Your Image Of Calvin Is Probably Wrong

The enduring image of Calvin as an unyielding, moralistic and stone-faced tyrant who rejected all the pleasures of life has been his opponents’ greatest victory. The iconography of the Frenchman has hardly helped matters, above all, the Reformation monument in Geneva, which cast him to look like some forgotten figure of Middle Earth. His sermons reveal a man whose attitudes toward material things were far more interesting and textured than his reputation suggests. The fruits of the world, according to Calvin, or not simply for subsistence, but rather to be enjoyed: good wine, good food, conversation, friendship, the pleasures of children and of marital relations. He was fond of wine and, indeed, when the nobleman Jacques de Bourgogne was preparing to come to Geneva Calvin purchased a barrel of fine wine for him in anticipation of his arrival. The drinking of a glass of wine was, for him, associated with the most pleasurable things of life–laughing with friends, sharing a meal with intimates, music and art. Naturally, he preached against gross consumption of worldly goods and immodesty; his own sense of style, however, allowed him to admire clean lines and simplicity. He liked what was tasteful. In his correspondence he would let drop a line that indicated an eye for beautiful buildings and a well–dressed woman.

Bruce Gordon | Calvin (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 147.

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14 comments

  1. I have always thought that Luther would be a blast for weekend seminars. But I’d like to do a Phd with John Calvin.

  2. So, John Calvin is now presented not as a piece of 19th century Unitarian and RC demonography, but as the stereotypical Frenchman… Just an observation.

  3. I thought from the title this was going to be a critique of hagiographical imagery, which has crept far beyond the occasional portrait engraving in a work by the author to statues and stain-glass windows even in the case of the Reformers. But dispelling hagiographical legends serves the same purpose.

    • Don’t get out much do you?
      As a Calvinist attending a non-denom church, went to public school and public college, I can say he was more hated than Trump.

    • I’m not saying Calvin is particularly a hagiographic figure in broader evangelical culture (their stars come and go with the wind), but many Reformed or Calvinian (who probably have never been presented the Reformed position on the Second commandment in fairness) folks seem gung ho about plastering the poor man’s face on everything in totemic fashion, even to the point of nonsense like toy figurines of the Reformer. Granted, he is not (usually) actually glorified to the point of being religiously worshiped, but using images as indiscriminately as those who do worship images should at the very least leave a bad taste in the mouth. Such a practice would seem to reflect the defective Lutheran/Anglican position on images.

  4. I recall learning from somewhere that Calvin enjoyed a good game of lawn bowling, probably a version of bocce ball or more likely the French game pétanque.

  5. Theodore Beza in his “La vie de Jean Calvin” said, that Calvin “would occasionally join his intimate friends in a game of quoits, or la clef, or some other pastime not forbidden by the laws. But this occurred very seldom ; for he was generally occupied the whole day in writing or studying”.

  6. So Coldwell does yeoman’s work uncovering the sources of the (likely) fable regarding Calvin and recreational games on the Lord’s Day. But at the conclusion of the “Philistines” article he admits that the man may have on occasion participated in such activities on other days of the week, probably not a lot. Guess the answer will have to await conversations in glory, if such mundane topics will come up at all.

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