Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us. With all the wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. –-Ephesians 1:3-10
This morning we look at the person who is most associated with our Reformed and Presbyterian heritage: The French Reformer John Calvin. At the outset I’d like to acknowledge my debt to William Stacy Johnson’s book John Calvin: Reformer for the 21st Century. In the first chapter Johnson says that it’s a shame that Calvin is known more for a set of doctrines than he is as a man. And it’s a shame because as a man, Calvin was much more interested in being faithful to God than he was in creating or following a rigid theological system. In Johnson’s words:
To be faithful to God requires an always fresh, always open, always curious engagement with who God is and what God calls us to be and do… Calvin was convinced that God alone is Lord of the conscience, and that God calls people in each and every generation to bear witness to the light that God has given them.[i]
And so for us as Presbyterians it’s more important to embody Calvin’s reforming spirit than it is to be in 100% agreement with everything that Calvin taught. It’s a bit of a challenge to summarize everything that Calvin taught. Queen Elizabeth I of England was once asked to explain the difference between Martin Luther and John Calvin. She replied that the followers of Luther wanted reform, but the followers of Calvin were even more reformed.[ii] That’s our heritage in a nutshell: We are the ones who are even more reformed.
John Calvin was born in 1509, on July the 10th, which means that his birthday is tomorrow! Calvin was born the same year that Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, and he died in 1564, which was the year of William Shakespeare’s birth. Perfect timing for being a Renaissance man!
John Calvin was 8 years old when Martin Luther published the 95 Theses in 1517, which makes Calvin a second generation Reformer. Calvin’s contribution was not so much to generate the ideas of the Reformation as it was to organize them and make them compelling and practical.
|This is my favorite depiction of Calvin. It's a sketching drawn by one of his students while Calvin was lecturing, probably sometime in the 1550s.|
Calvin was born into a modest but respectable family in the town of Noyon, in the region of Picardy in the north of France. When Calvin was 12, his father obtained a paid chaplaincy for his son in the Noyon cathedral. The money from this stipend would have enabled Calvin to enroll in the University of Paris and study for the priesthood. But Calvin’s father fell into trouble with church authorities and was excommunicated over some kind of quarrel about how fees for the cathedral were collected. The father decided that his son John should study law and not theology, and he sent his son to Orleans to study with the best legal minds.
One of the mysteries of Calvin’s early life is how exactly Calvin came to embrace Reformation ideals. Perhaps his father’s excommunication was a powerful motivator, but Calvin was never especially close to his father, and Calvin’s father was excommunicated in a legal dispute and not because of theology. Martin Luther left us with very detailed accounts of how his thinking evolved, but John Calvin has kept us guessing. However it was that Calvin came to embrace Reformation ideals, he was thoroughly committed by 1533, which was the year that his close friend Nicolas Cop was installed as rector at the University of Paris and delivered an inaugural address containing pro-Reformation ideals. But the theological faculty at the University of Paris was still pro-Catholic and they promptly accused their new rector of heresy. John Calvin was rumored to have written much of Cop’s speech, so Calvin himself had to go on the run, finding refuge with wealthy friends and continuing his studies as best he could.
And then the situation became even more perilous. On October 19, 1534, in a single night, a flurry of printed placards rejecting the Catholic Mass appeared all over Paris and in four other cities.
|An example of one of the mysterious placards that appeared overnight on October 19, 1534.|
A placard even appeared on the outer door of the bed chamber of King Francis the First. Needless to say, the king was not amused, and the safety of reform-minded scholars like John Calvin was increasingly at risk. In January of 1535, Calvin sought refuge in the Swiss city of Basel, and in 1536 he published the first edition of The Institutes of the Christian Religion. He dedicated the book to King Francis, in the hope of converting the French king to Reformation ideals, which never happened. But Calvin did persuade many others. The first edition of the Institutes was completely sold out within a year!
Following the publication of the Institutes, Calvin decided to settle in Strasbourg. It was a Reform-minded city, and Calvin hoped to be able to work with the reformer Martin Bucer. This was the same city where Gutenberg had invented the printing press in 1440.
But it was a time of war, and armies were on the move, so Calvin ended up in Geneva on his long, circuitous route to Strausbourg. The reform movement in Geneva was led by a fiery preacher named William Farel. When Farel heard that the author of the Institutes was in town, he went to see him, and Farel tried to persuade Calvin that Calvin should stay in Geneva and help the cause of reform there. Calvin replied that he was not a practical reformer, that he was more of a scholar and preferred the life of books. Farel insisted that Geneva needed Calvin to stay. And Calvin asked in reply, “What will happen if I leave?” And Farel said, “Then God will curse you.”
In the 16th century people took curses rather seriously, so Calvin stayed, and he worked alongside Farel in Geneva from 1536 to 1538. And then both Calvin and Farel got into a dispute with the city authorities about who had the right to monitor the communion table, the city authorities or the church. Calvin and Farel were forced out of Geneva, and ironically ended up in Strausborg, the very place where Calvin had longed to go all along.
