Home/Konferenzen der MNTF/Ninth Conference

Protestant Traditions and the Soul of Europe

9th Comenius Conference, Amsterdam 25-28 June 2014

In May 2014, the twenty seven countries that constitute the European Community will see elections for a new European Parliament. Throughout the same year it will be commemorated that John Calvin died 450 years ago. Bringing together these two events, the ninth conference of Theological Faculties from Central and Eastern Europe and the Netherlands will be devoted to the ways in which Calvinism as well as other protestant traditions contributed to what has been called ‘the soul of Europe’. By this European soul or mind we mean the common mentality in terms of which Europeans identify themselves (or, more often perhaps, are identified by others) as Europeans. In view of the enormous cultural, historical and religious differences between the uniting European countries, what basic assumptions, values and traditions may be seen as—at least to some extent—binding them together?

Even now that many European countries have largely become secular and/or drifted towards post-Christian forms of spirituality, it can be argued that certain aspects of the Protestant ethos continue to be pervasive in many places. A rich diversity of topics comes to mind when we try to assess its lasting impact. For example, German sociologist Hans Joas has recently discerned no less than six different ‘Thesen’ that posit a decisive impact of Protestantism (including Calvinism) on the rise of modern Western phenomena. Naming them after their most prominent advocates, Joas distinguishes the Jellinek-thesis (according to which the notion of human rights originated in Puritanism), the famous Weber-thesis (which assumed an important contribution of Calvinism to the rise of the spirit of capitalism), the Hintze-thesis (tracing the origins of the modern bureaucratic state to the influence of Calvinism), the Troeltsch-thesis (arguing for a strong influence of the Protestant Reformations on processes of cultural individualization), the Merton-thesis (holding that certain branches of Calvinism highly facilitated the emergence of modern science) and the Dewey-thesis (according to which the modern Western democratic state finds its origins in, again, Puritanism). All of these theses have become heavily criticized, and often rightly so, but the scholarly discussions on them are by no means closed.

So how might Calvinism’s – and more broadly Protestantism’s – significance for Europe’s economic practices, the constitution of its liberal democracies, its legal systems, the role of religion in its public life, the development of the sciences, the arts and the educational system (Comenius!) be assessed? And, conversely, how have the traditions of the Reformation themselves been affected and colored by their ever-changing cultural conditions in various European contexts? In addressing such questions, the focus should be on ‘the soul of Europe’. If we try to encapsulate these issues in one leading question this might be: How did Calvinism and other branches of Protestantism interact with the cultural shifts that have contributed to the formation of our common European identity?

The theme of the conference provides an opportunity for papers from a range of perspectives, including:

Biblical: Which biblical texts and interpretations were leading in the views of Calvin and/or other Protestants on the organization of society, the pursuit of knowledge, social and economic ethics, the legal system, the arts et cetera? How would we explain such biblical texts today in light of contemporary biblical scholarship? E.g., how about the OT prohibition of charging interest to poor people to which Calvin appealed? How about the way in which the second commandment was used to distrust the visual arts, or the ways in which certain NT texts were utilized to defend or criticize a hierarchical state government? Also, more general questions might be asked, e.g. as to the prominence of the Old Testament in Reformed theology, or the relation between Protestantism and the rise of historical critical thinking.

Historical: Here, each of the six theses mentioned above – and more (e.g. Brad Gregory’s recent claim that Protestantism is largely responsible for the ‘evils’ of modernity) – could be addressed. In line with current trends in historical scholarship, this might perhaps most fruitfully be done by focusing on highly particular geographical contexts and in a comparative way, e.g. by assessing the analogies and differences between Catholic and/or Lutheran and Reformed contributions (as is done in e.g. Christoph Strohm, Calvinismus und Recht, Tübingen 2008). Further, also the interaction with the history of Western philosophy might be thematized here (e.g. to what extent was Kant a typically Protestant philosopher?).

Practical/empirical: Which traces of typically Protestant descent can be found in material artifacts such as architecture, the arts, liturgy et cetera? How about the Calvinist system of church government and community building (with its consistories, classes, synods) and its purported influence on the rise of democratic patterns of state government? How about Protestantism’s contribution(s) to Europe’s value systems (cf. the data collected by the European Values Study, http://www.europeanvaluesstudy.eu).

Doctrinal/ethical: To what extent have certain specific theological concepts or ideas (e.g. covenant, election) rightly been considered as typically Reformed? What major topics, emphases and areas of concern may be seen as distinctive of Reformed (or of some other branch of Protestant) theology? How do such emphases interact with outward patterns of spirituality, moral behavior, character formation etc. in various contexts? Or more forward-looking: which theological insights of the Protestant Reformers and/or their followers should not be neglected in the search for a common ‘soul of Europe’?

Methodological: The topic definitely raises some profound scholarly questions of a more methodological nature, such as: how can slippery concepts like ‘influence’, ‘impact’, ‘interaction’, ‘soul of Europe’ and even ‘Calvinism’ (!) be fleshed out in ways which are scholarly responsible? In studying the impact of Protestantism on the making of the European mind, how do we avoid the ideological and (anti-)religious distortions with which discussions in the past have been pervaded?

The conference will be held from 25-29 June 2014 at the common location of the VU University and the Protestant Theological University in Amsterdam – a place testifying of the material influence Calvinism exerted during its late nineteen and early twenty century revival in the Netherlands.

Comenius Committee / July 2013