Jul 102021

Today is the birthday (1509) of John Calvin (born Jehun Cauvin), a French theologian, pastor and reformer in Geneva during the Protestant Reformation. He was a principal figure in the development of the system of Christian theology now called Calvinism, which includes the doctrines of predestination and of God’s absolute sovereignty in the salvation of the human soul from death and eternal damnation. While Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation in Europe and the foundation of the Lutheran church, it was Calvin’s ideas which really set the Christian world ablaze, leading to, among other things, Puritanism, Presbyterianism, and numerous Reformed denominations.  As an ordained Presbyterian minister and a professor of Church History at a Theological College in Phnom Penh, you are in danger of a mammoth post on Calvin.  But I will spare you.  Just some highlights – and a recipe from Picardy, his birthplace. He does, of course, also lend his name to my favorite cartoon character, Calvin, of Calvin and Hobbes (not to mention my favorite food writer, Calvin Trillin).

Calvin was a tireless polemicist and apologetic writer who generated considerable controversy. He also exchanged cordial and supportive letters with many reformers, including Philipp Melanchthon and Heinrich Bullinger. In addition to his seminal Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin wrote commentaries on most books of the Bible, confessional documents, and various other theological treatises.

Calvin was originally trained as a humanist lawyer. He broke from the Roman Catholic Church around 1530. After religious tensions erupted in widespread deadly violence against Protestant Christians in France, Calvin fled to Basel in Switzerland, where in 1536 he published the first edition of the Institutes. In that same year, Calvin was recruited by Frenchman William Farel to join the Reformation in Geneva, where he regularly preached sermons throughout the week. However, the governing council of the city resisted the implementation of their ideas, and both men were expelled. At the invitation of Martin Bucer, Calvin proceeded to Strasbourg, where he became the minister of a church of French refugees. He continued to support the reform movement in Geneva, and in 1541 he was invited back to lead the church of the city. Following his return, Calvin introduced new forms of church government and liturgy, despite opposition from several powerful families in the city who tried to curb his authority. Following an influx of supportive refugees and new elections to the city council, Calvin’s opponents were forced out. Calvin spent his final years promoting the Reformation both in Geneva and throughout Europe.

Let’s talk briefly about the doctrine of predestination which lies at the heart of Calvinist theology, and is certainly the most debated of all of Calvin’s theology.  Among other things, this doctrine appears to fly directly in the face of the doctrine of free will, and is a key pillar in Max Weber’s argument that Protestantism leads to the development of capitalism (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).  While I take issue with much of Weber’s thought, he is correct in his assertion that Catholic doctrine is cyclic – sin, confess, repent, salvation, then sin again (and repeat) – whereas Calvin’s doctrine is linear – you find out your fate on Judgment Day and not before, so you have to live as sinlessly as possible every minute of every day all of your life in the hope that you got it right.

Calvin’s logic is really straightforward.  God is all-knowing and all-powerful. Therefore, he knows the past, present, and future – otherwise he is not God.  If he knows the future, he knows YOUR future – all of it.  Therefore, he knows your ultimate fate: Heaven or Hell.  Not complicated.  There are many ways to challenge the doctrine, and many have using philosophy, Biblical criticism, or just through simple reasoning.  It’s not hard.  You can challenge the definition of God, which forces you to part company with the Bible, and probably with theism in general.  If your conception of God is little more than an invisible superhero with all the faults and shortcomings of a human, then you are not left with much, and you do not have Biblical support. If you accept the Biblical view of an all-powerful, all-knowing God, you still have some options to allow for peace of mind.

First, you can try to live as sinlessly as possible – even building a wall around the law so that you have little chance to stumble. Live a simple life, wear unadorned, modest clothes, use plain language, eat plain food and do not drink alcohol, and avoid frivolous spending. That way you end up as a Puritan, which has a built-in safety net but is not much fun. Second, you can reconsider all the components of the definition of God. This does not mean challenging the all-powerful and all-knowing parts, but, rather, adding the all-merciful piece. If God is all-loving and all-forgiving, then maybe the concept of Hell and damnation are misguided.  Maybe we are all destined for ultimate salvation through God’s infinite mercy.  After all, the idea of souls suffering in Hell for all eternity does not mesh with the notion of God’s perfection. How can a God of perfection countenance a world where suffering never ends? The danger here is, of course, that such a theology gives people free rein to do as they please in life knowing that they will ultimately be forgiven. Third, the route that a great many modern theologians follow, and which I agree with, simply dispenses with logic altogether.  This line of attack simply says that the spiritual realm is not open to human reasoning. God is inscrutable and unknowable – end of story.  So, instead of worrying about Heaven and Hell, concentrate on the present and follow the most basic of precepts as laid out in the gospel – namely, love God and love your neighbor – also end of story.  “Who is my neighbor?” is answered by the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the definition of love can be found in 1 Corinthians 13.  Easy-peasy.

For Calvin’s birthday I have chosen a recipe from Picardy, leek tart, that is more or less a quiche (a very common dish in that general region) using leeks, which are among my favorite vegetables.

Picardy Leek Tart


shortcrust for a 25 cm/9 in pie dish

75g/2 ½ oz butter
1kg/ 2lb leeks, cut in half lengthways, washed and cut into 1 cm/ ½ in pieces
300g/10 ½ oz full-fat crème fraiche
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
freshly grated nutmeg
salt and black pepper


Heat the oven to 200°C/400°F.

Line a 25cm/9 in pie dish with short crust.  Flute the edges, and prick the bottom with a fork.  Cover with cling wrap and keep refrigerated until ready for baking.

Melt the butter over low heat in a large skillet.  Add the leeks and cook gently for about 20 minutes until they are soft, but not browned.  Add the crème fraiche and eggs.  Stir gently to combine and turn off the heat.  Season to taste with nutmeg, salt, and freshly ground black pepper.

Blind bake the pastry shell. Line it with baking parchment and fill it with dried beans, and cook for 10 minutes.  Remove the parchment and beans, and cook for another 5 minutes.

Lower the heat to 190°C/375°F

Take the shell out of the oven and fill it with the leek mixture. Return to the oven and bake until the filling is completely set (25 – 30 minutes).

Can be eaten hot or cold.

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