Some of you are aware that John Calvin was born 500 years ago last year. Around the world various groups celebrated Calvin’s life and contribution to the church at the 500th anniversary of his birth. One major project, to give you just a worthwhile example, can be seen here. The always useful Meeter Center at Calvin College, also did a big celebration in relationship to the Calvin anniversary and there is a load of great information is here. And news information on Calvin from the World Alliance of Reformed Church can be found here, the site of the World Council of Churches.
As many of you know I am a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America (RCA) I am quite directly and personally an heir of John Calvin’s 16th century legacy. The RCA still uses the three-forms of unity; e.g. The Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of the Synod of Dordt and the Belgic Confession, which I was examined by in my transfer of ordination process when I entered into the RCA four years ago.
Mind you I am not a Calvin scholar. In fact, I do not think of myself as a scholar at all. I am a minister who loves theology and the church and a servant of people who wants to do the kind of theology that will renew the church in our own century.
One of my dear friends is Dr. I. John Hesselink, a true Calvin scholar of international reputation, who did his doctoral work back in the 1950s on John Calvin for the famous Karl Barth. His dissertation, which I value highly, is on Calvin and the Law. If I have a Calvin question I just call John and he points me to the work, the source, or the quote that I need. I feel pretty safe about my general knowledge of Calvin’s thought in given John’s help. I say all of this knowing that there are some who will think less of me for identifying with the Genevan Reformer at all, believing the worst about him. Others, who seem to slavishly attempt to follow Calvin. I have discovered, after years of reading in this area, that many who call themselves Calvinists really follow post-Calvin scholastic theology more than Calvin himself, at least in some instances. Such neo-Calvinists, most of whom are not in the major Reformed denominations in America, insist that writers like me badly misunderstand Calvin. In the end I could case less what people say since it doesn’t matter. Everyone is better served to read Calvin for themselves rather than take him second-hand. If you read his Institutes of the Christian Religion I assure you that you will be shocked by the devotional and spiritual power of his writing.
So I have a deep appreciation for John Calvin but I simply do not agree with everything he taught. To simply agree with John Calvin, or Martin Luther, or Thomas Aquinas, or Jonathan Edwards, or any other theologian for that matter, is neither good nor truly helpful. Each of us needs to do theology personally. This charge extends to the untaught and the well-taught. All of us are to be disciples in the school of Christ and thus become continual learners in our shared journey toward home. One of the puzzling things about men like Calvin is that he clearly never intended to make people into “Calvinists.” The term didn’t even exist until long after his death. The real Calvin is much more interesting, and far more complex, than every stereotype I have ever encountered about him.
In the matter of consenting to the death of Servetus, to cite but one oft-cited example, Calvin was simply wrong. But this only shows that he, like you and me, was the product of his own time and thought-system. I do not follow a system or this man, but Christ. Calvin, I think, would be pleased! I certainly do not use Calvin in a way that continually asks the question: “What Would Calvin Do” (WWCD)?
There has been a treasure of material published this year about John Calvin. Anniversary celebrations have produced conferences, books, papers and blogs. There is so much good material that I can only encourage you, if you are interested, to Google Calvin for yourself. I read a blog by Paul E. Capetz, a liberal theologian in the Reformed tradition, a few weeks ago that I found particularly insightful. I do not always agree with Capetz for sure but this appreciation of Calvin is helpful to modern readers. One thing is for sure, you will get many diverse opinions if you begin to read Calvin material. Again, you would be better served to read The Institutes of the Christian Religion for yourself. You might actually find out that Calvinism is often always faithful to Calvin. That alone would be worth the reading but there is so much more. I give thanks this year for the life of one of the greatest Christian thinkers in the first 2,000 years of Christian history.