Calvin library talk nov08

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					So who was John Calvin?
Rev. Theodore A. Gill, Jr.
11 November 2008 – Ecumenical Centre library lunchtime talk

When some of us refer to ourselves as “Reformed” Protestants, or even “Presbyterian”,
the adjective is a means of acknowledging that our stream of the Christian tradition flows
from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth by way of Geneva. This city came to embrace the
Reformation over a period of decades, for reasons that were as political and economic as
they were religious, beginning early in the sixteenth century and culminating in a vote by
the citizens, late in May 1536, to embrace the evangelical teaching of the Reformers and
to dedicate the city to a life consistent with the gospel.

Up to this point, John Calvin had not been a part of the story. William Farel deserved the
title “Reformer of Geneva”, having begun his preaching here in 1532 when it was still a
dangerous undertaking. Calvin arrived in July 1536, weeks after the vote for reform, but
it was he who would organize the movement, the church and even the city’s constitution
in a way that forever after has associated the name Geneva with the Reformed churches

So, who was John Calvin? La Vie Protestante, the magazine of the EPG or Protestant
Church of Geneva, offers us one answer to the question. As the headline of this month’s
editorial tells us, Calvin was Ni un Saint, Ni un Tueur – neither a saint nor a cold-blooded
killer. It seems a rather negative assertion – attempting to explain what he was not, and
quite defensively, rather than who he was. I prefer to commence in a different way…

In his inaugural lecture as a professor at Cambridge University, the great 20th-century
biblical commentator and ecumenist C.H. Dodd described the challenge awaiting any
interpreter of the New Testament. This is what Dodd said:

       The ideal interpreter would be one who has entered into that strange, first-century
       world, has felt its whole strangeness, has sojourned in it until he has lived himself
       into it, thinking and feeling as one of those to whom the gospel first came and
       who will then return into our world and give to the truth he has discerned a body
       out of the stuff of our own thought.

I advance the proposition that John Calvin was very much a creature of the sixteenth
century – a product of the high middle ages as they intersected with renaissance, a
humanistic scholar whose academic concentrations had been in the fields of classical
literature and law. But the basis of all education in those days was theology, and it was to
this discipline that Calvin returned in earnest after he had completed his studies at the
Collège de Montaigu in the University of Paris and made his way to the city of Basel.
The concomitant point I’m trying to make is that we are not creatures of the sixteenth
century, not even the most Reformed among us, nor the most Lutheran or Anglican or
Mennonite or Unitarian or Jesuitical. Our post-Enlightenment orientation and
assumptions are so different from those of Parisians in the 1530s or Genevans of the
1550s that we do well to put a historical spin on the injunction, “Judge not, that you be
not judged.” We lack the existential basis for judging 16th-century ancestors in the faith.
To know John Calvin, much less to render judgment, we first would have to borrow a
page from C.H. Dodd and enter into that alien era of Calvin, and Farel, and de Bèze, and
Servetus, so as to live ourselves into its strangeness, and then return to our present. This
is not likely to happen over one lunchtime, but let us try to go a few steps of the way.

Calvin’s harshest critic

As you may have deduced from Geneva’s plans for the 500th anniversary, John Calvin
was born in 1509 (on the 10th of July, if your calendar is not already marked). He was a
native of Noyon in Picardy, and his family was well connected with the local nobility.
His father was registrar of Noyon’s ecclesiastical court and the cathedral’s notary. Calvin
held several clerkly benefices before leaving to study in Bourges, Orleans and Paris.

John Calvin was trained as a lawyer – this explains a great deal, by the way. He was
never ordained to the Catholic priesthood; indeed, there is no record of his ordination to
the Reformed ministry – though he is called a “minister” in various contemporary
documents and acted as the convener of Geneva’s Company of Pastors. John Calvin was
reticent to reveal personal information in his published writings – but we know from
correspondence and public records that he was married for eight and a half years to the
widow Idelette de Bure of Strasbourg, had a son with her who died in infancy, and that
both his only child and his wife were dead by the end of the 1540s. His letters reveal that
Calvin grieved deeply for relatives and friends, and was slow to be comforted even by the
most gifted of pastors. In an age of plague, strife and early death, Calvin acted as a
stepfather and guardian to a number of children who had lost their own parents.

