Chinese Calvinism flourishes
His followers now form the third-largest Christian grouping in the world. The world alliance of reformed churches claims 75 million members, and while this is a lower headline figure than the Anglican Communion's 80 million, it is not inflated by 25 million nominal Anglicans in Britain.
Although Calvinism is shrinking in western Europe and North America, it is experiencing an extraordinary success in China. I spent some time on Monday talking to the Rev May Tan, from Singapore, where the overseas Chinese community has close links with mainland China. The story she told of the spread of Calvinist religion as an elite religion in China was quite extraordinary. There may be some parallels with the growth of Calvinism in South Korea, where the biggest presbyterian churches in the world are to be found, but it's absolutely unlike the pattern in Africa and Latin America. There, the fastest growing forms of Christianity are pentecostal, and they are spreading among the poor.
But in China neither of those things are to be true.
Calvinists despise pentecostalists. They shudder at unbridled emotion. If they are slain in the spirit, it is with a single, decorous thump: there's to be no rolling afterwards. And in China, the place where Calvinism is spreading fastest is the elite universities, fuelled by prodigies of learning and translation. Wang Xiaochao, a philosopher at one of the Beijing universities, has translated the two major works of St Augustine, the Confessions and the City of God, into Chinese directly from Latin. Gradually all the major works of the first centuries of the Christian tradition are being translated directly from the original languages into Chinese.
All of this is happening outside the control of the official body which is supposed to monitor and supervise the churches in China. Instead, it is the philosophy departments at the universities, or the language departments and the departments of literature and western civilisation that are the channel.
"The [officially recognised] churches are not happy with universities, because it is not within their control. And their seminaries are not at the intellectual level of the universities," says Dr Tan. "Chinese Christianity using Chinese to do Christian thinking has become a very interesting movement."
Many of the missionaries who tried to bring Christianity to China before the communists took over where presbyterians, and other sorts of Calvinist. But that does not explain why Calvinism should be the preferred theology of the house churches and the intellectuals now. Dr Tan suggests that this is because it is Protestant: that is to say it can be made much more convincingly native than Roman Catholicism, since presbyterian congregations choose their own pastors. This is, I suspect, enormously important at a time when China is recovering from a century and a half of being the victim of western powers; the pope's insistence on appointing Catholic bishops is unacceptable to the government and perhaps to the people too.
If she goes to preach at an official church, she says, "There will be perhaps 1000 people and 95% of them are over 65. So it's a sunset church. But if I went to house church – there would be 1000 people; perhaps 20 of them in their 50s, and all the rest are youngsters. The older ones will all be professors at the universities. So these are the future of the churches. They have registered pastors, and no access to seminaries: But they have youth, and future, and money."
Calvinism isn't a religion of subservience to any government. The great national myths of Calvinist cultures are all of wars against imperialist oppressors: the Dutch against the Spanish, the Scots against the English; the Americans against the British. So when the Chinese house churches first emerged from the rubble of the Cultural Revolution in the 80s and 90s "They began to search what theology will support and inform [them]. They read Luther and said, 'not him'. So they read Calvin, and they said 'him, because he has a theology of resistance.' Luther can't teach them or inform them how to deal with a government that is opposition."
And, though the communists stigmatised Christianity as a foreign religion, they also and still more thoroughly smashed up the traditional religions of China: "The communist, socialist critique of traditional religion, and of Confucianism has been effective", she says: "The youngsters think it is very cool to be Christian. Communism has removed all the obstacles for them to come to Christianity."
The most conservative estimates of the new converts to Christianity is 500,000; there is a new church built every month. Calvinist Christianity has a culture of phenomenal industry. Calvin himself, in his time in Geneva, preached every day and twice on Sundays: shorthand writers at the foot of his pulpit took down 108 volumes of his sermons, though most of these have been lost and his reputation rests on the books and pamphlets that he wrote himself. In China now, this kind of Christianity is seen as forward-looking, rational, intellectually serious, and favourable to making money.
"Very soon", said Dr Tan, "Christians will become the majority of university students … that could happen."
It would be astonishing if China were to become a great power in the Christian world, as well as in the economic one. But things just as strange have happened in the past. Who could have foreseen, when Augustine was writing those huge books now translated into Chinese, that barbarous Europe would become the centre of Christian civilisation, and his homeland in North Africa would become entirely Muslim?