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Reformation and Rediscovery: An Interview with Herman J. Selderhuis

Dr. Herman J. Selderhuis is professor of Church History
at the Theological University
Apeldoorn (the Netherlands) and director of
Refo500, the international platform on projects
relating to the 16th Century. He is the author
and editor of several books, including John
Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life
(2009). He is also
president of the International Calvin Congress
and Curator of Research at the Johannes a
Lasco Library (Emden, Germany). Selderhuis
recently spoke with Religion & Liberty managing
editor Ray Nothstine.

R&L: In what way did the Reformation reshape education in the modern world?

Herman J. Selderhuis: Fundamental was the insight that there was no distinction between nature and grace as a lower and an upper level. This means that theology is not seen any longer as higher and more important than other subject matters and faculties, which caused a re-evaluation of other fields of employment, and of other educational tracts.

The development of the universities, like the academy in Geneva, University of Leiden, and many other institutions focused on the broad spectrum of creation, natural science. That imparted an impulse by John Calvin with his view that God can be known also through nature. God reveals Himself in nature. So you could say, if you do biology, you in fact do theology as well.

The other side is the effect of reformation on the education to include boys and girls. Research into the educational system has shown that in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially when compared to the Lutheran and the Catholic children, the Reformed children did better in school because theirs was more a word-oriented education. In church, there was nothing to see since reformed church interiors are rather empty, but there was a lot to read and so children were also trained in hearing. The focus at home and at school was also on the word and this resulted in training in reading, which gave an impulse to education as well.

These are just some of the aspects of the reformation of education that really gives us a glimpse into the world of that day, and its influence certainly continues today.

Often the term Calvinist or Puritan is used pejoratively to refer to an attitude toward life that is seen as narrow, constricting, and disapproving. In what ways are these stereotypes mischaracterizations of the spirit of Calvinism?

In about all the ways you just mentioned. The Reformed tradition is quite broad and when we talk about Calvinism as the world and life view based on Calvin's ideas, it's usually focused on the ethics of John Calvin. He is often seen as someone who just could not enjoy life, who was strict and sober and this attitude was taken up by the Puritans, so this Puritan lifestyle came in and took the fun out of ours. That's the idea.

Well, when you read the sources, you read in Calvin as well as in the Puritans, that they really could enjoy life. However, in those days there was not as much to enjoy as there is today. Many of these people were refugees, so they had hard times living in places they were forced to live. They had to move on. Then there was a lot of poverty, many diseases, wars, a high rate of death in infancy. Yet, reformers did know to appreciate the blessings of this life. When you read John Calvin, for example, he even says that it's no sin at all to drink wine. Not that he was an advocate of alcoholism, but he says wine is a good gift of God and you may enjoy it. You may enjoy good food, although Calvin himself looks like someone who did not enjoy it at all. It all has to do with his physical state. Calvin enjoyed food, but he could not stand too much of it because of his intestinal problems.

I think we should just read the sources and see those people in their context. They had an eye for poverty and for injustice, and they wanted to do something about that, so the conviction was to shed luxury, for it could keep you from giving to the poor. The stereotypes do not fit. They wanted to lead a Christian life and to keep away from sin, so that brought them into a strict way of life, but not in an attitude that believed this world is an enemy to your spiritual life. They could enjoy earthly things.

Some of the most significant theological debates in the Reformation era had to do with the nature of human freedom. How do these debates inform us today about what it means to be human, and how should they inform modern notions of freedom?

Well, I think freedom today is not exactly the same as freedom in the Reformation. For them, the first aspect of freedom is freedom of your guilt towards God.

You're free in the face of God. There is no more guilt. You are forgiven, which means you're set free to focus on your neighbor, to focus on the social issues, to focus on serving the Church. So according to the reformers, this is a freedom towards God. Then there is also this freedom as to being a Christian. I have the freedom to shape my Christian life the way I want it, but my freedom is, in a way, limited by my neighbor. I do not want to use this freedom to affront or hurt my neighbor . Then there was the freedom that was claimed by the Church as a free church in a free state. For example, the Dutch in their uprising against the Catholic Spanish gove r n m e n t used that as one of their arguments.

They were a free church. Christ is King in a church, so His words should have the saying of the force of civil law. There was the freedom of the state in the sense that each state should have its own development and other states should be partners and not hinder that freedom and development. So these are some of the aspects of freedom, whereas today I see a lot of freedom for the individual stressed. This kind of freedom is not bound to any power at all, to any outward law, to any obligation. That however is totally different from what the reformers meant with freedom.

The Reformation stressed, as did the Catholic visions during the 16th century, that freedom is always freedom that is useful for God and my neighbor, and it's not a freedom that is focused on the individual alone.

What was life like in Calvin's Geneva?

It was a very pleasant life if you wanted to lead a Christian life, a life governed by Biblical principles. But then again, if you had other ideas about it, then life was sometimes unpleasant. You were more bound to laws that you did not really enjoy. That certainly gave rise to some discussions and struggles in Geneva.

People choose to go to Geneva though. There were even tourists in those days that went to visit Geneva to see how orderly things were and how peaceful people would live and how economy flourishes and prospers because of this strict living according to Biblical law.

As I see it, life in Geneva was not a bad choice. When I look at Geneva today, I can still see that there. It is a very prosperous city and part of that is due to the road they chose under the guidance of John Calvin in the 16th century.

