CALVIN, JOHN°


CALVIN, JOHN° (1509–1564), French Church reformer and theologian. Calvin was one of the foremost Christian Bible exegetes of his time. He wrote commentaries on Isaiah (1551), Genesis (1554), Psalms and Hosea (1557), the 12 Minor Prophets (1560), Daniel (1561), and the remaining four books of the Pentateuch (1563), as well as introductions to Jeremiah and Lamentations (1563). In the last year of his life he also wrote a commentary on Joshua. All his exegetic works were included in the collected editions of his writings, published in his Opera (see bibl.). On the other hand, Calvin had few occasions for contacts with contemporary Jewry. The first 25 years of his life he spent in his native Picardy, Paris, or Orléans long after the expulsion of the Jews from France. Nor did he have much occasion to encounter Jews during the last quarter century of his life, which included the period of his increasingly dictatorial rule in Geneva, since the Jews had been expelled from that city in 1491.

Concerning moneylending, Calvin's view differed sharply from the traditional ecclesiastical rejection of any kind of interest. In De usuris, commenting on the crucial passage in Luke 6:35, he stated clearly: "No scriptural testimony exists which would totally condemn usury. For that sentence of Christ which the populace regards as most unequivocal, namely 'lend, hoping for nothing again' (Luke 6:35), has been gravely distorted." However, in a sermon of 1556 he declared that the fact that the Jews had once been allowed to charge usury to the heathen nations does not mean that "today they may aggrieve and molest God's children." Calvin was undoubtedly impressed by the anti-Jewish teachings of most German reformers. Among the German theologians, Martin *Bucer (Butzer) in particular exerted a deep and permanent influence on Calvin's thinking. In the economic sphere Bucer and his associates stressed particularly the losses occasioned by the economic rivalry between Jewish and Christian merchants.

Calvin and his associates were particularly prone to hurl the accusation of Judaizing at their opponents, expecially Michael (Miguel) Servetus (1511–53), whose anti-trinitarianism smacked, in fact, of Jewish as well as of Muslim teachings. "It is indeed," reads one of Calvin's articles of accusation addressed to the syndics of Geneva in 1553, "an abomination to see how this wretched man [Servetus] excuses the Jews' blasphemies against the Christian religion." Almost in the same breath Calvin appears as the defender of the Old Testament against calumnies by Servetus, e.g., that ancient Judea had really been a very poor country, and as denouncer of Servetus' too great indebtedness to Jewish Bible commentators. Calvin also accused his enemy of having borrowed a "Jewish" interpretation from the commentary of a medieval Catholic, *Nicholas of Lyra. These denunciations constituted but a part of the Calvinist campaign against Servetus, which eventually resulted in the latter's being burned at the stake in 1553. Servetus for his part pressed charges based on Calvin's emphasis upon "Jewish legalism." Calvin was greatly attracted to the Old Testament law, which he tried to imitate as much as possible in his new Christian republic in Geneva. In another context Servetus accused Calvin of overlooking the new and living way inaugurated in the New Testament; he had thus "shocked me with your true Jewish zeal." These accusations were not silenced by Servetus' death and, in 1595, the Lutheran Aegidius Hunnius (1550–1603) published a polemical pamphlet under the title of Calvinus Judaizans.

Among Calvin's writings there is a small but remarkable tract entitled Ad quaestiones et obiecta Judaei cuiusdam Responsio (Opera, 9:653–74). This tract is identical with a letter by Calvin first published in 1597 and reproduced as an anonymous epistle in Johannes Buxtorf the Elder's Synagoga Judaica (see bibl.). Nothing is known about the circumstances which induced Calvin to write this noteworthy dialogue, nor about the date of its composition. It is quite remarkable that the Jewish debater tried to persuade Calvin through arguments largely borrowed from Christian theology. As if to pay back in kind, Calvin's replies were largely based on Old Testament passages. Secondly, the Jew's arguments are not only given with much objectivity, but they often appear more forthright and logical than Calvin's much longer and quite involved replies. If this Jewish debater had been a figment of Calvin's imagination, as is assumed by most scholars, this discrepancy between query and answer would appear doubly remarkable. As Calvin was temperamentally far from inclined to give any opponent an equal chance, it stands to reason, therefore, that he may indeed have heard such a presentation by a Jewish spokesman and tried to invalidate it by his replies. In that case the most likely period for the composition of this tract would appear to be the time of his sojourn in Strasbourg in 1539–41 and particularly his visit to Frankfurt in 1539. Here he may indeed have encountered *Joseph (Josel) b. Gershom of Rosheim, the chief defender of German Jewry at that time and a well-informed controversialist. Among the Protestant controversialists, according to Josel, there arose one who attacked him in a "violent, angry, and menacing" harangue. It would quite fit Calvin's temperament to have made such a menacing speech (cf. G. Kracauer, in: REJ, 16 (1888), 92). Citing the Old Testament passages concerning the eternal validity of the law which must not be added to nor subtracted from, and illustrating it by the law of circumcision, the Jew pointed out that Jesus' assertion, "I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill" the law (Matt. 5:17) was clearly controverted by the Christians' repudiation of circumcision. Calvin answered by referring to several Old Testament passages indicating that in the messianic age many laws would be abrogated.