Calvin died in Geneva in May 1564, at the age of 54. He had spent 25 of the previous 28
years in and around this city, and was by the time of his death the author of both the
constitution of the Reformed church in this place and the civil laws of Geneva. He was
co-founder of the Academy of Geneva, later to become the University. He had overseen a
new ordering of worship in Geneva’s church, a thorough-going revision of the liturgy,
and worked closely with Louis Bourgeois as well as other musicians and writers in the
creation of the Geneva Psalter.

Calvin’s sermons and commentaries on every book of the Bible were widely circulated.
He preached twice on Sundays, and every other week he preached daily at morning
prayer services in St Pierre. He gave lectures on Bible and theology in the Auditoire. His
Institutes of the Christian Religion – the systematic explanation of his theology, in four
volumes – already had been recognized as the clearest exposition of Reformed thought
and its consequences for church and society. But never mind all that…

In late April 1564, his physicians told him that he was dying. That same day, Calvin
submitted his resignation from church office; the next day, he assembled the Company of
Pastors and delivered a farewell speech. This was how he summed up his ministry:

       I have shown many faults that you have had to endure, and all that I have done is
       of no value. The vicious person will hear this statement happily; but I still say that
       nothing I have done is really worth much and that I am a wretched and sinful
       creature. Though I can say that I have had a good motive and will to do the right,
       my defects and my faults have always given me offense, and that the roots of the
       fear of God have been in my heart. You can say that my affection has been proper
       and good. I beg you to forgive the evil in me.

In his written testament, Calvin took no credit even for his “proper and good” affection:

       Alas! The desire and the zeal which I had, if one can call it that, have been so cold
       and so lax that I feel indebted in all things and all places, and, if it were not for
       God’s great and infinite kindness, all the affection that I have had would be only
       smoke. To see the good things that God has done for me makes me only more
       guilty, so my only recourse is to that One Who, being the Father of mercy, may be
       and show Himself to be the Father of one who is such a wretched sinner.

While this seems to us an exercise of what Tom Best calls “Lowly Worm theology”, I
believe that a trip to the 16th century would confirm Calvin’s sincerity in offering so self-
deprecating a self-assessment.

To the very end, John Calvin remained true to the insights he had developed from the
writings of the Hebrew prophets, the apostle Paul, St Augustine and Martin Luther: all
goodness comes from the sovereign Lord alone, and this is the only hope for men and
women who – even at their best – are bred in the grip of sin (original sin, but sin for
which each one must take individual responsibility). Not only did Calvin believe this
about other people, which is easy enough, he saw the truth of it in himself.

Calvin’s theology in (very, very) brief

Calvin never recorded the circumstances of his “conversion” to the Reform – this is one
of those areas of personal reticence in his writing. We do know that Paris in the years just
before and after 1530 was a hotbed of reformation debate – with many different sides of
the argument well represented. As Calvin was leaving the Collège de Montaigu, a
Spanish war veteran was arriving there – Ignatius of Loyola, who would co-found the
Jesuit order within the Church of Rome. Another Spanish student brought along a valet
who dabbled in human anatomy – Michael Servetus (Michel Servet), later a pioneer in
renaissance-era medicine and Unitarian thought. When Calvin’s friend Nicolas Cop was
elected dean of the university, his inaugural lecture was a resounding call to the reform of
the Church – possibly co-written, or ghost-written, by Calvin himself. John Calvin may
have returned to Noyon at this point and resigned his family benefices; he may have been
imprisoned there briefly, but there is argument among historians on these points.

France was hotly contested ground in the theological struggles of that day. As Calvin
settled briefly in Basel and worked on his first edition of the Institutes of the Christian
Religion, he also drafted an introductory dedication of the work, addressed to “Francis,
the King of the French” (François I). He explained that the purpose for his writing was to
assure the king that a Reformed theology was consistent with the teachings of the Bible
and the Church Fathers, that Reformed religion was consistent with civil order and posed
no threat to the monarchy, but that rulers should beware of acting on false charges, for
“the innocent await divine vindication”. The heart of the dedication to Francis was a
“Plea for Persecuted Evangelicals” who themselves took comfort from reading the work.

