Protestants hope to reform Calvin image

The organisers launched Calvin09 year at Geneva's Reformers' Wall (John Calvin is second from left) Keystone

Switzerland's Protestant churches have launched the 500-year celebrations of the birth of John Calvin, a formative figure in the Reformation.

This content was published on November 3, 2008 - 18:23

The organisers hope the year of events will challenge people's often-negative image of Calvin, who transformed Geneva into a base for French Protestantism and an intellectual centre of Europe.

Officials from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Swiss Protestant Church Federation and from Reformed congregations from around the world launched the commemorative year on Sunday at the Reformers' Wall in Geneva.

"Calvin, the visionary Reformer, sparked off a movement which has spread to the four corners of the Earth: more than 80 million Christians living in 107 countries today acknowledge his legacy," said Setri Nyomi, the general secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.

Calvin was a French Protestant theologian and a central developer of Calvinism, or Reformed theology. In Geneva, where he sought exile from 1536 to his death in 1564, his ministry both attracted other Protestant refugees and over time made Geneva a major force in the spread of Reformed theology.

Organisers of the anniversary year are planning a series of public exhibitions, plays, lectures and concerts. The high point of the year is an official ceremony in Geneva on July 10, 2009, the 500th anniversary of the reformer's birth, to which key religious and political figures are invited.

The organisers are hoping these events will help redress some of the clichés and unfavourable images surrounding Calvin.

Critics have painted the French theologian as an austere humourless scholar who built his ecclesiastical court in Geneva to further his political aims and maintain his sway over civil and religious life. It is argued also that he responded harshly to any challenge to his actions.

Negative image

"Rarely has a man been as characterised or slandered as Calvin," Roland Benz, president of the Calvin09 organising committee, told journalists on Sunday.

"Calvin, like lots of other people, has dark and light sides to his personality," the director of Calvin09, Serge Fornerod, told Swiss national radio.

"The dark sides often cited are his rigorousness and joyless character. One of the aims of the 500-year celebrations is to discuss this in the light of new theological and historical research into Calvin to look slightly differently at the image we have of him and to measure the contradictions in his personality."

A new Calvin biography by Christopher Elwood and cartoonists Mix & Remix, 'Calvin sans trop se fatiguer', re-casts the image of Calvin as the fierce persecutor of his opponent, the Spanish physician and theologian, Michael Servetus, in a new light.

"There are lots of things about him we didn't know," said Fornerod, adding that the 17th century Counter Reformation had "helped deform Calvin's image".

According to the director, Calvin was someone who enjoyed the "simple pleasures of life" like wine and nature.

Calvin once wrote "the person who has reservations about an extremely flavoursome wine is likely to sin if they ignore a herb in a field".

Modern resonance

The organisers hope not only to offer a more positive image of Calvin, but also to present his writings and beliefs to a new audience.

"Without him the Reformation started by Martin Luther would not have had such a far-reaching impact," said Thomas Wipf, president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.

Calvin was the first to systematise the Reform movement allowing the churches to get organised, he added.

He democratised the church ministry and reinforced the link between humanist thought and Christian convictions, say the organisers.

And his beliefs still have meaning today, especially issues like the unity of Christians, they claim.

"Calvin's tremendous energy to save and reconstruct the unity of the church is motivating for us," said Antoine Reymond, president of the Conference of Protestant Churches for French-speaking Switzerland.

International Geneva

Another important area is Calvin's legacy for the city of Geneva, say the organisers.

"The city has benefited from the Reformation. The development of the Academy of Geneva (which later became Geneva University) and its international influence, the development of French language through Calvin's numerous writings and speeches, and the economic and technical support of Huguenot refugees have all been a huge benefit for Geneva," Katrin Rossier of the Swiss Protestant Church Federation told Le Temps newspaper.

Fornerod agreed: "International Geneva is a direct descendant of the city of Calvin. Through the quality of his prodigious writings and his international openness he tried to bring people together from across Europe. His spirit marked the major thinkers and decision-makers for years."

"When US President Woodrow Wilson had to decide whether the League of Nations should be based in Brussels or Geneva he declared, 'As a Reformed Presbyterian it has to be in Geneva'."

swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Geneva

Key facts

Religious breakdown of the population, 2000 census:
Roman Catholic – 41.8%
State-recognised Protestant – 33.0%
Free (mainly evangelical) Protestant – 2.2%
Old Catholic – 0.2%
Orthodox – 1.8%
Other Christians – 0.2%
Jewish community – 0.2%
Muslim – 4.3%
Buddhist – 0.3%
Hindu – 0.4%
Other – 0.1%
No religion – 11.1%

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Calvin09 events

(A selection of the main Geneva events; see website for full list)

January 15-February 15: Calvindrier exhibition by Geneva artists, Espace Fusterie, Geneva

April 24-October 31: "A day in the life of Calvin" exhibition at International Museum of the Reformation, Geneva

May 24-27: "Calvin and his influence, 1509-2009" international conference, International Conference Centre, Geneva.

June 14: National Calvin ceremony by Swiss Protestant churches, Espace Fusterie, Geneva

July 1-26: Jean Calvin theatre play by François Rochaix, Reformers' Wall, Geneva.

July 1-26: Huguenot village exhibition, Reformers' Wall, Geneva

July 10: 500-year anniversary ceremony to mark the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth, Reformers' Wall, Geneva.

August: Open air street theatre in Geneva Old Town.

October 1-3: "Airport Chapel" theatre play by Sketch'Up, Theatre de L'Espérance, Geneva.

November 1: Concert at St Pierre Cathedral, Geneva.

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