The Gospel

Friday, July 10, 2009

John Calvin - born 500 years ago today

John Calvin was born on July 10, 1509, exactly 500 years ago today. In Europe, especially in Geneva Switzerland, there are many celebrations taking place. I am not sure how much attention will be given to the significance of this date in the USA. He remains a very misunderstood man.

I recently read an article suggesting (with some merit) that Calvin's influence on the founding of America was so great that he needs to be mentioned in the same breath as the founding fathers. It was the Geneva Study Bible with study notes penned by Calvin (and his fellow Reformers) that was the Bible brought over on the Mayflower and his religious ideas had much to do with how our country was forged and shaped in its early decades.

Calvin, even today has widespread influence. His commentaries and certainly his Institutes of the Christian Religion, where he laid out a comprehensive theology for the doctrines of Protestant Reformation (when many of those who believed these things were dying martyrs deaths under persecution from Rome) are still being read.

Its actually unfortunate that a man's name is associated with the doctrines that came out of the Protestant Reformation. It is not something he would have wanted. He spoke and wrote very little about himself. He wanted his readers to be pointed to Christ, not to himself. In character, he specifically asked that he would be buried in an unmarked grave, such was his aversion to public interest. He did not wish for attention to be given to him - but to his Lord and Master.

Calvin has taught me many things as I have read his works in recent years. He has taught me about the majesty and supremacy of God, His Providence in all things and perhaps most poignantly than anyone else, he has taught me that there is not such thing as grace, outside of Jesus Christ. Grace is not some substance found in isolation, but is an attribute of God that finds its expression in and through Jesus Christ without the need for any go between - no Mary, or saints, priest or Pope - in Latin, the Reformers cry was Sola Christus, Jesus Christ alone.

T. H. L. Parker, in his introduction to a book about Calvin wrote, "I am eager for people to know Calvin...because he took the Bible so seriously, and because what he saw on every page was the majesty of God and the glory of Christ. Calvin continues to inspire me because of his relentless focus on the greatness of God.... In the end, Calvin’s manifold ways of inspiring us have the effect they do century after century because he saw the gospel so clearly and made Christ so central.... If Jesus Christ, in all his majesty and excellence, is kept in clear view, the church will be kept from many errors. Therefore, Calvin continues to inspire and serve the church five hundred years after his birth...."

Calvin was not the first to articulate the Biblical truths of the Reformation, but merely was the chief systematizer of such doctrines. There was actually nothing in Calvin that was not first seen in Luther, and much of Luther was first found in Augustine. Luther was an Augustinian monk, of course. We would also naturally affirm that there was nothing in any of these men that was not first found in Paul and Peter and John in the New Testament. If you are not a Roman Catholic today, whether or not you realize it, you owe a lot to men like Calvin and Luther.

Even now, though I have profound respect for Calvin, I have no desire to be a Calvinist in the Corinthian sense of the word - a follower of John Calvin, per say. Though I believe Calvin was a tremendous expositor of the Scriptures and had many great insights, I am not someone who believes he was in any way infallible. I am with Spurgeon who declared, "There is no soul living who holds more firmly to the doctrines of grace than I do, and if any man asks me whether I am ashamed to be called a Calvinist, I answer - I wish to be called nothing but a Christian; but if you ask me, do I hold the doctrinal views which were held by John Calvin, I reply, I do in the main hold them, and rejoice to avow it." (C. H. Spurgeon, a Defense of Calvinism)

Today, 500 years from his birth, I especially thank God for the enduring legacy of one of God's precious gifts to His Church, the man Warfield called "the theologian of the Holy Spirit," John Calvin.

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