Snippets on Calvinism

Some things I took note of in my reading of an older book on the relationship of Calvinism to the social upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries. These snippets are from Franklin Charles Palm, Calvinism and the Religious Wars (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1932). Nothing profound here; just some things I noticed.

“Frederick [III] was a typical Calvinist ruler. Possessing a cultivated mind, he was deeply interested in education, in establishing primary schools in each village of his state, and in doing much to encourage the growth of the university of Heidelberg. In his life simplicity and economy constituted his two chief aims. Bitterly opposed to those things he considered frivolous, he even went so far as to disregard the fine arts as not worthy of his attention…” (pp. 66-67)

(This reminds me of Ben House’s essay Farewell to the Arts: Why Most Calvinists Can’t Write Novels. Calvinists are not, to be sure, always cultural philistines, but it makes a lot of sense out of many criticisms of Calvinism, even today, to realize that a “typical Calvinist ruler” in the 16th century simply wasn’t interested in the fine arts and instead lived a very stoic life devoid of “frivolous” pursuits.)

Palm suggests (pg. 69) that one reason Calvinism failed to dominate in European countries was its direct appeal to the middle class against the nobility, and its refusal to court the approval of the Empire or the already-existing authority in a nation (such as the French monarchy). Whereas Lutherans did not experience a divided loyalty (between Church and State), Calvinism appealed to the democratic and republican impulse, and thus often put its adherents at odds with the State (pg. 72).

I have often enough heard criticisms of Calvinism based on this “middle class” argument, and it’s hard to deny its force. Calvinism, especially in America, does seem to appeal to a very particular sort of person in a very particular segment of society. Given some of the heavy rhetoric I’ve seen from “Calvinism is the Gospel” sorts, it is therefore hard to see the thing as sociologically catholic. It’s certainly not ecclesiologically catholic, which brings me back to one of my all-time favorite essays, Andrew Sandlin’s Toward A Catholic Calvinism.

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