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.