We have failed Calvin. I mean the man, Jehan Cauvin, as he was known at the time, not the place. We have read Calvin through the eyes of those who came after, those who created the system known as Calvinism. Calvin was not himself a Calvinist. The late I. John Hesselink notes that:

Calvinists come in many stripes and colors. There are five-point Calvinists, who may believe they originated with Calvin, but actually owe more to the Canons of Dort; Westminister Calvinists who adhere more to the Westminister standards than to Calvin; neo-Calvinists who find their inspiration in the theologies of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck; and neo-Orthodox Calvinists who are closer to Barth than to Calvin.

We can now add to this litany the New Calvinists of John Piper and Tim Keller persuasion. The truth is that Calvinists do not necessarily read or even know Calvin. It’s time, I think, to retrieve Calvin from those who claim to be his progeny. 

I am brought to this in part by Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and frequent writer of essays notable for their attempt to retrieve the culture from what has become of it (I should also note that I am brought back to Robinson, in part, by Justin Ariel Bailey in his Reimagining Apologetics (InterVarsity Press, 2020)). In the introduction to The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (Picador, 1998), Robinson says, “I miss civilization, and I want it back” (4). As, indeed, do all of us. 

Later in the same introduction she says of Calvin that he is “more or less entirely unread.” Not just unread but in the present cultural moment blacklisted: “One does not read Calvin. One does not even think of reading him,” says Robinson, “Calvin seems neglected on principle” (12). This seems true not only of those who read The New Review of Books but of those who read Christianity Today. Or don’t read much at all.

In the essays, Robinson approaches her project of retrieving Calvin head on, especially in two essays dedicated to a slightly older contemporary of Calvin (and possibly a patron of his), Marguerite of Navarre (1492-1549). She says at the beginning of the first of these essays, “The title of this essay is somewhat misleading. My intention, my hope, is to revive interest in Jean Cauvin [her way of naming Calvin to distance Calvin from his popular reputation]. . . If I had been more forthcoming about my subject, I doubt the average reader would have read this far” (Death of Adam, 174). This may itself be somewhat misleading. Her essays are not just about Calvin but also about Marguerite, whom she presents as someone who anticipates and perhaps even instructs Calvin.

But it’s not her essays that retrieve Calvin best; it’s the novels, beginning with Gilead (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004) and through the three that follow (Home, 2008; Lila, 2014; and Jack, 2020). Gilead, the testament of the Reverend John Ames, written for the sake of his young son, presents a sunny, appealing Calvinist theology, filled with wonder and light. Hesselink says of Robinson and particularly of Gilead, “I maintain that Robinson has done more to rehabilitate Calvin’s reputation in the public arena, at least in North America, than all the rest of recent Calvin scholars combined.” (

Robinson centers her retrieval of Calvin’s thought on his view of human knowledge, what she often calls “perception,” and that’s where I also will begin in this essay. I hope sson to add another essay on Calvin’s approach to divine providence, which speaks to the rather simplistic ways evangelicals commonly speak of providence, and one more on Calvin’s approach to the scriptures, which again is not how the scriptures are read in your typical evangelical church. 

My intent in this short series is not to present a comprehensive view of Calvin, a task for which I would be unqualified. What I want to propose are ways to give Calvin and perhaps others in the same tradition a fresh and sympathetic reading, retrieving from their writings what has gotten lost among those who style themselves Calvinists: the compelling freshness of his thought, as he and others of the time emerged from the scholasticism of the time into what they believed was a new age. 

This counter-cultural part of Calvin should not be lost. He largely wrote from the margins. Read the first part of his “Prefactory Address” written to Marguerite’s brother, Francis I, the King of France (the Prefactory Address prefaces all the editions of Calvin’s Institutes). In the opening paragraph he writes: “Nothing was farther from my mind, most glorious King, than to write something that might afterward be offered to Your Majesty.” He is not just flattering the king He is signaling his awareness that he has no standing in church or state. He is outside the pale, in danger of his life. 

Even so, in the same paragraph, with all the cheeky bravado of a young radical, he says that he intends his book for the average French Jacques, who, Calvin is sure, would like to know something about the Christian faith but who has been taught nothing of the kind by the church. The Calvin we think we know—settled, orthodox, the founder of a great theological tradition—is not the Calvin of The Institutes but a Calvin constructed in the light of later history.

