Calvin: Why He Still Matters
There can be no serious doubt that Calvin once mattered. Any honest historian of any point of view and of any religious conviction would agree that Calvin was one of the most important people in the history of western civilization. Not only was he a significant pastor and theologian in the sixteenth century, but the movement of which he was the principal leader led to the building of Reformed and Presbyterian churches with millions of members spread through centuries around the world. Certainly a man whose leadership, theology, and convictions can spark such a movement once mattered.
Historians from a wide range of points of view also acknowledge that Calvin not only mattered in the religious sphere and in the ecclesiastical sphere, but Calvin and Calvinism had an impact on a number of modern phenomena that we take for granted. Calvin is certainly associated with the rise of modern education and the conviction that citizens ought to be educated and that all people ought to be able to read the Bible. Such education was a fruit of the Reformation and Calvin.
Others have insisted that the rise of modern democracy owes at least something to the Reformed movement. One historian said of Puritanism that a Puritan was someone who would humble himself in the dust before God and would rise to put his foot on the neck of a king. Calvinists were strongly persuaded that they must serve God above men, and that began to relativize notions of superiority and aristocracy. King James I of England, who was also James VI of Scotland, once remarked as he looked at Presbyterianism in Scotland: “No bishop, no king.” If the Church is not governed by a hierarchy, certainly the political world does not need to be governed by a hierarchy either. Such Calvinist attitudes toward kings helped contribute to modern democracy.
Calvinism contributed to modern science with an empirical look at the real world. Calvin contributed to the rise of modern capitalism in part by teaching that the charging of interest on money loaned was not immoral. He was the first Christian theologian to do so.
When we look at that list—theology, church, education, science, democracy, and capitalism—here was a man that mattered. He had a profound influence on the development of the history of the West. But does he still matter? Should we care today to revisit John Calvin—who he was, what he thinks—and believe that what he taught is still significant, still valuable? Yes, he still does matter. John Calvin matters still above all because he was a teacher of truth. If truth matters, then John Calvin still matters because he was one of the great teachers of truth, one of the most insightful, faithful teachers of truth, one of the best communicators of truth. He was a teacher who had taken to heart the words of Jesus: “You will know the truth and the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
Mr. Leon Panetta was interviewed on television recently when it was announced that he was going to be appointed by president-elect Obama to be the head of the CIA. In his brief remarks, Panetta commented intriguingly that in the entrance of the old CIA building were the words, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” That verse from Scripture has probably been wrenched out of context and been misused more than most verses of Scripture. Often people who are concerned about the truth and quote this verse are interested only in an abstraction about truth, or only interested in turning this verse into a poetic slogan. It sounds great: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” They seem seldom to quote the verse in context, where Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” John Calvin knew the context of that verse. He knew the only way to know the truth was to know Christ’s word. And it was because he knew Christ’s word—because he studied Christ’s word, because he treasured Christ’s word—that Calvin was such a great teacher. John Calvin was a teacher of the truth of God’s Word.
A great teacher has two prime characteristics: first, he knows what he is talking about, and second, he can communicate what he knows. Calvin was extraordinary in both of those areas. Calvin knew what he was talking about in part because he had a naturally brilliant mind. John Calvin received a fine education. He lived in the providence of God in a period when young scholars were able not only to become fluent in Latin, but also in Greek and Hebrew. Calvin was marvelously educated in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. That ability in language prepared him to be an extraordinarily sensitive interpreter of the Scriptures. The biblical commentaries of Calvin remain highly regarded and respected to this day.
Calvin had great natural ability of mind which he linked to hard work. Calvin really did not become a very famous man until he turned 30, and when he turned 30, he had only another 24 years yet to live. The period of his great productivity was only 24 years. He died in part because of over-work. His collected works from those 24 years fill 58 large volumes—about 600 pages each—which is most but not all of what he accomplished in those years of work and dedication. As he neared the end of his life and as ministers of the church came to visit him, knowing that his strength was ebbing away and his health was failing, they found him, unable to get out of bed, but still dictating his last commentary on Joshua to a secretary. His close friend and associate Theodore Beza pled with him to rest and to conserve his energy, and Calvin’s response was, “What? Would you have the Lord find me idle?” That was the dedication to which he gave his life; that was the will that drove him in spite of the fact that most of those 24 years he was not in particularly good health. He suffered from terrible headaches—probably from reading all the time—had a malaria-like fever and kidney stones, among other illnesses. So here was a man who was able to be a great teacher because of what he knew from his amazing studying, bringing together his natural brilliance and his will to work.