What is the overall significance of the Reformation for today?

If you want to understand the western world, you need to know about the history, theology, and the influence of the Reformation. That was a decisive moment in the history of the Western world, not only for the breaking of the Church, but also for the consequences of that for Church and state, for visions about life and death, on culture, society, education, development of law, and natural sciences.

It's important to look at the Reformation and have good knowledge of it because there were many issues in those days that are still issues today, or that are new issues of today. The question of how to deal with more than one religion in a city or in a region or in a state is a big one. Although Western governments today defend the Catholic and Protestant faith, we could look at how did they deal with the questions in those days and maybe we could learn from that. We now have more religions moving into the West that are not Christian.

What I also see in the Reformation is that there is a keen eye on the social needs of society and the system they developed that can be put into practice today, how you make theological notions work for society today.

Cathedral Saint Pierre in Geneva, Switzerland.
Cathedral Saint Pierre in Geneva, Switzerland.

Then there were, of course, the big questions of the relation between religion and the state. This relates to educational or pedagogical concepts, or how you look at a person. A good example is one of the topics of the conferences we have planned on anthropology looking at the past and present day. Today young people in the world are looked upon by companies as an object on which you can make money. You can sell a cell phone to them. You can sell Coca-Cola to them. You can sell a certain brand of jeans to them. They are objects. Whereas, the discovery in the 16th Century stressed that young people are not objects. They are subjects. You have to train them. You have to teach them to make their own decisions. Phillip Melanchthon, who was a colleague of Luther's, was very good at teaching that concept to people. That is something our society needs to see again, that young people are not objects on which you can make money, but subjects that you should help develop their gifts, their possibilities, and help them to make the right choices.

The early modern era saw explosion of various forms of social life. How has this social dynamism had an impact on the development of free societies in the Western world?

Well, I would concentrate on one of the most important developments in social life, and that is the rediscovery of the family. The old view was that the good state of life was the unmarried state. And those that married, in fact, were weaker because they gave into their sinful desires. Many in the Church thought something was wrong with you if you could not live a celibate life.

With Luther's theology, he says that if you don't have the gift to live a celibate life, you should marry, and marriage and having a family is on the same level of worth for God as celibacy and singleness. So as Luther said, it's not whether you do your work as a wife in the family, in the kitchen, or you work as a laborer, or you are a priest or a preacher, for God it's all the same. What counts is you do your work well.

This concentration on the family, and the responsibility of fathers, mothers, children and what they mean for society, for the Church, for politics, is a very central notion that has had real development in the Western world. The family was called a church within a church, a little church, ecclesiola, but it's also a mini-state in the state with the way things go in a family, the appointments you have, the deals you make with each other. So this is a nucleus, a center. You have the state in a nutshell in the family, and that really has helped. That is what I would say as the first aspect of social life, rediscovery of the family and how that worked.

David Steinmetz said that "the history of Biblical interpretation is not incidental to European cultural history, but central to it." How important is it for Europe to recover this truth?

If you look at it from a Christian standpoint, it is evident that people need to read the Bible again today. However, I think even if you would look at it from a non-Christian standpoint, you would admit that the Bible has a lot in it that is valuable for today. What we need to do with this, and what Steinmetz says we need to do, is to interpret these Biblical texts for today. We do not live in Israel of the Old Testament. We do not live in the times of the Greek monarchs and the Greek cities, so our world is different. There are notions in the Bible that are relevant for today, even if you would limit it to how one person should deal with another, how you should deal with questions of war and peace with anger, with jealousy. The world would be better off if more people would take notice of what the Bible says. We need people to explain that to them. So I agree with Steinmetz and I would underline the importance of Biblical interpretation for today.

What is the current state of religion in Holland and, more broadly, Christianity in Europe?

Well, when we look at church numbers and church attendance, it does not look good. I just lectured today on the developments in former Eastern Germany, the former German Democratic Republic, and linked that to developments in Germany in general. The Protestant Church in Germany has lost 2.5 million members in the last ten years, which is quite a bit. You still have a lot left, but ten percent has vanished and it is a trend. As for the Netherlands, the perspective is that within the next ten years, 1,000 churches will close.

On the other side, you see new developments. Young churches are emerging. You see church planting movements. We see missionaries from foreign countries, those countries European churches used to send missionaries to and now they are coming back. They say that you brought us the Gospel, now we will take it back to you so you can learn from it again. So on the one hand, the institutional churches have a hard time nowadays, but Christianity as a way of life and a way of faith has a future and there are developments among young people. A perfect example is the young Catholic convention in Spain and the Pope attended the event there and hundreds of thousands of young people attended that Mass, and they were enthusiastic about it.

These two developments are contradictory. What I do see is that young people need a clear message. They want that. They want to hear what is right and what is wrong. There is chaos—there is ethical chaos, there is political chaos—now who will give us straight talk? Who tells us what way to go? There is a need for that and the Pope is preaching a clear message and young people are attracted to that.

Then there is the development of the growing number of Islamic people in Europe and that raises questions. How do we deal with that? What does that mean? It will mean that over the next couple of decades, Islam will be a major force in Europe. Maybe then Christianity will go the same way it went in North Africa after Augustinian times. There, as soon as Islam emerged as a majority, churches had a hard time and were even persecuted and disappeared.