Calvin and His Influence, Geneva

The international Calvin Conference in this anniversary year is the probably the biggest academic event I will attend in my lifetime.

I had the opportunity to meet Calvin scholars from France and Swtizerland whom I had known only by their academic writings. Like Olivier Millet, who specializes in Calvin’s rhetoric (how he uses language), Irena Backus from the University of Geneva, and Marilynne Robinson, author of Gilead and Calvin afficionado. Meeting Marilynne was a distinct pleasure. She gave a talk on Calvinism’s influence on New England literary scions, and she also hear my paper and made insightful comments.

And I saw old friends and colleagues again, persons who I see once in a few years, or in a decade. And there were books to buy. I restrained myself. Mostly.

Being in Geneva was a great experience, walking the streets where Calvin walked, though it seems he rarely left his room. We heard a talk entitled “Calvin the Workaholic” that described his grueling, even self-destructive daily routine, which included only one meal a day, working in bed before rising, etc. It was particularly interesting to see the cathedral St. Pierre, the largest church in Geneva, where Calvin frequently preached. There was his pulpit, from which he proclaimed the Word of God in a way that had not been done for centuries in the Christian churches, and with a perspective that had never been heard before in any church, since Calvin was at the vanguard of a new movement of reforming the church, bringing it back to the teachings of Scripture as mediated through the best of the early church fathers, as Calvin assessed them, and especially St. Augustine. Beside the pulpit stood his chair, in which he would have rested his frail and sickly body before the hour-long sermon. Nearby was the Museum of the Reformation, with all kinds of interesting artifacts from the life of Calvin and the Reformation, including books by the Reformers, portraits, Calvin’s cup, letters written in Calvin’s own handwriting, a doodling sketch of Calvin by a student—probably the only portrait of the reformer that was made “live,” that is, with Calvin actually present to the “artist.” There were interactive stations that attempted to convey a day in the life of Calvin: working before rising, going to consistory and rebuking a woman for dancing, burning Servetus—normal routine pastor stuff. Of course, Calvin didn’t personally burn Servetus, but he bore a lot of responsibility for the heretic’s execution, and suffered a great deal of personal anxiety and lasting damage to his reputation as a result. My friend Joy Kleinstuber, who specialized in that topic, gave a paper describing Calvin’s involvement in this notorious event. Comparing the trial records of Servetus with Calvin’s published defense of his actions in the Servetus case, she concludes that Calvin was not honest in his presentation of the facts. It’s disappointing to hear that, especially given the topic of my paper, on Calvin’s insistence that one must always tell the truth.

My hotel was near the Madeleine Church, where Calvin also preached at times, between streets named Hell and Purgatory! There are all kinds of special exhibits and events right now in Geneva to commemorate Calvin’s work there and the Reformation, but little real understanding or embracing of what he was really about. There seems to be a feeling that Calvin was somehow all about freedom or something vague like that. There is a Calvinus beer that is served around the city, though it is sweet and Belgian-like, which doesn’t really reflect its namesake. A beer named after Calvin should be bold, robust, with a bit of bite to it, and a lingering aftertaste.

Aside from these historical references, the city displays precious little remaining Calvinist influence. But I was only there for a few days, so that’s just an impression that I have. There is plenty of wealth in Geneva: expensive jewelry stores, Rolex watches, Montblanc pens, fashions by Louis Vuitton and Lacoste; I saw numerous exotic automobiles: Rolls-Royce, Maserati, Ferrari, Lamborghini. Who needs God when you’re living in the lap of luxury and prosperity?

My session went well, and my paper was improved by listening to and interacting with other speakers. I appreciated Marilynne Robinson’s presence and her comments. My paper, which was on Calvin’s views on lying (he says you can never lie under any circumstances, even to save a life or to thwart murderous persecutors), ended with a reference to Dutch Reformed believers who did not follow Calvin’s advice, and who instead lied to save Jews and help Dutch men escape from Nazi work camps or the Wehrmacht. She pointed out that whether or not they followed Calvin on this point or not, it was still their Calvinistic spiritual formation that motivated them to do the right thing, even in the face of consequences that could include imprisonment and even death.

Post tenebras lux, “After shadows, light,” is the motto of Geneva, referring to the protestant reformation, which the city embraced in 1536. Now the light that shines there is the gleam of capitalism, the shine of diamonds, the glitter of gold, the sheen of luxury. But for those who want to see evidences of that former light, they are there. The Library of Geneva had a great exhibition called “Post Tenebras…Liber,” after darkness…a book. There I saw all of Calvin’s books printed in his lifetime, many more portraits, including a very famous one of Calvin himself, and artifacts from Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I also wandered around to the site of the original Calvin College, which is undergoing renovations, but is apparently still used as a facility for the University of Geneva, founded by Calvin in 1559, and this year celebrating its 450th anniversary.

This part of Switzerland, which I have never before visited, is quite beautiful, both in terms of landscape (the Alps, especially) and the architecture. After three days I was just beginning to get familiar with the city, and which bus to take from the old city, where my hotel was, and the conference center (Bus #5), and now I’m off again, this time, to Germany, to visit an academic friends who studies Philip Melanchthon, Martin Luther’s right-hand man, and a dialogue-partner with Calvin. I’m just hoping I can figure out all the train connections, after twenty years of not speaking German, and 44 years of not speaking French. Whoa! I just passed a medieval castle on the way to Basel, Switzerland. Cool. The train glides by fields of wheat, and other crops I can’t identify, because they’re European and metric. I do see vineyards. Lots of them. Another castle, a wee one, a little citadel. A massive river to my right. This is the land of history and fairy tales. And cheese. I forgot to mention the cheese.

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