Calvin knew that it was not enough to know the truth only in the mind. The truth must also be in the heart. He wrote, “We are invited to a knowledge of God, but not such as, content with empty speculation, merely floats in the brain, but such as will be solid and fruitful, if rightly received and rooted in our hearts” (Institutes, 1.5.9). People can have information that floats in the brain, even information about God. That information may even be true, but does it have any impact? Does it connect? Does it matter? Is it the passion of life?
Truth for the mind and heart was the knowledge that Calvin wanted to teach, and he was convinced that all Christians always need to be growing in that kind of knowledge. In his commentary on John 8:32 he wrote, “Whatever progress any of us has made in the Gospel, let him know that he needs fresh additions. The reward that Christ bestows on their perseverance is to make them more familiar with Himself. By doing so, He merely adds another gift to the former, so that no man may think that he has repaid anything by way of reward. For He who puts His Word in our hearts by His Spirit is the same who daily chastens from our minds the clouds of ignorance which obscure the brightness of the Gospel.” That is a wonderful promise, that as we study Christ’s word, we are always drawing closer to him, and that as we draw closer to him, then the more the clouds of ignorance are dissipated, and more and more the brightness of the gospel shines in our minds and hearts. This was a living knowledge for John Calvin.
Calvin was no remote academic, even though such a life may have been initially his desire. Early in his career he had felt that he was really not cut out for the ministry. He believed that he was too shy and sometimes became too angry. He really thought his talent should lead him to be a scholar separated from the world. But the Lord called him to the ministry. And he labored as a minister faithfully because he was persuaded that Christians need to be fed the Word of God, need to grow in the Word of God, so that they can grow closer to God.
He knew that the source of all of that knowledge, the source all of that feeding, the source of any progress that we are to make in truth would come from knowing the Bible. For Calvin, the Bible was not some abstract source of authority or knowledge, but the living Word of God—a vital, necessary, daily authority in the Christian’s life. Calvin, in one of his brief autobiographical statements in his preface to his commentary on Psalms noted that as a young man he had been obstinately attached to the superstitions of the papacy. By that he meant that for a long time he resisted thinking on his own about religious questions and just stuck with what he had been taught by the medieval church, thinking that that church was authoritative, that church was a source of true knowledge, that church could be trusted. And he did not easily break with that training. But as a young man in his twenties he did finally come to the conclusion that what the church had taught him was not reliable and true. And after that break, it was then to the Scriptures that he looked with confidence to be his authority.
Calvin exemplified in his life and work a determination to seek to bring every thought captive to Christ. That was his passion, such was his confidence in the Word of God. That is also what he wanted to teach others. To quote Calvin, “Whoever, therefore, would desire to persevere in uprightness and in integrity of life, let them learn to exercise themselves daily in the study of the word of God; for, whenever a man despises or neglects instruction, he easily falls into carelessness and stupidity, and all fear of God vanishes from his mind” (Commentary on the Psalms, on Ps. 18:22). Calvin was certain that many people tended very naturally to carelessness and stupidity. That is surely a lesson that does not need to be taught from Scripture; it is a lesson that pastors learn by experience! Calvin recognized, and we should recognize because it is even truer today, that we are surrounded by voices that are blaring lies. The only way to sort that out is to be sure that the Bible is constantly speaking to us, that the Bible is in our hearts and in our ears and in our mind so that that authority of the Word of God is a living and vital authority for us. The Bible must constantly challenge the way we look at the world, the way we look at our fellow men and women, the way we think about God and his world.
