The Notoriety of John Calvin

CaptureYesterday’s Someone Else Sunday post featured a quote from the notorious John Calvin from his discourse on the Lord’s Supper in the fourth book of his magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Any Christian who read that quote would (I hope) give a hearty “Amen” to the beautiful description of Christ’s work from his humiliation that granted to us the unmerited benefits that we have received through him. In short, Calvin says that Christ became a son of man, humbled himself, took on mortality, became weak and poor, and took upon himself our unrighteousness so that we might become sons of God, exalted, immortal, strong, rich, and righteous—all things that we could never gain or be on our own accord.

Why then, if something that Calvin wrote can get a universal “Amen” from the Church, is he so notorious and oftentimes despise? Why, if he had such a sound, orthodox, and, nay, beautiful way of expressing doctrines of the Christian faith, does the very mention of his name cause the hair on some people’s necks to stand straight up? I have some thoughts on some of the reasons why, and I’d like to briefly lay out three of them:

1. Calvin’s Apparent Cult-Like Following
In the Christian faith, if someone goes by a name other than the name of Christ (viz. Christian) there’s generally a natural distrust of the person who goes by that name (e.g. Calvinist), and probably rightly so. The matter brings to mind Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where he exhorts the church there not to divide themselves in the names of Apollos, Paul, etc., but to stand united in the name of Christ (cf. 1Cor. 1:10-16). These Christians at Corinth rightly respected certain teachers who taught among them, but they went beyond that to finding their identity in them.

The apostle therefore rebukes them, and does so for two reasons: First, the church became divided because of the new identities they assumed under their teacher of choice. And they did not merely become divided in name, but their division led to quarrels and their inability to “be united in the same mind and same judgment” (v. 10). Secondly, their new-found identities robbed Christ of the glory that only he deserves. Paul asks them, “Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (v. 12). In other words, Paul is calling them to remember all that Christ had done for them, and how little Paul and company had done for them in comparison. Paul and the other teachers in the church deserved their respect, but they did not deserve their worship and identity. Only Christ does.

So when a Christian today goes by the name of Calvinist, isn’t that no different than a person in Paul’s day going by the name of Apolloist or Cephist? It might not be any different, and anyone who calls himself that should seriously consider his reasons behind using that label. However, to fall under the same rebuke that the Corinthians fell under requires the same test: Does it destroy the unity of mind and judgment of the Church? Does it rob Christ of his glory?

The Assumption of a New Teaching
Another reason for the hostility against that which is commonly called Calvinism is that it is named after a man who lived roughly 500 years ago, almost 1,500 years after the time of Christ and the apostles. “Why,” they ask, “would a Christian follow the teachings of a man so far removed from the time of Christ unless he were following a new teaching?” It’s a fair question, however the history behind it gives some warrant for the moniker.

Calvin lived shortly after the time of Martin Luther, that is, shortly after the start of the Protestant Reformation. Before then, the Church was under the oppression and heterodoxy of Catholicism for hundreds of years, and the Reformation brought in a reinvigoration of the beliefs of the early Church, chief among them being sola Scriptura, or Scripture alone. While the renewed interest in extant Scripture was profound, what was lacking was the history of teaching and writings that the Catholic church had, just for the mere fact that the Catholic church had reigned over a millennium and oppressed any contrary opinions with brute force.

Though Luther had written and taught quite a bit (as did others), no one at that point had systematized the rediscovered Christian faith. So enters John Calvin, a brilliant man and a scholar who was one of the greatest defenders of sola Scriptura, a doctrine that we often take for granted today. During the course of his life, Calvin set it upon himself to write a systematic theology based on the Scriptures alone for the benefit of the Church and the Restored Faith. Through several years and revisions he accomplished this goal, creating what is now known as the The Institutes of the Christian Religion, which almost became the chief text book (apart from the Bible) for the Church. In fact it is still widely published and read to this day.

The revitalization of the Faith brought about by God through the Reformation and the concise (if I might be so bold as to call it concise) expression of the Faith in Calvin’s Institutes was a great benefit for the Church, especially in a world that was still very hostile toward non-Catholic Christians. The Institutes were therefore cherished among these Christians for what they were—a faithful portrait of the Faith by a faithful, though fallible, man for the sake of combatting false teachings and glorifying the Creator.

3. Predestination, Predestination, Predestination
The greatest point of hostility toward Calvin is probably his espousal of the doctrine of predestination, which, let’s face it, has never been a popular doctrine. Some people actually allege that Calvin invented predestination, even though the actual word predestine is found a number of times in Scripture (e.g. Rom. 8, Eph. 1). And Calvin certainly wasn’t the first one to teach predestination and encounter hostility. The apostle Paul, in his teaching on the matter in Romans 9 obviously met with hostility when teaching the doctrine, evidenced by the way he writes:

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory (vv. 19-23).

And Paul and Calvin aren’t alone. Jesus taught on it (cf. John 6, 15), Luke wrote about it (cf. Acts 13:48), as did Peter (cf. 1Pet. 1). Furthermore, Augustine did, Luther did, Spurgeon did, and a whole host of others. So, it is pretty clear that Calvin did not invent the doctrine of predestination; he simply dealt with it systematically, addressing it the best way that he as a human saw fit from referencing Scripture alone.

Some Final Thoughts
John Calvin was not a perfect man, though there is no doubt that he was a great man. And though he was a great man, he certainly was not God and shouldn’t be venerated as such. Nevertheless, to detest him over how others have portrayed him is simply not being intellectually honest. My guess is that if Christians would actually read what Calvin wrote rather than presume to know what he wrote by what others have said that he wrote, more Christians would be drawn to know and love the God to whom Calvin so passionately dedicated his life.

That said, Calvin was a man, and being a man he had faults. I’m not aware of single person (even those who call themselves Calvinists) who agrees with every word he said. Maybe there are some, but I don’t know of any. Whether or not one should go by that name is matter for discussion, and should be seriously considered. Yet my guess is that most who do choose to go by that name do so more for the sake of theological convenience than for finding their identity in a single man. So if we would esteem Calvin the way that he would wished to be esteemed, we would follow his words to the Scriptures that he loved which reveal the God whom he adored.

Recommended Listening: Biographical Sermon on John Calvin (Tom Mercer)

Recommended Reading: John Calvin and His Passion for the Majesty of God (John Piper)

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