1. John Calvin, the despot from Geneva?
Somewhat more is known about the person of John Calvin than about the
person of Huldreich Zwingli. And this is understandable insofar as he
was incomparably more effective than Zwingli. Nearly all Reformed churches
in the world refer themselves back to him. The Reformed are often called
Calvinists, although they do not so describe themselves.
But at the same time, one still often comes across very negative characterisations
of Calvin, above all in Germany. He is the despot from Geneva who was
extremely severe and ready to sacrifice all others to his school of thought;
he had Servet executed; he represented to so-called doctrine of double
predestination, according to which God elected some to salvation and
the others to damnation etc. In 1936, the time of National Socialism,
Stefan Zweig wrote the following book: “A Conscience against Power.
Castellio against Calvin,” and in a literarily adroit manner had
meant the despot Hitler but had said Calvin – this also further
contributed to the painting in dark colours of the picture of Calvin
in the last few decades.
It is true that some of Calvin’s characteristics will remain well-nigh
foreign to the people of modern times. He is an ascetic who placed his
whole life in the service of the Reformation and therefore could take
severe action. But we must endeavour to perceive a different picture.
For the fact that such a false picture of Calvin exists is also based
upon the confessional disputes lasting into the 20th century. Above all
in the 17th century, there were wrangles and quarrels between the confessions,
in particular between Reformed and Lutheran Christians. The people defamed
one another, made insinuations and no longer fairly represented each
other. Much wrong was done on both sides, also by the Reformers. And
in this context there arose above all in Germany, on the basis of the
writings of many altogether influential Lutherans, a picture of Calvin
which continued to be effective for over a hundred years and which even
lives on today – even if in a toned down form – in some church-historical
and popular portrayals.
For this reason, it is good not to be determined by prejudices but to
look and question more precisely how Calvin lived, taught and worked.