Reading Calvin

Lately I’ve been trying to read John Calvin, and I’m struggling. When I was in graduate school I read the whole of the Institutes, and as I recall I did so with interest and at least some profit, but now … it’s hard.

People who love Calvin often say that his thinking and theology must be clearly distinguished from the use later made of them. If certain Calvinists are dour, rigid, cold, insensitive to the human condition, prone to make vast theological generalizations from a handful of biblical passages while ignoring the greater part of the biblical witness, those vices should not be attributed retrospectively to Calvin. Which is certainly true, and something I try to keep in mind. But as I read Calvin now, I consistently find him to be dour, rigid, cold, insensitive to the human condition, and prone to make vast theological generalizations from a handful of biblical passages while ignoring the greater part of the biblical witness.

I am not at all sure I’m being fair to Calvin. I would like to think that as I get older I become a better reader, because I know more and have more experience. (Don’t we all like to think that of ourselves?) But experience is a two-edged sword. In the decades since I first read the Institutes I’ve had a great deal of experience with Calvinists, or people who claim to be Calvinists, and with some notable exceptions it hasn’t been pleasant. (In general, and for whatever reason or set of reasons, I found the Calvinists I met at Calvin College far more generous and humane — far more attuned to the spirit of Christ, at least as I discern it — than the Calvinists I met at Wheaton College. And in an environment that’s not wholly Calvinist, self-consciously Calvinist undergrads can be enormously troublesome, because they believe, and tell everyone who will listen, that they and they alone have the honesty and courage to face the hard truths of the Bible….)

But I digress. The point today is that I am simply unable to isolate my reading of Calvin from those several decades of experience (both in person and in reading) with people who admire and see themselves as followers of Calvin. It is possible that this background is actually helpful: for instance, perhaps if generations of readers have discerned certain implications in Calvin’s work, then they’ve seen something that’s really there, for good or ill, and I would do well to be attentive to it. But it seems to me more likely that Calvin’s successors, being less gifted than he, are drawing less subtle and nuanced conclusions than he did. And if that is the case, then my years of experience may be making me a less successful reader of Calvin than I was thirty years ago — at least in certain ways. (What I’ve learned about theology and church history in the intervening years has to be worth something.)

In any event, as I read I keep telling myself read this as though it’s new to you, as though you have no idea who John Calvin is — but it’s not working very well. I find myself longing to turn to Thomas Aquinas, whom I find infinitely more simpatico. But I shall persevere — both in reading Calvin and in trying to understand what it means to be a good reader.