Bruce Gordon


On his book Calvin

Cover Interview of April 20, 2010


Why does Calvin still matter after five hundred years? That question can be answered in several ways. In his own time, he emerged as a brilliant leader who gave shape to Protestantism at a moment when it might have been swept away by resurgent Catholicism. He refined the teaching of Martin Luther and others to define God’s church in the torrid world of the sixteenth century.  He spoke eloquently of a great God who is always near and whose providence, though inscrutable, always works for good.  As a lawyer he knew how to draft ordinances and run institutions. As a humanist he wrote some of the most exquisite prose of the century in interpreting God’s Word.  His vision was of God’s people journeying through the world under the unshakable protection of the divine promises. God’s providence may be rough, but it is always good, and God never abandons the elect.  The world is the wonderful manifestation of God’s creation and goodness, and humanity is called to mirror God’s righteousness through service.  All his life Calvin wrestled with the seeming paradox of an utterly sovereign God and human agency. This is more than a conundrum: it is the creative tension of his legacy.

Calvin’s life was not a completed circle.  When he died many of his most cherished dreams remained far from realized.  His native France was engulfed by what he most feared: executions and religious war.  Many of his fellow French had not embraced the Gospel in the manner he had wanted.  Across Europe Protestant churches were far from united.  In England an irate Queen Elizabeth refused to hear his name mentioned.

Yet the ideas by which he had so inspired his contemporaries continued to rouse others after his death. Calvin had created new possibilities for the secular world by envisaging the separation of spiritual and temporal authority.  Rulers, in Calvin’s view, were to protect religion, not interfere in it.  As Max Weber would famously identify, Calvin and Calvinism spawned cultures in which the search for assurance of salvation would shape patterns of behavior.  This was true of English Puritans and the settlers of New England.

Calvin had preached and written for his age. Others would subsequently take his words and ideas and interpret them in new contexts.  In the Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century and the Atlantic world of trade Calvinists would prove adept in the adaptation of economic and religious principles. These issues are still with us. The rise of Calvinism in Korea and the new forms of Neo-Calvinism in America demonstrate diverse engagements with the ideas of the man who had shaped his own age, that most crucial epoch, the European Reformation.

© 2010 Bruce Gordon