Calvin found that challenge and living authority in his study of the Bible. He was a man who certainly spent time with the Bible every day. Calvin preached probably around nine times every two weeks, lectured on the Bible to students, wrote commentaries on the Bible throughout his life—commentaries on all the books of the New Testament except Second and Third John and Revelation, and on most of the books of the Old Testament. Here is a man whose life is lived in the Bible and with the Bible, and the fruit of that was that the Bible became all the more precious to him. There really is a building up, as Calvin put it, of “fresh additions” from the Scriptures in life and heart. The more time he spent with the Bible the more it impressed him as unavoidably true and utterly reliable.
In addition to his preaching, to his letter-writing, to his commentary-writing and to his treatise-writing, one of the great works of his life was to try to perfect his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He worked at the Institutes through most of his adult life. He published the first edition of the Institutes when he was about twenty-six years old as a small book. It contained six chapters and was immediately recognized as brilliant. It was intended to be a book to help common people understand the basics of the Christian faith. But he kept working on it, kept expanding it, and reshaped it so that it would be an introduction to theology for theological students. And he finally brought it out in the form with which he was satisfied in 1559, only five years before he died. It was then five times the size it had been when it first came out. He divided it into four books, following roughly the Apostles’ Creed. The first book was on the Father and his work, creation, and providence. The second book was on the Son and his work of redemption and the gospel. Book Three was on the Holy Spirit as the giver of faith, and Book Four was basically on how Christ helps us in nurturing our faith, a book basically on the church and the sacraments. And so in this marvelous work, Calvin begins to lay a foundation for theological students of what they need to know about what God’s Word has taught them. If you look at each of those books, you’ll find amazing treasures. We do not have time to look at them all, but I want to mention a couple of things from each of the books.
First of all, in the first book on the Father, one of the great themes of Calvin’s teaching comes through, one of the great themes of the Bible, and that is the theme of providence. God is in charge. God is in charge of everything. God works all things according to the counsel of his will. And for Calvin, this is not a philosophical concept. Calvin was a kind of practical lawyer deep in his soul. He was not all that interested in philosophy, and providence was certainly not a philosophical nicety for him. It was the most practical truth you could have—to know that whatever happens in your life, God is behind it. God is working it out. God is accomplishing his purpose. There is nothing meaningless in life; there is nothing accidental in life; there is nothing that happens while God is looking the other way. Calvin found this truth in many biblical passages: “Not a hair falls from your head,” “Not a bird falls from the sky.” Calvin rightly argued religiously, if God keeps tracks of every one of those little insignificant things that none of us keeps track of, how much more does he keep track of everything happening in the lives of his people? Calvin felt that providence was such an important doctrine for daily living. It is a doctrine that is humbling when things are going well so that we dare not think that it is by our own strength that we have accomplished what we have accomplished. What do we have that God has not given us?
The doctrine of providence is humbling, but it is also encouraging and difficult. It is easy to say God loves us when all is going well. It is harder to think God loves us when things are going badly. Calvin said you have to cultivate in your Christian life a confidence that God is your Father in the good times and in the bad times.
In one of his most remarkable statements, which again he wrote in the preface to his commentary on Psalms, was, “We renounce the guidance of our own affections, and submit ourselves entirely to God, leaving him to govern us, and to dispose our life according to his will, so that the afflictions which are the bitterest and most severe to our nature, become sweet to us, because they proceed from him.” Since God is in control of all things, then all things that he brings into our lives are ultimately good. If we believe that, we can embrace even the bitterest afflictions because they come from him. Now this was not a statement Calvin made from an ivory tower. Rather he made it as a man who late in his life every year handed graduation diplomas to graduates from his seminary and heard students joke as they walked away that their diploma was their death certificate. Many of them went off to preach the gospel in France and died as martyrs for the faith. Their Calvinist confidence in God bore remarkable fruit in their lives because they lived in confidence that God was their Father.
One important aspect of Book Two of the Institutes shows us that God comes to be our Father and to be reconciled to us through Jesus Christ. In the second book, Calvin marvelously develops the work of Jesus Christ in terms of his three offices: prophet, priest, and king. Calvin is the first in the history of the church to develop the work of Christ in terms of those three offices. Martin Bucer had talked about it but had never developed it. Calvin is the pioneer here. What has Christ done for us? He has been our prophet—he has told us the truth, the full truth of God’s saving plan. What has Christ done for us? He has been our priest—he has offered himself as a sacrifice in our place to cover our sin, that we might belong to him. What has Christ done for us? He has been our king—he has promised us an eternal kingdom that will never pass away and never be shaken into which he will take us by his power. He has also promised us right now that we are citizens of that kingdom. Right now we enjoy his kingship and his care for us. That is his promise to us.
