John Calvin Turns 500
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
“No man is excluded from calling upon God, the gate of salvation is set open unto all men: neither is there any other thing which keeps us back from entering in, save only our own unbelief.”
-John Calvin (1509-1564)
“My heart I offer to you, O Lord, promptly and sincerely.”
-John Calvin (1509-1564)
There are few men who leave such an indelible mark upon history as to be remembered centuries after their passing. John Calvin was one such man.
16th century Europe was the breeding ground for many changes, both sociological as well as theological. It was during that time that the Roman Catholic Church had become – in the eyes of many – corrupted by vice and entirely lacking in the virtues it claimed to espouse. But it was not rebellion against the church that drove a troubled monk by the name of Martin Luther to nail his “95 Theses” to the cathedral door but rather, in the words of Alister McGrath, it was “a glorious re-discovery of the gospel.” The protestant church was, from its very beginnings, a return to the words of scripture and the message of redemption that lie within.
But Luther’s fame does little to overshadow the contributions of those who came after, including John Calvin. Born 500 years ago today in the town of Noyons, Calvin had early ambitions of working in the church. It is unclear when his conversion to Protestantism took place, though at some point in his mid twenties he became a reluctant leader of the protestant Reformation. In 1536 (when he was my age, oh by the way), he published the influential work The Institutes of the Christian Religion, a six chapter work that was destined to grow exponentially in the years to come.
Calvin never desired leadership, preferring to maintain a quiet life as a scholar and author. After publishing the first edition of The Institutes, he decided to go to Strasbourg to enjoy a life of private study. But open war prevented this journey, and Calvin ultimately found himself in Geneva, a city that was in a state of chaos. In the absence of a gifted teacher, Calvin was persuaded to remain there and assist the Reformation.
He lasted two years. The resistance to solid doctrine had become so intense that he was kicked out, and chose to continue his interrupted plans for a quiet life of study in the city of Strasbourg. It was there that he expanded The Institutes, and through the influence of Martin Bucer as well as exposure to the practical issues facing Reformation pastors, Calvin grew in his maturity and leadership ability.
This maturity proved advantageous when Geneva requested his return in 1541. The man who returned to Geneva had gained in both maturity and experience, and Geneva quickly became the center of an international movement until the time that Calvin died in 1564.
Despite the last name, John Calvin was not a “Calvinist,” at least in the sense the word is commonly used today. Calvinism is often used in two senses: the first is specifically in reference to Calvin’s original teachings, the second is used to refer to the teachings of those that followed, often used synonymously with “reformed” theology (though, to be fair, Reformed theology is richly textured and draws from the influence of many theologians). More to the point, the 5 “points” of Calvinism that many argue relentlessly about were less a product of Calvin’s thinking, but reflect later developments from such men as Theodore Beza.
While predestination was a major facet of Calvin’s thinking, it was hardly the center (if there even was a central focus to Calvin’s teaching). Instead, Calvin made huge contributions to the Reformation movement by his advocacy of scriptural truth and the marks of the church.
There is, of course, much more to say here, but instead I believe it best to discuss the ways in which Calvin’s life and work have been influential in my own life and thinking.
Those who know me best will probably already see the parallels between Calvin and myself. Much like Calvin, the needs of others have often preceded my propensity of introversion. For while I may be content with a life of reading, reflection and writing, the current discussions and conversations concerning the present state of the church demand strong leadership, strong teaching and the ability to navigate the present state of the church. As Calvin wrote, “A dog barks when his master is attacked. I would be a coward if I saw that God’s truth is attacked and yet would remain silent.”
In addition to his life, there are several points of doctrine that have influenced my thinking. While this is hardly a complete list of his theology, I share these points with you that perhaps you might be influenced by this man’s legacy as well.
