Calvin and His Influence, 1509-2009

Calvin and His Influence, 1509-2009

Calvin and His Influence, 1509-2009

Calvin and His Influence, 1509-2009


Who was John Calvin and why is he still read five hundred years after his birth? In this volume an international and interdisciplinary group of leading specialists explores both the reasons for Calvin's enduring influence and the story of his reception across five centuries. The book's initial essays lay bare features of his ideas, his work as a church reformer, and his manner of presenting himself in his books and letters that clarify his impact both in his lifetime and after his death. The second half of the volume examines how he was read, perceived, and appropriated in different times and places from the seventeenth century to the present.

If Calvin's writings were widely cited by leading Reformed theologians in the generations immediately after his death, they receded from view in the eighteenth century. What was most often recalled was his role in the burning of Michael Servetus, for which he was widely criticized in those quarters of the Reformed tradition now attached to the idea of toleration or the ideal of a free church. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, his theology was recovered again in a variety of different contexts, while scholars drew his treatises and letters together into the monument to his life and work that was the Opera Calvini and undertook major studies of his life and times. Church movements claimed the label "Calvinist" for themselves with insistence and pride, whereas before the term had been derogatory. The movements that identified themselves as Calvinist nonetheless varied considerably in the manner in which they understood or misunderstood Calvin's thought.

Calvin and His Influence, 1509-2009should become the starting point for further reflection about Calvin's impact in his own time and throughout the subsequent history of Calvinism, as well as, more broadly, about the relationship between leading figures of the Reformation and the traditions subsequently associated with their names.


As the numerous congresses, commemorations, and publications of 2009 will have reminded many, John Calvin was born just over five hundred years ago, in 1509. Before attaining the age of thirty, he published the first version of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, the cornerstone of a theological oeuvre that he would enlarge for the rest of his life and that would be read for centuries to come. From 1536 to 1538 and then again from 1541 to his death in 1564, he was the driving force of a determined effort to mold Geneva into a model Christian community, an effort that many pious contemporaries judged to be exceptionally successful, and that he always understood as a part of a larger mission to make the city a lamp unto nations lighting the way to a reform of all Christendom. If his efforts did not reform all Christendom, churches that incorporated elements of his theology or of the liturgy and church institutions that he molded in Geneva soon took shape in France, the Low Countries, Scotland, England, Poland, Hungary, and parts of Germany, sometimes with his direct guidance and encouragement, in other instances through indirect chains of influence. Over the next four centuries, these Reformed churches and their off shoots would spread around the globe.

This collection of essays seeks to illuminate the nature and extent of Calvin’s influence across the half millennium since his birth, chiefly within Europe, although with attention as well to the highly revealing South African case. The story of Calvin’s changing influence and image across the centuries constitutes an important chapter in the history of post-Reformation Protestantism—indeed in the history of modern Western and, in the twentieth century, global culture. Despite its importance, the intellectual, cultural, and religious dimensions of this story have been badly neglected, even while Calvin’s influence, or supposed influence, on modern politics and modern capitalism has been studied to the point of exhaustion. Recent work suggests that this is beginning to change and that interest in the cultural and intellectual aspects of this story is increasing.

To trace Calvin’s influence, one must obviously start with the man himself and with his writings. That is what the essays in the first half of this volume do. All seek to identify features of his personality, work, thought, and writings that explain their exceptional influence both in his lifetime and across the ages. The essays in the second half of the book then look at how Calvin’s theology has been appropriated, modified, or ignored in a number of different times and places from the generations following his death to the present. These essays pay attention not only to the manner in which Calvin was perceived within different churches of the Reformed family, to the availability of his works, and to the ways in which these were understood and appropriated. Several essays explore important aspects of the history of the concept of Calvinism, thus permitting a better understanding of the relationship between . . .

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