Calvin’s brilliant thinking, interpretation of Scripture and love for the Church has been a gift to the Body of Christ for a remarkable 500 years. In 2009, Christianity celebrated the 500th birthday of John Calvin and whether you consider yourself a Calvinist or an Arminian, I hope you can appreciate this article on a man God has now used for a span of five centuries.
It is impossible to write on Calvin without stirring some type of controversy. So why even attempt it you ask? Well, there are a number of things I think Christians should understand about John Calvin. While there are some misunderstandings and even misinterpretations that surround him, you and I as believers in Christ owe an enormous debt of gratitude for what he has done for Christianity.
I encourage you to read some books on Calvin, do some research and form your own opinion of him. For what it’s worth, I personally owe a great deal to Calvin because he taught me to see the Bible through the most accurate lens…the Bible itself! He taught me to interpret Scripture in light of other Scriptures and not allow my reasoning, or logic or even my own emotions to form my theology but rather accurately handle the Word of God and allow Scripture to shape my thinking of God.
Calvin’s interest in spiritual things began as a child. He was born July 10, 1509 in Noyan, France. At age 12 he expressed interest in priesthood within the Catholic Church. As he got older, that desire didn’t leave him. While attending College Royal in Paris, he became friends with a man who would influence his thinking and theology.
His new friend, Nicolas Cop, was quite vocal about reform within the Catholic Church. Tensions began to spill over and in October 1534 both Cop and Calvin were forced to leave Paris. Calvin went on to Basel where he began to write. (If you remember in last month’s edition, we talked how Johann Gutenberg’s movable type printing press allowed new thoughts and ideas and even Scripture to circulate throughout Europe at an unprecedented pace.) In Basel, he completed the first of his Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536.
Finally Calvin settled in Geneva, Switzerland and established his ministry there. While he was preaching and teaching in the Churches as well as lecturing on theology, his main focus was on writing.
While I encourage you to read books and articles about Calvin to form your own opinion of his teachings, let me first help you understand the world in which Calvin lived. His story is similar to that of Martin Luther, whom we featured in Common Grounds October edition. He lived in a time that the Roman Church had shut up the truth. They only permitted Scripture to be written in Latin, and only Priests knew Latin. Ordinary people were not allowed to read the Bible for themselves and certainly were not allowed to interpret the Bible.
Men such as John Calvin, Martin Luther and even Erasmus believed every person should have access to God’s Word. They believed people could (and should) study the Bible for themselves rather than relying on what Priest told them the Bible says. They believed in the average Christian having a copy of the Bible in their own language to such a degree that they risked their lives and lived as “heretics.”
Because the Bible was only allowed to be read by Priests, ordinary Christians believed only what Priests told them were in the Bible. Listen how Calvin described it, “Among the people themselves, the highest veneration paid to thy Word was to revere it at a distance, as a thing inaccessible, and abstain from all investigations of it. Owing to this supine state of the pastors, and this stupidity of the people, every place was filled with pernicious errors, falsehoods, and superstitions.” And so ordinary Christians began to look to pictures, statues and other artifacts to understand the Bible. Pictures became known as “books of the unlearned” and it’s how the Roman Church wanted things.
Calvin saw the great danger in this. He knew the stability of the Church in future generations depended upon the right interpretation of Scripture. No matter what side of the fence you land on when it comes to Calvinism versus Armiminism, you should still appreciate how God used Calvin in bringing about the skill to study and interpret the Bible.
There are two primary misunderstandings I would like to clarify concerning Calvin. First is the idea that he began Calvinism. While his writings have shaped the thinking of people like myself that hold to Reformed Theology, it was not Calvin that began Calvinism. Reformed Theology came from the re-discovered truths of the Protestant Reformation along with the 5 Sola’s of Faith. Calvinism came much later through the followers of Calvin debating the followers of Joseph Arminius.
The second misunderstanding is that of the death of Calvin’s theological enemy, Michael Servetus. Now someone may say to you, as they have me, “If John Calvin’s message is the glory of God, how can God be glorified in Calvin killing a man just because he didn’t agree with his doctrine?” This is not really a fair statement and let me explain why…
First of all, Calvin didn’t have Servetus killed. The Protestant Geneva Governing Council condemned Servetus a heretic and carried out the sentencing of death. Calvin tried to reason with Servetus and convert him back. Calvin would not even attend Servetus’ death sentence. Now that doesn’t mean Calvin didn’t think Servetus should not have been killed, but the way we think in the 21st century is, in many ways, more progressive than how they thought in the 16th century. I’m glad we no longer burn those with opposing views at the stake! But please understand that it was the decision of the Council…not Calvin to have Servetus burned at the stake as a heretic. Today, Jehovah Witnesses, some Oneness Pentecostals and other Unitarian groups consider Servetus a hero and martyr.
While Calvin did not rejoice in Servertus’ death as some would suggest, he did fiercely defend right doctrine. This statement by Calvin is a good way to conclude this article…“A dog barks when his master is attacked. I would be a coward if I saw that God’s truth is attacked and yet would remain silent.” Happy 500th Birthday John Calvin!