This year has seen and heard much of the double anniversary of Charles Darwin (the 200th anniversary of his birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his Origin of the Species). But another man also has a double anniversary this year, a man just as influential and significant. Yet his life and work has largely been overlooked, while Darwin celebrations have been all the rage. I refer of course to the great Reformer, John Calvin.
Five hundred years ago John Calvin was born in France, and 450 years ago the fifth and final Latin edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion was published. Without question he has had a tremendous impact on the world, for a variety of reasons.
Many books over the years have chronicled the importance and significance of the man and his work. One thinks of John T. McNeill’s The History and Character of Calvinism (OUP, 1954), or W. Stanford Reid, ed., John Calvin: His Influence in the Western World (Zondervan, 1982).
A number of books have appeared just recently on the man and his legacy, and with good reason. If Luther is the ultimate expression of the Protestant Reformation, then Calvin would surely have to be the penultimate expression of it. Thus it is fitting that he be remembered and recognised during this anniversary year.
Of the many books which have appeared of late, let me draw your attention to just one set of books that is worth having a look at. “The Calvin 500 Series” is a very nice collection of volumes covering numerous aspects of the man and his thought. Three volumes are now out, although it is not clear if any further volumes are yet to appear.
The general editor of the series is American Presbyterian pastor David Hall. He penned two of the volumes: The Legacy of John Calvin (P&R, 2008), and Calvin in the Public Square (P&R, 2009). The third volume, A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes (P&R, 2008), is edited by Hall and Peter Lillback. Taken together these three books offer a wide-ranging and detailed look at the life and impact of the Reformer.
In the two volumes written by Hall, a number of social, political and cultural achievements and accomplishments of Calvin are examined. Many can be mentioned. For example, in the area of governance, pluralism and human rights, Calvin played no small role. This may seem strange, since some consider Calvin to be little more than a crude theocrat. But this is far from the case.
Calvin for example insisted that the various branches of local government (councils) in Geneva should not act unilaterally, but that at least two councils should be required to approve measures before being ratified. Says Hall, “This early republican mechanism, which prevented consolidation of all governmental power into a single council, predated Montesquieu’s separation of powers doctrine by two centuries.”
Calvin’s theology is nicely explored and expounded upon in the volume looking at his famous Institutes. Here a number of Calvin experts and scholars look at his theological position on a range of topics, from his understanding of the Trinity to his views on worship.
Consider the chapter on election and predestination by R. Scott Clark. Many people wrongly assume that these theological distinctives are almost unique to Calvin, and constitute the primary focus of his thinking. Both assumptions are wrong, as Clark demonstrates.
He reminds us that most of the Christian church from at least the time of Augustine had strongly held to the doctrine of predestination. Indeed, the belief in double predestination (divine election and reprobation), which many assume to be a chief legacy of Calvin, was held by much of the Christian church. Aquinas, for example, taught it as clearly and unequivocally as anyone.
And these doctrines were not the central concern of Calvin’s thought. Sure, the sovereignty and majesty of God are overriding themes in the theology of Calvin, but the issue of predestination does not fully appear in the Institutes until book III. And his stance on the issue was fully informed by what he found in the Word of God, such as Romans 9, Ephesians 1, and so on.
To be sure, many of these doctrines can be, and often are, controversial and subject to heated debate. Given the infinite and eternal God that we serve, things cannot be otherwise. Some will find themselves more at home with Calvin’s theology than others.
But Calvin was not just some austere, cerebral theologian. He was also a pastor and a sincere disciple of Christ with a fervent faith. Consider his many writings on the topic of prayer. It might seem that a man who held such a high view of God’s sovereignty would have little to say about prayer. Not so.
As David Calhoun writes in his chapter on Calvin and prayer, Calvin wrote and preached extensively on the topic. Indeed, he was a man of prayer, both privately and publically. As Calhoun reminds us, one of “the longest chapters in Calvin’s 1559 Institutes is about prayer; it extends for seventy pages in the English translation”.
As to prayer and the sovereignty of God, Calvin taught that “God, by means of our prayers, does what he planned all along to do”. Indeed, prayer was ordained by God really more for our benefit than God’s, said Calvin.
Calvin was not interested in offering a rational explanation as to what might be seen by some as a logical contradiction here. He knew that Scripture affirmed both the sovereignty of God, and the need for his people to pray. Indeed, he offers six reasons why we should pray, and discussed four rules of right prayer.
Yet Calvin will always be the subject of controversy. His experiment at Geneva for example has long been the subject of much discussion and disagreement. Some relish his work there while others abhor it. Nor has Calvin the man been found to be above reproach. His dealing with Servetus is certainly considered by many to be a blot on his otherwise good work and character.
But love him or loathe him – or remaining somewhere in between – no one can doubt the significant impact and legacy of this one man. While Christians will have differing opinions of both his theology and his influence, it must be recognised that he has been a major player in the history of the Christian church.
If Darwin is going to receive so much attention this year, then it seems only proper to allow Calvin to also stand in the public spotlight. In the greater scheme of things, his legacy and influence may well be what will be remembered in years to come, rather than that of Darwin.
(Note: these three books on Calvin are all available in Australia at Koorong Books).