John Calvin- who are you?

John_Calvin_Today, July 10, is the 500th anniversaryof John Calvin’s birth.

John Calvin evokes a lot of emotion for a dead guy. People either love him or hate him.  Calvin is either the greatest theologian who ever lived or as  the “father” of  Calvinism the source of most of what is wrong with the western world today. John Calvin is, of course, not really any of the stereotypes depicted above. He is much more interesting and much more complex than that. 

Even though I am Presbyterian I attended a United Methodist seminary, Saint Paul School of Theology. It was a wonderful experience but I didn’t expect to learn much about Calvin and Reformed theology there. Imagine my delight when in one of the required courses we spent a semester with Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Normally when this particular professor taught this course  he had the class read Tillich. My United Methodist classmates were eagerly expecting Tillich and  got Calvin. I- the lone Presbyterian- was the only happy one in the class.

The class was unhappy enough the professor felt he needed to defend his selection of the Institutes. He told us that we didn’t have to like Calvin but because Calvin’s thought was so important to Western protestant Christianity we needed to be familiar with Calvin’s work.  That meant we needed to read Calvin for ourselves and not simple accept uncritically what others said about Calvin. 

Forty some reluctant United Methodists and one happy Presbyterian dug into the Institutes . My Methodist colleagues discovered John Calvin’s writings were not what they had expected.  Calvin starts by pointing out that our knowledge of ourselves and our knowledge of God are intertwined. We cannot fully know who we are as humans without the knowledge of God and we cannot know about God without understanding ourselves.  Calvin repeatedly points out how God makes God’s self known in the wonder of creation. Calvin writes about God who wants to be in relationship with us. And so  God comes to us in ways that we are able to understand. God reveals God’s self to us in nature, in Scripture and in Jesus. Calvin talks about how much God loves us.

Well, this was not the harsh, joyless double predestination, TULIP Calvinism they were expecting. While none of my Methodist friends became Presbyterian, many of them did develop a respect and even a sort of affection for John Calvin. (Just as I now have respect and affection for John Wesley.)

The point of this story is to encourage you to dip into Calvin’s work. You could be quite surprised by what you find.  For someone who lived and wrote in the 1500s, Calvin is fairly accessible to modern readers. Calvin didn’t write for scholars and theologians. He wrote for regular people. He wanted people to understand their faith and to think  clearly and logically about what the developing protestant church taught.

What Calvin believed should not be confused with what later “Calvinists” have done. I’m not sure that Calvin would be pleased with everything that has been labeled as “Calvinism”. That is why it is important to read Calvin for yourself.

Additionally we need to remember that 16th century Europe was a very different place and time than the world we live in.  It helps to understand Calvin and his writing if you know something about his life and the times he lived in.

If you search the web for resources about John Calvin, it can be difficult to separate the good from the bad. Here are two places to begin.

From the Presbyterian Church USA, Calvin Jubilee

From the Calvin College , H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies

There are many biographies of Calvin, but here are two to get you started, A Life of John Calvin:A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture by Alister McGrath  and John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait by William Bouwsma.

 You can read the Institutes  on line, along with much of Calvin’s other works at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library site. But much better, in my opinion to own your own copy to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest”.

It’s a big book, the Institutes, you may want to begin with something more accessible such as Calvin’s Institutes: A New Compend or Calvin for Armchair Theologians.

A lot of things have been written about John Calvin and his writings. Some more reliable and helpful than others. But as my seminary professor said, Calvin is important enough to protestantism and western thought that you ought to read him for yourself. 

I’d like to know, what do you think?


3 thoughts on “John Calvin- who are you?

  1. I often think about what it would have been like to live in the 1500’s. SO much was going on in the spirit… I can just imagine the theologiacial discussions and meetings going on, not just in Calvin’s circle, but everyones…. God made a really huge move in a short amount of time. I often wonder when the next move comes, if we’ll be open to hear it.

    1. Some people, like Phyllis Tickle, believe the church goes through a major movement/upheaval about every 500 yrs. Which puts the next one right about now. They think the emergent/emerging church movement among other things herald this next movement.

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