September 20, 2009

UR-TREKKIES:

John Calvin: Comeback Kid: Why the 500-year-old Reformer retains an enthusiastic following today. (Timothy George, 9/08/2009, Christianity Today)

The most remarkable thing about Calvin's theology is how unremarkable it is, especially when set against the Catholic, Augustinian, and Lutheran traditions he inherited, reframed, and passed on to others. In retrospect, Calvin stands out next to Luther as one of the two great shaping theologians of the Protestant movement. But we should not detach him from other seminal thinkers with whom he shared certain basic assumptions about God, the Bible, human beings, and the work of Christ in the world. Martin Bucer in Strasbourg, Heinrich Bullinger in Zurich, Johannes Oecolampadius in Basel, Peter Martyr Vermigli from Italy, and Luther's successor, Philip Melanchthon, were all Calvin's friends and colleagues in the work of reform.

Unlike the Anabaptists, who sought a New Testament church unencumbered by the baggage of history, Calvin and his peers wanted to be nothing more than faithful and obedient members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. This church, they believed, had fallen into disrepair. It had been led into captivity by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Yet there were points of continuity as well as discontinuity with the Catholic past, and the church needed to be reformed on the basis of the Word of God. Catholic historian Alexandre Ganoczy has said of Calvin: "He never stopped claiming his unshakable attachment to the unity of the Catholic Church, which he did not want to replace, but to restore."
'Preforeordestination'

Mark Twain has Huckleberry Finn refer to a perplexing Calvinist sermon he once heard on "preforeordestination." In agreement with Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Luther before him, Calvin did teach that God was sovereign in salvation no less than in creation, and that divine election was entirely gratuitous—ante praevisa merita, as the scholastic tag went, not based on God's foreknowledge of human achievement. Calvin held this view not because he was a mean man or a dour despot, but because he believed to have found it clearly taught in Holy Scripture. For Calvin, however, the doctrine of predestination was not an a priori metaphysical axiom from which everything else was derived. Rather, it had a Christological focus (with Christ as the mirror of election) and a pastoral import.

In discussing predestination, Calvin followed the method of Paul in his Epistle to the Romans. One does not begin with the inscrutable decrees of God, but rather with God's general revelation in creation and the conscience (Rom. 1). This leads to a discussion of human sinfulness (chapters 2-3), God's atoning work in Christ and justification by faith (chapters 4-7), followed by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit and the declaration of God's unfathomable love (chapter 8). Only then is it fitting to consider the theme of God's electing grace in the history of Israel and in our own lives (chapters 9-11). Only then, as we look back on our rescue from sin, can we exclaim with the non-Calvinist Charles Wesley, "Amazing love, how can it be, that thou my God shouldst die for me!"

The elect are not the elite. There is no place in Calvin's thought for the kind of spiritual snobbery reflected in the old camp-meeting ditty, "We are the Lord's elected few, / let all the rest be damned./ There's room enough in hell for you, / we don't want heaven crammed!" The true Calvinist preaches the gospel promiscuously to all persons everywhere, aware that God alone infallibly knows all those who belong to him.

Theology for Trekkers

In Calvin's day, Geneva became a great center for church planting, evangelism, and even "foreign" missions: a group of Protestants supported by Admiral de Coligny carried the message of Christ to the far shores of Brazil in 1557, more than 60 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. William Carey, the father of modern missions in the 18th century, went to India with a Calvinist vision of a full-sized God—eternal, transcendent, holy, filled with compassion, sovereignly working by his Holy Spirit to call unto himself a people from every nation, tribe, and language group on earth.

In Book Three of the Institutes, Calvin treats predestination and prayer in contiguous chapters (Institutes3.20-21). The universal appeal of Calvin's thought is expressed clearly in this petition he prepared for his liturgy "The Form of Prayers":

We pray you now, O most gracious God and merciful father, for all people everywhere. As it is your will to be acknowledged as the Savior of the whole world, through the redemption wrought by your son Jesus Christ, grant that those who are still estranged from the knowledge of him, being in the darkness and captivity of error and ignorance, may be brought by the illumination of your Holy Spirit and the preaching of your Gospel to the right way of salvation, which is to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3).

One of the mysteries of the mystique of Calvinism is how such a high predestinarian theology could motivate so many of its adherents to such intense this-worldly activism. Calvinism was certainly a dynamic force in shaping the contours of the modern world, including features of it that most of us would not want to live without, such as the rule of law, the limitation of state power, and a democratic approach to civil governance. Though Max Weber was off the mark in identifying the "spirit of capitalism" with the Puritan desire to find assurance of election in a joyless acquisitiveness, he was right to point to the importance of Calvinist ideals—thrift, hard work, fair play, personal responsibility—in the development of a robust economic system.

Calvin's theology was meant for trekkers, not for settlers, as historian Heiko Oberman put it. In the 16th century, Calvinist trekkers fanned out across Europe initiating political change as well as church reform from Holland to Hungary, from the Palatinate to Poland, from Lithuania to Scotland, England, and eventually to New England. In its drive and passion, in its world-transforming vision, Calvinism was an international fraternity comparable only to the Society of Jesus in the era of the Reformation. It is perhaps ironic that Calvin and Ignatius Loyola studied at the same time in the same school in Paris.

Like the Franciscans and the Dominicans in the Middle Ages, Calvin's followers forsook the religious ideal of stabilitas for an aggressive mobilitas. They poured into the cities, universities, and market squares of Europe as publishers, educators, entrepreneurs, and evangelists. Though he had his doubts about predestination, John Wesley once said that his theology came within a "hair's breadth" of Calvinism. He was an heir to Calvin's tradition when he exclaimed, "The world is my parish."

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 20, 2009 5:55 AM
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