While in Strausbourg, Calvin fell in love and married a widow named Idelette, who had three young children. When Idelette died a few years later, Calvin was utterly heartbroken. He continued to raise Idelette’s three children, and Calvin wrote beautifully and poignantly about how God adopts each one of us into God’s own family. For Calvin, we are God’s children by choice! Indeed, Calvin would often quote the passage we read this morning from Ephesians which reminds us that “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.” For Calvin these words were not mere abstractions!
|Idelette Calvin (1509-1549)|
Meanwhile, in Geneva, the city authorities decided that they missed Calvin, and they invited him back. So, in 1541, Calvin returned to Geneva and remained there the rest of his life. During that time Calvin continued to teach, preach, and write at a frenetic pace. The Scottish Reformer John Knox called Calvin’s Geneva “the most perfect school of Christ on earth since the days of the apostles.”
That’s Calvin’s life at a glance. Now, I’d like to shift to discussing some of Calvin’s teachings. We won’t cover everything this morning. In future weeks we’ll explore such topics as the priesthood of all believers, Calvin’s view of the Bible, and Calvin’s views on society and economics. Today we’ll focus on Calvin’s vision of God and how that relates to humanity.
Calvin opened his famous book, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, with these words: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and proper wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” (John Calvin, Institutes, 1.1.1)
For Calvin, this meant that the only authentic way to know ourselves is to be in relationship to God. It also means that knowing God enables us to see ourselves as we truly are.
But let’s be honest. Intimacy with God is hard to maintain in times of suffering and struggle. In the scripture passage from Habakkuk that Andrea read a moment ago, the prophet wonders aloud how long the poor will continue to be oppressed. In his own commentary on the book of Habakkuk, Calvin noted that whenever and wherever human beings cry out for justice, a miracle occurs: our cries become, in a certain sense, the very cries of God. What a remarkable image! When we cry, God cries with us. God is present in our times of distress. According to William Stacy Johnson, this view of a compassionate and responsive God in solidarity with humans provides the best way to understand Calvin’s thought.[iii] Calvin is often accused of painting a portrait of an arbitrary God, but in truth, Calvin sought to portray a God of goodness and comfort.
In the Institutes Calvin wrote that “we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us.” (Institutes, 3.2.7)
There’s a movie called “Cold, Comfort Farm” in which Ian McKellen plays a hellfire and brimstone Calvinist preacher named Amos. Amos decides that he should leave the farm and become an itinerant preacher traveling around England in a Ford van. His wife cries out, “What will we do without you?” And Amos replies, “God will provide, OR NOT, according to his will.”
Amos’s reply is a caricature of Calvinism, and not really what Calvin taught. Faith is a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence or goodness to us. It’s not a firm and certain knowledge of God’s arbitrariness to us!
The doctrine of providence teaches that God is always at work bringing correction, restoration, healing, and redemption. This is meant to bring comfort in the midst of a chaotic and evil world.
Modern people tend to talk about God’s providence as though God were somehow barging in or intervening in the world. But this is not the way Calvin understood God’s caring presence in the world. This world, after all, belongs to God. It is no more an intervention for God to take care of the world than it would be for you or me to enter our own house. As Calvin put it, we are always doing business with God.[iv]
Calvin spoke of a universal providence, in which God governs nature with rhythms of day and night and cycles of winter, spring, summer, and fall.
Calvin spoke of a historical providence, in which God is at work in history, culture, and in the workings of society, which does not mean that God is a puppeteer and we are merely puppets. Calvin himself preferred the metaphor of a rider trying to tame a wild horse. God is the rider who remains in control, but the horse never ceases to exercise its own willfulness.[v]
Thirdly and most importantly, Calvin spoke of a special providence in which God is at work in our individual lives.
Nowadays not all of us would agree with Calvin in attributing so much active responsibility to God for the rhythms of day and night and changes in the weather. In a post –Newtonian and post-Einsteinian world, we have different ideas about the universe and God’s relationship to it.[vi] But hopefully, we can still speak of faith as a firm and certain knowledge of God’s goodness to us, and hopefully we can still say with the Apostle Paul in Romans that all things are working together toward the good, not that everything that happens is good—certainly NOT!--but in all things God is somehow working toward the good.
Related to the idea of special providence is the doctrine of election and predestination. This doctrine seeks to give an answer to such questions as
--Why was I born as this particular person with these particular gifts?
--What is my purpose in life?
--What am I supposed to be and do on this planet?
One way to approach these questions is to say that everything is random and arbitrary, but Calvin offered a different answer. He insisted that everything about us resides deep within the intentionality of God. God knows us by name.[vii] As God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 29:11, I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”
So, yes, God knows us, but God also saves us. Wherever we go, God has gone ahead of us to pave pathways of reconciliation. Again, this does not mean that God is the puppeteer and we are merely puppets. It means only that our ultimate destiny is assured. As Calvin put it, “even if the whole fabric of the world were to fall apart, the assurance of salvation would rest secure.”
