The Huguenots, the Jews, and Me

By Armand Laferrere

A tale of French philo-Semitism.

My great-great-great-grandfather was named Moses. My cousins have names like Sarah, Deborah, Jeremy, Judith, Esther, Raphael, and Samuel. My grandfather was hounded by the Gestapo in Paris, and put on a train to Dachau (he survived). My father and uncle have fond memories of their time as kibbutz volunteers in the early 1960s. I have had a reasonably good knowledge of the Hebrew Bible since childhood, and during the last Intifada, I took a public stance in France in favor of Israel. Although my language and culture are French, I often feel more comfortable—morally and intellectually—in Israel than I do in my own country.

Yet I do not (as far as I know) have a single drop of Jewish blood in my veins. Neither did I, nor any member of my family, convert to Judaism. But philo-Semitism, which often includes an emotional identification with the Jewish people, is part of the heritage of the community I was raised in: The French Huguenots, or Protestants.

The first thread of a link between our two communities was woven from the very beginning of the history of French Protestantism. What most Jews remember of the European Reformation are, understandably, Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic statements. But Luther, with all due respect, is not the father of French Protestantism (there are Lutheran churches in eastern France, but their history is quite different from that of the Huguenots). Rather, our founding father is John Calvin, a Frenchman whose teachings started the most dramatic revolution in Christian-Jewish relations in the history of Christian theology.


The difference between Luther and Calvin on the Jewish question was originally, as always, theological. Luther had broken with the Catholic Church by arguing that salvation is the result not of obedience to any institution, but rather of faith in Jesus Christ. As this condition could obviously not be met by Jews, his initial good will towards them gave way to rage. There followed a recycling of the worst of the Middle Age blood libels, and hysterical calls for persecution.1

In spite of his opposition to the Catholic Church, then, Luther, if anything, only added fodder to the traditional Catholic case against the Jews. Like the Church, he described the Jews as Christ killers and, like the Church, he believed that the Jewish Scriptures contained a “spiritual” meaning that could be understood only by means of the New Testament. Since the Jews followed a “literal” interpretation of these texts and refused to accept their “true” meaning, Luther viewed them as enemies of, rather than precursors to, Christianity.2

Moreover, Luther compounded the traditional Church views by making the distinction between law and grace the single most important tenet of his theology. Jews, according to Luther, make the same mistake as the Catholics inasmuch as they expect salvation through obedience to the law: They follow the prescriptions of the Tora, just as Catholics follow the Pope’s orders. Therefore, neither group can enjoy real salvation, which comes from faith alone.

By contrast, Calvin took a different view of the concept of “justification by faith,” one that led to an opposite interpretation of Judaism. His was a wholly pessimistic view of man; indeed, Calvin’s work at times reads like an obsessive contemplation of the entire and absolute wickedness of all men, whether believers or non-believers, good Samaritans or evildoers, the damned or the saved. As he wrote in Institutes of the Christian Religion:

Oil will sooner be pressed from a stone than any good work from us.... I, in turn, ask [my contradictors], “Do they think that there is anything in him who is taken that disposes God to him?” If they admit that there is nothing, as they must, it will follow that God does not consider the man but seeks from his own goodness the reason to do him good.3

Calvin’s radically dark view of mankind leaves no room for a scapegoat: The Jews, he believed, cannot be described as exceptionally evil, since all men may lay claim to that distinction. Thus, when Calvin contemplates Christ’s death on the cross, he does not indict Jews, Romans, or any one group in particular. Instead, he assigns guilt in equal measure to all mankind. Since a just God, for reasons unknown to us, decided to love his creatures in spite of their absolute wickedness, Christ had no other option but to take our guilt upon himself and suffer the death we all deserved. “To take away our condemnations... he might free us both by transferring our condemnation to himself and by taking our guilt upon himself,” Calvin explained.4 In this interpretation, Christ’s death is not a crime in search of a culprit. It is, rather, the supreme blessing, an undeserved forgiveness for our otherwise unpardonable sins. Théodore de Bèze, one of Calvin’s disciples, took this argument even further by stating that Christ had not been crucified either by the Jews or by Caiaphas and Pilate, but rather by you and me: “We, brothers, we were the ones who, after so much pain, ordered him to be bound and slaughtered.”5 With this, centuries of Christian blood libels against the nation of Israel were suddenly countered by Calvinist theology.

Calvin’s other new idea was that although all men are radically corrupt, some of them will be saved and welcomed in God’s paradise. This will not, however, be the result of their particular merits. Rather, while the good works of the chosen few may help to identify them, they are in fact merely the result of God’s grace, and not its cause. Furthermore, there is never any certainty as to who in the end will be saved, for in the depths of their true nature, the elected are just as wicked as the damned.

This is where sympathy with the Jews becomes a central tenet of Calvin’s theology. In arguing in favor of his theory of “predestination” (i.e., election, or “chosenness”), Calvin repeatedly quotes the history of Israel as evidence. This small nation, he explains, was chosen by God to manifest his love, not because the Jews were less sinful than other peoples, but because it was God’s eternal, unmerited, and unquestionable decision: “God has attested this [predestination] not only in individual persons,” he wrote, “but has given us an example of it in the whole offspring of Abraham....”6 He also maintained that “[those who say that God’s goodness extends to all creatures], let them answer why God bound himself to one people, to be their father.... They add that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile... provided, to be sure... that God calls men both from the Jews and from the Gentiles according to his good pleasure, so that he is bound to no one.”7

Finally, while Catholics and Lutherans argued that the Law of Moses was but a symbol of the spiritual alliance of God and man in Christ, Calvin insisted that the Law, which was given only to the Jews, be seen as a sign of God’s particular love for Israel. Members of all other nations can be saved only through their faith in Jesus. The Jews, however, were saved before Jesus came; they thus remain the particular object of God’s love, since his promises cannot be withdrawn. Nor is that love conditional upon their following the Law of Moses. On the contrary, it was revealed centuries before the Tora, at the time of the covenant of Abraham, and is an eternal covenant: “For the Lord through the hand of Moses did not give that law to be proclaimed among all nations and to be in force everywhere,” Calvin wrote. “But when he had taken the Jewish nation into his safekeeping, defense, and protection, he also willed to be a lawgiver especially to it.”8 The reason, then, why non-Jews are not required to obey the intricacies of Tora law is not because they follow a “higher” interpretation of it, as maintained by the Catholic and Lutheran traditions. Rather, it is because their path to salvation is the same as Abraham’s: God’s unintelligible and indisputable decision.

Indeed, book 2, chapter 10 of Institutes of the Christian Religion is entirely given over to proving “The similarity of the Old and New Testaments.” Here Calvin explains that God’s election of the Jews is not metaphorical, but real. They will enjoy eternal life, he declares, and then goes on to prove this claim, bizarrely, by means of their continuous suffering: “If these holy patriarchs looked for a blessed life, as they undoubtedly did, from God’s hand, they both conceived and saw it as a blessedness other than that of earthly life.”9 He further rejects the argument that baptism makes for an essential difference between Christians and Jews, quoting the Apostle Paul: “They all went through the sea, they all were baptized by Moses in the clouds and in the sea.”10 In later times, Huguenot preachers would emphasize another text by Paul, this one from Romans 11, which states that “God did not reject his people… God’s gifts and calling are without regret.”11

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