John Calvin on Islam

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Calvin’s Attitude Toward the Turks: Negative Impact on Ministry, Dialogue and Missions Among Muslims?

by Katharina Beeler

John Calvin (1509-1564), one of the principal leaders of the Protestant Reformation, left an impact not only through his Bible commentaries, the The Institutes of the Christian Religion, sermons, letters, but also through the socio-political and economic consequences that his influence on Protestant Christianity and, ultimately, Modern History. Today, Calvin’s life, writings, and suppositions are seen as polarizing. On the one hand, as Max Weber so clearly outlines in The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism (1904), were it not for John Calvin and the principles of industriousness and diligent work “as unto God”, the Industrial Revolution might never have happened. Then again, as Karl Marx illuminates in The Communist Manifesto (1848), whatever Calvin’s original intent, Protestantism’s inherently iconoclastic social ethic only served to divide turn revolutionaries against one another in a thousand vies for power. Where Martin Luther may have challenged the authority of the Catholic Church, Calvin would challenge the role of the nation-state as it came out from under Catholicism, inseminating later political thought towards individualism, even isolationism, in the pursuit of holiness. Today, this division is still seen in the Western American Church as Evangelicals turn increasingly inward to the neglect of their fellow citizens. Both sides of these debates of the legacy of Calvin need to recognize his contributions to Christian life, thought and Scripture reading as well as reflect on the rigid, narrow and systematic view he had on Scripture, faith, life, and other religions.

While there are a great many introductions to this pursuit (see below), one area often overlooked but very important to the development (or lack there of) of dialogue with, ministry among, missions for, and theological positions on Muslims is Calvin’s attitude towards Muslims, whom he refers to as “Turks”. Even though Calvin’s comments on the Turks in his writings (again, I am speaking here of The Institutes, the letters, sermons and commentaries he wrote) are given very little attention and thus not widely known, the question of whether his position is still reflected and impacts later Christian engagement and attitudes towards Muslims, especially in the twenty-first century, needs examination. What type of insight does Calvin’s work and his theological positions have on the shape of dialogue and ministry among the Muslim world today?

The Protestant Reformation unfolded as the Ottoman Empire marked itself in history with power and grandeur under Suleiman I “the Magnificent” (reigning from 1520-66). Between his father and himself, the Ottoman Empire united and expanded all the way from southeastern Mesopotamia into parts of Europe conquering Hungary from the Habsburgs. As the Ottoman Empire extended and conquered, Calvin felt its presence, perceiving it as “a great threat to Christianity” and writing about it in that way throughout various letters (see Slomp, esp. 128).

Turks, along with the papists and Jews of Calvin’s ire, were a clear example of heresy for him. Christocentrism, which so characterized and predominated his thought, was used as one of Calvin’s main critiques of the Turks. In The Institutes (2:6.4), he notes that while the Turks claim a belief in God as creator of heaven and earth, their repudiation of Christ is as unto idolatry.

“[The Jews] at length fell away to gross and foul superstitions betraying their ignorance, just as the Turks in the present day, who, though proclaiming, with full throat, that the Creator of heaven and earth is their God, yet by their rejection of Christ, substitute an idol in his place.” (Institutes 1960:348).

Again on December 12, 1550 in a sermon on Micah 4, Calvin proclaims to his congregation “the Turks deny God openly, for to know God is to know our Lord Jesus Christ” (emphasis added).

Further, God as Father plays a central role in Calvin’s theology, declaring in Institutes 3:13.5 that faith is not true unless it claims the “sweetest name of Father” unto which “the Turks and other profane nations clearly miss.” This is loaded language. While many religions, including Islam, would agree on a rather general concept of God as the origin of everything and thus “father” to all of humanity, the Christocentrism of Calvin’s thought erases all general meaning. God is the Father of Christ, in whom the full godhead dwells. To deny the Sonship of Jesus is to deny the Fatherhood of God. And, indeed, Calvin’s language is not general or even passive. In other places, it is quite harsh. There must be a full rejection of the Turkish idea of God which does not recognize the Sonship and Deity of Christ, as revealed in his commentary on Isaiah 36:19-20. But, even more, in his third sermon on Melchizedek, Calvin states that due to the Turks’ unbelief in Jesus as God (and subsequent insult to the Father because of this), “the Turks adore and worship a devil under the name of God.” This last statement was made in 1559, almost a decade after the comparatively tame notion that the Turks were misguided because “faith is not true unless it claims the ‘sweetest name of Father.’” We see the evolution of Calvin’s thought as it relates to the Turks, an unambiguous rejection of both Jew and Turk alike.

Sola scripture, as one of Calvin’s “five solas,” manifests itself heavily upon his view of the Turks. Calvin held a strong view of the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) as the only Scripture of God. Anyone who rejected it, namely the Turks, were “devils, for they do not keep themselves in the bounds of Holy Scripture.” Calvin saw the prophecies of Daniel as relating to and fulfilling within his own historical context, and thus “Mahomet” (Muhammad) and the Pope (both the office itself and, specifically, Pope Paul III, who ruled from 1534 to 1549) are “the two horns of the Anti-Christ and the two legs correspond with Islam and the Papacy” (SD 1987:162). It seems contradictory then, perhaps even antagonistic, to speak of his fear of the Turkish presence in Europe where he comments on “taking refuge” through the passages in Daniel but Calvin was not ultimately troubled if the Turks took complete control of Europe. Daniel proclaimed Christ’s Kingdom triumphing over the Turks and peoples/religions who are part of the Kingdom of the Anti-Christ and, believing in sola scriptura, that is precisely what would happen in spite of whatever circumstance the believer found themselves in (Lee 2000:9).

