August 26, 2009 Volume 2 Issue 12
. . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .
By Roger J. Green
His name might not have been splashed across the headlines this past summer, but there is no mistaking his impact on contemporary life. John Calvin’s birthday in July--500 years old to be exact--gives us an opportunity to remember the many contributions he made to western culture as we know it today.
Whether his brilliant intellect, his uncompromising faith or his deep compassion toward the poor and illiterate, Calvin set in motion the cornerstone of modern democracy, which grew primarily out of sincere Christian devotion. Though the explosion known as the Reformation revolved around the person of Martin Luther, it moved into a second generation because Calvin gave it order. He provided a consistency of biblical doctrine through his preaching and writing upon which many throughout history built their lives and their communities.
The memory of Calvin is preserved in his voluminous writings, and by far the best known of those is his Institutes of the Christian Religion, begun inauspiciously in Basle, published there in Latin in 1536, and elaborated as the Reformation moved along. One of Calvin’s many gifts was that he was a literary master, and the beginning of his Institutes demonstrates that: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.”
In other words, Calvin speaks today into a world--and at times to a Church--that places God on the margins of life, and thereby misses this great truth: that knowing ourselves is impossible without a knowledge of God, and likewise the more we know about God the more we know about ourselves.
How could he come to this conclusion? Because his thinking was informed first by the historic person of Christ and then the Scriptures. His theological interpretation of the Bible--yet another part of his literary legacy--grew out of a deeply personal conviction, shaped through difficult circumstances but ministered to through the Spirit and the Sacraments. In spite of numerous ailments and grief, he lived in hope. For Calvin, as Professor George Hunsinger of Princeton Theological Seminary recently wrote, “The gospel’s promise was not necessarily one of health and prosperity. It was the promise of sustenance in the midst of afflictions and of deliverance in the life to come.”
And what was true for Calvin is also true for us. Although encumbered by failings within and harassment without, the Christian community—expressed in congregational life—nevertheless houses the God we believe in, calling us to serve him by serving our neighbors. Of that Calvin was sure, and as we read through the Institutes that message is clear. While the Institutes begin with a knowledge of ourselves and of God, by the time we get to the end of that work the reading moves first to the community of believers, and then to the civil order. Nothing for Calvin was outside of the providence of God, and that lesson comes to each of us as we learn to love, serve, and live within the comfort and assurance of grace in all circumstances.
Regardless of our theological orientation, we can recognize with gratitude both the greatness and the influence of John Calvin. Without apology he recognized an authority beyond his personal thoughts or feelings, and sought from the Scriptures the hope of the ages. He knew he had no claim on God’s grace, but that God’s grace had a claim on him. He responded to that claim, constantly living for something greater than himself, not esteeming thought over feeling, but realizing the interaction best reflected his faith and service to others.
We are all indebted to John Calvin for using his mind, his heart and his many gifts for the greater good. With him we can be confident where ‘true and sound wisdom’ lie.
Dr. Roger J. Green is professor of biblical and theological studies at Gordon College. He and his wife, Karen, live in Danvers, Massachusetts.