The first edition of the Institutes was constructed closely on the pattern of the Ten
Commandments, Apostles’ Creed, Lord’s Prayer and the sacraments – one further
indication that this “new” teaching was consistent with Christian tradition built on the
foundation of Holy Scripture. Like subsequent expansions of the Institutes, the original
version begins with the observation that “the whole of sacred doctrine consists of two
parts: the knowledge of God, and the knowledge of ourselves”. We know God through
revelation, chiefly in the Bible; there, we also learn of our own sinfulness and utter
dependence on the sovereignty and mercy of God.

Calvin’s pronounced emphasis on the doctrine of original sin – adapted from Paul,
Augustine and others – has contributed to his reputation as a gloomily obsessive proto-
Puritan. (A defense of the Puritans will have to await some other lunchtime talk, alas.)
But consider Calvin’s description of the good news that Christianity offers, in his
definition of “faith” (III.ii.7 in the final, 1559 edition of the Institutes):

       Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain
       knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely
       given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts
       through the Holy Spirit.

According to John Calvin, then: The good news is that, sinners though we are, God’s will
is for our well-being. This sure knowledge, promised us in Christ, is a matter of both the
mind and the heart – is made real both to mind and heart – as God’s own Spirit touches
our whole being, imparting a “truth” beyond mere reason.

Calvin was a lawyer, a linguist and a logician, and this had a major impact on the way he
expressed himself. But he also emphasized the role of the heart in faith and in faithful
action. His personal seal showed a heart held in an outstretched hand – his outstretched
hand – a symbol demonstrating his desire to offer his heart in God’s service.
The basic outline of Calvin’s teaching is similar to that of many other Reformers. The
Triune God is sovereign over all. Human salvation is by grace through faith, not the
result of any work of ours. Jesus Christ is the perfect revelation of God. All that we need
to know of God is found in Holy Scripture. The true church is to be found where the
gospel is rightly preached and heard, and where the two dominical sacraments are rightly
administered. In addition to this, he rejected traditional church hierarchy and identified
instead four local church offices as defined in scripture: ministers of the Word, presbyters
(undertaking administrative duties in cooperation with ministers in the church’s
“consistory”), deacons (diaconal services) and “doctors of the church” (or
educator/theologians). The membership of the church admittedly included both the
“elect” and some of the “lost” – or, as he put it, “There are wolves in the fold, and sheep
outside.” Ultimately, only God was in a position to judge – but the church should enforce
moral standards within the community as best it could.

Calvin the theologian may be most widely known for his argument in favour of “double
predestination” – the doctrine that, before the Creation, God had already predestined
everyone who would ever live either to eternal salvation or to eternal damnation. Calvin
believed that he saw this idea consistently in the letters of Paul and elsewhere in the
Bible, and found it more fully developed in Augustine and other Church Fathers. Calvin
was frequently challenged on this point, and spent a great deal of time and energy in
working out his understanding of predestination logically and legalistically – according to
the standards of his training. Predestination is not a central tenet of his theology, but
under the adversarial circumstances its treatment in his writings grew out of all
proportion. Calvin’s defense of divine predestination is subsidiary to the doctrine of
justification by grace through faith: it is Calvin’s way of insisting that salvation is purely
a gift from God, and absolutely nothing a person does in life affects his or her place in
eternity. It was all decided unimaginably long ago, so: People, get over yourselves!

Here’s a Presbyterian joke about the doctrine of predestination. A candidate for the
ministry in the Church of Scotland found himself being examined through questioning on
the floor of his presbytery. The atmosphere grew more and more heated as conservatives
and progressives sought to use the examination to score debating points for their brand of
theology. “Young man,” one dour old Calvinist finally asked the candidate, “would you
be willing to be damned to eternal hellfire, for the greater glory of God?” The candidate
replied, “Sir, for God’s greater glory I would be willing for this whole presbytery to be
damned!” (Calvin’s point, I think, was that what we “will” has no more effect than what
we do: It is all about God’s will, not yours or mine, or even the presbytery’s.)