Perhaps most relevant to the contemporary conflicts was the Jew's final query: "I ask those who contend that we are in this exile because of Jesus' execution, but this is not true because we had been in exile before his death. If it be true that in the hour of his death Jesus begged his Father and said, 'Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do' (Luke 23:34) and if Father and Son are identical and both have the same will, then certainly that iniquity was condoned which he himself had forgiven." In his reply Calvin could only harp on the theme of the Jews' obstinacy in persisting in their error and the numerous sins their forefathers had previously committed, as attested by the numerous prophetic denunciations. These cumulative sins over generations have sufficiently accounted for the sufferings of the people of Israel since it went into exile. With all this fury, Calvin showed himself somewhat more merciful toward the Jews, as well as the Muslims, than toward Christian heretics. He seems to have been satisfied, on the whole, with keeping the Jews out of Geneva and with echoing the long-accepted anti-Jewish polemics.

Impact of Calvinism

If Calvin's own tyrannical temperament often played havoc with his best intentions and led to the establishment of his despotic theocratic regime in Geneva, the ultimate outcome of his reformatory work was the very opposite. Even as an immediate reaction to the execution of Servetus many voices were heard in Switzerland and elsewhere condemning this first inquisitorial "act of faith" on the part of Protestant believers in individual conscience. The Jews, whose position in 16th-century Europe might seriously have been endangered by Calvin's wrathful denunciations, unwittingly became major beneficiaries of the ensuing trend toward religious liberty.

Calvin's influence was even more directly felt in the new appreciation of religious "legalism." His long elaboration of the Decalogue, to which he devoted 59 chapters, and his emphasis that the intention behind the act is as important as the act itself, were wholly in line with long accepted rabbinic teachings. In fact, so closely did Calvin adhere to the Jewish interpretation of the Ten Commandments that he reemphasized the Jewish prohibition of imagery in a way shared by few of his confreres. It is small wonder, then, that the disciples of Calvin in many lands so eagerly turned for enlightenment to the Old Testament. With the newly awakened humanist recognition of the relevance of the original language for the understanding of any text, Calvinist divines and scholars in many lands became some of the foremost Christian Hebraists of the following two centuries.

The original sweeping theses by Max *Weber and Werner *Sombart concerning the far-reaching relationships between the Protestant ethic or the Jewish spirit and the rise and evolution of modern capitalism have rightly been toned down by the assiduous, more detailed work of later scholars. However, the historic fact that both Protestants and Jews contributed much more than their share to the rise of capitalist institutions and the so-called capitalist "spirit" has remained unimpaired. These activities by bankers and merchants of both faiths may have stimulated competition and economic rivalries between them which at times created new tensions, but these were more than counterbalanced by the ensuing opening of new lands and new economic avenues for the Jewish wanderers. In short, the total effect of Calvin's anti-Jewish preaching resembled that of the ancient prophecy of Balaam. The Geneva reformer, too, set out to curse the Jews, but in the end turned out to have blessed them.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

J. Calvin, Opera…, ed. by W. Baum et al., 59 vols. (1863–1900); idem, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. by J. Mc-Neill, 2 vols. (1961); J.F.A. de Le Roi, Die evangelische Christen-heit und die Juden, 3 vols. (1884–92); E. Doumergue, Jean Calvin. Les hommes et les choses de son temps, 7 vols. (1899–1927), vol. 3, 252ff.; L.I. Newman, Jewish Influence in Christian Reform Movements (1925), index; J. Courvoisier, in: Judaica, 2 (1946–47), 203–8; Baron, Social 2, 3 (1952), 5ff., 229f. nn. 1, 4; 13 (1969), 279ff., 455ff. nn. 85ff.; S.W. Baron, in: H.A. Wolfson Jubilee Volume (1965), 141–63; idem, in: Diogenes, 61 (1969); W. Schwarz, Principles and Problems of Biblical Translation; some Reformation Controversies and Their Background (1955); H. Volz, in: Zeitschrift fuer Kirchengeschichte, 67 (1955–56), 116ff.; A. Bieler, La pensée économique et sociale de Calvin (1959); H.H. Ben-Sasson, in: HTR, 59 (1966), 369–90; G.W. Locher, in: Theologische Zeitschrift, 23 (1967), 180–96; J. Buxtorf (the Elder), Synagoga judaica (Basle, 16613), 749–79.

[Salo W. Baron]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.