This summer, my wife Romkje and I invite you to join us as we head off once more around Europe in search of people and movements who shaped Europe. As with past years, we start in Amsterdam, city of Rembrandt, Abraham Kuyper and even the Pilgrim Fathers. After travelling around Holland, through Germany and the Czech Republic, we visit St Gallen, Zurich and Lausanne in Switzerland. We end our trip in Geneva, arriving there in time to celebrate John Calvin’s 500th birthday, July 10.
So here’s your invitation to join us for Calvin’s birthday party. Okay, Calvin might not be the first person whose birthday you really wouldn’t want to miss. And its doubtful the sober reformer would approve of birthday celebrations in general, let alone the fuss being made of him this year in countries with Calvinistic backgrounds-like Holland, Scotland and Switzerland.
For the Calvin Year kicked off in Holland this month with a Calvin Week of debates, concerts, readings, guided city tours in Amsterdam, symposia, workshops and, of course, special church services. Calvin’s legacy in science, politics and culture is being explored from every angle.
Calvin is being both praised and vilified in the press. One church historian described him as the Obama of the sixteenth century! Nonsense, say others; he was a somber, tyrannical personality who left a trail of damage. How we would we be without Calvin? asked one magazine, answering immediately: more tolerant, more pleasant, more natural and happier!
Personally, I grew up in New Zealand with negative feelings about the man. Calvin was the hero of argumentative students in our Evangelical Union at university constantly trying to convince us about predestination. Later I learned that their approach reflected something of Calvin’s own polemic style. For me, Calvinism was predestination was Calvinism. I figured I wasn’t predestined to be a Calvinist.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, my wife-to-be was being raised in a heavy Dutch Calvinist church where they only sang plain song. During services she learned the useful skill of sleeping with her eyes open. Five decades later, she can also remember exactly how many window panes the church building had: one thousand and sixty-six.
Then there was the much-cited Servetus affair. This unfortunate Spaniard turned up in Geneva after escaping from prison in Catholic France, where he had been sentenced to death by slow burning. But Calvin also denounced his heretical views and had him arrested. Too late, the poor man discovered he had jumped out of the frying pan and literally into the fire. The city council tried Servetus and burned him alive on the city outskirts.
Surely Calvin was no better than the Catholic Inquisitors!So who’d want to celebrate his birthday?
Well, I for one. Despite all the above, Calvin remains a towering giant in history. He deserves to be judged on his own merit, not on that of his followers, some of whom were far more ‘Calvinistic’ than he.
He also needs to be understood in the context of his times. In the case of Servetus, Calvin acted as leaders of other cities expected him to do. Opinions from Zürich, Basel, Bern and Schaffhausen were read at the trial before the town council, not Calvin himself, sentenced Servetus. Calvin’s request that he be (mercifully) beheaded rather than burned to death was refused.
For answers to questions raised by my university studies (answers my Baptist-charismatic background did not provide), I found myself turning to writers from the Calvinistic tradition-like Francis Schaeffer and Hans Rookmaker. Later the neo-calvinist Abraham Kuyper introduced me to a vision of society extending the lordship of Christ over ‘family, church, school and state’. In ywam, we began talking of life-spheres and mind-moulders, a sort of ‘Calvinism for dummies’ version of this vision.
I have also come to realise how the civic model pioneered by Calvin in Geneva shaped parliamentary governments in Holland, Scotland and England, and (via the Pilgrim Fathers and Puritans) in North America, in South Africa, throughout the British Empire and more recently in Korea. Surely that is reason enough to pause and commemorate!
Before we finish our Share the Heritage trip in Geneva, we will have met Willibrord and St Martin, Menno Simons and Charlemagne, Boniface and Thomas à Kempis, Luther and Bach, Francke and ZInzendorf, Hus and Comenius, Patrick and Columbanus, Zwingli and Sattler… among others! So, hey, Calvin’s birthday party is just the icing on the cake.
Check it out then on www.ywam.eu/sses. And why not plan to join us in Amsterdam, June 27?