Calvin and his critics


Few names in Christian history have drawn the venomous rancor as that of John Calvin (1509-1564). One may disagree with his exegesis or despise his theology but one cannot easily dismiss Calvin as irrelevant. Sentiments like those of popular historian Will Durant are easy to come by. Durant said, “We shall always find it hard to love the man, John Calvin, who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense.” It appears that some respond to a caricature of the man rather than what is known of him through historical accounts and his vast body of work. How sad it is that so many truly despise John Calvin but have never read his works or studied his life.

One need not agree with all his conclusions to recognize his considerable influence on Christianity since the time of the Reformation. As for myself, I have come to different conclusions than Calvin in the areas of ecclesiology, sacraments, and eschatology just to name a few. At times I find some of his exegetical conclusions in his commentaries to be forced through the grid of his anti-Rome stance. However, his conclusions are all the more amazing when one considers how little he had to work with in the way of historical precedence. While he consulted the theologians of his day and appealed to the early Church Fathers, his primary focus was upon the text of Scripture. It was his exegesis of the text which bore the fruit of a faithful pulpit ministry. All pastors and theologians should drink deeply from this man’s work for they will taste not only a theologian but a father, a husband, a pastor, and friend who was firmly rooted in real life without the strangle-hold of the ivory-tower mindset. He was a man who was made of clay and yet was greatly used to shape Western Christianity in the post-Reformation world more than any other single individual. Everyone and every persuasion after him from John Owen to Jonathan Edwards, from Karl Barth to Louis Berkof have ridden the coat tails of this great saint. Even none other than his staunchest critic, Jacob Arminius, recognized Calvin’s formidable influence when he wrote:

“Next to the study of the Scriptures which I earnestly inculcate, I exhort my pupils to peruse Calvin’s Commentaries, which I extol in loftier terms than Helmich himself (a Dutch divine, 1551–1608); for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison in the interpretation of Scripture, and that his commentaries ought to be more highly valued than all that is handed down to us by the library of the fathers; so that I acknowledge him to have possessed above most others, or rather above all other men, what may be called an eminent spirit of prophecy. His Institutes ought to be studied after the (Heidelberg) Catechism, as containing a fuller explanation, but with discrimination, like the writings of all men.”

Today, while new forms of preaching are being explored, it is Calvin who exemplifies faithful Spirit-filled exposition. Likewise there are some who are shunning proposition-rich systematic theology. Yet it is Calvin who shows us that theology can be more than a set of discombobulated theological statements. I am still hopeful that far from vindicating a man like Calvin, many will rise to the occasion and vindicate the necessity of solid exposition married to the rich substance of systematic theology. This is precisely what Calvin gave his life to and the modern preacher should do no less.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. I couldn’t agree more.

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