Most Reformed Protestants today, I think, would say that Calvin took his argument
concerning predestination farther than was strictly necessary – and claimed to know more
about ultimate things than any mortal can.

One aspect of Calvin’s theology that is stressed only occasionally is that he began his
career writing in Latin and ended it writing in French, or “Old French”, as we say. The
worship of the church of Geneva was set down and spoken in French, and the psalms
were sung in French. Translations of the Bible and of the newly re-ordered liturgies were
begun for every worshiping community in Geneva, native and immigrant. The “Geneva
Bible” was translated into English here, for use in John Knox’s congregation. Like other
Reformers, John Calvin spoke to the people of his culture – and other cultures in his city
of refugees – in ways that had an impact on patterns of language, literature and thought.

Calvin in Geneva

In the summer of 1536, several weeks after the city had voted for reform, John Calvin
stopped to spend a night or two in Geneva. Farel, the leader of the Protestant insurgency,
asked him to stay – which Calvin, after prayer, attempted to do. But the city was in
turmoil. Factions jockeyed for power in the absence of the former prince-bishop. Some in
Geneva hoped for a lifting of legal strictures in matters of both law and morality. Others
wanted to gather power for themselves. There was reluctance to adopt any formal
constitution, even for the church. Indeed, the city authorities wanted to rule the church
from the Hotel de Ville. The Reformers stood their ground, insisting on an independent
church with the moral power to call sinners to repentance and threaten the wayward with
excommunication. Within two years, Calvin was driven into exile along with Farel.

From 1538 to 1541, Calvin lived in Strasbourg as pastor of the French-speaking church
there. Working closely with Martin Bucer, the German-speaking “Reformer of
Strasbourg”, he designed new forms of worship based largely on praying and singing the
Psalms and on expository sermons drawing on the whole canon of scripture. This would
become the model for liturgical innovations in Geneva and eventually in Reformed
communities from Italy to Scotland – and from thence to many other lands.

During his time in Strasbourg, Calvin traveled to overcome theological disagreements
with Lutherans in Frankfurt, and he was sent as Strasbourg’s delegate to the Colloquy of
Ratisbon (Regensburg) where he became fast friends with Philip Melanchthon.

By 1541, it had become clear to the city leadership in Geneva that they could not hold
their new church and state together without a fine theological and legal mind. They asked
Calvin, newly married in Strasbourg, to return to Geneva, direct the life of the city’s
church and advise the council on civic matters. Calvin insisted that he would return only
if a written constitution – a constitution written by Calvin – were to be adopted for the
church: this was to be comprised of a form of worship, a form of church government and
a catechism with more than 340 questions and answers (to be memorized by apprentices
of approximately 10 years of age!). After this church constitution had been adopted,
Calvin was called upon to write a system of civil law for the government of Geneva.

In his writing on law, morality, economics and society, John Calvin began to work out
the relationship between Reformed beliefs and the public order. André Biéler and others
have explored Calvin’s political insights at length. (The thesis of Max Weber regarding
the influence of Calvinism on capitalism and democracy continues to be discussed.) The
heart of Calvin’s interest in civil and international order is found in his observation that
“social disorder is first and foremost disdain for the poor and oppression of the weak”.
Such conditions were inconsistent with the Christian life – and citizens or rulers who
encouraged social injustices were to be denounced.

A number of citizens continued to think of themselves as Catholic, though they were
outnumbered as Protestant refugees moved into the city. Other long-time inhabitants of
Geneva bridled under the strict moral discipline enforced by church tribunals. Parties
who found Calvin and his supporters too harsh came to be described by the Calvinian
party as “Libertines”, although this dismissive name oversimplifies the political divisions
of the time. There also were disputes over more abstract points of theology, such as
predestination or the interpretation of the Song of Songs. A number of Calvin’s
opponents left Geneva, some forced into exile. Others, condemned by the courts for
criminal conduct, were imprisoned or executed on orders of the city government.

