detail Calvin’s own Institutes of the Christian Religion, but though it frequently mentions duty, and it certainly emphasises the total depravity of mankind (with which Thomas Hobbes would not dissent), I can see no suggestion that he believed that a Christian must follow a script – he contradicts it.
The problem, the prescriptive idea, comes from after Calvin- from a distortion brought by fanatics so convinced of the reform that they wanted to take it further, like riding to the destination and then riding fast beyond it and away from it.
Hobbes lived through the Puritan revolution. He observed:
these took upon them not only a Divine right, but also a Divine inspiration. And having been connived at, and countenanced sometimes in their frequent preaching, they introduced many strange and many pernicious doctrines, out-doing the Reformation, as they pretended, both of Luther and Calvin; receding from the former divinity or church philosophy (for religion is another thing), as much as Luther and Calvin had receded from the pope; and distracted their auditors into a great number of sects, as Brownists, Anabaptists, Independents, Fifth-monarchy-men, Quakers, and divers others, all commonly called by the name of fanatics
- Mill on truth in its fragility
- Mr Internet’s Sunday Morning Service
- Enfolded in the divine
- Praying for Boris