Book Three of the Institutes is above all about faith. B.B. Warfield once said that John Calvin was the great theologian of the Holy Spirit. Warfield was certainly right, but Calvin was an even greater theologian of faith. To read the third book of the Institutes seeing what Calvin has to say about faith in those chapters is to come as close as any uninspired author has ever come to making clear what true faith is: how it rests in Christ, how it is a gift of the Holy Spirit, how it was planned from all eternity in God’s electing purpose, and how the Holy Spirit draws us to Christ and fills us with confidence that for Christ’s sake we are saved now and forever. Probably Calvin’s most distinctive teaching is this, that we can know not only that today we belong to Christ, that today we have true faith, but that we can know because of the promise of God that tomorrow we will belong to Christ, and forever we will belong to Christ. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” It was not John Calvin who said this, of course, but John Calvin quoted it and believed it. If Jesus Christ is our savior today, he will be our savior tomorrow. This conviction is a great source of Calvinist confidence. Calvin gave us a genuine biblical religion that knows that what God has begun in the hearts of his people he will bring to fruition.
In Book Four of the Institutes we can look particularly at the great attention Calvin gave to the sacraments. Why did he do that? In part he did it because Christians are so good at fighting about the sacraments: how many, who should receive them, what exactly do they do. These are all important questions. But at the root of Calvin’s passion for the sacraments was his conviction that God gave us the sacraments because we needed them. Really great teachers say very simple things. Many of us get so embroiled when we think about sacraments and all the controversies that we may miss this simple point that Calvin stressed: God gave us the sacraments because we need them. And why do we need them? We need them because we are so weak in ourselves that we regularly forget the most basic truths. The sacraments come to minister the most basic truths of the Bible to our souls. Baptism ministers to us the truth that only the blood of Jesus Christ will cleanse us, and the Lord’s Supper ministers to us that only the body and blood of Jesus Christ will be our food for everlasting life. We need that helpful reminder and strength in our weakness, Calvin said. We need that reassurance. We keep forgetting that true religion is all about Jesus. We keep being distracted by ourselves: what we are doing, and how we are doing. For Calvin the sacraments always draw us back to Christ. No cleansing except by the blood of Christ. No food for everlasting life except his body and blood.
In this brief look at the Institutes we can see Calvin was a great theologian and a great teacher, motivated above all by his concern to be a faithful pastor. He was concerned that people not be able only to answer theological questions, but that their hearts and lives would be changed by the wonderful truth of who God is. By God’s grace he accomplished that. He still matters because he was and is such a great teacher. The Institutes is still one of the great books to read in theology, and part of its greatness is the way we experience a Christian, pastor, longing to communicate the truth that sets us free.
Calvin was a great teacher because he knew so much and because he was an effective communicator. He was an effective communicator as a preacher. People heard him gladly in his own day. He was also an effective communicator because he was a powerful writer. He helped refine the French language in his French writing; he helped refine elegant writing in his Latin writing. He was an effective communicator also because he thought of the people who were hearing him. Various audiences evoked different kinds of communication from him.
Calvin was not only a great communicator in his preaching and in his writing; he was a great communicator in recognizing that truth needs to be transmitted through institutions that would carry that knowledge on from generation to generation. In our modern world where the individual is so important, we often think too individualistically. Calvin was better than that, realizing that part of effective communication would be developing ways in which the truth would be transmitted through institutions from generation to generation.
This institutional sensitivity is part of the reason that Calvin was very concerned about the church and its organization. The church is one of those critical institutions that are responsible to teach the truth and see to its transmission. So Calvin set up in Geneva expressions of the church with different sorts of responsibilities relative to the truth. He established what was known as the Venerable Company of Pastors, whose work was to teach sound doctrine and to ensure that the truth was being maintained in the church.
