Since 2009 marks the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth, writers will reference, rediscover and reinvent (After all, we do live in the age of deconstructionism) this sage. Those writers, professors, and theologians with negative bias or misinformation will dismiss Calvin as the stern proponent of predestination. They consider him graceless, interested only in writing his Institutes, not very practical. Yet such a depiction fails to capture the real legacy Calvin left this world. One Reformed Theology website refers to Calvin as the one who “literally transformed the philosophical, political, religious, and social landscape of Europe.” What backs so global a statement?
Intellectually, Calvin, a French-born Roman Catholic completed law studies by age 23, and had published a translation of a book by Seneca. University education grounded Calvin in Northern European Humanism of the early 1500s; however, Calvin soon threw in his lot with reformers who followed Zwingli’s basic idea of the literal reading of Scripture. Given the philosophical and political intelligence of Calvin¸ this scholar set out to write an orderly presentation of Scripture. Best known for The Institutes of the Christian Church and a catechism that, once memorized, would provide a sure compass for children and adults, Calvin initially frightened Genevans. Had they traded the rigidity of the Roman church for another papal system? By 1538, Geneva sent Calvin packing. He established a ministry to French refugees in Strasbourg but returned to Geneva in 1541 and lived there until his death in 1564.
Calvin wanted literacy to spread far beyond the aristocracy and professionals. After all, reading the Scriptures was a vital part of the reforms. Here, I confess an error I’ve held for years. I believed that Robert Raikes founded the modern Sunday School concept by taking the illiterate children off London’s streets on Sunday afternoons and teaching them to read using Bibles as his textbooks. Actually, Calvin, 300 years prior, held Sunday afternoon classes to teach the catechism to children. Ronald Wallace, in his biography, Calvin, Geneva, and the Reformation, says, “It is not surprising that when the citizens of Geneva accepted the Reformed faith, they also at the same time agreed to make with the education of the young.”
I appreciate Calvin’s holistic approach to faith. From New Testament texts he wrote Ecclesiastical Ordinances, setting forth attributes for teachers, pastors, elder and deacons. Church government had boundaries with disciplining occurring in line with Matthew 18. Calvin educated, taught refugees, led in church reform, wrote without stooping to vernacular (the texting of hi8s day?) always aiming to elevate the people so they could study the Scriptures for themselves. What a legacy to us today.
After having written about Calvin, I am set to order John Calvin:A Pilgrim’s Life by Herman J. Selderhuis (IVP, 2009) and enjoy some rainy days like this one reading what Frank James III describes as “simply one of the best biographies of Calvin I have seen.”
To those who still consider Calvin cold, graceless and impractical, I’d offer this quote:
“We have given the first place to doctrine in which our religion is contained, since our salvation begins with it. But it must enter our heart and pass into our daily living and so transform us into itself that it may not be unfruitful for us.”