The French Luther
Church reformer John Calvin born 500 years ago
July 8, 2009
John Calvin is a pivotal figure for about 90 million Reformed Christians in the world today. The church reformer was born 500 years ago, on 10 July 1509, in the town of Noyon, about a hundred kilometers from Paris - eight years before Martin Luther's (1483-1546) legendary protest against the abuses of the medieval church with his 95 Theses. Luther laid the foundation stone of the Reformation, which dramatically renewed European Christendom and led to the founding of the Protestant churches.
Calvin, the "French Luther", belonged to the second wave of this religious revolution. Luther and Calvin never met in person.
Church historians agree that, apart from Luther, no theologian has marked Protestant Christianity as profoundly as Calvin. He helped to shape modern democracy, the concept of human rights and ecumenism. Many regard his famous Genevan Book of Church Order, developed in the mid-16th century, as a model of the separation of powers in the modern state.
The son of an affluent family - his father was an administrative officer of the bishop - Calvin received a classical education and took a degree in humanities, thus belonging to the educational elite of his age. At first, Calvin was considered a loyal Catholic. Apparently he heard about progressive Reformation ideas from friends. It must have been in the early 1530s that he joined the Reformation and openly professed himself a supporter of the Protestant faith.
Thereupon Calvin had to flee from Paris. After different stopovers in Basle and Strasbourg he finally settled in Geneva in 1541, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. He turned the provincial city into an intellectual centre of Europe, and attracted scholars, artisans and families seeking protection from religious persecution. Centuries later Calvin gave comfort through his teaching to people suffering oppression and persecution.
The Reformer also contributed to a flourishing economy in the region around Geneva, as evidenced by the clock and watch industry or the banking sector to this day. Yet many have found it difficult to identify with the close ties between Calvinism and capitalism claimed by sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920). Weber's tracing the spirit of capitalism back to Calvinist virtues is, moreover, belied by critical historical study.
Jan Peter Balkenende, prime minister of the traditionally Calvinist Netherlands and himself a Reformed Christian, paid tribute to the topical relevance of the Reformer. Speaking at the opening of the major Calvin exhibition at the German Historical Museum in Berlin, he commented that the rise of the modern market economy was unthinkable without Calvin: "Work hard, live modestly - in Calvinism this was a biblical instruction that had to be fulfilled every day."
However, short-term interests of the individual are, according to Balkenende, subordinate to the long-term interest of the community. In view of the financial and economic crisis it would be "a good thing if the financial markets followed this principle more closely," he remarked.
In view of this pronounced work ethic, a cliché emerged from the 16th century - that of Calvinists being opposed to pleasure, the arts and the joys of life. Yet Reformed Christians are, in fact, "more educated and sophisticated, more ethical in their way of life" and more tolerant than Lutherans, commented German poet and historian Ricarda Huch (1864-1947): "Trade and industry gave rise to a degree of broadmindedness towards foreign nations and beliefs."
By contrast with the more exuberant Wittenberg Reformer Martin Luther, Calvin, whose portraits always present him as a gaunt, severe ascetic, is not very popular today. Calvin's writings are characterized by their elegance, clarity and astuteness, but are regarded as dry - quite unlike those of Luther, whose language is often earthy, even crude.
Calvin's severity with himself and others is probably also a consequence of a life in which fate dealt him several blows. First he had to flee from France, his beloved home country; 1549 saw the death of his wife and their new-born son did not survive for long.
John Calvin died on 27 May 1564 at the age of 54 in Geneva. He left behind a form of Protestant piety and spirituality that still fascinates millions of people worldwide.
With a ceremony on 10 July at Berlin's French Friedrichstadt Church the EKD and the Reformed Alliance paid tribute to the founding father of Reformed Protestantism. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke on the European dimension of Calvin's work. Other speakers were the Moderator of the Reformed Alliance, Peter Bukowski, EKD Council Chair Wolfgang Huber, General Director Hans Ottomeyer of the German Historical Museum and Rev. Thomas Wipf from Switzerland, President of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe.
On Sunday 12 July a festive service was broadcast from the Friedrichstadt Church in Berlin in memory of Calvin. The Reformed tradition came to Berlin at the end of the 17th century with the French Hugenots, who had had to flee their country for their faith.