He set up the Consistory, or church council, which was primarily a meeting of elders chaired by a minister supervising the moral life of the community. Calvin was very concerned that Christianity make a difference in the lives of people. People guilty of any number of public sins would be called before the Consistory so that the elders could press upon them the duty of repentance. Part of the reason that they had communion only four times a year in Geneva was because the elders had to visit every family before every communion.
Calvin established a diaconate. Geneva, in the years Calvin was there, almost doubled in size because of religious refugees. Many people arrived, having left everything behind, having very little to support themselves. The deacons took on themselves the resettlement of thousands of refugees to help them find housing and work. Calvin had taught the people who followed him that if they were being forced into false worship and false religion, they only had two choices. One was to stay and be persecuted, even enduring martyrdom. The second was to flee into exile. He rejected all compromise. For exiles who came to Geneva, the church was ready to help. People lived out the truth.
Calvin also sought an institutionalization of truth through his catechizing. When he returned to Geneva after his time in Strasbourg, one of the things that he was most eager to do was to prepare a catechism so that young people could be instructed in the truth. And when the city council finally gave him permission to write and publish and use a catechism, he began to write it as fast as he could because he knew that the city council was unreliable and might change its mind. He wanted to get it done before they could withdraw permission. The story goes that he literally sat at his desk writing the catechism and every time he got about two questions and answers written, the material would be taken off to the printer so it could be typeset. Later in his life, Calvin said that he wished he could have read it over once and revised it before it was printed.
There are some wonderful things in that catechism, but it is not one of the great Reformation catechisms. It reflects the haste in which it was written. Although probably some of the students in Geneva liked it because several times the question gives a long theological statement which ends with, “Isn’t that right?” And the catechumen is to memorize the response, “Quite so.”
Calvin also wanted to encourage his fellow ministers, so he established a weekly Friday night gathering of ministers where one minister would preach, usually Calvin but others as well, and then there would be a discussion of the sermon. It was a way of not only deepening religious knowledge, but also of helping ministers becoming better preachers. It was an institutionalization of his teaching.
Finally and very importantly Calvin established schools in Geneva. The function of the school was two-fold. First of all, Calvin wanted the people of Geneva to be taught to read. We tend to take reading for granted. We do not realize that for much of the history of the western world, many people could not read. The century before Calvin, probably the vast majority of people couldn’t read. But Calvin and other leading Reformers were passionately committed to the notion that if they were to promote a Bible-based religion, people must be able to read the Bible. If it is really true that reading the Bible every day is a defense against the devil and a defense against those clouds of ignorance and a way in which the brightness of the gospel will shine in our hearts, then people ought to be able to read the Bible.
The second function of the school was to prepare educated ministers. Calvin really believed that ministers needed to be able to read Greek and Hebrew so that they could draw as close to the Word of God as possible. By drawing close to the Word of God, they would be more effective in feeding the people the Word of God.
Calvin was a great teacher, because he really knew the Bible, and because he found ways to communicate effectively what he learned. As a teacher he was eager to lead others to a sense of certainty about the truth. He believed that the Bible was not only true and reliable and helpful, but he believed it was understandable so that people could come to a knowledge of the truth, a certain knowledge of the truth, an undoubted knowledge of the truth, so that they would not be tossed about by every wind of doctrine, but that they would know the truth and the truth would set them free. Free from what? Free from sin, free from the devil, free from ignorance, free from the lies of false religion. And it was with that confidence in that truth that those graduates from Geneva went forth to preach in France and often to die. It was with that confidence that the Reformed church was able to spread throughout Europe and later the world.
Calvin still matters because the church still needs truth communicated effectively so that we might be sure that we know the truth, that we have been set free by the truth, and that we will live forever in Jesus who is the truth. John Calvin still matters because while he has many spiritual children, he remains in my judgment one of the greatest teachers the church has ever known in his balance, as well as in his insight and his passion. Time spent with John Calvin is time still well spent, and still a blessing for the church today.
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First published in Evangelium, Vol. 7, Issue 1
© Westminster Seminary California All rights reserved
Permissions: You are permitted to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do NOT alter the wording in any way and you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred.