John Calvin Is 500 Years Old Today

Like many people, I used to assume Calvin was as dusty, dry, and doctrinaire as he was made out to be by his detractors and supporters alike. That is until, you know, I actually read him. I was instead delighted to find his mind afire with the love of God, his prose lively, his theology dynamic and stimulating, and his spirituality marvelously devotional. (Indeed he never would have separated the latter two.) After Karl Barth read John Calvin, he described him this way:

Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from the Himalayas, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately…. I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin.

A demonic power. In a good way.

A lot of people lay much of the responsibility for the Enlightenment at the feet of the Reformers, especially Calvin and Luther (and this is not a compliment). I think, rather, that there is a better case to be made for them as the last medievals (and that is a compliment). Happy five hundredth, Old Master.


I like this portrait of Calvin because it displays his humanity better than many of the other portraits out there, which instead portray a dark arch-predestinarian looking sternly but glumly out on the world. IVP recently published a pretty decent, and extremely readable, biography of Calvin that attempts to depict him not as the fiery, despotic Genevan theocrat handing down death sentences from on high but as a human being, fiery and controversial, yes, but also thoughtful, vulnerable, and sometimes even fragile, an exile in almost constant forced peregrination, a pilgrim in complete submission to God’s will, and I think it largely succeeds. Check it out.

And check out this clever Wattersonian drawing of Calvin and Hobbes’s actual namesakes (John and Thomas, respectively) that I found here. I love it!



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