Disagreements abound on the question of what exactly makes someone a true Calvinist, and that’s why I’m here—to set the record straight. Put simply, being a Calvinist has little to do with affirming the teachings of a 16th-century theologian and much to do with following the antics of a six-year-old boy. More specifically, you are only worthy of the label “Calvinist” if you are able to demonstrate a working knowledge of Bill Waterson’s cartoon strip Calvin and Hobbes.
I know this sounds a bit elitist, but I have found myself greatly offended on many occasions by people who run on at the mouth, saying things like, “Oh, wow, am I ever a great big Calvinist!”, but who don’t even know the name of Calvin’s schoolteacher. (It’s Miss Wormwood, for all you Arminians.)
This leads me to what I think is a reasonable test for determining whether or not you are true Calvinist. Put simply, if you can’t answer at least 10 of the following 12 questions about Waterson’s Calvin, please keep your so-called “Calvinism” to yourself and leave the rest of us purists in peace. It’s hard enough out here.
- What is Calvin’s favorite breakfast cereal?
- What is the name of Calvin’s favorite bedtime storybook?
- What is the name of the bully at Calvin’s school?
- What is the name of the superhero that Calvin becomes?
- What is the name of Calvin’s babysitter?
- What is the name of the invention that Calvin uses to reproduce himself?
- What is the last name of Susie, Calvin’s “friend” at school?
- What is the name of Calvin’s club (it met in his tree house)?
- What is the name of Calvin’s uncle (his dad’s brother)?
- What did Calvin’s dad like to do with the family while on vacation?
- What is Calvin’s favorite sport?
- What is the first thing that Hobbes would often do when Calvin arrived home from school?
So, other than Rich Ryan, any true Calvinists out there?
Printers played an unsung role in these early years of the reform movement, though it it not always easy to determine their motives. Many acted from deep religious convictions and risked all to produce evangelical literature for their countrymen. For others, religious sentiments combined easily with profit margins. The market for popular Reformation authors was great, and there was money to be made. Mostly the printers formed smallish circles of friends and acquaintances, yet with their extensive web of foreign contacts they were able to ensure a constant flow of literature into France which passed under the radar of censors [Bruce Gordon, Calvin (Yale University Press: 2009), 17].
“The fifteenth century was the great age of preachers who moved through cities and towns, not only encouraging the people to reform their lives but also providing a good deal of entertainment” [Bruce Gordon, Calvin (Yale University Press: 2009), 11].
In a post at Euangelion, Michael Bird responds to R. Scott Clark who responds to John Piper who responds to N. T. Wright who responds to the Apostle Paul but none of that is important right now. What is important is Bird’s correction of Clark’s usage of the word “Reformed.” It wasn’t long ago that no one would get anywhere near the word but now in the year where folks are throwing birthday parties for Calvin there are some like R. Scott Clark who want to guard it like it’s their “precious.”
Probably like you I run into this all the time. Folks ask me, “Say aren’t you guys reformed?” or I venture off the reservation in a sermon and they say something like, “what a minute that’s not ‘reformed’ theology, how can you be ‘reformed’?” I don’t think all the confessional recitations and birthday celebrations this side of Geneva will ever settle such an issue but I do think Bird offers a few helpful thoughts here:
On “Reformed”, Clark objects to this description being applied to those outside the Presbyterian and Confessional churches. This is why Clark writes: “Are there as many definitions of ‘Reformed’ as there are definers or is there is fixed, stable, public, ecclesiastical definition of the adjective? I say the latter is the case.” Now every time Clark writes the word “Reformed” I feel like quoting the movie the Princess Bride - “You keep using that word, but I do not think it means what you think it means!” Now far be it for me to lecture a historical theologian on adjectives of the Reformation, but surely, just from usage alone, we can observe that “Reformed” is a polysemous term. From my fallible experience and limited readings, I think that “Reformed” has three primary usages: (1) it can be used historically to signify those Christian groups that emerged during or from the Reformation (Lutheran, Anabaptist, Presbyterian, Anglican, etc.), (2) it can be used theologically to describe those who hold to a Calvinistic and Covenantal theology (though we could ask which part of Calvin is essential and whose covenant theology – e.g. Kline or Murray – is pristine?); and (3) it can be used ecclesiologically to describe those churches that stand in the Continental/Scottish Presbyterian tradition. To say that Piper is “Reformed” it is to mean it in the sense of (2) not (3). I suspect that many do not like applying the term “Reformed” to Calvinistic and Confessional Baptists because it lowers the currency of the term “Reformed,” which they feel should be reserved exclusively for themselves (I have to confess that this entire discussion reminds me of Paul’s debate in Romans 2 about who is a true “Jew” and Philippians 3 about who is the true “circumcision”). I can resonate against making the term nebulous, but I doubt that Clark’s own idea of “Reformed” matches the historical and public reality of how the adjective is used.