The controversy that has left the most serious stain on John Calvin’s memory surrounds
the execution of Michael Servetus, who had been a valet to one of Calvin’s fellow
students in Paris. Servetus, now a physician and philosopher, became one of the most
outspoken proponents of Unitarianism. For his heresy of denying the Trinity, Servetus
had already been sentenced to death by a Catholic court in Vienne. Hearing that the
condemned man was thinking of fleeing to Geneva, Calvin warned that he would surely
be tried and executed in this city – and rightly so! But Servetus did make his way up the
Rhone, was indeed arrested and tried in Geneva, and was sentenced to burn at the stake.

A few prominent Genevans felt that mercy should be shown and Servetus exiled –
especially since the Reformed were frequently pleading for mercy themselves in parts of
Europe where they were considered heretics. But Calvin believed that Servetus was a
threat to the faith of the innocent, and deserved to die for his defiance of Almighty God,
revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Calvin did, however, ask the state officials to put
Servetus to death by beheading, not by fire, as beheading was quicker and less painful.
The city authorities ignored all pleas for mercy, including Calvin’s – evidence that
Geneva was not under Calvin’s thumb, as is sometimes said. The church, which Calvin
did dominate intellectually and by virtue of office, brought William Farel back from his
pastorate in Neuchatel to serve as Servetus’ private counselor and pastor during his final
days, in an attempt to offer him spiritual comfort. Servetus was burned at the stake on the
plain of Champel, near the site of our cantonal hospital, on a spot where the Reformed
community of the 20th century would erect a monument of apology for this brutal act of
gross intolerance.

And this is where I find myself frustrated in the face of C.H. Dodd’s advice: is it possible
to enter the strangeness of another age and fully understand its worldview? If not, there is
evidence enough for us to agree with Calvin’s testament in which he described himself as
“a wretched sinner”. Still, Calvin’s understanding of human will and behaviour reflected
an appreciation for the Lutheran formulation, simul iustus et peccator – at the same
time that a person is justified by God’s grace, that person remains a sinner. Being caught
in the preconceptions of one’s age is one aspect of human failing – for us as well as for
John Calvin.
Calvin accomplished a great deal in Geneva. And he pointed toward further
developments in the wider world: whole new schools of biblical commentary and
application of gospel principles to common life; a suspicion of human nature that led to
checks and balances in the exercise of governmental power, and to the separation of
church from state in many nations; church orders based on principles of parity between
ministers and other leaders; a tradition of disputation in theology that would inspire a
broad range of thought: stern “Calvinists”, progressives like Arminius and
Schleiermacher, neo-Orthodox theologians like Barth, Brunner and the Niebuhrs,
feminist theologians in Europe and North America, a new generations of liberation
thinkers in Asia, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere – and historians eager to dig past
the rough strata of “Calvinism” to the Calvinian bedrock. Toward the end of his book
Calvin for Armchair Theologians, Christopher Elwood provides this partial conclusion:

       It might be the case, as some have suggested, that Calvin’s legacy is so complex,
       even confused, because of the complexity of Calvin himself. On the one hand, he
       was the humanist who criticized the rigid and lifeless dogma of his time, who
       counseled for flexibility and tolerance, and who argued for an openness to
       mystery. On the other hand, he was a man fearful of a chaotic age that lacked an
       organizing structure, a conservative who struggled vigourously to impose order
       on a disordered world. Calvin was, in a certain sense, a man at odds with himself.
       Perhaps it is this internal tension that we have to thank for the unruly brood who
       are Calvin’s surviving heirs.

At the very same time that we are justified, we remain sinners. And so I take issue with
La Vie Protestante and its headline. Neither a saint nor a killer? Au contraire. Calvin
shares in the guilt of 16th-century religious killers and yet, at the same time, he shares in
the communion of saints. By no means innocent of involvement in bringing about
Michael Servetus’s death, he may yet be numbered among the elect – due entirely, as he
taught, to the perfect benevolence of God.