My look at Calvin in this essay and those that follow is, in turn, part of a larger project to retrieve a form of church life—a kind of denominationalism—that seems to have gotten lost recently. And was in any case, insufficiently realized. In this form of denominationalism, the authors of the past would be read appreciatively and sympathetically, as those from whom we can learn, but not as a way to fetter the present. Too often lately, the past has been taken as a set of settled opinions about things that were not in fact under consideration in the past—a way of imposing the past on the present.

A clear example of this sort of thinking is the use made by Synod 2022 of the Christian Reformed Church of Zacharias Ursinus’s commentary on Question and Answer 108 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Question and Answer 108 is an interpretation of the Seventh Commandment: “You shall not commit adultery.” The Catechism, as it does with the other commandments, broadens the scope of the commandment from adultery to all “unchastity.” In commenting on the Catechism, Ursinus, writing in the 16th century, offers the opinion that unchastity includes homosexuality. 

How could he have done otherwise? The cultural conversation that has taken place over the past almost 75 years, from the time that the British government condemned the founder of modern computer science Alan Turing to chemical castration to the present approval of same sex marriage had not taken place. No one had considered whether the condemnation of sexual relations between members of the same sex was not so much God’s will as an ill-considered cultural artifact and therefore ripe for reconsideration. But the synod was not interested in why Ursinus wrote what he did. There were not actually interested in the past. They saw in Ursinus’s words a chance to lock down their condemnation of all manner of human sexuality and to declare their opinion part of the confession of the church.

This, of course, is a travesty. It not only fails the present-day church; it fails Ursinus, taking what in his writing merely mimics the opinions of his age, and failing to see how he might be read, especially in the Catechism itself, as someone who speaks a word for the ages. The same can be done and is often done to Calvin—reading him only for what binds him to the 16th century and failing to see how he speaks beyond his own time to our own. It’s that last that I hope to discern in what follows.

A promising place to begin is Calvin’s idea of what human beings know. The Institutes of the Christian Religion famously begins with the knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” 

It’s easy to assume that Calvin means by this knowing something along the lines of what  knowledge means in the contemporary evangelical church. Turn, for example, to the Chicago Statement on Hermeneutics, part of a series of statements made in late 1970s and 1980s by a group of leading evangelicals. In the sixth affirmation, the Statement says, “WE AFFIRM that the Bible expresses God’s truth in propositional statements, and we declare that biblical truth is both objective and absolute. We further affirm that a statement is true if it represents matters as they actually are, but is an error if it misrepresents the facts.” This construes theology as an “objective” enterprise. If it is said, for example, as evangelicals are wont to do, that God sent his Son to earth to die in order to “satisfy” his “justice,” then by these lights this must be read as a straightforward and factual statement about God. God is just so. But fortunately this is not at all what Calvin means by knowledge at the beginning of the Institutes.

Notice what he says: “true and sound wisdom” consists of “the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves.” This statement leaves a lot out from what we would ordinarily consider knowledge. Science, for example. Or the study of history or farming or parenting. In fact, most of what we mean by “knowledge” is not included in what Calvin is talking about, intentionally so. What Calvin has in mind is something quite different: a perception, an almost inchoate sense of what life is all about. The editor of The Institutes, John T. McNeill, in the notes to this passage in Calvin says that “Knowledge . . . is for Calvin never ‘mere’ or ‘simple’ or purely objective knowledge.” Rather, McNeill suggests, it’s something like “existential apprehension.” 

Don’t be put off by the language. By “existential apprehension,” McNeill seems to mean that this sort of knowledge is not something we learn or study but something that comes to us unbidden. These are things we just know. They are in that sense properly basic. They are not conclusions to an argument. They are not based on accumulated evidence. They are not the collected results of theology; this, in fact, is where theology begins. Calvin himself says later in the Institutes, speaking of the faith, that “we do not mean comprehension of the sort that is commonly concerned with those things which fall under human sense perception.” 

What Calvin does seem to have in mind is presence, an apprehension that we are in the presence of something—better, someone—who meets us in those experience for which we have few words. It’s for moments like this that the word “sublime” should be reserved. “Sublime” properly used describes a mix of beauty and awe and fear that comes to us when we are in the presence of that which is greater than us. In the presence of the sublime, we may whisper “God” without knowing entirely what it is we are saying. It’s a sense of divinity prior to any theological reflection on what “God” might mean.

