Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson wrote: "Any reader of the Institutes must be struck by the great elegance, the gallantry, of its moral vision, which is more beautiful for the resolution with which its theology embraces sorrow and darkness."
Calvin is a moral realist. For all their created nobility, human beings are tragic figures, impaled on their own pride. That is why, although Calvin upheld the freedom of the individual conscience, he was also an advocate of collective and democratic decision making. It is not accidental that his followers have been some of the greatest promoters of republicanism and democracy in the modern era.
Calvin was not without flaws, some of them serious. Yet if we are to judge him cruel, we are failing to recognise that he was a man of remarkable moderation in an age of often extreme judicial cruelty. If we are to judge his view of humanity too bleak, we are seriously overestimating our own capacity for moral heroism. If we are to celebrate the waning of his influence, it is quite possibly because we have accepted too lazily the caricature of his critics. As Robinson reminds us: "There are things for which we in this culture clearly are indebted to him, including relatively popular government, the relatively high status of women, the separation of church and state, what remains of universal schooling and, while it lasted, liberal higher education, education in the humanities. How easily we forget."