Saturday, February 14, 2009

Thoughts on Calvin

Here is my weekly post for my Reformation and Modern Church History class. I am discussing my impressions regarding John Calvin's personality and theology.
John Calvin looms perhaps as large in my theological imagination as St. Paul. In moments when I forget that the seat of authority rests exclusively in the Scriptures, in those moments when I am over-awed by the power of the human mind to comprehend the mysteries of God and by the eloquence of speech and the written word to express them, I get carried away and ascribe too much significance to extra-biblical witnesses to God's grace and glory. I have often done this with Calvin, and, worse, I have aspired to emulate him and attain to his level of glory. When I recognize this for the sin that it is, I turn to the God who is above and beyond anything we can comprehend and put into words, realizing my own inadequacy of expression in the face of such majesty and wonder, and I worship. Calvin was a great teacher, but, if any honors belong to human teachers, they belong to those through whom God chose to give us the authoritative witness to His revelation in history that is the Scriptures. Paul is to be honored above Calvin and God infinitely above them both.

Nevertheless, we can glory in and praise God for his gifts to others and for the gifts he gives us through them. I thank God for Calvin. I also thank God that through this week's readings and lectures I have had some incorrect impressions corrected.

Much to my surprise, and initially to my chagrin, Calvin describes himself as being of "a timid, soft, and pusillanimous nature." This is much to the contrary of what I had been informed about him. Without ever reading much of his writing, excluding quotations from his writings on the sacraments I have seen in a couple of books, I have long been aware of his importance and influence in the Protestant faith tradition and have been captivated by the grand sound of the term "Calvinism" and by the larger-than-life character of his teachings on grace, God's sovereignty in bringing us to faith and in preserving us to the end, and, of course, his thoroughly orthodox and well-balanced view of the sacraments. In contrast to what I have long thought about much of his teaching, however, I have also long thought of Calvin the man as a somewhat nasty fellow—a combative, dogmatic man who was spiritually prideful and arrogant about his knowledge, had an explosive temper, was generally ill tempered, and was the theocratic dictator who condemned Servetus to death. I also thought that the man who is the champion of the idea that God created the vast majority of humankind for the express purpose of damning them, must himself be as indifferent and un-empathetic toward people as he believed God to be.

What has been revealed to me, however, since I started reading the Institutes this year in commemoration of his 500th birthday (which coincidently falls the same day as my birthday, July 10) and since I have gotten to know him a little more personally this week is that he utterly confounds me. I love him, but he drives me nuts. On the one hand, I do see a man who is a surprisingly (to me anyway) earnest, caring, humble shepherd of his flock. He is also, or at least strives to be, intellectually humble. He does not rise to the heights of speculation that it would be easy for such an intelligent man to rise to. He has a proper and sober regard for the utter mystery of God; he's almost apophatic at some points. Also, I see that he was not a politician but a devoted churchman. Instead of one who thoughtlessly put heretics to death, I see a man who was conflicted and struggled mightily with what to do with Servetus. Instead of someone who imposed his hard, pitiless, indifferent feelings about others on God, I see someone who is simply teaching what his honest reading of the Bible shows, even if it is a teaching that seems indigestible. And yes, Calvin was human. He had a wife and grieved over the loss of his only child.

On the other hand, Calvin is a man of the 16th century with all the flaws of his time. The language he uses to speak of Catholics and even other Protestants in the Institutes is shameful and uncharitable to an extreme. It reveals him to be an extremist who cannot tolerate in the least those who disagree with him. (To be fair, Luther is guilty on this count as well.) Calvin was an old grouch with a bad temper.
(I forgive him for this; I've got a really bad temper myself.) Calvin shares the responsibility for putting Servetus to death. Religious freedom was apparently anathema to him. Also, Calvin, even if he has a right view of human limits and the incomprehensibility of God, still tries to put God and his actions into a rational box. (I concede we need systematic theology, but it inherently trends toward putting God in a rational box.) And predestination to reprobation, even though I have come to accept predestination to salvation, is still an intolerable doctrine for me.

To conclude, I regard Calvin as one of my earthly fathers in the faith. I absolutely love him and praise God for him, but don't grown-up children reserve the right to argue with their parents?

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