Calvin less strict than thought

Jul 21, 2011

The prevailing view of Calvin as a rigid, authoritarian figure should possibly be adjusted, says Dutch researcher Ernst van den Hemel. Although Calvin in his magnum opus Institutes formulates theses in a strict and decisive manner, he contradicts himself at other places in the book. This literary dynamic cannot be viewed independently of his theology, says Van den Hemel.

On the one hand, Calvin is known as an unswerving theologian and on the other as an ornate writer and a 'prince of the Renaissance', especially in France. Van den Hemel, a researcher in literature studies at the University of Amsterdam, was surprised by the highly imaginative French in which Calvin wrote the Institutes, and so he decided to investigate how the two identities of the theologian come together in his magnum opus.

Fundamentalist

Calvin is frequently described as a systematic thinker. This view plays a role in both the theological and political interpretations of his work. Consequently, the man from whom Calvinism takes its name is often considered a fundamentalist. According to Van den Hemel, however, one of the most important aspects of fundamentalism − strict adherence to certain principles – is not evident in the book. From a literary perspective, the text is even dynamic at certain important moments. In his work, Calvin continually undermines any sense of certainty. This reveals that, when writing his work, Calvin's priority was not so much a systematic presentation of his views, but rather adopting a literary form to challenge his readers' perspective. Van den Hemel contends that this literary dimension of Calvin's theology is related to the content of the book, in which mankind is warned not to place too much faith in his own capabilities.

One example of the dynamic in Calvin's work is his explanation of the existence of an innate knowledge of God. In his Institutes, published in 1559, Calvin first of all postulates that an innate knowledge of God does indeed exist, and then he undermines this point of view: 'But though experience testifies that a seed of religion is divinely sown in all, scarcely one in a hundred is found who cherishes it in his heart, and not one in whom it grows to maturity so far is it from yielding fruit in its season.' With this Calvin challenges his readers and forces them to think for themselves. The believer who is confident in his own faith is reprimanded. This way the text itself resists a fundamentalist interpretation.

Van den Hemel calls for more early modern works to be studied from a literary viewpoint to realise a new approach to historical texts. He is not interested in whether or not a text is religious, but whether it makes a dynamic interpretation possible as opposed to it providing an irrefutable foundation. Such an approach could contribute to historiography and to defining the roots of important terms such as secularism, fundamentalism and the cultural impact of Calvinism in the Netherlands.

Ernst van den Hemel carried out his research with funding from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research. He received his doctorate on 5 July 2011 from the University of Amsterdam.

Explore further: Ig Nobel winner: Using pork to stop nosebleeds

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

People are visual detectives

May 24, 2011

The house keys in a kitchen drawer full of mess. Or that one small piece of paper with notes on a table laden with other papers. In a brief glance, in a tenth of a second, people can determine if an object sought is present ...

DNA layer reduces risk of reserve parts being rejected

Mar 20, 2007

Dutch researchers Jeroen van den Beucken and John Jansen have given body implants a DNA layer. This layer ensures a better attachment, more rapid recovery of the surrounding tissue and less immune responses. ...

Explosion on chip sets liquid in motion

Oct 30, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- PhD student, Dennis van den Broek, of the University of Twente, Netherlands, has developed a new type of miniature motor, the micro-bubble actuator. This ‘motor’, which can be used in ...

Does nature has a positive effect on ADHD children?

Jan 31, 2011

Children with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can cope with complex tasks better in the open air, Wageningen research has shown. A natural environment made no difference to simple cognitive tasks.

Recommended for you

Ig Nobel winner: Using pork to stop nosebleeds

Sep 19, 2014

There's some truth to the effectiveness of folk remedies and old wives' tales when it comes to serious medical issues, according to findings by a team from Detroit Medical Center.

History books spark latest Texas classroom battle

Sep 16, 2014

As Texas mulls new history textbooks for its 5-plus million public school students, some academics are decrying lessons they say exaggerate the influence of Christian values on America's Founding Fathers.

Flatow, 'Science Friday' settle claims over grant

Sep 16, 2014

Federal prosecutors say radio host Ira Flatow and his "Science Friday" show that airs on many National Public Radio stations have settled civil claims that they misused money from a nearly $1 million federal ...

User comments : 0