It’s here that Calvin makes a surprising move. Remember, he says that all true wisdom consists of the knowledge of God and of ourselves, and, moreover, that it doesn’t matter whether we begin with the one or the other. To this point, I’ve been talking about the knowledge of God (whether or not we name our experience in this way or not). But there is also the knowledge of ourselves. And for that Calvin identifies two related things that we know prior to all other knowing. 

The first is that something has gone wrong. When speaking of this Calvin’s prose tends to get overwrought as he reflects on the depths of human depravity, but if we focus on how Calvin says it, we risk missing the point. The point is that deep within the human soul—our collective soul, if I can speak of such a thing—is the apprehension that we are flawed, that we, in truth, have failed as a human race, that something, something terrible, has gone wrong. Is wrong. And that what has gone wrong threatens not only us but everything around us. Indeed, the earth itself.

This insight may seem dour, the sort of thing we expect from Calvin and, for that matter, from Calvinists, but in fact it’s quite the opposite. Calvin quickly pushes to the second part of this knowledge: if we are fallen, then it appears to us, again, intuitively, that we have fallen from a great height. What is human has its own glory, a glory reflective of that larger glory that we encounter in God. We humans have an intuition not only of fallenness but of human possibility, indeed, human magnificence.

Pause for a moment on that thought. It drives much of the best of Calvinist thinking. It entails, among other things, that human culture—thinking now of the best of what human beings have written and constructed and dreamed and thought—is touched with beauty. We live, as C.S. Lewis said, among potential gods. And we know this precisely because we know that we have fallen. These are two sides of the same insight. We glimpse the glory that is humanity, but we cannot, at least not reliably, possess it. This is the human predicament: to know that we are at the same time the glory and the peril of creation. Take one of these away, and you have failed to understand who we really are.

Contemporary culture lurches from one to other, but it tends to land on the fallenness of humanity. In an age of global warming, it’s not hard to see the threat of humanity for all among whom we live. We have put the earth itself in peril. We are, as evolutionary biologists would tell us, rather nasty animals, clever predators. But we are also more. So much more. To deny that we are more is to fail to appreciate what glories humans can produce. Have produced. Take Sibelius’s 2nd symphony or the soul of Rumi or David’s lament on the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, just to name a rather random few of my favorite things. Calvin, writing in the 16th century as European culture lurched into the modern age, is aware of both of these: the fallenness and the glory. And if sometimes he errs on the side of fallenness and does not appreciate sufficiently the magnificence of what it means to be human, he gives us a place to start and to stand.

How much better our theology would be if it started here, with what we know, all of us, about ourselves, the mystery of human life. What we know prior to all our divisions, prior to our dividing ourselves up into this religion or that. Calvin at this point is not about Calvinism. He’s about what it means to be human.

If we begin there, with human experience, and then move to the central story of the Christian faith, cross and resurrection, we begin with what binds us to other people, regardless of their faith. For in this apprehension of the mysteries of existence, we share with others. And sharing this, we are one.



  1. Are you familar with the various scholarly refutations of the idea that Calvin wasn’t a Calvinist (e.g., by Richard Mueller et al)….based on reading all of Calvin, not just exerpts or secondary sources? Granted there are developments from the 16th to 17th century, but the difference is not as great as you and others maintain.
    You seem intent on labelling Tim Keller as a new Calvinist. He isn’t. Being admired by new-Cals doesn’t make him one, nor is TGC new-Calvinist, even if there’s overlap. Tim self-identifies more as a neo-Calvinist, as in this endorsement of a forthcoming book: “So many of us have learned about neo-Calvinism through one thinker such as Abraham Kuyper or Herman Bavinck or J.H. Bavinck or Klaas Schilder, but here we are presented with it as a whole tradition with many rich variations and dimensions…” There’s also a book coming out next year on folks who’ve influenced Tim. This should clarify things a bit. Might I respectfully suggest you avoid pigeon-holing people (and thus dismissing them) in a way you wouldn’t want them to do with you?

    • Hi Cameron, the advice on not pigeon-holing people is good. In the piece I was trying not to do so for Calvin. If Keller claims to be a neo-Calvinist, I’ll accept that. I will, however, stand firm on Calvin not being a Calvinist. Calvinism begins with Beza and other who followed Calvin.

      • Leaving aside the historical debate, and your current concerns, have you read Rich Mouw’s “Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport”? It’s the most winsome exposition of biblical Calvinism of which I’m aware.

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