Not only does God know us and save us, but God empowers us to live a different kind of life for the sake of the world. In the medieval church, there had been this notion that only celibate monks were carrying out a true Christian life and that ordinary, everyday people were somehow second-class or amateur Christians. But Calvin insisted that all Christians in all occupations in life can live out an authentic Christian life. As Calvin wrote in the Institutes, “From this calling will arise the singular consolation: that no task will be so sordid and base, provided you obey your calling in it, that it will not shine and be reckoned very precious in God’s sight.” (Institutes, 3.10.6)
All of these are encouraging attributes about the doctrine of election and predestination. The controversy arises when we stipulate that some are chosen and others are not, which is what Calvin believed, though one could argue it was never a major point in his theology. For Calvin, it was likely an attempt to explain the mystery of why some people have faith and others don’t.
We often speculate in similar ways. Why is it that one person celebrates 30 years of recovery while another dies of a drug overdose? Why? We might think of parents marveling how the lives of their adult children have gone down strikingly different paths, and again we wonder why?
These are the kinds of questions that Calvin likely had in mind as he was speculating about how God would save some but not others.
The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth said that Calvin made the mistake of speculating too much about God saving some but not others. In Barth’s interpretation of Ephesians 1:3-4, which we read earlier, God reaches out to all human beings in Jesus Christ. Does this mean that everyone is ultimately saved? Barth didn’t want to be pinned down on that point, because he didn’t want to be accused of trying to read God’s mind. But Barth did refute any notion that God would arbitrarily choose some while arbitrarily rejecting others.
Karl Barth believed that what was predestined was the fact that God would always have a Plan B, that God would always be reaching out toward us in an effort to save us.
Now, in the Reformed Tradition being saved is much more than getting a Get out of Hell Free card. To be saved, to be chosen, means that we are called to live out the purposes of God. To be called means that we seek to fulfill what God requires us, which leads me to a brief discussion of Calvin’s teachings on God’s law.
Two weeks ago, when we discussed Martin Luther, we talked about law and gospel. Luther and Calvin agreed that there are three uses of the law.
The first use is the theological use, in which the law convinces us that we are sinners as we fall short in our efforts to keep the law. This prepares us to hear the good news of the gospel about God’s free gift of grace.
The second use of the law is the civil use, which refers to the use of the law to restrain evil doers in society, such as having civil laws on the books against murder and against stealing.
The third use of the law is the didactic use, which refers to the way that the law gives believers positive guidance concerning the will of God for their lives. For Calvin, this third use of the law was the most important. But for Martin Luther, the first, or theological use of the law, was the most important.
So, in a typical Lutheran service when they recited the Ten Commandments they would do so right before the Prayer of Confession because the Commandments served to remind you that you are a sinner and that you failed to live up to the Commandments. In a Reformed worship service, such as in Calvin’s Geneva, when they recited the Ten Commandments, they would do so after the Prayer of Confession and Assurance of Pardon as a reminder that the believer is strengthened by God’s grace to follow God’s commandments.
The twentieth-century theologian H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) saw this as a historic contrast between Lutherans and Reformed Christians. In his book Christ and Culture (1951) he stated his view that Lutherans have typically had this sense that Christ is in paradox with the culture, that we are always simultaneously sinners and justified (or reconciled) to God, that law always exists in juxtaposition to the gospel. But in the Reformed tradition there is this sense that Christ transforms culture, and as followers of Christ, we, too, are called to be reformers of the churches and societies in which we live.
This brings us full-circle to where we began: with the conviction that it’s more important to embody Calvin’s reforming spirit than it is to embrace every single thing he taught. William Stacy Johnson reflects how Calvin’s choice to be buried in an unmarked grave gives us an indication of how Calvin would want us to treat his legacy. Johnson writes:
When Calvin died, he directed that his body be buried in an unmarked grave. He did not want his bones to become relics, and by consigning his own body to obscurity, Calvin made clear that the church in Geneva was supposed to be following God, not John Calvin.[viii]
Yet to this day there are many voices that insist that being Reformed means agreeing to a list of things that Calvin said five hundred years ago. If you go up the road to the little Presbyterian church at the corner of Route 100 and Primrose, they would probably tell you that to be Reformed means agreeing with John Calvin 100%. But most mainstream Presbyterians, myself included, believe that even Calvin would have rejected such a notion. As Johnson reminds us,
Calvin was focused on the sovereignty of God, and even Calvin would have conceded that God cannot be captured in a single system of thought—not Calvinism, not Lutheranism, not Roman Catholicism. There is always more to God than we can imagine.[ix]
[Yet we can be confident that God has a plan for our lives,] that God will ultimately wipe every tear from our eyes, bind every wound, and remove every obstacle that stands in the way of our redemption.
As we seek to discern where God is leading us today, we can give thanks for the ways that God has led us in the past. For it is God alone who calls and redeems us, corrects and forgives us, guides and equips us, to be a church reformed and always in the process of being reformed.[x]
All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.
[i] William Stacy Johnson, John Calvin: Reformer for the 21st Century (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009), 1.
[ii] Johnson, 1.
[iii] Johnson, 14.
[iv] Johnson, 17.
[v] Johnson, 17-18.
[vi] Johnson, 18.
[vii] Johnson, 42-43.
[viii] Johnson, 120.
[ix] Johnson, 121.
[x] Johnson, 128.