One Sunday, a Presbyterian preacher had just finished reading the text for the day and was beginning his sermon when someone from the congregation let out a “Praise God!” loud enough for everyone to hear. The minister paused for a second, a little taken aback by the outburst, but then continued on with his sermon. About half-way through, he was settling into it when he was interrupted again by the same person with the shout “Hallelujah!” This caused him again to pause and in effort to stem any future outbursts, he cautioned the man by warning him that any further outbursts would result in his ejection from the service. The minister returned to his sermon and as he was about to bring it to a stirring conclusion, the same person let out another yell, “God is so good!” Well by now, the preacher had had enough and he instructed the ushers to escort him out of the sanctuary. And as he was being dragged out the back doors by his arms, he let out an “I’ve got Jesus.” “Well you may have Jesus,” exclaimed the exasperated minister, “but you didn’t get him HERE!”
Of course this is an old joke that can strike deep into a Presbyterian nerve precisely because of the reputation we have often earned as God’s “frozen chosen.” And this is in large part because of the reputation of the man who is credited as the forefather and patron saint of Presbyterians everywhere- John Calvin. It may be an understatement to say that Calvin suffers from an image problem as the impression most people tend to have of him is decidedly negative. To many, Calvin is viewed as a dour, uncompromising moralist who while a leader in Geneva, Switzerland was responsible for having a heretic named Michael Servetus burned at the stake for denying the Trinity. He was also an advocate of the doctrine of predestination, the idea that there is no free will as God has already determined from the outset how all things will eventually occur. During his own lifetime, his opponents frequently accused him of being arrogant and dictatorial, someone who was harshly intolerant of anyone who challenged his views. He was portrayed as a ruthless and vindictive monarch who imposed his own personality upon God thereby turning our loving and merciful Heavenly Father into a strict, punitive figure. Of course, as with most characterizations, such a portrayal is not ENTIRELY fair.
His friends would agree that Calvin was no saint but rather an intensely passionate person with a fierce temper. He could be cruel and insensitive, humorless and abusive- the kind of man who did not suffer fools gladly. But he could also be deeply loving, such as he was toward his beloved wife Idelette, and wonderfully pastoral in his relations with church members. Regardless how one may feel about John Calvin the man, it is undeniable that if Luther was the sparkplug and personality that drove the Protestant Reformation, Calvin was its greatest interpreter. As Bob Goeser, my professor and mentor who was a Luther scholar at a Lutheran seminary, liked to remind me, “David, of course Calvin was the great theologian of the Reformation- but he was never quite so interesting as Luther.”
Calvin was born in northern France in 1509, the same year that Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel. He died in 1564, the year that Shakespeare was born. Thus, his emergence upon the world stage was right at the point that the Renaissance was ending and the age of science was just beginning. He was six when his mother passed away and his father took charge of his education, intending him to become a priest. However, after several years of training in philosophy and theology, his father changed his mind and determined he would be a lawyer instead. Disillusioned with Catholicism, the young scholar fell under the influence of the French reformers and around the age of 24 was converted. Because there was increasing persecution going on in France, Calvin was forced to leave his homeland and find refuge in Switzerland, in the city of Basel where Erasmus, the greatest humanist scholar of the age, lived. It was there he would write the most important book of the Reformation- his Institutes of the Christian Religion, a work that summarized the basic teachings of the movement with simplicity but power. The publication of that book immediately established his reputation as one of the leading religious minds of his day.
After a period of amnesty was granted to all those associated with the Reformation, he decided to head home to France. On the way back, he stopped in Geneva where church leaders begged him to stay and help the city in the cause of reform. He soon developed the reputation of being a brilliant teacher, and his ideas gradually took hold over the social and political life of the city. However, after a year and a half, the citizens of Geneva were becoming hostile to his uncompromising reforms and eventually he was banished from the city. Returning to Strassburg, France, he pastored a congregation for several years. He began writing commentaries on the scriptures and published a newer and more expanded edition of the Institutes. He also took time to get married.
Meantime, things settled down enough in Geneva thereby making it possible for him to return. He resumed his position as a Bible teacher on September 13, 1541 and began teaching from the very verse with which he had left off more than three years earlier. He drafted a constitution for the church which became a blueprint for doing things “decently and in order.” Rejecting bishops, he created a governing council consisting of nine clergy and twelve lay elders to oversee the spiritual and moral discipline of the community. In 1559, he created the Geneva Academy, the precursor to what is today the University of Geneva. It enjoyed great prestige throughout Europe and in time became a leading institution for the training of Reformed ministers and the propagation of Reformed Theology. He died on May 27, 1564 and in accordance with his wishes was buried in an unmarked grave.
Calvin was a brilliant theologian and scholar but he was also a very practical man. He was a pastor, biblical commentator, preacher, debater, and even an international diplomat of sorts. His contribution to the Reformation was not as an original thinker but rather to organize those ideas, make them compelling, and then to reveal their practicality for everyday living. In many ways, he was a creature of the age he lived in- one in which people felt the need to understand the truth and live it as precisely as possible. What people interpreted as arrogance was actually his uncompromising commitment to that truth and the desire to see others live up to those same principles. He humbly recognized that God was a divine mystery that far transcended our small, puny minds. This is why at the core of his theology resided a God who was great and glorious and deserving of our highest worship and obedience. He held that we cannot know God in the divine perfection, but only as Creator and Redeemer, and by the work of the Holy Spirit insofar as it testified to our hearts. He held that as CREATOR, God is powerful and purposeful, having created the heavens and the earth and everything in it including human beings in his own image and then making us stewards or caretakers over it all. As REDEEMER, God delivers us from our sinfulness and our alienation from him and one another. As human beings, everything we are and do is infected by selfishness and human pride. This means that we are unable to fall upon our own resources and in any way save ourselves. Hence, we are completely dependent upon God and his grace for any good in and through our lives. The result is that sin and death permeate the entire order.
