The Nasty Side of Calvinism image

The Nasty Side of Calvinism

The Calvinism of the 1550s in the Netherlands is hugely attractive. Godly congregations were established in an extremely hostile environment. Their communities were described as ‘Churches under the Cross’ as a term that encapsulated the suffering and persecution they endured. In 1559 the minster of the Reformed Church in Antwerp, Adriaen van Haemstede, wrote a martyrology, De gheschiedenisse ende den doodt der vromen martelaren (A History of the True Martyrs). Van Haemstede represents much that was good about the Reformed community in the Netherlands at this time:

• His martyrology is full of deeply moving accounts of men and women who laid their lives down for the Gospel.
• He was flexible in his approach to church building.  When he was the pastor of the Antwerp congregation when it was first planted in mid 1550s he encountered opposition from some in the church who resented the time he gave to wealthy people on the fringe of the community who were nervous of full blown membership because of the potential cost involved.  A division grew up between ‘binnen’ and ‘buyten’ (insiders and outsiders) but Van Haemstede as a gifted pastor evangelist was able to minister to both communities.
• He showed a generosity of spirit to the Anabaptists without compromising theologically.  His mildness towards them meant that his name as author of his martyrology was omitted from the title page of all editions from 1566 onwards because his approach was disapproved of by certain people in the Reformed community.  He was generous-spirited enough to even include some arguably Anabaptist executions in his accounts of martyrs and he later on in his ministry petitioned the Bishop of London for toleration of the Anabaptists not because he agreed with them theologically but because they were ‘weaker members of Christ’ (ie still part of the universal church).  Van Haemstede paid a heavy price for his generosity of spirit and was eventually suspended from preaching, excommunicated and expelled from England.
The two turning points in the history of the Reformed churches occurred in 1566 and 1572. 1566 is known as the ‘Wonder Year’ in the history of the Netherlands.  After years of smallness, a combination of economic crisis in the country, collapse in the authority of central government and boldness in preaching (even though it was technically illegal) meant that the seemingly impossible became possible. The Calvinists for the first time were able to worship openly.  Iconoclasm – the tearing down of Catholic statues and images – became common place all over the Netherlands. Repression came swiftly the following year but in 1572 Reformed Churches were established legally for the very first time.
Legal recognition did not mean the Calvinists had everything their own way from 1572 onwards.  Compromises on a whole range of issues (e.g. poor relief, appointment of ministers, control of access to the sacraments), now had to be made with magistrates and town councils.  In many cases ministers were forced to give ground to maintain the support of the state for their newly privileged position.
Two unfortunate traits are discernible in this period of Dutch Calvinism.
A narrow and mean-spirited theological approach.  Casper Coolhaes, a minister in Leiden who was a moderate undogmatic theologian of a broadly reformed perspective, for example, was accused of ‘daily vomiting forth poison’ by his hard line opponent Polyander. The Leiden Academy (the future University of Leiden, created in 1575), meanwhile was accused of ‘spreading errors and hiding the truth rather than spreading it’.
Legalism.  Efforts to establish and build the church did not produce improvement in the morality and conduct of daily living.  This produced a frustration in Calvinism that was manifested in attempts at mere outward conformity.  Drunkenness, non-attendance at church and general disregard for the ‘Sabbath’ and other forms of ‘licentious’ behaviour were met with behaviour control.  Hostility to dancing and the theatre, for example, were not universal amongst the Reformed but steadily increased as the sixteenth century wore on.
In this short series of blogs I, as a moderate Calvinist (I described myself in an earlier blog as a 1536 Calvinist) have touched on some of the less attractive facets of late sixteenth and early seventeenth century Calvinism.  This is not just an academic exercise.  On balance, I would lean more towards the Counter Remonstrant than the Remonstrant position.  However, there is much in the spirit and tone of seventeenth century Calvinism that I find distinctly unpleasant.  It is possible to be right theologically on an issue and be wrong on so many other levels. Isn’t this at least part of what Jesus was driving at when he rebuked the Pharisees quoting Hosea 6:6 ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’ (Matt 9:13)?
Many years ago my wife and I were leading a small group meeting where we were looking at 1 Peter 3 – we had been working through 1 Peter systematically and had got up to a potentially controversial chapter.  The lady leading the study took a strong egalitarian line.  Before my wife or I could offer an alternative complementarian perspective (which I am genuinely committed to), the poor woman was rounded on by an obnoxious, opinionated and unpleasant man.  As far as the theology was concerned, he won the argument hands down but at every other possible level he lost – he lost in any ability to show grace, to maintain relationship even when we disagree and he lost respect. 
I love much that Reformed Protestantism/Calvinism offers but I utterly reject and intensely dislike the legalism, pride and arrogance that Reformed Protestantism has far too frequently exhibited. Let’s make sure as second generation people that we model something different in our spirit to second generation Calvinism. Let’s continue to enjoy God’s grace in a spirit of humility and openness to the wider body of Christ.

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