The “Calvin As Tyrant Meme”

The meme is that Calvin’s God was a tyrant and the corollary to that divine tyranny is Calvin’s allegedy tyranny over the civil life on Geneva

Calvin had far more influence over civil life than we are accustomed to seeing but he was no tyrant in Geneva. He was not even a citizen until late in his life. He was a sixteenth-century man and a Constantinian—but so was most everyone else in the period. The real argument here cannot reasonably be over Calvin’s influence in civil affairs or else the entire magisterial Reformation must be convicted. Where’s the moral outrage over Bucer, Melanchthon, Luther, Zwingli, Bullinger et al? ? So, we may fairly wonder whether something else is bothering so many moderns and late moderns.
For a fellow who has been dead since 1564 and for a movement that, socially considered, is little more than a demographic blip (about 500,000 people in North America) Calvin and Calvinism continue to receive a remarkable amount of attention in the mass media. Typically, however, this attention draws upon a familiar “meme” (an idea or concept spread widely throughout a culture) that has its roots in Calvin’s earlist critic, Jerome Bolsec (d. 1584), a former Carmelite monk who opposed Calvin’s soteriology (from 1551).

The meme is that Calvin’s God was a tyrant and the corollary to that divine tyranny is Calvin’s allegedy tyranny over the civil life on Geneva. Most recently, a version of this theme appears in a Salon.com [Editor’s note: the original URL (link) referenced is no longer valid, so the link has been removed.] article by Chris Lehmann on Joel Osteen. Lehmann writes:

Osteen’s serene depictions of God’s eternally uptending designs for the fates of individual believers are a sort of inverted Calvinism. Where the Puritan forebears of today’s Protestant scene beheld a terrible, impersonal Creator whose rigid system of eternal reward and punishment dispatched many an infant and solemn believer to the pit of damnation….

This invocation of Calvin(ism) also appears in Molly Worthen’s 2009 essay on Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill. For our purposes, what is most interesting is the way Calvin appears and the function that story plays in her narrative about the nature of the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement.

The Reformed tradition’s resistance to compromise and emphasis on the purity of the worshipping community has always contained the seeds of authoritarianism: John Calvin had heretics burned at the stake and made a man who casually criticized him at a dinner party march through the streets of Geneva, kneeling at every intersection to beg forgiveness. [Benedict cites the Calvini Opera 21:21, 367, 370-77 and several secondary texts as evidence for this episode].

This compressed account of Calvin’s authority in Geneva reinforces the old and false stereotypes about Calvin, Calvinism, and the Reformed Churches as inherently authoritarian and tyrannical. It feeds what P. E. Hughes called “the popular fantasy” of Calvin as tyrant of Geneva. Calvin was more refugee than tyrant. At any rate, church-state relations in Geneva were fluid and complex.

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