Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Calvin the totalitarian

I put together a list for a response on a blog post of Calvin's actions. I figured it might be worth keeping a running list here. Before I do a comment is warranted. Calvin did not invent the state church, that existed before him and was common in Europe. Calvin supported very high standards for church membership and the population by overwhelming numbers supported a strong tie between church membership and citizenship. So it was Calvin's defective theology on the matter of church and state which led to Calvin creating the civil rights nightmare. Quite simply a liberal church can act as a state church and be relatively harmless, a strict church cannot.

Additionally, economically and administratively Calvin was quite masterly and Geneva prospered under his reign.

Use of dictator like strategies

  • Criticism of the ministers and especially Calvin was outlawed.
  • He attacked the rich prominent families of Geneva as the most likely source of political opposition.
  • Nobody could say anything good about the pope.
  • He made frequent use of foreign loyalists against his own population.
  • A network of spies was established and maintained, to report on matters of conduct and behavior between individuals.
Religious Prohibitions:
  • All inhabitants had to renounce the Roman faith on penalty of expulsion from the city.
  • Nobody could possess: images, crucifixes other articles associated with the Roman worship.
  • Fasting was prohibited,
  • Vows were prohibited
  • Pilgrimages prohibited
  • It was illegal to pray for the dead
  • It was illegal to pray in Latin.
  • Attendance at sermons was compulsory. In addition, one had to arrive on time, remain, and pay attention.
  • He executed heretics

Regulation of society
  • Charges of sexual immorality was frequently filed and people often punished for this.
  • It was forbidden to give non-Biblical names to children.
  • There were domiciliary visits, which were put on a regular semiannual basis. The homes of the citizens were visited in order to ascertain the state of the family's morals.
  • Dramatic performances were suppressed, except for plays given by schoolboys.
  • Cards and dice were forbidden.
  • Public dancing was outlawed
  • Secular, indecent, songs were banned
  • There were to be no private taverns; instead, places were provided for eating and drinking, in which pious behavior would be encouraged. A Bible in French was to be displayed, religious conversation encouraged, They were to close at nine in the evening. (this one failed since the religious taverns went out of business)
See also:


Anonymous said...

So, everyone took their depravity behind closed doors when they were not being compelled to attend church by the magistrate. Except Calvin who ordered 'green wood' for Servetus.


tc robinson said...

CD-Host, Why did you refer to Calvin's theology as defective? Was there nothing in his theology to commend itself? Have you looked in to his fine exegetical skills in his commentaries? What about his magnum opus, Institutes of the Christian Religion?

CD-Host said...

TC --

I was asserting his theology was defective on the proper relationship between church and state. Not that his theology was defective in general, "So it was Calvin's defective theology on the matter of church and state which led to Calvin creating the civil rights nightmare" So in the article I was making a weaker claim than I believe you read.

As far as his commentary and Institutes. The question is what to compare Institutes to. If you compare it to most commentaries, especially from that era it is obviously vastly superior. On the other hand because the book is so important and so influential a reasonable comparison might be to something like Summa Theologica and here I'd say Calvin loses. Far too often he assumes what he is arguing and just ends up begging the question. Institutes is probably the best attempt every made to put all of Christian theology into a single work in a well argued and articulated form, it is reasonable to say he invented systematic theology with that work.

I'd see the same problem with his exegesis.

I think we might have to narrow the question a bit to have a good discussion. This post was really directed at the theology of church state relations (where Calvin is weak) than say the nature of grace where he is unquestionably an important thinker.

Caresse said...

Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

"He executed heretics"

Actually, no. He sort of had something to do with the execution of one of them. He wasn't an inquisitor like the RCC.

And he didn't really outlaw plays per se, he himself stated that some entertainment was good and should not be witheld fdrom the masses.

Anyway, I'm not defending him 100%

CD-Host said...

This comment got buried in the others:

Michael Servetus (which is I assume the one you meant)
Jacques Gruet (beheaded)
Sebastian Castellio (attempted but failed)

There were 28 executions (at least some put the number at 57) for witchcraft involving Calvin. Borderline as far as heresy.

I could keep going. As for not being an inquisitor as far as I can tell he went further. The inquisition had always held that they had rights only over catholics. Calvin argued for church discipline rights over all inhabitants. I will agree he didn't rack nearly the same kind of body count. He had popular support, during the theocracy.

CD-Host said...

Made a comment on another blog I'm retaining here:

@DGH (and Erik)

CD-H, I’m not denying that religion was established in Geneva and as such pastors had civil status and quasi-legal power. But since Calvin didn’t become even a citizen of Geneva until the mid-1550s, and since he was banned from the city in the 1530s, it sure looks to me like the civil authorities wielded civil power.

I wouldn't count the 1530s. I think Calvin was an influential figure on the church then, but not something I could call a dictator. The Consistory isn't established until 1541 and it is based on the German system after his exile.

In 1542 Calvin begins a massive inquest where he ends up pulling 5% of the Genevan population before the Consistory many of them on charges about not being zealous for the Reformation (i.e. thought crime). Drunkenness, blaspheme, usury, wastrels (is wastrely a word?), gambling, lying... take on a religious dimension with criminal penalties. 1541/1542 is when he establishes a system that is broad enough to get anyone via, an attack on common place deviances and has force of law behind it. Calvin's aim seems to be to control of all human behavior.

I have a copy of Kingdon's book which covers '42-44. You see a long list of cases:
a) The state is absolute there is no area where it doesn't feel free to explore
b) Thought crime when suspected is rooted out and punished

The Consistory passes people over the council who don't agree to "voluntarily cooperate" and there involuntary civil penalties are involved. And these escalate overtime towards mostly a death penalty with some exile.

The qualification for a dictator generally is the ability to unilaterally make law without effective restraint by a legislative assembly. Note that doesn't say formal restraint. If you will grant that definition, I'm hard pressed to see how Calvin wasn't a dictator. Lets take the most extreme example. How are Calvin's attacks on people for still retaining some vestal Catholicism different in kind than Stalin's attacks on retaining some vestal support for the old regime?

One can certainly define a dictator more narrowly as someone who has absolute formal power, but you would exclude virtually everyone we call a dictator Saddam Hussein would qualify but Colonel Gaddafi wouldn't be close to qualifying.