Of course, the one theme that completely dominated the Reformation more than any other was that salvation was by grace alone, that we are all such sinners that we could not in ANY WAY contribute ANYTHING to our salvation. It sought to recover what St. Paul explicitly affirmed throughout his writings, that we were “dead” in our sins and not merely “sick” with them: “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked…”(Eph. 2:1) To be dead in a Pauline sense means to be dead SPIRITUALLY, that is to be incapable of hearing or responding to the things of God as a result of our separation from God. Hence, it would then be impossible for us to do ANYTHING to save ourselves or contribute to it, nor could we do anything to curry God’s favor to save us. God is not obligated to save ANY ONE and thus God cannot be coerced, forced, manipulated or cajoled into it. God is sovereignly free to save whomever he wants and for whatever reasons God might have.
The issue raised by Luther, Calvin and the other Reformers was not whether we are saved by grace, through faith, in Christ- everyone, including the Catholic Church, seemed to agree with these principles. The issue was whether we are saved by grace ALONE, through faith ALONE, and in Christ ALONE; ALONE makes all the difference. Christianity teaches that salvation is wholly an act of God’s sovereign free grace, that we could not and did not choose him but rather God chose US. Salvation is not realized in seeking for, aspiring, climbing or ascending to heaven; it is realized by his grace flowing DOWN. Hence, salvation begins NOT with man’s hunger and search for God but rather with God’s search for and reconciliation of humanity to HIMSELF. It is THIS truth that differentiates the Christian faith from all other world religions.
Jesus Christ becomes the supreme revelation of God’s love for the world for it is in and through HIS work that we are saved and reconciled- to him and to one another. Salvation is the restoration of a relationship with God. Much has been made of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, the idea that God determines beforehand that some people should be saved and others damned to eternal perdition. However, this was because he felt it necessary to give God primacy in all matters of human salvation and judgment, even if it meant lessening an emphasis upon human freedom in the process.
In worship, human beings offered their greatest service to God. One of the first things he did in Geneva was to revolutionize the way worship was done. It became biblically-oriented and marked by theological integrity, intelligibility, and simplicity. Rather than in Latin, the Bible was printed in the language of the common people as well as the preacher’s sermons. They did away with the medieval sacramental system, retaining only Baptism through sprinkling and the Lord’s Supper. Calvin taught that Christ was not physically present in the Eucharist as the Roman Catholics insisted but rather he was SPIRITUALLY present in and through the elements. Psalms were sung and music was incorporated.
His influence was no less profound upon our understanding of the CHURCH. The church was first and foremost, not a building or an ecclesiastical hierarchy but a community of faith called into being by the Holy Spirit and led by Jesus Christ himself. As such, the church is both an invisible body, known only to God, and as a visible church in the world as a primary structure of grace. Christ alone was its head- not the Pope or its bureaucracy of cardinals, bishops, and archbishops. He affirmed the priesthood of all believers, that the only mediator between oneself and God was not the priest but Christ himself.
Calvin stressed the importance of literacy and education for all Christians, that it was incumbent upon every child of God to study and show him or herself approved. All persons should therefore have access to the scriptures, and be allowed to utilize their own God-given spiritual gifts for the benefit of the whole church. He and his followers urged universal education and this included for the poor, the young, and women.
Calvin was ahead of his time in arguing passionately for human equality. As he wrote in his Institutes: “I say: we ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love; here there is no distinction between barbarian and Greek, worthy and unworthy, friend, and enemy, since all should be contemplated in God, not in themselves” (Inst. 2.8.55). He ardently believed that one’s value did not depend upon a person’s religious, social or gender status. Hence, he was an opponent of slavery. He also advocated the importance of conscience and Christian liberty. He argued that while people owe obedience to their rulers in the political realm, they should enjoy a certain measure of spiritual freedom within the church. They should adhere to the basics of the faith: obeying the Ten Commandments, believing the Apostles’ Creed, and saying the Lord’s Prayer. But beyond this, Christian consciences should not be unduly bound.
In conclusion, we Presbyterians live by the motto “the church reformed and always being reformed.” In other words, the process of discovering what it means to remain faithful to God and to one another is never-ending: a Christian is always a “work in process.” Our self-understanding grows and changes in response to the new challenges we as a church face in light of the problems confronting the world. It has been the Reformed churches who have consistently remained at the forefront of the struggle for greater social justice in our nation and world. It was the Reformed churches that raised the banner of abolitionism that eventually led to the outlawing of slavery in our country. It was the Reformed Christians in Germany who had the insight and courage to resist Hitler and Nazism through the witness of the Barmen Declaration that declared that Jesus Christ alone is the one true Word of God. Christians of the Reformed tradition were among the first to argue for the ordination of women, marched in league with civil rights leaders throughout the fifties and sixties, questioned our involvement in various wars overseas, continue to seek ways to alleviate poverty, and promote greater stewardship over our planet. So in this month in which we have been remembering the contributions of our great church forefathers, I hope you’re all proud to be a part of such a great tradition, one with such a sound biblical and theological foundation, and that no one has been more influential in creating that foundation and shaping that tradition than John Calvin himself. Amen and amen.