I read an interview recently that the nice folks at Logos conducted with Hugh Ross. I’m confident that Ross is an intelligent man and a well-meaning scholar but his continued proposal of a “two-book” revelation (i.e., God speaks in Scripture and creation with the same force and effect) is misguided and should be seen for what it is. Mankind will never see Christianity as something scholarly, noble, or worthy of saving unless Christians sell their birthright and kiss the feet of Baal.
At any rate, Ross fails to grapple with a key distinction when it comes to the revelation of God. I offer a few basic ideas in this regard. 1) God only saves through the special revelation of Christ which is exclusively found in the Scripture. 2) External evidences add nothing to the final revelation of God’s will. 3) If you don’t believe you won’t believe. Calvin is good on this:
“God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit.” (1.7.4)
“Let this point therefore stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence, it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning. And the certainty it deserves with us, it attains by the testimony of the Spirit. For even if it wins reverence for itself by its own majesty, it seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearts through the Spirit. Therefore, illumined by his power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God himself) that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men. We seek no proofs, no marks of genuineness upon which our judgment may lean; but we subject our judgment and wit to it as a thing far beyond any guesswork!” (1.7.5)
In his extremely helpful book, The Writings of John Calvin, Wulfert de Greef makes a passing reference to the articles that John Calvin used for the regulation of worship after he became a minister in Geneva (January 16, 1537). This document was entitled the Articles concerning the Organization of the Church and of Worship in Geneva. I found the following to be an interesting note regarding congregational singing in Calvin’s church:
The ministers expect the singing of psalms to have a positive influence on the prayers and on the glorification of the name of God. A number of qualified children are to be selected to lead the congregation in the singing of the psalms (pg. 111).
Someone recently gave me a copy of Steve Lawson’s little gem, The Expository Genius of John Calvin. It’s one of those books that you can read in a sitting. If you know Steve, this book reads like his preaching. It is sincere, passionate, encouraging and convicting all at once. Much of Calvin’s approach and practice in preaching will not be ground breaking to you if you read broadly on expository preaching. What will be helpful is seeing that the man who is often credited with turning the ship of Protestantism did it with the same methods that many of us employee in our preaching today.
This morning I was reading on application in Calvin’s sermons. This is the area of expository preaching that garners the most disagreement in my assessment. In that section I found a nugget of gold. The nugget comes from Calvin’s practice in preaching.
Sadly, some today take Calvinism or it’s various segments in reformed soteriology and use it to beat the daylights out of their opponents or those under their care. After all, they opine, if Calvin the Great did it, why shouldn’t we? It has always amazed me that those who come to understand sovereign grace exhibit anything BUT that [grace] to those who are not on the same page. But according to Lawson, Calvin was not like that in the bulk of his preaching. I have no doubt that Calvin called a theological spade a spade (see Polemic Confrontation later in the book). But the overall character of his preaching was altogether different. Listen to these poignant words from the pen of Dr. Lawson
“Calvin did not fire over the heads of his people while answering aberrations of other theologians. He did not misuse the pulpit to rebut his numerous critics. Instead, Calvin remained intent on nurturing the spiritual development of his people. He preached primarily to edify and encourage the congregation God had entrusted to Him. In short, he preached for changed lives.” – Steve Lawson, p. 104-105.
May we all strive for that kind of pastoral care in our preaching.
John Calvin was born 10 July 1509 in Noyon, France. He will be remembered for many things, some true and some mythical. Nevertheless, we should take note of his place in history and his role in the recovery of expository preaching. B. B. Warfield, quoting an unnamed source has written:
“In his sober grammatico-historical method, in the stress he laid on the natural sense of the text, by the side of his deep religious understanding of it–in his renunciation of the current allegorizing, in his felicitous, skillful dealing with difficult passages, the humanistically trained master is manifest, pouring the new wine into new bottles.”
Warfield concludes, “Calvin, was, however, a born exegete, and adds to his technical equipment of philological knowledge and trained skill in the interpretation of texts a clear and penetrating intelligence, remarkable intellectual sympathy, incorruptible honesty, unusual historical perception, and an incomparable insight into the progress of thought, while the whole is illuminated by his profound religious comprehension. His expositions of Scripture were accordingly a wholly new phenomenon, and introduced a new exegesis–the modern exegesis. He stands out in the history of biblical study as, what Diestel, for example, proclaims him, ‘the creator of genuine exegesis.’”