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John Calvin’s birthday

By July 12, 2012 3 Comments

My father never called himself a Calvinist, and neither did my mother, which is not to say that they weren’t.  If you would have asked them what Calvinism was, my guess is they would have hunched their shoulders, then answered, questioningly, with the standard text:  “It has something to do with predestination,” an answer which isn’t altogether wrong, but seems somehow akin to defining America by apple pie and Chevrolet. 

I call myself a Calvinist, somewhat wryly, because I was called one repeatedly in two graduate schools in the 70s and 80s, when such a petrified legacy was quite unforgettable to other grad students.  It was “camp-ish” really, like an unforgettably goofy childhood nickname. 

I have also to thank my undergraduate education.  For the most part, John Calvin remained little more than an occasionally conjured patron saint until my senior year when I took a required course titled, simply, “Calvinism.”  That course, and that instructor—Dr. John Vander Stelt–taught me more about Calvin than I’d ever learned anywhere, anytime in my first 21 years, and made John Calvin—and Calvinism—vividly alive, even though I’d grown up very much within the fold (the Dutch-American version) for all of my years.  That course taught me to respect what I was, even though what I had been wasn’t exactly the thoughtful, hybrid Calvinism I discovered in that class.

I didn’t become a Calvinist by choice (fitting, I guess).  I was born one, long before I wore its title so jauntily; and despite its unflattering reputation—or maybe because of it—I held on firmly, even when it didn’t necessarily want me.

My guess is it didn’t take much more than Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter to create a lasting image of the quintessential Calvinist in the Reverend Mr. Arthur Dimmesdale, the phony fornicator, and his prune-like soul.  Long ago already, I determined  that if there was any single work of Am Lit read by a majority of high school students, it might well be Scarlet Letter, strangely enough, a novel  almost as heavy as Dimmesdale’s guilt.  It’s no wonder Calvinists have a bad rep here; even though we’ve never defaced any American cathedral that I know of, Hawthorne’s sentences are nearly as unreadable to today’s smartphone generation as anything in Shakespeare. 

But then, we deserve it too, the perfect being almost always the enemy of the good.

H. L. Mencken didn’t help thing along.  “Puritanism,” he once wrote, and you may substitute Calvinism if you’d like, “is the sneaking suspicion that someone somewhere is having a good time.”  I’ve lived almost all of my life within the fortress that once was Dutch Calvinism.  Mencken hated the Puritan mind and its heritage of course, but that doesn’t mean he was all wrong.

Besides, the times, they are a’changin’.

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilyn Robinson’s bountiful revisionism has likely done more to loosen the chains of the snarky Calvin than any bona fide theologian in North America.  Christianity Today has, more than once, offered the strange idea that, once again, strangely enough, Calvinism is making a comeback, at least among American evangelicals.  Amazingly, a writer with an identifiable Dutch name, Van Biema, penned an essay about Calvinism in a Time magazine devoted to cutting edge ideas—“Ten Ideas Changing the World Right Now” (March, 2009). Calvinism?—cool?

Maybe Calvinism’s newly-discovered interest explains why, on Wednesday, Garrison Keillor, in Writer’s Almanac, chose to remember that July 9 is the birthday—the 504th birthday—of the man; and why Keillor chose, amazingly, to pull out the old T-U-L-I-P acronym, a formulary largely created by the Synod of Dortrecht, in the Netherlands, 1618-1619 (some synods take a while).  Anyway, this Calvinist thought it a blessing to hear Keillor run the old mantra, even though he did it, I thought, in a style which would have Mencken chortling:

Total depravity:  all people are born sinful.

Unconditional election:  God has already chosen those people who will be saved.

Limited atonement:  Jesus died to atone for the sins of the elect only.

Irresistible grace:  If you are among the elect, you will inevitably repent and become Christian.

Perseverance of the saints:  You can never lose your salvation.

That bundle of definitions is as nuanced as kidney stones.  But then, we’ve survived Dimmesdale and Mencken, and just to be mentioned nationally, as Keillor did, is its own kind of reward. 

 Besides, these days we’ve got Marilyn Robinson:

John Calvin was a figure of the greatest historical consequence, especially for our culture, who is more or less entirely unread. Learned-looking books on subjects to which he is entirely germane typically do not include a single work of his immense corpus in their bibliographies, nor indicate in their allusions to him a better knowledge than folklore can provide of what he thought and said. I have encountered an odd sort of social pressure as often as I have mentioned him. One does not read Calvin. One does not think of reading him… Calvin seems to be neglected on principle. This is interesting. It is such a good example of the oddness of our approach to history, and to knowledge more generally, that it bears looking into.

What it’s all about, as far as I’m concerned, is the centrality of two towers of doctrine: the truth of our never-ending sin and the parallel and glorious truth of God’s overpower grace.We keep screwing up, an old theologian friend once told me, and He keeps taking us back.

There’s more to it, of course, as there always is; but that’s the whole story, or so it seems to me.And that’s a story my Calvinist father and mother would both embrace and affirm.

Anyway, this week—Wednesday—was John Calvin’s birthday.  Thanks to Garrison Keillor, I didn’t miss it.

If you’ve got ten minutes, click here for a  video tribute to Calvin’s glorious ideas about God’s glorious creation, a video featuring the world I live in.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • ron vander molen says:

    Good thoughts; great video!

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    I would like to point out that John Calvin was born, in fact, on July 10. This is important because it is also the birthday of my son, whom we almost named John Calvin Rienstra before we came to our senses. It is also the date that the U.S. women won the World Cup soccer final against China in 1999.

  • Great post, James. Helpful and concise while a bit autobiographic. I enjoyed this. Thank you.

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