Christophe is a scholar at the University of Geneva and one of the presenters in the upcoming Coursera Course on Calvin. He sat down for a brief interview. Here’s our exchange:
Q- What drew you to Calvin?
A- When you’re born in Geneva and attend the high school Calvin founded in 1559 (renovations were just completed and celebrated last Saturday, it looks gorgeous, see http://icp.ge.ch/po/calvin) and then you go into theology, then the question is rather: how can you escape Calvin? More broadly: when the University of Geneva was thinking of offering several MOOCs, the topic of Geneva and the Reformation, unsurprisingly, came up. The rector of the University knew of the Theological Faculty’s experience with online courses and invited us to offer a MOOC.
Q- How did you come to teach at Geneva.
A- The University of Geneva is my alma mater. When it had a position opening in systematic theology in 2010, I decided to give it a shot, even though I was a very happy member of Fordham University’s Theology Department. I moved back to Switzerland for several reasons, among them family reasons (i.e. so that my children would get to know their grandparents and vice versa). It’s also exciting, for those who enjoy challenges, to be teaching theology in a heavily secularized society and in a prominent secular university.
Q- How long have you and the other presenters worked on the course which will shortly begin on Coursera?
A- We began planning it in early 2013, we recorded all of it during the summer of 2013 and offered it for the first time in October 2013. We are about to offer the 2nd edition, with only few changes (4 new video sequences; more about them below).
Q- Who else is involved in the course and what are the subjects they teach?
A- Michel Grandjean and François Dermange are the main instructors, with me. Michel Grandjean is a historian of Christianity, François Dermange is an ethicist and theologian. We have many invited scholars in addition to the “core team”.
Q- The last time this course was offered there were people from all around the world who took part. Is it shaping up that way this time?
A- I don’t know the answer to that question yet.
Q- Is the course the same as previously or have some things been removed or others added?
A- We’ve added 4 new videos: on the Heidelberg Catechism and the transition to Protestant scholasticism/orthodoxy from around the time of Calvin’s death, on the Reformed tradition and art, on br. Roger of Taizé, and on two key 20th century Reformed figures who embodied the Calvinist tradition at its best during World War II: Marc Boegner and Madeleine Barot.
Q- What will students take away from the course. Or at least what do you hope they will?
A- I hope they get past stereotypes about Calvin and the Reformed tradition. I also hope they understood that what drove Calvin was not «breaking away» from Rome but rediscovering and proclaiming the Gospel. That legacy lives on, fortunately.
Q- Calvin is a divisive figure even 500 years after his birth. Why do you think that is?
A- The quest for truth (and justice, one may add) doesn’t always lead to harmony among human beings! Moreover, Calvin’s struggle for the truth of the Gospel was very much a 16th century struggle for the Gospel, hence the authoritarian dimension of the man, which no Reformed in his/her right mind wishes to place on a pedestal. We should not lose sight of the fact that he himself wished to reconcile his fellow Protestants, as can be seen in his teachings on the Lord’s supper.
Q- Do you view Calvin as a ‘tyrant’?
Q- How has your view of Calvin changed over time?
A- I’ve become a bit more critical of the caricatures of Calvin as a proto-Gestapo officer (cf. Stefan Zweig’s portrait of Calvin) or, at the other extreme end of the spectrum, as a porto-modern thinker. He is a much more complex historical figure than that.
Q- If there were one thing about Calvin that needs correction in the public mind, what would it be and why?
A- The idea that he had no sensitivity to beauty and joy (this cliché is particularly entrenched in Geneva).
Q- Did Calvin kill Servetus?
A- He did not light the match (he actually thought burning Servetus at the stake was too cruel a death and suggested a different method: decapitation – see what a nice man he was?), but he clearly played a decisive part in the Spanish doctor’s trial and subsequent death. Servetus, however, was a hunted man, and not just by the Protestants. I write this as someone who is not a historian of Christianity.
Q- Was Calvin heartless and humorless?
A- Heartless, certainly not. Humorless: perhaps (unfortunately).
Q- Do you think that Calvin was dependent in some respect on Zwingli for his thought?
A- Interesting question; I’m not sure how to answer it. Calvin did retain the « symbolic » dimension of the Lord’s supper, which was Zwingli’s view, but that was not all Calvin had to say on this topic.
Q- You have written a number of books on theological themes and theologians. Do you have plans to write a book on Calvin?
A- Not as of now. Maybe one day, perhaps on the basis of his sermons and biblical commentaries (which are still not read very much).
Q- Calvin seems to have had something of a ‘monk’s heart’. By that I mean, I think he was very hard on himself. What do you think was the reason for this?
A- He was convinced being a disciple involves a certain personal discipline. He also thought he was « on a mission », and a crucial one (again, a mission which was centered on the Gospel).
Q- Do you folk at the University have plans to offer a course on Luther or Zwingli?
A- We’ve toyed with the idea (esp. with 2017 fast approaching) but there are no definite plans as of now.
Q- If you had to choose a Reformer that continues to be the most significant, would it be Zwingli, or Zwingli, or would it be Zwingli?
A- uuh, what about… Zwingli? Sorry to disappoint, Jim, but it would not be Zwingli (btw, my mother, who comes from the region of Bremgarten, Aargau, counts Bullinger (who was born in that city) as one of her ancestors… that’s the closest I can get to ending on a good note!).
Close enough! Thanks again so much for your willingness to answer these questions and moreso to offer your time and talent in teaching the course.
If you would like to know more about the course, scroll down and follow the link to it. And I’ll see you there.