The Historical Calvin And the Long Silence

When we practice neglect it is usually intentional, though sensibly camouflaged. Dishes piling up on the sink or a pair of shoes with ventilated soles are the fruit of selective negligence. We value the usefulness of dishes and footwear, but sometimes choose to procrastinate with regard to their upkeep. Asserting that other things have greater importance lifts our spirits over the mundane.

A sensitive tooth brings up a more serious form of dereliction. Here, the prospect of physical and economic pain have a part in our neglect, but the desire to maintain good health and preserve our ivories for cosmetic service usually wins out. There are however, more determined forms of neglect that flow from that which threatens our self perception, our sacred ego.

This category of negligence is of a more militant variety. Men, for example, show their enmity toward God by belligerently disregarding those Scriptures that cut across grain. This neglect sometimes will include reinterpretation or a re-writing of the text so as to make it unrecognizable and no longer offensive. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse reasons, men covet a world that they evolve for themselves, one that allows a personally-approved blend of fantasy, pleasure and serious business with which they feel comfortable.

This clever process has effected our perception of history in a most profound way. Michelangelo, Copernicus, Machiavelli, Thomas More, Erasmus and Shakespeare, all near contemporaries of John Calvin, are variously known and admired by all of us, but "Calvin is virtually unknown, except perhaps as a reminder of the crimes and follies of the past.1 This is truly extraordinary, in view of Calvin’s immense influence on the Western world, an influence recognized by many Christian and non-Christian scholars alike.2 Calvin’s assessment as a major contributor to modern thinking is not held only by his admirers, but as surely, by his detractors.

Why is it that this particular reformer and giant of history is so little recognized and paid such intentional neglect? Calvin’s many works and commentaries will often be found on shelves of serious pastors, but his counsel is allowed no further. The clarity of his insight is missing in the pulpit. Public education has taken the same stance, ruling out any mention of Jesus Christ or even of Christianity in general. In this age of the ascent of Humanism does this cover-up shout some darker message? Why the black out? What has the red-lining attempted to hide? Let’s find out more about the man and influence behind this unholy smoke screen.

Even in his own day Calvin felt alone. "The crushing effect of a general though false consensus against us is a hard temptation and one almost impossible to resist,"3 he said, knowing well the tireless opposition of the fiesty Genevans. Having lost his mother at the age of five he had been exiled from his parental home and sent to live with the Montmor family when his father remarried. He knew as well the life of political and ecclesiastical exile from his native France after 1533, when official heat increased against upstart Protestant thinkers.

Calvin’s View of Calling

The first of Calvin’s far-reaching insights was his insight about calling. Holding a high view of biblical law, he taught that God ordained a calling for every person, not only clerics. This was "revolutionary" in its effect. It invested all work, no matter how mundane, with honor and importance.

The sweaty farm laborer chopping his cabbages was as much a productive servant of the Lord as the tidy priest holding the bread and wine. The simple artisan could reflect his Creator’s glory and manifest His beauty, even as the learned bishop who plied the holy Scriptures. This principle set labor free from the down grade of ignorance. The powerful influence of this concept has done more to prosper the productivity of the Western nations than any other factor.

The Rescue of Human Sexuality from Popish Error and Abomination

The Apostle’s description of "the Church as the Bride of Christ", Calvin taught, "shows God’s esteem for marriage, and for sex."4 His writings refer freely to the integrity of marriage and teach that "the intercourse of husband and wife is a pure thing, good and holy."5 He applauded the wonderful design revealed in human reproduction: "God needs no other orators to illustrate his power than infant children who are still at their mother’s breasts."6

Calvin Builds on Augustine

"Predestination for Calvin, can be understood only within the context of faith; then, treated properly and soberly, no doctrine is more useful. It promotes zeal and industry to live purely, and it stimulates us to glorify God’s judgments and to exclaim with Paul, Oh the deep and incomprehensible abyss!"7 His fascination with God’s absolute sovereignty is the single most prominent doctrine that, at once, sets this great reformer apart, provokes and disturbs men, and sets forth the amazing scope of his understanding and influence. He truly had a consciousness of God on His throne.

Civil Government and Church Polity

The genius of Calvin extended to issues affecting civil authority. Rulers represent "God’s tribunal on earth" he said. "Their first responsibility is the administration of justice as lesser judges, subordinate to the Supreme Judge to whom they are accountable."8 This is the crucial principle of Lex Rex, the Law is king. It means that the king must be controlled by and obey the law, just as his subject do. The king must not be the maker of law, because then he becomes a law unto himself, a tyrant. This principle is most often misinterpreted by Humanists as a radical bent in Calvin. They crave this as a challenge to the king, a stimulant to rebel against all rule. Nothing could be further from the mark.

His break with the Roman Church and his rejection of Popish control seem to deny this point. The break, however, was rooted in humility and a careful study of the Bible. The church had broken from and denied Scriptural authority. It was Calvin and the other reformers who struggled to reestablish a commitment to Divine authority.

Calvin was a man of order, fastidious with regard to regulation. From fathers to kings he taught honor and respect. His agitation with the Anabaptist radicals of Europe bear out his abhorrence of revolutionary thinking and tactics. He did say, "We must obey princes and others who are in authority, but only insofar as they do not deny to God, as supreme King, Father, and Lord, what is due Him."9

The genius of a "republican" form of governance is attributed to Calvin. He established in Geneva a "consistory" of elders, a body that was to rule in parallel with the city council. He tended, in church as well as state, to prefer an ascending theme of authority and with it, proper checks and balances.10 The ideal was for power and entreaty to proceed from the people and the lower courts, upward to bishops or rulers. It is difficult to term this as anything short of revolutionary, in the acceptable sense. It reversed the concept of the Divine right of kings and recognized that authority came fundamentally from God, through the people. God given authority then, was handed upward in the orderly election of representatives who, in turn, were to exercise delegated powers.

He held to a "teaching" ministry, as distinct from the fixed liturgical track of Romanists. Congregations were exhorted to remain "teachable." Biblical exposition characterized his church, not unthinking tradition.

Bring in the Jury on Calvin

In view of his contributions, why should rebuff and neglect continue? Recount the benefits that have come through his intellect and by his brave spirit. Is 450 years of exile not enough? Will wisdom be served by an extension of the black out?

Willful neglect should not be tolerated. Wimpish preachers must be told to use his commentaries and adopt his teaching. The counsel of John Calvin should again be heard in our pulpits and in our classrooms. Parents can vastly enrich their grasp of history by becoming students of the great reformer of Geneva.

Rev. Dale K. Dykema

End Notes

  1. William J. Bouwsma, John Calvin, A Sixteenth Century Portrait, New York, Oxford Univ. Press, 1989, p.1.
  2. David Little, Religion, Order and Law: A Study in Pre-Revolutionary England, New York, 1969; Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints, A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics, Cambridge, MA, 1965; See Bouwsma.
  3. Commentary, Matt.26:10.
  4. Institutes, IV, xii, 24.
  5. Commentary, I Cor., 7:6.
  6. Commentary, Matt.21:16.
  7. John Calvin, various works, Quoted by W.Bouwsma, John Calvin, A Sixteenth Century Portrait, New York, Oxford, 1989, p.173.
  8. Commentary, Exodus 18:15.
  9. Commentary, Acts 4:19.
  10. Institutes, IV, iv, 11-12; Supplex exhortatio, CO VI, 491
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