Though Calvin’s scholarship was very strong, his references to the Qur’an are very few. Where he provides Qur’anic reference, not a single sura is quoted verbatim. This was not for lack of translation. While the Qur’an had been translated by Theodorus Bibliander and Johannes Oporinus in Basel, Switzerland, during Calvin’s lifetime, he appeared to have shown no interest in reading it. Fellow Reformers Luther and Melanchton did, however (Slomp 1995:135). When Oporinus wrote to Calvin for help with this enterprise, no records show a response from Calvin. As to the reason why, it is unknown, but historians and scholars provide their own speculations. The polite version is that Calvin was inclined elsewhere, though for his lack of attention to it, it might be surmised that he did not want to devote himself to working with a “devil” text.

Having none or minute contact with the Turks or their faith, and failing to engage with either when the opportunity presented itself, Calvin’s misunderstanding of Muhammad becomes apparent in his writings. In another commentary section on Deuteronomy, Calvin says that the Turks were “guilty of perversity by putting Muhammad in the place of God’s Son and attributing the Al-Coran as Muhammad’s word, rather than the Word of Allah as Muslims believe it to be.” He did not hesitate to call Muhammad a false prophet. Several times he makes reference to what a true prophet of God declares and Muhammad, Calvin says, did not fall in his category.

In spite of his negative attitude towards the Turks (for clarity, again, this refers to Muslims in general, Islam as a religion, and Muhammad specifically), Calvin did find a few commendable features (Lee 2000:3). For example, he commends their “reverence for their religion” in his sermon on Deuteronomy 4:8. Even within the previously mentioned sermon on Micah 4, dated December 12, 1550, where Calvin first declares the Turks to be “deniers of God,” he proceeds to note that Christians “should watch the Turks’ devotion to their prophet, having no problem giving their life to their law” for the zeal that the “followers of Muhammad” had was admirable.

During Calvin’s time there was a small force of missions from Geneva, Switzerland. Historical records indicate that there was even a missionary group heading to Brazil. But no record has come forth of Protestant Reformers’ ministry among the Turks during Calvin’s lifetime, though his writings provide insight as to his thought on conversion of and missions to the Turks. Institutes 4:16.24 says that a Turk could offer him/herself for baptism “if satisfactory confession to the church was given.” However, texts indicate that he may have found preaching to the Turks as unfruitful because he found them beyond reach, calling them “apostates having to be left to God, for they are alienated from true religion. He further declares them as “barbarians” and “the cruelest enemies,” stating again that “Satan deceived the Turks, he rules over them and they, as a result, are hardened in their errors, rejecting the grace by Jesus Christ” (Slomp 1995:137).

While it must be acknowledged John Calvin was a product of his time — indeed, to be fair, we must recall that Martin Luther made more than several references to Germanic folklore which can be teased out of his own theology — following the stereotypes towards the Turks and their religion, it may be important to ask whether Calvin’s attitude towards Muslims continues to affect Christians’ attitudes towards Islam, Muhammad, and Muslims in the twenty-first century. Are the ministry, dialogue, theological positions of Calvin still evident in or underlying Christian-Muslim engagement today?

Wilbert R. Shenk’s “missionary models for culture” explains “replication” as the missionary model before 1850: holding a pre-critical and ethnocentric view of culture. Calvin’s writings echo such a view towards the Turks and what resulted was a lack of zeal for understanding or ministering among Muslims. Martin Accad’s SEKAP spectrum of Christian-Muslim interaction puts Calvin on the polemical end of the five interactions: syncretistic, existential, kerygmatic, apologetic, and polemical. Providing these two insights for a missional model and approach, where Christians stand on Muslim relations today varies. A deeper examination and attention to John Calvin’s writings coupled with thoughtful reflection on Christian/ity views on Islam and Christian-Muslim interaction over the past 500 years may provide insight and understanding helpful towards fostering a Kerygmatic interaction and translation model attitude among Christians. Being able to address these, Christians may be better to live and participate in the ever increasing globalized pluralistic world unto which they live in and come alongside the movements of Jesus following happening among Muslim believers today.

Cont. in pt. 2, coming Winter 2015

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Further Reading in preparation for part 2

Accad, Martin, “Christian Attitudes toward Islam and Muslims: A Kerygmatic Approach,” Toward Respectful Understanding and Witness Among Muslims: Essays in Honor of J. Dudley Woodberry. Ed. Evelyne A. Reisacher. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2012.

Calvin, John, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume VIII: Isaiah. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003.

_______, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster Knox Press, 1960.

_______, Sermons on Deuteronomy . Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987.

_______, Sermons on Micah. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1990.

Lee, Francis Nigel, Calvin on Islam. El Paso, Texas: Lamp Trimmers, 2000.

Selderhuis, Herman J, The Calvin Handbook. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008.

Shenk, Wilbert R., Changing Frontiers of Mission. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999.

Slomp, Jan, “Calvin and the Turks,” in Christian-Muslim Encounters edited by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Wadi Z. Haddad, 126-142. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1995.

Supplementary Reading:

As already noted, for the reader who would seek to better understand the construction of Western individualism, Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto should be read together with Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic.

For the reader who wishes to better understand Calvin’s life and times as well as the role he played in Protestant Christianity, Diarmaid McCullough’s The Reformation (or the much shorter and digestible The Reformation: A History by Patrick Collinson) are appropriate.

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