Monday, January 12, 2015

Origin of Calvinism

Sixth in a Series on the Protestant Reformation

Fr. Charles Coppens, S.J.

John Calvin, ca. 1560
John Calvin was a very different character from Martin Luther. Like one another in their uncommon power of intellect and strength of will, in their rejection of all authority on earth that claimed to control their independent thought, speech and action - these two standard-bearers of the Reformation were in most other respects the opposites of each other.

Luther was by nature and principle a destroyer and disorganizer in religion and morality, fond of breaking through all bonds, of throwing down all bars for himself and for other men generally; Calvin, on the contrary, had a remarkable genius for organization, and delighted in imposing bonds. He built up a novel structure of dogma and morals, tightening the yoke on the multitude, but releasing himself and a few elect souls from all fear of future punishment. We shall understand this better when we shall get acquainted with his personal history.

Calvin was born at Moyen, in Picardy, France, on July 10, 1509, when Luther, as a young monk, was beginning his professorial career at the University of Wittenberg. His father was a faithful Christian, blessed with a good wife and six children, but not with ample means for their support. Of the children, John was the most talented and the most ambitious. In the same town, the noble family of Mommors, with a charity common in Catholic times, took him into their home to be educated with their own children by a private tutor. When he was twelve years old, they sent him with two of their own sons to Paris, where John was to continue his studies for the priesthood.

While attending lectures at the great Paris University, the poor boy was lodged and supported gratis by his paternal uncle, Richard, who made an honest living as a locksmith. The boy was thus described by an early writer:
His body was dry and slender, but he already exhibited a sharp and vigorous intellect, prompt at repartee, bold in attack. He was great at fasting, he spoke but little; his language was serious and always to the point. He entered seldom into company and sought retirement.
Meanwhile, the errors of Luther, his fierce assaults on the Pope, his condemnation of penance and morals restraints, etc., had begun to attract public attention in France, and was creating a wild excitement, particularly among the students of the Paris University. Calvin was soon infected with the new spirit. While his good Uncle Richard daily attended Mass, abstained from flesh meat every Friday and Saturday, and piously told his beads daily, John had begun to scoff at such devout practices. For, already at 14, he had read some of Luther's books; he had admitted doubt and then proud contempt into his conceited mind. The influence of his principle professor at the time was in favor of the novel errors, and soon the boy was no longer a Catholic except in name.

Still, he found it his interest to conceal his sentiments, and at the age of 19, having been enrolled among the clergy by receiving the tonsure, he obtained a considerable ecclesiastical benefice, which enabled him to live on the Church without discharging any sacred duties. He never recevied the priesthood nor even the Minor Orders, though he held the title of pastor of a considerable parish.

For a while, he studied law at Orleans, where, under the tuition of an excellent master, he greatly improved in logical thought and trenchant expression; but he was never unpopular among his fellow students, with whom his habit of fault-finding earned for him the sobriquet of "the accusative case." Next, he studied at Bourges, where he made the acquaintence of Beza, Wolmar and other enthusiastic admirers of Luther. Thence he returned to Paris to complete his theological course, living all along on the income of a Church benefice, while he was maturing in his active mind the plan of his heretical system of predestination. While he paused on the brink of the precipice, he was a prey to racking torments of conscience.

At last, his mind was made up, for, to use his own words: "God, by a sudden conversion, subdued his heart and made it docile." From Audin's Life of Calvin we are led to conceive the genesis of his system in this way. He had a powerful intellect, and an iron will to execute whatever he resolved upon; but he had no love of any person but himself, no kindness, no tenderness, no pity on the miserable. Being such, he formed to himself a conception of God after his own image and likeness, a God all intellect and strength of will, but wanting in the element of goodness. This God, in Calvin's system, created the world simply to exercise His arbitrary power, without any regard to the happiness of His creatures. Some of these He predestined to be saved, happy forever, others to be lost in endless woe; without leaving any influence on their lot to either the elect of the reprobate. To the elect. God gives sooner or later an intimate conviction of their election; this pledge, once received, can never be lost. Calvin calls this conviction "faith," taking this word in a novel sense of his own. This faith prompts the happy recipients of it to lead holy lives. Those who have it not are a mass of damnation; they have nothing to gain by the practice of virtue, but they should be kept in order by the elect, by force if necessary.

Calvin, while still openly professing the Catholic religion, held conventicles at night with his secret followers, whom he indoctrinated with his new tenets. His position became dangerous. So, he sold his ecclesiastical benefice and fled to the court of Navarre, where Queen Margaret patronized the Reformation. In that kingdom, he composed the gospel of his sect, which he entitled The Christian Institutes.

We can best understand the spirit of his teachings by seeing how he reduced it to practice during the twenty-two years from 1542 to 1564, while he was all-powerful in Geneva, Switzerland. Considering himself and his partisans as the elect of God, he looked down contemptuously upon the "Libertines," as he styled the unconverted Genevese, just as the Pharisees of old used to look down upon the Publicans. In the spirit of Phariseeism, he enacted a code of the most rigid morality, and he organized a consistory to enforce it on the people. Geneva had been for generations a city of comfort, of cheerfulness and moderate conviviality, of simple pleasures and happiness. The new code abolished all public amusements, all games, all dances, all that had the appearance of frivolity. Domiciliary visits were instituted and various inquisitorial measures were taken to watch the conduct of every citizen. Offences against sanctimonious decorum, and against the very appearance of vanity, were severely punished. Thus we read that a lady was put in prison for having arranged her hair too coquettishly, so was her chambermaid for having assisted her. Imprisonment was inflicted on merchants for playing cards, on peasants for using rude language to their oxen, on burghers, for not extinguishing their lamps in the evening at the appointed hour. Such was the origin of that legislation which caused his followers in English-speaking lands to be called "Puritans," from the external purity of morals which they affected.

Calvin crushed all opposition by the severest punishments. Every word uttered against him was a crime, of which banishment was a common penalty. James Grunet, whom Calvin in open council had called a dog, and who, thus provoked, had written some threatening words against the dictator, was punished with death. All the world knows how he caused Servetus to be seized and condemned for having published, though in another land, some heretical theses against the Holy Trinity, and history blames Calvin for the public burning of the stranger.

The worst feature of Calvanism is that it presents the great, good God as an odious tyrant. What human heart can love a heartless autocrat? In our day, a strong revulsion against this leading feature of Calvanism has caused some branches of that unfortunate system to revise their creed, and return in part to the ancient doctrines of the Catholic Church.

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