Individuals like Calvin are the kinds of people that we have–rather unfairly–heaped all of our hopes or fears, love or hate, admiration or disgust.
This isn’t new. Stories circulate about how early during Calvin’s time in Geneva, people were so upset with his actions that they named their dogs after them. His teachings were a big point of controversy in the 18th century evangelical revival of Edwards, Wesley, and others. More recently, Philip Pullman’s bizarre His Dark Materials trilogy posited an alternate universe where John Calvin became Pope of a heavily oppressive Church. Ouch.
More positively, others love him. He is, in their eyes, the final word in theology. His view of God’s sovereignty is the height of theology, and most everything before or since fails to live up to it. Calvin, Reformer par excellence, both guards and caution the believer. The legal and logical Calvin is never far from his followers, and they will rarely miss an opportunity to argue with you about it. Go ahead, read some R. C. Sproul.
Of course when I say Calvin, I speak here of Calvinism. And we all know what that means, right? It means predestination and TULIP and all sorts of lovely things like that. That God has chosen some to be saved and others “not to be.” We hear this and we think we know what Calvin was all about. What the driving passion of his life, ministry and theology was. Calvinism, we think, equals predestination.
I’m teaching on John Calvin today in Church History II, and I’m happy to report to you that Calvin’s teaching on predestination only takes up tiny percentage of the lecture. After all, it only took up a small part of his famous book Institutes of the Christian Religion. There are lots of other things in there too: sanctification, the Church, government, Scripture, etc. Because of later developments in history, Calvin has been tied too closely to predestination alone…and that’s unfortunate.
He did teach the doctrine, however. I disagree with him, but I do not think it is the end of the world that I do. To someone who wants to argue with me about this, I’d simply say this: so what? Who cares? What does it really matter? People who want to waste time arguing about for or against a doctrine like this ought to realize, as my former college professor once said, that the Reformation is OVER. It is not the 16th or even 18th century anywhere. We need to move on.
I recently heard of a professor at a Christian college who was a “closet Calvinist.” After a while, he announced himself as such and created a lot of trouble and division on campus. If that was the entirety of the story, I’m dismayed. I have no patience for any of this. Neither the professor’s actions nor the college’s forbidding such ways of thinking are helpful to the Christian Church…and for the life of me I can’t understand why they are worth arguing about, especially in our time.
If you want to study Calvin, that is terrific. But study all of his writings and use Calvin as a dialogue partner in your own faith journey. Realize that our modern world has things in it that Calvin never conceived…and our job is to take theologically reflect on them, just as Calvin did in his time.
Calvin was not a dog. But neither was he God. Quite possibly, he wasn’t even a Calvinist–at least not in the way we understand the term today.