(1) The relationship of faith and promise. Faith is easy to have, but is only as valuable as the promises it rests on. A quick glance around the “religion” section of Borders or Barnes and Nobel reveals a culture dominated by casual religiosity. But Christianity rests its faith not in the power of belief, but on the secure promises of God. Calvin wrote on the relationship between faith and promise in The Institutes:
“We make the foundation of faith the gracious promise, because faith properly consists of this. [Faith] is certain that God is true in everything…Faith properly begins with the promise, consists of it, and ends in it. For in God faith seeks life; a life that is not found in commandments or edicts or penalties, but in the promise of mercy, and a promise that is nothing if not gracious…..We seek a faith which distinguishes us from God and the wicked, and believers and unbelievers. If people believe that God both justly commands all that he commands and threatens, can they be called believers for that reason? Certainly not. Therefore, there can be no firm foundation of faith unless it rests upon God’s mercy.”
(2) The essentials of the church. Calvin saw two essentials to the church: word and table. The two most important tasks of a church are the gospel as contained in scripture and the sacraments, saying, “We have established that the distinguishing marks of the church are the preaching of the Word and the observance of the sacraments. These can never happen without bringing forth fruit and prospering through God’s blessing.” While I do not share the particulars of Calvin’s sacramental views, I continually affirm the transformative power of the gospel in the lives of its hearers. While the church currently struggles in how to reach outsiders and connect the generations, I can only look at the timeless truths of scripture, and see that they may be applied in a timely way in both Calvin’s day and the present.
(3) Unity of the Church. Stemming from the essentials of the church, Calvin affirmed that lesser matters not be cause for church division. Too often people want to argue with me over such matters as the creation-evolution controversy or minor matters of personal ethics, or even some major debate over Bible translations. And the truth is, I usually don’t really care. What’s most important is the saving work of Christ. While other matters are not necessarily trivial, they pale in comparison to this essential value. Calvin wrote:
“I am not condoning error, no matter how insignificant it may be, nor do I wish to encourage it. But I am saying that we should not desert a church on account of some minor disagreement, if it upholds sound doctrine over the essentials of piety, and maintains the use of the sacraments established by the Lord.”
Similarly, Calvin affirmed the role of Tradition in the church – certainly not equal with scripture, but having a role in the lives of believers. “For although we hold that the word of God alone lies beyond the sphere of our judgment, and that fathers and councils are of authority only in so far as they agree with the rule of the Word, we still give to councils and fathers such rank and honor as it is appropriate for them to hold under Christ.” Even today we may learn from God’s faithfulness in the lives of men and women throughout history, and may rightly celebrate our part in a larger community of faith.
(4) Justification as an event. While Luther had much to write on “the alien righteousness of Christ,” it was Calvin that established justification not as a process of becoming more righteous (Augustine’s view – this is why even today Roman Catholics participate in their various Sacraments, for it is through these activities that they receive God’s grace), but as an event by which a person is declared righteous. It is therefore a forensic, or legal event, by which Christians are proclaimed righteous by virtue of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross:
“To be justified in God’s sight is to be reckoned as righteous in God’s judgment, and to be accepted on account of that righteousness….The person who is justified by faith is someone who, apart from the righteousness of works, has taken hold of the righteousness of Christ through faith, and having been clothed in it, appears in the sight of God not as a sinner, but a righteous person.”
Many people struggle internally because of a misplaced desire to be “more Holy,” and others are plagued by guilt over not being good enough. But the reality is that we are declared righteous from the moment of our conversion, and while we will still mess up, we may count on being justified in the eyes of our Creator.
(5) Authority of Scripture. Scripture is increasingly coming under conflict in many theological circles, and our young people are almost completely ignorant of its truths. I do not say this to belittle or bemoan our churches, but only to passionately affirm the power of the scriptures to illumine our minds and hearts that we might understand something of our own human condition, and to comprehend the revelation of a sovereign God before us. As Calvin wrote: “…let us beware lest our words and thoughts go beyond what the Word of God tells us….we must leave to God His own knowledge,…and conceive Him as he makes Himself known to us, without attempting to discover anything about His nature apart from His word.”
Again, this list is not exhaustive. And yes, there are five points to this list, but don’t read into that if you’re a theology nerd. There are, of course, points with which I part ways with Calvin, but on this day I celebrate his life and contributions to the world of theology, and my own life as well. Feel free to comment with any of your own thoughts.
Happy Birthday, John Calvin.
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.