Such a man is not easily judged. Only He who sounds the secrets of all our hearts and minds can do that. Moreover, Calvin has always been the subject of widely differing opinions. Michelet was too ardent an admirer of his work of “liberation.” Renan regarded him as hard-working and ambitiously self-seeking, but as otherwise unexceptional. We can join with his supporters in exalting his genius, his acute understanding of great problems, his capacity for synthesis and organization. We can even admit that kind of frigid attraction which emanates from Calvin, as from all great minds, which possesses a taste for the long and careful study of ideas as well as for their perfect expression. And it would be grossly unfair not to recognize his ardent zeal for God, his passion to win souls, that tragic seriousness with which he always regarded his vocation, and his unfailing sense of duty. But it is equally impossible not to observe that this outstanding personality lacked two essential Christian virtues which would have set the seal upon his greatness. First, true humility, not only before God but before men also, the kind of humility which later impelled St. Vincent de Paul to fall on his knees before a peasant who had struck him in the face. Secondly, true goodness, which knows how to love men despite their abjection and, indeed, because of it, and which is always ready to pardon any fault. It seems that, though Calvin read his gospel so thoroughly, he had not understood its two noblest precepts: that it behoves us to be the least important at the table end, and that we ought to love our enemies.
Opinions regarding Calvin’s historical role are also conflicting. “Calvin was the principal destroyer of genuine Protestantism,” says one historian (J. Dedieu). “Calvin saved Lutheranism,” says another (Doumergue). Both are correct. Calvin undoubtedly led Protestantism far from its original bases and directed it towards ends which Luther had not desired. But the ways which Luther had in mind led to one of two impasses – anarchy or the subjection of religion to the State. Protestantism owed to Calvin its order, its common faith, its clergy, its method, and also that solemn face which we know so well, a face that is often more respectable than lovable. In short, it owed him a new type of believer.
Calvin was, however, first and foremost, the man who sealed the final rupture and, on this point more than on any other, a Catholic cannot but look upon him with horror. He set himself to build an impassable well or an abyss between the Church which had given him baptism and that which he wished to “draw up,” and he did this far more thoroughly than Luther had done, and with a kind of devilish severity. It is true that, dialectically speaking, his role, like that of his German predecessor, could, in the last resort, be considered favorable to the ultimate designs of Providence, for the terrible blow he dealt Christendom was the cause of her re-awakening. But this does not lessen the extent of his sin. After Calvin, all hopes of repairing the rent in the Seamless Robe vanished for centuries to come. Such, in brief, is the significance of this man’s life. Such was the success of John Calvin.
From: The Protestant Reformation by H. Daniel-Rops; History of the Church of Christ, Volume 4; translated from the French by Audrey Butler (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd./New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1961), pp. 440-441. French original published in 1958.
Henri Daniel-Rops (pen name of Henri Jules Charles Petiot) (1901-1965) was a French Roman Catholic church historian and a prolific author. He was a member of the French Academy.