On 10 July, it will be 500 years since the birth of John Calvin. This is why 2009 has been designated Calvin year. The French reformer is being commemorated with an exhibition, song and debating evenings and even a glossy magazine, among other things. Mirjam de Baar, lecturer in the history of Christianity at the University of Groningen, hopes that a number of persistent myths concerning Calvin will be exploded in Calvin year.
So far, Calvin year has enjoyed the warm interest of press and public. A glossy magazine (with a non-glossy cover) has even appeared in an edition of 10,000 copies that was sold out in no time. De Baar is surprised. ‘I wonder who is buying the magazine. Where does their interest come from?’ De Baar suspects that it might have something to do with a nostalgic longing for a presecularized Netherlands and with the search for their roots of large groups of Dutch reformed and Calvinist believers.
The Netherlands has always had a special link with Calvin, explains De Baar. ‘Calvin was a very systematic thinker. He was a lawyer with a clear humanist training. A man of the world with a wide international correspondence network. Unlike Luther, who was very law-abiding, Calvin saw no problem in rebelling against an ungodly government. It was thus Calvin who legitimated our rebellion against the Spanish in the sixteenth century.’
However, that does not mean that you can call the Netherlands a Calvinist country. ‘That is historically inaccurate. The Dutch Calvinist Church, based on his ideas, never became a state church here. Nor was it ever the ambition of this organization to become a popular church. They wanted to be a church that you consciously joined. It was a minority movement. Many people, for example, just continued to be Catholics.’
According to De Baar, the myth that the Netherlands is a Calvinist country was created by Abraham Kuyper, the joint founder and leader of the Dutch Reformed pillar. ‘According to Kuyper, the purest form of Calvinism could be found in the Netherlands.’ That myth has resulted in many people thinking that Calvin was Dutch. ‘Many first-year students of Theology are surprised when I tell them that Calvin was French.’
De Baar hopes that the Calvin year will be grasped as the ideal opportunity to explode the myths and misunderstandings about Calvin. ‘Sadly that doesn’t seem to be happening.’ One example De Baar mentions is an article by Prime Minister Balkenende, published recently in Trouw and entitled ‘This country owes so much to Calvin’. ‘It’s like listening to Kuyper. Balkenende is linking all sorts of things to Calvin in a forced way. Modern democracy, for example, but there was no democracy in Calvin’s day. Another example is the market economy. Balkenende is behaving as if the Weber thesis, which states that the Protestant ethic promotes capitalism, is true. I hope he’s not going to repeat this kind of inaccuracy in the speech he will be giving during the national Calvin memorial service in the Grote Kerk in Dordrecht.’
Calvinism nowadays is mainly associated with negative connotations – parsimony, a narrow-minded sexual morality, parochialism, etc. De Baar doesn’t think that’s completely justified. ‘Calvin is often associated with a negative view of mankind. That’s mainly because he believed in double predestination – the idea that whether you will be saved or doomed was determined by God before your birth. But that’s something that was emphasized mainly by theologians who came after Calvin. Calvin himself used predestination to explain why one person behaved well while another did not. It was never his intention that some believers would experience great problems with it.’
So what exactly has Calvin’s influence been in the Netherlands? De Baar: ‘There’s his view of creation, for a start. According to Calvin you could not only learn to know God by studying Scripture, you could also investigate His creation. That gave the study of nature in the Netherlands an enormous boost. After all, if God can be recognized in the creation, it’s virtually your duty to investigate that creation. In the words of the seventeenth-century scientist Jan Swammerdam: the almighty finger of God can even be seen in the anatomy of a louse.’
Mirjam de Baar studied History at Utrecht University. In 2004 she was awarded a PhD by the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Groningen. She is a lecturer in the history of Christianity (Reformation and Early Modern Era) and in gender studies. She is also Vice Dean, Education Officer and programme director for the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies.
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